The Hidden Gems of R.E.M.|10 Songs MTV Didn't Overplay But Should Have

The depth of R.E.M.'s albums tell us where these past three decades have gone...
  |   Comments

R.E.M. - 10 Songs MTV Didn't Overplay But Should HaveDon’t you hate that guy who buys a 12-song record you love and talks about it like the three songs he heard on the radio are the only things there worth his time? That guy misses so much. One of the most impressive things about R.E.M. is the fantastic depth of their back catalog. Compare them to U2. U2 are my favorite band, but honestly, how many truly great songs are on Boy? Three? Four? Now, how many are on R.E.M.’s Murmur? Could you limit yourself to four songs from that record? Me either. Two legendary bands with two great debuts, but one stands up better than the other. That’s common of the first 18 years of R.E.M.’s career, and it makes conjuring up a playlist or dream setlist a nightmare.
With that in mind, here are the best 10 R.E.M. songs you probably never heard on the radio or saw on MTV. Of course, there are 40 more where these came from, but you have got to start somewhere:
10. Gardening At Night, Chronic Town
First available on the ‘Chronic Town’ EP and later on the rarities comp ‘Dead Letter Office,’ ‘Gardening’ has a long recording history. Take the time to find the version from another best-of comp, ‘Eponymous;’ Michael Stipe’s vocals are much more confident and in the fore-front where they belong. I defy anyone to explain what this song is about (a theme that surfaces more than a few times in R.E.M. discussions) but damn if it isn’t a classic.
9. Sitting Still, Murmur
The b-side to ‘Radio Free Europe,’ ‘Sitting Still’ would show up as an album track on ‘Murmur’ as well. If I had to play one song from R.E.M.’s early days to encompass what their sound was all about, I think this would be my choice. It was a mission statement.
8. Perfect Circle, Murmur
Attention, people in bands: Don’t automatically tell the drummer to shut his pie hole when he says ‘I have an idea.’ You can thank Bill Berry for R.E.M.’s first pure ballad, a lush reflection on friendship.
7. Circus Envy, Monster
Some have said that ‘Monster’ was a little too much of a good thing. Peter Buck was emerging from his anti-electric period here and went all-in on the effects pedal for R.E.M.’s 1994 answer to Seattle. On an album of big fat rockers, this is the most ferocious. Handle with care; I’d hate for you to cut yourself on that razor-sharp riff.
6. Harborcoat, Reckoning
Twenty-eight years later, and Michael and company are still looking for that wayward outerwear. I hope they never find it, because the harmonies on the chorus ($500 to the person who can decipher exactly what Mike Mills and Bill are singing in the chorus and the counter melody during the verses) showcase R.E.M.’s secret weapon: backing vocals. Show me an R.E.M. classic, and chances are Mike and/or Bill are wailing away in the background.
5. Life And How To Live It, Fables of the Reconstruction
Here,  Peter is at his jangly-est (and that is saying something) while staring down his inner guitar god at the same time. The hushed intro quickly gives way to a violent strumming riff that might the best guitar bit Peter ever played. Meanwhile, Michael mumbling is on about carpentry and running around in the streets. There’s a good – albeit rough – live version of this dandy on the bonus disc of the ‘And I Feel Fine’ comp.
4. Exhuming McCarthy, Document
Nothing like a pissed-off band of liberals in the middle of a 12-year White House run by the GOP. This scathing indictment of conservative politics invokes the infamous Red Scare of the 1950s, all with a bouncy organ and Mike’s sunny ‘It’s a sign a of the times’ backing vocals. Kind of funny when you consider that R.E.M. would declare ‘it’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine’ on the same record. I think we might have a theme here.
3. Low Desert, New Adventures in Hi-Fi
What a great record, and what a fantastic song. Played live only a handful of times, ‘Low Desert’ is a travelogue on a record full of road-written, tested and recorded gems. As a bit of trivia, ‘Low Desert’ was rumored to be a finalist to be the title of the album, and if you picture the album cover -- a beautiful, stark, black-and-white desert landscape shot that looks as though it was taken from a tour bus – you understand why. Buck’s dirge-like guitar blends beautifully with Mills’ driving bass, and Stipe’s lyrics have never been more evocative: ‘If you had to guess or place a bet/Would you place yourself inside of it?/The mountains yawn, the clouds let out a sigh.’
2. Find the River, Automatic For The People
For most R.E.M. fans, ‘Nightswimming’ is the preferred tear-jerking ballad from ‘Automatic,’ but I have always liked ‘Find the River’ better. I don’t know what chord or key or whatever you call it Peter starts off in, but the first note from his guitar instantly sets the mood and send me reaching for the Kleenex. I have always imagined that the song’s singer is a terminally ill patient who sees the end coming, and is speaking to those he is leaving behind, as in the song’s final line ‘All of this is coming your way.’ Your way, not mine, the singer says as he passes on into whatever awaits us all. The musical backing to Stipe’s powerful vocals hangs delicately, never interfering with the narrative while evoking loss and regret at the same time. The idea of passage – also present on other songs on ‘Automatic’ -- is even more poignant in our new post-R.E.M. world. Listen to it today without tearing up. I dare you.
1. Country Feedback, Out of Time
Every great band has one: That Holy Grail of lesser-known, seldom-heard live songs that every hardcore, die-hard fan is dying to hear just once before they die. Typically, some part of the song has been rearranged or enhanced from the album version, so listening to the song at home just won’t quite do. For U2, it is ‘Bad.’ For Springsteen, it is ‘Incident on 57th St.’ For R.E.M., it is the final song from their biggest record, ‘Out of Time.’ The irony here – and R.E.M. specializes in left turns – is that ‘Country Feedback’ was recorded at a time when Peter had sworn off playing the electric guitar, but would emerge as a highlight on the ‘Monster’ tour four years later with Pete wailing away on his Rickenbocker. Michael has frequently introduced ‘Feedback’ as his favorite song, and many R.E.M. fans would it agree. What’s the song about? I have no idea, but I totally know, you know? Whatever it is, Michael has been known to perform ‘Feedback’ with his back to the audience, so it certainly means something to him.