Peter Buck won’t be playing your local arena or stadium any time soon in the biggest alt-rock band in the world, mainly because R.E.M. broke up very decisively in 2011. But that’s not to say he isn’t sprinkling his melodic guitar genius and songwriting brilliance far and wide. That’s not to say he isn’t busy collaborating with a string of extraordinary musicians across a diverse range of genres. His presence on a record gives all the assurance you need that it’s an excellent record.
Just look around now. There’s Peter Buck fresh from touring a wonderfully weird second album with acerbic ex-Auteurs frontperson Luke Haines. There he is releasing a new LP as a member of the No Ones, with his long-time musical cohort Scott McCaughey and two members of I Was King. There he is, too, producing and playing on the shimmering new record by Portland power pop band Eyelids.
Peter Buck has always been the consummate collaborator, even outside of being one-quarter of the legendary Bill Berry, Buck, Mike Mills, and Michael Stipe unit. A session musician here, a co-songwriter there. But it’s plain that he does what he does now out of love, with no interest in “the business”, or achieving anything like the commercial success of his old band. He knows fine tunes when he hears them, and he’s happy to serve those fine tunes in the same roving capacity as other supreme guitar players who once belonged to game-changing alternative bands. Like Johnny Marr. Like Graham Coxon.
So here, in chronological order, are ten of the best tracks Peter Buck has collaborated on outside of the Athens band. They are songs are enlivened by his signature arpeggios, stemming from what Mike Mills memorably called the “best right hand in the business”. They’re songs enriched by his intricate picking style that made “So. Central Rain”, “I Believe”, and “Driver 8” such sacred pillars of folk-rock. Or they’re songs graced by his chiming Rickenbacker chords or his baroque mandolin phrasings, in the fine tradition, respectively, of “Living Well Is the Best Revenge” and “Losing My Religion”—no posturing solos. No histrionics. No overplaying. Just rich, subtle, and mellifluous riffing and twanging of the kind that lay the foundations of college rock and inspired a generation of guitar anti-heroes.
The Replacements – “I Will Dare” (1984)
Let’s begin with a track Buck contributed to in the glow of R.E.M.’s early masterpieces, Murmur and Reckoning. He stepped up with his mandolin when the Replacements needed help pursuing a softer and more song-based direction on their Let It Be album after they’d grown weary of pandering to the Minneapolis punk scene. That’s him on the blistering opener, “I Will Dare”, with a bright and jangly interlude that’s a far cry from Bob Stinson’s characteristic thrashing guitar solos. Indeed, his zestful plucking at the 2:12 point encapsulates the band’s transition to legendary alt-rock status that Buck is widely questioned on the matter. “More people bring that up to me than anything else,” he told author Jim Walsh in 2009. “And I mean way more than anything else.”
Billy Bragg – “You Woke Up My Neighbourhood” (1991)
You might want to ask Peter Buck about his relationship with country rock when not asking him about the Replacements because that genre infiltrated R.E.M.’s music and pervaded his Athens-based collaboration with Billy Bragg in 1991. Indeed, he captured the Southern vibe of “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville” when he co-wrote “You Woke Up My Neighbourhood” with the British singer in 1991. He also added acoustic guitar and mandolin to the song’s rootsy concoction of fiddle and pedal steel, as Bragg sang dolefully in remembrance of “skipping on the porch” with a lover now departed. So while that year was mainly about “Shiny Happy People”, “Near Wild Heaven”, and Out Of Time, Peter Buck also powered this beautiful song, the highpoint of Bragg’s wonderfully eclectic Don’t Try This at Home album. You might recognize the backing singer, too.
Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3 – “Adventure Rocketship” (2006)
After Bragg, Peter Buck worked with another British troubadour, Robyn Hitchcock, who was not so much a disciple of Woody Guthrie as Syd Barrett. The R.E.M. guitarist had formerly played with the ex-Soft Boy on his Globe of Frogs album of 1988, but he and McCaughey, with drummer William Reiflin, became his backing band in 2006 and released the rollicking “Adventure Rocketship”. It was here that Buck, now stationed in Seattle, proved that he could turn his hand to psychedelic space rock (or, at least, a satirical, hermaphrodite-referencing version of it) with his propulsive playing and crunching chords. It was exciting because he never got to do that with R.E.M. unless you really want to count “Man on the Moon”.
The Decemberists – “Calamity Song” (2011)
Peter Buck was more what you might call “quintessential Buck” on the Decemberists‘ 2011 album The King Is Dead, probably the best set of original folk-rock songs since Fables of the Reconstruction. In the same year that he, Stipe, and Mills sadly called it a day as a band on Collapse Into Now, Buck evoked the 1983 classic “Talk About the Passion” as a guest player on the lighter-than-air “Calamity Song”. His 12-string exuberance complemented Colin Meloy’s spirited vocals perfectly on a record basking in the warm Americana sound synonymous with its producer: fellow-Portland resident Tucker Martine. It all made for a track as defiantly upbeat about the end of the world as another classic R.E.M. song we could mention.
Arthur Buck – “Forever Waiting” (2018)
Key to Peter Buck’s success as a collaborator with the Decemberists, and pretty much anyone, was his spontaneity and speed at originating great melodic ideas. He certainly took these strengths into his work with acclaimed Ohio singer-songwriter Joseph Arthur for a one-off album in 2018 under the name of Arthur Buck. Out of sessions that lasted just two or three days at his home in Mexico, Buck could claim “Forever Waiting”, particularly as an unqualified success in the co-writing, strumming, and production department. His playing sounds more lo-fi, intimate, and eerie than ever before on this fine tune, in harmony with Arthur’s haunted vocals on the theme of spiritual decrepitude. Yes, that old chestnut.
First Aid Kit – “Rebel Heart” (2018)
Back in Portland, Peter Buck hooked up with Swedish folk duo First Aid Kit, old friends since he visited them on the video set for their 2015 cover of R.E.M. song “Walk Unafraid”. He helped them on their accomplished fourth album, Ruins, with Tucker Martine once more bringing the Americana vibe. The guitarist delivered on the opening track, “Rebel Heart”, a melancholy, Gram Parsons-influenced triumph. His impeccable twanging added the weight of sorrow to those peerless Söderberg expressions of self-doubt. More than this, at the 3:32 mark, his arpeggios joined forces with steel guitar, trumpet, vocal harmonies, and viola on a profoundly affecting “all is futile” coda.
Filthy Friends – “Last Chance County” (2019)
Having worked with so many illustrious names (and a load we haven’t even got room to mention here), Peter Buck summed up his collaborative approach to making music in 2019 as a member of Filthy Friends. “If you have good players and you know what you’re doing, and you have a feel for it — it’s not that hard,” he told Salon. His second album with the Corin Tucker-fronted group that included McCaughey, Linda Pitmon, and Kurt Bloch only took ten days to record. Furthermore, it sounded urgent and convincing, fuelled by a spirit of protest. Buck was at his squalling best on “Last Chance County”, in sync with the Sleater-Kinney singer’s punkish outpourings as she recaptured, in modern America, the frustration she felt as a teenager on a bus in a depressed college town in the 1980s. “The occupants are mostly drunk.”
Luke Haines and Peter Buck – “Beat Poetry for the Survivalist” (2020)
Peter Buck’s 2020 Beat Poetry for Survivalists album with former Auteurs frontman Luke Haines was similarly characterized by an outpouring of frustration – though of a deeply more surreal kind. The guitar man laid down the music with McCaughey in the US before sending it to Haines in the UK to do his stuff and return it. The result was an unlikely synthesis that benefited from a rocking McCaughey/Pitmon rhythm section. Buck went in for snarling, warped and Monster-esque guitar sounds that proved the perfect foil for Haines’ caustic wit, no more so than on the (almost) title track, where the singer vents his spleen on transistor radios, Trout Mask Replica, electronic beeps, and smoking weed in America. Could it be that he’s anti-hipster?
The No Ones – “No One Falls Alone” (2020)
Peter Buck entered into a much sunnier collaboration in 2020 with McCaughey, Frode Strømstad, and Arne Kjelsrud Mathisen, the latter two being of the Norwegian power pop group I Was a King. He embarked on the Great Lost No Ones Album after a chance meeting with the guys at a music festival in Norway, the process proving natural and easy. “They asked me if I had any songs, and I always have a couple, and Scott wrote the lyrics,” he told Billboard. So Lou Reed and Metallica, it most definitely was not.
The laidback vibe notably fed into “No One Falls Alone”, a blissfully melodic and uplifting slice of jangly pop that’s not only reminiscent of the Jayhawks (who Buck, of course, has worked with) but also features a guitar solo—just a little one.
Eyelids – “Lyin’ in Your Tomb” (2023)
Bang up to date now, and Peter Buck is a massive factor in the fourth album by Portland band Eyelids as producer and occasional player. Clearly simpatico with John Moen and Chris Slusarenko’s inspired guitar tuneage of the Big Star and Teenage Fanclub kind on A Colossal Waste of Light, he strikingly does his 12-string thing on “Lyin’ in Your Tomb”. He blends dreamily with a bunch of top musicians who practically all hail from some renowned alt-rock band or other (Decemberists, Guided by Voices) on a song that’s weird and hypnotic in all the right ways. But if you want a R.E.M. song to compare it with? Well, probably “I Remember California” from Green, specifically the “edge of the continent” bit at the end where it goes all eerily trippy.