As you probably know, REM officially disbanded this week. The internet being what it is, you read a lot of comments about how overdue it was and that they’ve sucked for the last twenty years. It got me frustrated so I’m throwing my thoughts in.
REM was the first band to broaden my horizons into what is now known as Indie Rock. That’s fitting, since they started that movement in the early eighties. In the nineties, they became the band that rode highest on the alternative wave. Yes, Nirvana is the band that broke it all open but they blazed bright and brief. Besides, Kurt Cobain was a huge REM fan and enlisted their producer, Scott Litt, when it came time to follow up Nevermind.
But maybe you’re not a fan of the whole grunge scene. Maybe you liked the whole pop-punk movement that came afterward. Well, Billy Joe Armstrong was just a metal fan before seeing an REM show. So no REM equals no Green Day.
I will always respect REM for carving out their own niche in popular music. That’s a rare and important achievement. So what if their work wasn’t as relevant or inspired after they became a trio? The last I checked, this is what happens to all bands over time. Everyone still gushes about acts like The Who (myself included) long after their best work is behind them. You judge artists by their prime era and REM’s lasted a lot longer than most of the greats.
To sound like Rob from High Fidelity, they’ll always be a Top Five band for me. So in the spirit of that character, here’s my list of Top Five REM albums and Top Ten songs.
5. Life’s Rich Pageant
“Fall On Me” is the big single but it’s an album where its sum is much greater than its individual songs. The only minus is “Superman” which has gotten annoying over time but that’s okay because it’s only a cover.
Their first album with Litt as a producer is also the first REM album I bought. This is where Michael Stipe perfected his ability to paint pictures with lyrics instead of directly addressing feelings or telling stories. It also has the cruelest love song ever, “The One I Love.”
Their sophomore album took them further into the realm of pop music. Out of all their early albums, it has the individual songs I go back to the most.
Their first full-length album has one of the most appropriate names in history. I can only make out about half of what Stipe is singing but I still know what he’s getting at. It’s a cliché to call music “haunting” but I’m a visual guy and this album always conjures up images of empty houses and misty fields. No other music before sounded like this and none has since, including from REM.
1. Automatic for the People
This is often bandied about as their top album and as much as I like to rebel against popular consensus, sometimes the people are right. My feelings about this album run deep. It was what I listened to when I lost a friend and when I was at my most content. One moment it’s lamenting the gap between imagination and reality, the next it’s pleading for someone to hang on to life. There are songs about yearning for the peace of death and songs about the people who have to pick up the pieces afterward. I’ve sung my kids to sleep with “Nightswimming” and made big decisions with “Find the River” playing in the background. It’s as close to a perfect album as a band can get.
10. Fall On Me
9. Imitation of Life (see, they did make good songs later on)
8. Man On the Moon
7. So. Central Rain
6. Perfect Circle
5. What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?
4. Don’t Go Back to Rockville
3. The Sidewinder Sleeps
2. It’s the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)