R.E.M.’s Finest Hour

A while back, in honor of LCD Soundsystem going out at the very top of their game, I compiled a list of tracks that I called “LCD Soundsystem’s Finest Hour.” In my recent efforts to make Bollocks! a little more positive, I thought it might be fun to make “Finest Hour” a new feature. So every once in a while, I’ll take a band I love and tell you about their best sixty-ish minutes worth of music. I’m allowed to go just slightly over or slightly under sixty minutes because this whole exercise is pretty arbitrary to begin with. And “Finest Roughly an Hour” doesn’t have the same ring to it.

I thought I’d start with one of my very favorite bands, R.E.M.. I’ve been a fan of theirs since I was in high school, when I spent a couple of summers devouring pretty much all of their recorded output. If I really must establish some kind of fan cred: I bought fucking Around the Sun the day it came out (October 5, 2004. The same day Tom Waits put out Real Gone. I still listen to one of those records). So what follows is the songs that I would play if I only had an hour to listen to R.E.M. songs, listed in the order that I thought of them.

“You Are the Everything.” A lot of people’s favorite R.E.M. mandolin song is not on this list, and it’s probably the only R.E.M. mandolin song they know.  For all its popularity, I think “Losing My Religion” is really decimated by the understated beauty of Green‘s “You Are the Everything.” Michael Stipe’s delivery of lines like, “The stars are the greatest thing you’ve ever seen,” are convincing to the point of making the song something near an acoustic anthem for those summer nights when you’re outside listening to music with someone you love.

“Be Mine.” I’ve talked about this song a lot and it’s not enough. “Be Mine” is – not to put too fine a point on it – fucking gorgeous. The guitar part is deceptively simple, but Peter Buck’s distorted strumming makes a fine-as-hell backdrop for Michael Stipe’s mostly beautiful (“I’ll be the light that guides you inland”), sometimes silly (“I wanna be your Easter bunny/ I wanna be your Christmas tree”) lyrics. “Be Mine” is far and away my favorite R.E.M. song and as love songs go, I would put it on a pedestal right next to “Picture in a Frame” by Tom Waits.

“Nightswimming.” Is this obvious? Who cares? “Nightswimming” is one of those songs that everyone likes for a reason. Its subject matter may be unfamiliar to some of us, but its spirit is universal – the sense of summer turning to fall, youth turning to middle and then old age. From birth to death, life is change. But there are those nights when time freezes in your best moments, and that’s what “Nightswimming” feels like.

“Pretty Persuasion.” A lot of my favorite R.E.M. tunes feature Mike Mills harmonizing with Michael Stipe. I have no fucking idea what this song is about, but their harmonies on the verse are sublime.

“Sitting Still.” Murmur was a great name for R.E.M.’s first full-length album. Back in those days (the 80s, for our younger readers), Michael Stipe didn’t seem to care much about singing intelligible lyrics, but the melodies were still pretty irresistible and “Sitting Still” has an awesome chorus. I like that Stipe ends the song with essentially a joke, given his delivery of the lyrics: “Can you hear me?” is the last thing you hear on “Sitting Still.”

“Fall On Me.” On the liner notes to Eponymous, Peter Buck (I think it was Buck) wrote that this song was often misunderstood, but “usually in the right direction.” So maybe I’m wrong in thinking that Stipe is contemplating the sky and maybe pondering a relationship and confusing the metaphor of the sky falling with it actually happening. Wrong or right, the song is beautiful.

“Exhuming McCarthy.” Though this song was written during the height of the Reagan era, it perfectly sums up how I felt during George W. Bush’s eight years of wiping his ass with the Constitution: “Look who bought the myth/ by jingo, buy America” didn’t lose any resonance twenty years after it was written, which must have infuriated the dudes in R.E.M.. This song also features the best outro of the 1980s – Mike Mills singing, “Meet me at the book burning.”

“I Believe.” Though I’m dubious about the banjo in general, I like to applaud its effective use in pop songs. A banjo introduces us to “I Believe,” a great track off of Life’s Rich Pageant (which, though it does not contain “Be Mine,” is probably still my favorite R.E.M. record) and from there, the band (this was back when Bill Berry was still drumming for them) rips into another one of those almost-painfully earnest Michael Stipe songs about life and how to live it.

“Strange Currencies.” R.E.M. has probably written some of the most underrated love songs of the last thirty years. I’ll have to launch an investigation and get back to you. For now, consider “Strange Currencies” and it’s feedback-drenched arpeggios. And Stipe’s turning of the mournful “I don’t know why you’re mean to me” to the thoughtful “And I don’t know what you mean to me.” I loved the simplicity of the chorus from the first time I heard “Strange Currencies” – “These words/ you will be mine.” It’s not a menacing thing (Michael Stipe is possibly the least menacing frontman in all of rock, except for maybe Chris Martin), it’s an “I don’t know how to give up so I won’t give up” thing. I really dug that when I was 19 and I still do.

“Perfect Circle.” I believe Bill Berry wrote this Murmur tune. The transition from verse to chorus is one of the most beautiful in R.E.M.’s canon. This is one of my favorite R.E.M. songs to play on the guitar and for once, Stipe’s vocal part is close enough to my exceedingly limited range for it to kind of work. Kind of.

“(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville.” The first R.E.M. album I purchased was Eponymous, largely because it had “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” on it and I wanted to learn all the lyrics. But “Rockville” didn’t take long to win me over, with it’s bouncy music and melancholy lyrics (“you’ll wind up in some factory that’s full time filth and nowhere left to go”). One of my first favorite R.E.M. songs, and I still adore it.

“At My Most Beautiful.” I guess I’m a sucker for R.E.M.’s sappy songs, but so be it. Not much to say about this song except that I’ve always envied Stipe’s ability to write simple things that seem really profound when he sings them, like “I found a way to make you smile.” A lot of guys would sound like assholes singing something like that, but Stipe nails it.

“Ages of You (Live).” I like the live version from the And I Feel Fine compilation. Stipe is pissed that his monitors aren’t working and his frustration adds a great edge to the song. Mills’s “La-di-da-da-da” background vocals are, as usual, perfect.

“Wendell Gee.” This song is ridiculous. I think it’s about a kid disappearing into a tree, but the melody – like so many early R.E.M. melodies – is like auditory crack. I actually got a bit choked up the first time I heard, “There wasn’t even time to say/ goodbye to Wendell Gee” and I thought poring over the lyrics would tell me why. Nope. Well played, R.E.M. Well played.

“Get Up.” I bet a lot of people saw Green as the beginning of the end of R.E.M.’s awesomeness. After years on the I.R.S. label, the Athens, Georgia, heroes had stepped up to a major label and were on the cusp of spending the early nineties as a massively famous stadium band. But if you don’t care about labels, you can probably admit that R.E.M. still made great pop music even after they “sold out.” Green is a great pop album, and “Get Up” is one of its best tracks.

“Time After Time (Ann-Elise).” I actually wasn’t going to put this song on this list, but it just came on Songbird while I was thinking of what songs to put on here. It made me remove “Crush with Eyeliner” (a song I love, if only for the line “She’s a sad tomato/ she’s three miles of bad road”). It’s redundant to discuss, at this point, how awesome R.E.M. was at crafting melodies in the 1980s. Just accept this track as further evidence.

“Life and How to Live It.” And finally, another one of those nigh-unintelligible (you heard him right though – “my pockets are out/ running about/ barking in the street”) early R.E.M. songs. When I first heard it, I loved that the song was called “Life and How to Live It” and was, from what I could tell, utter nonsense. I named a sketch comedy show after this song in college, and it was probably the best sketch comedy I’ve ever produced.

The nature of the exercise dictates that I’ve left some great songs out in the cold on this one. Feel free to comment and let me know which songs were supposed to go here.

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3 thoughts on “R.E.M.’s Finest Hour

  1. Pingback: The Lazy Friday Mix: Rapture Edition « Bollocks!

  2. Pingback: Great Fucking Albums #28: Lifes Rich Pageant « Bollocks!

  3. Fantastic list. As an REM fan who stopped buying their albums after Automatic For The People, it’s driven me to hunt down the ones post-AFTP you posted here.

    And great blog BTW.

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