On 14th February, the Guardian printed a list of their top ten R.E.M. songs. That’s nothing if not a challenge, is it? I’ve loved R.E.M. since I first loved music, and this list is very much personal to me – I’ve not done anything ‘obscure’ that I ‘think you should hear’, because they’re not that kind of band. If you’ve not discovered them yet, then you probably never will, or they’re not for you. Either way is fine, but these are mine. If this doesn’t work for you, I have enlisted a guest writer who – provided he finds a keyboard – will provide a different perspective at some point over the next few weeks.
Try Not To Breathe (Automatic For The People) was the first R.E.M. song I ever remember falling in love with; I’d got Automatic for the People on cassette before a holiday to (I believe) Crete, and listened to it time and again on the bus transfer across. When I first moved to university, it was the first song I played in my new space – the first time I’d ever been able to do that. I know Everybody Hurts might be more uplifting and positive, but there’s something about TNTB that sounds more real to me. ‘I will try not to burden you’.
Life And How To Live It (Fables of the Reconstruction) is a song about a man who divides his house in half and lives in each half for six months at a time. So far as I know it’s also a song that my mum played in an assembly one time upon my recommendation, and it’s nice to be able to influence other people like that. It’s a great story to the song, too; ‘if I write a book it will be called Life and How to Live It’; indeed, I think its based on a true story and the chap did exactly that, with a chest of the books being found in the house after his death.
Carnival of Sorts (Box Cars) (Chronic Town) is a song I came to properly appreciate when I was writing about the Chronic Town EP for a university assignment. There’s a real sonic imagery to it – the feel of the carnival, the shunting of the box cars; the way it’s done it almost feels like you’re walking through a tatty fairground as you’re listening to it, even with the lyrics as intermittent as they are.
UBerlin (Accelerator) There remains very few R.E.M. songs with which I haven’t got a connection of any kind, but as such, it’s always a pleasure when it happens with a ‘new’ one (it can be old ones but heard anew, but this is fairly genuinely new). UBerlin is the most recent of those; it resembles Reveal-era R.E.M. to me, if a little harder sonically, but it trots along delightfully and has that rather cool underground-style video.
At My Most Beautiful (Up) For a time, there was no song I listened to other than this. Indeed, one weekend I lent my single of it to a friend and ended up having to buy a replacement so I could keep listening to it. I was a teenager then, young, and both excited and worried about what love might bring in the future. To look back now, as an adult, and see the softness and beauty in the song makes it more a wistful than an embarrassing trip down memory lane – knowing that life wouldn’t be like that anyway, and knowing it isn’t, but still hoping it might one day have been so.
Little America (Reckoning) For my money, this is the first ‘rock’ song R.E.M. recorded. I’ve really only listened to it as often as I have because it followed Don’t Go Back To Rockville, but gradually I’ve begun to enjoy the parable of becoming lost in the big ether more than the story of the small town. It remains quite frenetic, and I can’t sing along with much more than the chorus, but it is also very compact; contained within itself and personal.
Laughing (Murmur) This was a really tough choice – it was either Catapult of Laughing as the song I most enjoy off of Murmur, but there’s something in the catchiness of Laughing that won through in the end. Both very much the sound of old-school R.E.M., jangling guitars, muffled lyrics, catchy tunes with choruses, but Laughing just wins out.
Fall On Me (Fables of the Reconstruction) Back to the beauty of the sound again; there’s a really euphoric feel to Fall On Me, as if the heavens are opening to allow the vision of the song through. Probably the R.E.M. song that I’d most like to hear on the radio – it’s a real departure from the world into somewhere else, so being surprised by that would be fairly otherworldly.
Nightswimming (Automatic For The People) Ah, the most beautiful of them all. If ever you’ve wondered what Mike Mills brought to R.E.M., then listen no further than a live version (a fairly rare one) of Nightswimming. It’s a simple piano line, but evocative, and Michael Stipe’s vocals are deep enough and low enough to only serve to add to it.
Imitation of Life (Reveal) Although Up was rather good, it was pretty low-key and was very obviously ‘drummer free’ music. The time away before Reveal came out was..a bit mysterious. To blast back into the popular consciousness with a particularly
summery-poppy-exuberant song was a real treat. Even now it can bring a smile to my face, and take me back to a time when the whole world was my oyster.
As for the bubbling unders; the songs that narrowly missed the cut for me….
Driver 8, Wendell Gee, Bad Day, Favorite Writer, Near Wild Heaven, Find The River, Low, Country Feedback, The Wrong Child, Catapult, So. Central Rain, Gardening at Night (Slow) – many more that I probably forgot, too.