Strange times bring unexpected heroes. And in these unprecedented times, one silver lining has been the renewed appreciation of one of the greatest American bands of all time.
R.E.M. have become unexpected musical heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic with the apropos “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” becoming an anthem for the crisis after frontman Michael Stipe sang a snippet of the song in a video shared on March 17.
The title alone makes it easy to understand why the 1987 song has become the unofficial anthem of 2020. But for those first getting into the Georgia-based alt-rock quartet of Michael Stipe, Mike Mills, Peter Buck and Bill Berry (the lineup from 1980 through 1997 until Berry’s departure) or those who haven’t listened to R.E.M. for some time, here is a guide to 10 of the band’s best tracks.
Some are singles, some are deeper cuts, some may have been forgotten. These songs (which are from 1983 to 1998) are a reminder that at their peak, R.E.M. was as smart, musically clever and talented and as important as any band. There is a reason why R.E.M.’s disciples range from Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain to The National over the years. Start with these 10 songs and you will see why.
This rocking gem off 1986’s Life Rich Pageant is classic R.E.M. It delivers social consciousness with a brilliant hook and deep subtext, though it seems idealistic as Stipe sings at the opening: “Let’s put our heads together/And start a new country up.” The song turns into a powerful message about how Native Americans were taken advantage of and it’s all done with a superb pop/rock melody.
“Begin the Begin” – 1986
Just that sneaky, snake-y opening riff alone is enough to make this track — also from Life’s Rich Pageant — into an alternative standard. As Stipe’s vocals rise to an almost anger and the band matches him with an explosive rock crescendo, the song becomes as intense, fiery and savage as any punk or metal anthem you will find.
“So. Central Rain” – 1984
One thing R.E.M. did as well as any band ever was to bring listeners into the song immediately through killer riffs and brilliant opening lyrics that pique your interest. Just like “Begin The Begin” this one comes in with a mesmerizing opening riff leading into Stipe’s haunting question: “Did you never call/I waited for your call/These rivers of suggestion are driving me away.” It’s such an alt-rock classic that Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke called it his favorite R.E.M. song in an interview with Stephen Colbert last year. And for damn good reason. The pain in his voice as Stipe declares “I’m sorry” in the refrain is emo a decade before anyway knew the word.
“Country Feedback” – 1991
One of the band’s most poetic and haunting songs, this hypnotic, mid-tempo anthem almost has a Velvet Underground-esque feel in the way it builds in suspense and fury. And Stipe’s anguished vocals are the perfect complement as he sings, “It’s crazy what you could’ve had/I need this” repeatedly. A perfect moody rocker, Stipe called “Country Feedback” his favorite R.E.M. at a 1998 show where they performed it with Neil Young. There is no higher recommendation than from Stipe himself.
“World Leader Pretend” – 1988
“It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” returned to the charts this year in part because it feels so relevant today, but R.E.M. had an amazingly accurate prophetic feel at times. Just look at this beauty from 1988’s masterful Green, which unfortunately feels sadly accurate in 2020. Though this song is actually about inner turmoil and inner conflict. In particular: “This is my world and I am the World Leader Pretend” who doesn’t shake their head in sad dismay thinking of where we are today?
“You Are the Everything” – 1988
Every truly great band, from the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin to the Replacements, has been able to excel at both rock songs and ballads. R.E.M. is no different. This gorgeous, wistful ballad is as sweet and tender a song as Sinatra singing a 4 am lullaby, delivered with sheer perfection. Like so many R.E.M. songs it takes listeners on a lyrical journey, starting with anxiety and evolving into a magnificent peace.
“At My Most Beautiful” – 1998
This ballad is one of the best late-era R.E.M. songs. Starting with the soft, sweet piano, which fits perfectly given Stipe reportedly once said this is a tribute to the Beach Boys — and is a gorgeous, straight-ahead love song. It captures the silly little moments of being in love. “I save your messages/Just to hear your voice,” Stipe sings. Who in love hasn’t been there?
“Photograph” – 1993
Appearing on both the Natalie Merchant collection Retrospective 1990 – 2005 and the 25th-anniversary edition of Automatic For The People in 2017, this true collaboration between friends is an absolute pop treasure showcasing two of the most-thoughtful Gen X vocalists. It should surprise no one they infuse this beautiful look at the mysteries of a found photograph and its subject with a gentle caring that makes the song so much more haunting.
“Talk About the Passion” – 1983
The second single from Murmur set an early tone for R.E.M.’s career by mixing pointed lyrics about hunger with an infectious and joyous pop hook. The result remains one of the band’s standout tracks nearly 40 years later. Like so many R.E.M. songs here, it remains sadly relevant today.
“Nightswimming” – 1992
Taken from Automatic For The People, this absolutely gorgeous and sweet song — anchored by piano and is a sublime mix of pop and nostalgia. “Nightswimming, remembering that night/September’s coming soon/I’m pining for the moon.”