The Band: Michael Stipe (Vocals)
Peter Buck (Guitar, Keyboards, Vocals)
Mike Mills (Keyboards, Bass Guitar)
Bill Berry (Drums)-on all songs up until 1997
Released: 2003 (Wea)
REM, although a staple of radio-friendly rock today, are often underrated by many new music fans who do not know their history, and their effect on a huge range of contemporary music. Their career has followed a dramatic path, with them rising from the alternative underground scene, on albums such as Murmur
, and Chronic Town
, into becoming possibly the biggest band in the world in the early 1990s, after the release of Out Of Time
, and Automatic For The People
. Since then their career has followed something of a downward path, with their music being generally accepted as having lost its edge, especially since drummer Bill Berry left the band following a brain aneurysm, and their most recent albums have been both relatively commercial and critical failures. This greatest hits package certainly shows though, that no matter what your opinions of the band may be, even in just their relatively popular days (ever since the release of Green
) the band have developed a formidable back catalogue.
However, this album only takes on the most recent 15 years of their career, ending with the release of the new songs Bad Day
, and Animal
, which can only be found on this compilation, as they have never been released on an album, and were not contained on this year’s release of Around The Sun
. Obviously this means that anyone wishing to get into the earlier periods of REM’s career, which are still perceived by many to be their best, will have to buy some previous albums, although even from their more popular phase, some of their best known songs, such as “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It", and “The One I Love", are not contained on the standard CD. While this therefore doesn’t represent REM as a band throughout their career though, something that it definitely does do is show quite what they have done for the last 15 years.
This is done by a wide ranging song selection, with 7 albums, 2 film soundtracks, and, of course, the new songs being represented. Quite clearly the band isn’t trying to hide anything that they've recorded, and there seems to have been a genuine attempt made to be diverse. Although there is the odd confusing sidenote as a result of this (only one song from Out Of Time?), the tracklisting is, by and large, a good one. As is to be expected, global hit Automatic For The People
dominates, with 4 songs on here, although it's hard to argue with any of the songs on here, or to say that some of them should definitely have been left off the album.
There also can't be any dispute about either the quantity of material available here, or the quality of the new songs. At over 75 minutes in length, the band would have been hard pushed to find another song short enough, and deserving to be put on here, so as a hits package, and a way of introducing people to recent REM, this definitely acts as a comprehensive taster. As for both Bad Day
, and Animal
, what's startling about them is how fresh they both sound, particularly compared to the songs on the group's latest album. Bad Day
in particular is the most out and out rock song that the group has recorded for a while, with the outpouring of vocals sounding similar to something they would have recorded earlier in their career; something that may be due to the fact that the song had apparently been written in the 1980s, but shelved until recently. It's definitely not a filler song though, although it may sound as if it should be. Animal
is a woozier peace of music that's built around syncopated drums, and distorted instruments, with a chorus that fits perfectly with REM's continued role as stadium fillers.
So, in addition to the overall consistency of the band, what else stands out? Well, while it's true to say that the band aren't, and have never pretended to be virtuosos at their instruments, something that is notable is the cohesion of their music. I wouldn't go so far as to call it formulaic, but it's undeniable that this is a band that is used to working together, and have a broad sense of what works, and what doesn't. While this should be the case after two decades of working and recording together, with many groups they start imploding after this amount of time, and although the working relations within REM are different from many bands, with the band members not really speaking as often as they used to, there's never really been any hint of massive friction within the band. What does stand out the most though is REM's not so secret weapon: the voice of Michael Stipe. Although Stipe is an unlikely rock icon, as he's lacking in the sense of danger and intrigue that many icons have, he was recently voted the 24th biggest musical icon of modern times by Q music magazine's readers, coming in two places behind a similar artist in Thom Yorke of Radiohead.
Stipe has certainly become a mentor to many artists, including Yorke, but it's his vocal performances and lyrics that have made him such an icon. His lyrics on REM's albums have varied from striking chords with teenagers (listen to Automatic For The People
, and you will realise that it is one of the great teenage records to listen to), and the intensely political (Document,
). While these have made him a celebrated figure, he would, of course, be nothing without his voice, and this compilation showcases it. From the brooding, melancholy figure, that is uncannily similar to Bob Dylan, which he is on E-Bow The Letter
, to the teenage icon that he is on Everybody Hurts
, to the revolutionary figure he presents himself as onOrange Crush
, we see the full range of Stipe, but we also see the consistency of his voice, and the fact that he can adopt many personas.
In summary, as a hits compilation, this more than does its job. Whether you buy this as a way of getting into one of the most important, and at times one of the best alternative rock bands of recent times, or whether you buy it to listen to some of the best moments of the band, you are unlikely to regret it. Although you can't help but wondering whether the band's best days are behind them now (listening to Around The Sun
, it's hard to think of many songs that would make it onto here), REM have made consistently good music for a long time now, and this is very well reflected on this album. While the departure of Bill Berry may eventually be looked back on as the definitive turning point in REM's career, for the time being, they remain one of the biggest bands in the world, as they're even playing London's Hyde Park this summer, and with a back catalogue including these songs (remember, they have a lot of very good material not on here), it isn't hard to see why.
. From the opening string intro, to the final piano chords, this is a beautiful song. It was recorded in surreal circumstances, with Mike Mills playing the piano part to Stipe, Michael Stipe asking to hear it again, and then just singing the lyrics over the top of the music. This might account for why the vocals, even by Stipe's standards sound incredibly raw, but this is undoubtedly one of REM's greatest songs, and the fact that it contains a string section throughout makes it even stronger.
. Still their most well known song, the band have said in the past that the song no longer belongs to them, but to anyone that has ever got anything out of it. If that's the case, then there are a lot of owners of this song, as, although the lyrics could be seen as clichéd, it's struck a chord with people the world over, although it's another song aimed at teenagers. You almost certainly will have heard this before, but if you don't own it, then you should do.
E-Bow The Letter
. Featuring Stipe at his darkest, this is more of a moody folk song than anything else, with the lyrics, such as:
I wore it like a badge of teenage film stars
Hash bars, cherry mash and tinfoil tiara
Dreaming of maria callas
Whoever she is
This fame thing, I don’t get it
I wrap my hand in plastic to try to look through it
Maybelline eyes and girl-as-boy moves
I can take you far
This star thing, I don’t get it
being a dark reflection on fame, something that is heightened by the presence of Patti Smith on this song. The song itself is as cynically musing as the lyrics would suggest, with it basically being Stipe speaking/singing over music that is very firmly in the background. This was by far and away the best moment of New Adventures In Hi-Fi
, and remains one of the best on here.
Final Rating: 4.2/5