You’ve probably heard by now that R.E.M. broke up yesterday (September 21). The band announced this in a relatively casual way on their website: as a new blog post that simply said “R.E.M. call it a day.” That’s kind of an understatement for a band that was together over 30 years and recorded 15 albums together (the most recent of which was released this past March).
Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Bill Berry and Mike Mills were seriously together for three decades. They were one of the most acclaimed bands ever, with multiple Grammy wins and nominations, and they have more than their fair share of notable songs. On top of this, they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007. Not too shabby for a group of guys from Athens, Georgia.
Oh, and you know what else?
They’ve sold over 70 some million albums.
So it comes as some surprise that they’ve called it quits. However, as their website says, sometimes you just know when you can’t do anymore. You have to give them credit for realizing when they’ve reached their limit, when they literally cannot do anymore. It’s actually probably wise to leave the game before they’ve become boring/unoriginal.
Give them credit for being able to stop (until we hear about the reunion tour in five years… if the Police can do it, ANYBODY can, but that’s beside the point).
Now, everyone is going to be throwing out his or her favorite R.E.M. songs. Lists are sure to come out over the next few weeks from the likes of Rolling Stone, Spin, NME and the like, all discussing the best cuts from a long career.
Everyone’s going to be all, “‘Losing My Religion’ changed my life” and “I can do the whole “It’s the End of the World (As We Know It)’ routine!” and so on. Guaranteed that in the next few weeks, you will read about “Losing My Religion” and the music video for it about 3,429 times.
Yes, that’s a good song.
Yes, it’s great to belt out every now and then.
But who needs to hear about it again?
Here, we’re going to take a look at the (my) top five underrated/under-appreciated R.E.M. songs from the past 30 years. Narrowing it down to five was kind of hard, and five doesn’t really do 30 years justice.
But it’ll work.
So here we go:
5. “King of Birds”
This is a cut off of 1987’s Document, the last album that R.E.M. had on I.R.S. Records (which prompted a later greatest hits of I.R.S.-only material). Sitar complements the rest of the band nicely here, and Stipe’s voice is especially emotive (as he’s singing about being the “king of all I see”). When he sings “A hundred million birds, fly away, away” and drags out the “away,” you can’t help but be swept up in the moment. Promise. It’s not an overly bombastic song by any stretch, but it starts to feel like it – and it’s a good thing. You want this mean idea to be your own, too.
4. “Chorus and the Ring”
“Chorus and the Ring” comes off of 2001’s Reveal, the 12th album the band released. It was not the most critically acclaimed of their work, but Reveal was considered an improvement over a few past releases and is comparable to Automatic for the People. And so “Chorus and the Ring” is certainly an underrated song, as it hearkens back to the sounds of Automatic.The acoustic strumming, the rhythm of the song, it’s all in a perfect pace that absorbs the listener. While it’s not a single, it definitely has all the qualities of a solid R.E.M. song, completely radio-ready. The last minute is particularly enjoyable – it just makes you feel good.
3. “Turn You Inside-Out”
This is one of the edgiest under-appreciated songs by R.E.M. “Turn You Inside-Out” was on Green, their sixth studio album, which was released in 1988. It’s so unlike “Losing My Religion” or even the other mentioned songs, it comes across as refreshing. “Turn” is also more political than most songs the band did (although they have been politically active often throughout the past decades). When they performed the song in 1989, they dedicated it to Exxon, just days after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. It’s a powerful song in a rather unexpected way: It just hits you over the head with its sound, energy and message.
Automatic for the People (1992) was R.E.M.’s eighth studio album, and it is one of their most critically acclaimed. Rolling Stone magazine gave it five stars, a classic rating according to their system. This album contained “Everybody Hurts,” another classic R.E.M. song. However, nestled in among the other gems is “Ignoreland,” another political tune that focuses on the Reagan presidency. This song, though, doesn’t sound like a political jam very often. It’s catchy, and if you don’t listen to the lyrics carefully, it’s easy to miss what you’re listening to (while this seems obvious, think of all the times you sing along to a song without realizing what exactly the words are). There are actually some pretty strong themes of hopelessness and anger here. It’s a pointed look at how things have gone downhill (according to Stipe, at least), and yet it still sounds like a lot of fun. Even better, it’s starting to feel that much more relevant all over again!
1. “The One I Love”
This is also off of Document, and this is probably the greatest underrated R.E.M. song ever. Seriously. It was actually one of their first big hits, and then it just seemed to kind of disappear. “The One” fits right in with all of the other R.E.M. classics, but it just doesn’t come up as often as those other ones. If you click the link above, you can see that it’s an easy crowd pleaser. But it certainly isn’t one for diehards only, or it shouldn’t be relegated to that situation. Just listen to it! Not only do you want to sing along, but you want to do something. And that guitar. Oh man. That guitar is just beautifully recorded and produced and polished and just that good. This song would be good with just the guitar, honestly. But it has all the other stuff, so it’s even better! Granted, the lyrics aren’t the best that Stipe and Company have written (any of these other songs probably trump the ones here), but they just sound so good. That’s what really counts here, right? This is the most pleasing to the ear – even if the lyrics were completely inane, it would still be good.
Lucky for us, the lyrics aren’t completely inane.
Of course, just like every competition, we have a few honorable mentions that didn’t quite make the cut, but still deserve some love: “Half a World Away,” “Near Wild Heaven” and “I’ll Take the Rain.”
So while you mourn the end of Michael Stipe and his cohorts, take heart in these (and maybe a few other) songs. Go beyond “Everybody Hurts” and “Losing My Religion.” Everyone will be listening to those. Delve in a little – besides, you may as well discover their old music, since it sounds like nothing new is going to be coming out any time soon! And if you find one you think is better than these five, go ahead and tell us about it. Leave a comment below. Start a conversation. Bond over old R.E.M. Make Stipe proud.
Here’s to 31 years of R.E.M.
Now if only our generation could produce musicians with that kind of longevity.
Photos courtesy blink+.