The Over/Under: R.E.M.


MAGNET’s friend Roob (you’d know him if you saw him) was a Yes man until he took a trip to Chronic Town in 1982. He’s left the city limits since then, but now he’s back to inform you of the five most overrated and five most underrated R.E.M. songs.

I was 23 years old when I first heard 1982’s Chronic Town bursting from my friend Linda’s speakers, and that seminal EP, which was essentially a template for the entire indie-rock movement, managed to turn me overnight from a proghead who spent his free time in a room lit only by a lava lap, listening to Tales From Topographic Oceans (on headphones) spinning on an old turntable into a diehard fan of cutting-edge guitar-pop music. I gave up on R.E.M. sometime in the mid-’90s, disgusted not only with the obvious decline in the band’s work but by the notion that somehow the stuff the group was still putting out was even better than everything from 1983’s Murmur up through 1987’s Document. As I revisited all of R.E.M.’s records for this piece, I tried to approach the newer stuff with an open mind. Maybe it’s not as dreadful as I thought. Maybe I dismissed everything after 1996’s New Adventures In Hi-Fi too quickly. Maybe R.E.M. really is still a great band, only different. Sadly, I was wrong. No group in history has ever plunged from such remarkable heights to such dismal depths. But, then again, R.E.M. was once the greatest band in the world. Anyway, here are the five most overrated and underrated tracks in R.E.M.’s 29-year history.

The Five Most Overrated R.E.M. Songs
1. “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)” (1984)
Murmur and 1984’s Reckoning exploded with an astonishing level of creativity, inventiveness and energy. This was the defining sound of alternative rock before the term was co-opted by morons like Blink-182, Third Eye Blind and Trapezoid 11. (OK, Trapezoid 11 isn’t a real band, but if they were, they’d suck.) Anyway, “So. Central Rain” just never fit on Reckoning. It lacked the fire of the other early R.E.M. stuff and just sounded too much like an attempt at a hit. And the refrain (“Sorry … Sorry”) makes me sorry I ever heard this song. If another band released “So. Central Rain,” you’d think, “Hey, pretty good song.” But for R.E.M. to stick this in the middle of the otherwise flawless Reckoning just magnifies how mediocre the song really is.

2. “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” (1987)
One of Roob’s Rules of Rock ‘n’ Roll is that simply listing random, vaguely historical phrases doesn’t really constitute rock ‘n’ roll. Was it fun to pump your first and shout out the little “Lee-o-nerd Bernstein” break in the middle? Sure. But that doesn’t make this a great song. “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It” is one step above Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire,” and that’s not a good place to be.

3. “Stand” (1988)
I’m not sure what’s more insipid, the banal lyrics (“If you are confused, check with the sun/Carry a compass to help you along”; is this a Boy Scout camping guide or freaking rock ‘n’ roll?) or the trite music (another of Roob’s Rules of Rock ‘n’ Roll clearly states that any song with more than one key change sucks). “Stand” was R.E.M.’s worst song while the band was still good.

4. “Everybody Hurts” (1992)
“Everybody Hurts” is R.E.M.’s pile of pseudo-inspirational Hallmark-greeting-card bullcrap about not killing yourself when everything around you starts to suck. Well, hell, this song makes me want to kill myself. We all would have been better off if Michael Stipe was still mumbling like he did on the first few records. Then we’d be spared wisdom like, “If you feel like you’re alone/No, no, no, you are not alone.” Thanks for clearing that up. “Everybody Hurts” is actually a damn good Stipe vocal. It’s just wasted on some trite lyrics. How could a band as brilliant as R.E.M. be reduced to the kind of sappy inspirational pabulum that a high-school poetry girl would be too embarrassed to jot down on the back of her autographed picture of Ani DiFranco? And, hell, Wilson Phillips covered this ground much better. When I hear this song, I don’t know if I can hold on for one more day.

5. Everything From Accelerate (2008)
Nothing from 1998’s Up, 2001’s Reveal or 2004’s Around The Sun can be construed as overrated since everybody who’s honest about it pretty much acknowledges each is a lifeless mess. Accelerate, on the other hand, is fair game since it’s been fairly well-received and branded a “return to form” by so many critics. The problem with Accelerate is that it’s a big, fat fraud. It’s crap disguised as a comeback. It’s not R.E.M. music; it’s R.E.M. product. R.E.M. realized its last few records were a steaming pile of pig vomit, and its audience had dwindled down to two guys in Athens, Ga., who used to be roadies for Love Tractor. So Stipe and Co. put together this clumsy attempt to recapture what once made R.E.M. great and record an album that sounds like vintage R.E.M. without actually possessing the soul of a vintage R.E.M. record. It fooled a lot of people who were desperate to have the old R.E.M. back and didn’t bother to notice that if you looked beyond the briskly paced songs and churning guitars, there was nothing there.

“I’m Gonna DJ”:

The Five Most Underrated R.E.M. Songs
1. “I Wanted To Be Wrong” (2004)
This is a gem swimming deep below the surface in the murky waters of one of the worst records ever made. “I Wanted To Be Wrong,” from the otherwise dismal Around The Sun, is typically midtempo for late-period R.E.M. and suffers from an overly syrupy arrangement. But throw it on a mix and surround it with some tracks from Document, Murmur and 1986’s Lifes Rich Pageant that actually move along on a full tank of gas and you’re onto something.

2. “Imitation Of Life” (2001)
“Imitation Of Life” is proof that not everything on Reveal was crap. If anybody was able to muddle through the dizzying wash of strings and synths that suck the life out of most of the album, they’d find a song with an actual melody, with some actual life to it. Sure, it would be the 147th-best song on Murmur, but “Imitation Of Life” is one of the few late-period R.E.M. tracks that isn’t embarrassingly bad. It has a melody and actually sounds like R.E.M.

3. “Leave” (1996)
Yeah, it’s longer than “American Pie.” Yeah, there’s that air-raid siren blasting through the entire song. But “Leave,” from New Adventures In Hi-Fi, contains everything that was once great about R.E.M. Inventive playing: Check out Peter Buck’s Fripperish single guitar line winding its way around the melody. Vague but powerful words: “It’s under, under, under my feet/The scene spread out there before me/Better I go where the land touches sea/There is my trust in what I believe.” And a mighty Stipe vocal. “Leave” appears on the final record with drummer Bill Berry, and I’ve always felt that in some way it gains its power and edge from the unknown of continuing as a band without one of its founding members. A stunning track and the last great R.E.M. song.

4. “Sitting Still” (1983)
When Murmur came out, one of my music-snob friends who was into Tim Buckley, Leonard Cohen or some crap sneered that he couldn’t get into a band when he couldn’t figure out any of the lyrics. Figuring out the lyrics (or guessing at them) was always a big part of the appeal for me in the early years of R.E.M. I still don’t know the words to “Sitting Still,” but here’s the chorus I’ve always gone with: “Up to bar and Katie buys a kitchen set, puts nutmeg in/Sit inside, put nutmeg in/Wasting time, sitting still.” In any case, “Sitting Still” is R.E.M.’s best song ever, even if nobody really knows what the hell Stipe is singing. Even Stipe. It absolutely explodes with energy and life and hope and massive piles of frantic guitars and tons of nutmeg.

5. “Driver 8” (1985)
As much as I loved Chronic Town, Murmur and Reckoning, “Driver 8” was the first R.E.M. song where the words blew me away as much as the music. The literal meaning escaped me, but the train imagery is stunning, and this remains one of the most visually evocative tracks R.E.M. has ever done, a minor-key Currier & Ives print for the next generation. Listen to Stipe repeating, “Still a ways away, still a ways away” and you can see the fleeting images of the old South as the train rumbles through Georgia, a treehouse on the outskirts of the farm, an old revival tent, the distant power lines. Fables Of The Reconstruction is the most underrated R.E.M. record, and “Driver 8” was the first sign that the band was capable of more than just frenetic, high-octane pop songs, the first sign that R.E.M. had something to say, not just something to play.

21 replies on “The Over/Under: R.E.M.”

first of all.. you are pretty correct re Acclerate, im sad to say. 2nd – So. Central Rain was beautiful REM at thier best.. classic Buck guitar, yearning lyrics and southern imagery.. and a simple chorus that was very unique at the time. the song that really turned me on the to band forever.. so I dont agree with you there at all. then you go on to talk about some really underrated songs on records you say are complete drivel – it would be more interesting to hear re the great songs that may have been overlooked on good records. By the way.. Around the Sun (the song) is way underrated on a pretty mediocre record.

I strongly disagree with Roob that “So. Central Rain” is merely “mediocre”; though I’ll admit that I’ve probably heard it too many times in my life and am mildly sick of it. I do agree, though, that “Sitting Still” is probably R.E.M.’s best song ever.

It’s amazing how much I agree on pretty much every point. You’ll get the argument that a bad can’t stay the same, they have to evolve. Sadly REM has devolved. They’re just getting old, somewhat inevitable. But that’s the easy explanation I suppose.

Fun list. I’m going to second (third) the others in that I love “So. Central Rain.” I used to play it on repeat, which was hard to do with vinyl. I never loved the “End of the World” lists either, and “Stand” is the song that made me walk away from them. I also agree with the comment that I’d like to hear your list of underrated songs from the GOOD records, as I don’t even know those later records enough to appreciate that those songs are okay given the awful songs surrounding them. They all just sound like bad later era stuff to my inexperienced ears.
And for mentioning “Driver 8,” you win.

Ok, I’m with you on Up and Around the Sun, but seriously…don’t you dare try to lump Reveal into those two. People like you are the reason they made Accelerate. Let the band evolve!

Underrated songs from good R.E.M. records:
Automatic–Try Not to Breathe (a fine song and performance)
Out of Time–Endgame (catchy, nice vocals, no lyrics, beach boyish without the OCD of the later stuff)
Green–World Leader Pretend (I’ve always liked this one)
Document–Fireplace (listen to it now and it sounds like a classic R.E.M. rocker)
Life’s Rich Pageant (great album)–Flowers of Guatemala (elegant and beautiful)
Fables (Maybe my Favorite R.E.M.album)–Green Grow the Rushes (classic folk rock with fine guitar parts)
Reckoning (so many fine songs)–Letter Never Sent (never sure of the lyrics to this one, “Heaven is yours” something about catacombs…..)
Murmur (I agree that Sitting Still is great)-West of the Fields

Mostly agree except I also like So Central Rain though there were certainly better songs on the record. I think you also nail Accelerate appropriately. I beg to disagree with one commenter. Accelerate is not the sound of a band evolving.

Great stuff in lists above.
Fables/Pageant are the monsters to watch. Like great paintings they continue to morph years along. Fretless is top with They come and they come and they come/I accept it with a gentle tongue. Star Me is decent. Stipe’s still Stipe all along the way.

I agree with eiight of the thoughts, but disagree with the assessment of South Central Rain and Accelerate. Both are quite good, especially Acclerate. Is it a “returh to form” (what the hell does this mean anyway), I don’t know, but it is quite good.

Of course, everyone agrees that the post-Berry albums don’t measure up toe the four after, but the latter four are still much better than the shi-ite put out today. And they are still an excellent touring band.

My .02

Up to buy, Katie buys a kitchen size, but not mae Anne
Setting trap for love, making a waste of time, sitting still

I always put the comma after making, so “love-making, a waste of time, sitting still.” But that’s pretty much exactly the way I mumble the words.

Always thought Falls to Climb was about the most underrated late era track ever. Those comments on leave are spot-on. I remember my old CD player having some queue button that would actually skip just the acoustic intro and go straight to the crazy siren, and the fact that somewhere on the record the info was encoded to let that be so easy to do made me kind of sad.

And I’ve always had the sense that Driver 8 lives in the Fall On Me/Country Feedback land of regard, so I’m not sure it could be underrated–it’s just an amazing song.

Every single R.E.M recording from Chronc Town to Document is classic and not to be fucked with on any level or discussion….end of story.
There are sparse projectiles of tunes that are great since then, and I have to say all of them with Bill Berry on drums are great, and Accerlerate is a peek into what happens when they forget their money and get down to business writing the meaningful art-indie style and force they have always had in them without trying…

While I agree that latter day R.E.M. does not hold a candle to the E.M.I. years, referring to it as “lifeless crap” and a “steaming pile of pig vomit” tells me that you are one of these third graders that refers to everything as either ‘the best thing ever’ or the ‘worst thing ever’ without any ability to accept that certain things can rest on a middle ground. You say that ‘Accelerate’ “sounds like vintage R.E.M. without actually possessing the soul of a vintage R.E.M. record.” Yet you also refer to it as crap. So by that analysis, the only thing that separates vintage R.E.M. from, say, a Right Said Fred record, is this “soul possession.” I’m sorry, I feel that there are many more ingredients contributing to the greatness of early R.E.M. than simply a vague ‘soul.’ I’ll accept that post ’96 R.E.M. may be boring or simply ‘not for you’, but lumping it in with artists that really are ‘crap’ is a bit juvenile.

As a lifelong REM fan, I never really ever, ever thought of Stand or It’s the End of the World As We Know It as “highly rated” songs in the first place. I’m sure most of you would agree. Staples, maybe, but highly rated? Never!

I also think So. Central Rain deserves to be highly rated. Classic beauty.

“Silly time for love making, Waste of time sitting still.”

Always get chills from Sitting Still.

And So. Central Rain IS one of my favorites, overrated or not.

Nothing in the world like those first 3-4 albums…

Seriously…using “Fripperish” as a way to describe PB’s playing on Leave really says it all, doesn’t it? I hear Yes would like you back within their city limits…hurry along….

I understand why you’re “sorry” about South Central Rain. Because I’m sorry I bothered to read this pompous review.

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