I vividly remember the first time I heard R.E.M.’s “Radio Free Europe”. It was the Summer of 1983, and The Police’s Synchronicity was battling the Flashdance Soundtrack for the top position on Billboard‘s Top 200 Albums chart. That summer, I was working in Wisconsin at a resort, where shenanigans much like what is depicted in the movie Caddyshack or Meatballs happened. I was listening to the alternative radio station as I was getting ready to play basketball with some other workers when that very song came on the radio. That song immediately struck a chord with me that has yet to let lose of me.
At that moment, I thought I heard a nod to the past with the jangling guitars as well as a leap into the future with the murky production, lead singer Michael Stipe’s vocals buried in the mix and a strong rhythm section that ran counter to what the Eighties’ production values called for. For once, that rhythm section had been turned in the mix, only to create a haunting mood, unlike anything else we heard at the time. Man, did R.E.M.’s sound grab me.
This was one of the few bands that I actually got to enjoy their slow, steady rise to superstardom, then after reaching that golden ring, I watched them struggle to maintain their artistic dignity while turning away from super riches. To me, R.E.M. was, along with U2, THE groups of my generation. R.E.M. got their start by playing parties in the early 1980s, but were selling out arenas as the 80s ended.
So, in honor of one of my favorite bands who worked so hard to maintain their artistic integrity throughout their career, I present to you my Top 20
20. “Shiny Happy People” (1991). I know that many of you probably hate this song. But, I always felt that R.E.M. were secretly bubblegum music aficionados. Plus, the lyrics were perfect for parody. The best? One of my former microbiologist friends used to sing “Tired Cranky People” with that song.
19. “Superman” (1986). In 1987, I saw R.E.M. at Millet Hall on the Miami University campus in Oxford, Ohio. The next day, we took my older son, who was two-years-old at the time, to get some frozen yogurt. He preceded to entertain the employees at the yogurt shop by singing this song. I know that the song is a cover song, but that moment will always hold “Superman” in a special place in my heart.
18. “Stand” (1988). This is the third song in R.E.M.’s bubblegum trilogy. It remains my favorite of those three songs. Of course, this song also is associated with a fun moment for me. When my younger son was getting close to turning one, this song was popular. Because he was close to walking, he would sit on my stomach, grab my thumbs with his death grip, press his legs so he could stand up. The first time he did that was when “Stand” was playing. So, the song became a catalyst for his new trick.
17. “Can’t Get There from Here” (1985). This song never really found the audience it deserved. This is R.E.M. at its artfully most funky.
16. “I Believe” (1986). I love the word play in this song, which is a call-to-arms anthem and should be adopted by protesters everywhere.
15. “Exhuming McCarthy” (1987). Before this song was released, you kind of got an inkling that R.E.M. was a socially-conscious band. After the Document album was released, they left no doubt. This song is an anti-conservative diatribe.
14. “The One I Loved” (1987). People! This is NOT a love song! It is a bitter, stalking-your-ex-lover song, in the same mode as The Police’s mega-hit “Every Breath You Take”.
13. “Supernatural Superserious” (2008). By the time this song was release, R.E.M. was down to a trio, as drummer Bill Berry had retired nearly 10 years prior. This is one of the band’s most hard-rocking punkish song of their trio days.
12. “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” (1994). When this song was released, R.E.M. was just ascending to the title of “World’s Greatest Band”. They finally made the rocking album they have been promising for nearly a decade. In typical Michael Stipe fashion, he took a phrase used by the assailants that beat former CBS newscaster Dan Rather to fashion lyrics in this rocking song.
11. “Imitation of Life” (2001). This is the best song of the trio era. And, when I began this countdown, I really thought this was a Top 10 song. Then again, in most artists’ catalogs, it would be a Top 10 song.
10. “World Leader Pretend” (1988). This song has gained meaning as the current president has taken on power. It’s scary that this song actually predicted a president like Trump, nearly 20 years in advance.
9. “Everybody Hurts” (1992). Here we have one of the band’s greatest ballad that actually gives the listener hope. Humans are more alike than they think.
8. “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville” (1984). This little ditty is a nice country rock song done only as R.E.M. can do.
7. “Radio Free Europe” (1983). Here is the song that started a million soundalike post-punk alternative bands. Very few artists could live up to this song.
6. “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)” (1984). This was the song they played on their first network performance when they appeared on Late Night with David Letterman. This song probably inadvertently started the whole adult alternative format.
5. “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight” (1992). This song brings a sense of levity to a serious work of art as Automatic for the People. The abstract lyrics are full of absurdities that makes the song so dear to me.
4. “Fall on Me” (1986). Back when this song was released, some people of my generation were just discovering their political voices. While most followed the conservative revolution promised by President Reagan, an enlightened few recognized the meaning behind this song and were influenced to voice their opinions. Just in case you missed it, this is a pro-environment song, and my wife’s favorite R.E.M. song.
3. “Nightswimming” (1992). What began as bassist Mike Mills’ piano noodling, was turned into the most beautifully yearning song in R.E.M.’s magnificent catalog.
2. “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” (1987). Here is a politically exasperated band regurgitating their bile that was directed at the political situation of the 80s as much as it was directed at the R.E.M. mystique that had built up around the band. Yet, ultimately, it is a punk song that went totally right.
1. “Losing My Religion” (1991). If you were going to choose one song to represent EVERYTHING musically, lyrically, politically and sociologically about R.E.M., look no further than this song. This song captures the essence of R.E.M., whether real or imagined.
That’s my story and I’m sticking with it! This is how I hear R.E.M. in my ears and converted to thoughts in my mind.