all these fantasies come flailing around

posted at 12:56 am by brandon in now hear this

Back in fighting trim following a one-album crash landing in Prozacworld, R.E.M. — arguably the most influential (if not the most important) American band of the past two decades, and the band whose map for moving from humble beginnings to massive success ought to be certified by Rand McNally, it’s so widely used (look no further than the platinum-plated triumphs of Matchbox Twenty, Augustana, Fall Out Boy, and The Fray — among a hundred others — if you doubt that) — is back, and triumphantly so, with their 14th full-length record, the dizzily edgy Accelerate. Gone almost entirely (save a couple of acoustic-leaning tunes in the disc’s back half) are the languid, esoteric ballads that dominated (and, especially with the latter, quite nearly sunk) their last two efforts (2001’s brooding, introspective Reveal and 2004’s dreary, sluggish Around the Sun), and in their place, a handful of lean, mean, guitar-swamped rock tunes (average song length: just over three minutes) that harken back to the Murmur / Life’s Rich Pageant days.


The rapturous hosannas for Accelerate have been overflowing and, in some cases, a tad overcooked. To hear some of these folks tell the tale, R.E.M.’s lead singer (and primary songwriter) Michael Stipe — whose voice, now nearing fifty years of age, has developed the slightest hint of a gruff rasp atop its ever-compelling angelic timbre, creating a hypnotic combo that grafts itself onto Accelerate‘s elements with a dazzling, full intensity — has been asleep at the wheel ever since he coined the five-word phrase (“That’s me / in the corner,” natch) that made him an instant legend. (Time magazine’s resident music critic Josh Tyrangiel — who, despite breathtaking moments of crystalline insight, rarely fails to prove himself to be a gigantic doofus at all turns — even went to so far as to assert in his recent review that R.E.M. hasn’t even made a great album since 1991’s Out of Time, a claim that is as outrageous as it is patently absurd.)


If it feels as though I’m about to have a great deal of fun debunking all this peculiar foolishness, you couldn’t be more right. This band’s brilliant career didn’t start with “Losing My Religion” and it sure as piss didn’t end there, and any list of mainstream rock’s all-time best albums that doesn’t prominently feature 1994’s Monster — Stipe’s creative zenith, at least from this vantage point — has been massively miscalculated. On tap: a playlist of R.E.M.’s numerous artistic triumphs, the lion’s share of which are even more stunning today than when we first encountered them.


1. “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” (from Document) — R.E.M. - Document - It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) — the kinetically-charged 1988 college radio touchstone that turned the tide for R.E.M. and sailed them (kicking and screaming, by all accounts) into the mainstream.

2. “Stand” (from Green) — R.E.M. - Green - Stand — a goofy pop classic from a band who, even though they played the game on their own seemingly illogical terms, could no longer deny the magnetic pull of stardom.

3. “Losing My Religion” (from Out of Time) — R.E.M. - Out of Time - Losing My Religion — a mind-blowing marvel of elliptical storytelling, featuring a gripping vocal performance from Stipe that belongs in the pantheon. Rarely has a universally acknowledged classic so deserved the deafening hype.

4. “Man on the Moon” (from Automatic for the People) — R.E.M. - Automatic for the People - Man On the Moon — an Impressionist painting, set to music, detailing (more or less) comic Andy Kaufman’s tragic descent into inescapable madness. The greatest testament to Stipe’s heartbreaking genius? The fact that the end of this song finds you not with bulbous tears crowding your eyes, but rather a broad smile parting your lips.

5. “Nightswimming” (from Automatic for the People) — R.E.M. - Automatic for the People - Nightswimming — of all the hundred thousand songs about sex and all its emotional and physical ramifications, I defy you to name me one more powerfully intimate, or more intimately profound, or just plain better, than this one. A landmark album’s knockout punch.

6. “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” (from Monster) — R.E.M. - Monster - What's the Frequency, Kenneth? — inspired by a bizarre mugging incident involving Dan Rather and a homeless New York City transient several years prior, this brilliantly catchy 1994 smash was the band’s last major brush with top 40 radio success. Talk about going out on top.

7. “Strange Currencies” (from Monster) — R.E.M. - Monster - Strange Currencies — an imperative midtempo rumination on the indecipherable intricacies of love. No question, the strongest track from the band’s finest album.

8. “E-Bow the Letter” (from New Adventures in Hi-Fi) — R.E.M. - New Adventures In Hi-Fi - E-Bow the Letter“will you live to 83 / will you ever welcome me…?” A killer cameo from Patti Smith (hot on the heels of Marianne Faithfull’s riveting appearance on Metallica’s “The Memory Remains” earlier that summer) carries a lovely 1996 tune into classic territory.

9. “Daysleeper” (from Up) — R.E.M. - Up - Daysleeper — buoyed by one of the most arresting, profoundly gorgeous music videos ever filmed, Stipe strings together a series of nonsensical lyrical images and strikes a wrenching chord of pure, rich truth. For my money, this 1998 masterpiece is running in a dead heat with “Currencies” for the title of R.E.M.’s best-ever single.

10. “Lotus” (from Up) — R.E.M. - Up - Lotus — had we known Stipe and the boys would wait a whole decade to reignite their unkempt percussive side (and brilliantly so, with Accelerate‘s joyously messy leadoff single “Supernatural Superserious”), we’d have likely paid closer attention to this hard-driving 1998 head-scratcher, agreed?

11. “Leaving New York” (from Around the Sun) — R.E.M. - Around the Sun - Leaving New York — true enough, the surrounding album was a dour trainwreck, but its lone radio single was a typically Stipe-ish slice of melodic bliss.



2 responses to “all these fantasies come flailing around”

  1. the buzz from A.:

    It is a good thing that there are eleven songs on this playlist, for if there were only the first ten, I may have come away empty-handed (save for “Nightswimming” which I already own). Indeed, the only song that hit me instantly is the last one, “Leaving New York.” It’s mature and melodic in its entirety.

    Truth be told though, the apparently iconic chorus “That’s me in the corner / That’s me in the spotlight / Losing my religion” hit me just as hard, and after a second listen, “Losing My Religion” is also joining my collection.

  2. the buzz from Helen:

    Great post! I saw REM live last month at Madison Square Garden – it was awesome.