It’s been about 24 hours since R.E.M. announced its break-up — read about it in today’s Reliable Source column and elsewh ere on Click Track. Now, for our weekly Taking sides post, we each picked R.E.M.’s best hit and best sleeper cut. Vote in our poll below and share your favorite lesser-known R.E.M. songs in the comments.
David Malitz: In picking best hit single, I think that means we’re choosing from the band’s chart-topping years. In other words, “Radio Free Europe” is not eligible for this prize. For whatever reason, "Man on the Moon" has always hit me in a particularly special place. There are a bunch of neat little moments in that song — Stipe doing his Andy Kaufman-as-Elvis voice, Mike Mills with some awesome harmonies, the simple repetition of “yeah yeah yeah yeah.” But let's be real — it’s all about when that chorus kicks in. It melts me. It makes me want to hug random people.
As for best sleeper cut, I’m going with the entire “Chronic Town” EP. Since it’s only five songs it never gets to be in the discussion for best R.E.M. album, but on a per-song basis this is absolutely my favorite release in the band’s catalogue. My favorite cut is "Gardening At Night"-- so mumbly and jangly and perfect. Special honorable mention to "E-Bow the Letter" from 1996's “New Adventures in Hi-Fi,” which features some amazing backing vocals from Patti Smith.
Allison Stewart: Best sleeper cut: “Nightswimming.” I remember attending this all night video shoot for “Drive” before “Automatic For the People” came out (I don't remember why I was there but it wasn’t for work — I was still in school), and they played the album for the extras. I guess they thought a sneak peek would be a better perk than, you know, food or water. When “Nightswimming” came on everyone just stopped and stared at each other because it was so perfect and amazing. I thought it was sleep deprivation, but all these years later it still holds up.
Best hit single: I'm assuming we're going with actual chart hits, which would mean “The One I Love” and beyond, so I’d go with “What’s the Frequency Kenneth?” That was the only good song from “Monster,” the album where it all went wrong. It was just so random. I actually like Dan Rather more now because of it.
Chris Richards: Why does everyone always hate on “Monster?” Good album! Along with the Breeders’ “Last Splash,” it’s the best dollar bin CD out there. (If you still buy CDs. And if you still believe that any album is worth one dollar.)
Back in 1984, former Post pop critic Richard Harrington wrote that R.E.M. were part of “a new sobriety” in rock music. It’s an idea that really sticks with me when I hear their music today. That said, I think R.E.M.’s best hit and best sleeper hit might be the same incredibly-sobering song, “Drive.” It’s a stark, mesmerizing thing where the drums enter and exit like a shadowy villain in a play. “Drive” charted quite well, but I’m giving it honorary sleeper status because I felt like it was completely erased from the conversation once “Everybody Hurts” blanketed MTV a few months later. (P.S. The fact that Allison was at the video shoot makes me seethe with jealousy.)