I think I have an unwritten rule for my blog that says if I write a post about U2, I must follow with one about R.E.M. They are infused almost as one band into my collective psyche; I followed them religiously during the mid- to late-80s. And so, a few weeks after my top 10 U2 songs, I give you the 20 best R.E.M. songs.
Most people will have the same songs in their top 10 U2 songs (“Pride,” “With or Without You,” etc.), but not so with R.E.M. With the exception of two or three songs, you can’t really find unanimity among R.E.M. fans. I think it’s a tribute to their longevity as well as their consistency.
Finding 10 U2 songs was easy because they stood out so much; finding 20 would have been harder. Consequently, I can’t narrow R.E.M.’s catalogue down to 10 songs. This could easily have been a Top 30 or 40 list.
Here it is: The 20 best R.E.M. songs. No “Stand” or “The One I Love”, no “Everybody Hurts” or “Man on the Moon.” So there.
- “Radio Free Europe” (Murmur, 1983). This one might be on everyone’s list. Their first single from their first album, it was as close to punk as they got, both musically and chronologically.
- “Sitting Still” (Murmur, 1983). Probably one of the least-known songs on this list, it’s an almost forgotten song on the album. But it’s vintage R.E.M. – Byrds-style guitar and Michael Stipe’s unintelligible lyrics.
- “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)” (Reckoning, 1984). Listening to this cut from their second album, you realize that R.E.M. is not your stereotypical druggie college rockers that your parents warned you about. Their songs are melodic, even – dare I say it? – normal.
- “Maps and Legends” (Fables of the Reconstruction, 1985). I once heard a review that described Fables as “Southern gothic.” Nothing captures that feel more than this song – a haunting folk song that’s creepy and beautiful at the same time.
- “Green Grow the Rushes” (Fables of the Reconstruction, 1985). But then, toward the end of the Fables, there’s an uplifting song with a chorus that you want to package up and crack open every once in a while when you’re feeling blue.
- “Good Advices” (Fables of the Reconstruction, 1985). See above. Again.
- “Begin the Begin” (Lifes Rich Pageant, 1986). After several folk-rock albums, R.E.M. wanted to rawk and started it off with a bang – big guitars, big drums, and Stipe’s incoherent mumbling elevated to a growl.
- “Fall on Me” (Lifes Rich Pageant, 1986). The quintessential R.E.M. song, and as close to perfect as they ever got.
- “Superman” (Lifes Rich Pageant, 1986). Yeah, it’s a cover, but it’s so addictive, so simple. Sometimes R.E.M. is at their best when they don’t take themselves seriously.
- “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” (Document, 1987). I lost so many calories dancing around to this song – a manic, pell-mell romp that defined my generation’s ADHD mentality.
- “Pop Song 89” (Green, 1989). This first cut from Green set the tone for a new R.E.M. – musical, accessible and fun. And you can actually understand Stipe’s lyrics.
- “Get Up” (Green, 1989). Possibly the two best opening cuts on an album are the previous song and this one. With these songs, R.E.M. became pop musicians, much to Warner Bros.’ delight.
- “Hairshirt” (Green, 1989). I’ve already waxed poetic about this song, so I stand by my previous description.
- “Radio Song” (Out of Time, 1991). The chorus to this song, with Peter Buck’s shiny arpeggios accompanying it, is a perfect antithesis to the bluesy, hip-hop verses.
- “Losing My Religion” (Out of Time, 1991). OK, probably the most overplayed R.E.M. song ever, but I love me some mandolin.
- “Me in Honey” (Out of Time, 1991). The lesser known sister of “Shiny Happy People.” I can’t get enough of this song. The cool repetitive riff, the tambourine, and Stipe and Kate Pierson’s voices are a perfect blend.
- “Half a World Away” (Out of Time, 1991). Many of the best R.E.M. songs are almost afterthoughts, number 8 or 9 on the track list. Inventive chord progressions, augmented by a harpsichord and mandolin, make for another bittersweet song.
- “Sweetness Follows” (Automatic for the People, 1992). It should be called “Bittersweetness Follows”; it’s on my Autumn playlist. They roll out a cello for this one, and it’s so sad, so beautiful your heart just aches.
- “At My Most Beautiful” (Up, 1998). Like “Hairshirt” above, all I have to say about this song is summed up in this post.
- “Man-Sized Wreath” (Accelerate, 2009). There may be other songs that are better, but this song gets a top 20 nod for pulling R.E.M. out of their decade-long doldrums. It’s loud, energetic and happy – just the thing the group needed.