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”
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.
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”
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.
14. “Life and How to Live It”
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. — A.Z.
13. “The One I Love”
“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. — C.B.
12. “Find the River”
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. — A.Z.
11. “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”
“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. — M.R.
10. “Everybody Hurts”
Automatic for the People (1992)
No doubt the most frequently skipped track on Automatic for the People — other than maybe “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1” — “Everybody Hurts” often gets a lousy rap from a cynical world that might file it away as over-the-top or too sentimental. Of course, R.E.M. isn’t trying to score cool points here or hop on the ballad bus. This is a direct message from the band to young people out there who are listening and struggling to find reason to go on. “When you’re sure you’ve had enough/ Of this life, well, hang on,” Stipe encourages them because we all feel that way sometimes. It’s really the It Gets Better movement in a ballad and likely has saved lives. And while it’s not a song we need to hear most days, the point is that it’s always been there for us on the days when we and others have needed it most. So, hang on. — M.M.
09. “Half a World Away”
Out of Time (1991)
In the hands of many bands, “Half a World Away” — a song about the persistent ache of distance, in both the romantic and traveling sense — would sound far too busy. R.E.M.’s lush arrangements, however, have the perfect balance of texture and velocity. “Half a World Away” is dominated by harpsichord and mandolin, which are braided together to create an ornate melodic foundation, and Michael Stipe’s conspiratorial vocal tone. Swaying organ provides oceanic swells underneath. And, near the end of the song, proud strings jump into the fray to underscore the music’s sweet melancholy. — A.Z.
08. “Man on the Moon”
Automatic For the People (1992)
Out of Time made R.E.M. one of the biggest bands in the world — at least while “Losing My Religion” remained on the charts and converting listeners around the globe. Perhaps the secret to Automatic’s success, then, was never does the band seem cognizant of the fact that the entire world was now listening. Just look at some of the singles, including “Man on the Moon.” In what universe is a half-mumbled rock song about dead cult comedian Andy Kaufman a prudent plan to piggyback on recent success?
And yet, it worked, as audiences demonstrated they’d continue to follow wherever Athens’ finest led them. It’s how a slow, dark album about death and loss went on to sell 20 million copies worldwide. But let’s also give credit where it’s due. As quirky as the strummy “Man on the Moon” may be with its Elvis impressions and Stipe’s talk of board games, pranksters, and historical giants, nothing’s up the song’s sleeve come the chorus other than some of the best rallying vocals in alt rock history. — M.M.
07. “Fall on Me”
Life’s Rich Pageant (1986)
Very few songs about oppression sound as inviting as “Fall on Me.” Yet with veteran producer Don Gehman behind the boards, R.E.M. were sounding more and more accessible by the day, only they weren’t losing what made them so dynamic. This beautiful stunner off Life’s Rich Pageant exemplifies that notion; Stipe delivers one of his finest vocal performances, aided effortlessly by Mills, who sings alongside him on the chorus and handles the bridge by his lonesome, while Buck and Berry get us over the hill with an engine of ungodly college rock sounds. And really, you can’t write a better chant than “Don’t fall on me,” which still belongs on every picket sign out there today. — M.R.
06. “Near Wild Heaven”
Out of Time (1991)
The third single from 1991’s Out Of Time chronicles a relationship at loose ends: “Whenever we hold each other, we hold each other/ There’s a feeling that’s gone/ Something has gone wrong.” Despite the gloomy outlook, “Near Wild Heaven” sounds surprisingly upbeat. (Consider it the musical equivalent of winter’s chilly sunshine.) Chiming guitars, daybreak piano and lead vocals from Mike Mills provide graceful levity, while the chorus boasts Beach Boys-caliber harmonies dotted with longing falsetto and gorgeous counter-melodies. “Near Wild Heaven” both exemplifies Out Of Time’s plush instrumental palette and illuminates R.E.M.’s inventive perspective. — A.Z.
05. “Radio Free Europe” (Hib-tone Version)
Non-Album Single (1981)
R.E.M. spent 30 years finding themselves, intentionally losing themselves, and reinventing themselves. To compare the band’s musical DNA at different points could easily turn up a “non-match.” And yet, for all the evolution to come, there was something so perfect about that 1981 coming-out party, the Hib-tone version of “Radio Free Europe” — for our list, a better version than the Murmur recording. Stipe already sounds comfortable singing like a foreign traveler who doesn’t care that the natives can’t understand him, and we already hear so much of what was to come: Mills’ melodic bass lines, Buck’s arpeggios, and the rallying vocals. All bands hope to make a splash when they introduce themselves to the world for the first time. In R.E.M.’s case, they set the bar for their career by showing up with one of the greatest debut singles of all time. — M.M.