Annotated For the People: A Track By Track Look at the New R.E.M. Retrospective

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Less than two months after announcing their breakup, R.E.M. is releasing the greatest-hits collection Part Lies Part Heart Part Truth Part Garbage 1982-2011, including three new tracks, “A Month of Saturdays,” “We All Go Back to Where We Belong” and “Hallelujah” (not the much-covered Leonard Cohen composition). We annotated the tracklist and made a few edits.

1. “GARDENING AT NIGHT” (from Chronic Town, 1982)

What is it? A blueprint for the band’s early sound: Byrds meet postpunk.

Does it deserve a spot here? The song does, but not this rendition, where Michael Stipe sings in a limp falsetto. When he drops his voice lower for the version on the Eponymous greatest-hits collection, the track ratchets up in potency.

Does Michael Stipe say anything immodest in the liner notes? No.

2. “RADIO FREE EUROPE” (Murmur, 1983)

What is it? The band’s first official single, by which point they’ve sublimated their influences; they have an alchemy all their own, and it will sustain them in seemingly endless variations for the rest of the decade and beyond.

Does it deserve a spot here? This song is bigger than any one album or band; this song is arguably the birth of “alternative rock.”

Does Michael Stipe say anything immodest in the liner notes? “The guys always said I do something harmonically here that made them all go ‘whoa,’ because it was so advanced.”

3. “TALK ABOUT THE PASSION” (Murmur)

What is it? A ballad both despairing and hopeful, ostensibly about hunger.

Does it deserve a spot here? It’s exquisite, but the other slowpoke on Murmur, “Perfect Circle,” is the masterpiece of the two — perhaps because its concerns are local, not global.

Does Michael Stipe say anything immodest in the liner notes? No.

(MORE: Read a Q&A with R.E.M.’s Mike Mills)

4. “SITTING STILL” (Murmur)

What is it? The B-side to “Radio Free Europe” is powerful and powerfully elusive, driven by Mike Mills’ full-throated bass line, Bill Berry’s nimble drumming, Peter Buck’s shimmering wash of guitar and Stipe’s cryptic lyrics (here and elsewhere on Murmur, Stipe’s voice is less foreground than a fourth instrument).

Does it deserve a spot here? Yes. The song is like a rambling old house in which you keep discovering new details and crawlspaces every time you visit.

Does Michael Stipe say anything immodest in the liner notes? No.

5. “SO. CENTRAL RAIN” (Reckoning, 1984)

What is it? A catastrophic flood, a hoped-for call that never comes, a keening apology, “rivers of suggestion,” guitars and voice chiming in a sorrowful call-and-response.

Does it deserve a spot here? There’s an instant mythos about “So. Central Rain,” as if it were not a pop song dashed off by a few twentysomethings but rather an ancient, resurrected folk ballad.

Does Michael Stipe say anything immodest in the liner notes? Not really.

6. “DON’T GO BACK TO ROCKVILLE” (Reckoning)

What is it? A straightforward country ballad wherein Mills cajoles a girlfriend not to leave town.

Does it deserve a spot here? Sure, but the sped-up, punkier live versions (which Mills cites in the liner notes) are more fun where you can find them.

Does Michael Stipe say anything immodest in the liner notes? He doesn’t say anything at all, presumably because Mills wrote the lyrics.

7. “DRIVER 8″ (Fables of the Reconstruction, 1985)

What is it? Slower and sadder than Murmur and Reckoning and mining a deep vein of Southern Gothic, Fables is rooted in place, time and regional character, as on this plangent ode of sympathy for the workingman.

Does it deserve a spot here? I could listen to this song every day for the rest of my life and my vision would still go a bit blurry when it reaches the bridge.

Does Michael Stipe say anything immodest in the liner notes? Sort of, but we’ll give him a pass.

8. “LIFE AND HOW TO LIVE IT” (Fables of the Reconstruction)

What is it? Another stellar representation of Fables’ storytelling virtues: Buck’s urgent, angular guitar propels the tale of a troubled man in the band’s hometown of Athens who split his house in half to mirror the fractured state of his own mind.

Does it deserve a spot here? Yes—and having just two songs from Fables (or from Reckoning) doesn’t seem adequate.

Does Michael Stipe say anything immodest in the liner notes? No.

9. “BEGIN THE BEGIN” (Lifes Rich Pageant, 1986)

What is it? An announcement, underlined by big drums and crisp feedback, that R.E.M. are scrapping the deliberate, downbeat folk-rock of Fables and making music to fill and overspill arenas.

Does it deserve a spot here? If you need a song to jump around your apartment to, clean your house to, jog to, get over a breakup to, or read about corporate malfeasance to, this song is your man.

Does Michael Stipe say anything immodest in the liner notes? “I always liked opening a song with ‘a birdie and a hand.’ Two fantastically honest gestures, the f*** off and the rampant applause.”

10. “FALL ON ME” (Lifes Rich Pageant)

What is it? A cascade of overlapping Rickenbacker, chorus and descant, prayer and polemic. You could burrow inside this song and find a peaceful sleep, then dream of a beautiful apocalypse.

Does it deserve a spot here? We’ve reached the point in this exercise when one must concede that a true R.E.M. greatest-hits of the 1980s would be simply a box set of their first six albums, with a couple of super-subjective edits here and there.

Does Michael Stipe say anything immodest in the liner notes? No.

(MORE: The All-TIME 100 Albums)

(MORE: The All-TIME 100 Songs)

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