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

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20. “SHINY HAPPY PEOPLE” (Out of Time)

What is it? Mere prologue to the vastly superior “Furry Happy Monsters,” performed by R.E.M. on a 1998 episode of Sesame Street to illustrate the challenges facing monsters suffering from bipolar disorder.

Does it deserve a spot here? Without monsters? Hell, no.

What’s the alternative? Out of Time is R.E.M.’s spottiest mid-period record, but the heartsick wayfarer’s lament “Half a World Away” is non-negotiable.

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

21. “THE SIDEWINDER SLEEPS TONITE” (Automatic for the People, 1992)

What is it? A rewrite of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” with goofy-kid lyrics and soaring strings, it’s the most joyous song on the death-shrouded Automatic, R.E.M.’s last great — and arguably greatest — album.

Does it deserve a spot here? Excerpting Automatic is a strange project, because with the exception of the stiff, strained “Everybody Hurts” and clunky anti–Bush 41 stomper “Ignoreland,” it all feels of a piece: an aching, ethereal immersion in loss, mourning, mortality and bruised nostalgia. In context, “Sidewinder” is an escape from the twilight and funeral black of the known world into candy-colored 2-D landscapes of comic-book panels and morphine dreams. Out of context, it’s something less.

What’s the alternative? Download Automatic, edit out “Everybody Hurts” and “Ignoreland,” put on your Bose and lay down in a darkened room.

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

22. “EVERYBODY HURTS” (Automatic for the People)

What is it? It’s a lighter held aloft. It’s a bouquet left on a dead celebrity’s doorstep. It’s a song Mariah Carey could have sold.

Does it deserve a spot here? No comment.

What’s the alternative? Any other song on Automatic except for the one about Republicans.

Does Michael Stipe say anything immodest in the liner notes? “I still kind of can’t believe my voice on this recording, it’s very pure.”

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23. “MAN ON THE MOON” (Automatic for the People)

What is it? Their first Andy Kaufman song.

Does it deserve a spot here? It’s a grade-A singalong.

What’s the alternative? The Bose. The darkened room.

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

24. “NIGHTSWIMMING” (Automatic for the People)

What is it? A piano loop and a stunned backward glance.

Does it deserve a spot here? Apparently this song gets played at lots of weddings.

What’s the alternative? Sometimes, the bride even walks down the aisle to it. To a song about skinny-dipping.

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

25. “WHAT’S THE FREQUENCY, KENNETH?” (Monster, 1994)

What is it? The rusty, lumbering lead single off R.E.M.’s return-to-the-Rock album.

Does it deserve a spot here? Only as a milestone: R.E.M. shuts the door on their acoustic, introspective early-’90s period, not to open it again until their valedictory Collapse Into Now.

What’s the alternative? The reverb-heavy glam-rock posing of “Crush with Eyeliner” would be a wittier, more satisfying emissary of Monster.

Does Michael Stipe say anything immodest in the liner notes? No. Instead he sings the praises of the song’s inspirations, Dan Rather and filmmaker Richard Linklater.

26. “NEW TEST LEPER” (New Adventures in Hi-Fi, 1996)

What is it? Built on an arpeggio-ladder chorus and amorphous Biblical impressionism, it splits the difference between Monsters of Semi-Rock R.E.M. and Acoustic Sad-Hobo R.E.M. (cf. “Half a World Away” on Out of Time).

Does it deserve a spot here? The band members really seem to like it.

What’s the alternative? There are tighter, more exciting songs on New Adventures, including “Binky the Doormat” and “Bittersweet Me.”

Does Michael Stipe say anything immodest in the liner notes? “[This is] the song I think of when people who wrote maybe four good songs get big heads (Britpop anyone?). I always feel like when they write a ‘New Test Leper’ then I will listen to them.”

27. “ELECTROLITE” (New Adventures in Hi-Fi)

What is it? It’s zither and banjo and plink-plonk piano. It’s a perfectly proportioned dessert sampler, and spices Stipe’s tendency toward trite Hollywood mythology.

Does it deserve a spot here? “Stand on a cliff and look down there. Don’t be scared. You are alive.” Awesome, thank you!

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

28. “AT MY MOST BEAUTIFUL” (Up, 1998)

What is it? A prettily arranged but cloying love song.

Does it deserve a spot here? Not as the sole representative of Up, an overlong, meandering and occasionally brilliant record (the band’s first after Berry’s departure) that experimented with electronica and ambient sounds.

What’s the alternative? “Daysleeper,” a gorgeous evocation of scrambled circadian rhythms.

Does Michael Stipe say anything immodest in the liner notes? No. But he did call the song “At My Most Beautiful.”

29. “THE GREAT BEYOND” (from the soundtrack to Man on the Moon, 1999)

What is it? Their other Andy Kaufman song.

Does it deserve a spot here? “Man on the Moon” is already here.

What’s the alternative? “Man on the Moon.”

Does Michael Stipe say anything immodest in the liner notes? “Revisit a character that you’ve written a classic song about, and try to one-up yourself…It is a stunner.”

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(MORE: The All-TIME 100 Songs)

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