They were never my favorite band. They were never even in the Top 10. But somehow, they were always an important presence. When I spent middle school only listening to Metallica on 98 Rock, they were there. During the 2-month span that I listened to pop-dance music on 102.7 (back during that 2-month span that it was a pop-music station), R.E.M. was there. When I started going back to my grunge and alternative roots on WHFS and DC101, they were there.
Which begs the question: If a band is hailed as one of the first alternative groups, how the hell did they manage to get played on every single radio station? Wasn’t the music supposed to be alternative?
The truth is that R.E.M. was able to transcend all of that. Yes, the music they created was alternative, but it was also well written, catchy, and great. And the era that they did this in makes the feat all the more impressive. The rest of the music world, reeling from punk rock and the end of Led Zeppelin dealt with their misery by putting on makeup and dressing like women, as if getting all glammed up would somehow compensate for their sadness at the state of music, and their lack of musical talent or creativity. And out of all of this came R.E.M., a band that not only created a genre without having a blueprint to base it off, but were able to do it in a way that appealed to all music-lovers – a feat that’s anything but easy.
Some of my earliest memories as a musical obsessive involve trying to memorize the speech in the middle of “Orange Crush,” as well as all of the lyrics to “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” – which I could rattle off successfully during the summer of 1995. I remember hearing “Losing My Religion” and taking the lyrics literally, thinking that Michael Stipe had recently turned atheist, and this was his confession to his family and friends. Obviously, it was a different type of confession, but even back then I was amazed at the strength it must have taken to admit this type of thing. A friend gave me Monster in the summer of 1996, and I ate it all up, despite wondering why the band would right a song about calling people back, and I also still think of this album every time Kenneth shows his face on “30 Rock.”
While other bands from the 80s and 90s started breaking-up/ disappearing/ dying out, R.E.M. kept churning out albums, year after year. But my favorite song of theirs comes from 1987’s Document (R.E.M. No. 5) – “Finest Worksong.” And while it’s sad they they decided to “take the instinct by the reins” and call it quits, let’s celebrate the wonderful catalog that this band left us with, and their incalculable influence on rock music.
31 wonderful years. Your finest hour. You will be missed.
R.E.M. – Finest Worksong