Every self-respecting college student music snob wants to be that guy who listens to the really cool, trendy music. From the obscure, underground bands from your hometown to any hipster-ish band with the word “Crystal” in its title, there is a sense of self worth that comes with finding that awesome indie band that everyone will start listening to right after you have discovered them. Let’s face it. No one else understands your taste in music, right? You’re the only one who has the musical maturity to really appreciate those obscure college bands, right? Well, I hate to say it, but you’re not alone in this fight in which you thought you were alone. Like you, my friend, there are many other college students out there who have an affinity for the obscure-but-soon-to-be-famous. All these souls have a little band known as R.E.M. to thank.
R.E.M. is a band hard to come by these days: one of those very few bands that you and your parents can both enjoy and still regard each other as reasonably cool. Because you and I both know that you can only tolerate your dad’s Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band record from his college days after so many plays, it’s nice to know that there’s a band out there—and has been for three decades—that is looked upon by multiple generations as having some credible coolness. R.E.M. has had the timeless ability to reach out to whatever audience happens to be listening during those years. Take their debut album Murmur, for example. Unlike some seriously outdated music that was released around the same time, that record sounds just as fresh as it did when it came out thirty years ago. How many bands have that kind of consistent edge? They’ve survived changes in the music scene with the deftness of a band who always looks like they know exactly what they’re doing without even trying, and it’s been that way for many years now.
With their roots dating as far back as 1980 (I know, right?), the Athens, Georgia quartet of Michael Stipe, Mike Mills, Peter Buck, and Bill Berry coolly landed on the scene, finding stock among young Bohemians who found they enjoyed the band’s nonchalance, secondhand clothing, shaggy hair, and intellectually obscure subject matter. Whether or not you liked R.E.M. for their cool factor, there was no denying the fact that these guys could make great, anthemic music. The songwriting duo of Stipe and Mills had the ability to make music that was both unique and accessible, a hard combination to find these days. Their breakout single “Radio Free Europe” is a perfect example of such prowess.
By the late 1980s and early 1990s, R.E.M. was the band that everyone pretended to have known since 1981. With serious airplay on MTV (back when music was actually shown on that channel) and gorgeous hit songs like “Fall On Me” and “Losing My Religion,” the Georgia boys had become a mainstream success story. Even in the huge looming shadow of Nirvana, who was beginning to explode onto the scene, R.E.M. never once lost its relevance to an ever-growing crowd of alternative music lovers. By the mid-90s, record labels caught on, and the band signed what stands still today as one of the most lucrative recording contracts in the history of the industry with Warner Brothers (the number is somewhere in the $80 million range if you were curious). Even as their commercial success began to dwindle around the turn of the millennium, the band refused to simply wither away silently, as they would always rebound with another pop surprise, such as the rockers “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” and “Supernatural Superserious.”
Of course, as with any band whose career lasts a solid three decades, R.E.M. certainly had a wide range of sounds and subjects. With songs ranging from the melodramatic “Everybody Hurts” to the borderline-absurdly corny “Stand,” R.E.M. covered all their musical bases before calling it quits. They certainly had some miscues, but their fallibility made them loveable, even relatable. Who couldn’t help but feel like Michael Stipe could have been your road trip buddy as you blast “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” in the car speakers, trying to play catch up with the mile-a-minute lyrics? And who didn’t want to sing right along with Mike Mills as he belted out the backup harmony in “I Am Superman?” Just about everyone could find something they liked about R.E.M, despite their beginnings as the first ever band about which people could say, “They’re this underground college band from Georgia. You’ve probably never heard of them.”
Rolling Stone magazine recently rated them the number 97 greatest band of all time, beating out the likes of Curtis Mayfield and the Talking Heads, among others. In his tribute article to the band, Colin Meloy, frontman of nerd-rock champions The Decemberists, said, “Middle school was brutal for me, and I clung to my music like a life raft. [R.E.M’s] Murmur, Reckoning … even Dead Letter Office, with its beer-soaked goofs and discarded B sides, provided a much-needed insulation against the cruel, Queensrÿche-and-Garth-Brooks-listening world.” Are they that immortal? That’s for the listener to decide. Are they that loveable? Absolutely. They’ve got the pop credibility for any easy-going mainstream listener as well as an extensive back catalog of obscure B-sides for the indie, too-cool-for-school shoegazer. And whether or not you thought they had broken up back in 1998 or have only heard them as “the band that sings that one song really fast” or “that band whose lyrics you can never understand,” at least you’ve heard of them. And that’s exactly the kind of immortality a band like R.E.M. deserves.
P.S.: If you want my personal opinion on their ten best songs over the years (in no particular order), check these out:
“Radio Free Europe”
“Fall On Me”
“(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville”
“What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”
“Losing My Religion”
“Gardening At Night”
“I Am Superman”
“Talk About the Passion”
“It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”