I have long been a fan of the band REM, and they are a band that, like many veteran acts, has had more than their fair share of compilation albums. Once they reached the point where the believed they had nothing more to offer as a band, after they had soldiered on for thirty years, they released this collection as a way of giving a fair picture of their body of work as a whole. To be sure, many fans of the band will find it is way too heavy on the latter part of their career, but any band that lasts for thirty years is likely to sound far different at the end of a career than at the beginning, and this particular album does give a fair picture of the band’s work as a whole, and even though many fans would want more Radio Free Europe and less Überlin, the album is a good introduction to the body of work of an immensely important band. A track by track review follows:
Gardening At Night: Although the lyrics of this song are a bit difficult to hear, the song is a lovely one that establishes a few elements of the body of work of REM from the start, like a concern with night as well as a love of beautiful harmonies.
Radio Free Europe: An important early song, this driving tune gives early evidence about REM’s longstanding interest in singing about political matters. It happens to be a beautiful song as well, and an enjoyable one to listen to.
Talk About The Passion: From early in their career REM was interested in questions of large significance, and here we have a song that addresses the concern that not everyone can bear the weight of the world, set to some immensely beautiful guitar work.
Sitting Still: A song concerned with wasting time and a lack of progress, this song is a beautiful tune. It’s hard to believe that this music was obscure and underground at the time, given its loveliness and how it has dated far better than most of the music of its day and age.
So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry): A beautiful apology song, this is yet another song that should have been a massive hit but was instead an underground song appreciated by a rabid niche audience. Still, it is a worthy inclusion here.
(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville: A driving tune with some country elements, this is one of the earlier references to towns and cities, and is another song that deals with wasting time and the band’s desire to make something useful of the time they have been given.
Driver 8: With a lovely counter melody in parts of it, the song is a dark story song of sorts dealing with travel, with its melancholy lyrics contrasting with its surpassingly beautiful music.
Life And How To Live It: One of REM’s classic songs about big matters of life and how to live it as they were prone to sing from time to time, this song has some beautiful guitar work and a driving beat, yet another song that should have been a hit.
Begin The Begin: A dark and ominous and brooding political song, this song is a stellar example of 1980’s alternative rock. It goes without saying that the instrumental work is wonderful and the lyrics express a desire to begin again.
Fall On Me: An immensely beautiful, but gloomy, song, that shows the band’s concern for progress as well as crafting lovely tunes with harmonies and amazing guitar work. This song could also show concern for materialistic 80’s culture, as well, a prescient concern.
Finest Worksong: This song, full of fuzzy guitars and driving guitar work, shows a concern among the band for doing the best work that they could do, which appears to be a pretty consistent pattern for them throughout their career.
It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine): A driving song about the state of the world at the time, this song was the first hit that REM had. It still sounds fresh and fun even after all these years.
The One I Love: Another early hit from the group, this song remains ominous and dark even decades after it was released, one of the most deliberately unpleasant “love” songs that has ever existed, and still beautiful for all that.
Stand: A gloriously dumb song, I have read that the band was trying to make a song as stupid as “Louie Louie” with this one, and if that was their intent, they made a song that was stupid but fun, and that has remained so despite being played a lot on the radio.
Pop Song 89: This song, which has some distinct influences from the Doors’ “Hello, I Love You,” this dark song is one of the more ironically titled songs in the REM body of work, but is a lovely song for all that.
Get Up: This song, a somewhat obscure song by the band, it should be noted, is yet another song in the band’s body of work about getting up and using one’s time productively. It’s a good waking up song.
Orange Crush: An ominous song with somewhat odd lyrics that are difficult to parse out, this song was a well-deserved alternative hit, and is probably the darkest song to be written about a soft drink.
Losing My Religion: A beautiful song about losing one’s temper, this song has been a favorite of mine for a long time, and was unsurprisingly a big hit for the band, one of their biggest crossover hits.
Country Feedback (featuring Neil Young): A beautiful and somewhat obscure song, this song features some lovely instrumental work and it is an excellent choice in filling out the band’s work and showing their influence from country.
Shiny Happy People: This song, which has been lightly regarded by many critics, is yet another song that mixes somewhat happy and odd lyrics with a dark political point about Chinese politics, with some backup vocals from the B-52s.
The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite: This song was a fun song that livened up what was otherwise a very serious and gloomy album, and hopefully the band had as much fun making the song as people have listening to it and singing along to it.
Everybody Hurts: This song is sentimental to such a level that it almost passes into the schmaltzy, but for all that it is a song that has brought comfort to a great many people, and it is a beautiful lament.
Man On The Moon: A story song about the late comedian Andy Kaufman, this song became (predictably enough) the title of a biopic about him, and it’s a beautiful and odd song about an odd man.
Nightswimming: Perhaps my favorite song from the band as a whole, this is a beautiful song with a instrumental track full of longing and lyrics about skinny dipping and the concern of being seen naked and memories of the past.
What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?: A dark song about an assault that had been committed against CBS newscaster Dan Rather, this song has lyrics that deal with violence and with concerns about the media, and it is also one of my favorite songs by the band.
New Test Leper: An obscure song by the band, this song features the band struggling with being judged and it makes sort of a song about haters and critics, but a lovely song because it comes with beautiful music and touching singing.
Electrolite: A reflective song about desiring for the end of a troubled century, this is a lovely song even if it is a song for a specific time. The banjo and the song’s wistful, melancholy lyrics are a nice touch.
At My Most Beautiful: This beautiful and touching song features high harmonies and some stellar cello playing, and it is a gorgeous love song that is well worth being remembered among late period REM music.
The Great Beyond: This song, from the “Man In The Moon” soundtrack, is a lovely if somewhat moody that seeks to capture Andy Kaufman’s philosophy to life and his search for odd and bizarre insight.
Imitation Of Life: Also one of my favorite songs by the band, this song has music similar to Driver 8 and lyrics that deal with the way that people pretend to live and try to hide themselves behind a studied air of indifference.
Bad Day: This song, almost a ripoff of “It’s The End OF The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” is dark and political, and reflects the band’s distaste for the politics of both Reagan and George W. Bush.
Leaving New York: This sad and slow song is lovely, and is a song about leaving before one is being left behind, and is a classic example of late REM.
Living Well Is The Best Revenge: This song shows a somewhat tired sounding Michael Stipe showing a great deal of anger at the talking points of someone, set to fuzzy guitar accompaniment.
Supernatural Superserious: A somewhat pretentiously titled mid-tempo song, this tune reflects REM getting older and reflecting on acceptance and rejection and reality and fantasy.
Überlin: This song is pretty enough and has Michael Stipe singing about how he will make it through the night. It’s not clear why the song has the title it does, though. This is a song whose lyrics don’t make the most sense.
Oh My Heart: This somewhat repetitive song can be understood as another ode to defiance and resilience as the band was known to write from time to time, but even if the singing is a bit tired the music is as beautiful as ever.
Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter: This driving song with a very bizarre song features the band trying to return back to their roots, so speak, by matching odd lyrics (with backing vocals from Patti Smith) to rolicking music.
A Month Of Saturdays: This short song is an ode to wanting to rest and get out of the grind of life, which makes sense as this song was recorded as the band was breaking apart and looking to get out of the grind.
We All Go Back To Where We Belong: This slow but lovely ballad expresses the band’s hope that people end up where they belong, and as they they broke up they hoped to be able to go back home.
Hallelujah: This song, the third straight previously unreleased song, suggests the band’s prayerful mood as they ended their time together and looked forward to new ventures.
The career of REM naturally falls into three acts. In the first act, they were independent rockers and tunesmiths whose lyrics are largely incomprehensible but whose songs were pretty. In the second act, they crossed over into the mainstream and had some major hits and became one of the biggest bands in rock & roll. In the third act, they soldiered on after the loss of one of their members due to health problems and continued to make beautiful music even if the singing was often tired and the band seemed to alternate between striking out into unfamiliar directions like electronica and repeating themselves. Still, this album is a great document of the band’s career, and depending on what you like the most, there are plenty of studio albums to look at for those who appreciate the material to be found in this worthwhile best-of collection.