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R.E.M.’s Top 20 Songs

If you’re at all like me, you probably associate certain bands with specific moods. In other words, you turn to these bands when they fit your state of mind, match how your day went, or just seem to sound how you feel. R.E.M. has never been one of those bands for me, though. No matter my mood, mindset, or emotion, there’s an R.E.M. album or sound that suits me. “I have lived a full life,” Michael Stipe once sang, and I think that’s how we felt about the band when they parted ways in 2011. To look back at their catalogue then or now is to see a band that have lived a full life — and life to the fullest — leaving few stones of the band experience unflipped or unskipped. All these years later, R.E.M. remains a band to vent to, cry to, and dance alongside. There are songs to make you remember, songs to make you forget, and songs literally sung to save your life. Again, no matter how you feel, they have something for you, and it’s hard to think of a better catalogue of songs to grow up with, to grow with, and, finally, to grow old with.

So, here are 20 R.E.M. songs that the four of us find ourselves turning to these days more than most. And, luckily, there are plenty more where they came from.

–Matt Melis
Editorial Director


Lifes Rich Pageant (1986)

Sleeping through a revolution is a cardinal sin, as “Begin the Begin” argues from the get-go: “Birdie in the hand for life’s rich demand/ The insurgency began and you missed it.” It’s a biting line that Michael Stipe repeats again and again for full effect, splattering his listeners with passive-aggressive guilt, as he later leans on aggression and loses any guff: “Silence means security, silence means approval.” It’s easy to see why the opening track off R.E.M.’s fourth studio album, Lifes Rich Pageant, would open so many of their live performances. It’s a timeless statement for progressives everywhere, and as such, incredibly emblematic of the band as a whole. Let’s listen again. –Michael Roffman


Reckoning (1984)

With its jangly, arpeggiated chords and driving rhythm section, “Pretty Persuasion” doesn’t seem out of place on 1984’s Reckoning, even though R.E.M. allegedly penned the song years earlier. There’s a clear power-pop influence here, and Peter Buck’s sparkly intro riff sets the tone for a darker, more ominous version of The Records’ “Starry Eyes” (released a year before R.E.M. formed, in 1979). Michael Stipe almost sounds like a punk singer as he rails against the “hurry and buy” impulse of consumerism, his anger intermingling with the jangly melody to create something odd and inexplicably captivating. –Collin Brennan


New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996)

For years, R.E.M. fans thought to themselves: If only we knew what Michael Stipe was saying. Fast-forward a decade and change later to R.E.M. being arguably the biggest band in the world, Stipe at his most intelligible, and R.E.M. fans thinking to themselves: If only we could make any sense out of what Michael Stipe is saying. Few could have known that the spoken-sung “E-Bow the Letter” with its “hash bars, cherry mash and tinfoil tiaras” actually comes from an unsent letter from Stipe to friend and late actor River Phoenix. But, as we’ve learned with R.E.M. over the years, not knowing doesn’t equate to not feeling. As we let Patti Smith’s backing vocals and the sustained vibrations from an EBow coil tightly around us as the song pushes on, a “straightforward” line like “Aluminum, tastes like fear/ Adrenaline, pulls us near” somehow seems to make all the sense in the world. –Matt Melis


Collapse Into Now (2011)

One of the great final gasps of R.E.M. is this stunning jam that stresses the idea of carpe diem. It’s about embracing the unknown and the changes that come from within. Musically, the whole thing brims with harmonies, hooks, and the kind of woodsy instrumentation that made the Athens outfit so iconic, but we’ll leave it to Stipe to explain the lyrical nature itself: “I wanted to picture an almost blunt outsider’s perspective – the experience of a guy who is walking through a city that is completely new to him and still very unfamiliar. I have combined these two words to express that. I don’t pretend being a German or a Berliner. Not at all. I just tried to figure out the mind of this outsider….” Well, there you are. –Michael Roffman


Up (1998)

R.E.M.’s unfairly maligned Up contains plenty of gems, chief among them “Walk Unafraid”. Musically, the song is a study in contrasts: Teeth-gnashing electric guitar and thumping drums create a menacing underbelly that’s mitigated by Stipe’s delicate vocal delivery, space-filled arrangements, and lilting strings. Lyrically, the tune boasts a compassionate message of “courageous stumbling” that manifests itself mainly in defiant declarations of individuality: “I’ll trip, fall, pick myself up and walk unafraid/ I’ll be clumsy instead.” With its subtext of nonconformity, “Walk Unafraid” has an unimpeachable sentiment — and a flawless execution to boot. –Annie Zaleski


Fables of the Reconstruction (1985)

“Driver 8” kicks off the strongest two-song sequence on Fables of the Reconstruction with a bluesy guitar riff that mimics the forward thrust of a locomotive. Add in the insistent repetition of “Take a break, Driver 8/ Driver 8, take a break” that carries over from the first verse into the chorus, and you’re left with the distinct impression of a train barreling through a Southern landscape with no brakes and a crew strung-out on lack of sleep. But something about the song’s mood or urgency shifts as it arrives at the second verse, where all of a sudden Michael Stipe pauses to soak in the imagery that surrounds him: a tree house on a farm, church bells ringing, children playing in the field. But just as the driving riffs give way to arpeggiated chords, so do these pastoral relics of the South give way to images of power lines and other vaguely sinister representations of modernity. Like many of the best R.E.M. songs, “Driver 8” doesn’t pick sides. Not quite sad and not quite celebratory, it keeps its quiet revelations close to the chest. –Collin Brennan


Fables of the Reconstruction (1985)

Fables of the Reconstruction contains plenty of wisdom — including this song, inspired by the title of the book Life: How to Live written by a local Athens character named Brivs Mekis. The lyrics are whimsical — they detail Mekis’ eccentric habits — but suit the bustling music. In particular, Bill Berry’s drumming bristles with spring-loaded energy, which pushes the song forward and highlights the urgency inherent in Peter Buck’s circular riffs and the water-falling backing vocals. R.E.M. dusted off “Life and How to Live It” occasionally even during their final tour, and it became even more galvanizing as the years passed. –Annie Zaleski


Document (1987)

“The One I Love” is one of R.E.M.’s most straightforward songs in terms of melody and structure: three verses, three one-word choruses, and a bluesy Peter Buck solo thrown in for good measure. The tune’s relative simplicity lent itself to mainstream pop radio and did what “Radio Free Europe” and other early singles could not — it transformed R.E.M. from a scrappy but steady college band into a commercial rock juggernaut. But the thing about “The One I Love”, of course, is that it isn’t straightforward. Not at all. Over the past 30 years, R.E.M.’s first hit single has gained notoriety as one of pop music’s most famous not-quite-love songs. It begins, almost self-consciously, as a love ballad, only to pull the rug out from beneath the listener by referring to the object of love as “a simple prop to occupy my time.” Michael Stipe is at his lyrical best here, painting a picture that shifts from quiet romantic bliss to a desperation larger than words. When he screams “Fire!” in the chorus, it’s not meant to mean anything. You’re just supposed to swallow hard and feel the burn. –Collin Brennan


Automatic For the People (1992)

The final track on Automatic for the People is one of R.E.M.’s most gorgeous songs. Acoustic guitar, organ, and cascades of hymn-like harmonies create a solemn atmosphere that’s lightened somewhat by twinkling piano. Lyrically, “Find the River” addresses the passage of time over the course of a long life (“The ocean is the river’s goal/ A need to leave the water knows”) and ponders the inevitable transition to the next spiritual plane. Using subtle language, “Find the River” reveals this shift isn’t an ending, but something self-sustaining (“The river empties to the tide”). Poignant and reflective — but not resigned, “Find the River” is a fitting ending to a near-perfect album. –Annie Zaleski

Monster (1994)

“What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” is like the “Homerpalooza” of R.E.M.’s catalogue: a tragic story of an old man trying to be cool. It happens to everyone, though, and as Stipe was racing towards his 13th year with the outfit, it’s not unlikely that he was having those very same feelings. Of course, we all know he had very little to worry about — especially, you know, seeing how Monster arrived towards the tail-end of an unstoppable run of albums — and this song was proof perfect. It was a noisy signal to Generation X that the band understood the frequency loud and clear. After all, they were the progenitors of what would wind up being ’90s Alternative, so they weren’t exactly asking questions. They were answering them. –Michael Roffman


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Lightning Crashes: Live on Reuniting, Burying the Hatchet, and Throwing Copper

The story of Live reads like the rock ‘n’ roll fantasy parents tell their children is “unrealistic”: A group of childhood friends from York, Pennsylvania, pursue their musical ambitions without any real illusion that it might result in selling, say, eight million copies of an album.

But that’s what really happened when the band’s third album, Throwing Copper, became an alternative rock sensation in 1994. At the time, the four-piece were game to see how far it could take them, which, as history tells us, was a couple decades as a band, spots on Saturday Night Live and Woodstock ’94, and a handful of singles across several albums that made serious marks at rock radio both domestically and internationally.

live bw sm credit eric forberger Lightning Crashes: Live on Reuniting, Burying the Hatchet, and Throwing Copper

All of that came to a halt in 2009, when a barrage of back-and-forth media allegations and lawsuits ended their tenure with bitterness and anger, betraying their extended history as both fellow musicians and virtual family members. Then, late last year, the fantasy took another surprising turn when the band reunited for a one-off performance in their hometown on New Year’s Eve, opening the door for future touring and new music.

Naturally, the world has changed since Live’s Copper Age of Alternative Rock. And while nostalgia will certainly feed into their appeal, the band feels their new run isn’t faced with the pressures that they originally felt at their epic heights. “There’s definitely a freedom,” vocalist Ed Kowalczyk says by phone from his band’s home base in Pennsylvania, “the same one we felt in the late ‘80s, where we’re just doing it because it feels great.”

You guys went through a well-documented public split that got pretty ugly. How does the process of mending begin?

Ed Kowalczyk: Well, I think it goes back to the old cliché of time heals all wounds. Enough time had gone by where we had settled into a place where I was doing my thing, and the guys were doing their thing, and it just started to settle. We have such an amazing shared history together, and we all missed each other, so it just reemerged in our lives really naturally. Chad and I started to reach out to each other, and it all began with a beer in our hometown of York. And it felt amazing, and it feels amazing right now; we’re, of course, getting ready to do a bunch of shows. We’re working in the studio with not a lot of pressure or anything, so we haven’t put a deadline on ourselves. We’re going to do a bunch of shows this year and try to get something new out later in the year, but again, with no pressure.

Chad Taylor: You know, one of the things that made Live very unique was the fact that we weren’t adults that auditioned into the band; it was literally a band that guys started in middle school. So what happened is even though the band went through obviously a tough time, we still maintained common friends and common family. Most bands don’t really have that. They were always in my ear, like, “You’ve got to reach out to Ed. You’ve got to heal this.” There was a ton of encouragement from friends and family to give each other space and to give it time. I had a family member that called me up, and I was probably spewing shit where I shouldn’t have been, and the family member told me to shut up. That’s when I started to realize that we shouldn’t make this worse.

Kowalczyk: Well, Chad and I have known each other since kindergarten at Devers Elementary here. We’ve known each other most of our lives, and there was so much more shared good times than there were not so good times. Our longevity reemerged in a really special way, and there’s a really unique excitement, like we’re starting over even though we’ve been together for 25-30 years playing in a band. We’ve had this long break and now, what do we want to do? What’s Live doing in 2017? What’s that look like, and what’s that feel like?

Even before the split, you guys were going on hiatus, so there was some desire to take time apart anyway. That can make this coming back together such a more positive thing.

Kowalczyk: Yeah, absolutely. There was definitely that feeling of “Okay, it’s been a long run, come off the gas pedal and open up our horizons.” Of course, it became a longer break than anybody anticipated, but whatever, it is what it is. We’re an established band that probably doesn’t have a right to feel like anything’s new, but we do and it’s pretty cool.

Let’s talk about where you came from for a bit. During the recent elections, there was a lot of talk about Pennsylvania and how it possesses these two very different ways of thinking and living within it. Where does York fall into the identity of the state?

Kowalczyk: My memories of growing up here were of wanting to get out. We didn’t really have a place to play; our adopted hometowns were Philly and New York, probably CBGB in New York City more than anywhere. It’s just a place that you want to get out of as a kid and as a teenager. As you mature, coming back here for me has been a really cool thing for me because there’s something nice about it not being in the center of everything. You can really focus. We’ve got this incredible facility here that’s such an artistic space for our studio and headquarters.

Taylor: The city of York is an intriguing place. People oftentimes have this impression that York is a farm town or something like that, but this is a hardworking, industrial city. It’s culturally diverse, a large mix of black, white, Hispanic people. It’s a real cross-section of people, but it’s also a fairly poor town; 38% of the local economy is in poverty. These are people that lost jobs when all these industrialized jobs left the country, and you can definitely feel that; there’s a hardened effect here. From that, really interesting art has started; without question, the two most famous artists from York are Jeff Koons, the fine artist, and Live.

But then there are some really cool guys, like Mike Hawthorne, one of the head guys at Marvel Comics; he does all the design work there. It’s a very interesting town in terms of the art. The art isn’t prominent. You aren’t driving around finding artistic stuff, but there are tons of earthbound, driven people that through their art, they find inspiration. We were fortunate to come up in that. You can’t pick where you were born; you can’t pick where you were raised. But I actually think it’s a huge component that made our music uniquely blue collar.

live mental jewelry Lightning Crashes: Live on Reuniting, Burying the Hatchet, and Throwing Copper

Was it a big challenge to establish yourself in these other cities where you weren’t from?

Kowalczyk: Right from the beginning, I remember there being this excitement that started small, of course in like Lancaster, playing the Chameleon. I remember playing our first sold-out show there, and there was this incredible excitement. I think we took that, places like The Chameleon, we took it to New York; we got people excited there in the industry. We needed to get a record deal; that was it. We all put off college to make the band work. So we really used this area of where we’re from to fuel that excitement and passion that we had for it, and even though there might’ve only been 15-20 people at CBGB on some nights in the beginning, it felt more successful than that.

Taylor: I can remember the very first time we played at CBGB. Hilly Kristal, the founder and owner of CBGB, invited our band to play. He had learned about us through a girl there named Louise who used to book the bands, and we didn’t really understand at the time what was going on, but it was really an audition. We really played for no one but him. When we got done, he walked up to me and said, “I can’t believe a band like you guys would even be able to sell any tickets or anything in a place like Pennsylvania.” Obviously being from here, I didn’t really even understand what he was saying. “Well, you guys remind me of Television,” and of course he was the guy who discovered Television. And he said, “I think you guys have more in common with that band, and there are people in New York City who don’t know who Television are.” You can’t imagine how young we looked at that time.

Kowalczyk: When we pulled up for the first time to play CB’s, there was a death metal band or some kind of really heavy punk band playing first; it was a three- or four-band bill. And I walked up with my white acoustic guitar at 19 years old, and I was like, “We’re going to get killed in here.” It was this really eclectic club, and just the fact that we were playing there was such a great vote of confidence and inspiration.

Though Throwing Copper was eventually the breakthrough album, a lot of people forget that the album before it, 1992’s Mental Jewelry, actually produced a couple of singles that charted on alt radio. Regardless, following it up with a record that became an all-time top seller was a major feat. Did anyone see that coming?

Kowalczyk: No, I know I didn’t. There’s a part of you that has to be crazy enough to believe that you can, but you will never be prepared for that. It really was a magical period, and those records are so different. There’s such a quantum leap between the two; it was this really exciting time. Part of it was this feeling that music was going through, that sort of renaissance of rock, and all these interesting bands getting played on the real radio, not just trying to tune into the college station. R.E.M. was breaking on real radio, on big radio. It was just an exciting time.

Do you guys feel like you had many peers at the time? As you said, you didn’t really fit into the Seattle sound that was so huge, but you also didn’t really have the same experimental, indie rock roots as The Smashing Pumpkins.

Kowalczyk: We were sort of an odd band from Pennsylvania, but we had really amazing support from people that popped up. Peter Gabriel put us on the WOMAD tour, and I remember standing there during “Operation Spirit”, and I looked over, and Peter was watching the entire show. I thought, “Oh, my god, that’s Peter Gabriel, and he’s watching our whole show.” It was moments like that where I knew we had something.

But it was strange that we weren’t from Seattle; I remember that coming up all the time. But yeah, there were moments like that, like the WOMAD thing; Bruce Springsteen said to Rolling Stone that I had a great voice. We got this inspiration from places that we didn’t necessarily expect it to come from, but then again I was this huge Peter Gabriel fan and I always felt a resonance with his art, but I wouldn’t have expected him to watch an entire show and put us on tour.

Taylor: You know, when you brought up Mental Jewelry, what’s interesting is there’s a whole history of the band and a lineage of the band that’s almost usurped by the hugeness of Throwing Copper. During Mental Jewelry, one of our first really big tours that we ever did, we were supporting the Ramones. The Ramones loved our band and they took us on tour, and we did a cross-Canadian tour in the winter, if you can imagine what that was like.

Kowalczyk: All of the Ramones gathered us in the dressing room in one of these clubs that was in Canada, and they actually gave us these trophies that they bought from a yard sale that day because we were louder than them. They gave us “Louder than the Ramones” trophies, and we were like, “Damn, we didn’t realize that we were that loud.” But it was pretty funny.

Taylor: Yeah, so we did that and then we did the 120 Minutes tour with Big Audio Dynamite, which of course is Mick Jones from The Clash, and PiL, which was Johnny Rotten. We had this really weird CBGB, sort of pseudo-punk rock; I don’t know exactly what you would even call that kind of music, but it was the Ramones, and the guy from The Clash and the guy from the Sex Pistols. And so that was our peer class.

live throwing copper Lightning Crashes: Live on Reuniting, Burying the Hatchet, and Throwing Copper

Having successfully launched a band during a much different time for the music industry, how are you approaching things differently now? It seems like so much less is dependent on record sales and so much of a bigger emphasis is placed on, say, music festival bookings.

Kowalczyk: There’s a lot more festivals in general, and we’re on way cooler festivals with these amazing bands than we were 20 years ago. I don’t know what flipped there, but that’s so inspiring, because we look at these lineups and we’re playing with some of these artists that I’ve never gotten a chance to see, and they’re people that I really want to play with and check out. As far as the creative side goes, I think we’re also getting our heads around how we really fit in and all that stuff, but we’re not thinking about too much. We’re just like, “Let’s book shows, let’s play, let’s get the wheels turning and see where we go.”

Taylor: Well, what we haven’t had is somebody from our record company saying, “Well, what we really need is a single.” I think we just recorded a song the other day that’s nine minutes long, and there’s no need to edit it down and make it so it’ll fit on some format. We were always that way as a band, in following our creative instincts, but once you have a major success like Throwing Copper, trust me, the corporate guys start to show up, and they’re starting to figure out what their bonus checks will look like based on your record sales. That’s definitely not a good influence on your band.

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