Top 40 Best R.E.M. Songs

R.E.M.'s Greatest Songs of All Time

R.E.M. shocked the world by announcing their breakup on September 21, 2011. Since the release of their first EP in 1982, the band have been one of rock’s most critically acclaimed bands, blending enigmatic lyrics and adventurous guitar-driven music that has encompassed everything from pop to country. By the late ‘80s, they also become commercial successes, eventually figuring out how to make left-of-center tunes for the masses. Picking their 40 greatest songs is no easy feat, but here’s one man’s take on R.E.M.’s embarrassment of riches.

40
of 40

"Orange Crush" (from 'Green')

R.E.M. - 'Green'. Courtesy: Warner Bros.

The late 1980s were a fertile time for politically-conscious songs, and R.E.M. were certainly one of the most outspoken bands at the time. “Orange Crush” is a bruising rock song told from the perspective of a soldier heading off to war. Boasting a powerful, barrel-chested delivery, “Orange Crush” pumps up its antiwar message to arena-sized heights.

39
of 40

"West of the Fields" (from 'Murmur')

R.E.M. - 'Murmur'. Courtesy: I.R.S.

1983’s Murmur is a gentle, mysterious album, but its final track revealed R.E.M.’s darker side. “West of the Fields” is characteristically dreamlike, but the crisscrossing vocals between frontman Michael Stipe and bassist Mike Mills during the chorus suggest sleep riddled with anguish and worry, and Peter Buck’s angular guitar only adds to the track’s palpable tension.

38
of 40

"What If We Give It Away?" (from 'Lifes Rich Pageant')

R.E.M. - 'Lifes Rich Pageant'. Courtesy: I.R.S.

One of R.E.M.’s most underrated songs, “What If We Give It Away?” is a simple, breezy tune about learning to live with frustration and stagnation. But more importantly, this 1986 track’s acoustic arrangement and indelible melody hinted at the breakthrough successes R.E.M. would have on later albums that further exploited this lethal combination of sound and hook.

37
of 40

"All the Way to Reno (You're Gonna Be a Star)" (from 'Reveal')

R.E.M. - 'Reveal'. Courtesy: Warner Bros.

2001’s Reveal is a gauzy, sun-draped record, and this gossamer single captures the mood with offhand elegance. Gorgeous and wistful, “All the Way to Reno” may not have as pronounced a hook as R.E.M.’s bigger hits possess, but its graceful spirit is impossible to shake.

36
of 40

"Pop Song 89" (from 'Green')

R.E.M. - 'Green'. Courtesy: Warner Bros.

1988's Green was the band’s first record for a major label, so how did they celebrate the occasion? By opening with an ironic dance song. “Pop Song 89” finds Stipe addressing a long-lost friend whom he can’t quite remember, and the lyrics’ intentionally pointless conversation starters and non-sequiturs openly mock the idea that “pop songs” have any intellectual content at all.

35
of 40

"Get Up" (from 'Green')

R.E.M. - 'Green'. Courtesy: Warner Bros.

On “Get Up,” R.E.M. subvert the lyrical trope of getting up and seizing the day by delivering a song about all the challenges life brings once you get out of bed. “Dreams, they complicate my life,” Stipe sings, as the background vocals respond, “Dreams, they complement my life,” suggesting that our waking and sleep states are really just two sides of the same unhappy coin.

34
of 40

"Carnival of Sorts (Box Cars)" (from 'Dead Letter Office')

R.E.M. - 'Dead Letter Office'. Courtesy: I.R.S.

R.E.M.’s first record, 1982’s Chronic Town EP, was a moody, mysterious five-track introduction to the band. (Later, the EP would be included as part of the 1987 Dead Letter Office B-sides collection.) “Carnival of Sorts (Box Cars)” is a highlight of this early period, catching Stipe muttering evocative phrases while the band lock into a bouncy groove. 

33
of 40

"Near Wild Heaven" (from 'Out of Time')

R.E.M. - 'Out of Time'. Courtesy: Warner Bros.

Bassist Mike Mills is known for his remarkable backup vocals, but on Out of Time he handled the lead for “Near Wild Heaven,” an impossibly sunny track that has a bittersweet edge to it. Mills sings about being near wild heaven, but not near enough, and his beautifully melancholy voice fills the song with all the poignancy it can bear. 



32
of 40

"So Fast, So Numb" (from 'New Adventures in Hi-Fi')

R.E.M. - 'New Adventures in High-Fi'. Courtesy: Warner Bros.

In their later years, R.E.M. featured several songs that reached out to lost souls, and this New Adventures in Hi-Fi tune is one of the band’s most insistent in that vein. Stipe addresses someone who’s living his or her life recklessly in the vain hope of recapturing some sort of past happiness, and the fevered guitars and organ mimic the lyrics’ desperate urgency.

31
of 40

"Supernatural Serious" (from 'Accelerate')

R.E.M. - 'Accelerate'. Courtesy: Warner Bros.

On an album that was meant to signal their return to straightforward rock music, “Supernatural Serious” was a perfect first single, full of booming guitars and catchy hooks. And in classic R.E.M. fashion, this Accelerate tune also became a rousing cry for community that had an indelible sing-along chorus.

30
of 40

"(Don't Go Back to) Rockville" (from 'Reckoning')

R.E.M. - 'Reckoning'. Courtesy: I.R.S.

R.E.M. go country (kind of) on this amusing Reckoning ditty. It’s a familiar scenario from many a love song – the singer is imploring his girl not to move to another town – but the sweet, slightly ramshackle combination of pianos, drums and guitars give the tune a drunken charm that’s both playful and despondent.

29
of 40

"Begin the Begin" (from 'Lifes Rich Pageant')

R.E.M. - 'Lifes Rich Pageant'. Courtesy: I.R.S.

The firecracker that kicks off 1986’s Lifes Rich Pageant, “Begin the Begin” is a call to arms about starting over, no matter how bitter the past disappointments were. A rollicking, rocking track, it also heralded the ferocious assaults that would come on Document and Green.

28
of 40

"I Took Your Name" (from 'Monster')

R.E.M. - 'Monster'. Courtesy: Warner: Bros.

1994’s Monster is known as R.E.M.’s guitar album, but it’s also their creepiest and most sinister record, too. Need proof? Look no further than “I Took Your Name,” a loud, reverb-heavy track about identity theft and obsession that gets much of its power from Stipe’s distorted, practically inhuman vocals. It rocks plenty, but the song is also oddly hypnotic and scary as Stipe’s menacing lyrics start to get under your skin.

27
of 40

"It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" (from 'Document')

R.E.M. - 'Document'. Courtesy: I.R.S.

Years after its release as a single in 1987, “It’s the End of the World” can feel a bit like a gimmick song with its rapid-fire, free-associating lyrics, which recall Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and predate Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” But the song’s ferocious forward momentum, juxtaposed with Stipe’s comically feverish wordplay, brilliantly encapsulate the terror and excitement of the apocalypse.

26
of 40

"Driver 8" (from 'Fables of the Reconstruction')

R.E.M. - 'Fables of the Reconstruction'. Courtesy: I.R.S.

“Driver 8” is one of those rare train songs that actually sounds like a train. With its chugging guitar riffs and Bill Berry’s insistent drumming, this Fables track hums along with the same grim determination as the locomotive R.E.M. document in the song.

25
of 40

"Daysleeper" (from 'Up')

R.E.M. - 'Up'. Courtesy: Warner Bros.

Proving that their positive-sounding album title was a bit of a feint, R.E.M.’s first single off 1998’s Up was a gorgeous bummer about dead-end night jobs. The agony of economic uncertainty that haunts “Daysleeper” seemed ever more prescient years later when the country was suffering through the midst of a severe economic recession.

24
of 40

"Until the Day Is Done" (from 'Accelerate')

R.E.M. - 'Accelerate'. Courtesy: Warner Bros.

On an album that was meant to signal a more aggressive, guitar-driven R.E.M., 2008’s Accelerate is perhaps never more affecting than on a stripped-down acoustic ballad. “Until the Day Is Done” is a heartbreaking tune in the Automatic for the People vein in which Stipe mourns a country in ruins thanks to greed and George W. Bush. R.E.M. delivered many scathing attacks on Bush during his tenure, but this is certainly the most musically gentle, which is perhaps why it’s all the more devastating.

23
of 40

"Binky the Doormat" (from 'New Adventures in Hi-Fi')

R.E.M. - 'New Adventures in High-Fi'. Courtesy: Warner Bros.

Recorded during the band’s tour to support Monster, “Binky the Doormat” is a loud, despairing song that features one of bassist Mike Mills’ very best backup vocals. Stipe sings about being “your little clown,” and Buck’s guitars wail as if the romantic heartbreak is still fresh.

22
of 40

"Feeling Gravitys Pull" (from 'Fables of the Reconstruction')

R.E.M. - 'Fables of the Reconstruction'. Courtesy: I.R.S.

A dreamlike song that features one of the band’s most casually unnerving guitar riffs, “Feeling Gravitys Pull” is a deeply paradoxical tune that’s both inviting and foreboding. The band’s name derives from a state of unconsciousness attained during sleep, but on this track that netherworld sounds like a rather terrifying place.  

21
of 40

"Swan Swan H" (from 'Lifes Rich Pageant')

R.E.M. - 'Lifes Rich Pageant'. Courtesy: I.R.S.

As has been mentioned by others, “Swan Swan H” is practically the template for every song the Decemberists have ever written. Period detail, an acoustic-driven sound that’s meant to evoke a pre-Industrial era: This Lifes Rich Pageant tune is a bold, confident genre exercise that manages to capture a sense of the grimness of the battlefield during the American Civil War.

20
of 40

"Welcome to the Occupation" (from 'Document')

R.E.M. - 'Document'. Courtesy: I.R.S.

An indictment of U.S. involvement in Latin America, “Welcome to the Occupation” is an unnerving examination of oppression and mistrust. Peter Buck’s tense guitar and Bill Berry’s martial drums give “Welcome to the Occupation” an atmosphere akin to a police state, which results in a riveting but also very bleak track.

19
of 40

"What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" (from 'Monster')

R.E.M. - 'Monster'. Courtesy: Warner: Bros.

After the tranquil beauty of Automatic for the People, R.E.M. turned up their amps for the follow-up record, Monster. This lead single announced very loudly that they were ready to rock, although Stipe’s paranoid lyrics undercut the track’s headlong fury by painting a portrait of a fictional character who is starting to lose his mind.

18
of 40

"At My Most Beautiful" (from 'Up')

R.E.M. - 'Up'. Courtesy: Warner Bros.

R.E.M. may be known for their edgy love songs, but “At My Most Beautiful” is one of their most heartfelt. Stipe sings about the challenges of long-distance love affairs and the pleasures of quiet intimate moments, while the background vocals conjure up the loveliness of the Beach Boys at their most beautiful.

17
of 40

"So. Central Rain (I'm Sorry)" (from 'Reckoning')

R.E.M. - 'Reckoning'. Courtesy: I.R.S.

R.E.M. dabbling with country, “So. Central Rain” demonstrated what an exquisite voice Stipe possessed. And as R.E.M. trivia buffs know, this was one of two songs the band played during their first appearance on Late Night With David Letterman, the other being “Radio Free Europe.”

16
of 40

"Everybody Hurts" (from 'Automatic for the People')

R.E.M. - 'Automatic for the People'. Courtesy: Warner Bros.

As R.E.M.’s profile rose, Stipe began writing lyrics that offered hope to disenchanted listeners. The most moving of these was “Everybody Hurts,” the band’s unabashedly pop ballad about the need to hold on during tough times. Its embrace by mainstream audiences who normally wouldn’t dig an R.E.M. song annoyed the group’s longtime fans, but its soulful, gorgeous orchestration remains a thing of beauty.

15
of 40

"Pretty Persuasion" (from 'Reckoning')

R.E.M. - 'Reckoning'. Courtesy: I.R.S.

On the band’s second full-length record, R.E.M. delivered what sounded like a love-gone-wrong song. With Stipe’s and Mills’ voices wrapping together in a web of chaos and angst, “Pretty Persuasion” hurtles along as it tells a story of disconnection and missed opportunities. Even if you can’t quite figure out the lyrics, Buck’s driving guitar is easy enough to understand.

14
of 40

"The Great Beyond" (from 'In Time: The Best of R.E.M., 1988-2003')

R.E.M. - 'In Time: The Best of R.E.M., 1988-2003'. Courtesy: Warner Bros.

R.E.M. have written songs for film soundtracks on occasion, but their best is this 1999 contribution to Man on the Moon, the Jim Carrey biopic about ‘70s comedian Andy Kaufman. A sequel of sorts to their “Man on the Moon,” which was about Kaufman and gave the film its title, “The Great Beyond” features the more electronic sound that was a highlight of the group’s 1998 album Up.

13
of 40

"Crush With Eyeliner" (from 'Monster')

R.E.M. - 'Monster'. Courtesy: Warner: Bros.

With an assist from master Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore, R.E.M. proved that Monster was going to be a rock album with this gnarly ode to sexual insecurity and desperate lust. The album as a whole deals with desire and identity, but it was rarely as stirring as on this air-guitar beast.

12
of 40

"Find the River" (from 'Automatic for the People')

R.E.M. - 'Automatic For The People'. Courtesy: Warner Bros.

The gem that concludes 1992’s Automatic for the People, “Find the River” is a deceptively simple acoustic track about embracing the future’s uncertainty. Using rivers and oceans as metaphors for life’s journey, Stipe takes the listener under his wing, explaining how we all need strength and courage to brave the perils of daily life. It’s a resonant, inspiring message, and the song’s gentle but resilient melody only reinforce its spirit.

11
of 40

"Man on the Moon" (from 'Automatic for the People')

R.E.M. - 'Automatic For The People'. Courtesy: Warner Bros.

During the early 1990s, R.E.M. were at the peak of their commercial powers, seemingly able to make hit songs about anything they wanted. Perfect example: “Man on the Moon,” a song about deceased avant-garde comedian Andy Kaufman that’s almost folk-rock in its construction. But beyond its obvious allusions to Kaufman, the tune is also a wistful ode to the slow, inevitable passage of time.

10
of 40

"Radio Free Europe" (from 'Murmur')

R.E.M. - 'Murmur'. Courtesy: I.R.S.

For a band who at the beginning were labeled as insular and introspective, R.E.M. sure knew how to write catchy little numbers. “Radio Free Europe” features some wonderful lyrical nonsense (“Keep me out of country in the word”?), but nobody cared when the quartet’s expertly orchestrated indie-rock hammered away at that bouncy groove.

09
of 40

"Electrolite" (from 'New Adventures in Hi-Fi')

R.E.M. - 'New Adventures in High-Fi'. Courtesy: Warner Bros.

A beautifully romantic portrait of Los Angeles, the closing track off 1996’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi is a jaunty piano-and-strings ditty about driving along iconic Mulholland Drive, which overlooks the city with its dangerous hairpin turns. Stipe sounds positively giddy as he falls in love with L.A.’s old-school Hollywood vibe while excitedly looking toward the future.

08
of 40

"Try Not to Breathe" (from 'Automatic for the People')

R.E.M. - 'Automatic For The People'. Courtesy: Warner Bros.

Automatic for the People is haunted by death, and “Try Not to Breathe” is the record’s most underrated examination of mortality. Sung from the perspective of an old man preparing for the end, this mournful acoustic tune is unsentimental in its depiction of waiting for the great beyond.

07
of 40

"Pilgrimage" (from 'Murmur')

R.E.M. - 'Murmur'. Courtesy: I.R.S.

Probably the greatest song to feature the phrase “two-headed cow,” “Pilgrimage” marries an elliptical guitar figure in the verse to a downright bouncy chorus. This Murmur track showed early on that although R.E.M. weren’t interested in being conventional songwriters, they knew their way around a hook.

06
of 40

"Cuyahoga" (from 'Lifes Rich Pageant')

R.E.M. - 'Lifes Rich Pageant'. Courtesy: I.R.S.

Stipe is known for his outspoken political views, but “Cuyahoga” is easily the band’s most disarmingly moving political song, partly because it sounds so hopeful. An evocation of an idyllic past in which American Indians roamed free, this song is rousing and poignant without falling into the heavy-handed sermonizing that can sometimes derail songs with messages. And Mike Mills’ bassline is one of his most iconic.

05
of 40

"Fall on Me" (from 'Lifes Rich Pageant')

R.E.M. - 'Lifes Rich Pageant'. Courtesy: I.R.S.

A song ostensibly about pollution and gravity, “Fall on Me” is more forthrightly a song about spiritual isolation and the need to connect to a larger community. Highlighted by acoustic guitars and Mills’ exquisite background vocals, this Lifes Rich Pageant track is also a spotlight for Stipe’s growingly assertive vocal presence as R.E.M. began moving closer to the mainstream.

04
of 40

"Perfect Circle" (from 'Murmur')

R.E.M. - 'Murmur'. Courtesy: I.R.S.

An early example of R.E.M.’s skill at delicate ballads, “Perfect Circle” may not make a lot of literal sense but wears its air of melancholy beautifully. “Standing too soon/Shoulders high in the room,” Stipe sings mournfully, but it’s the dime-store piano that gives the tune its piercing ache.

03
of 40

"The One I Love" (from 'Document')

R.E.M. - 'Document'. Courtesy: I.R.S.

Bill Berry’s drums kick-start “The One I Love,” but they also signaled the ascension of R.E.M. on the pop charts, driving home the ingenious guitar hook that made the song a radio staple. In the spirit of the Police’s “Every Breath You Take,” R.E.M.’s breakthrough single was a love song that was decidedly unromantic and treacherous, which made it all the more enticing to lots of listeners.

02
of 40

"Nightswimming" (from 'Automatic for the People')

R.E.M. - 'Automatic For The People'. Courtesy: Warner Bros.

The brief snippet of a string section warming up at the beginning of “Nightswimming” heralds the fact that this Automatic for the People ballad has aspirations beyond the conventional worlds of pop or rock. No, this song of loss and regret is scored exclusively by strings and piano, which give the tune a stately, ghostly elegance that makes it better suited for a concert hall than an arena. It’s the band’s most purely emotional and nakedly heartbreaking song.

01
of 40

"Losing My Religion" (from 'Out of Time')

R.E.M. - 'Out of Time'. Courtesy: Warner Bros.

Peter Buck decided he wanted to take a break from the guitar. So he picked up a mandolin for 1991’s Out of Time, and out came “Losing My Religion,” a poignant, endlessly captivating song about romantic desolation. Backed by a subtle but utterly brilliant set of strings, the song found R.E.M. embracing the pop audience but, even more amazingly, bending it to their will. 

(Edited by Bob Schallau)

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Grierson, Tim. "Top 40 Best R.E.M. Songs." ThoughtCo, Nov. 17, 2017, thoughtco.com/top-best-r-e-m-songs-2897985. Grierson, Tim. (2017, November 17). Top 40 Best R.E.M. Songs. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/top-best-r-e-m-songs-2897985 Grierson, Tim. "Top 40 Best R.E.M. Songs." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/top-best-r-e-m-songs-2897985 (accessed November 24, 2017).