There are many, many excellent songs by R.E.M. that were never released as singles. I made a list of many of these songs for my own point of reference. If I were to pick ten of the songs from that list to consider for my top ten R.E.M. songs of all time, that list would probably include:
Carnival of Sorts
Gardening at Night
Feeling Gravity’s Pull
Begin the Begin
Time After Time
It took some work to eliminate about 15 other songs from that list and I’m really not convinced 100% that I cut the correct songs.
Let’s get back to the singles…
20. Radio Free Europe (Hib-Tone version)
1981, Stand-Alone Single
Its taken me about 35 years to come round to this opinion (Hey you rotten kids get out of my yard) but the original 1981 version of “Radio Free Europe” is better than the 1983 rerecording of the single. They tear through this one with greater passion and enthusiasm (they were bored enough with it by 1985 that they’d stopped playing it regularly in concert and, perhaps, had already grown tired of it in 1983). Its a great song so I understand IRS Records (founded by Miles Copeland III, brother of The Police’s Stuart Copeland) wanting to capitalize on its success by releasing it to a wider audience. In fact, their ploy worked at least in my case – I fell in love with R.E.M. because of the second version of the song. None-the-less, from the moment Bill Berry counts them in until that final hanging chord, this version grabs you, pushes you in the back of the car and doesn’t give you a chance to ask any questions.
19. Driver 8
From 1985’s Fables of the Reconstruction, Second Single
Unquestionably one of the highlights of my one concert experience with R.E.M. (Hartford Agora Ballroom, 1985). I think my relationship with its parent album can be marked “its complicated.” Until this project, I thought it was one of my favorite R.E.M. albums but as I’ve worked on this, I realize I can’t recall most of the songs that weren’t singles. I mean, I love and remember “Feeling Gravity’s Pull” and “Green Grow the Rushes” and I remember loving “Old Man Kensey” and “Maps and Legends.” However, I can’t recall how those latter two songs sound or, indeed, how any other non-singles songs on the album sound. I can sing Reckoning and Murmur and Life’s Rich Pageant the whole way through. It occurs to me that its possible that I never actually owned a copy of that album until much, much later. How did this happen? Who is to blame? Back to the song at hand, “Driver 8” has a sense of impending doom to it – the doom isn’t that the train is going to crash; the doom is that the train is never going to quite reach its destination. Driver 8 will be driving it forever – its his job to put a roof over his children’s head, but the price he pays is he’s never going to be home with them. Not in a supernatural sense – in an overworked train driver sense. Our friend at Pop Songs 07-08 has some very smart things to say about Buck’s remarkable guitar work on this track.
18. It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)
From 1987’s Document, Second Single
If you recall, my relationship with Document was sullied by the fact that I was a sullen college student convinced (despite a lack of evidence) that my favorite band has sold out. I became familiar with this song because it was played endlessly at dances at Bates so we called all scream out “Leonard Bernstein” at the correct moment. Good times. I had no idea it was from Document. In fact, at first I had no idea it was R.E.M. From my perspective, this song just appeared fully formed out of radio waves sometime in the late 1980’s, perfect in its “Subterranean Homesick Blues” influenced glory. If it were a Greek god, it would look like Michael Stipe in a flowing robe holding a walkman and looking very serious with his long, flowing 80’s hair. I am able to successfully sing it for about 15 seconds – I fail around “eye of the hurricane.” The song is fast but it can be sung even faster (Great Big Sea does a great fast version here). I’ve suggested to Sean that Oil In Alley should try to play it even faster. I feel like I owe it to myself to be able to sing the whole song the whole way through.
From 1998’s Up, Second Single
Our last post-Bill Berry single! “Lotus” is a bonkers psychedelic rocker with an “everything including the kitchen sink” aesthetic. Keyboard, distortion, great Buck guitar work, layered vocals, echos, and at least one great lyrical moment. Specifically, after telling us “I was hell,”, Stipe mentions that “just last week he was merely heck.” I love that so much. I also love how he hisses the “S” on “lotus.” Oh, and he name drop “End of the World As We Know It” (he sings “dot dot dot… and I feel fine.”). There are a bunch of genuinely great songs in the late R.E.M. catalog but this, to my ear, is the best. It barely sounds like their early or middle periods but I think it deserves a place next to their other best songs. Basically, I love it.
From 1992’s Automatic for the People, First Single
This single (and video) blew me away when I first heard it. Though the band sort of denies it, in 1992, I heard the song as an obvious call to my generation to vote against George H.W. Bush (its that bush-whacked line). I also was amped about the shout-out to “Rock On” by David Essex (“hey kids, rock and roll”) though now I can’t quite tell why I was amped. “Drive” was such a shockingly different song from anything R.E.M. had released in the past couple of years. It felt, to me, like they’d gone from singing about dreams to trying to embody what a dream felt like. Furthermore, by embracing a kind of minimalism, each member of the band’s individual musicianship really shined through. Automatic for the People was nor an album destined to generate a ton of hit singles, but I think that was part of the point. R.E.M. (as a collective) had a tendency to get bored sometimes so its no surprise to me that they were ready to explore different sonic fields by 1992.
15. Losing My Religion
From 1991’s Out of Time, First Single
26 years later and its still strange as all get-out to me that “Losing My Religion” was a single much less the biggest U.S. hit in R.E.M.’s career. Its a great song and really the turn from “that was just a dream” back to “that’s me in the corner” near the end is one of the most dramatic moments in their entire catalog. I was shocked that anyone else other than me would be excited about hearing a pop song with a mandolin back in 1991. I mean now mandolin are de rigueur but in 1991, why would anyone who wasn’t Richard Thompson be playing around with one of those old things? Indeed, the thing in the corner in the song may well have been an unused mandolin. There was some silliness on Out of Time and its not even a candidate for the coveted “R. Kevin’s favorite R.E.M. album” title, but there’s also a great deal of beauty. For instance, this song.
14. E-Bow the Letter
From 1995’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi, First Single
Patti Smith crushes this song. I reacted to “E-Bow The Letter” in almost exactly the same way I reacted to “Drive.” Let me go into a little more detail. When I first heard both songs, my immediate reaction was revulsion. I remember watching “The Shock of the New” at some point in the 80’s and had a growing awareness to the fact that my brain wanted to immediately reject art that was unexpected. Thus, when I felt that initial wave of revulsion, I knew that I needed to make an effort to spend a little more time with these songs. I’d contrast that with the way I responded the first time I heard – for example – “Wake Up Bomb” or “Shiny Happy People,” both of which sounded like what I expected to hear from R.E.M. (“Wake Up Bomb” could have come from Monster, “Shiny” could have come from the same session as “Stand”). I was not expecting to hear Patty Smith’s haunting delivery of the “I will take you over” refrains, nor was I expecting to hear that desperation in Stipe’s voice or even the titular e-bow (side note – naming this song “E-Bow The Letter” would be like naming their earlier song “Mandolin Losing My Religion” or “Banjo I Believe”). Now, when this song plays, I wish it were a blanket on my bed so I could rap it around myself and roll around.
13. Crush with Eyeliner
From 1994’s Monster, Fourth Single
This is a song about making yourself into something you’re not in order to get the love of somebody you desire. In order to play the song, R.E.M. consciously chose to make themselves sound like somebody they weren’t. In a way, this was the theme of the whole Monster album – pretending to be something else. Kurt Cobain was originally meant to be a guest artist on a track from this album (the song “Let Me In” on Monster was Stipe imagining what he would have liked to have said to Cobain before he died). Ultimately, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore took on the guest vocal duty. The song doesn’t sound much like a Sonic Youth record either. If you recall, my working method is to try and put these singles in an order on a playlist where I like each one more than the previous one. For the longest time, I kept trying to move this song to a lower rank, but every time it started, I was reminding of why I loved it so much in the first place – its a perfect match of lyrical content, music and performed irony. Kids love irony.
12. World Leader Pretend
From 1988’s Green, Promo Single Only
There are two song from Green in my top ten. This one just missed out. R.E.M. famously didn’t include lyric sheets in its albums so when they released Green and it included lyrics for this song and this song only, well, can you blame us for all thinking that this song was somehow particularly important to them? I heard this song (and “Turn You Inside Out”) as sorts of meditations on the fame the band was starting to experience – they had moved into the stadium strata of fame which is going to mess with your head no matter who you are. Bill Berry’s drum work is of particular note on this song – listen to him at the beginning. The rhythm would not be out of place on a Texas psychedelic record. It sounds like he’s tapping out a code. Then that wailing steel guitar comes in seemingly out of nowhere and Stipe start singing with that precise articulation that had been lacking for the band’s first half-decade… This was R.E.M.’s first major label release and I have no excuse for thinking they sold out for their prior album Document but not for this record (since, I mean, signing on to a major label is sort of the definition of “sell out”). Anyhow, knowing the lyrics didn’t know that any of us really knew what the song was about. I’ve spent many hours singing this one and feeling like “wow, Michael Stipe really gets me” when the reality is closer to “wow, I really get myself and am projecting me onto these words.”
11. Man on the Moon
From 1992’s Automatic for the People, Second Single
That R.E.M. inspired a whole new generation of people to become interested in Andy Kaufman should earn them undying respect from the entire entertainment world. There can never be another person like Kaufman because now we would expect it (Sacha Baron Cohen came close but his ability to troll has been hampered by his fame), but back in the 70’s and 80’s Kaufman blew our mind. The first time I saw him do his “Mighty Mouse” routine as a kid, I thought it was the funniest thing I’d ever seen. It was so stupid, but Kaufman was so committed. I didn’t know there was a thing called performance art or anti-humor yet. I completely bought into the wrestling stuff – when it was revealed in the film Man on the Moon that Jerry “The King” Lawler had been co-conspiring with Kaufman all those years ago I literally gasped. Kaufman is dead, but every time I hear this song, I genuinely hope that there was a truck stop instead of St. Peter for Kaufman and that its just a matter of time before he reappears and says “ta da.” This would be a great song even without the Kaufman connection but it contributed to elevating the great entertainer to the level of a folk hero and that something truly special.
Coming Soon: Basically every single from Reckoning.