Wednesday, April 02, 2008

The new R.E.M. album “dropped” yesterday. It’s called Accelerate and it’s the loudest they’ve been in years. The band certainly sounds reenergized, but to call the album a “return to form” is disingenuous, as R.E.M. has never limited its musical horizons and have been generally successful in all their endeavors (count me among the champions of 2004’s longish, slickly produced, but often magnificent Around the Sun). The songs on Accelerate aren’t as consistently memorable as on some of the band’s past triumphs, but the new direction is certainly exciting. I’ve often thought of my beloved Scottish rockers Idlewild in terms of R.E.M., but now Stipe and Co. seem to be following the example of that band’s recent Make Another World: big, bold, and bombastic, with production that may obscure the intricacies of the musicianship but that is so thick with R ‘n’ R that none shall care. In celebration, I’ve concocted the following…

Ten Great R.E.M. Songs (The Very Best?) In Chronological Order

Ultimately, it’s all about the songs, man, and our story begins some 25 years ago…

Whether the band’s second album Reckoning was an improvement on their milestone debut Murmur (it was) or a marginal step down is a conundrum that will never be solved, but there’s no denying that it features a trio of R.E.M.’s greatest songs, demonstrating their many strengths. They were never more post-punk or “angular” than on "Harborcoat," Michael Stipe never bared his soul for a greater ballad than "So. Central Rain,” and "Rockville” is the sort of melancholy jangle that will never fail to bring a tear to your eye. "Driver 8” from follow-up Fables of the Reconstruction, maximizes sing-along appeal through the strange and beautiful interlocking of the verse and chorus; never has a lyric carried through from the verse to the refrain been so pleasurable.

Three albums later, on 1988’s Green, the political messages embedded in the band’s songs were as obscure as ever, and God knows what "World Leader Pretend” is trying to tell us. But the song itself is staggering, something akin to a statue, noble, gray and weatherworn. And those shuffling drums, oh yeah! After that, there’s "Orange Crush” to rescue the listener; it’s also certainly about something, but it’s built around such a monstrous bass line that it doesn’t really matter.

Let’s give Mike Mills some credit. His golden voice graces the two best songs on 1991's Out of Time, and "Near Wild Heaven” is tops, the sunniest pop song the band ever wrote that isn’t simultaneously trite. Follow-up Automatic for the People found the band embarking on a mission of pastoral musicality that would eventually put them out of favor with just about everyone, but "Monty Got A Raw Deal” is the most haunting song on an album that introduced R.E.M. phase II (or was it phase IV?). Two rock ‘n’ roll albums later, the band was in reflective mode again, sans Bill Berry the energizer. Don’t write off 1998’s Up as mere middle-aged noodling; it really does push the envelope, if the layers upon layers upon layers upon layers of electronics in "Hope” is any indication. It’s also a mighty fine synth-pop song, and Michael Stipe hadn’t crammed so much language into a single song, while making every word count, since “It’s the End of the World As We Know It.”

Time now to espouse my extreme affection for 2004’s Around the Sun, the album most critics lamented as the moment when the increasingly irrelevant R.E.M. hit rock bottom. Not so! The band was never so mellifluous, the songwriting as strong and subtle and ennobled as ever. "Aftermath” in particular, a song about getting nothing right (is our protagonist GWB?), generates as much pathos as the aforementioned “Rockville,” and that horn section bubbling under the chorus is quite something.

That brings us full circle to Accelerate, which for my money is the musical event of the season, even if I can’t share in the “R.E.M. is back!” enthusiasm. They never went away.

[mp3] R.E.M. - "Accelerate"


Blogger aaron said...

top 10 most egregious omissions from your list (in chronological order):

•everything from "chronic town" and "murmur"!!!!!!!--i mean jeez, you call yourself an r.e.m. fan?

•"life and how to live it"--easily the best song on a pretty meh album

•"fall on me" and "swan swan h"--these songs are so fucking gorgeous--do you hate beauty?

•"crazy"--best cover they ever did

•"exhuming mccarthy" and "it's the end of the world as we know it"--i don't even like "document" that much but i demand you admit how great these are

•"pop song 89", "losing my religion", "drive", "try not to breathe"--your list kind of infuriates me

but on the other hand you're pretty right too, especially about "near wild heaven" and everything on "reckoning". great post.

4:46 PM  
Blogger aaron said...

also you fail to mention how awesome peter buck is

4:48 PM  
Anonymous Luisa said...

I am sorry, but i can't have respect for anyone who doesn't include E-Bow the Letter among REMs greatest songs.

Also I can only assume that the omission of Losing my Religion was done purposely, it being their most famous song anyway?

And what about Drive?

I think this list needs some revision...

10:41 AM  
Blogger Geoff said...

I didn't intend this post to be definitive, but I'm glad to see it has generated controversy. I love all the songs that have been mentioned. Some thoughts:

What?! Fables is a great album, one of their best.

Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy"? Need to hear that. R.E.M.'s "Superman" cover is rad.

Peter Buck is the dude.

I do hate beauty.

6:29 PM  
Blogger aaron said...

no "fables" sucks and everyone knows it does b/c bill berry hates it. also "crazy" is a pylon song, i'm not sure michael stipe has the verbal dexterity to take on the other version

8:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

good old graham mcrae emailed a couple r.e.m.-related links the other day, if you're interested:

"There was an excellent 40 minute interview with R.E.M. that ran on NPR's Fresh Air yesterday. Here's the link:
R.E.M. were also on the Colbert report last week. Here's the link to the interview and performance:


4:59 PM  

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