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“Dolby’s Top 10 R.E.M. Songs of All Time”

It all started with a baseball bat. I mean, that’s why we listen to music in the first place, isn’t it? It’s a siphoning from a place that is different from our own, so that we can BE in a place different from our own.

If I learned anything from reading R.E.M.: A Perfect Circle by Tony Fletcher, it’s that a separate book could have probably been written on each of the individual albums, at least each of the albums featured here. Each eschewing its predecessor considerably in style and influence, they’d begin with a writing process of Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry completely composing the music, and they would culminate in Stipe getting the music and writing the vocals. This tried and true formula led them from the naive catchiness of their early stuff, on through the dark ebbs of Automatic for the People, and saw the close of Bill Berry’s swan song, the staggeringly underrated 1996’s New Adventures in Hi-fi.
You know the look in somebody’s eyes when they just HAVE music. It’s a green and yellow leaf falling from a tree, a leaf that will never reascend, but it’s also a truth, and it’s a truth I try to foster on this blog inasmuch as I can. So even if you don’t own all the albums, this list should at least, I hope, prove the greatest hits collections to be grossly insufficient.

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10 “Flowers of Guatemala” (Life’s Rich Pageant)

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This song is about PEOPLE, and it’s also about FLOWERS, but above all it’s about how the two can be one and the same. The feeling conveyed is one of almost a floating harmony: engagement, integrity, but the driving HOPE of discovery in a new place.

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9 “Nightswimming” (Automatic for the People)

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I recently shared 10,000 Maniacs’ song “Verdi Cries,” the closeur on their breakthrough (and by far best) album In My Tribe, and said that it was “the one song that upstages R.E.M.’s “Nightswimming.” Compounded by the fact that this songwriting drew directly on the wake of Stipe’s and Merchant’s alleged affair, the aesthetic influence is undeniable, “Nightswimming” only sped up a little, piano ballad making bleeding muse out of the sorrow of innocence lost.

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8 “Low Desert” (New Adventures in Hi-fi)

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This song is proof that R.E.M. could actually ROCK. Not that this album lacks elsewhere in stadium-ready riffs. But all of them, whether on “Binky the Doormat,” “Wake-up Bomb” or “Bittersweet Me” fail to be as fun, for simple dark, Dionysian catharsis, as this penultimate track which is the perfect kiss-off between the album’s bombastic innards and the gorgeous reflection of the final cut, “Electrolyte.”

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7 “Talk about the Passion” (Murmur )

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When I make best-of-R.E.M. mix CD’s, which I do far more often than going to the dentist, this song is usually first, because of chronology; either this or “Laughing,” which would have likewise been a credible choice for this list. I think it’s Peter Buck’s best guitar riff of his career, and it’s stately, aching moments such as this song’s intro that put them on the map, and endeared them to the snobbiest tastemaking crowds, as early as 1982, in Greenwich Village and larger New York City.

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6 “Me in Honey” (Out of Time)

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Speaking of riffs, this one would expressly NOT qualify as Buck’s best, but that’s also part of what makes it so beautiful. There’s a b-side inclusion on the re-release of Lou Reed’s Coney Island Baby called “Leave Me Alone,” which employs the same battering-ram guitar riff for the entire five and a half minutes. “Me in Honey” is more like a shade under four, and the riff isn’t quite as sophomoric and intimidating, but it is even simpler. Another classic album closeur, something R.E.M. would make their staple.

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5 “Stand” (Green)

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Ok, I diss on the “greatest hits,” but I did include this one and “Nightswimming” on this list, each of which I used to hear regularly in this Whole Foods I worked in. Hey, at least no “It’s the End of the World as We Know it (And I Feel Fine)”.

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4 “Exhuming McCarthy” (Document)

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You could say it’s funny that R.E.M. took almost until the end of Reagen’s tenure to release a political song, but I can’t think of any they put out before this. It’s political, it’s satire, but it’s also a basic soundtrack for living in America, with the repeated chorus: “You’re sharpening stones / Walking on coals / To improve your business acumen.” Some things haven’t changed since the ’80’s, Stipe’s charade of capitalist finger-pointing still rings true.

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3 “Wendell Gee” (Fables of the Reconstruction)

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Sometimes timeless pop gives the impression of having been written by someone at, or near, the end of life. Stipe sounds wise, and hurt, far beyond his years on the closeur of this just the band’s third album, and the success of music like this hinges on the listener’s observation that, Whoa, I’ve never thought just that, and I wouldn’t want to either.

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2 “Letter Never Sent” (Reckoning)

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“Heaven is yours” repeats Stipe in the chorus of this seemingly unassuming track in the middle of their second album, an album which featured the prominent single “So. Central Rain.” A couple key components of this song: the unorthodox phrasing of the chorus, the “Oh, oh, oh” session harkening to Murmur’s “Moral Kiosk” (though not quite as entertaining), and the vocal of this ecstatic, which started as something so “simple so far.”

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1 “Tongue” (Monster)

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No one could say guitar isn’t featured at ALL in “Tongue,” but I’m pretty sure there are only seven “notes” played by it: the texturally languid “solo” of Peter Buck’s a couple minutes in. Is it symbolic of the fact that in life, your opportunities to say something your own are so few, and so much of it could be more easily filled with other uses of your “tongue”? Probably.

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