R.E.M. Singles Ranked, 51-60

Originally Published on Facebook Notes (June 4, 2017)

I went for an amazing 9 mile hike of awesomeness today and managed to listen to most of the remaining songs on the list in order which means I’ve just rearranged the whole gosh-darned list. More like six songs but anytime I move one it makes the rest move around a little too.

Here’s where the next ten tracks landed:

60. How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us

From 1996’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi, Fourth Single

I swear New Adventures in Hi-Fi is one of my favorite R.E.M. albums – maybe one of my favorite albums of all time – despite the fact that this is the third single from that album on the lower half of this list. Some of the songs that work great in the context of the whole album aren’t as interesting to me on their own. Obviously, this is one of those songs. We didn’t know it at the time, but this track pointed R.E.M. in the direction of Up and Reveal – jazzy art-rock with a strong Brian Eno influence. What sets this track above the tracks that came later is Bill Berry’s drum work. I’ve been moving this track up and down this list between about 35 and about 75 because I have a hard time judging how I feel about it. I think this is just about the right spot for it.

59. Beachball

From 2001’s Reveal, Promo Single Only

“Beachball” is a tough one. Its another Eno-influenced piece of soundscape. It has an odd advantage with me in regards to the other similar R.E.M. tracks in that I can never remember how this one sounds, but then when the horn-sounds kick in at the start of the track I go “Oh, this is cool.” Then I immediately forget the track again.

58. Find the River

From 1992’2 Automatic for the People, Sixth Single

Hey, out first track from the classic Automatic for the People! Everyone drink! Because the album is a real downer and that’s the recommended way to get through it. I don’t drink, so have one for me. I love Automatic for the People. My parents gifted me with the version that comes in a wooden box that Christmas. Its held up surprisingly well. I was a little surprised to learn, while working on this project, that this particular song had been a single. Its a classic example of a song that works better on the album (where its unresolved ending has some real power) than on its own. Furthermore, looking at the track this, this seems like the second least likely single (after “New Orleans Instrumental No 1”) on the album. Anyhow, dig the song, just not as much by itself.

57. The Outsiders

From 2004’s Around the Sun, Promo Single Only

R.E.M. again took a foray into collaboration with a great rapper on “The Outsiders,” this time Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest. I think the rap section works much better than it did on “Radio Song” due in part to the fact that integrating rap and rock had become commonplace by 2004 and everyone had a better idea about how to do it. Furthermore, the song is like a little jewel box built around featuring Q-Tip as opposed to “Radio Song” where poor KRS-1 felt shoehorned in. Q-Tip’s contribution is the high point of this song which otherwise falls into the “late R.E.M. often sounds alike” category. When played live (and the song sounds pretty great live), Stipe does the rap himself and acquits himself rather well.

56. Texarkana

From 2001’s Out of Time, Promo Single Only

Another Mike Mills vocal here. There’s kind of a bit of an epic sweep to this song thanks to the strings – the sort of thing that would make this a great song for closing credits of a movie. It sounds like they decided to bury the vocals a bit in the mix here (which our friend at Pop Songs 07-08 interprets as perhaps Mills’ lack of assertiveness). My favorite part of this song is, I think, Mills’ bass playing – there’s this great little run that opens the song and then returns after “catch me if I fall” that I look forward to whenever I listen to this one.

55. First We Take Manhattan

From 1991’s I’m Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen, Charted Song

I have a Leonard Cohen singles playlist ready to dissect but I could also make a list of great covers of his songs. This version of “First We Take Manhattan” is dramatic and menacing. Stipe’s voice (with some great choruses by Mills) is a great vehicle for this Cohen tune about terrorism. I’ve ranked this one significantly higher (and significantly lower) since I started this project because I keep struggling with comparing this song to both Cohen’s version and to the classic Jennifer Warnes version with Stevie Ray Vaughan. I mentioned several times now that I’ve not wanted to include cover songs in my lists for this very reason – I have a bear of a time listening to them with an unbiased ear.

54. Man-Sized Wreath

From 2008’s Accelerate, Third Single

Here’s our first song from Accelerate (Still no singles yet from Up, Reckoning, Life’s Rich Pageant, Document or Murmer). I absolutely love the chorus on this song and would have been very happy ranking it even higher if not for that line about “nature abhors a vacuum but what’s between your ears.” Every time that line hits I cringe. Accelerate was considered a return to rock form after Around the Sun (and Up and Reveal). When it first came out, downloaded it (because times had changed and that what we do now) and sort of casually listened to it a time or two and then forgot about it. I spend a lot of time letting my iPod shuffle my music and one day R.E.M.’s cover of The Beat Happening’s “Redhead Walking” randomly came on and I was like “WHOA HOLY CATS WHAT’S THAT?” One of R.E.M.’s best covers ever (and it would be a top ten candidate for me if it were a single). I got so excited I went back and listened to Accelerate twelve times. Its really very good – perhaps the best of the post-Berry albums (though, as I’ve mentioned, I also love Up).

53. Leaving New York

From 2004’s Around the Sun, First Single

“Leaving New York” is a very pleasant single that has been somewhat unfairly maligned for being the lead track from Around the Sun. I’ve heard some fans refer to this album as Stipe’s solo record which is inaccurate – Buck and Mills are also present but, according to Buck, they were just bored stiff with what they were creating. Thus, Stipe (who sounds earnest and engaged probably even in his sleep) is the only one who sounds like he’s into this. That’s a shame – the song is gorgeous and I think it has the potential to be even more gorgeous. In my dream version of the song, the first verse starts off even more sparse and it builds to the glory of the finale slowly over the whole song. Ugh, I can’t really put it into words, but I can hear it in my head and its lovely. Sorry that my brain doesn’t have a headphone jack or bluetooth or whatever. You’d be duly impressed. Anyhow, if we’re ranking my brain’s version of this song, its like #2 or #3. Since I can’t do that, here is is at 53.

52. Supernatural Superserious

From 2008’s Accelerate, First Single

As a statement of renewed intent to rock, I respect “Supernatural Superserious.”

51. Shiny Happy People

From 1991’s Out of Time, Second Single

“Shiny Happy People” has a nation of haters aligned against it but it is also the reason that R.E.M. got to appear on Sesame Street (note: Pete Buck smiles his head off in that video) so all arguments against it are invalid. No. No. Zip it. No. When I listen to this song, I am often reminded of Camper Van Beethoven’s “Life is Grand” which features the lyrics:

And life is grand
And I will say this at the risk of falling from favor
With those of you who have appointed yourselves
To expect us to say something darker

R.E.M. recorded an unabashedly happy song and they did it with Kate Pierson of The B-52’s. To balance out the sheer joy of this number, they later recorded the despairing “Fretless” with Pierson. R.E.M. and The B-52s come out of the same Athens GA music scene and – if you figure R.E.M. formed in 1980 – were contemporaries after a fashion. Athens was happening in the late 70’s and early 80’s, man. They also recorded “Me In Honey” with Pierson and her contribution really lifts that tune. I want her to sing on everything.

R.E.M. apparently loathes “Shiny Happy People” (which reflects how many of their fans loath this song) but, as I mentioned, dude, Sesame Street. Also, bands have absolutely no control over how people respond to their songs once they release them into the wild. You might think you’ve written a killer put-down song about bro-idiots who just want to party, but when you release “Fight For Your Right To Party,” those same bros might embrace it unironically as an anthem. “Shiny Happy People” is not R.E.M.’s stupidest song (my beloved “Stand” is probably their stupidest song) but its happy, peppy, optimistic and aimed at six year olds. Sesame Street. By 1991, many of their original fans had little kids so why not put out a song that mom, pop and baby could all dig?

Coming Next: The halfway point! As many as three rankings that might make you rage quit this list! Also, maybe the first songs on this list from Life’s Rich Pageant and Up unless I go on another hike and shuffle everything around again!

R.E.M. Singles Ranked81-8671-8061-7051-6041-5031-4021-3011-201-10