Describing their style is a deceptively slippery task, as their push to continually evolve has kept things changing from one album to the next. Still, there are some constants: 4/4 beats, Stipe’s heartfelt vocals, Buck’s tendency to play chords as arpeggios, and lyrics that often require an advanced degree in the humanities to unpack properly. Sometimes they’re plugged in, sometimes they’re acoustic, and sometimes pianos and keyboards dominate. For the most part, though, the band has been able to keep their fans’ interest through all of these switches.
REM has released a total of 15 studio albums since 1983; those tracks, plus their 1981 EP Chronic Town, their dozens of covers, b-sides, and lesser known material make for an enormous back catalog. It’s a lot of songs, for sure, but here’s our choice for their top ten.
# 10 – Driver 8
That opening guitar line — it pulls you in and doesn’t let go. From 1985’s Fables of the Reconstruction, the tune often referred to as REM’s train song is a gorgeous and meandering nugget of mid-’80s pop genius. Stipe’s voice goes from deep baritone to tenor, and Mike Mills’ backing vocals provide just the right amount of texture, and before you know it, you’ve got a song about a train conductor stuck deep in your gray matter.
# 9 – Me in Honey
Other songs off their 1991 breakthrough album Out of Time may have been more popular than this one, and in fact, “Me in Honey” was never released as a single. Still, this last track on the album, with its admittedly silly name, is an underappreciated bit of perfection. Kate Pierson from the B-52s (also from Athens) features prominently on the song, and her soaring voice is an ideal complement to Stipe’s. The driving guitars, the spare drums, the scratchy shakers, and the captivating hook all make this one a favorite among dedicated fans.
# 8 – Man on the Moon
Even though REM is typically classified as alternative music, songs like 1992’s “Man on the Moon” prove that they could still write a beautiful, mainstream radio pop song. It’s from their Automatic for the People album, an effort that saw almost no electric guitar and lots of tinkling piano. This track pokes fun of moon landing deniers, with allusions to Elvis Presley (including a great Stipe impression of the King), Andy Kaufman, and Mr. Charles Darwin. A quick electric guitar solo breaks the acoustic strumming, and Stipe uses vocal dynamics to build lots of appealing tension. Ultimately, though, you don’t have to know any of this: you can just sing along and love it.
# 7 – The One I Love
REM isn’t going to write a traditional love song, even though it may sound like that’s exactly what “The One I Love” is. It’s dark, but it’s also melodically appealing: a hooky line alternating with wails of “Fire” by both Stipe and Mills and relentless guitars. From their 1997 effort Document, “The One I Love” was one of the band’s first big breakthrough hits, hitting No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 and garnering lots of radio play.
# 6 – Disturbance at the Heron House
Peter Buck has written hundreds of great guitar bars, but the riff that kicks off “Disturbance at the Heron House” may be one of his best. Also from Document, the production of this song may sound a little rough around the edges, but that doesn’t take away from its catchiness. It’s nearly impossible to listen to this one without singing the descending “followers of chaos out of control” refrain over and over for the next few days.
# 5 – Losing My Religion
The big hit, the one that won all the awards and pushed the band into the spotlight, the one that you memorized, whether you wanted to or not, because you heard it so much on the radio and saw it so much on MTV, 1991’s “Losing My Religion” is a great song by any measure. Now, however, it’s the song that REM is always associated with because of its amazing worldwide popularity. It may be overplayed, but there’s no denying the insightful lyrics, the catchy melody, and the stunning mandolin at the forefront. It reached No. 4 on Billboard, but it remains number one in the hearts of REM fans the world over.
# 4 – (Don’t Go Back to) Rockville
REM doesn’t do country twang all that often, but on 1984’s Reckoning, “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville” is as close as they get. Acoustic strumming broken up with nifty little riffs lay a solid foundation, and the lyrics pleading with a love interest not to leave is 100% relatable, but it’s Michael Stipe’s vocals that really shine here. The sing-along chorus comes up often enough to keep new listeners interested, while longtime fans can appreciate the soaring Stipe-Mills harmonies that define so much of what REM has created over the past few decades.
# 3 – Find the River
Lots of fans will point to “Nightswimming” as the standout wistful ballad on 1992’s Automatic for the People, but for our money, the album’s closing track “Find the River” is just more uplifting. Stipe articulates the hopelessness and confusion of losing your way in life (“Me, my thoughts are flower strewn / Ocean storm, bayberry moon / I have got to leave to find my way.”), and the acoustic chord progression is simple yet uplifting. Best of all, the catchy standout riff is done on a melodica — you know, that mini keyboard that you blow through. “Nightswimming” may have lovely piano, and it may be Dwight Schrute’s reflective tune of choice, but listen closely to “Find the River,” and we think you’ll agree that it’s superior.
# 2 – It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)
It’s not a rap song, per se, but the rhyme patterns and rapid fire delivery of 1987’s “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” definitely suggest hip hop influences. The standard verse-chorus-verse structure applies here, but the doubled lyrics about armageddon-ish scenarios are surprisingly fun, especially at the end when Stipe gives an overview about a dream of his in which all the attendees had the initials LB (the Leonid Brezhnev-Lenny Bruce-Lester Bangs sequence). The chorus is as catchy as that of any pop single, and memorizing the song has long been a favorite pastime of drunk college students everywhere.
# 1 – Fall on Me
Back in 1986, REM penned the gorgeous “Fall on Me.” It really is the quintessential REM song: strong pop sensibility, layers of guitars with both strums and arpeggios, lilting lead vocals, rich backups with a counter melody, veiled lyrics about social justice, and a solid beat behind it all. Everything layers together perfectly, and while it had only a modest showing on the singles chart (only hitting No. 94 on Billboard), it’s safe to say that its popularity among devoted fans has only grown. Plus, Michael Stipe himself includes it as one of his favorite REM songs. There’s really no better affirmation than that.
Top 10 REM Songs
Written by Anna S
Photo by Stark (Stefano Andreoli) (http://www.flickr.com/photos/scaccia/39502728/) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Updated August 13, 2020