Five essential R.E.M. songs that guitarists need to hear
Whether you’ve been hooked by The Bear or just wanna know what that Everybody Hurts band are all about, these are your essential starting points.
R.E.M. (left to right: Bill Berry, Michael Stipe, Mike Mills and Peter Buck) in 1984. Image: Paul Natkin/Getty Images
“I described R.E.M. once as a bunch of minor chords with some nonsense thrown on top,” Michael Stipe told Rolling Stone in 1992, and he was essentially correct. But what a combination that proved to be. Across a three-decade career, R.E.M. wrote songs about the American south, death, labour, alienation, and water, delivering confounding imagery with a melodic touch that made the heaviest of subjects feel weightless.
Thanks to the liberal deployment of Strange Currencies — perhaps the best ballad written by musicians who could crack you open whenever they damn well pleased — in season two of The Bear, R.E.M. are having a moment. It’s weird to think that a band such as R.E.M. can still have a moment, given their phenomenal commercial success, but the fact they’re still waiting to be discovered speaks to the depth of their catalogue and the nuance behind their work.
Forming in Athens, Georgia as the 70s became the 80s, they were four deeply creative weirdos whose specific brand of weird eventually chimed with millions and millions of people. Their trump card was that it did so without alienating most of the fans who’d followed their prolific indie years with almost religious zeal — it is truly wild to consider how good R.E.M. were for such a long period of time. Cogent arguments can be made for the quality of almost all their records but between 1981 and 1996 — 10 albums, countless changes in direction, a shift from an indie to a major label, long touring hiatuses — they didn’t miss.
Very few bands have the sort of chemistry displayed by Stipe, bassist Mike Mills, drummer Bill Berry and guitarist Peter Buck, whose black Rickenbacker Jetglo 360 adorned each of their studio records before their parting in 2011, and fewer still have the empathy to allow each person space to breathe on almost every song. In the latest edition of Start Me Up we dig into a few cuts from one of the great discographies in American music — go, listen, learn, unlearn, before the world actually ends.
Start Here: Radio Free Europe (Hib-Tone Single, 1981)
It feels lame to start at the beginning, but you probably should start at the beginning. Radio Free Europe — their rollicking first single and later a more tempered first song on their first album — has all the bits you need from an R.E.M song: Buck getting into some jangle, Mills weaving between the chords with a hooky bassline, Berry skipping along in the background, and Stipe mumbling esoteric wibble that seems to pack inherent profundity. A couple of remarkable things pop out when revisiting this song: how fresh it always feels despite its constituent parts having been recycled for decades by both R.E.M. and others, and also how fully formed they appeared on day one.
Then go here: The One I Love (Document, 1987)
If we’re talking riffs, this is the riff. It opens the song — a scattering of low E notes blown apart by surging open chords — but its key function comes in the final chorus, where it crashes into Stipe’s cry of “Fire!” and Mills’ aching backing vocals, delivering a thrilling payoff after the push-pull dynamic of Buck’s searing guitar break and the quiet reset of the final verse.
This was a bonafide radio hit — the band’s opening statement in a world they’d eventually bend to their will in the 1990s — but it begins side two of a record that is still defiantly off-kilter and vastly more interested in knotted guitars and talk-sung obfuscation than it is the airwaves.
Stop off here: Try Not to Breathe (Automatic For the People, 1992)
In following up the majestic, breakout pop one-two of Green and Out of Time, R.E.M. made the meditative masterpiece Automatic For the People. An overwhelmingly sad, entirely beautiful album-length musing on death and the human condition, it’s the sort of record you can walk around in.
Every song is a layered, meticulously curated descent into southern gothic oddities and grief-tinged melody — the elegiac Try Not to Breathe revolves around a dulcimer lead, rough-hewn acoustics, jousting organ chords and almost choral feedback. At its core is Stipe, communicating with his grandmother one last time. Every element has its place.
Almost home: The Wake-Up Bomb (New Adventures in Hi-Fi, 1996)
Inspired both musically and lyrically by 70s glam, here R.E.M. pick up the baton from the sleazy, oddly underappreciated Monster and run with it, doubling down on Crush With Eyeliner’s blown out noise and turning in a bullish, truly rocking performance that feels like it’s being beamed from the front row of a show. As a whole New Adventures in Hi-Fi is wonderfully all over the place, having been written during soundchecks and downtime on tour.
It reflects an existence that is shattered and shattering, giving it an agitated, live feeling and also a lingering sadness given that Berry would retire following its release. It’s fitting that his last work with R.E.M. would reflect each side of being a band — writing, recording, playing shows, keeping relationships intact, appreciating the creativity of your friends, it’s all here.
Nightcap: These Days (Lifes Rich Pageant, 1986)
R.E.M. were always punk-adjacent without ever being a punk band. Back at the beginning, Buck saw that influence chiefly in their belief that pop songs could be broken apart and reassembled. Equally, it’s there in the velocity of the Hib-Tone Radio Free Europe, and in their decision to cover Wire on Document. It’s all over These Days, which is a punk song in anyone else’s hands.
Working with producer Don Gehman — a one-time thing prior to the start of their long-running association with Scott Litt — there is a muscularity to their sound here that radiates out from Buck’s opening squall of notes: they stab rather than ring. Palm-muting his way through the verses, he sets up a ripping chorus that would have killed if it had been dreamed up by Bob Mould and Hüsker Dü. It is immediately followed by Fall on Me, the perfect evocation of the four-part blueprint laid down by Radio Free Europe and maybe their best song.
Picking five songs from a discography like this one is a thankless task: no Losing My Religion, or Driver 8, or Near Wild Heaven, or E-Bow The Letter, or Find The River, or Orange Crush, or So. Central Rain, or Perfect Circle… the list goes on. So just keep digging. You could also check out the side projects – Buck’s Filthy Friends or the Minus 5 or the Baseball Project with Mills, who has played with everyone from Smashing Pumpkins to Superchunk.
There’s the time they backed Warren Zevon in the mid-80s, and the Hindu Love Gods covers record they made together. There’s also the Athens/wider Georgia scene they came up in — you should spin Guadalcanal Diary’s 1984 album Walking in the Shadow of the Big Man.