R.E.M.’s 20 Best Songs

This one goes out to the songs we love...

REM best songs
Illustration by Steven Fiche

    This article was originally published in 2017, but we’re dusting it off for Michael Stipe’s birthday on January 4th.

    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 catalog 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 we find ourselves turning to these days more than most. And, luckily, there are plenty more where they came from.

    Matt Melis

    20. “Begin the Begin”


    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

    19. “Pretty Persuasion”

    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

    18. “E-Bow the Letter”

    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. — M.M.

    17. “Überlin”

    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. — M.R.

    16. “Walk Unafraid”


    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

    15. “Driver 8”

    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. — C.B.