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A couple of weeks ago I asked an amazing group of writers and musicians to tell me what their top 5 Weezer songs are for no reason whatsoever. It was so much fun I wanted to do it again with a band that I like even more: R.E.M. I've meandered away from them here and there over the years but if I'm being honest they were my first Favorite Band and when all is said and done will most likely end up as my last Favorite Band on the day I die.
(More recently we did one for Elliott Smith)
Don't worry this is still Hell World so if you want to be made angry and/or miserable there's plenty of that to go around still. The other day I wrote about the latest egregious application of qualified immunity concerning a case in which paramedics were sued – and then let off the hook – for pronouncing a woman dead when she surely – as it turned out when the embalmer opened the bodybag – was not.
In other business it looks like my beloved and now defunct Allston rock venue Great Scott is likely to become a Taco Bell.
If you never read my encomium for the space you can read it here. It was one of the good ones I believe. The club and the article I mean.
Please keep sending in the pictures of your copy of A Creature Wanting Form (my new book of short stories). I promise you it is the best thing I have ever written. Or the most me thing I have ever written. Pick it up here or wherever you order books from.
Ok here we go with a lot of R.E.M. talk. Put on my playlist of my favorite 45ish R.E.M. songs to listen to while you read if you like.
This might sound like a strange take to some people but I actually think R.E.M. are underrated. I think a lot of people who mostly know them through their hits don't realize how rich the rest of their catalog is. I think they're a little too popular and had too much longevity to be as revered as a Joy Division or a Velvet Underground, but not popular enough to become arena mainstays like U2. I think some people have hated on certain eras of their career, but those eras have often rightfully been re-evaluated. Across 30 years and 15 albums, R.E.M. genuinely have no duds. All the songs in my top 5 do come from their 80s and early 90s albums, but they made great music from start to finish. You can spend a lifetime devouring their catalog, and still discover new stuff every time you go back to it. I'm sure this list will change if you ask me to make it again in five years, but in August of 2023, here's my 5 favorite R.E.M. songs:
5. Feeling Gravitys Pull
I'm a huge sucker for weirdo psychedelic folk music, so Feeling Gravitys Pull had to be on this list. Made with producer Joe Boyd (who had previously worked with psychedelic folk artists like Fairport Convention, Nick Drake, and Vashti Bunyan), it's one of the darkest, strangest, most surrealistic R.E.M. songs ever, and I don't think they get enough credit for opening their third album with a song that, almost 40 years later, would probably still weird out your average R.E.M. fan.
4. Orange Crush
Green was Kurt Cobain's favorite R.E.M. album, which actually kinda surprises me because I think he would have said it was a little overproduced. But maybe it's because a song like Orange Crush put a harder-edged, driving rock spin on jangle pop, and that's what Kurt was trying to do on so many of his songs. No idea, but I'd put this 1988 song up against any 90s alt-rock anthem. Ahead of its time, and that intro snare roll feels like a bolt of lightning every time.
3. The One I Love
You've got one of the best rock riffs ever written, and a sentiment that's so simple and vague that it means so much and so little all at once and nearly everyone can relate to it in one way or another. Fiiiiiiireeeeeeeeeee!
As a child of the 90s, my first introduction to R.E.M. was from my parents listening to classic rock radio, which at the time was already playing some of the big R.E.M. hits, so eventually learning in my teens that Losing My Religion was actually released way closer to Dookie than to Stairway to Heaven was kinda mind blowing. I just figured everything on classic rock radio was ancient. The other mind blowing thing was picking up a copy of Reckoning, which I only did because I'd heard of R.E.M. through those radio hits, and being shocked at what I was hearing. This purchase was made in the era of 2000s indie rock, and this sounded just as current as all the new stuff in that realm that I was listening to. The whole record is a masterpiece but Harborcoat makes this list. The guitar work still trips me up, and the overlapping harmonies that R.E.M. were doing in this era is something I really wish they did more of later on. On this song in particular, they're magical.
1. Losing My Religion
I don't care how cool you are, you are not too cool for Losing My Religion at #1. This is just a perfectly written song, and it still stops me in my tracks every time even after hearing it hundreds of times. Sometimes we luck out and the best songs really do become the most popular ones.
Andrew Sacher writes and hosts a podcast for BrooklynVegan.
Jeremy D. Larson
5. Everybody Hurts
4. Country Feedback
3. Radio Free Europe (Hib-Tone Single)
2. E-Bow the Letter
1. Losing My Religion
It could be argued that Radio Free Europe is the best debut single of all time, especially the Hib-Tone version. I'm more drawn to fragile drone R.E.M. (Country Feedback and E-Bow The Letter) than jangle-pop R.E.M. The way Stipe writes about life and love in abstraction on Losing My Religion remains so affecting to me.
“Oh, life is bigger than you, and you are not me. I think I thought I saw you try. But that was just a dream.”
It's so defensive, so many screens between him and what he's singing about, but the words just fall apart in your hands. It's unbelievable.
Jeremy D. Larson is the reviews director at Pitchfork.
Andrew Futral and Rachel Browne
5. Living Well Is the Best Revenge
So much of the lasting allure of R.E.M. is the lack of a reunion—can you imagine how much money they have turned down to reunite? In terms of money, I can't conceive of any number higher than $50,000, so I assume it's probably about $50,000. This naturally puts a bit more emphasis on the tail end of the band and how they chose to end. Generally, bands tend to get more proficient and sonicially explore more as they go (god help you if you used up your access to string quartets and Beatles references on your first album!). This song is the sound of a band feeling big, loud, and young again. That might feel really simple, but listen to any recent albums by Green Day or any older band you feel is synonymous with youthful energy. It's the sound of a band that is simply no longer able to be excited like R.E.M. is here, or at least not in the same way. Accelerate is the sound of a band that sounds thrilled to be back in the studio and to be loud together. To me, this sounds like a band starting to end with dignity, finality, and purpose.
4. E-Bow the Letter
Give the chorus a listen. What is the hook? Is it the Patti Smith part? It comes first, but it feels like it's the counterpoint. Is it the banjo part designed to crawl into your brain until you realize you've been singing it to/at your cat while you do dishes? For how long? Have you been washing the same dish over and over? I mean, I guess it's the Mikey Stipe vocal part, but that kind of also feels like a response part. The chorus is all of these things working together to create a hook. It's a slow, sad song but evokes the same feeling as listening to the intro of Love Song by The Cure. Just these lead parts on top of lead parts building until it's not even about individual melodies anymore, but the fabric they create when they are all together and you sit back and you think, Jesus Christ, these guys are good, and why did I call him Mikey Stipe? Who was that even for? Do I want to sound like I know him? I wish my backspace button worked, but MOVING ON.
This is a vibe that R.E.M. absolutely owns. It's the sound of being sad and yet hopeful, heartbroken, and grateful. It's not exactly contradictory, but it's absolutely an impressive emotional balancing act. Former President of the United States Maria Bamford called it "paralyzed by hope." America's answer to Morrissey, Billy Corgan could summon and cross this musical knife's edge with 1979, but I don't hear it much anymore! Strange Currencies is one of these, and it probably should be on my top 5, but I have not yet seen The Bear, and I'm not sure if praising that song in this moment is like wearing a brand new Kate Bush knock-off t-shirt in a post-Stranger Things world, or not so I am playing this safe (editors note: he means cowardly) (also I wrote that, not the editor. I am an unreliable narrator, you old so and so!)
2. What's the Frequency, Kenneth?
This was my introduction to the band! At the time I had no idea this level of fuzz and grit was a departure for them. There is this weird feeling that songwriters have that there is probably some fucked up-sounding German word for, but it's when you can play the chords D to G, and it sounds new again. I don't know why those two chords have that power, but you can be playing them, and it can feel like the chords you have heard one hundred times before, and then you change the tempo or the rhythm and BLAM! It's new again. I'm sure that's what happened here. You can always spot it with bands because it's a big statement song. Weezer's Green Album opener starts with a D-to-G song. The tremolo guitar on this song, hell, this whole album transfixed me when I was but a boy, and when those parts were removed when they recently released a remastered version of the album, I absolutely lost it! I wrote letter after letter to my congressperson. Finally, after MONTHS they tell me they "appreciate my passion," but this is not something "a sitting US representative can address." It's like, what are you even for then? Don't my taxes pay your salary? I live in a freakin' blue state! I thought this was America! This country was built on tremolo, as far as I know.
1. Fall On Me
This hook is just undeniable, but I think something that makes the hook explode the way it does is how tentative the verses feel. I mean, listen to them. Does the snare sound late to you? Is it just the gated reverb sound? The verses sound like they are always kind of on the verge of falling apart. It works! I have no idea why it works. The band is doing this on purpose, not just because it sounds purposeful—but listen to Radio Free Europe, they can be kraut rock-tight when they want to be. I make a lot of wild assumptions about this band, but R.E.M. does this move where they hit you with two verses before they give you the hook, but this hook basically explodes out of them. It feels like a really excited kid trying to tell you about a movie he loves. This song always makes me feel like everything is probably going to be ok and like, of course it isn’t. It’s like a song making you feel like the sky is red or your grandfather is your nephew. It’s a magic trick and these are magicians. Except cool. Magicians aren’t cool. R.E.M. is.
Andrew Futral and Rachel Browne play in the band Field Mouse.
5. 7 Chinese Bros.
I’m so lucky that I somehow managed to find someone to marry. I didn’t get together with my spouse until I was 40 and being with her totally changed the genre of my life. When we’d just started dating we went to see a screening of a Derek Jarman movie, and there was a guy standing in the corner looking like he didn’t want anyone to talk to him: Mike Stipe. Anyway, Josie knows early R.E.M. way better than I do and she’s introduced me to songs that I didn’t know before, and this one makes me think of her. I’m the mellow sweet short-haired boy and she’s the woman who tells him to pull up a chair. It’s amazing, at midlife, to love a new song.
When a band has 30 years of good music the songs start to reflect each other across time. They have relationships with each other. This song echoes Leonard Cohen’s classic Suzanne but it also makes me think of You Are The Everything, which is also in second person, about childhood but also about growing up. Hope is about being old enough to lose friends, old enough to go out and wish you hadn’t.
R.E.M. also introduced me to lyrics that aren’t straightforward. You don’t know exactly what the song is about, you don’t understand every line or every reference, but there’s something definite there, a collage of images that define a particular territory. My father-in-law has Alzheimer’s and talking to him is getting harder as he loses language. But talking to him is like listening to an R.E.M. song; listen long enough and you get a sense of where he is, an outline of a shape.
2. Sweetness Follows
The thing about Mike Stipe’s voice is that he doesn’t sound like someone who sings. He sounds like someone who doesn’t normally sing, but just now has been moved to sing by some great emotion that cannot otherwise be contained. There’s a strain in it, a keening, like he doesn’t know if singing will even work. It always sounds like an act of desperation and bravery, every single time.
R.E.M. came to me out of nowhere, just a series of sounds utterly unconnected to any musical history or context. I bought Green when I was 12 and there was a hidden track at the end. Was it on other people’s copies? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe it was just for me. I understood how lonely that hidden track was, I needed so badly to be strong.
S.I. Rosenbaum is a writer in Providence.
5. Near Wild Heaven
This Beach Boys sendup is a reminder that R.E.M. contained some of the best vocal stylings of the early ‘90s. The chorus soars, the vocal layers are really R.E.M. at their most expansive, and it has a "bopbopbop" sing along breakdown that is downright delightful. I also just love the phrase, "near wild heaven." I can see it. I can sense what it means.
4. It's the End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)
You know what I miss? I miss that type of song that has men yelling rhyming lists at you quickly. I don't know what that's called. Rapid-fire lyrics? Stream of consciousness? No idea. Either way, it's a tradition we don't have anymore (that Fall Out Boy situation doesn't count) and even though it is cheesy, I want it back.
3. Let Me In
Most people think that Everybody Hurts is about Kurt Cobain. It is not. But Let Me In is, and this fuzzed out ballad is like if someone dropped their Athens-style indie rock on a My Bloody Valentine song and made you a delicious treat. The heartache is palpable, the guitars are aggressive and loud, and Stipe's voice is pleading and lonely. There is even an organ. You cannot deny an organ.
2. Crush With Eyeliner
R.E.M. is not a cool band. It's actually part of their appeal; they are absolutely too earnest to be hip. But the tremolo intro, plus the surprise filter on Michael Stipe's voice, is just really bad-ass. The people who are driving around listening to this song are cool as hell, you just know it.
1. Radio Free Europe
Can you imagine this being your opening track on your debut album? What a statement. What a coup. An absolute mic drop. This song reminds me of a long-held belief: You either die a Morrissey fan or live long enough to make room for REM on your record shelf.
Find more from Leila Brillson at her newsletter Night Creeps. She recently wrote for Hell World about the passing of Sinéad O'Connor.
There are SO MANY MORE but these are my Top 5.
5. Just A Touch
Someone dosed the pecan pie at the tent revival.
4. Good Advices
The song that made me realize I gotta leave my hometown.
The best song about realizing that you realized too late that you were the one who fucked up the relationship.
2. Pretty Persuasion
If the Velvets wrote a Beach Boys song.
1. Perfect Circle
You feel the band becoming a band.
Patton Oswalt’s Minor Threats is available now from Dark Horse Comics.
I’m not the world’s biggest REM fan. I don’t know all their deep cuts and b-sides. I’m not an expert on their biography, except to the extent that I’m able to convincingly make it up on the spot (they met in the Athens Del’Arte Clown Academy in 1979, got their big break with the 1982 scholastic computing hit Learn To Type With Michael Stipe, etc.). But I care about REM. I don’t care enough to put the periods between each letter, but I care. I care about their legacy, and I will die on their hill every time. I think any serious conversation about the greatest American bands must include REM. In fact, any such conversation must specifically include me, drunk and uninvited, whining about REM for the millionth fucking time.
I’m too old and stupid to have any shame, so my list will focus on the greatest hits. If anyone else here has a less cool list than me, I solemnly vow to send them $20.
I just like this song. I have no serious critical defense for it. I don't really know what it means, other than "LA." It's a strong number five for me.
4. Fall On Me
Despite having a pretty smooth progression from album to album, it’s natural to look at REM as a band with two careers: everything up to Out of Time feels like a band poised to be poised to be poised for a big break, and everything after is that wave crashing. The idea that they could sell 90 million albums might have seemed a little far-fetched in their college radio days, but listening to this track with the benefit of hindsight makes you feel like the world’s smartest A&R guy. You definitely would have known how big they’d be, right?
3. Shiny Happy People
I think we can all agree that Peter Buck is one of the guitarists in the world– one of the guitarists of all time, in fact. Nobody ever called him a virtuoso, but there he was, the whole time. Shiny Happy People was the best riff he ever wrote, and it anchored one of the best pieces of music the band ever recorded. And look what became of it! That title, those lyrics, that video with the Pee Wee’s Playhouse set and the big backwards baseball cap! It reminds me of all those jokes about Johnny Marr writing the most angelic guitar line ever conceived by man and handing it to Morrissey, who decided it was about how some girls and their mothers are, in relative terms, big. These were bands on such creative hot streaks that they could afford to burn GOAT backing tracks on semi-novelty songs. That’s Beatles behavior.
Anyhow, in addition to being a killer track on its various legitimate merits (incredible riff, weird structure, Kate Pierson), I think it’s also a delicious contributor to the meathead anti-REM sentiment that persisted through the 90s. If you read The Dirt, you’ll know that the Motley Crue guys hated the shit out of REM, and considered them everything wrong with the wimpy rock of the day. They didn’t get it, and they never could. They were outgunned, humiliated, and, once the 90s took over, way outsold by a bunch of geeks from the Athens Del’Arte Clown Academy. Best of all, I bet they’re still mad.
2. What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?
There was a time when you could walk into any CD store in America and find 3,200 blurry orange bear faces staring at you from the bargain bin, festooned with radio station discard stickers, disfigured with wholesale cut-outs in the shoulder, debased and profaned. America was ready to buy this record, but not to keep it. It was radioactive with weird jams. Government advisories were issued.
I sincerely think Kenneth is the greatest and purest “alternative rock” song of the “alternative rock” era. The blood of Daria beats in its veins. It’s a Daniel Clowes comic. It’s the definitive statement of Gen X, and it may be impossible to explain to anyone under 30. You had to be there. For us, irony really was the shackles of youth.
1. Country Feedback
Michael Stipe introduced the definitive version of this track with “this is my particular favorite REM song,” and who am I to disagree? According to legend, the lyrics were semi-improvised on the spot, and reflected exactly what Michael Stipe happened to be feeling that day. Boy, was he feeling something. Stipe had a way of writing elliptical lyrics that sometimes burst into total emotional clarity, and this is him at the peak of his power. Here, we get a slow burn of impressionistic pain and frustration, but it all builds to that big line, the one we can all understand on the most fundamental level.
I’m going to delete the rest of the stupid dork paragraphs I wrote about this song and post that link one more time: Country Feedback, live, with Neil Young on guitar. (I sometimes wish Neil had picked up the black Les Paul instead of the weird little mini-acoustic, but I’m not going to sit here and second-guess this.)
David Thorpe is a former music writer; he now emerges once a decade to mansplain REM.
Everyone likes to say that they have no idea what Michael Stipe is singing half of the time and especially so on the early records but that collaborative tension is and always has been part of the process of becoming an R.E.M. fan I believe. (I Believe! Now there’s a good song.) A symbiosis kind of deal. Participatory art if you will. In the way the film monster that is withheld (Monster!) is always scarier than the one you see upfront the lyrics you can’t immediately parse are always more fraught with meaning because now you are writing them on your own. You’ve been thrust on stage. How are you doing?
Stipe did become a big time New York art douche eventually inevitably but I don’t think any of that was his intention. I think he was just shy. Or lazy. Too pretty then to be smart.
I just had a vision of an alternate universe where Stipe never went bald. Billy Corgan too. Also me.
Both me and Stipe became less evil losing our hair I think. Billy became more so. It can embitter a man or free him.
I write like that too. What I was just saying a minute ago. The percussive phonetics being more important than the information that the words are meant to convey.
Being an R.E.M. fan has always been a state of becoming. This band can be your favorite band for your entire life even if you never listened to any of the first or second or third decade of their output (depending on when you discovered them) and no one is mad about that. Should be mad about that. I have friends who love Chronic Town and Murmur and Reckoning and are still mad about Green if you can believe that.
Becoming is the thing.
You always had to renew your allegiance like a driver’s license with every record.
I don’t know what that means but it sounds like something which is basically my point about the lyrics.
I just looked up the lyrics to Losing My Religion. I thought this whole time he was singing:
Like a hurt, lost and blinded foal, foal…
I didn’t even know what a foal was when I first heard the song when I was young but it made me feel like I should know what things are and therefore I tried to. (Not to edit R.E.M. here but maybe foal is a better choice? There was a lot of antler imagery in the video if I recall correctly.)
Ah who cares. That’s what I’m trying to say. It doesn’t matter what he's saying. I consumed and digested and processed the general intent of that song instantly. No thinking just song no words just song just mandolin and sadness. And it nourished me and grew inside of me. Like an animal emotionally manipulating you with its eyes even though it cannot speak. Like a woman coming on to you in a language you don’t understand.
Maybe like going to the opera in Italian. I don’t know I never did that.
Fall On Me is without a doubt my favorite song of theirs and always has been. Life’s Rich Pageant is my favorite record of theirs by which I mean the most personal to me and my whole deal even though Automatic is clearly the closest to divine. Is divine. Forget the hits! What about Find the River and Try Not to Breathe?
I looked up the lyrics to Fall On Me just now and didn’t recognize a lot of these words as being what I remember them being besides the fourth line which is the actual hook. What is going on here? I’ve listened to this song at least one thousand times – ten this very night – and had no idea the words feather or iron or pulleys were involved.
There's a problem, feathers, iron
Bargain buildings, weights and pulleys
Feathers hit the ground before the weight can leave the air
Buy the sky and sell the sky and tell the sky and tell the sky
I would’ve guessed it was something like:
There’s a problem they’re designing
Bahbah building wait some bullies
Better sit the ground before to wait beneath the end
Not exactly that but like that. My version sucks so bad but it doesn’t make a difference is what I mean. Everyone knows what he’s singing in Everybody Hurts and maybe that’s why it’s the song that everybody who has ever heard of R.E.M. thinks of when they think of R.E.M. but maybe it’s ok to tuck away a little project you and the boys worked on together and keep it for yourself.
This feels a little like cheating but I posted my top 30 R.E.M. list on Twitter not too long ago and someone who responded captured it more succinctly than I have here.
“People can argue whatever they want about R.E.M. but the one indisputable truth is that Fall On Me is their best song. It’s not just perfect but perfect in the most R.E.M. way possible.”
What they are actually saying there I think is that this is a Mike Mills song. Many of them are Mike Mills songs but this is the type of Mike Mills song that even a casual fan can recognize as being a Mike Mills song. Everyone in the band is so good don’t get me wrong but R.E.M. is just a very good wiry southern post punk band without Mike Mills. (As of this writing I haven’t decided yet if Texarkana is in my top 5 or top 7 yet. It’s the platonic ideal of someone else takes lead and the frontman sings background along with I Just Threw Out the Love of My Dream by Weezer).
It bums me out sometimes that I do not think they mean anything to many young people in the way that I think Nirvana does for certain kinds of kids. I was hoping that The Bear needle drop might do something about that.
They don’t seem worried about that kind of thing though. They made a lot money. Maybe they are one of the only bands to count their money and say that’s enough.
I am not mad they became insanely popular to be clear. I think that is marvelous. What a thing to have happened! One of the coolest underground bands coming out of nowhere in the south in the early 1980s as a cult hit then on the cover of Rolling Stone in a few years then on MTV everywhere then the biggest rock band in the world then just putting out very good records every other year until they said enough.
And they never came back.
That is important. They withheld that from us. Obscured it.
(It's my site so I can run my top 30 if I want to.)
Luke O’Neil runs this very website you are reading as we speak. His new book of short stories A Creature Wanting Form is out now.
5. Don’t Go Back (To Rockville)
So the muse for this song was apparently Ingrid Schorr, who back in 1980 was a college student in Athens when she met the guys in R.E.M. She has a lovely essay about it all that reads in part:
“And I was just beginning a romance with Mike Mills, the bass player in the weeks-old R.E.M. A few weeks before the end of spring quarter he said to me—we were at Tyrone's, the local rock club, standing between the Rolling Stones pinball machine and the Space Invaders game, playing neither—'I finally meet a girl I like and she's got to go back to Rockville.'"
She goes on to explain that her “once-good grades had given way to behavior that my parents were starting to get wind of, and they instructed me to come back home to Maryland for the summer.”
I have a ton of family in Maryland so I’ve been through Rockville a bunch, and it’s nothing like the song describes. “You’ll wind up in some factory downtown that’s full of filth and nowhere left to go,” the lyrics go. But Rockville isn’t really a factory town at all. As Schorr describes it, it’s actually “a charmless mix of medium-swanky subdivisions, tract houses on streets named after World War II battles.” In other words: a D.C. suburb.
And I think that’s a nice way to think about the song. The guy singing doesn’t know what Rockville’s all about and doesn’t care. All he knows is that he’s met this lovely girl and doesn’t want her to go, so he kind of playfully makes Rockville into this dreary awful loveless place (“Going where nobody says hello. They don't talk to no one they don't know”) but knows full well that she has to go back and that this flirtation is fleeting. I think it’s kinda funny and lovely and a bit nostalgic for a time in your life when you’re maybe 20 and falling for someone fast.
Also! What the fuck is up with suburban Maryland inspiring absolute bangers?! Gaithersburg (yes not a town in West Virginia!) inspired Take Me Home Country Roads and Silver Spring inspired Silver Springs, the best Fleetwood Mac song. Just incredible.
4. Sitting Still
3. The One I Love
2. So. Central Rain
1. Fall on Me
Christopher Mathias is a senior reporter for The Huffington Post.
5. What's the Frequency, Kenneth?
R.E.M.'s big dumb rock album after 1), becoming the biggest band in the world, and 2), the all-time baroque weeper Automatic For the People, starts with admirable purpose: Peter Buck with buzzsaw distortion. But it's that little three step drop that Bill Berry does to kick it off that reminds me of how good his taste is as a drummer. Honorable mention: Star 69 kicks so much ass.
4. Me In Honey
Maybe this choice is also about how much I love the B-52's — they were doing that? In the late 70s? In the South? Has there been a more punk band? — but having to go head to head with a belter like Kate Pierson pushed Stipe to one of his great vocal performances. One of their tightest grooves.
3. Sweetness Follows
How do you pick a song off Automatic? Maybe the one with the clearest thesis statement.
2. Driver 8
R.E.M. sometimes got tagged as "Southern gothic" because anything artsy coming out of the South does. It's not wrong exactly, but it's typically against expectation that their most Southern song is a pastoral. It's one of Stipe's high points as a writer — it's not in/famously oblique, but despite its clarity it's not telling a story, it's painting a landscape. And it makes me weepier than Nightswimming.
1. It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)
One of the reasons Document feels like such a good, uh, document of the Reagan years is that I was so young; my first political memory is my dad buying an Ollie North bandana. Document is political but not didactic, all loose-floating rhetorical fragments and martial beats, so my first R.E.M. album matches with what, for me, are entirely sense memories. I also idolized Mike Mills because he had the same plastic tortoiseshell glasses and bowl cut as me — a rock star! — and "It's time I had some time alone" is, yeah, that's me too.
Whet Moser is a briefings editor at the New York Times.
R.E.M. are my favorite band of all time; if you have spoken to me for more than five minutes you already know this. Many times I have substituted having actual personality traits with "liking/talking about R.E.M." I was born (Savannah) and raised (Atlanta) in Georgia. When my mom married my step dad, I was 5 and I (briefly, before they moved out) had two step brothers who were 18 and 19. One of them went to the University of Georgia and saw R.E.M. play like, pizza parlors and shit. The first album I ever bought with my own money is Green (on cassette, of course). I love them like they are family, pure and true. Comfort food. I think they are the best rock band America ever produced. I also think they are cool and nice guys. You don't have to be all those things to make good music, of course, but it's a bonus.
Another thing I appreciate as I get older is how full of joy and wonder Michael Stipe seems to be in his eccentric artistic elder era. Not "growing older and wiser" as the cliche says, but growing older and more childlike, in that he seems to be opening up to more possibilities, getting more curious, eager to grow and learn. I know Stipe isn't making music regularly anymore, but even his Instagram is inspiring because he's just like, "Look at this cool thing! Check out this cool artist! I went to see this cool play and this cool exhibit! The world still has so much to offer and so much to teach!" and it's so refreshing and wonderful and comforting? Our brains and worldview and opinions don't have to calcify as we age.
I find it hard to be articulate about them because my adoration runs so deep, so at the risk of sounding like The Chris Farley Show, here we go:
5. Exhuming McCarthy
I brought my tape of Document to school and made my 10th grade history teacher (shout out Coach Bibby) play this song for the class when we were doing the chapter on McCarthyism. I did not get beaten up for this although I fully deserved it.
4. I've Been High
We all have our tastes, blah blah blah, but people who go "Oh, they sucked after IRS records" are just zzzzzzzzz. (I mean, they went out like champs on the one-two punch of Accelerate and Collapse Into Now. Get serious.)
Come on. This is gorgeous. "What I want, what I really want is just to live my life on high" makes me feel like I'm floating. I was listening to this on headphones as I walked over one of the many bridges in Portland, Oregon, and burst into tears in the middle of the afternoon. "Life sometimes it washes over me."
3. Life and How to Live It
What do I even say? This rules. I pump my fists every time I hear it, I howl along to "listen to the hollerrrrrrrrr." I love the live version and I love Stipe intensely describing its subject during the opening and you're enraptured even though you're going, "It's a duplex, the guy lived in a duplex."
There's a poignancy in not giving this a proper title, sure, but it's also infuriating because you could interpret it as a throwaway track tacked on to the end of Green at the last minute when it's actually ASTONISHING. I'm putting this on the record for anyone who'll still be around to be in charge of this type of shit: Play this at my funeral.
1. Fall On Me
I know. I KNOW! It's like saying your favorite food is pizza or your favorite actor is Tom Hanks But some things are universally loved for a reason. This is a masterpiece.
April Richardson is a comedian, writer, and podcaster whose greatest podcast achievements were creating Go Bayside and appearing on the Monster episode of R U Talkin' R.E.M. RE: ME? She now makes things over at baremins.com.
R.E.M. is my second-favorite band that I hate. This isn't a bad place to be, because my favorite band is still Pink Floyd, and that's my favorite-favorite band that I hate. I've had both groups running through my head since I was a wisp of a teenager, and I've been skipping certain tracks and avoiding certain conversations about both for just as long. If you try to make fun of them to me, I will get righteously annoyed that you're doing it wrong. Familiarity breeds contempt, even among the most beloved artifacts of your life. If you spend 30+ years with four lunkheads throwing (sometimes) wordless and inexpressible emotions at you, you're going to find yourself simultaneously:
• Drowning and being reborn again and again in a boundless flood of nostalgia, the band becoming less and less a musical act as a kind of soundtracked conveyance for these rediscovered/renewed iterations of yourself and all the baggage attending each one.
• Generating a surgically precise kill list for all their shit that sucks.
Any band sucks if you love them hard enough to pay attention, and you don't have to look that hard with R.E.M. For every song where Michael Stipe's voice seems like it might be extra affecting for its adenoidal hyuuuuuh, there's the fact that every other song would be better if anyone else sung it. You absolutely cannot fuck to R.E.M. They can write up-tempo songs, but they can't rock. It's the End of the World as We Know It is for children. Radio Song is maybe the worst thing that anyone's ever made. Everybody Hurts is proof that hurt people hurt people. Anyone who doesn't skip Star Me Kitten every time should have their driver's license revoked because they can't understand clear signals. What's the Frequency, Kenneth? is such a bad song that the band died and stopped releasing music. The B-52s were the better Athens band. You should listen to Wire instead anyway.
Now, here critics of my work will point out that I might be approaching this in bad faith, because Michael Stipe once ruined my birthday party. I don't deny that. He showed up on my tiny campus and Pied-Pipered everyone out of their rooms and other gatherings without the slightest concern for my Q-rating, and later he had the temerity to come piss in my bathroom and leave without washing his hands. (His treatment of some young men's bodily autonomy was also, uh, problematical, and he ruined a friend's cable-knit sweater.) To that, all I can say is, I was a history student, and I still love this unconsecrated graveyard of a country, so you do the math.
Which is to say, none of the parts of R.E.M. that suck alter the fact that I used to drive around with a 6-disc CD changer full of Reckoning, Fables, Dead Letter, Life's Rich Pageant, Green and Automatic, spent hours last year finally ripping all my R.E.M. albums and adding them to my phone, and texted fucking Luke about it right afterward, and that I knew Automatic so well at one point that, when that same CD changer died on a long drive after graduation, I once hummed and sang and "bah bah bahhhed" my way through the entire album, more or less without missing anything other than motherfucking Star Me Kitten.
So this comes from the heart and the bile duct. That's how you know it's real, man: It's contradictory.
5. Fall on Me
Michael Stipe and other members of R.E.M. have admitted in interviews that Stipe often writes lyrics just because he likes the sound of the words that fit the line. This is fine, you can do whatever you want to do as a band, but it feels like losing a little bit of yourself to confront an amorphous text wad and spend months or years of your life assembling it into some kind of coherent narrative or intent only to find out, whoops, turns out those were just mouth sounds. Which is to say, this song is ostensibly about the environment, and its video certainly emphasizes that, but it might as well be about whatever you want it to be about. The sky is just expectations, what's falling on you is just a kind of burden. The "you" in the song is the person making a problem out of that. Polluted air or relationship—or polluted air as relationship—pick your poison.
4. Driver 8
This song shouldn't work with its nursery-rhyme chorus. At best it seems to be literally "shit you can see from a train or on a train," which is both lyrically lazy and also just the sort of thing everyone would hate if it was about an airport and on Sufjan Stevens's new album O'Hare. Still it works, and that bit where Stipe hits "bells are ringing through the town againnnnnnnn" gets me every time." Also a great opening riff, and maybe the R.E.M.-est riff that R.E.M. ever riffed.
3. Find the River
Probably everyone else is going to put Nightswimming on here, which is their right as Americans. And I don't know why I'm not—except that a friend might have permanently ruined it for me by singing "drug running/deserves a quiet boat"—but Find the River always felt like the second, bigger, more mature half of the album coda. Nightswimming is bittersweet youthful nostalgia; Find the River feels like the thing that, in a well-lived life, it grows into. People harp on the image of the river meeting the sea as evoking death, but it's just as easily read as part of a winding individual journey toward something bigger than the self. Nightswimming is a thing that was; Find the River is a thing that's becoming. Or not. Stipe drops in lines about "bergamot and vetiver"—two classic riverine scents!—which means half of what I'm hearing might as well be mouth sounds again. "I have got to find the river/men's cologne ingredients/run through my head and fall away." Whatever. I'll keep putting it on repeat and falling asleep to that garbage.
2. Half a World Away
The secret best song of one of their worst albums, Stipe's voice finally reaches its nasal-wail apotheosis in a melody that deploys it to its finest utility. Once again, this is about whatever you want it to be about—or whatever the fuck "blackbirds backwards forwards and [falling]" is about—but Stipe sings it with such desperate conviction that you'll believe it whenever you figure it out. Yeah, I like fucking harpsichord. Yeah, I assume "High-Alive" is an herbal grownup version of "Five Alive." Yeah, I hear a lyric about having too much to drink and not thinking of someone else and think, "That's me, a piece of shit." It's pretty and makes me feel bad the way I deserve. This lonely world is wasted.
1. You Are the Everything
Worth its weight in whomever you give it to.
Jeb Lund is a lapsed journalist and single dad living in Tampa with his son, who makes precocious political observations that fit within the Twitter character limit. Make his world a more solvent place by giving him a steady job writing or talking. In the meantime, you can listen to his It's Christmastown podcast about the pleasantly demented world of Hallmark original movies with co-host David Roth.
5. The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite
Michael Stipe is one of the most unique vocalists in the American rock canon, and The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite has one of the most unique melodies in R.E.M.’s catalog. Guy’s a king, and he’s the only one who could pull it off.
4. Carnival of Sorts
I don’t think I hold Chronic Town in the same regard as many R.E.M. fans, but I think Carnival of Sorts is the song that best foreshadows the highs of their later work.
3. Sitting Still
As a 90s emo guy at heart, Sitting Still is like proto-Mineral if they were an 80s college rock band.
2. What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?
When I was maybe seven I heard this on the radio in the car with my mom. I thought he was talking about something called a “frequency cannon,” and I decided then and there I loved this band.
I recognize that not only are none of these original picks, but this is probably the most obvious of all. Still, there’s a reason for it. It’s the most beautiful song in a catalog of almost exclusively beautiful songs.
Zac Djamoos is an editor at The Alternative and a writer at Merry-Go-Round, Treble, The Line of Best Fit, and more.
When I was 10 my friend was digging through his older sister's tapes and put on Document and it immediately occurred to me that R.E.M., whose music I had never heard before, was my favorite band. It's easy to get this feeling when you're a kid but it was true.
5. The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite
This song feels to me like a dream of how things used to be. You had to call someone, you had to wait for a call, wait to call someone, sometimes just wait. You could wait for a million years hoping the phone would ring and when it does you suddenly feel like you're going to throw up. You had to worry about whether or not a snake was awake. Everything was worse then.
Pilgrimage starts with what I always imagined to be a recording of Michael Stipe singing at the bottom of a well, and builds and builds to a pounding call-and-response. He's a lot closer to the microphone at the end. It's great that he got out of the well. It makes you want to accomplish something.
3. Shiny Happy People
Shiny Happy People doesn't need a sneering comment at the end to let you know they're not being sincere. You know that they're not shiny happy people. They know that you know you're not either. It's a shibboleth of alienation. But people who don't get it can listen to an upbeat song that's about being happy. You can get what you would most like to get from this song.
2. At My Most Beautiful
This would be the best song any other band ever wrote, but it's the fifth song on the eleventh R.E.M. album. Everyone says it sounds like the Beach Boys, and it does. But what it specifically sounds like to me is when I was sweeping the back patio right after moving into my old house. I heard the shink-shink-shink of sleigh bells, and I thought, that sounds like God Only Knows. Then I thought, no, that's a stupid thought. It's just that I love that song. Of course my brain wants that to be true. But I kept hearing it, and I walked around the corner, and in my neighbor's house there were like eight guys standing around, playing piano, singing God Only Knows, and playing the fucking sleigh bells. You never have beautiful things happen to you like this. I thought I was dead.
1. Driver 8
Drive 8 has the best riff and the best hook and the best metaphors. It's not easy to pick only five R.E.M. songs, but this is also obviously the best one. I found out a couple years ago that I'm on the spectrum so it might also be my favorite song by my favorite band because it's about driving a train.
R.E.M. has always been on the periphery. Growing up in 90s Los Angeles, the band wasn’t invisible. I vividly recall seeing the videos for Everybody Hurts and Losing My Religion on MTV and getting the sort of feeling that movies like The English Patient or Howard’s End gave me as a kid: “This is trying to evoke an emotion I’ve never had, because I’m not an adult”. Nothing R.E.M. ever put out felt as urgent or insistent as the west coast hip hop and skate punk that I was obsessed with, and for that reason I always felt like they “Weren’t For Me.”
1. Imitation of Life
Until this song came out. As a film snob high schooler, I was initially drawn in by the video: a subtly shifting tableau of a raging party that is explored by reversing time and low quality post-prod zooms that reveal (heh) the attendees actually having more complex emotions about the situations they’re in. The song itself being a lightly anthemic ode to being unashamed about one’s desires and doubts, quietly interrupted by one of the most melancholy synth solos I’d ever heard. This song proved to be a bit of a rosetta stone for the band for me. While the overall vibe I was still processing as reserved and bland, the songs contained this hidden emotional depth that I was just starting to become aware of. I was growing up.
2-3. The Great Beyond / Man on the Moon
Around the same time, (two years earlier) R.E.M. wrote an original song for Miloš Forman’s Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon. After having my interest piqued by Imitation of Life, I was now impressed that this band was so deeply involved in such a cool project. I recall downloading these songs off Kazaa, and playing them on repeat. I was also a big comedy nerd (sorry, actual comedians, I’m aware that’s cringe behavior) and these songs keenly reflected the bittersweet life of a man who I’d long been fascinated with. The Great Beyond is indicative of where R.E.M. seemed to be at this point in their career, with the jangly guitars and stompy rhythms moved back a little to push the heart tugging synths and anthemic vocals to the front. While Man on the Moon, written for Automatic for the People, is still mired in their alt country college radio roots. At this point, I was being forced to live in North Carolina, so I was heavily resistant to anything “twangy,” but bands like Wilco and Modest Mouse were teaching me to appreciate slide guitar and swingy beats, and Man on the Moon’s infectious chorus made it very easy to excuse.
4. Bad Day
My first job at 16 years old was Cold Stone Creamery. Yes, we had to sing every time we got tipped, no, I didn’t mind, I was an annoying drama bitch. Anyway, the Muzak machine would play this song a lot, and experiencing my first adolescent labor exploitation blues in the dog days of the post-9/11 Bush years with Bad Day as the background rang painfully ironic even at the time. The song became a quiet, seething respite for me when the slow undulating suburban shopping center creep would get to be too much for me, and at that point, I had fully mentally synthesized the cheery, jangling instrumental into the biting political anger of the lyrics. I had wrapped my mind around Gen-X vibes.
5. What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?
Before I graduated high school, I found a copy of Monster on CD at the used record store for 2 dollars. It’s still the only R.E.M. record I have ever owned. Every time I look at the cover, I‘m reminded of the Something Awful photoshop article “Honest Album Titles” where some user changed the title to “Pete Bought a Distortion Pedal”. I did jive with the more driving sound of this record, and especially liked the How Soon is Now style tremolo effect on the guitars. Kenneth was a great opener that I fully did not understand until Wikipedia was wrought onto the internet, but like the rest of these songs, I felt the intent of it more than I comprehended it.
Now in my “late 30s,” R.E.M. has still eluded being enveloped into my close and personal taste, because I believe they are a very specific kind of adult band who’s humor, satire and sorrow is bespoke to the generation it was birthed from. Like Steely Dan for boomers, and my beloved The National for millennials, R.E.M. is Gen X’s “Adult band.” They hide their technicality, they restrain their emotional heights, and they seem designed to baffle the tastes of the generations before and after them. They’re the songs you see your parents experiencing impossible emotions to confusingly jaunty tunes. I’m just appreciative I’ve been able to graft a few of those experiences into my own life.
Sean T. Collins
My relationship with R.E.M. doesn’t run particularly deep. It extends roughly from the period in which my very with-it dad got into them (Green) and when he got out of them (Monster, which I didn’t like either). So it’s not an extensive knowledge of their catalog that drives my fondness for them, but the fact that every third or fourth song during that run feels like they just reeled back and punched you right in the face with beauty.
5. Radio Free Europe
Okay, so obviously I know a few songs that fall outside that Dad-dictated timeline. I love this one because it’s the American I Will Follow, a dance song from a band you don’t typically think of as making dance music. No wonder they killed at parties.
4. The One I Love
The chorus is Michael Stipe bellowing the word “fire” with with Mike Mills sounding so much like Kate Pierson I thought it was her until today. Sometimes it really does go out to the one you love like that.
3. Me in Honey
Everything in this song works for me: the melody, the rhythm, the vocals, the beat. If Peter Buck’s guitar suggests running in circles, Pierson’s “ohhh”s are the way out. What Stipe is able to mine out of the word “me” in this song is astonishing; every time he ends a line with that monosyllable you can hear both desperation and defiance. If “What about me?” isn’t the essential plea of alternative music I don’t know what is.
2. Losing My Religion
Impeccable, untouchable, not a note out of place. Despite its acoustic nature it sounds as insistent and relentless to me as something off of …And Justice for All. Once you learn what the song’s about — I had no freaking clue back when it was a hit — it feels like Stipe pounding on your door, begging for help, using Buck as a battering ram.
1. Sweetness Follows
Mourning someone from whom you’re estranged is difficult beyond words. I went through something like it once and remember the confusion I felt, the wish for someone to tell me what to do. I’ve seen it level the most strong-willed and independent person I’ve ever known. R.E.M. and John Paul Jones made a song that sounds like how that feels, and centered it on the promise that things will be okay. Stipe’s delivery of the double “yeah”s in the final verse is my favorite thing he’s ever done; I’m not sure how to explain why, it’s just like he found the heart of what the rock and roll word “yeah” can mean. Of all the songs that make me cry, this is the most generous of spirit. This is the one that feels like an embrace.
Sean T. Collins is a writer and critic who lives with his family on Long Island.
5. I Took Your Name
I got into R.E.M. when I was in high school in the early 2000s. I spent entirely too much time on fan message boards for various artists, including (but not limited to) R.E.M. and Tori Amos. The general consensus among the message board-dwellers was that R.E.M.'s 1994 album Monster was their WORST – that is until 2003's Around the Sun came out and took over that spot rather easily. I enjoyed Monster then, and I still don't consider it a bad album – even if it is a flawed one – because even a good R.E.M. album is still pretty great when compared to the output of most bands. I Took Your Name is one of my favorite songs of theirs, and definitely my favorite from Monster: the vocals, as Michael Stipe sings every word with this odd flatness that is nonetheless compelling, the crunchy guitars that are juuuuuuuust screechy enough in some places to be kind of annoying; the weird lyrics that some people think are about Kurt Cobain for some reason. If there is some confusion, indeed.
4. Imitation of Life
I was never an emo kid – I could never get into bands with that label, because it is just not my style of music – but WOW, DOES THIS SONG MAKE ME RECONSIDER THAT DESIGNATION A LITTLE BIT. I had a recurring issue in high school – one that I am starting to address in therapy decades later! – where I would tamp down my emotions for the sake of other people, and shut down in response to conflict so as to not be a bother. You know when you go through a difficult situation at home when you are young, and you just want to stay out of the way emotionally so no one has to "worry" about you? I experienced (probably) too much of that, in addition to other things that I don’t have the space to address here. Spoiler alert: having to hide your emotions and feelings kind of sucks. But I listened to this song frequently, and it made me feel less alone. Especially this part:
This lightning storm
This tidal wave
This avalanche, I'm not afraid
Come on, come on
No one can see me cry
Imitation of Life served as a reminder that if I could just hold on, things would get better. When I listen to it now, I think of all of the psychological lightning storms, emotional tidal waves, and mental health avalanches that I survived.
Just as importantly, I'm still here.
There are not many R.E.M. songs I'd describe as "jaunty," but this one fits that description at least a little bit. The vocals on this one are just perfect.
2. Radio Free Europe
I have some favorite songs that I consider “stupid catchy” because they get stuck in my head whenever I hear them. Whenever I listen to Radio Free Europe, I inevitably have to listen to it twice because it is too catchy for its own good, during which I will think DAMN, THIS SONG IS TOO FUCKING CATCHY.
I love a weirdly foreboding pop song! I think this one could be in the opening sequence to a David Lynch movie or something, soundtracking weird happenings that don't make sense but feel significant. That moment at 2:03 when the guitar and string section kick in? CHILLS.
Anna Hamilton (they/them) is a writer and comedian based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Their work has appeared in Bitch, Business Insider, Tasteful Rude, the Disability Visibility Project, and many other publications. You can follow them on X, Bluesky, Instagram, or subscribe to their newsletter Citizen Cane.
The final unnamed track on Green is one of my favorite album-closers of all time. A great reminder that the vocal interplay between Michael, Mike, and Bill enrichens so many of their songs.
4. Perfect Circle (MTV Unplugged)
Unplugged was a hoary gimmick, which is why it’s so remarkable that so many artists turned in such great performances on that stage. This 1991 version of Murmur’s ballad, with Peter Holsapple (I think) on organ and Bill Berry—who wrote the song—on congas (!), is the most purely beautiful thing the band ever recorded.
3. Country Feedback
Famously Michael’s favorite, and for teenage me, that was enough to earn my everlasting allegiance. Got to do this at karaoke once, with my back turned to the audience and everything.
What the fuck is a harborcoat?!
1. Life and How to Live It
A perfect song, one of the best rock songs ever made, and also a pure encapsulation of all the things IRS-era R.E.M. did really well: rhythm section moving at breakneck speed yet in perfect synchronicity, Peter’s chords constantly surprising you, Michael’s lyrics at the exact right level of elliptic. Even when you find out what the song’s about you still can only work out about 30% of the actual words. Thanks, guys.
Dan Kois works for Slate because 17 years ago they let him write about R.E.M.
R.E.M. is a weird band for me in that it feels like they have a million hooks that immediately come to mind but not that many entire songs that I fully appreciate in totality. I always thought of them as a band with amazing, rumbly and burbling bass lines and shimmery bright guitar that I loved, but usually stuffed into some kind of artistic statement that was about two levels beyond my comprehension. They were almost aspirational – a band I really wanted to appreciate but who maybe I was a little too young for, or too much of a meathead punk rocker, to entirely get. Which made them feel a little remote, like maybe I needed an older brother to explain them to me. But also attractive, like they were too good for me and thus desirable. Sometimes you need some art to tell you you're stupid.
If you know my dumb punk rock tastes you know what an odd choice it is for me to choose a piano and strings song. The easy explanation is that I think I made out to this song once in high school and it stuck with me ever since. The introspective one is that I always thought of R.E.M. as a band who was constantly creating this amazing vibe that I loved and then almost instantly switching it up, leaving me wondering "wait, where'd it go?" (Radio Song comes to mind -- incredible intro and then it sort of devolves into a weird whiteboy funk thing). Sort of the opposite of the Black Keys in that way (who love to create a cool vibe and then repeat it until you're bored). Nightswimming is one of the few R.E.M. songs where they create a lovely vibe and then actually just let you live in it for a while. It's really nice. It always makes me feel full and happy.
Hard to know whether I love this song on its own merits or because of how closely I associate it with Chris Elliott throwing newspapers in Get A Life (for which it was the theme music). The show was wonderful (one of the all-time great nearly-forgotten sitcoms of the 90s), but so is this song, which seems to fit it perfectly. A burbling bass opener and then a kind of weird, half goofy/half sinister circus song.
3. Driver 8
You know how Weird Al decided he was going to write a Devo song and then the song (Dare To Be Stupid) ended up being like a top 10, maybe top 5 Devo song? I think that's what R.E.M. did with The Pretenders in Driver 8. Beautiful mix of epic and bubblegum, the chorus slaps... And I think it's about... uh... a driver? Who needs to sleep? I dunno, man. I pretty much never know what any R.E.M. song is about.
4. Radio Free Europe
Probably not very creative to choose their breakout single, but what can I say, it still rocks. I have even less of a clue what this one's about than the others, but in my defense I don't think Michael Stipe knew either. This song and I'm The Man by Joe Jackson always really make me wish I was in college circa 1978-1982 or so.
5. It's The End Of The World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)
*dumb guy voice* I like when singer sing words fast.
My personal Mandela Effect is realizing this came out before We Didn't Start The Fire. It's sort of the 85% pure gibberish version of that song, (and much better, in my opinion). When I read the lyrics they make no sense at all, but when I hear them, somehow they do. This song feels almost like a troll to make me realize how dumb I actually am. More words faster! Many words better! Also it was in Tommy Boy.
Vince Mancini writes at vincemancini.substack.com. He hosts a comedy podcast about movies called the Frotcast and a Wire rewatch podcast, Pod Yourself The Wire. He is the founder of Filmdrunk and the former Senior Film and Culture Writer at Uproxx, with current bylines at GQ.
1. Man On The Moon
It is hard to grieve, to honor someone's loss and to remember them as they were and nothing more. Man On The Moon is an earnest farewell to Andy Kaufman as he wanted us to see him. There is no peek behind the curtain or grand reveal of a man who died far too soon, or maybe not at all. Kaufman wanted us to see the whimsy he worked so diligently to craft, a living diorama that moved as he did through the world, and shifted as he shifted. Nothing was ever real, but nothing was truly fake either and in that nebulous middle emerges the rare opportunity to believe that anything is possible. “Man On The Moon” honors who Andy Kaufman wanted us to R.E.M. ember and whether you believe he is dead or alive or if the moon is fake or if you are really crying doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you are feeling something at all.
Drive is a fitting title for a song that feels like a rambling tour down a mostly empty highway just as dusk acquiesces to night and the sky changes from purple to amber and yellow before finding darkness as it creeps in from all the corners. A beautiful opening to a record that has meant more to me than most in my life as it has followed me through all the years since, haunting and foreboding, with delicate strings arranged by John Paul Jones. The way the echo on Michael Stipe’s voice dances and bounces off each call to action he proposes, the means with which he urges you to find your own way. It is the sound of a highway leading away from here, wherever your personal here is, into something better than anything that might haunt you in this place. It is sad and terrifying and beautiful and it opens Automatic For The People so perfectly, the thesis that makes the rest of the record work.
3. What’s The Frequency Kenneth
I like a song that has a story. That allows you to trade in its secrets like currency and I imagine someday I will die and meet the ferryman there to take me across the river into the next life and I have no coins laid on my eyes with which to line his grim pockets and so instead I say to him “you know, what’s the frequency Kenneth is about a guy who jumped Dan Rather because he thought the anchorman was beaming thoughts into his brain” and a boney finger will unfurl and extend towards a barge on a river of fire and blood that will ferry me into the afterlife.
4. Driver 8
I listened to a lot of R.E.M on a mostly shit $17 Walmart CD player in a glass shop I worked at in Alberta in the early 2000s. One of a few near-deaths I brushed past was the day my glass-sheet-picking-up-machine took a whole crate of glass instead of the one sheet I intended and slammed me and it against the wall, shattered countless sheets of glass against me and I had to tear myself away from the metal handles that had pinned me to the walls and climb through an array of glass shards to freedom and was cut all over my hands and arms and chest but nothing life threatening and all the while Driver 8 was on repeat because that day I was really feeling the line we can reach our destination, we're still a ways away and it felt very apt for someone who wanted a life that was entirely different from the one that nearly killed me and I wanted to imagine it somewhere down the line, somewhere I couldn’t see but could expect nonetheless.
5. Imitation Of Life
I think Imitation Of Life is the best version of all that R.E.M was capable of; lush and beautiful, a chorus that would make the most pious of angelic choirs devilish with jealousy, strings and a kind of jangle pop guitar tone, perfect drums and playful vocals. It’s rhythm rolls like the endless hills of a perfect summer drive through an impossible hillside on a sunny day that might never end, never too hot or too cold but just right. If you wanted someone to know what they might feel in their heart if they listened to R.E.M and had never heard a song I would give them this, and watch as each hair on their arms stood at attention.
Niko Stratis is a culture writer and former smoker living in Toronto, read her weekly newsletter Anxiety Shark
This is an impossible task. It's hard work if I think too hard so I’m mostly staying with often overlooked post-2000 material. Dreaming up a best of/favorite list is like heaven. They aren’t real but they are fun to think about.
5. How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us
My heart swells for this album. I don’t know any band that could make a song do what this song does and I don’t know what that is. The “ahhhh” at the end of each chorus is an important lyric! This song makes my brain and heart ask: is R.E.M. the most American band?
This melody reverberates in my skull anytime I’m driving away from someplace.
This one falls in the category of singles but it leans back more than Man on the Moon. It’s their mature pop single. Doesn’t have to work so hard to be fucking beautiful. Shit, I might actually gravitate emotionally to post-2000 R.E.M.
A co-write with Leonard Cohen by honest, artistic borrowing, mixed into a whippet sounding arrangement. You want to go forever.
1. Drive 8
Because I’m not a fool.
BONUS: The drum fill on It’s the End of the World… is very similar to Lars' drum fill on One. I wonder…
Chad Jewett and Wil Mulhern
5. It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)
3. The Great Beyond
1. The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite
The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite
My personal favorite R.E.M. song is The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite. The combination of the playful organ, Michael Stipe's catchy, high-pitched vocals paired with his humorous lyrics about instant soup and The Cat in the Hat, and the guitars and drums in top form really catches my ear every time. But the main highlight of the track for me is the beautiful string section that swells in and out of the choruses, taking the song to the next level, melodically and harmoniously. Curiously, the band never performed the song live, but I'll always be happy to revisit the studio recording regularly. - Wil
“The photograph reflects; every streetlight a reminder. Nightswimming deserves a quiet night.” Michael Stipe’s lyrics are often a book of snapshots; images that cohere into a feeling at their own pace. And with their own logic: a glimpse of human experience at its most impressionist. Nightswimming is the definitive R.E.M. song because it takes this way of telling stories — the sudden flashbulb of experience — and zooms in on the thing we all do: gather echoes, absorb details, remember in poignant random pieces. Maybe you’ve never been nightswimming; maybe you’ve never noticed the eclipse of summer in quite the way this song evokes it. But the sweet and bitter way memory plays in Nightswimming — the longing, reedy sing-song of that oboe; the complicated reverberations of youth that Stipe and Mike Mills paint in watercolor — that is the stuff of our day to day. It’s what we catch ourselves thinking about when late summer starts to taste like early autumn. Nightswimming deserves a quiet night. - Chad
Chad Jewett and Wil Mulhern play in the band Perennial.