This week, we pay tribute to R.E.M. by selecting tracks where we felt they were at their most beautiful.
And so the announcement came late last month that R.E.M. have officially called it quits, after 31 largely successful years and an expansive back catalogue of 15 studio albums. I must say that the news felt a bit like a twitchy wake-up bomb to some of us longtime fans, filling us with as much sadness and gratitude as bittersweet feelings, especially for those among us who honestly weren’t paying much attention to their music for quite some time now. The last R.E.M. record I actually bought was Reveal (a fine and rather underrated pop album released in 2001), and I’d readily admit that most of the songs on their final three albums felt more extraneous than they should. Perhaps we all took for granted that R.E.M. would always stick around to truffle out a catchy tune or two.
Like many second-generation fans, I only started listening to R.E.M. when they hit their commercial prime during the early nineties — my gateway to a long brewing R.E.M. obsession was 1992’s Automatic For the People, which remains one of my favorite records of all time — but was curious (and obsessive) enough to continue working my way back through the music they made in their fabled formative years. There is this air of perpetual mystery attached to the first five I.R.S. records, a certain mercurial quality that has always held a special appeal to me. Those early R.E.M. songs may not have the same commercial sheen and modern rock accessibility as later efforts, but such is the atmospheric wonder and sheer originality of albums such as Murmur (1983) and Reckoning (1984) that they still sound unique even today.
For no obvious reason, Reckoning is probably the one R.E.M. record that I have listened to more often than the others through the years. It’s worth noting that there was some sort of an unspoken affinity between the seminal jangle-rock sound that R.E.M. pioneered and the alternative rock scene that The Smiths was headlining across the pond — Peter Buck has alluded in interviews that he and Johnny Marr were probably listening to the same records. I have always felt that Reckoning was the album where the sense of purpose R.E.M. shared with The Smiths was most pronounced — both Reckoning and The Smiths’ equally influential self-titled debut were released in 1984, a year of living dangerously if your musical ambition is to reinvent what a contemporary rock band ought to sound like and yet be comfortably out of step with the times.
By Reckoning, the R.E.M. members have somewhat loosened up and shed some of the taciturn demeanor they affected like a statement of intent on their debut masterpiece Murmur — the musicianship sounded more assertive, the song arrangements more fleshed out, and Michael Stipe mumbling not as much as before. The subterranean sadness of “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)” is R.E.M. at their evocative best, Stipe recounting a rather desperate episode of homesickness while the ringing and yet understated instrumentation adds to the mood of pensiveness and disconnection. These ten songs make a pretty persuasive argument for Reckoning to be the band’s most consistent and distinctively nuanced album, a pivotal second album that served notice of their early promise — they were only starting to warm up. – Keith.
they’re waking up to…sharon van etten: Lately, I have been obsessed with this band from Montreal called Automelodi. I work at a record label (Ba Da Bing Records) and my boss, Ben, is constantly getting new records in. He knows I have a soft spot for 80s/90s post punk/early electro, vaguely alternative music... and so one day, he put on a Wierd Records compilation. It was a vinyl set of like 4 pieces or something. There were so many good bands on there... however, Automelodi stuck out in my mind as being an authentic, genuine, NON-cheesy version of the 80s I wish I was a part of. The song in particular that gets me going in the morning is called "Schéma Corporel".
mp3: automelodi - schéma corporel
bani haykal from b-quartet: often enough, it’s the early morning rush which gets me excited about shutting my eyes. and by morning, we’re looking at the 4 a.m. time frame where all you hear is yourself in a foggy blur, thinking if sleep is really all that important because the early few are storming off for work. in all honesty, there is no ipod nor a single earplugging devicetron which i’d attend to. often enough, it’s someone else’s sonic leak i’m getting addressed by. but, i’m listening to Steely Dan’s “Babylon Sisters”. in my head, at least. sanity ‘from the point of no return’, personally. it’s a breath of fresh air. despite its age. everything is beautiful then.
mp3: steely dan - babylon sisters
naomi yang from galaxie 500: The perfect song to start the day is “A Tonga Da Mironga Do Kabuleté” – the live recording from 1971 by Brazilian artists Vinícius + Bethania + Toquinho. It is like a beautiful sunrise – although I think that the lyrics are actually some sort of political commentary disguised as a Candomble/Afro-Brazilian curse – but whatever! And then you should just leave the CD on, and listen to the rest of the album while you have your coffee. And you will have a great day.
mp3: vinícius + bethania + toquinho – a tonga da mironga do kabuletê (live in buenos aires, 1971)
jamie stewart from xiu xiu: i have a nico button on my guitar strap and her excess eyeliner has been burning the dirge "janitor of lunacy" into my waking ears as of late, at least 20 times in the last week. until yesterday we have been on tour in scandinavia, russia, poland, austria, germany and czech. these grey locations held hands with her harmonium perfectly.
mp3: nico - janitor of lunacy
justin ringle from horse feathers: i have been obsessively listening and waking up to this tune by gillian welch called "annabelle". it's a song about a sharecropper in alabama and it is so sad, beautiful and timeless that I can't help but listen more than once in a row. the harmonies in the chorus make my hairs stand up... beautiful song.
mp3: gillian welch - annabelle
tracyanne campbell from camera obscura: my favourite song at the moment is called 'one in a million' by steve miller. it's really beautiful. his voice is like honey in the sun and it totally melts my heart. the lyrics are quite simple and i guess corny but it's a great tune and the production is so good it really doesn't matter. i wish i'd written it. in fact i'd love to do a cover version of it. i was recently in stockholm visiting my friend victoria (bergsman) from taken by trees and we were singing it in the flat and talked about recording it. watch this space...
mp3: steve miller band - one in a million
stuart murdoch from belle and sebastian: every day when i leave the house and walk over the iron bridge and up to the glasshouses, i listen to “what for” by james. i have a habit of dropping back 20 years in my thoughts, and having a parallel soundtrack running in my head so that i may be walking in a street in 2008, but my head is in 1988. i don’t know why that is. this is an up and hopeful song of the period from a band i used to care for deeply. as we slip into the autumn here, i am prepared to let my new song of obsession become “the game” by echo and the bunnymen. “everybody’s got their own good reason why their favourite season is their favourite season”.
mp3: james - what for
mp3: echo and the bunnymen - the game
alison eales from butcher boy: I'm waking up to Labi Siffre, and wondering how I managed to stay asleep for so long. His songs are diverse, unpretentious, and performed with tangible joy. I'm literally waking up to him as well - I have 'It Must Be Love' set as my alarm, and it is proving to be a very nutritious musical breakfast.
mp3: labi siffre - it must be love