R.E.M. have been my favourite band from the moment that I started to take music seriously beyond being background noise on the radio. No other band outside of perhaps Arcade Fire have ever spoken to me on such a personal level, and R.E.M and their fifteen proper albums, and multiple live releases and compilations have soundtracked my entire existence.
Whittling a list down to ten perfect tracks from their discography was far more difficult than I would have thought. For better or worse, these are the ten tracks that define the band for me, both on a personal level and in the broader angle of what they are known for in the world.
Losing My Religion Out of Time (1991)
It would seem silly not to include arguably R.E.M.’s most well-known song. When this came along, it was unlike anything else that was around at the time but has been compared to The Police’s ‘Every Breath You Take’ in terms of being about obsessive love. Mandolins were not an instrument you heard on the radio, but accompanied by the iconic Tarsem Singh directed music video, R.E.M. took a two-footed leap into the mainstream with ‘Losing My Religion’, and the result was a top ten hit almost everywhere. The album Out of Time subsequently became a mega-selling smash, and Michael Stipe became a voice for political issues on MTV. While it might not be their best single overall, Losing My Religion was the track that changed the band’s fortunes forever, the point where they went from indie critical darlings to major rock stars. Plus it’s just you know, a great song.
The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite Automatic for the People (1992)
For me, this was the track that turned me from being fond of R.E.M. to being a lifelong obsessive mega fan. There was something about the tumble of words making a sort of coherent dream logic sense that just captivated me. On the one hand, a play on ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’, on another a song about someone trying to get into someone apartment to spend the night…maybe. ‘The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite’ defies categorisation and yet defined for me what music could be when a lack of commercial imagination didn’t restrict it. Plus trying to decipher the chorus and what Michael Stipe is actually singing has baffled people for decades at this point.
Pilgrimage Murmur (1983)
Early R.E.M. thematically, seems to encompass everything in their largely mumbled lyrics. From what you can decipher from Stipe’s singing in those pre ‘Life’s Rich Pageant’ days, they seem to take a lot of inspiration from their southern surroundings and the characters they saw every day. Part of the joy of becoming an R.E.M. fan when they broke through in the ’90s was going back and discovering their back catalogue of music on the indie label IRS records. ‘Pilgrimage’ is a track I first heard when I saw it performed live in 1999. It seems to be about organised religion, and is perhaps intended as satirical, but builds and builds into a joyous march towards salvation that really gets you pumped.
It’s The End of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) Document (1987)
This song occupies a weird space in terms of the band’s history. To a point, it was their most well-known song, and yet it only reached number 69 on the Billboard charts in the US. When R.E.M. became huge in the ’90s suddenly the song was everywhere again and was re-released and reached number 39 in the UK top 40. Since then the song is now one of their most well-known songs and will cameo in any film about an apocalypse probably forever. The actual track itself is one of Michael Stipe’s stream of consciousness rants about the political climate of the ’80s and feels even more relevant in this time of Trumpism than it ever did back in 1987.
You Are The Everything Green (1988)
Love songs have been with us for as long as there have been people humming. Most love songs take the form of your typical, soppy, catchy things that radio and teenage girls love. There is an alternative though. R.E.M. have never really been a typical love song band. In fact, Michael Stipe has gone on record as hating them before, but You Are The Everything from the band’s major-label debut Green, is unlike anything that they had done before and isn’t just a love song in the typical sense. This track is like a hymn to the eternal, the dreamlike nature of love and some unseen force letting us all know that everything is going to be alright. It was also an early indication of what direction R.E.M. would head in with their next two big commercial successes.
What’s the Frequency Kenneth? Monster (1994)
As time has gone on, this has strangely, considering the album it came from, become one of R.E.M.’s most well-recognised songs. The title comes from something a confused teenage mugger chanted at newscaster Dan Rather when he was accosting him. It’s perhaps fitting that it should title a song that was all about Generation X being labelled as such and the confusion and malaise that seemed to plague the youth of the day. Not only that but ‘What’s the Frequency Kenneth?’ is just a great rock song and a superior introduction to what was to come on the ill-fated Monster. I remember hearing this for the first time and just feeling utterly confused, it wasn’t anything like anything on Automatic for the People and Michael Stipe was fully bald in the video! Nonetheless, it ended up being one of the defining rock anthems of the ’90s.
It Happened Today Collapse into Now (2011)
Time will be extremely kind to R.E.M.’s last two albums. Commercial success eluded these releases, and the mainstream just shrugged and was amazed they were still together by 2011. The last album Collapse into Now, feels more and more like the statement of a band who were done, had nothing left to prove and decided to go out on a high. Ironic really, because for an album that was mostly ignored, Collapse into Now was the closest thing they had recorded to Out of Time in a long, long while. The track ‘It Happened Today’, feels very much like the R.E.M. of 1991 and seems to be looking at some terrible event and feeling the celebration of relief in the aftermath. Around the time this came out, a close relative of mine passed away after a long illness and this song will always be synonymous with that event for me. Sadness, recovery and hope.
Be Mine New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996)
For the album which the world primarily ignored with New Adventures in Hi-Fi, the story goes that there was some discussion around the level of production polish given to ‘Be Mine’ and which way to go with it. The producer encouraged the band to record this with a certain amount of commercial appeal, thinking that this could have been their biggest ever hit single. The band however stuck to their guns, and by that point didn’t much care about mainstream acceptance and so we were given the stripped-down version of the song. Regardless of production polish, ‘Be Mine’ is frankly an amazing love song. Stipe’s vocals are breathy and somewhat muted, and yet from what you can decipher, it is very much the R.E.M. version of a love song, taking in spirituality and dreams and bordering on obsessive. The instruments are minimal until a devastating guitar solo that sums up all of the wonderful soul-crushing nature of love. ‘Be Mine’ is, without doubt, one of R.E.M.’s all-time best songs and deserves to be better known.
Imitation of Life Reveal (2001)
2001 album Reveal is a strange beast, it was described at the time like an Automatic for the People that cheers you up, but it was kind of a comedown after Up turned out to be such a sprawling and differently layered beast. Reveal always felt a bit too polished and happy, with a few too many disposable tracks when compared to what had come before. The lead single ‘Imitation of Life’ is perhaps one of R.E.M.’s finest songs ever. It is lyrically dense, elusive and ultimately a fist-pumping ode to living without fear and letting hope be your guiding star. As it came out in spring 2001, it also now feels weirdly like a time capsule of a world that was about to change massively.
Gardening at Night (live version) Live at the Olympia (2008)
Another track I first heard performed live, this was actually one of the first R.E.M. songs ever recorded. The recorded version is very simple and features early Michael Stipe at his mumbliest. When you saw this performed live however when they dropped it back into their set in the ’90s, then the song opened up in a whole new way. Similar to ‘Pilgrimage’ in that it seems to be about a celebration of some local legend, but the lyrics are perhaps even more aloof and mysterious. ‘Gardening at Night’ is a celebration of everything R.E.M. are about, dreams, the unknown and just a killer, soaring chorus that can’t fail to inspire.