I’ve learned many things in the last couple of weeks sorting through R.E.M.’s vast singles catalogs. I’ve learned that there are some songs that I used to love that I don’t especially like. I’ve learned that there are some songs that I didn’t really like that I actually do enjoy quite a bit. I’ve also learned that I’m a bad, bad R.E.M. superfan. I really dislike some of their classic tracks and I really love some of their songs that are considered lousy or, worse, mediocre and forgettable. You will likely hate this list, especially if you’re an R.E.M. fan. You have been warned.
While I’m not one of those “everything they released after Chronic Town sucked” R.E.M. superfans, I have followed them pretty much since 1983’s Murmer which I bought on cassette – a sign that I was just trying them out. If I’d been really serious, I would have bought that album on vinyl (the first R.E.M. album I bought on vinyl was 1986’s Life’s Rich Pagaent). I loved the IRS version of “Radio Free Europe” and was a big enough fan of the band that I saw them in 1985 during the Fables of the Reconstruction tour at The West Hartford Agora Ballroom. It was sweltering hot and there was no air conditioning. I recall that one of my friends passed out and the front of the pit and was rescued by security – he was pulled up on stage and we didn’t see him again until after the show. I got separated from the rest of my friends and ended up dancing all night with a woman that I never saw again. Basically we all had a pretty good night, I guess. I left for college like a week later and played a ton of R.E.M. at WRBC. At least a ton.
Also, I kind of like things about all of these songs – there aren’t really any that you could play for me that would elicit a violent negative reaction. There’s just a handful I don’t necessarily ever need to hear again.
Anyhow, breaking with tradition from the previous lists, I’ve tried to tackle every single song R.E.M. released as a single regardless of format. I’ve included cover songs and oddities and remixes (though, as you’ll see, I feel justified in abandoning remixes again after this list). I made a playlist of all 86 songs on my iPod classic and spent the last three weeks listening to it over and over again trying to decide if I liked each song better than the previous song. I don’t think I’m 100% accurate to the specific rank but by this time I think all of the songs are about where I want them (give or take 3 positions in either direction). I’ve used Discogs and Wikipedia as my reference sources to identify singles. I’m 99% sure I’ve not missed anything this time.
I’ve also spent some time exploring Pop Songs 07-08, a blog about R.E.M.’s songs that Music ExpertTM Dan Kois introduced me to. Worth a look for sure and I may be citing it from time to time.
86. Blue (Casey Spooner and Avan Lava Remix)
2012 Remix of a track from 2011’s Collapse Into Now
This gets to be in last place by virtue of the face that I can’t find it anywhere. Its not on iTunes. Its not on Spotify. I logged into MySpace for the first time in a decade and its not there. I signed up for IHeartRadio and its not there. Basically, if I can’t hear it, it gets to be last on the list. This is a shame because the original “Blue” from Collapse Into Now is terrific. Its sort of a spoken word piece featuring guest vocalist Patti Smith (the second outstanding collaboration between R.E.M. and Smith). Anyhow, if anyone can provide me with a link to this track, I will consider moving it higher up my list if I ever revisit the list. I would have ranked the original track in the 41-50 range.
85. Tighten Up
1985 Flexi-disc single from the UK zine Bucketfull of Brains
Cover of a 1968 Archie Bell and The Drells single
In the early 80’s, R.E.M. released a series of b-side covers that sounded like the band was having an absolute blast. Special shout out to their falling-down-drunk version of “King of the Road,” which wasn’t a single but features four musicians just barely hanging on to the tune (Mike Mills on bass and Peter Buck on guitar can be heard shouting out the key changes to each other). Anyhow, this semi-instrumental cover of Archie Bell and the Drell’s “Tighten Up” features R.E.M. and producer Mitch Easter possibly doing this in a single take in the studio. I mean, this isn’t what you’d call bad but its an inessential addition to the catalog. Its fun to hear Michael Stipe shout “testify” every now and then and Mitch Easter plays some mean vibes. They did better cover versions of other songs, defined (by me) as a cover that is a reinvention of the original – or just better played than the original. This was originally available as a flexi-disc from the UK magazine Bucketfull of Brains. Sure, magazines can just share links to download songs for free now, but back in the day it was always good fun to get a flimsy piece of square plastic with a third rate song on it. You kids don’t know what you’re missing (hint: poor sound quality if it plays at all).
84. Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter (Dicky Doo Larry Tee Remix)
2012 Remix of a song from 2011’s Collapse Into Now
Aw, man, before I listened to the remix of “Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter,” I was excited to rank this one in the 41-50 range. I’m not opposed to remixes (and rather liked having longer versions of songs to dance to as a younger man – I mean, in the 80’s, every dance featured like a 90 minute remix of Billy Idol’s “Dancing With Myself” and I never complained) but I also feel like a remix that eliminates what made the song fun in the first place is a failure. To my ear, this remix eliminates and minimizes the contributions of Buck and Mills to the song’s determent. Regarding the original, I love the ridiculous rhyming structure and think its something Sean and I should explore on future Oil in the Alley songs. This past year, Sparks did for Hippopotamus what R.E.M. did for Alligators.
83. Wendell Gee
From 1985’s Fables of the Reconstruction, Third Single
All right, now the ranking sort of begins for real. R.E.M. didn’t play “Wendell Gee” in concert for many years because guitarist Peter Buck famously hated it. Guess what, Peter! You are not alone! Hate is too strong a word for how I feel about this song. I was so excited about Fables of the Reconstruction (Reconstruction of the Fables?) when it was released because I loved the “Can’t Get There From Here” single. Because it came out just at about the same time I was ending high school and starting college (and, thus, spending money was tight), I didn’t actually pick up a copy for a number of years. In fact, I probably ended up recording all the songs to cassette (albeit out of order) by documenting my radio shows on WRBC. Never recorded this one though because I just couldn’t get into it. When I imagine somebody parodying R.E.M., this is the song I hear. I recognize that it was a stepping stone to some of the great songs they made later and also that many fans think this is a classic, but the first time Stipe starts singing “whistle while the wind blows,” I want to skip to the next track. I made myself listen to it several times this month and my opinion hasn’t changed in 32 years – ain’t that something?
82. Orange Crush
From 1988’s Green, First Single
“Orange Crush,” on the other hand, I used to love. The cover of the album Green is orange and this was the lead single. As a result, I’ve called the album “Orange” on more than one occasion, which is exactly what I imagine the intention was. Stop playing mind games with me gentlemen. This is a reasonably strong rock number with good performances from all parties (I especially like Bill Berry’s drum work) but in 2017, this song doesn’t rock me like a hurricane anymore. It doesn’t even rock me like a strong breeze. I think it suffers a bit in comparison to some of their later rockers with political overtones (“Ignoreland” in particular) and, thus, became a little unnecessary in my mind.
81. Radio Song
From 1991’s Out of Time, Fourth Single
My friends and I all assumed this was the song where R.E.M. poked fun (and expressed cautious regret) for “Stand.” Now, I loved (and still love) “Stand” in all its dumb glory and realized this was the first step to eventually reconciling with all of the dumb pop I’d rejected for most of the 80’s. I started making “Guilty Pleasure” mix tapes around this time (heavy on the .38 Special and Journey). “Radio Song” might not be about that at all, but one of the wonderful things about R.E.M. is that Stipes’ lyrics are often ambiguous enough for you to impart your own meanings onto the songs (and sometimes his articulation is so ambiguous that you can impart your own words onto the songs). Anyhow, I used to really like “Radio Song” but its not aged especially well, particularly the contributions from the otherwise excellent KRS-One of Boogie Down Productions. Stipe was apparently a huge fan and asked him to guest. At the time, I really appreciated the artistic challenge both R.E.M. and KRS-One were undertaking with this collaboration but after 28 years of more successful rap/rock fusion and fission pieces, this sounds lame. Furthermore, I agree with the author over at Pop Songs 07-08 – the lyrics do hew a little too close to “Radio Radio” (or even “Radio Ga Ga”).
Coming Next: Covers, late period songs and the song that begat “Its The End Of The World As We Know It.”