My Go-To Desert Island Band Is…R.E.M.

Oh yeah, I’m still counting the days to the reunion tour, and yes, I will be at as many shows as humanly possible. I have a special R.E.M. Reunion Tour savings account that I started the day the band announced its breakup. I’m THAT much of a fan.

And, I get why some people may disagree with my choice, especially since EVERYBODY, and I mean EVERYBODY, usually chooses one of The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley, or Michael Jackson.

R.E.M. Man on the Moon Official Video

The critics will usually agree that yes, R.E.M. is indeed a legendary band, but they will also universally agree that the band probably stuck around a decade or so too long, diluting the second half of their career with less-than-stellar music. It’s indisputable that the last 14 years of R.E.M. does not compare to the first 16 years, but they still put out a lot of great music right up until the end. I love their entire discography a great deal. Still, those first 16 years are more than enough to decidedly instill R.E.M. as my go-to, desert island band. 

Enforcing my selection: R.E.M. released 15 albums, an EP,  two official greatest hits compilations, some live stuff, and one early rarities collection, Dead Letter Office, between 1982 and 2012. Six of those went platinum. In terms of critical and popular acclaim, R.E.M.’s run between 1982 and 1998 ranks with the peaks of any great rock band.

R.E.M. in Athens

R.E.M.’s legend derives from Michael Stipe’s foggy lyricism, a gilded mythology that begged for headphone listening and futile attempts at lyrical interpretation. Chronic Town and Murmur, two parts of one of the most intrepid debuts in rock history, were vast landscapes of impressionist diffusion. The most Freudian of urges — the desire to connect and disconnect through conflicting opposition — drove a dynamic portrait of odd-fellow characters and discombobulated stories, ripe with blatant political undertones and pseudo-sexual curiosity, all marked by Peter Buck’s chiming 12-string arpeggios** and the rhythms of small-club power-pop.

Considering Stipe’s early unintelligible vocal delivery, there may have not been a more apt album title in the history of modern music than Murmur.

The band’s legendary run on its homegrown indie label (I.R.S. Records) was marked by Stipe & Co. grappling with the history of their surroundings while struggling with its sudden and pious popularity among its initial fanbase.  Spanning years 1983 through 1988,  R.E.M. released ReckoningFables of the ReconstructionLife’s Rich PageantDocument and Green, delivering songs that touched on local eccentricities while simultaneously providing a sense of unconscious surrender.

Through all of that R.E.M. released a slew of critically-acclaimed alt-rock singles that were the talk of campus culture throughout the United States: Radio Free Europe, Perfect Circle, Sitting Still, Harborcoat,7 Chinese Bros., (Don’t Go Back To) Rockville, Pretty PersuasionTalk About the PassionBegin The Begin, So. Central RainDriver 8Can’t Get There from HereFall on Me,  Exhuming McCarthyFinest Worksong, and The One I Love. That alone is enough to cement R.E.M.’s place as the best band of the 1980s.

“Then there’s ‘It’s the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine),’ a rapid-fire series of dream logic non-sequiturs that singularly amounts to music’s most completely un-singable classic anthem. In retrospect, ‘The End….’ marked the band’s swan song, a torrent of spellbinding imagery seemingly meant as a cathartic credit-roll to the band’s end [as truly independent performers]” — The Atlantic

Ed. — ** Thank you Wikipedia for the Peter Buck line.

R.E.M. hit their commercial and artistic peak when the band dropped a duo of monster albums that may have singlehandedly turned a nation against George Bush the first. 1991’s Out of Time and 1992’s Automatic for the People, released 19 months apart, solidified R.E.M. as America’s most important band, capable of crafting universally themed, emotionally saturated works that suffered nothing for their inherent weirdness and Stipe’s affinity to lead a political landscape that was just beginning to recognize the power of the under-30 vote. As closets were unlocked and secrets were spilled, Stipe found his chops as a lyricist and as a vocalist, often incorporating over-the-top sentimentality, heartfelt empathy, and angelic melodies with the standard R.E.M. fare. The results were mesmerizing.

Monster and New Adventures in Hi-Fi are vastly underrated long players, never really getting their due as the music landscape started to lean more on the post-grunge malaise that eventually cratered the AOR-driven format of FM radio. One and done singles were the new normal for artists, as labels refused to spend the promotional dollars on bigger and better performers, save maybe Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and U2. The death of Kurt Cobain in 1994 seemed to signal the beginning of the end for the LP as a vehicle for promoting artists. Filesharing sites helped promote the singles mentality that pushed established album rockers out of the mainstream. That certainly makes How The West Was Won and Where it Got Us seem almost prophetic.

How the West Was Won and Where it Got Us. Sopranos should have used this song IMO.

When drummer Bill Berry left the band in 1997, two years after suffering an aneurysm on stage during a concert in Switzerland, R.E.M. entered its final phase as a supergroup – making music on its own terms. Berry retired to Georgia to become a farmer and R.E.M. soldiered on as a more avant-garde trio for their next three albums, UpReveal, and Around the Sun. There are superb flashes scattered across these records, namely All The Way To RenoImitation of LifeAt My Most BeautifulDaysleeperI’ve Been High, and Leaving New York. A lot of fans and critics abandoned R.E.M. when Berry left, and that’s a shame.

True, the later version of R.E.M. was nothing like the earlier iteration. Perhaps it was simply a matter of fans aging as the band matured that pushed so many away. I am of the belief that we tend to move away from anything that makes us cognizant of our own mortalities. A band that lasts thirty years will certainly live and die with the members of its fan base – generational legacies often do just that – and the fact remains that a large number of R.E.M. fans at the onset of the band’s career in 1982 were no longer with us when the band hung it up in 2012.

Few rock bands still exist on a performing level with discographies of new music that span at least twenty years – The Rolling Stones, U2, The Dave Matthews Band, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Pearl Jam – all creative individuals collaborating as a single entity that speaks for – and as – the people. Through their many successes (and despite output deemed unfavorable or less-than-popular), the band’s embrace of each musical moment throughout their career is unparalleled.

R.E.M.’s promotion of progressive politics and love for humans in an array of wonderful guises, along with the greater importance of delineating emotional connections with fans and peers alike, leaves little doubt that the band carried the torch as music’s quintessential rock band for thirty years. That is why R.E.M. is my go-to desert island band.

My Top 21 R.E.M. Songs

These are my personal favorites, the most difficult list I have ever had to compile, and one that could probably change on a daily basis or even contain 21 completely different songs.

01. Talk About The Passion (Murmur, 1983)
02. Begin the Begin (Life’s Rich Pageant, 1986)
03. Driver 8 (Fables Of The Reconstruction, 1985)
04. Man on the Moon (Automatic for the People, 1992)
05. So. Central Rain (Reckoning, 184)
06. Don’t Go Back To Rockville (Reckoning, 1984)
07. What If We Give It Away? (Life’s Rich Pageant, 1986)
08. How The West Was Won and Where it Got Us (New Adventures in Hi-Fi, 1996)
09. Cuyahoga (Life’s Rich Pageant, 1986)
10. Ignoreland (Automatic for the People, 1992)
11. 7 Chinese Bros. (Reckoning, 1984)
12. Gardening At Night (Chronic Town, 1982)
13. Radio Song (Out Of Time, 1991)
14. Perfect Circle (Murmur, 1983)
15. Losing My Religion (Out Of Time, 1991)
16. Pretty Persuasion (Reckoning, 1984)
17. World Leader Pretend (Green, 1988)
18. I’ve Been High (Reveal, 2001)
19. The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight (Automatic For The People, 1992)
20. Can’t Get There From Here (Fables Of The Reconstruction, 1985)
21. Sitting Still (Murmur, 1983)

  • Drive (from Automatic for the People) truly belongs on this list, but which song gets bumped?
  • I wanted to include It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) but I am one of those guys who gets really bothered when people sing the words to a song incorrectly, and that song gets butchered like none other. It’s a great song, but that fact alone ruins it for me.
  • Speaking of which, trying to figure out what Michael Stipe is singing is one of the best things about the band. I’d like to say it is mere pretentiousness, and I have heard that Stipe liked to go see tribute bands just to see how his lyrics were deciphered by others. I think that is extraordinary if true. They could have simply called themselves The Hamburglars if you listen to some of their earlier, indecipherable work.
  • Stipe insisted that many of his early lyrics were “nonsense”, saying in a 1994 online chat, “You all know there aren’t words, per se, to a lot of the early stuff. I can’t even remember them.” In truth, Stipe carefully crafted the lyrics to many early R.E.M. songs. He explained in 1984 that when he started writing lyrics they were like “simple pictures”, but after a year he grew tired of the approach and “started experimenting with lyrics that didn’t make exact linear sense, and it’s just gone from there.” In the mid-1980s, as Stipe’s pronunciation while singing became clearer, the band decided that its lyrics should convey ideas on a more literal level with sociopolitical messages as the backbone for much of their output.
  • Ignoring that last sentence, listen to The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight from Automatic For The People.
  • Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Bill Berry take most of the credit for the success of this band, but the talents of bassist Mike Mills should never be overlooked. Listen to his bass during the “Straight off the boat, where to go?” section of Radio Free Europe, or the intro to Laughing? That song has three separate melodies in its three minutes of existence, and they’re all amazing.
  • The more I listen to Perfect Circle the more I want to move it all the way up to number one. The more I listen to Moral Kiosk (from the Murmur LP), the more I want to add it to the list. In fact, I could easily put all of Murmur on here. I’d have to say that MurmurAutomatic For The People and Document are my top three R.E.M. albums.
  • I don’t want to diminish the greatness of Reckoning or Life’s Rich Pageant, either. Both are works of art.
  • Too many R.E.M. fans don’t give their post-1987 stuff a lot of credit. Automatic For The People and 2001’s Reveal are very good albums. New Adventures in Hi-Fi is damn good as well. I like to challenge my friends in this regard, too; Had R.E.M. not come along until 1992 instead of debuting in 1982, the album Monster could easily be considered their best work and would certainly get more recognition. Discuss amongst yourselves.
  • Seriously, Monster is a very, very good album, and Bang & BlameWhat’s The Frequency, Kenneth?, Star 69 and Strange Currencies could have easily made this list. Perhaps the best way to do this is to separate the pre-1987 stuff from the post-1987 stuff and compile two lists. Too often, hardcore R.E.M. fans convince themselves that there are two separate and distinct versions of the band. The same creativity is there, the talent is there, the writing is definitely there, and fans should give the later stuff more of a chance.
  • Nobody makes their drums sound like Bill Berry does in the beginning of Catapult anymore. That is a sound of a lost era and it is never coming back.
  • This band broke in 1983, in the midst of post-punk and overblown heavy-metal with a sound that was distinct of any other. How cool is that?
  • I bet you have never listened to the song Find The River from Automatic For The People. Or, at the very least, you cannot imagine the sound of that song as you are reading this. It is a truly wonderful song and should be on this list as well. Take five minutes and go listen. Just make sure you come back and finish reading this article.
  • Man On The Moon, I think, has the catchiest chorus of any song ever.
  • There is only one song that will never make my list, and that is Stand from Green. I just can’t stand that song, pardon the pun.
  • The subtle Hammond organ that really makes Everybody Hurts so beautifully sad and such an uncharacteristically straightforward ballad is masterful in its interplay with Stipe’s vocals.
  • I once had a friend in college who told me that Huey Lewis & The News would be more popular than R.E.M. and ultimately, be looked upon as the greatest band from the mid-1980s when all was said and done – may his soul be forgiven for his deliciously incorrect opinion.
  • Out Of Time is such a good album that when my house burned down in 2005 and I lost all of my music, it was the first CD I replaced, literally buying it the next day, and listening to it for a year straight. Because I had so many other things I needed to buy, sadly, replacing my music wasn’t something I could start for years. More songs from this album would have made this list had I not played that CD so many times from 2005 through late 2006, which is when I could finally afford to buy my next CD.
  • Thanks to the line Combien du temps? from Talk About The Passion, I took French as my foreign language elective, believing that almost every mumbled lyric in every R.E.M. song was something French. That wasn’t true, the romance language is extremely difficult to learn and master, and my GPA suffered terribly. For those who don’t know, Combien du temps? translates to how much time? I transferred to Spanish class after two weeks. That being said, ¿Cuanto tiempo? just doesn’t have the same cache as Combien du temps?
  • In a 1988 interview, Peter Buck described typical R.E.M. songs as, “Minor key, mid-tempo, enigmatic, semi-folk-rock-balladish things. That’s what everyone thinks and to a certain degree, that’s true.” I think I first coined that description in 1984. No joke.

Here are all of the R.E.M. albums (excluding greatest hits compilations and the like), ordered from my most favorite to least liked.Discuss amongst yourselves and thanks for reading.

01. Murmur (1983)
02. Automatic For The People (1992)
03. Document (1987)
04. Out Of Time (1991)
05. Fables Of The Reconstruction (1985)
06. Reckoning (1984)
07. Monster (1994)
08. Green (1988)
09. Reveal (2001)
10. Around The Sun (2004)
11. Chronic Town/Dead Letter Office (1982)
12. New Adventures In Hi-Fi (1996)
13. Up (1998)
14. Accelerate (2008)

“Collapse Into Now” was the band’s final studio album, released in April 2011. The album is produced by Jacknife Lee, and features guest appearances by Patti Smith, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, Peaches and Lenny Kaye. I still need to a deep dive into that LP, and it’s probably time.

Published by Michael Canter

I love music, particularly indie music. It's a bittersweet affair that has been equally fun and soul-crushing, but I couldn't live without it. Personally, I'm a Deadhead, but my passion for all music styles is unparalleled. If I like you I will let you call me Mickey. If you look hard enough, you'll find me at SXSW every year.

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