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.