Thirty years ago, R.E.M. ruled college radio. In 1987 and 1988, the Athens band released three albums that spoke to precocious white people more than any band had ever before, except maybe the Smiths: Document, Green and the collection Eponymous. The one-two-three punch of brightly lit pop song collections catapulted the quartet from cult stars to pop hitmakers.
With Document and Green, R.E.M. radically changed their sound. Their early music was melodic pop filtered through the immediacy and angularity of late ‘70s and early ‘80s new wave guitar bands like Wire and Television. Michael Stipe’s nasal and untrained voice lurked low in the mix, hinting at elusive meanings. With those two albums, they dropped all that low frequency weirdness in favor of arena-sized hits where Stipe was not only audible but actually discernible.
They became the biggest band in the world, but the cost was considerable. Southern Gothic sliders like “Shaking Through” and “Driver 8” were replaced with straight down the plate pitches like “Stand.” In honor of 30 years of REM’s bad artistic choices and Adam Scott and Scott Aukerman’s R.E.M.-centric podcast R U Talkin’ R.E.M. RE: ME? podcast, I’ve collected the ways R.E.M. went the most wrong.
Anything on Monster
After becoming the biggest band in the world playing clear and immediate pop songs, R.E.M. decided to give distortion a try. This sludgy, hookless collection of forgettable songs was the result.
It sounds like a lazy Weird Al parody of a better song. They seem unable to decide how much tongue they’re keeping in their cheeks. It has all the sizzle of a one hit wonder ‘60s pop song but without the steak of an actual hook.
REM was never a “rock” band. They just don’t have ZZ Top or Motorhead level swagger or power. The bounce of “Radio Free Europe” is probably the closest they ever came to a convincing rock tune—and that’s still a delicate flower of a song. When they go big with affected drum beats and slide guitar on “Lightnin’ Hopkins” it feels like a theater kid in an ill fitting costume.
“This One Goes Out to the One I Love”
R.E.M.’s first radio hit is a pretty good song the first 999 times you hear it. By the time you hit 1,000, you start to wonder why he’s sending fire to the one he loves.
“Losing My Religion”
Peter Buck’s discovery of the mandolin was the worst thing to ever happen to R.E.M. Like an Oscar winning period piece that’s since been justly forgotten, “Losing My Religion” had a ponderous mood that tricked people into thinking it was really important at the time. Luckily, enough time has passed for us all to admit it sucks.
“Shiny Happy People”
Kate Pierson’s always welcome siren voice almost rescues this one. Key word: almost. “Shiny Happy People” is either about accepting “normal” people or propping up the superiority of despairing ‘90s college rock fans. Either way, it’s poisonously smug. And that major key jangling riff feels like waking up at 5 a.m. with a brutal hangover.
A desperate plea for humanity written by someone who doesn’t understand humanity. It could have been written at a Mormon sleepaway camp by a counselor trying to discourage masturbating in the cabins.
This is a strong contender for worst rap/rock crossover of all time. It plays to all of the band’s weaknesses. As gifted as they are with melodies and musical texture, R.E.M. are serially unable to hold down a groove or create a convincing dance beat. KRS-One has nothing to work with and it collapses under its own weight.