10 Best R.E.M. Songs
When R.E.M. released their debut single, 'Radio Free Europe,' from the tiny college town of Athens, Ga., in 1981, there really wasn't an indie-rock scene. There was punk, post-punk and New Wave, all of which contained elements of what would become known as Amerindie, but few bands were making that blend of music without big-label support and some commercial compromise ... at least nobody was paying attention to them. For the next five years, the quartet would rule college radio with a series of albums that still pack plenty of influence 30 years later. (The Decemberists' 2011 No. 1 hit 'The King Is Dead' sounds exactly like an R.E.M. record from 1984.) R.E.M. eventually signed a multi-million-dollar contract with a major label and continued to make terrific albums about hefty subjects -- not too many big-league groups were making records in 1992 like 'Automatic for the People,' a sometimes somber and tuneful meditation on death. The band broke up in 2011, leaving behind a massive catalog of great music. Here are the 10 best R.E.M. songs.
One of R.E.M.'s weirdest songs was the first single from their third album, a change in course from their previous records. Instead of working with the same Southern studio crew that helped shape 'Murmur' and 'Reckoning,' they recorded the album in London with a veteran folk producer. The result was R.E.M.'s densest-sounding record, which yielded oddball choices like this horn-fueled ditty, one of the loosest songs they ever made.
R.E.M.'s big breakthrough, a Top 10 hit, wasn't the love song so many pop-music fans mistook it for. Listen closely, and you'll hear Michael Stipe refer to his loved one as a "simple prop to occupy my time." That's not exactly a compliment. Nevertheless, it pushed their fifth album, 'Document,' into the Top 10 and led to a lucrative record deal with Warner Bros. a year later. 'The One I Love' is also the leanest single on this list of Top 10 R.E.M. songs.
The first single from R.E.M.'s second album was a typically lyrically obtuse song with a jangly guitar riff ringing throughout. In other words, it sounded just like everything on 'Murmur' and the 1982 'Chronic Town' EP. It's also 'Reckoning''s most straightforward song, a three-minute slice of embryonic indie pop with an easily identifiable chorus ("I'm sorry"). It even managed to crack the Top 100 in 1984.
After 1996's 'New Adventures in Hi-Fi,' the band's last album with original drummer Bill Berry, R.E.M. hit a creative barrier. A few songs from subsequent albums manage to stand out, but for the most part, there's not a whole lot to recommend from the '00s. This is the big exception, a terrific song with a monster chorus from a mostly forgettable album. There's even a spark of the old '80s fire in the song's relative simplicity.
One of R.E.M.'s most popular songs is also the only one on this list that people who are totally unfamiliar with their music will quote when faced with an impending apocalypse or some other OMG/WTF moment. Billy Joel ripped off the song's musical and lyrical themes for his 1989 No. 1 hit 'We Didn't Start the Fire,' but Michael Stipe's machine-gun delivery of the random list of names in the verses captures pre-doomsday chaos way better.
R.E.M.'s prettiest song is also their most stripped-down, in every sense: The lyric, about a bunch of friends skinny-dipping, is framed by only a spare piano, a melancholic oboe and reserved strings (arranged by Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones). It comes near the end of the excellent 'Automatic for the People,' capping that album's theme of finding solace in our mortality by taking comfort in our most cherished memories.
'Man on the Moon' is one of the few R.E.M. songs with concrete subject matter at its core. In this case, it's gonzo comedian Andy Kaufman, who died in 1984 at the age of 35. The song, a highlight of 'Automatic for the People,' runs down a number of references to Kaufman's life, including his famous Elvis impersonation and highly publicized skirmishes with professional wrestlers. It also features one of the band's all-time greatest choruses.
After years of giving fans the runaround with their oblique lyrics, it looked like R.E.M. were finally giving them something they could grasp. The song had to be about acid rain, right? Well ... Michael Stipe has dismantled that theory over the years, insisting it had more to do with "general oppression" than environmental anxiety. Either way, the first single from 'Lifes Rich Pageant' contains one of the band's loveliest melodies and a wonderful vocal interplay with bassist Mike Mills.
R.E.M. released 'Radio Free Europe' twice: first with tiny indie label Hib-Tone as their first single in 1981 and then with the bigger indie label I.R.S. as the lead single from their 1983 debut album. We're going with the fuller-sounding 'Murmur' version here, since it was the band's first chart hit (it reached No. 78) and the first track on that still-influential debut album. We're still not sure what it's about (we're not even sure Michael Stipe knows), but we're pretty certain this is where indie rock started.
After 'Green,' their first album for a major label, turned out to be kinda underwhelming, R.E.M. rebounded with this hit single, the biggest of their career (it reached No. 4; the album it comes from, 'Out of Time,' was their first No. 1). Michael Stipe has referred to 'Losing My Religion' as an unrequited-love song, but it's the instantly catchy hook (played on a mandolin by guitarist Peter Buck) that drives the tune. The song's monster success was no doubt propelled by its artsy-fartsy video, with a shimmying Stipe sharing screen time with a bunch of homoerotic images and a bottle of spilled milk. It's a milestone of the form and a perfect complement to this terrific track, the very best of the Top 10 R.E.M. songs.