R.E.M.’s Top 20 Songs

on November 08, 2017, 12:00am

15. “Driver 8”

Fables of the Reconstruction (1985)

“Driver 8” kicks off the strongest two-song sequence on Fables of the Reconstruction with a bluesy guitar riff that mimics the forward thrust of a locomotive. Add in the insistent repetition of “Take a break, Driver 8/ Driver 8, take a break” that carries over from the first verse into the chorus, and you’re left with the distinct impression of a train barreling through a Southern landscape with no brakes and a crew strung-out on lack of sleep. But something about the song’s mood or urgency shifts as it arrives at the second verse, where all of a sudden Michael Stipe pauses to soak in the imagery that surrounds him: a tree house on a farm, church bells ringing, children playing in the field. But just as the driving riffs give way to arpeggiated chords, so do these pastoral relics of the South give way to images of power lines and other vaguely sinister representations of modernity. Like many of the best R.E.M. songs, “Driver 8” doesn’t pick sides. Not quite sad and not quite celebratory, it keeps its quiet revelations close to the chest. –Collin Brennan

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14. “Life and How to Live It”

Fables of the Reconstruction (1985)

Fables of the Reconstruction contains plenty of wisdom — including this song, inspired by the title of the book Life: How to Live written by a local Athens character named Brivs Mekis. The lyrics are whimsical — they detail Mekis’ eccentric habits — but suit the bustling music. In particular, Bill Berry’s drumming bristles with spring-loaded energy, which pushes the song forward and highlights the urgency inherent in Peter Buck’s circular riffs and the water-falling backing vocals. R.E.M. dusted off “Life and How to Live It” occasionally even during their final tour, and it became even more galvanizing as the years passed. –Annie Zaleski

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13. “The One I Love”

Document (1987)

“The One I Love” is one of R.E.M.’s most straightforward songs in terms of melody and structure: three verses, three one-word choruses, and a bluesy Peter Buck solo thrown in for good measure. The tune’s relative simplicity lent itself to mainstream pop radio and did what “Radio Free Europe” and other early singles could not — it transformed R.E.M. from a scrappy but steady college band into a commercial rock juggernaut. But the thing about “The One I Love”, of course, is that it isn’t straightforward. Not at all. Over the past 30 years, R.E.M.’s first hit single has gained notoriety as one of pop music’s most famous not-quite-love songs. It begins, almost self-consciously, as a love ballad, only to pull the rug out from beneath the listener by referring to the object of love as “a simple prop to occupy my time.” Michael Stipe is at his lyrical best here, painting a picture that shifts from quiet romantic bliss to a desperation larger than words. When he screams “Fire!” in the chorus, it’s not meant to mean anything. You’re just supposed to swallow hard and feel the burn. –Collin Brennan

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12. “Find the River”

Automatic For the People (1992)

The final track on Automatic for the People is one of R.E.M.’s most gorgeous songs. Acoustic guitar, organ, and cascades of hymn-like harmonies create a solemn atmosphere that’s lightened somewhat by twinkling piano. Lyrically, “Find the River” addresses the passage of time over the course of a long life (“The ocean is the river’s goal/ A need to leave the water knows”) and ponders the inevitable transition to the next spiritual plane. Using subtle language, “Find the River” reveals this shift isn’t an ending, but something self-sustaining (“The river empties to the tide”). Poignant and reflective — but not resigned, “Find the River” is a fitting ending to a near-perfect album. –Annie Zaleski
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11. “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”

Monster (1994)

“What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” is like the “Homerpalooza” of R.E.M.’s catalogue: a tragic story of an old man trying to be cool. It happens to everyone, though, and as Stipe was racing towards his 13th year with the outfit, it’s not unlikely that he was having those very same feelings. Of course, we all know he had very little to worry about — especially, you know, seeing how Monster arrived towards the tail-end of an unstoppable run of albums — and this song was proof perfect. It was a noisy signal to Generation X that the band understood the frequency loud and clear. After all, they were the progenitors of what would wind up being ’90s Alternative, so they weren’t exactly asking questions. They were answering them. –Michael Roffman

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