Underrated R.E.M.: The Most Overlooked Songs From Every LP
R.E.M. produced quite a bit of music across their 31-year career: 15 studio albums, a rarities compilation and an EP, along with multiple live LPs, soundtrack cuts and hits sets.
While the Athens, Ga., group amassed plenty of hits - including "Losing My Religion," "The One I Love," "Man on the Moon" and "Stand" - their albums also feature plenty of deeper cuts that deserve more shine.
We take a look at the Most Overlooked Songs From Every LP below and throw in a track from their debut EP, Chronic Town, for good measure.
From: Chronic Town (1982)
While technically an EP, this five-song set stands tall as a full-fledged release that established a blueprint for R.E.M.'s early sound and penchant for experimentation. In fact, Chronic Town ends with "Stumble," one of the band's greatest early songs. After beginning with Michael Stipe laughing and playfully uttering the word "teeth," the tune unspools into a wiry post-punk cut with a hypnotic guitar riff, propulsive percussive breakdown and rhythmic grooves.
From: Murmur (1983)
Although critics accuse singer Michael Stipe of mumbling on early R.E.M. albums, his voice is crisp and clear on "Moral Kiosk." What's tougher to parse is the song's meaning: What exactly is a moral kiosk, anyway? Still, it hardly matters, as the song's complexity is a marvel: Freewheeling guitar chime and Bill Berry's precise drumming give way to a surging chorus full of Mike Mills' cascading vocals and a chaotic bridge. Plus, the pre-chorus lyric "So much more attractive / Inside the moral kiosk" is both delightfully obtuse and an instructive way to live life.
"Letter Never Sent"
From: Reckoning (1984)
Being homesick for a place or person that may (or may not) exist is a common theme on many R.E.M. albums. The narrator of the melancholy "Letter Never Sent," a song buried on Side Two of Reckoning, feels emotionally bereft after losing someone. From lyrics such as "Heaven is yours, where I live," it's unclear whether the missing person is gone forever or if the loss is reversible. However, the lovely, wordless vocals throughout convey more sorrow than any turn of phrase.
From: Fables of the Reconstruction (1985)
R.E.M. had a tough time making Fables of the Reconstruction in London, as the unfamiliar surroundings (and weather) weren't always conducive to creativity. Still, the sessions with producer Joe Boyd did yield beautiful songs such as "Kohoutek." Each member of R.E.M. shines on the song: Guitarist Peter Buck contributes majestic jangle-rock riffs, while Mike Mills' burbling bass and Bill Berry's steady backbeat provide a sturdy backbone. Michael Stipe, meanwhile, turns in both indelible turns of phrase ("Courage built a bridge, jealous tore it down") and a delicate, falsetto-driven vocal performance. An exquisite gem.
"What If We Give It Away?"
From: Lifes Rich Pageant (1986)
R.E.M. revisited several early songs on Lifes Rich Pageant (no apostrophe, please), including a brisk tune called "Get on Their Way" that evolved into the loping, twang-kissed "What If We Give It Away?" Not only did the latter foreshadow the band's early '90s forays into folk - and hint that R.E.M. were on the precipice of expanding their sonic worldview - but the song's earnest, soul-searching lyrics are as probing as the album's "Cuyahoga" but maintain R.E.M.'s sense of mystery.
From: Dead Letter Office (1987)
"Wind Out" is one of the best songs heard in the Tom Hanks movie Bachelor Party - which is saying something, since the soundtrack also features the Fleshtones, Oingo Boingo and the Police - but it's a sleeper highlight on the odds-and-ends collection Dead Letter Office. A two-minute punk-surf blast, "Wind Out" captures the frenetic energy and anything-goes vibe of early R.E.M. shows, and proves the band was more lighthearted than people may have realized.
From: Document (1987)
On the surface, "Fireplace" seems like an oddball on the politically minded Document - until you realize Michael Stipe took the lyrics from a 200-year-old speech by Mother Ann Lee, leader of the Shakers, and the song evolves from shaking a rug into the fireplace to throwing chairs into it, an escalation that speaks to creating a spiritual clean slate. Horns from Los Lobos' Steve Berlin, as well as touches of the Fairlight CMI synthesizer, give the song further emotional heft.
"The Wrong Child"
From: Green (1988)
One of R.E.M.'s most affecting songs, "The Wrong Child" is written from the perspective of a kid unable to go outside and play with their peers due to injury or disability. Driven by simple riffs plucked via acoustic guitar and mandolin, the song lets Michael Stipe's empathy take center stage. At the end, when he sing-yowls, "But it's okayyyyy", we know it's not - and our sorrow matches that of the narrator.
From: Out of Time (1991)
Those who grumble about rapper KRS-One being on the song are missing out on one of R.E.M.'s best album openers. An ode to the power of music-as-escape ("The world is collapsing around our ears / I turned up the radio / But I can't hear it"), the organ-frizzed "Radio Song" is an exuberant combo of jazz, hip-hop and orchestral pop, with one of the album's most gorgeous chorus melodies. And how meta is it to have KRS-One intro the song by looking for another radio station since he's bored with what he's hearing? A perfect intro for the sonic grab bag that's to come.
"Monty Got a Raw Deal"
From: Automatic for the People (1992)
It's difficult to choose an underrated song on such a beloved album. However, "Monty Got a Raw Deal" fits the bill: A stark acoustic lament said to be about both actor Montgomery Clift and game-show host Monty Hall, the song is a warning not to trust fame. But it's also a track that encourages people to be themselves and jettison those who don't have your best intentions in mind.
From: Monster (1994)
Although thematically a charming anachronism today - "Star 69" was the phone code used to dial the last number that called you - musically the song is a punchy, punkish glam number that's still a thrill to experience. Stipe's lyrics are also a blast, as he pointedly calls out someone whose subterfuge fails miserably, with pointed receipts: "I know you hung up my line."
"Binky the Doormat"
From: New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996)
Often considered one of R.E.M.'s most undervalued albums, New Adventures in Hi-Fi features plenty of underrated songs, such as "Binky the Doormat." The title's a reference to a character in the Bobcat Goldthwait-directed Shakes the Clown; lyrically, it's also a dark and surreal song about relationships and maintaining a sense of self. Musically, however, it's pure melodic beauty, between fuzzy guitar arpeggios, propulsive organ and a call-and-response chorus between Michael Stipe (the lyrical enigma "I wore my doormat face") and Mike Mills ("Go away!").
From: Up (1998)
You might say every song on Up is underrated, since it's one of the most polarizing albums in R.E.M.'s catalog. However, "Hope" (as the name implies) is a glimmer of optimism amid the uncertainty: A drum machine whirs in the background, as Michael Stipe speak-sings lyrics tinged with spirituality, optimism and searching for something in which to believe: "You want to climb the ladder / You want to go forever / And you want to go out Friday / You want to go forever."
"Beat a Drum"
From: Reveal (2001)
After the storminess of Up, Reveal was a sunnier effort built around brighter textures and electronics. Among the highlights was "Beat a Drum," a lullaby-like effort with undulating atmospherics that shimmer against verdant piano and whimsical lyrics. Understated and beautiful.
"Around the Sun"
From: Around the Sun (2003)
Widely considered one of the least-popular albums in R.E.M.'s catalog, Around the Sun nevertheless contains several gems, including the title track. "I want the sun to shine on me / I want the truth to set me free," Stipe sings as the song begins, atop a strident acoustic guitar. As the track progresses, shivering strings and piano surface in the arrangement, adding more solemnity, as Stipe tries to find (and hold onto) faith during a challenging time. Had "Around the Sun" appeared on another album, it may have been given a fairer shake.
From: Accelerate (2008)
On an album filled with roaring rockers, "Houston" is a defiant outlier: a shanty-like, macabre folk-rocker that sounds like it was beamed in from the Automatic for the People era. The defiance (and somber tone) came from the lyrics, which are told from the perspective of a Hurricane Katrina survivor trying to find some footing after the powers-that-be failed them.
From: Collapse Into Now (2011)
R.E.M.'s final album, Collapse Into Now, contains savvy and subtle callbacks to many other R.E.M. songs and eras. The final song, "Blue," is perhaps the most clever of them all. The track features vocals by Patti Smith, who not only appeared on R.E.M.'s "E-Bow the Letter" but also inspired Michael Stipe to get into music in the first place. Plus, the backmasking, tape-rewind end of the song references the beginning of the very first song on Collapse Into Now - meaning the album is itself a full-circle moment. It's a fitting end to R.E.M.'s career - and a great song to boot.