Sometimes, music can be so comforting, especially music that was important to you when you were young and carefree. So, forgive me if I am feeling a bit nostalgic today to a seemingly simpler time, it’s just the head space I am in today. It’s not like I really want to go back to that time, I just want my body to behave like it did when I was twenty. I’d love to be rediscovering all the great music once again.
As you know, social media is full of all kinds of stuff. Yesterday, one of my fraternity brothers posted a great meme about a dive bar near the Ball State campus located in The Village. Who really knows how long that bar has been located in that same location, but it’s been there since before I got to Ball State in 1981. And, every time I visit the place, at least once a decade, it remains the same grungy place. Of course, the meme has a photo of The Chug, as it is known, and says, “If you’ve been here you can survive the Coronavirus.” And, it is true. I think I should have done my environmental virology experiments on that place. If you didn’t pick up something there, then you probably didn’t frequent the place. And, that statement speaks for itself. Remember, I said it’s a dive bar near a college campus in Indiana. What more of a warning can I give you? But, it was the place of legends and, back when I was there, quarter beer nights.
Now, in the fall of 1983, I started my junior year. That summer, I had worked up in Wisconsin and came back with albums by new artists like the Violent Femmes (from Milwaukee) and R.E.M. For me, it was an exciting time to hear new wave music beginning to morph into a more adult version that would eventually be called alternative music. For some reason, R.E.M. spoke to me. I was mesmerized by their use of a twelve-string guitar within a more acoustic setting based upon the music of The Velvet Underground, the Patti Smith Group and Sixties-era Byrds. I found the combination, along with the impenetrable lyrics, to be absolutely thrilling. Where Prince was filling my futuristic sonic needs, R.E.M. was showing me the future by taking an Americana step backward.
So, the band’s first album, Murmur, was the soundtrack for most of the year, and I actually loved “Radio Free Europe” so much that it remains one of my favorite songs of that year. When 1983 became 1984, I quickly turned 21 in February. My twenty-first birthday bar crawl began at that infamous Ball State off-campus institution The Chug. There, my entourage of dorm friends and frat brothers met up with my burly Canadian chemistry lab partner for my first drinks of the night. Now, I remember a couple of things at this point but keep in mind that I started my day with a lunch beer from my father, followed by several pre-basketball game beers since Ball State had a home basketball game that afternoon and then a couple of post-game drinks before a nap and dinner.
Needless to say, I was feeling fine. So, at The Chug, like I said, I had a beer. Then, I walked over to the jukebox, which, lo and behold, actually had “Radio Free Europe” on it! So, of course I put my money in, and pushed the buttons for that song along with a couple others that would not be normally played in a Central Indiana bar (let’s just say that I was NOT playing ZZ Top, Loverboy or Lynyrd Skynyrd!). I sat down to enjoy the music, when big burly Brian came over to my roommate and me with 21 shots of Canadian Mist. Of course, I used the exclamation I learned from my father by yelling out, “Jesus Christ!” You see, I heard that so much, I actually thought I was the Son of God, you know the bit. Brian goes, “Don’t worry! There’s three of us to split this Canadian tradition.” Now, who knows if 21 shots of Canadian Mist is really a Canadian tradition, but you only turn 21 once. Of course, we were off to the races. From that point on, I remember nothing, though I was told that I was singing “Radio Free Europe” and leading Donna Summer dancing at another establishment. As I have said many times, thank God we didn’t grow up during the smartphone era.
A couple months later, R.E.M.’s sophomore album, Reckoning, was released and moved into the pole position of my album collection until Purple Rain was dropped. Of all the artists in my 1,000 album collection, R.E.M. seems to be the one group that grew up with me. They are all close to the same age as me, so we all share the same college educated sensibilities of inclusion, intelligence and compassion. Eventually, I went on to see them live on two separate occasions, first in Oxford, Ohio, in 1987 and then again in Indianapolis in 1995. I stuck with them through the departure of drummer Bill Berry (I still say the band was never the same again!) until the very end of the band in 2011, thirty years into their career. And, R.E.M. remains the old artist that I own all of their albums, if possible, on both vinyl and CD. That includes Prince too!
Right now, I feel like the world needs R.E.M. They helped me navigate life through the whole conservative era of the past thirty years with their music and lyrics. Maybe, when they broke up in 2011, they thought the world had finally began to shift back toward the left with the election of Obama and felt their work was done. But, now, we are nearing an important election of 2020, and the world needs R.E.M.’s voice of reason once again. I know it’s a pipe dream. So, I will continue to dig through my collection to find nuggets like “World Leader Pretend” and “Exhuming McCarthy” to help get through these days of the Orange Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.
Here it is! My ranking of all the studio albums by the ever-eternal R.E.M.
16. Around the Sun (2004). I get it! Every band needs to evolve. But, sometimes, not every experiment needs to be released. This was the band’s only true misstep.
15. Collapse into Now (2011). How can I rank this terrific swansong so low? As great as it is, this band’s bar is just that high.
14. Reveal (2001). This is the band’s Pet Sounds. Wanna know why it never reaches the heights it strives for? They simply needed Berry back on the skins. Sometimes, chemistry can be inexplicable.
13. New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996). This was the last album with Bill Berry and was recorded during soundchecks during the Monster Tour. While I love the looseness and rawness of the live settings for the songs, I just could not embrace this fully. Something was missing in the recipe.
12. Up (1998). This was the first album of the post-Berry era. Still, the songs are strong. The only thing that keeps this from being a Top 10 album is that Berry is missing. For some reason, I can feel it in every album after this one, except for one…
11. Accelerate (2008). This is the rocking album the band hand be promising the public ever since Green was released in 1988. Twenty fricking years, I’m telling you! This is a fantastic album that made me feel like I was traveling back in time to that first concert in which I saw them back in 1987.
10. Out of Time (1991). This album has the band’s most famous song “Losing My Religion.” Yet, I never felt this was the band at there best. Don’t get me wrong! If another band had released it, it would be a classic. The moody songs are my favorites on this one. But, as a R.E.M. album, it’s just good.
9. Chronic Town (1982). The E.P. that quietly announced that something new was happening in Athens, Georgia, and we better get ready.
8. Monster (1994). This glammed-out album gets an unfair rap. I love it that they followed up the majestic darkness of Automatic for the People with this grungy nod to the early-Seventies UK music scene.
7. Green (1988). This album was released on Election Day 1988, the day that the first George Bush was elected. I have so many great memories of this album as it was the soundtrack of my younger son’s first year or so of life and of the whole environmental/climate change movement that was big in Oxford that year. I wish we could get that back quickly.
6. Fables of the Reconstruction (1985). How cool would it have been if R.E.M. had been invited to perform at Live Aid? Why didn’t that happen? C’mon! This album would have blown up if they had. This just might be the band’s most underrated album. Of course, it was the soundtrack to my older son’s first year of life.
5. Reckoning (1984). When I heard this album for the first time I was blown away by the band’s growth in one calendar year. Love this album so much!
4. Document (1987). Now, I am splitting hairs. I loved the heaviness of this album’s songs. I love that the band’s first hit is an oft-misinterpreted vicious “love” song. I love that in the Nineties that I listened to this album and realized that maybe R.E.M. invented grunge rock on Document. And, I still love “It’s the End of the World (And I Feel Fine),” no matter how many times it’s used in movies and TV shows.
3. Automatic for the People (1991). From the first strains of “Drive” to the closing number “Find the River,” this album represents the band’s most mature and direct statement. Also, I will go to my grave yelling that R.E.M. got screwed when they did not win the Grammy for Album of the Year in 1992. Complete BS! This one has some of the band’s greatest hits: “Drive,” “Everybody Hurts,” “Man on the Moon,” the incomparable “Nightswimming” and my favorite, the quirky “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite.”
2. Murmur (1983). From the Gothic feel of the album cover to the completely muddied sound to the mumbling vocals, this album signaled there was a new sound coming. And, I was totally in! Once again, another album of pure perfection.
1. Lifes Rich Pageant (1986). This one does not get the love I feel it deserves. Finally, singer Michael Stipe’s vocals are clear, the lyrics are poignant, Peter Buck’s guitar licks are advancing beyond his Byrdsian fixations and secret weapon Mike Mills, rock’s most underrated bassist AND vocalist, is finally pushed to the forefront throughout. And, of course, drummer Bill Berry is stellar throughout. Plus, the band came to Indiana to use John Mellencamp’s studio and producer, the underrated Don Gehman, to create this album, giving it a subtle Hoosier influence. Plus, one of the best memories I have of this album is my older son singing “Superman” to a bunch of college kids at the local soft yogurt store in Oxford when he was three. It was the perfect album at the perfect time for me.