This is potentially the grimmest section of the list. We’re at about the halfway point and we’re starting to enter “I enjoy each of these songs and don’t often skip over any of them” territory. R.E.M. has so much good music that its inevitable (especially on a list predicated on my personal tastes) that some of their classics are going to rank low (“Orange Crush” for example). To parrot a line I’ve used a bunch on other lists, I like all of these songs. I just like other songs more.
And so it goes:
From 1996’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi, Third Single
I feel the same way about this song as I do about “Find The River” – its a better song in context than it is on its own. Much of New Adventures in Hi-Fi was recorded live in stadiums during sound check. Consequently, my favorite songs on it have this sense of live enormity to them. This song was also recorded live in the stadium but comes across as a delightful fun jam after an album of dark and often brooding rock. It irks me that several of the songs that I love the most on New Adventures were not singles. I shouldn’t be taking it out on songs that I like perfectly fine that were selected as singles by the philistines at Warner Bros records.
49. At My Most Beautiful
From 1998’s Up, Third Single
After New Adventures in Hi-Fi, Bill Berry (who had a brain aneurysm on tour) retired from his role as R.E.M. drummer and took up the life of a gentleman farmer. True Story. R.E.M. decided to soldier on with various excellent touring and studio drummers. The recording sessions for Up (Squirrel!) were reportedly wrought with tension as the band struggled to figure out who they were without Berry, In the end, they created a terrific art-rock album that didn’t get the praise or the sales that I think it deserved. I’m part of the R.E.M. cult, though, so take that opinion with a shaker of salt. “At My Most Beautiful” is a direct love song with music inspired by the Beach Boys (an R.E.M. favorite) and its really a very lovely song. I’ve been struggling with where to rank it – for a while, I had it in my top 20. I don’t have much more of a rationalization than it feels right here and it didn’t feel right anywhere else. I think the soulless hacks at Warner Bros did a better job identifying singles from Up than on New Adventures in Hi-Fi, for what its worth.
From 2011’s Collapse Into Now, Second Single
“Überlin” is another song that I struggled to rank – it was both near the bottom and near the top of this list at different points. Listening to this run of songs for the last couple of days, I think a bunch of them here in the middle all kind of have a similar vibe to them. Its nothing I can put my find on precisely – tempo? theme? approach? – but they all feel connected to me and they sound good together. This song has been playing around in my head for a few days now and I imagine if I were to remake this list in a year, I would rank it considerably higher. With the understanding that these lists are sort of more a reflection of me and where I’m at right now than of anything true about R.E.M., “Überlin” ends up here. That said, if you’ve just been reading these lists and aren’t familiar with their post-Berry work, I encourage you to start listening to some of these tracks starting now. If I were to make a “top 100 R.E.M. songs” list, everything from 50 up would certainly make it.
From 2004’s Around the Sun, Second Single
…and a third song that’s I’ve struggled to rank. “Aftermath” is a break-up song that includes a line about overfeeding the cat. That line has particular meaning for me because I don’t need the excuse of a break-up to overfeed cats. My cats might argue otherwise. I think “Aftermath” is a catchy and relatively affecting song. Stipes’ lyrics capture that post-break-up feeling with tremendous accuracy. Listening to it after “At My Most Beautiful” suggest an unintended narrative about a absolutely lovely relationship that dissolves. We’ve all been there, sitting in the kitchen crying because we found ourselves suddenly incapable of coping with something minor (watering the plant,s in the case of this song).
From 1995’s Monster, Fifth Single
I’ve ranked two singles from Monster back-to-back here. I don’t try to avoid ranking songs from the same album back to back but its unusual for me to do it anyways. This was the song Bill Berry was playing live when he had his brain aneurysm. Coincidence? On Monster, Stipe chose to write from the perspective of different creepy characters, which was a new thing for him at the time. This song is sung from the perspective of a particular lonely woman and is about, er, well, Wikipedia explains. I love the falsetto delivery and the composition but the lyrics put me off.
45. Strange Currencies
From 1995’s Monster, Fourth Single
Close your eyes, imagine you’re a high school student at a prom in 1958. The guitar line from “Strange Currencies” begins. You slow dance with your date with a respectful gap between your bodies lest the chaperones bust you. You want to dance closer, but society won’t let you. That’s… I mean, that’s not what the song is about. Continuing with a theme, this is yet another song that I’ve ranked all over this list. I kind of love it – particularly that guitar line and the “I need a chance a second chance a third chance” business. But I can’t rank it higher than “Everybody Hurts” (I just can’t) and I’m comfortable with “Everybody Hurts” being ranked…
44. Everybody Hurts
From 1992’s Automatic for the People, Fourth Single
Both “Strange Currencies” and this much loved song are in 6/8 time. R.E.M. almost left “Strange Currencies” off of Monster because they thought it sounded too much like “Everybody Hurts.” Both rhythmically and melodically, these two sound like late 50’s Stax tunes to me (to their credit). I run super hot and cold on this song. There are times I love it for its beauty and there are times that I hate it because the lyrics oversimplify depression. You’re depressed? Don’t be! Everyone gets sad! Tra-la! But what the heck do I know? Its apparently been a pretty effective suicide prevention song (especially for teens) so let’s just assume I’m full of B.S. here. I mean, let’s always assume that, but particularly here. Anyhow, Bill Berry wrote a significant chunk of this one and I feel compelled to point that out because when he quit the band, they didn’t just lose a great drummer. He was a heck of a song writer too.
43. Life and How To Live It
From 1985’s Fables of the Reconstruction, Promo Single Only
The not-so-secret theme of this middle section of this list is “songs I struggled with ranking.” I have always dug “Life and How To Live It” more in theory than in practice. The song features some of Peter Buck’s best guitar work and what I have understood of the lyrics (no, I’m not going to ruin it by looking them up) suggest something intriguing about a carpenter running around hollering in the street (Jesus metaphor?) and philosophy. Also something about banking. Maybe he’s contrasting spiritual life with material life? I don’t know, I don’t care, I like it. Like banana cream pie. Don’t care what’s in it, give it to me. Of course, now I have diabetes. Thanks, R.E.M. Back to the song, its really classic R.E.M. from start to finish and if I’m placing right in the middle of this list, that is at least in part because it feels like the mean of all their music to me.
42. I Believe
From 1986’s Life’s Rich Pageant, Promo Single Only
Is Life’s Rich Pageant my favorite R.E.M. album? Song for song, its one of the best. I was visiting my friend Holly in East Hartford when the album was released and bought it on vinyl (when I was serious about a record back in the 80’s, I bought vinyl – not those faddish compact discs!). Hooked from the very first song – “Begin the Begin.” You know, if I were to make a “top 10 all time favorite R.E.M. songs” list, “Begin the Begin” would be an irresistible candidate. “Cuyahoga” too. And “Swan Swan H.” None of those songs were singles and, after all, none of them are “I Believe.” My friend Bill Meiners shared this great live video of the song featuring a spoken word section by Stipe – check it out. “I Believe” is another quintessential R.E.M. song in both sound and lyric and if I’ve ranked it below the top 40 its only because there’s songs that I enjoy even more.
41. Until the Day Is Done
From 2008’s Accelerate, Fourth Single
One more song that was subject to my volatile ranking whims. For a while, I had this one in the top 15. It might belong there. Mills, Buck and Stipe are all in fine form – particularly Buck whose guitar work is especially expressive. There’s kind of an electronic folk song thing going on here – I’ve been trying to put my finger on who might be the main influence on this song and I haven’t quite figured it out yet. The track wouldn’t be out of place on Automatic for the People or New Adventures in Hi-Fi. Heck, maybe the main influence on this song was earlier R.E.M. songs. Steve Hyden over at The A.V. Club calls this the last great R.E.M. song. While I don’t agree with that (I’d argue “Discoverer” from Collapse Into Now was the last great R.E.M. song), it is an excellent song that… just doesn’t feel to me like something I need to rank higher than 41.
Coming Next: We start to rock out a bit. More potential reasons to rage quit the list. First songs from Murmur and from Document. Last song from Around the Sun.