There’s been a bit of a run of ballads and mid-tempo songs on my list, but things start really rocking out around #36 here. If it wasn’t perfectly clear from any of the previous segments of the list, the number of great songs that R.E.M. released is sort of ridiculous. All of these tracks are top notch and, in my opinion, there’s still 30 that are even better. That’s not even getting into the issue of how many amazing non-single songs the band recorded (and, as I’ve mentioned several times, only one song from Chronic Town was even ever released as a single, which is outrageous).
So now that I’ve explained why your favorite songs aren’t in the top 10…
From the 1992 album Automatic for the People, Fourth Single
Mike Mills and Michael Stipe are the only members of R.E.M. that appear on this lovely little song. The strings were arranged by John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin and the oboe is played by Deborah Workman. The song is a nostalgic look back at the innocence of skinny dipping as a youth. Perhaps ironically, listening to the song now evokes in me that innocent feeling of being excited about a new R.E.M. album. When Automatic for the People came out, this was many of my friends favorite song from the album. While it was not my favorite from that album (see #2), I like it very much and its one of my favorite songs to attempt to sing. When I’m alone. Ideally with nobody around me for about 12 miles.
From the 1998 album Up, Fourth Single
“Suspicion” is a slinky, seductive tune built around the kind of canned drum track you’d find on a 1970’s organ. When R.E.M. named the band, they signaled an interest in dream life. You’ll note that there’s a ton of songs by the band that deal with dreaming or sleeping (even the “Leonard Bernstein” part of “Its The End Of The World As We Know It” is a references to a dream that Michael Stipe had). The lyrics of this song seem to be centered around the idea of dreaming about somebody that you’re attracted to, but what really intrigues me about this song is the music. It has a sort of exotica flavor to it that evokes the feeling of drifting off to dream (which is not to say it puts me to sleep – just to say that the music makes me feel like I feel when I dream). There’s even a guitar solo (a thing R.E.M. usually eschews) after the bridge that sounds to me like its built around the idea of falling deeper into sleep. I really dig this tune.
38. Talk About the Passion
From the 1983 album Murmur, Second Single
This is the very first song we’re addressing from R.E.M.’s debut album, Murmur. I adore this album. I purchased it on cassette the year it first came out and tried to get my friend Brian interested in it. At the time, he was mostly into Kraftwerk and similar bands and, thus, didn’t have any interest in jangle rock. If this list were a list of my top favorite R.E.M. songs ever, you’d likely see non-singles“Pilgrimage,” “Sitting Still,” “Moral Kiosk,” and “Perfect Circle” near the top of the list. Maybe “We Walk” and “Laughing” too. I’ll also point out that on a list of 86 songs, this one is still very near the top of the list. Peter Buck’s guitar riff is particularly fantastic. The production sounds just a little dated in 2017, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.
37. Electron Blue
From 2004’s Around the Sun, Third Single
Michael Stipe loves this song and I love it enough to rank it higher than any other single from Around the Sun. The three albums R.E.M. released immediately after losing Bill Berry were all very clearly influenced by the work of Brian Eno, perhaps no song more than this one. The thing about using Eno-style soundscapes is that there’s a very fine line between captivating and dull. Much of Around the Sun falls on the dull side of that line. This one manages to maintain a level of tension that makes it work. There’s this great static-y drone that snakes it way through the song that I love – there a real density to the track as a whole. Its one of the few tracks from Around the Sun that features some strong, prominent drumming from long-term R.E.M. sideman Bill Reiflin. There’s also a keyboard line reminiscent of “I Am The Walrus.” Anyhow, lots to listen to on this track and it features a fairly excellent lyric/vocal from Stipe. Congrat
36. Living Well Is the Best Revenge
From 2008’s Accelerate, Charted Single
“Living Well Is The Best Revenge” is the hard rocker that opens up Accelerate. I was very pleasantly surprised when I first cued up that… well, when I hit play on that MP3 album… for the first time I was thrilled, exhilarated, excited. Sure its no Monster or New Adventures in Hi-Fi, but listen to that guitar… that bass… that voice… Ugh, its so good. They rip into this song and blow the roof off the joint. If you like your R.E.M. to rock and you’ve not give Accelerate a spin, try out this song. Do it. Do it.
35. Bittersweet Me
From 1996’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi, Second Single
My second favorite single from New Adventures in Hi-Fi but I didn’t realize it until this past month. Looking back at my data, I’d initially ranked this song somewhere in the high 70’s but kept bumping it up ten more places every time it came time to write about a group of songs. It really sounds great right after “Living Well Is The Best Revenge.” In fact, 36-31 sound fantastic together as a rock block. I’ve mentioned this before but New Adventures in Hi-Fi was recorded largely during sound checks before concerts. “Bittersweet Me” has this huge feel – particularly Buck’s guitar. Every time it kicks in my rock gland starts releasing rockdrenalin and I’m afflicted with spontaneous jerky dancing (SJD). There is no cure. You just have to dance it out.
34. The One I Love
From 1987’s Document, First Single
This is the first song we’re addressing from Document. When the album came out in 1987, I was a sophomore at college and decided that R.E.M. was too popular and this album was a sell-out. It took me years to recognize that its a great album and wasn’t a sell out and I was just dumb. I’m still not totally acclimated to this album all these years later (I have a similar relationship to U2’s The Joshua Tree). This song was a big hit single that I professed to despise in 1987 while secretly jamming out to it whenever I heard it. I love that the lyrics are so simply and so nasty. Many people mistake this for a love song (it can go on my “evil songs that people think are love songs” list with “Every Breath You Take” by The Police) but its really a song about using people. There’s a great twist in the last verse when the person who has been described as “A simple prop to occupy my time” turns into “another prop now occupies my time” that is almost chilling. Of course, in 1987, I just thought this was a stupid sell-out love song. And then two years later, I fell in love with R.E.M.’s genuinely dumbest song and started the long road of recovery back from what we now call hipsterdom.
33. Pop Song 89 (NSFW video)
From 1989’s Green, Third Single
When I first saw that video, everyone (including Stipe) had black boxes over their breasts and I thought it was sort of a hilarious commentary on censorship. Turns out, it was Stipe’s response to MTV’s request that the video be censored. Well played, Michael Stipe. My opinion of this song and “Orange Crush” has completely changed since back in the day. I used to hate this song and love “Orange Crush.” Now, I’m somewhat annoyed by “Orange Crush” and I dig this song. I can’t explain it. When I first ranked everything, this one was in the low-60’s but I’ve slowly been moving it up as the weeks have gone by. Buck’s goofy little guitar line is irresistible, the “hi hi” business is great fun and the lyric in general is a smart deconstruction of pop song lyrics. If “Stand” is a dumb song that just announces its a dumb song and stays dumb, “Pop Song ‘89” is a smart song that is pretending to be dumb. I’ll take it.
From 2011’s Collapse Into Now, Fourth Single
I propose that this is R.E.M.’s final great song. From Buck’s guitar work to the Mill’s bass to Stipe’s impassioned performance, I feel this song stand up alongside R.E.M.’s finest work. When the song shifts into high gear right along “the slightest bit of finesse,” I’m pumping my fist and ready to shout/sing along with the “Discoverer” chorus. Stipe doesn’t often write autobiographical lyrics, but this song is totally about him and his relationship with New York City. It sounds to my ear like this is an especially important song to him – I mean, Stipe always sounds earnest, but he achieves some ur-plane level of earnestness on this track. My work on these entries has been slowed down by this song more than once – it comes on and I keep replaying it.
31. Finest Worksong
From 1987’s Document, Third Single
I had this song as a 12” single before I owned Document – probably 20 years before I had Document. I think I’ve confused it more than once with “Life and How To Live It” which makes no sense because the only thing the two songs have in common is that they’re both by R.E.M. I was convinced (and this should be a familiar theme by now for the songs is the 21-40 range) that I didn’t like this song and had ranked it in the 60’s or 70’s (at one point, “Pop Song 89,” “Radio Song” and this one were right next to each other) but the more I listened to it as a 49 year old person (as opposed to a 20-ish person with a 12” single), the more I realized I really like this song quite a bit. That line about “what we want and what we need have been confused?” Wow, that hits me a lot more now than it did then when I was busy actively conflating what I wanted and what I needed. I hope I have more of a grasp on that now. Hard to say, honestly. Anyhow, one thing I like about this song is that that its not claiming that its the finest worksong – its about listening to the finest worksong (as Tenacious D might say, “this is a tribute”). The gentleman writer at Pop Songs 07-08 makes some excellent points about the “workers unite” themes of the song – a thing I didn’t notice for years because I was too busy rejecting R.E.M. in 1987. I had dedicated myself to playing song on my radio show that were so obscure that I might have cared about more than the artists who recorded them.
Coming Next: We officially move from “how was that ranked so low” to “why was that ranked so high” territory.