by Ryan Wasoba
When I was in seventh grade, before I knew anything about indie rock or Athens, Georgia, or Reagan-era politics, R.E.M. was my favorite band. I'm certainly not alone; the band was a landmark in many lives for both the music it created and the doors it opened up for young listeners. And like many, the band's breakup hurts more than it probably should. As a thirteen year old, I assumed that by the time R.E.M. broke up (or, worse, if Michael Stipe passed away), I would be a famous musician and would cover "It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" for the inevitable tribute album. Since that didn't happen, I pay my homage with a list of the six best R.E.M. tracks that weren't released as singles. Feel free to interject your own favorite forgotten tracks in the comments section.
6. "The Wrong Child" from Green There's an element of schmaltz in Michael Stipe singing about a lonely kid trapped indoors envying his peers exercising freedom on a playground. The smart arrangement helps the sentiment of "The Wrong Child" sting. Two Stipes meander around each other, unraveling the melody where others would simply weave. The disorienting verses come into focus when he sings "I will try to sing a happy song / I'll try and make a happy game to play" over chords that shift into major as if forcing a smile for the camera. "The Wrong Child" relies heavily on Peter Buck's mandolin, a sound that became his signature in the mid '90s, ten years after he seized global control over the clean Rickenbacker guitar tone. In the recent past, he has contributed mandolin tracks to artists like Pete Yorn, the Decemberists, Robyn Hitchcock and the Long Winters. So if Peter Buck plays mandolin on your record, you're probably either indie rock royalty, or you're the Long Winters.
5. "Little America" from Reckoning While not exactly one of his stream-of-consciousness ventures, Stipe sidesteps often enough on "Little America" to keep Reckoning's final number from being swallowed in the shadow of previous track "(Don't Go Back To) Rockville". The big sell here is drummer Bill Berry, whose speedy hi-hat makes the tune feel like an early New Order song spinning off its axis like the wagons Stipe sings about in the song's hook. Only R.E.M. could write a song about early American expeditions, reference the founding fathers and make it sound like a party. (Not even you, Sufjan).
4. "Welcome To The Occupation" from Document Anybody who bought Document on the strength of "The One I Love" must have been stoked when "Welcome To The Occupation" came first the record. The song has a similar footprint as a middle of the road minor key pop tune with bass higher in the mix than others at the time would dare. But "The One I Love" is open about its desire to be liked while "Occupation" plays hard to get. It teases you with choruses and then backtracks into verses of thematic wordplay. R.E.M. is notorious for its political messages, and this is one of the few in the band's catalog vague enough to not date itself. Whereas "Ignoreland" singlehandedly plants 1992's Automatic For The People within the Bush Senior Administration, "Occupation" speaks in terms of universal fears and stress. When Stipe finally lets go in the song's final seconds with strains of "Listen to me," the desperation is timeless. 3. "I Don't Sleep, I Dream" from Monster Many people unfairly disregard Monster, probably because of the memories of used CD bins glowing with rows of its bright orange jewel cases. "I Don't Sleep, I Dream" is textbook R.E.M.; moody, mischievous and catchy in the most pervasive of ways. Its hook of "I'll settle for a cup of coffee / But you know what I really need" sticks to the ribs, even though it is only uttered twice in the song's three and a half minutes. I may be partial to Monster because its release paralleled my discovery of the band, but "I Don't Sleep, I Dream" is proof that R.E.M.'s "big dumb rock record" has depth below its surface. Revisit this song, you'll regret that you traded your copy of Monster for a three dollar credit towards Korn's Life Is Peachy in 1997.
2. "Moral Kiosk" from Murmur Later in its career, the dominant feature of R.E.M. is Michael Stipe's voice. On the band's more musically adventurous records like Up and Reveal, some tracks are ambiguous until the singer makes his grand entrance. But in its infancy, one could identify R.E.M. from any two second sample of any of the band's songs. The jangle, the new-wave energy, the scrappy recording quality. The downside is that some early cuts tend to melt together into a college-rock slush. Murmur standout "Moral Kiosk" is the band's first transcendent track, its thoughtful chorus of wordless counterpoint distinguishing it from the pack. For all its glorious moments, R.E.M.'s catalog is generally spotty. "Moral Kiosk" is almost frustrating in its awesomeness, a glowing example of the band's capabilities from the get-go.
1. "Try Not To Breathe" from Automatic For The People Some songs did not make this list due to technicality. "Strange Currencies" and "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite" were basically album cuts released as singles as part of a marketing plan. That same technicality launches "Try Not To Breathe" to the top spot. A gorgeous alt-rock waltz from the band at its creative peak, "Breathe" plays to strengths and develops new muscles. It's R.E.M. at its most linear, building a tension over spry percussion up to a finale where the drums are finally allowed to exhale -- a trick sorely missing from Green's sparser tracks. One can easily fall into the would've/could've trap when examining songs or albums or bands that failed to achieve conventional success. "Try Not To Breathe" is actually elevated by its non-single status. The track is a surprise, a perk for those who invested time and money and energy into the band and its albums. Like many R.E.M. songs, it feels like a gift.
Best Stylistically Misguided Album Track: "Underneath The Bunker" Best Guitar Intro: "Feeling Gravity's Pull" Best Non-single After 2000: "Beach Ball" Best Blatant Rip-Off of "Drive": Radiohead - "Street Spirit (Fade Out)" Best Blatant Rip-Off of "It's The End Of The World...": Billy Joel - "We Didn't Start The Fire" Best R.E.M. Referencing Album Title: We Versus The Shark - Murmurmur