Weird Scenes Inside the Gold Mine: 10 Songs of Righteous Protest

donald-trump-speech1

Ian Anderson called it, in ’74:

The ice-cream castles are refrigerated;
The super-marketeers are on parade.
There’s a golden handshake hanging round your neck,
As you light your cigarette on the burning deck.
And you balance your world on the tip of your nose
Like a Sea Lion with a ball, at the carnival.

Here are nine other songs of righteous and intelligent fury. Strength in sensitivity will provide both solidarity and sustenance for whatever lies ahead.

And when you lose control, you’ll reap the harvest you have sown
And as the fear grows, the bad blood slows and turns to stone
And it’s too late to lose the weight you used to need to throw around
So have a good drown, as you go down, all alone
Dragged down by the stone…

They say there are strangers who threaten us
In our immigrants and infidels
They say there is strangeness too dangerous
In our theaters and bookstore shelves
That those who know what’s best for us
Must rise and save us from ourselves

Quick to judge
Quick to anger
Slow to understand
Ignorance and prejudice
And fear walk hand in hand…

We tried to speak between lines of oration
You could only repeat what we told you.
Your axe belongs to a dying nation,
They don’t know that we own you.
You’re watching movies trying to find the feelers,
You only see what we show you.
We’re the slaves of the phony leaders
Breathe the air we have blown you.

In the night he’s a star in the Milky Way
He’s a man of the world by the light of day
A golden smile and a proposition
And the breath of God smells of sweet sedition…

Hang your collar up inside
Hang your freedom higher
Listen to the buyer still
Listen to the Congress
Where we propagate confusion
Primitive and wild
Fire on the hemisphere below…

Lost in a Roman wilderness of pain
And all the children are insane, all the children are insane
Waiting for the summer rain, yeah
There’s danger on the edge of town
Ride the King’s highway, baby
Weird scenes inside the gold mine…

Don’t let it bring you down
It’s only castles burning,
Find someone who’s turning
And you will come around.

White collared conservative flashing down the street
Pointing their plastic finger at me
They’re hoping soon my kind will drop and die
But I’m gonna wave my freak flag high, high
Wave on, wave on
Fall mountains, just don’t fall on me
Go ahead on Mr. Business man, you can’t dress like me…
(I got my own world to look through
And I ain’t gonna copy you)

No lyrics necessary; Charlie Hunter’s solemn, elegiac solo at the end speaks volumes about suppression, resistance and bearing witness.

And, of course, always, last and far from least:

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Ten Albums That Supposedly Suck (But Do Not): #3 (Revisited)

3. R.E.M., Monster (1994)

Several theories could be advanced about why Monster was not so warmly embraced, and why it remains the least-loved of the original band’s works. One possibility is that the previous album, Automatic for the People was so critically praised and commercially successful it made the band even more ubiquitous than they’d already been: as such, some blowback was inevitable. Another possibility is that this album was as unrefined and ugly (as if the title didn’t warn us) as anything the band had done. After the almost ethereal elegance that Automatic’s best songs attained, the contrast was perhaps too jarring for old—and especially newer, more fickle—fans. Yet another issue was the undeniable impact grunge had on everything circa 1993/94; any band (like Living Colour) that ostensibly roughed up their edges could be—and were—accused of bandwagon jumping and/or opportunism. Perhaps the most prevalent explanation is that Monster simply was not much of an album.

Any of the previous possibilities are possible and debatable, except for the last one. Monster was not a lackluster album in 1994 and time has only amplified its strengths and its unique place in R.E.M.’s catalog. Perhaps it’s ultimately, as always, a matter of taste, but while I did—and do—dearly love Automatic, I think the praise it receives is as excessive as the hits Monster takes. On some of the softer, slower songs the band—especially the singer—lapse into preciousness and an earnestness that seems shoehorned in for maximum effect (“Everybody Hurts”, I’m talking to you). Early R.E.M. was irresistible in part because it was so inscrutable: Stipe’s indecipherable lyrics and moon pie-mouthed vocals, along with Buck’s ever-jangling guitar, gave the band a distinctive, inimitable sound. Eventually the drums were worked more prominently into the mix, almost but not quite over-compensating on albums like Life’s Rich Pageant and Document. The production was crystalline on Green and Automatic, while Monster, by comparison, could be considered a step backward. Except for the fact that the heft and fury is so obviously intentional: Peter Buck should always be celebrated for being the anti guitar hero, content to “merely” establish—and embellish—the songs with his multi-faceted but always understated approach. On Monster he strides brazenly to the forefront and the results are magnificent; he even allows himself the luxury of a few solos! His guitar sound is not only dominant, it is often delightfully distorted and laden with feedback. It is entirely understandable why this less kind, less gentle R.E.M. was not for everyone, but that has little bearing on why this album is incredibly satisfying on its own terms.

Aside from the impossible-to-ignore presence of Buck, Stipe does some of his finest, if most overlooked work here. In fact, he was possibly never in more control of his range, shifting comfortably from straightforward rock (“Star 69”) to abrasive (“King of Comedy”) to tender (“Strange Currencies”). It’s when he pushes the envelope that the results are most remarkable, and rewarding: he sounds like he’s singing from the bottom of a well in “Crush With Eyeliner”, and instead of hiding behind Buck’s out-of-focus adrenaline rush, he inserts himself into the mix with his finest space-age twang. He uncorks his best falsetto for the sickly sweet “Tongue”, a song that so filled with tenderness, self-loathing and remorse it’s like an accidental ballad. Finally, on album closer “You”, he is an entirely different singer than the lithe crooner from the ‘80s and early ‘90s: he sounds all grown up and is most definitely not faking it, the confusion and desperation almost uncomfortably palpable in each line.

This is not party music. It is not music you can put on while you study or read or fall asleep. It is noisy, occasionally ugly, abrupt and most of all, unapologetic. It is music that demands your attention, but it doesn’t ask for it: if you are not interested, it says, you can listen to something else. There is an audacity and casual indifference informing almost each song that clearly turned off the fickle fans. I’m not suggesting that to be a real R.E.M. fan you have to love Monster, but I am saying that if you casually dismissed it or never took the time to let it sink its claws in, you’re depriving yourself the pleasure of experiencing what may be the most unfairly-maligned rock album ever.

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They Will Rock You, They Are The Champions: The Consummate American Bands (Revisited)

October ’08. In the spirit of two quintessentially American inventions (obsessions, really), baseball and rock and roll, it seemed like a swell idea to merge the two in a lighthearted exercise designed to celebrate the World Series. If one were to imagine fielding the ultimate all-star team comprised of the greatest “players” from the roster of rock music history, how would one begin? Well, for starters, this project could best be understood as falling somewhere in the spectrum of compulsive list making, a passionate engagement with rock music, and the increasingly ubiquitous phenomenon of fantasy teams that exist in the shadow universe of sports freaks. This discussion might begin with the innocent posing of an impossible question: who is the all-time MVP of rock and roll? Or, who are the chosen ones who would find their way onto the roster of any respectable short list? Most people, once the considerable pool of candidates was properly examined, could quickly reach consensus, right? Keep dreaming. The only thing more inimically American than sports and music is our unquenchable compulsion to compete, to choose a side and see what happens.

The whole idea, initially, was simply to have fun with the process. Immediately, I found myself fighting my choices and second-guessing my gut instinct. I realized that an endeavor like this is not dissimilar from what someone (probably a professor) once said regarding the infighting in academia: the battles are so bloody because the stakes are so small. Still, I am, admittedly, one of those idiots who spends an unreasonable amount of time contemplating the various criteria that renders certain artists (and works of art) viable, indelible, immutable. So, the question became: what was I thinking? Especially since I’m the type of person who would probably have an easier time deciding which digit to hack off if the alternative was isolating the one album I could not live without. No man is an island, but my imaginary desert island is all-inclusive: it’s all coming with me or I sink under the weight of its excess, drowning happily with those songs echoing in my mind. In sum, I should have known better. This, of course, is ultimately an agonizing endeavor, and (I know) if I ever saw someone else making a list like this, I’d certainly have a reaction (invariably a visceral one). So with that said, I serve up this offering with the encouragement of any responses, questions, critiques and most of all, alternate suggestions.

The Commissioner

Part Two: The Bench, Bullpen and Pitching Rotation

In the interest of fairness (and sanity), some parameters quickly became imperative. The roster: American bands only. The time period: post 1960. Naturally, and necessarily, this eliminates some of the most important artists, the progenitors. But any competitive team must start with proven leaders, right? We need coaches! Problem solved. Question: who is going to oversee this ultimate all-star team? Answer: why look further than the true godfather and indisputable king of rock and roll, Chuck Berry? He pretty much invented the game, so all of the players are by default his acolytes and apostles. Plus, there is nothing that will surprise or faze him; he’s been there, done that. Also, he is eccentric and irascible, as so many of the great skippers in any sport seem to be. He certainly is not lacking for self confidence: if someone needs to ride the pine due to poor performance, are they going to second guess Johnny B. Goode? Finally, there is always the tantalizing possibility of him duck walking out to home plate to argue a close call with the umpire. (That umpire, incidentally, is Rick Rubin. Who else has successfully mediated so many fruitful proceedings involving some of the biggest egos on the planet?)

Chuck Berry’s coaching staff represents the roots of rock music: the ones upon whose backs the British invasion and whitewashed American imitators climbed for profit. Little Richard, Fats Domino, Bo Diddley make a formidable bunch. The pitching coach is Roy Orbison and the hitting coach is, of course, Jerry Lee Lewis. Buddy Holly, forever young and good-natured, is bench coach. But what about soul brother number one, the fan’s choice as most valuable playa? James Brown, the hardest working man in show business, could be nothing other than Commissioner. As such, he supervises all internal affairs, speaks for the Players Association and oversees the relations with other leagues, including Blues, Funk and Country. (This explains the absence of fellow Commissioners Muddy Waters, George Clinton and Johnny Cash, all of whom have their own franchises and farm teams to organize.) In related news, if the Motown/Soul squad ever got involved, the slaughter rule might need to be put in place. Still, there is one glaring omission. What about the great white hope, Elvis Presley? Elvis, alas, is out: call it the revenge of the Negro Leagues. Not to worry, Elvis—along with Frank Sinatra and John Wayne—is safely ensconced up in the skybox, carousing with the owners and their obsequious entourages.

The Manager

Before introducing the starters and bullpen, let’s give a shout out for the deep and formidable bench, players who could step in at any time to make key contributions. In alphabetical order we have Alice in Chains, The Allman Brothers, The Cars, Kiss, Metallica, The Pretenders, Santana, Sleater-Kinney, Van Halen and Wilco. Our Triple-A affiliates are confident that up and comers such as The Black Keys, The White Stripes, The Fiery Furnaces and Iron and Wine are attracting attention and are all likely to have long and prosperous careers.

And so, without further ado, let’s have a look at the pitching rotation. These are the badasses who can shut down any lineup, and these studs all bring the noise via electric guitar. Starting with the cornerstone, the most important player on the field, our staff ace Jimi Hendrix. Plain and simple, this unhittable southpaw has the best ERA in the history of the game. His career was cut tragically short, but in his prime if you needed to win Game 7 of the World Series, this is the man you wanted on the mound. His complete dominance has never been debatable, and his stuff remains unmatched and inimitable. Next in the rotation is a proud product of Texas, Stevie Ray Vaughn. Another maestro cut short in his prime, he is nevertheless a first ballot hall of famer. Along with Hendrix’s patented machine gun delivery, SRV could always be counted on to release the Texas Flood. The third spot in the rotation is occupied by the quirky and impossibly prolific provocateur, Frank Zappa. Celebrated as much for his guile and élan, Z’s approach was always more cerebral: you never quite knew exactly what he was going to serve up, but more often than not, this long-haired hurler would be laughing at your expense before you realized the ball had left his hand. Vital for more than three decades, there is no question that Zappa was most definitely not in it only for the money. The rotation is balanced out by two insufficiently celebrated living legends, each employing opposite styles to similarly devastating effect. If Vernon Reid can reliably dazzle a lineup with his lightning-fast licks and mastery of an assortment of pitches, Buzz “King Buzzo” Osbourne is the ultimate grinder: his methodical, torrential barrage is on par with the best knuckleball—it is instantly identifiable but exceedingly difficult to master, much less describe.

The Ace

The bullpen is stocked with singer/songwriters, all of whom are masters of finesse, capable of taking over a game in the late innings. The set-up men, Kurt Cobain and Mike Patton, represent two of the more important and influential voices of the ‘90s. Like too many of his teammates, Cobain’s career was cut short, but Patton is settled in for the long haul, and it seems safe to assume that he’ll own many records by the time he hangs up his spurs. As the game winds down, two old school options emerge: from the east coast we have Lou Reed while representing the gold coast is Jackson Browne. Reed tends to give up too many walks, but he lives on the wild side; Browne serves up the occasional long ball when he’s running on empty. Ultimately, despite some less successful outings, these two veterans are there for you when you need them most. Every bullpen needs the situational specialist (sometimes lovingly referred to as the LOOGY, or Lefty One Out Guy), and on this squad Don Van Vliet (sometimes lovingly referred to as Captain Beefheart) always provides enough Electricity to induce that one crucial out. Last but far from least, the team requires a fearless closer to shut ‘em down and seal the deal. All energy, emotion and raw ability, Janis Joplin is an unflappable and intimidating as anyone who has ever played the game. Big Brother and the Holding Company knew how to hold a big lead, and there was never anything cheap about the thrills Janis delivered.

Part Three: The Starting Lineup

And now, the starting lineup, complete with designated hitter (as it would somehow seem less American not to play by American League rules; all of the National League purists are encouraged to join the conversation about how the game used to be played over at Nogoodmusicwasmadeafter1960.com), organized by batting order:

NAME POSITION

Creedence Clearwater Revival SS
Bruce Springsteen CF
Steely Dan 1B
R.E.M. 3B
The Pixies DH
Bob Dylan C
Lynyrd Skynyrd LF
The Doors RF
The Beach Boys 2B

Question: Where are the Grateful Dead? Three answers: First, they are too busy patrolling the concourse, dispensing miracles, to participate in organized games. Second, and perhaps more to the point, what position, exactly, is Jerry Garcia going to play? Finally, the game needs a mascot, and what could be more appropriate than the Steal Your Face guy flying in and around the stadium, at once part of the game and calmly removed from it; like a beach ball, only trippier. Also, instead of the current trend of singing “God Bless America” during the seventh inning stretch, we’re pumping in Howlin Wolf’s rendition of “Smokestack Lightning” because, frankly, it doesn’t get any more American than that.

Leading off, at short stop, is the hits machine Creedence Clearwater Revival. In their relatively brief, but remarkably productive prime, they were not only a force to be reckoned with, but unparalleled as a positive force in American music. They led the league in hits and batting average over three seasons (1968-1970). Their highlight reel runs constantly on FM radio, and it’s worth recalling that these dudes rocked the flannel look long before it was cool (in the ‘70s or in the grunge 2.0 fashion cycle).

Hitting in the number two spot, in centerfield, is Asbury Park’s own Bruce Springsteen. A promising rookie in ’73 who’d paid some serious dues for several years in the minor leagues, his breakthrough season came in 1975 when he garnered MVP honors for Born To Run. Since then he has seldom been out of favor, cranking out timely singles and infusing the game with his unmatched energy and integrity. If the team ever hits a losing streak, the Boss is often at his best when times seem the toughest: Bruce understands (and does his best to ensure) that the glory days are always in the future.

Spunk In Centerfield: The Boss

Batting third and flashing some serious leather at first base is the quiet but deadly duo Steely Dan. These guys were as close to a dynasty as anyone else in the much-maligned decade of the ‘70s. Perfectionists, oddballs, studio wizards, the Dan put together a string of winning seasons that any band would happily emulate. Consummate team players (never ones to put their faces on albums), Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were such perfectionists that they stopped touring altogether in the ‘70s so they could concentrate on crafting their meticulous string of albums. Every team requires the quietly obsessed, lead-by-example professional, and in the understated Dan, this squad has the perfect player to keep them grounded, and focused on what matters most.

The clean-up hitter and arguably most impressive player on the squad is that most American of bands, R.E.M. Not only the ultimate run producer and homeruns leader (from their rookie season in ’83 through at least ’96, their prime is one extended batting title). Consistency has always been their hallmark, and only the most versatile, fearless and original band could cover the hot corner year in and year out. If they’ve shown their age in recent years, it does not (cannot) diminish their credentials: a longer heyday than any other American band, hands down.

Batting fifth is highly regarded designated hitter The Pixies. This perennial fan favorite would warrant inclusion in the lineup courtesy of their two masterworks Surfer Rosa and Doolittle. But to put their influence and reputation in proper perspective, consider the fact that Kurt Cobain once admitted that on the Nirvana hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, he was “basically trying to rip off the Pixies…I should have been in that band—or at least a Pixies cover band.” Factor in that this is also the band that (sort of) spawned The Breeders, not to mention Black Francis’s metamorphosis into Frank Black, and the considerably satisfactory solo career he’s had. When you contemplate a band that hit long bombs when given the chance (with the strikeouts that are an inevitable part of the DH position), you might be hard pressed to come up with a better slugger. If the bases are loaded with two outs in a tie game, all that needs to be said is “if man is 5, then the devil is 6 and if the devil is 6 than god is 7”. That (rally) monkey’s gone to heaven.

Catcher, Captain and Iconoclast: Bob Dylan

Team captain, and catcher, Bob Dylan hits sixth. To be honest, he could play anywhere and do anything he feels like. It’s rather unlikely that he’d want to be associated with any teams, as he owes allegiance to no one other than Woody Guthrie. Dylan is, in short, the consensus leader of this entire generation: he is the alpha and omega of post-‘60s American music. Everyone from The Byrds to the Beatles and singer-songwriters from Van Morrison to Neko Case are, in their own way, paying homage to everything the bard from Minnesota made possible.

Batting in the number seven slot, it’s the tough-as-nails, first off the bench in a brawl southern boys Lynyrd Skynyrd. And where else but left field for a band that took Neil Young to task for critiquing “sweet home” Alabama, only to befriend him later? Where else but left field for a group with ultimate southern street cred advocating that we toss all pistols to the bottom of the sea (“Saturday Night Special”)? These non-NRA endorsing rednecks wrote songs that were remarkably nuanced (“That Smell”, “Needle and the Spoon”) and unusually sensitive (“Tuesday’s Gone”, “Simple Man”) as well as the obligatory ‘70s anthems (“Sweet Home Alabama”, “Give Me Three Steps”, “Free Bird”). Like too many of their teammates, tragedy derailed their run to glory, but the body of work is versatile, deep and enduring.

Hitting eighth and getting the mojo rising in right field are The Doors. Not too many groups have finished their careers as solid and strong as they began them, but L.A. Woman was almost as perfect a swan song as The Doors was a debut. Overlooked and easy to dismiss (Jim Morrison was to rock music what the oft-suspended and self-immolating prima donnas are to today’s sports), they cast an immense and influential shadow—often on the short list of younger band’s role models. And while right field is arguably the least exciting and uneventful position in the field, when you need that long throw home on a rope, or that perfect song at the end of the night before you slip into unconsciousness, the Lizard King is always ready to light up the fire.

The Hits Machine at Second Base: Brian Wilson

Finally, batting ninth and turning double plays at second base, it’s the forever young angels from the gold coast, The Beach Boys. Obviously, they had enough ammo, early in their career (another runs factory) to warrant serious consideration for inclusion on this team. But some historical perspective is imperative when really assessing the Beach Boys’ place in history: while The Beatles are (correctly) credited with creating rock music’s first commercially embraced work of art with Sgt. Pepper, it is well documented that Paul McCartney’s initial inspiration was to somehow make a record as incredible as Pet Sounds. A second baseman is counted on to stir the pot and produce timely singles, and The Beach Boys delivered some of the most crucial hits ever in postseason play: “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?”, “God Only Knows”, and, of course, “Good Vibrations”—the single still hear ‘round the world.
So there it is: the ultimate lineup of American rock music legends. While I reserve the right to second-guess myself (that, after all, is pretty much the point—along with instigating discussion!), I am happy to make the case that this team represents the best possible players, based on the various criteria. What do you think?

Extra innings.

Let’s bat around the order with one indelible moment from each starter.

CCR, “Ramble Tamble” (can you say lead-off scorcher up the middle?):

Bruce Springsteen, “Hungry Heart” (Did Bruce ever sing, write or sound better than he does here?):

Steely Dan, “Bodhisattva” (Can you show me?):

R.E.M., “Finest Worksong” (can you say grand slam?):

The Pixies, “Debaser” (can you say inside-the-park-home-run?):

Bob Dylan, “Positively 4th Street” (He leads the league in strikeouts; he also has the most game-winning hits):

Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Call Me The Breeze” (Yup, they are crowding the plate; I dare you to throw a brush-back pitch!):

The Doors, “Wild Child” (Nothing like a little locker room dysfunction to keep things fresh!):

The Beach Boys, “Hang On To Your Ego vs. I Know There’s An Answer” (Brian Wilson is the man I want at bat with 2 outs, 2 strikes in the 9th inning…):

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Ranking R.E.M. (Revisited One Year Later)

Out of respect for the post-Bill Berry content, we won’t need to damn the last five efforts with faint praise. Instead, I’ll settle on the Top 10, which happen to be the ten albums made before 1998.

10.

From any other band, this would be pretty close to a total winner. From R.E.M., it’s merely a good, at times very good album. “World Leader Pretend” is one of the great R.E.M. songs.

9.

This seemed like the immediate and universal candidate as R.E.M.’s masterpiece. I thought it was the result of hype and (typical) critical consensus, e.g. groupthink. I felt that way then, and I feel even more strongly, now. It’s a very good album with some amazing tracks, but there are some serious stinkers on here (including the ubiquitous, and unbearable “Everybody Hurts”). Not hating, just saying for my money, R.E.M. did much better than this.

8.

Man, I loved this one when it came out. I still love it in bits and pieces, but of all R.E.M.’s albums, this one has aged the most poorly in my opinion. I dug “Radio Song” (with the KRS One cameo) but it sounds pretty damn dated now (which is fine; no harm in that, it just means some of these songs don’t get the frequent replays that some of the albums on this list merit and the ceaseless replays some of the others get). “Losing My Religion” is a fantastic song that just got played too much; can’t fault the band for that. The less said about “Shiny Happy People” the better. But boy are there some stunners on this set: “Low”, kind of like R.E.M. saying “yeah, you want to make Velvet Underground comparisons? Well this is what Lou Reed would sound like if he could actually sing!”; “Country Feedback” which is just quietly devastating (and showcases why Peter Buck is so amazing: nothing flashy, nothing that will get this song featured on Guitar Hero, just a brilliant composer who can paint with color and kill you with the feeling he can conjure); the rest is a hit/miss affair that can/will always bring me back to senior year of college (fall semester) and that’s far from a bad place to be.

7.

Another one that did not –and does not– get a lot of love. But I’ve noticed that while the critical fawning for Automatic has rightly waned, this one seems to be growing. Actually, and I never really thought about this until just now, but perhaps because it signals the last time R.E.M. was really R.E.M., it has taken on a sort of final statement quality. In any event, some seriously awesome tunes on this sucker.

6.

Coincidentally, I just wrote at length about this album, defending it here.

Here is the crux of my argument:

Monster was not a lackluster album in 1994 and time has only amplified its strengths and its unique place in R.E.M.’s catalog. Perhaps it’s ultimately, as always, a matter of taste, but while I did—and do—dearly love Automatic, I think the praise it receives is as excessive as the hits Monster takes. On some of the softer, slower songs the band—especially the singer—lapse into preciousness and an earnestness that seems shoehorned in for maximum effect (“Everybody Hurts”, I’m talking to you). Early R.E.M. was irresistible in part because it was so inscrutable: Stipe’s indecipherable lyrics and moon pie-mouthed vocals, along with Buck’s ever-jangling guitar, gave the band a distinctive, inimitable sound. Eventually the drums were worked more prominently into the mix, almost but not quite over-compensating on albums like Life’s Rich Pageant and Document. The production was crystalline on Green and Automatic, while Monster, by comparison, could be considered a step backward. Except for the fact that the heft and fury is so obviously intentional: Peter Buck should always be celebrated for being the anti guitar hero, content to “merely” establish—and embellish—the songs with his multi-faceted but always understated approach. On Monster he strides brazenly to the forefront and the results are magnificent; he even allows himself the luxury of a few solos! His guitar sound is not only dominant, it is often delightfully distorted and laden with feedback. It is entirely understandable why this less kind, less gentle R.E.M. was not for everyone, but that has little bearing on why this album is incredibly satisfying on its own terms.

5.

The least great of the first five, which means it’s still great and, again, compared to most bands, this would be career-defining work. A bit muddled in places, maybe even a tad uninspired in others (probably due more to exhaustion than effort). Yet some of the band’s best work is found within: does it get better than “Driver 8”? Everyone knows it; everyone has heard it a million times. But holy shit it still feels fresh and totally unique; they are simultaneously creating and perfecting an original sound and while this song practically screams “the south” it is also all-world:

You can almost pinpoint the moment they were poised for greatness: “Auctioneer (Another Engine)” seems to sum up everything great they’d done to this point; the frenzied concentration, like they are trying to fit a longer song with extra lyrics into under three minutes (in a good way of course) and honing in on that totally fresh and original sound. You can hear the fully formed breakthrough records steaming down the tracks, and yet it could be argued that the band never sounded this great again:

4.

This is where it gets tricky. I look at an album like Reckoning and think: only at number four? It almost seems insulting but it had to go somewhere and it ain’t better than the next three. This, to me –and I’m certain I’m not alone– is perhaps the R.E.M. album that would be much more popular and beloved (if that’s possible) had the band split after making it. We would be asking: listen to that confidence, the growth just since the first album; they could have owned the next decade. Fortunately, the band did not split and they did own the next decade.

Here is some priceless video of the band on Letterman:

3.

With the possible exception of people who think Reckoning should be ranked higher, I can’t think of many R.E.M. aficionados that would quibble with these final three choices. Actually, I can imagine that some folks would want to swap Reckoning and Document. I understand, but I don’t agree. Document has the one song that I simply can’t stomach anymore (even more so than “Losing My Religion”), “It’s The End of The World As We Know It…”, but I did used to like it, so I can’t hold it against the song that I got sick of it. Although, as mentioned earlier, the mark of a truly transcendent song is one you never tire of, and along with “Driver 8” there are least a dozen R.E.M. songs I could play until the day I die without complaint: several of them, in fact, are on Document.

Let’s name names: “Finest Worksong” is not only a slice of perfection, it’s the full flowering of the new and improved (improving?) R.E.M. aesthetic; the huge drums continuing from the previous album, the clearer and more confident vocals, Mike Mills elevating his impeccable harmonizing into an almost back-up role and, of course, Buck who eschews solos in favor of a true technician’s approach –power chords and sluicing slide hooks and an undeniable power…this is the sound of the best underground band in the world breaking through the floor and beginning to lay claim to the entire world.

“Welcome To The Occupation”: like “Auctioneer (Another Engine)” this packs a tremendous amount of excitement, emotion and erudition into under-three minutes. This is music as smart bomb figuratively and, well, literally. Some of Stipe’s finest vocals ever. Aside from “Driver 8” perhaps the song I’ve listened to the most times and I’ll never, ever get tired of it. In fact, I still find new ways to marvel at how engaging and mind-boggling it all is (Listen to me…Listen to me…Listen to me!…Listen to me…Listen to me…Listen to me…Listen to me!)

“Exhuming McCarthy”: great message then, now. Nice early use of non-rap sampling with the famous Joseph Welch bitch-slap (“Have you no sense of decency sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”). This has the edge of the earlier work but is employing new layers and angles: a band hitting on all cylinders.

“Disturbance at the Heron House” recalls their earliest work but again with new heft and clarity. Sick hook, crystal-clear vocals and Berry never sounded better.

There are two songs that keep this from being a near-perfect album: “Strange” (facile lyrics) and “Lightnin’ Hopkins” which seems ideally suited to be a live-only song that never made it to record. Neither song is terrible, but neither come close to matching the highs reached before and after them.

Then there is the commercial one-two punch: “The One I Love” helped put R.E.M. over and has historical import for that reason alone. It still manages to not irritate no matter how many millions of times it gets played. Talk about the passion: no one in the band is faking it and it’s that honesty and unaffected feeling that keeps this radio-friendly anthem fresh. Courteous golf claps all around for “It’s the End…” but I can’t listen to or talk about that one anymore.

“Fireplace” would possibly be my pick as the ulitmate unheralded R.E.M. song: I sedom if ever hear anyone name-check it, yet it still sounds effulgent almost a quarter-century later. There is also a sense of adventure, adding some scorching sax work from Steve Berlin (from Los Lobos): an inspired choice that takes the song to a whole other level.

“King of Birds” and “Oddfellows Local 151” combine to create one of the band’s best one-two punches, particularly as album closers. The former invokes the southern march stylings that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Pageant, but with the addition of a dulcimer (another inspired choice) it sounds both psychedelic and postmodern. The latter is just a tour de force from everyone involved and, in hindsight, is almost like a last gasp of innocence. After 1987 the band would never be underground again, and they would (could?) never make music that sounded like this again. To their credit they grew, experimented and refused to rest on any laurels (even when they were the unanimous choice as best and most important band in the world). On the other hand, there is a reason the hardest core of fans have an unshakable nostalgia for the IRS years.

2.

How could this not be the top choice? Well, it may be a cop-out, but I’ve always described Murmur as at once better (or at least more important) than the sum of its parts, but also too historically significant –for the band, for rock music– to cheapen by ranking. It is, in its way, like Love’s Forever Changes (more on that album, and band here), it remains an album everyone knows but not everyone owns. Or everyone loves but not everyone likes. Or, to avoid any unintentional cuteness, ask yourself how many fellow R.E.M. fans could name every song on the album, in order. How many casual fans? How about yourself?

Nobody needs to read another historical analysis citing the far-reaching influence (it is not debatable), and little more is left to be said about the inimitable world the band created here. Again, like Forever Changes it’s not necessarily the individual sounds so much as the place that gets conjured up; by the album, by yourself as you listen to it. Even though this is their opening salvo, it somehow seems less “southern” then their next two albums, and it does (no, really) have that timeless vibe. A word every writer, including this one, leans on too often, if any album of the last thirty years can be called “timeless” in the sense that it seems to have just arrived and remains impossible to adequately describe or even celebrate. It doesn’t sound like it could be made today, or in the ’60s (I don’t think that is what people mean when they say a particular work is “timeless”); rather, it makes itself –by virtue of its sheer quality and inscrutability– impervious to fads and critical trends. It just is and few albums of any era have ever just been the way Murmur manages to do.

At the end of the day, I still listen to a song like “Perfect Circle” and just shake my head, awestruck and grateful. How did something like this happen? Where did this come from? How is this possible?

1.

Here’s the thing: if it wasn’t for Murmur there would be little disagreement about what album best represents everything so great about R.E.M.

To be sure, there are songs you can isolate and put on a mix (or hits collection) but the full power of this one –like any masterful album– should be experienced from start to finish. The cumulative effect of these 12 songs represents a high water mark of the ’80s and while it is not out of time (pun intended) in the way(s) Murmur manages to be, that’s okay. For starters, Murmur is among the handful of sui generis statements from a rock band, and in some regards, the fact that Pageant at times screams 1986 is a very good thing. When we remember how much awful music was made in that decade it becomes refreshing almost to the point of hero worship status that there is nary a snythizer to be found. And just because a song like “Fall on Me” became anthemic doesn’t mean it was (necessarily) written with an eye on radio play. This work caught on because it was too powerful and significant to be ignored. The band had not hit pay dirt yet, but they had, without question, arrived.

After the so-called jangle-guitar (an oft-invoked but facile charge) era, there is no question that R.E.M. was evolving with each album. Arguably, this was the first quantum leap, stylistically and sonically. The urgent, almost menacing tone of Buck’s guitar dispenses with all pleasantries: this joint is rocking from jump street. And then there is the moment that Berry’s drums crash in: the ethereal, occassionally unintelligible quirkiness of the earlier work has been supplanted in favor of a crystalline sound and booming back end. This is a direct, and very confident, call to arms.

Even ostensible throw-aways like “Underneath the Bunker” (less-is-more showcasing for Buck, as always) and the cover of “Superman” (Mills on lead vocals!) help transition and end the onward, irresistible rush of this album. There are mini anthems like “These Days” and “I Believe”, which illustrate how much Stipe is growing as a singer; the earlier mumblings were delightful (even addictive) in their way, but one senses he means –and believes– what he is saying now. Indeed, the social consciousness is in full effect, as evidenced by two stunning tracks. The first, “Cuyahoga” is equal parts history lesson, lament and rallying cry. The second, which is on the short list of songs that have been played into the ground, is “Fall On Me”. Even after so much exposure little can take away from or tarnish the sublime harmonies (some of Mills’ finest work) and the poetic indictment of a careless (or worse, uncaring) society: it is an incrimination that manages to sound vulnerable and very human.

Then there are the two tracks that tend to defy description. First, the almost painfully raw yet gorgeous “Flowers of Guatemala”: this is, in many ways, the apotheosis of everything R.E.M. had achieved, and represents an apex of the aesthetic they were steadily working toward. Where later songs of this sort tended toward preciousness or self-conscious sermonizing, the band, perhaps because of where (and who) they were at this time, are able to balance earnestness and elegance. Peter Buck’s solo is a case study of how a musician’s musician makes magic happen without pyrotechnics or power chords.

Finally, “Swan Swan H”, an archetypal R.E.M. moment that conjures up the Deep South from another century, specifically the Civil War era (Johnny Reb). It is straightforward yet surreal; disorienting yet deliriously familiar, like a smell or sound prompting a memory you can’t quite place. The vocals here could not be more opposite from the approach on Murmur and while it’s still not entirely clear (nor should it necessarily be) exactly who and what Stipe is describing, there is little doubt he’s articulating the thoughts and feelings (and fates) of the soldiers and civilians who did not get mentioned in the history books. It’s an unequivocal embrace of the underdog, a position R.E.M. would make a career out of in part because they understood what it means to be an outsider. It remains a bit ironic, yet oddly perfect, that this sensibility was fully explored on an album that saw the underground’s favorite band forever leave the alternative scene.

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The Only Band That Mattered, Part Two

Short but sweet: “Somebody Got Murdered” is a somewhat overlooked masterpiece from their most misunderstood album (Sandinista!).

Is it just me or does this song, not only in sound but execution, predict (and perfect) the very distinctive sort of music both The Smiths and especially R.E.M. would make in the early-to-mid ’80s? (In fairness, The Clash may have picked up a trick or two from The Cure by this point.)

I’ve been very tempted
To grab it from the till
I’ve been very hungry
But not enough to kill…

Listen to the vocals and subject matter (and the matter-of-fact depiction of murder and its aftermath, understated lyrically in the same ways The Smiths’ “Death of a Disco Dancer” manages to be. On the other hand, contrast the laconic, serenely urgent –or urgently serene– delivery of Mick Jones as opposed to the  inimitable melodrama of Morrissey’s “J’accuse”). Then listen to the jangly guitars and tempo that keeps promising to crest but never quite needs to, and consider so many of R.E.M.’s early tunes.

Somebody got murdered
His name cannot be found
A small stain on the pavement
They’ll scrub it off the ground…

“Somebody Got Murdered” is archetypcal Clash: gritty without being affected, true without being self-righteous, sardonic without the self-consciousness that most bands (before and after) could not avoid.

The Clash did not do it first and they may not have done it best (whatever “it” is), but no other band has ever done it the way The Clash did it. It’s not so much that it seems effortless so much as they were unable to do it differently. And that is yet another reason they remain The Only Band That Mattered.

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Ranking R.E.M.

Out of respect for the post-Bill Berry content, we won’t need to damn the last five efforts with faint praise. Instead, I’ll settle on the Top 10, which happen to be the ten albums made before 1998.

10.

From any other band, this would be pretty close to a total winner. From R.E.M., it’s merely a good, at times very good album. “World Leader Pretend” is one of the great R.E.M. songs.

9.

This seemed like the immediate and universal candidate as R.E.M.’s masterpiece. I thought it was the result of hype and (typical) critical consensus, e.g. groupthink. I felt that way then, and I feel even more strongly, now. It’s a very good album with some amazing tracks, but there are some serious stinkers on here (including the ubiquitous, and unbearable “Everybody Hurts”). Not hating, just saying for my money, R.E.M. did much better than this.

8.

Man, I loved this one when it came out. I still love it in bits and pieces, but of all R.E.M.’s albums, this one has aged the most poorly in my opinion. I dug “Radio Song” (with the KRS One cameo) but it sounds pretty damn dated now (which is fine; no harm in that, it just means some of these songs don’t get the frequent replays that some of the albums on this list merit and the ceaseless replays some of the others get). “Losing My Religion” is a fantastic song that just got played too much; can’t fault the band for that. The less said about “Shiny Happy People” the better. But boy are there some stunners on this set: “Low”, kind of like R.E.M. saying “yeah, you want to make Velvet Underground comparisons? Well this is what Lou Reed would sound like if he could actually sing!”; “Country Feedback” which is just quietly devastating (and showcases why Peter Buck is so amazing: nothing flashy, nothing that will get this song featured on Guitar Hero, just a brilliant composer who can paint with color and kill you with the feeling he can conjure); the rest is a hit/miss affair that can/will always bring me back to senior year of college (fall semester) and that’s far from a bad place to be.

7.

Another one that did not –and does not– get a lot of love. But I’ve noticed that while the critical fawning for Automatic has rightly waned, this one seems to be growing. Actually, and I never really thought about this until just now, but perhaps because it signals the last time R.E.M. was really R.E.M., it has taken on a sort of final statement quality. In any event, some seriously awesome tunes on this sucker.

6.

Coincidentally, I just wrote at length about this album, defending it here.

Here is the crux of my argument:

Monster was not a lackluster album in 1994 and time has only amplified its strengths and its unique place in R.E.M.’s catalog. Perhaps it’s ultimately, as always, a matter of taste, but while I did—and do—dearly love Automatic, I think the praise it receives is as excessive as the hits Monster takes. On some of the softer, slower songs the band—especially the singer—lapse into preciousness and an earnestness that seems shoehorned in for maximum effect (“Everybody Hurts”, I’m talking to you). Early R.E.M. was irresistible in part because it was so inscrutable: Stipe’s indecipherable lyrics and moon pie-mouthed vocals, along with Buck’s ever-jangling guitar, gave the band a distinctive, inimitable sound. Eventually the drums were worked more prominently into the mix, almost but not quite over-compensating on albums like Life’s Rich Pageant and Document. The production was crystalline on Green and Automatic, while Monster, by comparison, could be considered a step backward. Except for the fact that the heft and fury is so obviously intentional: Peter Buck should always be celebrated for being the anti guitar hero, content to “merely” establish—and embellish—the songs with his multi-faceted but always understated approach. On Monster he strides brazenly to the forefront and the results are magnificent; he even allows himself the luxury of a few solos! His guitar sound is not only dominant, it is often delightfully distorted and laden with feedback. It is entirely understandable why this less kind, less gentle R.E.M. was not for everyone, but that has little bearing on why this album is incredibly satisfying on its own terms.

5.

The least great of the first five, which means it’s still great and, again, compared to most bands, this would be career-defining work. A bit muddled in places, maybe even a tad uninspired in others (probably due more to exhaustion than effort). Yet some of the band’s best work is found within: does it get better than “Driver 8”? Everyone knows it; everyone has heard it a million times. But holy shit it still feels fresh and totally unique; they are simultaneously creating and perfecting an original sound and while this song practically screams “the south” it is also all-world:

You can almost pinpoint the moment they were poised for greatness: “Auctioneer (Another Engine)” seems to sum up everything great they’d done to this point; the frenzied concentration, like they are trying to fit a longer song with extra lyrics into under three minutes (in a good way of course) and honing in on that totally fresh and original sound. You can hear the fully formed breakthrough records steaming down the tracks, and yet it could be argued that the band never sounded this great again:

4.

This is where it gets tricky. I look at an album like Reckoning and think: only at number four? It almost seems insulting but it had to go somewhere and it ain’t better than the next three. This, to me –and I’m certain I’m not alone– is perhaps the R.E.M. album that would be much more popular and beloved (if that’s possible) had the band split after making it. We would be asking: listen to that confidence, the growth just since the first album; they could have owned the next decade. Fortunately, the band did not split and they did own the next decade.

Here is some priceless video of the band on Letterman:

3.

With the possible exception of people who think Reckoning should be ranked higher, I can’t think of many R.E.M. aficionados that would quibble with these final three choices. Actually, I can imagine that some folks would want to swap Reckoning and Document. I understand, but I don’t agree. Document has the one song that I simply can’t stomach anymore (even more so than “Losing My Religion”), “It’s The End of The World As We Know It…”, but I did used to like it, so I can’t hold it against the song that I got sick of it. Although, as mentioned earlier, the mark of a truly transcendent song is one you never tire of, and along with “Driver 8” there are least a dozen R.E.M. songs I could play until the day I die without complaint: several of them, in fact, are on Document.

Let’s name names: “Finest Worksong” is not only a slice of perfection, it’s the full flowering of the new and improved (improving?) R.E.M. aesthetic; the huge drums continuing from the previous album, the clearer and more confident vocals, Mike Mills elevating his impeccable harmonizing into an almost back-up role and, of course, Buck who eschews solos in favor of a true technician’s approach –power chords and sluicing slide hooks and an undeniable power…this is the sound of the best underground band in the world breaking through the floor and beginning to lay claim to the entire world.

“Welcome To The Occupation”: like “Auctioneer (Another Engine)” this packs a tremendous amount of excitement, emotion and erudition into under-three minutes. This is music as smart bomb figuratively and, well, literally. Some of Stipe’s finest vocals ever. Aside from “Driver 8” perhaps the song I’ve listened to the most times and I’ll never, ever get tired of it. In fact, I still find new ways to marvel at how engaging and mind-boggling it all is (Listen to me…Listen to me…Listen to me!…Listen to me…Listen to me…Listen to me…Listen to me!)

“Exhuming McCarthy”: great message then, now. Nice early use of non-rap sampling with the famous Joseph Welch bitch-slap (“Have you no sense of decency sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”). This has the edge of the earlier work but is employing new layers and angles: a band hitting on all cylinders.

“Disturbance at the Heron House” recalls their earliest work but again with new heft and clarity. Sick hook, crystal-clear vocals and Berry never sounded better.

There are two songs that keep this from being a near-perfect album: “Strange” (facile lyrics) and “Lightnin’ Hopkins” which seems ideally suited to be a live-only song that never made it to record. Neither song is terrible, but neither come close to matching the highs reached before and after them.

Then there is the commercial one-two punch: “The One I Love” helped put R.E.M. over and has historical import for that reason alone. It still manages to not irritate no matter how many millions of times it gets played. Talk about the passion: no one in the band is faking it and it’s that honesty and unaffected feeling that keeps this radio-friendly anthem fresh. Courteous golf claps all around for “It’s the End…” but I can’t listen to or talk about that one anymore.

“Fireplace” would possibly be my pick as the ulitmate unheralded R.E.M. song: I sedom if ever hear anyone name-check it, yet it still sounds effulgent almost a quarter-century later. There is also a sense of adventure, adding some scorching sax work from Steve Berlin (from Los Lobos): an inspired choice that takes the song to a whole other level.

“King of Birds” and “Oddfellows Local 151” combine to create one of the band’s best one-two punches, particularly as album closers. The former invokes the southern march stylings that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Pageant, but with the addition of a dulcimer (another inspired choice) it sounds both psychedelic and postmodern. The latter is just a tour de force from everyone involved and, in hindsight, is almost like a last gasp of innocence. After 1987 the band would never be underground again, and they would (could?) never make music that sounded like this again. To their credit they grew, experimented and refused to rest on any laurels (even when they were the unanimous choice as best and most important band in the world). On the other hand, there is a reason the hardest core of fans have an unshakable nostalgia for the IRS years.

2.

How could this not be the top choice? Well, it may be a cop-out, but I’ve always described Murmur as at once better (or at least more important) than the sum of its parts, but also too historically significant –for the band, for rock music– to cheapen by ranking. It is, in its way, like Love’s Forever Changes (more on that album, and band here), it remains an album everyone knows but not everyone owns. Or everyone loves but not everyone likes. Or, to avoid any unintentional cuteness, ask yourself how many fellow R.E.M. fans could name every song on the album, in order. How many casual fans? How about yourself?

Nobody needs to read another historical analysis citing the far-reaching influence (it is not debatable), and little more is left to be said about the inimitable world the band created here. Again, like Forever Changes it’s not necessarily the individual sounds so much as the place that gets conjured up; by the album, by yourself as you listen to it. Even though this is their opening salvo, it somehow seems less “southern” then their next two albums, and it does (no, really) have that timeless vibe. A word every writer, including this one, leans on too often, if any album of the last thirty years can be called “timeless” in the sense that it seems to have just arrived and remains impossible to adequately describe or even celebrate. It doesn’t sound like it could be made today, or in the ’60s (I don’t think that is what people mean when they say a particular work is “timeless”); rather, it makes itself –by virtue of its sheer quality and inscrutability– impervious to fads and critical trends. It just is and few albums of any era have ever just been the way Murmur manages to do.

At the end of the day, I still listen to a song like “Perfect Circle” and just shake my head, awestruck and grateful. How did something like this happen? Where did this come from? How is this possible?

1.

Here’s the thing: if it wasn’t for Murmur there would be little disagreement about what album best represents everything so great about R.E.M.

To be sure, there are songs you can isolate and put on a mix (or hits collection) but the full power of this one –like any masterful album– should be experienced from start to finish. The cumulative effect of these 12 songs represents a high water mark of the ’80s and while it is not out of time (pun intended) in the way(s) Murmur manages to be, that’s okay. For starters, Murmur is among the handful of sui generis statements from a rock band, and in some regards, the fact that Pageant at times screams 1986 is a very good thing. When we remember how much awful music was made in that decade it becomes refreshing almost to the point of hero worship status that there is nary a snythizer to be found. And just because a song like “Fall on Me” became anthemic doesn’t mean it was (necessarily) written with an eye on radio play. This work caught on because it was too powerful and significant to be ignored. The band had not hit pay dirt yet, but they had, without question, arrived.

After the so-called jangle-guitar (an oft-invoked but facile charge) era, there is no question that R.E.M. was evolving with each album. Arguably, this was the first quantum leap, stylistically and sonically. The urgent, almost menacing tone of Buck’s guitar dispenses with all pleasantries: this joint is rocking from jump street. And then there is the moment that Berry’s drums crash in: the ethereal, occassionally unintelligible quirkiness of the earlier work has been supplanted in favor of a crystalline sound and booming back end. This is a direct, and very confident, call to arms.

Even ostensible throw-aways like “Underneath the Bunker” (less-is-more showcasing for Buck, as always) and the cover of “Superman” (Mills on lead vocals!) help transition and end the onward, irresistible rush of this album. There are mini anthems like “These Days” and “I Believe”, which illustrate how much Stipe is growing as a singer; the earlier mumblings were delightful (even addictive) in their way, but one senses he means –and believes– what he is saying now. Indeed, the social consciousness is in full effect, as evidenced by two stunning tracks. The first, “Cuyahoga” is equal parts history lesson, lament and rallying cry. The second, which is on the short list of songs that have been played into the ground, is “Fall On Me”. Even after so much exposure little can take away from or tarnish the sublime harmonies (some of Mills’ finest work) and the poetic indictment of a careless (or worse, uncaring) society: it is an incrimination that manages to sound vulnerable and very human.

Then there are the two tracks that tend to defy description. First, the almost painfully raw yet gorgeous “Flowers of Guatemala”: this is, in many ways, the apotheosis of everything R.E.M. had achieved, and represents an apex of the aesthetic they were steadily working toward. Where later songs of this sort tended toward preciousness or self-conscious sermonizing, the band, perhaps because of where (and who) they were at this time, are able to balance earnestness and elegance. Peter Buck’s solo is a case study of how a musician’s musician makes magic happen without pyrotechnics or power chords.

Finally, “Swan Swan H”, an archetypal R.E.M. moment that conjures up the Deep South from another century, specifically the Civil War era (Johnny Reb). It is straightforward yet surreal; disorienting yet deliriously familiar, like a smell or sound prompting a memory you can’t quite place. The vocals here could not be more opposite from the approach on Murmur and while it’s still not entirely clear (nor should it necessarily be) exactly who and what Stipe is describing, there is little doubt he’s articulating the thoughts and feelings (and fates) of the soldiers and civilians who did not get mentioned in the history books. It’s an unequivocal embrace of the underdog, a position R.E.M. would make a career out of in part because they understood what it means to be an outsider. It remains a bit ironic, yet oddly perfect, that this sensibility was fully explored on an album that saw the underground’s favorite band forever leave the alternative scene.

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R.E.M.: The Greatest American Band. Ever.

Almost exactly three years ago I tried to settle a question many people had asked me (and that I had asked myself): what is the all-time great American band?

The only way to tackle a project like that is to have fun with it. I did manage to have fun, but it was also –as anyone who cares too much about music can appreciate– exhausting and at times, excruciating.

Here is the strategy I came up with:

In the spirit of two quintessentially American inventions (obsessions, really), baseball and rock and roll, it seemed like a swell idea to merge the two in a lighthearted exercise designed to celebrate the World Series. If one were to imagine fielding the ultimate all-star team comprised of the greatest “players” from the roster of rock music history, how would one begin? Well, for starters, this project could best be understood as falling somewhere in the spectrum of compulsive list making, a passionate engagement with rock music, and the increasingly ubiquitous phenomenon of fantasy teams that exist in the shadow universe of sports freaks. This discussion might begin with the innocent posing of an impossible question: who is the all-time MVP of rock and roll? Or, who are the chosen ones who would find their way onto the roster of any respectable short list? Most people, once the considerable pool of candidates was properly examined, could quickly reach consensus, right? Keep dreaming. The only thing more inimically American than sports and music is our unquenchable compulsion to compete, to choose a side and see what happens.

To see the full feature (and view the final selections) the link to part one is here and part two is here.

Picking the most important (greatest? best? all of the above?) band, I actually had little difficulty. There are a ton of worthy contenders to make a claim for the number two spot, but to me, pound for pound, no American band can touch R.E.M. Here is my quick and uncomplicated summation:

The clean-up hitter and arguably most impressive player on the squad is that most American of bands, R.E.M. Not only the ultimate run producer and homeruns leader (from their rookie season in ’83 through at least ’96, their prime is one extended batting title). Consistency has always been their hallmark, and only the most versatile, fearless and original band could cover the hot corner (at 3rd base) year in and year out. If they’ve shown their age in recent years, it does not (cannot) diminish their credentials: a longer heyday than any other American band, hands down.

Now with the news of R.E.M calling it quits blowing up the Internets, I am obliged –and delighted– to put my stake more firmly in the sand and stand by my assessment: REM is the best (and/or greatest, most important) band America has produced. In terms of influence and output, no one else can touch them. And here’s the thing: just about everyone knows the hits, and unlike most bands (even some of the better and best-loved bands) R.E.M could easily fit their “greatest hits” on a double-disc set. In terms of influence, is there any debate? R.E.M. has the ultimately winning combination of their sound(s) and the underground aesthetic that helped inspire more American bands than Velvet Underground and The Ramones combined (I can’t quantify that assertion but I still feel confident in proclaiming it). Actually, how about this: REM inspired more bands who could actually play their instruments and make worthwhile albums than Velvet Underground and The Ramones combined (throw in the Sex Pistols as well, for bad measure). Where R.E.M –like any band– really distances themselves and makes their true case for greatness is in the lesser-known and semi-obscure songs. That is where we settle into the real meat and potatoes and start to get a handle on how unbelievably diverse, progressive and brilliant the band was for such a long time. Has any band been that good, that consistently, for that long? To me it’s not particularly close: R.E.M is it.

Let’s examine the best 20 REM songs that may not necessarily show up on a greatest hits disc. This is to remind the aficionados (as if they need reminding) and make the case more eloquently than words will for how amazing R.E.M was. No more than two songs per album and with perhaps a handful of exceptions, no big radio hits (e.g., no “Losing My Religion” or “Radio Free Europe”, etc.). Forget trying to rank them, but let’s look at them in chronological order; it only augments the case being made to listen –and appreciate– the real evolution of the band and how remarkably multi-faceted they were.

Gardening At Night:

Pilgrimage:

Perfect Circle:

Pretty Persuasion:

Maps and Legends:

Auctioneer (Another Engine):

Begin the Begin:

Cuyahoga:

Welcome to the Occupation:

King of Birds:

World Leader Pretend:

Low:

Country Feedback:

Monty Got a Raw Deal:

Nightswimming:

Tongue:

You:

New Test Leper:

Electrolite:

Finally, while there are too many enticing tracks to choose, if forced to select the one song that epitomizes everything unique (equal parts eccentric and irrepressible) about R.E.M. –a statement of purpose and calling card all at once– I’d go with this one.

Finest Worksong:

Any further questions?

Thanks for the long, remarkable run R.E.M. You rocked us; you are the champions.

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Ten Albums That Supposedly Suck (But Do Not): #3

3. R.E.M., Monster (1994)

Several theories could be advanced about why Monster was not so warmly embraced, and why it remains the least-loved of the original band’s works. One possibility is that the previous album, Automatic for the People was so critically praised and commercially successful it made the band even more ubiquitous than they’d already been: as such, some blowback was inevitable. Another possibility is that this album was as unrefined and ugly (as if the title didn’t warn us) as anything the band had done. After the almost ethereal elegance that Automatic’s best songs attained, the contrast was perhaps too jarring for old—and especially newer, more fickle—fans. Yet another issue was the undeniable impact grunge had on everything circa 1993/94; any band (like Living Colour) that ostensibly roughed up their edges could be—and were—accused of bandwagon jumping and/or opportunism. Perhaps the most prevalent explanation is that Monster simply was not much of an album.

Any of the previous possibilities are possible and debatable, except for the last one. Monster was not a lackluster album in 1994 and time has only amplified its strengths and its unique place in R.E.M.’s catalog. Perhaps it’s ultimately, as always, a matter of taste, but while I did—and do—dearly love Automatic, I think the praise it receives is as excessive as the hits Monster takes. On some of the softer, slower songs the band—especially the singer—lapse into preciousness and an earnestness that seems shoehorned in for maximum effect (“Everybody Hurts”, I’m talking to you). Early R.E.M. was irresistible in part because it was so inscrutable: Stipe’s indecipherable lyrics and moon pie-mouthed vocals, along with Buck’s ever-jangling guitar, gave the band a distinctive, inimitable sound. Eventually the drums were worked more prominently into the mix, almost but not quite over-compensating on albums like Life’s Rich Pageant and Document. The production was crystalline on Green and Automatic, while Monster, by comparison, could be considered a step backward. Except for the fact that the heft and fury is so obviously intentional: Peter Buck should always be celebrated for being the anti guitar hero, content to “merely” establish—and embellish—the songs with his multi-faceted but always understated approach. On Monster he strides brazenly to the forefront and the results are magnificent; he even allows himself the luxury of a few solos! His guitar sound is not only dominant, it is often delightfully distorted and laden with feedback. It is entirely understandable why this less kind, less gentle R.E.M. was not for everyone, but that has little bearing on why this album is incredibly satisfying on its own terms.

Aside from the impossible-to-ignore presence of Buck, Stipe does some of his finest, if most overlooked work here. In fact, he was possibly never in more control of his range, shifting comfortably from straightforward rock (“Star 69”) to abrasive (“King of Comedy”) to tender (“Strange Currencies”). It’s when he pushes the envelope that the results are most remarkable, and rewarding: he sounds like he’s singing from the bottom of a well in “Crush With Eyeliner”, and instead of hiding behind Buck’s out-of-focus adrenaline rush, he inserts himself into the mix with his finest space-age twang. He uncorks his best falsetto for the sickly sweet “Tongue”, a song that so filled with tenderness, self-loathing and remorse it’s like an accidental ballad. Finally, on album closer “You”, he is an entirely different singer than the lithe crooner from the ‘80s and early ‘90s: he sounds all grown up and is most definitely not faking it, the confusion and desperation almost uncomfortably palpable in each line.

This is not party music. It is not music you can put on while you study or read or fall asleep. It is noisy, occasionally ugly, abrupt and most of all, unapologetic. It is music that demands your attention, but it doesn’t ask for it: if you are not interested, it says, you can listen to something else. There is an audacity and casual indifference informing almost each song that clearly turned off the fickle fans. I’m not suggesting that to be a real R.E.M. fan you have to love Monster, but I am saying that if you casually dismissed it or never took the time to let it sink its claws in, you’re depriving yourself the pleasure of experiencing what may be the most unfairly-maligned rock album ever.

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Song of the Day: Exhuming McCarthy

On June 9, 1954, Army counsel Joseph N. Welch confronted Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy during the Senate-Army Hearings over McCarthy’s attack on a member of Welch’s law firm, Frederick G. Fisher. Said Welch: “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

 

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They Will Rock You (They Are The Champions)

Part One: Introduction (and Apology)

October ’08. In the spirit of two quintessentially American inventions (obsessions, really), baseball and rock and roll, it seemed like a swell idea to merge the two in a lighthearted exercise designed to celebrate the World Series. If one were to imagine fielding the ultimate all-star team comprised of the greatest “players” from the roster of rock music history, how would one begin? Well, for starters, this project could best be understood as falling somewhere in the spectrum of compulsive list making, a passionate engagement with rock music, and the increasingly ubiquitous phenomenon of fantasy teams that exist in the shadow universe of sports freaks. This discussion might begin with the innocent posing of an impossible question: who is the all-time MVP of rock and roll? Or, who are the chosen ones who would find their way onto the roster of any respectable short list? Most people, once the considerable pool of candidates was properly examined, could quickly reach consensus, right? Keep dreaming. The only thing more inimically American than sports and music is our unquenchable compulsion to compete, to choose a side and see what happens.

The whole idea, initially, was simply to have fun with the process. Immediately, I found myself fighting my choices and second-guessing my gut instinct. I realized that an endeavor like this is not dissimilar from what someone (probably a professor) once said regarding the infighting in academia: the battles are so bloody because the stakes are so small. Still, I am, admittedly, one of those idiots who spends an unreasonable amount of time contemplating the various criteria that renders certain artists (and works of art) viable, indelible, immutable. So, the question became: what was I thinking? Especially since I’m the type of person who would probably have an easier time deciding which digit to hack off if the alternative was isolating the one album I could not live without. No man is an island, but my imaginary desert island is all-inclusive: it’s all coming with me or I sink under the weight of its excess, drowning happily with those songs echoing in my mind. In sum, I should have known better. This, of course, is ultimately an agonizing endeavor, and (I know) if I ever saw someone else making a list like this, I’d certainly have a reaction (invariably a visceral one). So with that said, I serve up this offering with the encouragement of any responses, questions, critiques and most of all, alternate suggestions.

 

The Commissioner

Part Two: The Bench, Bullpen and Pitching Rotation

In the interest of fairness (and sanity), some parameters quickly became imperative. The roster: American bands only. The time period: post 1960. Naturally, and necessarily, this eliminates some of the most important artists, the progenitors. But any competitive team must start with proven leaders, right? We need coaches! Problem solved. Question: who is going to oversee this ultimate all-star team? Answer: why look further than the true godfather and indisputable king of rock and roll, Chuck Berry? He pretty much invented the game, so all of the players are by default his acolytes and apostles. Plus, there is nothing that will surprise or faze him; he’s been there, done that. Also, he is eccentric and irascible, as so many of the great skippers in any sport seem to be. He certainly is not lacking for self confidence: if someone needs to ride the pine due to poor performance, are they going to second guess Johnny B. Goode? Finally, there is always the tantalizing possibility of him duck walking out to home plate to argue a close call with the umpire. (That umpire, incidentally, is Rick Rubin. Who else has successfully mediated so many fruitful proceedings involving some of the biggest egos on the planet?)

Chuck Berry’s coaching staff represents the roots of rock music: the ones upon whose backs the British invasion and whitewashed American imitators climbed for profit. Little Richard, Fats Domino, Bo Diddley make a formidable bunch. The pitching coach is Roy Orbison and the hitting coach is, of course, Jerry Lee Lewis. Buddy Holly, forever young and good-natured, is bench coach. But what about soul brother number one, the fan’s choice as most valuable playa? James Brown, the hardest working man in show business, could be nothing other than Commissioner. As such, he supervises all internal affairs, speaks for the Players Association and oversees the relations with other leagues, including Blues, Funk and Country. (This explains the absence of fellow Commissioners Muddy Waters, George Clinton and Johnny Cash, all of whom have their own franchises and farm teams to organize.) In related news, if the Motown/Soul squad ever got involved, the slaughter rule might need to be put in place. Still, there is one glaring omission. What about the great white hope, Elvis Presley? Elvis, alas, is out: call it the revenge of the Negro Leagues. Not to worry, Elvis—along with Frank Sinatra and John Wayne—is safely ensconced up in the skybox, carousing with the owners and their obsequious entourages.

 

The Manager

Before introducing the starters and bullpen, let’s give a shout out for the deep and formidable bench, players who could step in at any time to make key contributions. In alphabetical order we have Alice in Chains, The Allman Brothers, The Cars, Kiss, Metallica, The Pretenders, Santana, Sleater-Kinney, Van Halen and Wilco. Our Triple-A affiliates are confident that up and comers such as The Black Keys, The White Stripes, The Fiery Furnaces and Iron and Wine are attracting attention and are all likely to have long and prosperous careers.

And so, without further ado, let’s have a look at the pitching rotation. These are the badasses who can shut down any lineup, and these studs all bring the noise via electric guitar. Starting with the cornerstone, the most important player on the field, our staff ace Jimi Hendrix. Plain and simple, this unhittable southpaw has the best ERA in the history of the game. His career was cut tragically short, but in his prime if you needed to win Game 7 of the World Series, this is the man you wanted on the mound. His complete dominance has never been debatable, and his stuff remains unmatched and inimitable. Next in the rotation is a proud product of Texas, Stevie Ray Vaughn. Another maestro cut short in his prime, he is nevertheless a first ballot hall of famer. Along with Hendrix’s patented machine gun delivery, SRV could always be counted on to release the Texas Flood. The third spot in the rotation is occupied by the quirky and impossibly prolific provocateur, Frank Zappa. Celebrated as much for his guile and élan, Z’s approach was always more cerebral: you never quite knew exactly what he was going to serve up, but more often than not, this long-haired hurler would be laughing at your expense before you realized the ball had left his hand. Vital for more than three decades, there is no question that Zappa was most definitely not in it only for the money. The rotation is balanced out by two insufficiently celebrated living legends, each employing opposite styles to similarly devastating effect. If Vernon Reid can reliably dazzle a lineup with his lightning-fast licks and mastery of an assortment of pitches, Buzz “King Buzzo” Osbourne is the ultimate grinder: his methodical, torrential barrage is on par with the best knuckleball—it is instantly identifiable but exceedingly difficult to master, much less describe.

 

The Ace

The bullpen is stocked with singer/songwriters, all of whom are masters of finesse, capable of taking over a game in the late innings. The set-up men, Kurt Cobain and Mike Patton, represent two of the more important and influential voices of the ‘90s. Like too many of his teammates, Cobain’s career was cut short, but Patton is settled in for the long haul, and it seems safe to assume that he’ll own many records by the time he hangs up his spurs. As the game winds down, two old school options emerge: from the east coast we have Lou Reed while representing the gold coast is Jackson Browne. Reed tends to give up too many walks, but he lives on the wild side; Browne serves up the occasional long ball when he’s running on empty. Ultimately, despite some less successful outings, these two veterans are there for you when you need them most. Every bullpen needs the situational specialist (sometimes lovingly referred to as the LOOGY, or Lefty One Out Guy), and on this squad Don Van Vliet (sometimes lovingly referred to as Captain Beefheart) always provides enough Electricity to induce that one crucial out. Last but far from least, the team requires a fearless closer to shut ‘em down and seal the deal. All energy, emotion and raw ability, Janis Joplin is an unflappable and intimidating as anyone who has ever played the game. Big Brother and the Holding Company knew how to hold a big lead, and there was never anything cheap about the thrills Janis delivered.

Part Three: The Starting Lineup

And now, the starting lineup, complete with designated hitter (as it would somehow seem less American not to play by American League rules; all of the National League purists are encouraged to join the conversation about how the game used to be played over at Nogoodmusicwasmadeafter1960.com), organized by batting order:

NAME POSITION

Creedence Clearwater Revival SS
Bruce Springsteen CF
Steely Dan 1B
R.E.M.  3B
The Pixies DH
Bob Dylan C
Lynyrd Skynyrd LF
The Doors RF
The Beach Boys 2B

Question: Where are the Grateful Dead? Three answers: First, they are too busy patrolling the concourse, dispensing miracles, to participate in organized games. Second, and perhaps more to the point, what position, exactly, is Jerry Garcia going to play? Finally, the game needs a mascot, and what could be more appropriate than the Steal Your Face guy flying in and around the stadium, at once part of the game and calmly removed from it; like a beach ball, only trippier. Also, instead of the current trend of singing “God Bless America” during the seventh inning stretch, we’re pumping in Howlin Wolf’s rendition of “Smokestack Lightning” because, frankly, it doesn’t get any more American than that.

Leading off, at short stop, is the hits machine Creedence Clearwater Revival. In their relatively brief, but remarkably productive prime, they were not only a force to be reckoned with, but unparalleled as a positive force in American music. They led the league in hits and batting average over three seasons (1968-1970). Their highlight reel runs constantly on FM radio, and it’s worth recalling that these dudes rocked the flannel look long before it was cool (in the ‘70s or in the grunge 2.0 fashion cycle).

Hitting in the number two spot, in centerfield, is Asbury Park’s own Bruce Springsteen. A promising rookie in ’73 who’d paid some serious dues for several years in the minor leagues, his breakthrough season came in 1975 when he garnered MVP honors for Born To Run. Since then he has seldom been out of favor, cranking out timely singles and infusing the game with his unmatched energy and integrity. If the team ever hits a losing streak, the Boss is often at his best when times seem the toughest: Bruce understands (and does his best to ensure) that the glory days are always in the future.

 

Spunk In Centerfield: The Boss

Batting third and flashing some serious leather at first base is the quiet but deadly duo Steely Dan. These guys were as close to a dynasty as anyone else in the much-maligned decade of the ‘70s. Perfectionists, oddballs, studio wizards, the Dan put together a string of winning seasons that any band would happily emulate. Consummate team players (never ones to put their faces on albums), Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were such perfectionists that they stopped touring altogether in the ‘70s so they could concentrate on crafting their meticulous string of albums. Every team requires the quietly obsessed, lead-by-example professional, and in the understated Dan, this squad has the perfect player to keep them grounded, and focused on what matters most.

The clean-up hitter and arguably most impressive player on the squad is that most American of bands, R.E.M. Not only the ultimate run producer and homeruns leader (from their rookie season in ’83 through at least ’96, their prime is one extended batting title). Consistency has always been their hallmark, and only the most versatile, fearless and original band could cover the hot corner year in and year out. If they’ve shown their age in recent years, it does not (cannot) diminish their credentials: a longer heyday than any other American band, hands down.

Batting fifth is highly regarded designated hitter The Pixies. This perennial fan favorite would warrant inclusion in the lineup courtesy of their two masterworks Surfer Rosa and Doolittle. But to put their influence and reputation in proper perspective, consider the fact that Kurt Cobain once admitted that on the Nirvana hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, he was “basically trying to rip off the Pixies…I should have been in that band—or at least a Pixies cover band.” Factor in that this is also the band that (sort of) spawned The Breeders, not to mention Black Francis’s metamorphosis into Frank Black, and the considerably satisfactory solo career he’s had. When you contemplate a band that hit long bombs when given the chance (with the strikeouts that are an inevitable part of the DH position), you might be hard pressed to come up with a better slugger. If the bases are loaded with two outs in a tie game, all that needs to be said is “if man is 5, then the devil is 6 and if the devil is 6 than god is 7”. That (rally) monkey’s gone to heaven.

 

Catcher, Captain and Iconoclast: Bob Dylan

Team captain, and catcher, Bob Dylan hits sixth. To be honest, he could play anywhere and do anything he feels like. It’s rather unlikely that he’d want to be associated with any teams, as he owes allegiance to no one other than Woody Guthrie. Dylan is, in short, the consensus leader of this entire generation: he is the alpha and omega of post-‘60s American music. Everyone from The Byrds to the Beatles and singer-songwriters from Van Morrison to Neko Case are, in their own way, paying homage to everything the bard from Minnesota made possible.

Batting in the number seven slot, it’s the tough-as-nails, first off the bench in a brawl southern boys Lynyrd Skynyrd. And where else but left field for a band that took Neil Young to task for critiquing “sweet home” Alabama, only to befriend him later? Where else but left field for a group with ultimate southern street cred advocating that we toss all pistols to the bottom of the sea (“Saturday Night Special”)? These non-NRA endorsing rednecks wrote songs that were remarkably nuanced (“That Smell”, “Needle and the Spoon”) and unusually sensitive (“Tuesday’s Gone”, “Simple Man”) as well as the obligatory ‘70s anthems (“Sweet Home Alabama”, “Give Me Three Steps”, “Free Bird”). Like too many of their teammates, tragedy derailed their run to glory, but the body of work is versatile, deep and enduring.

Hitting eighth and getting the mojo rising in right field are The Doors. Not too many groups have finished their careers as solid and strong as they began them, but L.A. Woman was almost as perfect a swan song as The Doors was a debut. Overlooked and easy to dismiss (Jim Morrison was to rock music what the oft-suspended and self-immolating prima donnas are to today’s sports), they cast an immense and influential shadow—often on the short list of younger band’s role models. And while right field is arguably the least exciting and uneventful position in the field, when you need that long throw home on a rope, or that perfect song at the end of the night before you slip into unconsciousness, the Lizard King is always ready to light up the fire.

 

The Hits Machine at Second Base: Brian Wilson

Finally, batting ninth and turning double plays at second base, it’s the forever young angels from the gold coast, The Beach Boys. Obviously, they had enough ammo, early in their career (another runs factory) to warrant serious consideration for inclusion on this team. But some historical perspective is imperative when really assessing the Beach Boys’ place in history: while The Beatles are (correctly) credited with creating rock music’s first commercially embraced work of art with Sgt. Pepper, it is well documented that Paul McCartney’s initial inspiration was to somehow make a record as incredible as Pet Sounds. A second baseman is counted on to stir the pot and produce timely singles, and The Beach Boys delivered some of the most crucial hits ever in postseason play: “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?”, “God Only Knows”, and, of course, “Good Vibrations”—the single still hear ‘round the world.
So there it is: the ultimate lineup of American rock music legends. While I reserve the right to second-guess myself (that, after all, is pretty much the point—along with instigating discussion!), I am happy to make the case that this team represents the best possible players, based on the various criteria. What do you think?

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