Let’s get right into this…
30. I Don’t Sleep I Dream
From 1994’s Monster, Promo Single Only
“I Don’t Sleep I Dream” wasn’t released as a 45 or a CD single (or even a cassette single) but it was released to radio stations as a way of promoting the album. This was a method that record companies frequently employed to keep the sales of an album moving months after it was released. I won my copy of Monster as part of a radio station trivia contest when it first came out – I think it was KPOI, which played a “modern rock” format at the time. This means that Monster is the only R.E.M. album that didn’t cost me a dime (since I insist on paying for downloads). I’ve always assumed that “I Don’t Sleep I Dream” was a song about an encounter between Stipe and a fan or Stipe and the press, but since the characters on Monster are all allegedly fictional, maybe its about another lead singer of a major rock band’s encounter with a fan or the press. R.E.M. often played with non-standard melodic shapes even before Bill Berry departed and this is one of their most effective bits of artistic noodling. Stipe’s vocal is the stand-out here – he uses his full range and sounds great.
From 1998’s Up, First Single
Speaking of artistic noodling… R.E.M. had a bit of a tradition for a few years of releasing the oddest song from their albums as their first single – I’m thinking particularly of “Drive,” “E-Bow The Letter” and this song. As I’ve mentioned before, many of R.E.M.’s songs are centered around sleep and dreams. This is a song about a person who works at night and has descended into a sort of permanent exhausted haze. The author over at Pop Songs 07-08 nails what makes the song work I think – the music captures the exhausted, dreamless feeling of the lyrics. Or vice versa. I especially love the final turn into the last chorus – it sounds to me like he’s being dragged into the faster rhythm almost against his will. The first song on Up is actually the Eno-esque “Airportman,” which suggests a business man flying off to a great opportunity. “Daysleeper” is a penultimate song on the album and, perhaps, expresses in part the result of that opportunity. Its also been said that the song “The Lifting” from Reveal is a prequel to this tune, but I’ve never listened carefully enough to recognize the connection.
28. Hollow Man
From 2008’s Accelerate, Second Single
This is my highest ranked single from Accelerate. It starts with just piano and voice (Mills, I assume, and Stipe) and then builds into a hard rocking chorus. The lyrics are about a man who believes in nothing which has made this song a bit of a harrowing listen in June of 2017. Accelerate was hailed as a return to form for R.E.M. but I think that was mostly a way for people to say they were centered around guitars again on this album. What is “form” for a band with as long and varied a career as R.E.M.? The jangle of their early tunes? The folk-rock sound? The silly pop rock? The heavier rock sound? I mean, this album is a bit of a harder rocker in general, but it ain’t Fables of the Reconstruction, you know? Perhaps “return to form” just means “I like it.” What I like about this song is that it sounds like growth – the band has taken things they’ve learned in the past and pressed on to create something that sounds a little bit the same, a little bit different. It helps that they’ve written a great song and perform the whole thing with typical R.E.M. passion.
27. Fall on Me
From 1986’s Life’s Rich Pageant, First Single
I was expecting and hoping for another “Can’t Get There From Here” or “Pretty Persuasion” when R.E.M. released this as the first single from Life’s Rich Pageant. I remember seeing the video debut on MTV – the VJ’s made a huge deal of it so I was expecting to see the band totally rock out. When the song turned out to be folk rock and the video turned out to be words over black and white photos I was a little underwhelmed – the whole thing had been oversold. Bad job, MTV. Also, bad job, my own brain. I was aware that it was challenging to understand what Stipe was singing but I wasn’t aware that rock press had a made his articulation a thing. The video was confronting this idea that the lyrics were unintelligible in a very direct way, so now that I get that context, its kind of hilarious. “Don’t know what I’m singing? Well, here you go. Still a problem? No?” The great thing is knowing the words he’s singing doesn’t necessarily help decipher what he’s singing about. As Dan Kois has much more eloquently pointed out, it could be something to do with air pollution or acid rain or maybe the Chicken Little Story. Anyhow, Life’s Rich Pageant was one of my favorite albums of 1986 but I rarely let the needle drop on this tune. All these years later, I placed it much much lower on this list but as I’ve listened to it more and more I’ve finally been able to appreciate it for the lovely tune that is and not for the jangle-rocker that it isn’t.
26. Bang and Blame
From 1994’s Monster, Second Single
This was R.E.M.’s last big American hit. They left it off their The Best of R.E.M. 1988-2003 hits package so one must assume they don’t consider it one of their best songs. The grunge explosion of the early 90’s must have been a weird time for R.E.M. On the one hand, they were sort of elder statesmen of the alternative rock scene – they were a staple of college radio in the 80’s that broke through. On the other hand, the modern rock stations were jammed full of Nirvana sound-a-likes (as opposed to R.E.M. sound-a-likes). Monster felt like an album nestled somewhere in between a genuine desire to play with different sounds and a quietly anxious move to remain relevant. The times, as it were, were starting to pass them by. What made the album work so well, in my opinion, is the tension between who R.E.M. were as musicians and what they were trying to be – sort of like how I think Pop’s best moments was effective for U2 because they balanced U2 and electronica. Anyhow, I think “Bang and Blame” found just the right balance between R.E.M. and The Pixie’s influenced (soft-loud-soft) grunge sound. It sort of manages to sound like the best of both.
25. Imitation of Life
From 2001’s Reveal, First Single
Oh, our final song from Reveal and one of my favorite videos. You can read a bit about the video and the song at Wikipedia or at the AV Club. Essentially, they filmed a 20 second video and then run it forward and backwards focusing in on different parts of the film. Its really pretty cool even 16 years later. The song itself it a catchy-as-hell song that seems to have something to do with nostalgia. I’ve been hiking a bunch as I’ve been listening to my R.E.M. playlist and this song is one that I find myself compelled to sing along to, breaking nature’s pristine silence and perhaps attracting feral pigs.
From 1986’s Life’s Rich Pageant, Second Single
This is the highest ranking cover, the highest ranking song sung by Mike Mills and the last song from Life’s Rich Pageant (because they only released three and not even the best three). If you’ve never listened to the original version of the song by The Clique, you should. Its a great piece of 60’s Texas psychedelia. R.E.M. really makes it their own (in fact, the song is probably associated 100% more with R.E.M. than with The Clique). Stipe was not enthused about the tune so he chose to contribute backing vocals and let Mills take the lead. There’s a little sound at the beginning that was apparently made by a Godzilla toy. The song is great fun and I think it offered a sort of “alley oop” to the next album, Document. Sometimes one record’s success is actually predicted in part by the success of a previous record. Also, I imagine Stipe appreciates having a few songs where Mills takes the lead when they’re in concert so he can have some water and chill without interrupting the flow.
From 1988’s Green, Second Single
Oh, “Stand.” You big, dumb song. No, seriously, it is deliberately a big dumb song. When the video came out, all of us in my circle at Bates learned the stupid dance from the song and made a point to bust it out at every party we went to. Usually to “Stand” but sometimes just in general because, you see, it was the only dance we knew. “Stand” is ridiculously catchy and fun. The lyrics – written to be inane – could be mistaken for being profound, I suppose, if you worked hard enough. I never worked that hard. I just assumed they were dumb and loved them for it. Yes, my head is there to move me around. So stand.
22. Star 69
From 1995’s Monster, Charted Song
OK, kids, let yer old Uncle Kevin tell you about 90’s phone technology. See, we didn’t all have smart phones (or cell phones or often even pagers) yet. We had land lines and most of those land lines in the 90’s had push buttons instead of dials. Because computer technology was starting to be a thing, we did have some stuff we could do on those phones that was pretty cool to us. For example, we didn’t have called I.D., but if we dialed “*” and then “69,” we’d call back the number that just called. That’s the whole premised of this song. Somebody called the narrator and he knows they called because he dialed “*69.” I suspect many young people think there’s some sort of dirty joke buried in this (and maybe the telephone company employee who assigned “*69” as the dial-back code intended a dirty joke) but R.E.M. was just singing about then-current technology. This was a fantastic return to incomprehensibility for Michael Stipe. Whole verses of this song have voices overlapping voices saying God-knows what (with some great backing “whoo”) before they resolve into a more coherent chorus. This song wasn’t released as a single (not even a promotional single) but it was so well loved that it charted anyways. I still love it.
21. Radio Free Europe (I.R.S. version)
From 1983’s Murmur, First Single
This is the song that first made me fall in love with R.E.M. I can no longer remember if I first heard it on WXCI (our local college station) or on I-95 (our local rock station). It would be several years before I-95 genuinely embraced R.E.M., so I’m guessing WXCI but you never really can tell. I-95 would sometimes play obscure bands to see if they could expand beyond their classic rock playlists. There’s only so many times you can play “Immigrant Song” as a DJ before you kind of want to die inside. I was profoundly disappointed when I saw R.E.M. at the Hartford Agora in 1985 and they didn’t play this particular song. I imagine they must have been sick to death of it by that time. They released it as a single in two different forms (this is a slightly slower version than the original single) and it did get them a certain amount of attention. I love the chorus especially – it sounds like Stipe is doing some hollering into one of those old timey cheer-leading cones. Buck’s guitar work and Mills’ bass weave in and out of prominence and Berry’s drums drives the whole thing forward with a determined relentlessness. Its a remarkable song and – this is nuts – its not even close to being the best song on Murmur – in fact, its the last song on this list from that album. Seriously, Murmur, so good.
Coming Soon: My highest ranked post-Bill Berry song. Still nothing from Reckoning.