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Twenty essential R.E.M. songs

September 23, 2011 |  4:32 pm

Twenty essential R.E.M. songs

When R.E.M. announced its retirement on Wednesday, you could divide reactions into three categories:

    1. “Oh, no! I can’t believe they’re gone.” Cue endless loop of “Everybody Hurts.”

    2. “They were still a band? Whatever.”

    3. And perhaps, most interestingly, “I used to love them, but I stopped listening after [fill in the blank here].” Pull out “Murmur,” which no proper R.E.M. fan will ever tear asunder.

The dirty truth about R.E.M., something that even their most avid fans would have to admit, is that the band had failed to steer the conversation for some time now. Maybe the last time the group seemed culturally relevant was with “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” No matter what your feelings were about 1994’s “Monster,” which is when R.E.M. made its grabbiest bid for stardom, the biggest song off the album should always be rewarded for lodging a catchphrase with one of the strangest origins ever into the public consciousness. To refresh your memory, “Kenneth, what is the frequency?” is taken from Dan Rather’s account of being attacked in Manhattan by two well-dressed men who repeatedly asked this question while punching and kicking at the stupefied newscaster. The attackers were never caught and their motives never known.

Leave it to R.E.M. to create radio bait around such bizarre circumstances. When they were at their highest working order, R.E.M. was a band at once steeped in earthy, offbeat details but with a winning populist streak. With Michael Stipe’s poetic, often-cryptic lyrics and Peter Buck’s ringing guitar lines, the band leaves behind a legacy of radio hits, sleeper favorites, aged chestnuts, downright gaffes and beautifully conceived minor-chord odes. Here’s a list of 20 essential R.E.M. songs, completely subjective and by no means complete. Leave behind your own suggestions in the comments.

-- Margaret Wappler

“Radio-Free Europe”: The kicky, still-fresh single that eventually opened R.E.M.’s full-length 1983 debut, “Murmur.” In the video, Mike Mills looks as if he arrived to this Letterman gig on his skateboard. Check out Stipe’s luscious head of hair!

“Wolves, Lower”: From the 1982 debut EP “Chronic Town,” “Wolves” is nervously wound up around Stipe’s paranoid lyrics, Mills’ stalking bass lines and Buck’s picked Rickenbacker guitar that sounds friendly one minute and spooked the next.

“Gardening at Night”: Another from “Chronic Town,” this video shows the band members playing the song at their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2007. “Gardening at Night” is still one of the catchiest guitar parts Buck ever came up with, an arpeggio-based loop that launched the mid-'80s jangle pop scene.

"Laughing": This "Murmur" track captures the band's post-punk leanings with the clattering opening drums and Mills' slithery bass line, but then it gives way to Buck's sun-dappled strumming.

“South Central Rain (I’m Sorry)”: At the time of R.E.M.’s Letterman performance, this song was too new to even have a title, but in a matter of a year or so, it appeared on “Reckoning” and became one of the band's quintessential songs, a country-tinged roamer built around Stipe’s plaintive chorus.

“(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville”: A live favorite and one of R.E.M.'s most country-inflected, this ditty begs us all not to go back to that podunk town and waste another year. In the video, Stipe hams up the Southern accent and messes around with Mills.

“Green Grow the Rushes”: From 1985’s “Fables of the Reconstruction,” “Green Grow” is based on an obscure folk song. It’s also a lovely evocation of the dark, rural mystery of the American South, as if the kudzu that grows everywhere has started to blot out all the light.

“Fall on Me”: One of R.E.M.’s first songs with an obvious sociopolitical concern, in this case, environmentalism and the costs of industrial growth.

"It's the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)": A kind of post-punk version of Bob Dylan’s "Subterranean Homesick Blues," this gleefully apocalyptic song remains one of R.E.M.’s juggernauts.

“Pale Blue Eyes”: R.E.M. gives a drifty, country spin to a Velvet Underground cover, one of a few that appears on the freewheeling 1987 compilation “Dead Letter Office.”

“Stand”: One of the singles off their major-label debut with Warner Bros., “Stand” is a typically out-there R.E.M. hit song. Instead of talking about finding love or losing love, Stipe is singing about maps and directions. If only this had launched a little-known genre known as “compass rock.”

“Losing My Religion”: A sign of R.E.M.’s maturation into a chart-topping force, this emotional and tense song was born from Buck futzing around on a mandolin. It also introduced a Southern colloquialism to the Yankees of the world; losing my religion means at the end of one’s rope.

“Nightswimming”: A piano ballad that captures an end-of-summer wistfulness. The string arrangement was written by former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones.

“Man on the Moon”: “Here’s a little legend for the never-believer,” Stipe sings on this wonder-filled song that asks all the skeptics to start believing. Believing in what? Well, anything that seems impossible, whether it’s a man on the moon or maybe that Andy Kaufman isn’t dead, he’s just gone wrestling.

“Let Me In”: Written in response to Kurt Cobain’s suicide, this stand-out from R.E.M’s divisive “Monster” still holds up amid that album’s grunge-drunk detours. A stark, drum-free mix of Mills’ churning fuzz guitar, keening organ and Stipe’s aching, arcing vocal, the song captures raw sadness in a way R.E.M. hadn’t expressed before or since.

“Leave”: 1996’s “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” offered returns to form for fans shaken by “Monster,” but this track showed R.E.M. wasn’t ready to give up the darker color palette yet. “Leave” finds Stipe mumbling vague regrets over Buck’s ominous guitar, but the centerpiece is a pulsing feedback loop that sounds like an ever-approaching distress signal. This was R.E.M. sounding ugly, yet sounding like nobody else.

“Electrolite”: A clever balance of R.E.M.’s ramshackle side and its resplendent polish in this song that veers into Hollywood for a moment, name-checking Mulholland Drive and rhyming Martin Sheen, Steve McQueen and C&W sausage king Jimmy Dean.

“E-Bow the Letter”: Stipe gets to sing with one of his heroes, Patti Smith, who provides wounded background vocals to this haunting song.

“Houston”: After a couple of fumbled albums, R.E.M. buckled down for 2008’s “Accelerate.” “Houston” recalls the muscular force of an early hit, “The One I Love," but with an anxious keyboard bleat running through it.

“Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter”: A scuzzed-out adrenaline rocker from the band's last album, “Alligator” not only stands as one of the group's better, weirder song titles, it also features an unlikely assist from electro-vixen Peaches.

-- Chris Barton and Margaret Wappler

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Photo: The band -- Mike Mills, from left, Michael Stipe, Bill Berry and Peter Buck --  in a 1994 photo originally released by Warner Bros. Records. Credit: Warner Bros. / Associated Press

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