Why have a Top 10 when you can have one more? Here are our 11 favourite R.E.M. songs, ranked
Twelve years after the most amicable of splits, R.E.M. remain a gigantic footprint in the musical landscape. FX’s terrific series The Bear only highlights this, returning over and over to the band’s 1994 single ‘Strange Currencies’ at pivotal points throughout its second season. That only amplified things further, bringing the band back together, if only to draw up their own individual R.E.M. top 10s for NME.
Now, nobody loves a list as much as we do, so it seemed rude not to muscle in on the action. But, in our own contrary way, it could only be a top 11. Caveats as usual… this whole list could have been the entirety of any IRS-era album and there’s a longer list of about 40 songs (particularly those from Reckoning, Green and New Adventures In Hi-Fi) that we owe sincere apologies to. Here are our 11 favourite R.E.M. songs.
11. What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?
Never before or since has a deranged attack on a news anchor resulted in such a terrific song. ‘Kenneth’ blows away the gentle monochrome strains of Automatic For The People with a red-lining, trembling guitar riff, a monster (pun-intended) chorus, Peter Buck’s warbling, backwards solo and Michael Stipe in full glam rock star mode. It’s an R.E.M. we hadn’t seen since Green and one we didn’t even know we’d been missing.
10. Life And How To Live It
(Fables Of The Reconstruction, 1985)
There were mixed feelings about R.E.M.’s third album, recorded in England with producer Joe Boyd (Fairport Convention, Nick Drake). Boyd’s production was gentler than Mitch Easter and Don Dixon’s work on Murmur and Reckoning, but the band came with some of their strongest songs yet. The highlight is this superb jangling rocker about Brivs Mekis, a recluse who split his house in two with a wall, living on one side until he got bored of it and then switched to the other.
9. Sitting Still
I’m going to go ahead and call it: Murmur is the single best debut album of all time. Forty years ago, nothing else sounded like it. It’s so fully formed, it’s nigh-on impossible to believe this is the first major work of four guys in their early 20s. ‘Sitting Still’ is an absolute stunner, Peter Buck switching between big open chords, jangling arpeggios and driving power chords while Mike Mills and Bill Berry lock into a frantic groove and Stipe delves into cryptic lyrics that sound like they could mean everything.
8. Radio Free Europe
It takes a special song to pip ‘Sitting Still’ to the title of Murmur’s best song, but ‘Radio Free Europe’ is a really special song. On their brilliant R.E.M.-themed podcast R U Talking R.E.M. RE: Me?, Adam Scott and Scott Aukerman isolate Stipe’s lead vocals and it’s a shiver-inducing experience. The song takes its name from a CIA-backed initiative to broadcast propaganda into communist countries in Eastern Europe, a most un-R.E.M. endeavour. Michael Stipe’s lyrics are typically obtuse but seem to combine a more moral sense of freedom with a tribute to the pirate radio of the 80s.
7. Country Feedback
(Out Of Time, 1991)
One of the band’s most haunting songs, ‘Country Feedback’ (the name is essentially the song’s two dominant musical themes) is a desperate, unravelling stream of consciousness, filled with vivid, disjointed imagery and a heart-stopping vocal performance by Michael Stipe. They’d return to the form a few years later for ‘E-Bow The Letter’ (complete with guest vocals from Michael’s idol, Patti Smith), coming damn close to similar sonic brilliance.
6. The One I Love
As brutal a kiss off to a former lover as you can get. “A simple prop to occupy my time” cuts deeper than any other line Michael Stipe has ever written. And that riff. My Lord, that riff. It’s a simple song and people often talk about the importance of doing the basics well. On ‘The One I Love’ R.E.M. take the basics and turn them into shattering, staggering brilliance.
5. Strange Currencies
I’ve long said that ‘Strange Currencies’ was R.E.M’s most overlooked song, so imagine my delight when the makers of The Bear leant so heavily on the song for season two. Peter Buck’s guitar part is essentially a distorted, feedback-drenched ‘Everybody Hurts’ transposed down a step, but it’s light years ahead of its predecessor. Stipe sounds wounded, determined, vulnerable and defiant all at the same time, Buck gives a divinely virtuosic performance and Mills’ walking bassline back in after the middle eight is utterly sublime. So completely deserving of its delayed spot in the sun.
4. Fall On Me
(Lifes Rich Pageant, 1986)
If we’re ranking individual song parts, ‘Fall On Me’ has R.E.M.’s best bridge and middle eight. Its secret weapon is Mike Mills’ backing vocals. When he and Stipe dovetail and trade lines, it always results in something special. Back in 1986, Berry said that the song’s about acid rain, which brings a horrible clarity to lines like “What is it up in the sky for?”.
3. Near Wild Heaven
(Out Of Time, 1991)
The best pure pop song in R.E.M.’s mighty catalogue and a rare moment in the spotlight for the brilliant Mike Mills. Almost Beach Boys-esque in its perky sunniness (dig those woo-eee-oohs on the chorus) even while Mills sings “There’s a feeling that’s gone / Something has gone wrong”. Reversing roles, Stipe turns harmoniser with aplomb. By the breakdown, there’re two Michaels and two Mikes harmonising with each other and it feels like your heart might burst. Glorious.
2. Losing My Religion
(Out Of Time, 1991)
The song that launched a thousand mandolins. ‘Losing My Religion’ has suffered somewhat from its own success. It’s been so omnipresent for so long that it now gets overlooked in these lists. Heck, even the band didn’t include it on their own top 40. But pull yourself away from the decades of MTV rotation, cleanse your ears and hear it anew. It’s a masterpiece. A song so beautifully assembled that only the best band in the world could have made it.
1. Man On The Moon
(Automatic For The People, 1992)
I’ve always been an avowed IRS-era fan, so it surprised me that my top three were all from the band’s two biggest albums for Warner Bros. But whichever chapter you favour, there’s no denying the dizzy heights of Automatic For The People and Out Of Time. ‘Man On The Moon’ is a wonderful mish-mash of Andy Kaufman-related imagery and probably the best chorus the band every wrote. R.E.M. specialised in pulling gigantic refrains out of thin air, but this one feels like it’s descending from heaven and crashing through your roof.