By Patrick Gosnell
ALBUMS: Chronic Town EP (1982); Murmur (1983); Reckoning (1984); Fables of the Reconstruction (1985); Life’s Rich Pageant (1986); Document (1987); Dead Letter Office (1987); Green (1988); Out of Time (1991); Automatic for the People (1992); Monster (1994); New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996); Up (1998); Eponymous (1998); Reveal (2001); In Time (2003); Around the Sun (2004); And I Feel Fine… (2006); R.E.M. Live (2007); Accelerate (2008); Live At The Olympia (2009)
HOW: Amidst the cluster-cuss of the early-90’s Cobain-ia, I fell in love with the song “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?“…I mean, in love! I had just received my first set of drums as a birthday present, and I proceeded to play along to Monster all day, every day. I had only a cursory knowledge of who R.E.M. were. I’d acquired both Green and Out of Time as gifts, but had never given them more than a couple listens each — too light and whiny I thought. But something clicked with Monster and I had found my new favorite band. Then, for the next seven years, R.E.M. decided to screw with me.
Three increasingly weird albums later, I was a confused fan. How could the same band who wrote “Near Wild Heaven” move into a “King of Comedy” phase, and wind up with “Lotus?” I just didn’t understand the progression. So I decided to research R.E.M. in a way I’d never done for any other band. I bought every single one of their albums starting with Murmur, and devoted two weeks to each one while listening to nothing else. This process allowed me to hear the subtle shifts in style and emphasis that had evolved within the band over the course of two decades. I finally felt that I understood where this band, whose drummer had quit and who had gone from playing with mandolins to experimenting with computer-generated sounds, was coming from (as well as where they were headed.)
“Moral Kiosk” from Murmur
WHY: Whether they’re recording poppy jangle rock or psychedelic electronica, there is no denying R.E.M.’s pioneering status in American alternative rock. From Peter Buck’s distinctive guitar sounds, to Mike Mills’ astute harmonies and Michael Stipe’s incisive lyrics (both mumbled and shouted), R.E.M. have found a way to mesh political and worldly concerns with clichés-be-damned rock stylings. While not everyone will enjoy all of the band’s stylistic choices over the years, I think they should be commended for willingly taking those creative risks. Transformation is not something that is always applauded in American pop culture, but it has certainly worked out for the guys in R.E.M., for they have produced some of the best alt-rock songs of the last quarter-century.
“You Are The Everything” from Green
SONGS: I’ve set the songs in chronological order to give listeners the same transformative experience that I underwent some ten years ago. My list includes one or two representative tracks from each of their studio recordings (except for Fables of the Reconstruction, which is the musical equivalent of watching your grandmother knit), and I feel that it documents the band’s evolution while maintaining a balance between hits and deep cuts. Naturally, R.E.M.’s first single “Radio Free Europe” kicks things off, followed by two personal favorites, “Moral Kiosk” and “Harborcoat” — two songs that my own erstwhile band, Your Former Lover, stole from heavily! The next six songs showcase Michael Stipe’s growth as a front-man, adding both vigor and political overtones to his vocals. Including the breakthrough hits “The One I Love” and “Losing My Religion,” these songs created the momentum that would carry R.E.M. to the leading edge of 90’s alternative rock. “Texarkana” shows us that Mike Mills is the secret weapon behind R.E.M.’s sound, adding a dynamic lyrical quality to his efficacious bass work. “Drive,” “Nightswimming,” “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” “Strange Currencies,” and “Bittersweet Me” take us through the high point of the band’s career, before the confusing grey period of post-Berry experimentalism known as Up, Reveal and Around the Sun. I’ve rounded out the list with two tracks from the surprisingly crunchy Accelerate, “Living Well Is the Best Revenge” and “I’m Gonna DJ” which show that even through all their costume changes, R.E.M. can still deliver an alt-rock gem.
“What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” from Monster
WHAT’S MISSING: The problem with releasing 15-plus albums means that R.E.M. have a plethora of great songs that just won’t fit onto an 80-minute CD. If you enjoy what’s on my list then check out “Catapult,” “Begin the Begin,” “Cuyahoga,” “Radio Song,” “Crush With Eyeliner,” “So Fast, So Numb,” “Bad Day,” and my personal favorite “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight.” If you’re more of an album person, then I would definitely recommend their debut Murmur, their critical success Automatic for the People and their most recent (and rockin’) Accelerate to learn R.E.M.’s essential phases.
“I’ve Been High” from Reveal
LINK: Click on the list below to hear R.E.M. for free on Lala.com!
Patrick Gosnell is co-founder and chief designer for 80 Minutes For Life. He spends his days practicing photography, listening to music constantly, and spending way too much time reading design blogs. He and his wife, Karen, enjoy completing puzzles, watching Community, and eating Thai food with close friends. You can check out his portfolio here.