Where R.E.M -- like any band -- really distances themselves and makes their true case for greatness is in the lesser-known and semi-obscure songs.
Almost exactly three years ago I tried to settle a question many people had asked me (and that I had asked myself): what is the all-time great American band?
The only way to tackle a project like that is to have fun with it. I did manage to have fun, but it was also -- as anyone who cares too much about music can appreciate -- exhausting and at times, excruciating.
Here is the strategy I came up with:
In the spirit of two quintessentially American inventions (obsessions, really), baseball and rock and roll, it seemed like a swell idea to merge the two in a lighthearted exercise designed to celebrate the World Series. If one were to imagine fielding the ultimate all-star team comprised of the greatest “players” from the roster of rock music history, how would one begin? Well, for starters, this project could best be understood as falling somewhere in the spectrum of compulsive list making, a passionate engagement with rock music, and the increasingly ubiquitous phenomenon of fantasy teams that exist in the shadow universe of sports freaks. This discussion might begin with the innocent posing of an impossible question: who is the all-time MVP of rock and roll? Or, who are the chosen ones who would find their way onto the roster of any respectable short list? Most people, once the considerable pool of candidates was properly examined, could quickly reach consensus, right? Keep dreaming. The only thing more inimically American than sports and music is our unquenchable compulsion to compete, to choose a side and see what happens.
Picking the most important (greatest? best? all of the above?) band, I actually had little difficulty. There are a ton of worthy contenders to make a claim for the number two spot, but to me, pound for pound, no American band can touch R.E.M. Here is my quick and uncomplicated summation:
The clean-up hitter and arguably most impressive player on the squad is that most American of bands, R.E.M. Not only the ultimate run producer and homeruns leader (from their rookie season in ’83 through at least ’96, their prime is one extended batting title). Consistency has always been their hallmark, and only the most versatile, fearless and original band could cover the hot corner (at 3rd base) year in and year out. If they’ve shown their age in recent years, it does not (cannot) diminish their credentials: a longer heyday than any other American band, hands down.
Now with the news of R.E.M calling it quits blowing up the Internets, I am obliged -- and delighted -- to put my stake more firmly in the sand and stand by my assessment: R.E.M. is the best (and/or greatest, most important) band America has produced. In terms of influence and output, no one else can touch them. And here's the thing: just about everyone knows the hits, and unlike most bands (even some of the better and best-loved bands) R.E.M could easily fit their "greatest hits" on a double-disc set. That alone would qualify them for the very-short list, getting back to the quality angle. In terms of influence, is there any debate? R.E.M. has the ultimately winning combination of their sound(s) and the underground aesthetic that helped inspire more American bands than Velvet Underground and The Ramones combined (I can't quantify that assertion but I still feel confident in proclaiming it). Actually, how about this: R.E.M. inspired more bands who could actually play their instruments and make worthwhile albums than Velvet Underground and the Ramones combined (throw in the Sex Pistols as well, for bad measure).
Where R.E.M -- like any band -- really distances themselves and makes their true case for greatness is in the lesser-known and semi-obscure songs. That is where we settle into the real meat and potatoes and start to get a handle on how unbelievably diverse, progressive and brilliant the band was for such a long time. Has any band been that good, that consistently, for that long? To me it's not particularly close: R.E.M is it.
Let's examine the best 20 R.E.M. songs that may not necessarily show up on a greatest hits disc. This is to remind the aficionados (as if they need reminding) and make the case more eloquently than words will for how amazing R.E.M was. No more than two songs per album and with perhaps a handful of exceptions, no big radio hits (e.g., no "Losing My Religion" or "Radio Free Europe", etc.). Forget trying to rank them, but let's look at them in chronological order; it only augments the case being made to listen -- and appreciate -- the real evolution of the band and how remarkably multi-faceted they were.
Gardening at Night:
Maps and Legends:
Auctioneer (Another Engine):
Begin the Begin:
Welcome to the Occupation:
King of Birds:
World Leader Pretend:
Monty Got a Raw Deal:
New Test Leper:
Finally, while there are too many enticing tracks to choose, if forced to select the one song that epitomizes everything unique (equal parts eccentric and irrepressible) about R.E.M. -- a statement of purpose and calling card all at once -- I'd go with this one.
Any further questions?
Thanks for the long, remarkable run R.E.M. You rocked us; you are the champions.