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I spent the last month listening to every REM studio album in chronological order - Around the Sun

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*Sigh* Ok, let's do this

I hated this album when I listened to it. So now in order to give it a fair shake, I will do something different. I will listen to one song only, write down my opinion, go and do something else and then listen to another. Maybe in this way I can find the one song that is OK on this trainwreck of an album (It will not be the one with the rap on it. Have you people learned nothing from Radio Song?!?! Do you guys secretly hate rap music and want to destroy it?). Deep breath, here we go:

1. Leaving New York
I'm grumpy and tired today and I know this song will be stuck in my head, I don't know why it is such an earworm, but it doesn't endear it to me. Why isn't Mills singing the background vocals (he is a bit, but it is mixed in the background and Stipe is singing over himself mostly)? It is a competent REM song. It has a nice bass run at some point.

2. Electron Blue
I actually like this song? I wish they would have mixed Buck's e-bow guitar playing and Mills's bass more in the foreground (I found a live version and really liked the expressionistic guitar), but the drum machines and piano is cool as well. Mills said later of the album that they did not give themselves time (releasing a best off and touring in between recording) and here you can hear that some more editing would have been called for, it is about half a minute too long.

3. The Outsiders
What even is this song? What is the small New Wave-ish keyboard riff doing there? And the rap part comes out of nowhere. At least you can here the bass again, too bad it is not interesting. It is not as painful as Radio Song though.

4. Make It All Okay
This song is boring. It is like one of the soft rock ballads that all sound the same. It even ends with a small piano run. The clichés in the song upset me. Not even Mills's background vocals can save it.

5. Final Straw
The song is called Final Straw and is supposed to be a protest song (this album came out 2004, deep into the Bush years). Too bad it is missing any kind of emotion. Nice country style finger picking, but for the first time I feel like the electronics are just ..there.. to have something going on.

6. I Wanted to Be Wrong
Omg, did they want to make a soft-rock, country album? Is this what happened? I blame Mills for this, he is the one who likes country. At this point I would take bad, but interesting.

7. Wanderlust
I think the last song broke me a little, I don't know if I can go on with this. "Crossed" and "because" does not rhyme, Stipe. And you put that in the chorus? I think they just didn't care they just composed and recorded whatever and then went to have a beer.

8. Boy in the Well
Nice chord progression, nice bass line, nice melody, some nice harmonies on "on" in the chorus and an interesting organ. And then it goes on and on and on (it's 5 min!). The key change in the end is just unnecessary (and this is the band that did the 2 amazing key changes in Stand!), or should have come 2 verses earlier.

9. Aftermath
This song is actually ok. It is the Daysleeper / Imitation of Life song of the album, the once that sounds like REM and is released as a single. But it is nice and the little tuba part in the per-chorus makes me smile. I watched the music videos and it has Buck running around in pyjamas for no reason, which gives me the opportunity to point out that this is a thing he does. There is a part with him in a documentary about Athens where he sits on his porch in pyjamas and a bathrobe and then proceeds to show the crew his bathroom. When they won all the Grammys in 1992 he really did not want to go to the ceremony and said he would only go if he could go in his pyjamas. Which he did:

Mills hasn't gone full Nudie suits at the time, otherwise this would be the best band picture ever. Which leaves me to wonder, if I had to chose between a Nudie suit and pyjamas, what would I wear? (The answer is obviously a pyjama with sequin on it, best of both worlds!)

10. High Speed Train
I like this song, I almost can't believe it. There isn't even a "but" here. It is 5 min, but doesn't feel long, because new ideas get introduced as the song goes on. (The flamenco inspired guitar solo is cool). The basis of the song is a very cool bass line, picked guitar, distorted guitar (maybe an e-bow again? not sure) and some well placed effects. It is slightly strange, a little dark, but very melodic at the same time.

11. The Worst Joke Ever

You see there's this cat burglar who can't see in the dark.
He lays his bets on 8 more lives, walks into a bar.
Slips on the 8 ball, falls on his knife.
Says, "I don't know what I've done, but it doesn't feel right!"


12. The Ascent of Man
The song is nice. The "Yeah, yeah, yeah" in the lyrics sounds familiar, like I heard it in someone else's song. But I have to ask, what is it with Stipe singing over himself in the chorus? Why is Mills not singing the counter melody? Did he have a throat infection? Did he take a day off when they recorded the vocals? I checked a live version and he does it there (mixed way more in the background that the album version). It really bothers me. "I'm a cactus trying to be a canoe", I call it, Stipe was drunk when writing the lyrics for this album.

13. Around the Sun
This is fine, I thought. The half way through the drum part starts and I'm like "wait, this is actually creative?!"

Closing thoughts: When I heard Electron Blue, I thought that maybe I had been too harsh on this album, at the point I got to Wanderlust, I felt kind of insulted. Some of the songs seem to be just there so that they have something on the album. The few songs with interesting ideas suffer from lack of editing. The latter half is better, High Speed Train, The Ascent of Man (they should have waited for Mills to show up for recording, though) and Around the Sun being actually good songs. I'm very glad I stopped listening to them with Reveal, this would have broken my heart. I think if they had cut three songs (I nominate Make it All Okay and I Wanted to be Wrong at least) and put some more care into editing the rest this might have been salvageable. After this album REM got their shit together. Buck and Mills agreed to meet up in person and just jam for a few weeks to come up with material and they forced themselves to edit by keeping most songs under 3.5 minutes. Accelerate was seen as REM back in form.

REM Christmas singles

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I never was part of the REM fan club. It must have been cool being part of it though, they put a lot of work into their official fan club, sending news letters (per post! after all they are a 80s / 90s band) and releasing a free Christmas single for fan club members since 1988 (with 2 - 4 songs on it each year). As these singles were only released to fan club members, each were only about 6000 copies each. Thanks to the internet though, nothing is ever truly lost, so after some hunting I found all 23 of them (my Christmas present to myself). I feel kind of bad talking about them after listening to them, there are a lot of delightful and silly surprises in there, which I will spoil.

Some of the singles were just recordings of live performances, some were covers, some were instrumentals (left over song ideas from recordings), there are two original songs: Live for Today (1997) and Magnetic North (2007) and of course Christmas covers. Most of all they are a lot of fun, they mostly used the opportunity to be silly.

There is not a lot to say about the live performances, at some point Radiohead show up. Some were released as videos (in 1998 they send a VHS tape as the Christmas single to their fans via post...) I actually removed the 20 live performances from my playlist, leaving me with 30 song: two original songs, fun covers and silly Christmas antics.

Of the two original songs, Magnetic North is the more complete one. It sounds more like something from New Adventures in HiFi than from the Around the Sun era (thank god): Maybe it's the organ.

The covers are two kinds, either songs from small unknown bands they met during the years or off beat covers of famous songs, clearly recorded as a joke live or in the studio. I really enjoyed getting to know some of the unknown songs, highlights include See No Evil, Academy Fight Song, Where is Captain Kirk (a punk song) and Crazy Like a Fox, which sounds like it is from the 60s, but was written in the 80s. I remember hearing this version of I Will Survive before, it is also really close to the Cake version, popular in 1996. You can hear Stipe giggle during his performance.

The instrumentals are relaxing breaks between the songs, though they are clearly unfinished ideas for songs, I really like IHT->U->EDIYTW a dubmix instrumental.

But let's get to the meat, the actual Christmas songs. I don't think they took the Christmas part very serious, it took them until 2002 to record a a Christmas song, which was not a joke of some kind.
Of course the fanclub singles had to be recorded and produced long before Christmas, but the drunken Christmas party vibe is strong with a lot of them. We have drunken playing (Parade of Wooden Soldiers), drunken singing (Good King Wenclas) and drunken everything (Christmas Time Is Here Again, where they have to restart as no one is in the same tempo or key). Christmas Griping is just them complaining about Christmas over playing Christmas songs badly (and teaching me the phrase "frosts my _ off", REM, still teaching me English through their songs 27 years later).
Sometimes they got lazy. Ghost Reindeer in the Sky is just Ghost Riders in the Sky with added reindeer. Christmas in Tunesia is a left over instrumental, which just got a christmassy name.
Even some of the the not drunkenly recorded Christmas songs are hilarious. Toyland could be a song for a Christmas themed horror movie and Silver Bells has Mills singing in what I think is supposed to be a Texan accent (I asked a friend from the South and they were not sure what that was supposed to be, but it was not a Georgian accent). He even does the little cowboy yodel. Santa Baby on the other hand, is super funny because Mills sings it straightforward, as it is a very silly song by itself. Sometimes when men sing it they change the lyrics, not here, Mills is sincerely telling Santa Baby that he was a very good girl and deserves the diamond ring he wants for Christmas. I think I ship them now.
Speaking of Mills, he really shines on this play list. He sings a lot of the cover songs and all the properly sung Christmas songs (except Toyland). He has such a warm and happy voice, which sounds very 60s, which is perfect for a Christmas album. Merry Xmas Everybody and Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) are the two best Christmas songs on this album and both sung by him.

Shout outs:
  • Java is quite a known instrumental, it was familiar to me through cultural osmosis. Stipe is improvising some spoken lyrics over it, which are super weird. I think he is reading some coffee advertisement?

  • Crazy Like A Fox and Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) makes me wish Mills had released a solo album with covers of classic songs. They are just so ... happy.

  • I spent the last month listening to every REM studio album in chronological order - Reveal

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    Here my history with REM ends. Not because I disliked Reveal, quite the opposite, I was very surprised to find out that a lot of fans rank this album as one of their worst, especially as my sister (who had given up on REM after Monster) liked Reveal. Reveal came out in May 2001, shortly before my Abitur and the summer before I left home to go to Iceland. I spent most summer enjoying the absolute freedom of school out forever and hanging out with my childhood friends, appreciating it even more, because I knew we would all be going our separate ways soon. REM did a few free concerts in order to promote this album and as luck would have it, one was in Cologne, just one hour away from my home. Me, my sister and friends went. We did not bother even trying to get anywhere near the stage, but found a nice sunny spot, sat down with snacks and relaxed. Then my live changed, I went to Iceland and after to university. I went on concerts in small venues and listened to the music of the bands I saw there with REM fading into the background.

    They recorded a lot of Reveal in the Caribbean. You can hear this. It is a relaxing summer record and it feels very light. The lyrics are very summary too, there are songs called Summer Turns Too High and Beachball, in The Lifting Stipe sings "the weather's fine, the sky is blue", he also mentions butterflies and dragonflies twice. Of course there is also a song called I'll take the Rain, because he just loves his rain metaphors. They still use the drum machines and electronic toys from Up, but more playfully, like the "blub blub blub!" in All the Way to Reno. They work really well on this album, they create a light and playful, especially on I've Been High, All the Way to Reno, Beachball, Let's just say someone had listened a lot to Moon Safari by Air and gotten inspired. The production is pretty slick, to me it adds to the soft and light feel of the album, but some critics found it lifeless.

    The album is more guitar heavy, there is some nice fingerstyle guitar on She Just Wants To Be, Buck's typical jangly guitar on Imitation of Life and Disappear, even some Monster like guitar effects on Chorus and the Ring. Mills's bass is somewhat subdued, mixed in the background and softer sounding than on other records. His background vocals, which were already few on Up have been reduced to a minimum, except in Imitation of Life. He is still busy, almost all songs have Organ, Keyboard or Piano parts. (I just have to say again, REM know how to use an organ). Additional to the drum machines and electronics there are string arrangements, mostly high lofty violins and some really well placed brass arrangements.

    Some songs are all the way out there in the new experimental style, like Saturn Return, Summer Turns Too High or the electronic rumba rhythm and brass section of Beachball. Others combine the folksy old style, best known from Automatic for the People with the new elements, like Beat a Drum, I'll take the Rain and Chorus and the Ring (the best songs on the album other than I've Been High). Imitation of Life is the song sounding most like a typical REM song and was the first single (I don't know if chosen by the band or requested by the studio). However, it is a mediocre REM song, still better than Daysleeper though. The strings remind me of the arrangements on Out of Time, especially Shiny Happy People. Stop having one of these cop out songs on your album, guys, just boldly go to the new sound!
    Just like Up, Reveal sounds different than previous REM albums, some key elements (Mills's bass and background vocals being prominent, the crisp production from Scott Litt) have vanished and been replaced with keyboards, drum machines and electronics. It is my main reason for liking it, and also the main reason for others disliking it.

    Shout outs:
  • I've Been High is the reason these blog posts exist. I was really stressed in March (as everyone) and sitting alone at work (it was closed for my clients), so I thought to listen to some music. It was still winter and dark outside and I wanted something relaxing that would remind me of summer, so I though "I haven't listen to Reveal in years, let's see if it still holds up". After The Lifting the drum machines and keyboard of I've Been High started and I could feel myself relaxing. It's is such a relaxing song and has such a pretty melody. I love the several drum machines, keyboards, high violins and lazy guitar of the album version, though the minimalist live version with only keyboard and acoustic guitar is lovely as well. The small piano part in the bridge is wonderful. I remembered how much I loved this song in particular and REM in general and with several weeks of alone in front of my computer ahead of me, the idea of checking out ALL their albums was born.

  • Beat a Drum and I'll take the Rain all have a lot of things going on. I like how the brass and drum machines in Beat a Drum come together with the more traditionally REM guitar, piano, organ and background vocals. I think the harmonica sounding instrument is a keyboard on I'll take the Rain, then there is another keyboard and a piano in the background (I think Mills just went a bit wild adding parts there). This song is the one truly melancholic song, but cozy, like a rainy day on your summer holiday. I love the bridge, with the high arpeggios by the violins and the guitar riff.

  • I don't know if this actually is a melodica on Chorus and the Ring, but it does remind me of Automatic for the People, while the guitar effects seem inspired by Monster. It's like they deconstructed their own music to reassemble it to something new.

  • Closing thoughts:
    I still like Reveal, I think it holds up. Of course a lot of it comes down to taste, but I enjoyed my three weeks of listening to it on repeat. Why three weeks instead of one? Because I really was trying to delay listening to Around the Sun. I listened to it once and hated it. The next blog post will be short.

    I spent the last month listening to every REM studio album in chronological order - Up

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    And then they were only three. The remaining members were reassuring reporters during the promotional interviews, that Bill Berry was happily living on a farm upstate. They themselves had not had a good time during the recording of the album. Without Berry as a mediator the different working styles (and personalities) of Mills and Buck clashed and they spent little time composing together, each feeling their ideas did not get heard by the other. They only united to nag Stipe about finishing lyrics (he was suffering from writer's block). They almost split up.

    One can hear this on the album, there are a lot of ideas and they often do not click. But when they do it is amazing. The highs are extremely high. They had decided to use the opportunity of Berry leaving to try something new. It is not so much that they tried to go electronic, more that they in-cooperated drum machines and some other retro pre-electronic music sound machines. Only Stipes voice still makes the album distinguishable as REM (except one song, which I will mention later). You can also play, guess which instrument Peter Buck is playing with this album. While Mills always had been very versatile on albums, playing pianos, keyboards, accordion and guitar next to his bass, Buck had usually stayed with string instruments (guitar, mandolin, dulcimer, maybe bass). On Up he really got to (or was made to) stretch himself. He plays most of the drum machines, some keyboard and bass several times as the album is very guitar light. The few times he plays guitar are wonderful though. The e-bow is back on Walk Unafraid, the long sustained guitar which he first played on Country Feedback and was one of the main features on Automatic for the People can be heard on Sad Professor and I love his impressionistic soloing on Why not Smile.

    I'm glad that unlike with Fables of the Reconstruction, where the stressful recording sessions led to the band disliking the album, some members have expressed a liking for the strange experiment that Up is. It is low energy and in parts seems to lack focus, but there are so many beautiful moments on it and being so different from any other REM album makes it more interesting to someone like me, who has listened extensively to them. Which is why I do not particularly agree with the decision to have Daysleeper even on the album, not to speak of it being a single (they were asked to make it a single by the record company). It is the only song, which sounds very REM like, but not as good as any old ones. The song also has Stipe writing very linear lyrics, with a clear topic, which I never find works as well as his stream of consciousness word salad or lyrics built around a few phrases. More linear lyrics are always difficult, because it is hit or miss if one can identify. Stipe started writing these kind of lyrics from New Adventures in HiFi and for a teenager it was sometimes hard to relate to middle age perspective. On this album it is Sad Professor, conveying the bitterness of middle age, on New Adventures it was Bittersweet Me, songs which always makes me think of the Edward Albee plays we were reading in English class or the time my theater group performed Season Greetings from Alan Ayckbourn.

    Shout outs:
  • Just like Up, Hope is the opposite of it's name. It is a song about complete hopelessness and confusion at the meaninglessness of calamity. As strange as the lyrics are ("cross your DNA with something reptile") the emotional feeling it conveys is perfect. I also think it is one of the best use of the sound machines and layered keyboards on the album.

  • At My Most Beautiful is the only non-cynical love song Stipe wrote and he made it count. It is lovely.

  • Stipe seems to be sorry a lot. After So.Central Rain ("I'm sorryyyy!!!") on Reckoning he is now repeatedly "so sorry" on the apologist. In concerts they play the two songs back to back, because, yes REM can make fun of themselves. (go and look up Stipe's rant on koalas on a concert of the promotional tour for Up)

  • Thanks to Why Not Smile, I get to write the sentence "I really like the harpsichord on this song" again. I always felt like it was the more honest sibling to Everybody Hurts, also talking to somebody going through a mental health crisis, but instead of telling them to "go on" expressing helplessness. It even is written in the same key (D major) and starts with two counts of D and then G in the chord progression. All of this is my excuse, why for a decade I have played this song with the same 6/8 picking pattern of Everybody Hurts and not the actual 8/8 pattern the harpsichord plays. Has nothing to do with my inability to hear tempo (I have learned the correct pattern now.). As pretty as the song is with just guitar and voice (the way they play it live), I really like how on the album layer of layer is added, with drum machines, piano, effects and guitar coming in bit by bit, building a sound carpet.

  • I really like how Diminished is built around the melodic bass line, especially as there is a lack of them on this album. The harmonies in the chorus "sing along" give me goosebumps, in a different way, the opening line "I watched you fall, I think I pushed" does as well. However, I do not understand the random mention of genocide (smallpox blanket) in a song about a murder court case. Just Stipe things, I guess. The hidden song is a needed moment of just simple emotional sincerity on an album that is a bit overthought.

  • Parakeet and Falls to Climb are two songs where the concept of the album works very well.

  • Conclusion: Up is a gloomy November day with sudden rays of sunshine breaking through the clouds. They also had a new producer on the album, Pat McCarthy and I do not envy him, his first job with the band being to babysit the dramatic recording sessions. Additional to Up he oversaw the next two albums Reveal and Around the Sun. While Up (which wasn't well received when it came out) has gotten more (deserved) appreciation with time, Reveal and Around the Sun are considered the only bad REM albums. I only listened to Around the Sun once, a few weeks back and am not sure if I can make myself to go through it again, but I fully agree with Mike Mills, that Reveal is lovely, a perfect summer album and criminally underappreciated. I'm looking forward to listening to it on repeat the next week.

    My REM the Warner Bros era with Bill Berry playlist

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    This is a bit of a different playlist. It includes Green, Monster and New Adventures in HiFi. There is no way I can only choose 4 or 5 songs from Out of Time of Automatic for the People. Just get both albums and listen to them both
    (except Radio Song ).

    Even without Out of Time and Automatic for the People this playlist is quite a journey, from very poppy songs, over screaming guitars to mandolins and accordions, it's sweet, angry, bitter, sad and ironic. So much for REM always sounds the same.
    I also did not put all the singles this time, some are here, some are not, I chose the songs I thought were the best / most representative of each album.

    1. Pop song '89 (a single, it's delightfully weird in lyrics and music "Hi, hi, hi")
    2. Get Up (a pop song about wanting to sleep your life away, also proof that REM can be cute)
    3. You are the Everything (the way the lyrics flow remind me of the Cure. Best song of Green)
    4. Orange crush (the best example of the rock sound of REM in the Green era. Also cool call and response in the chorus)

    5. Monster
    6. What's the Frequency Kenneth? (Here they succeeded with their plan to write proper rock songs for touring)
    7. Crush with Eyeliner (The Remix version, because I actually really like it, even if I do not agree with most of the other remix decisions, very glam)
    8. Star 69 (THE REVERB!!!)
    9. Let Me In (no words)

    10. New Adventures in HiFi
    11. Undertow (after I listened to the album again, this song became one of my favourites, like the impressionistic guitar, the religion inspired lyrics and the chilling background vocals)
    12. E-Bow The Letter (was my favourite song from this album since I first saw it on MTV)
    13. Leave (I actually like the siren effect on this song)
    14. So Fast, So Numb (it is a good representation of the many great rock songs on this album and the bitter tone in many of the lyrics)
    15. Electrolite (the violin solo is amazing as is the piano part and I really wanted this playlist to end with "I'm outta here")

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