Saturday, November 1, 2008

LATE AFTERNOON WHEN THE HOUSE IS HOT

(I intended this to be an Election Day post but decided to put it up today in honor of R.E.M.'s headlining performance tonight at Buenos Aires' Personal Fest 2008. I'll probably sit this one out because I'm well past the age where I find outdoor festival concerts bearable, but at least I'll always have my fond memories of the Green and Monster tours, which I saw, respectively, in Florida in 1989 and at New York City's Madison Square Garden in 1995.)

Do you remember where you were 20 years minus four days ago? I do. It was Tuesday, November 8, 1988: Election Day. I was in the middle of the first semester of my second year at the University of Florida in Gainesville, and for the first time in my life, I voted in a U.S. Presidential election. That night I was at the apartment of my freshman year roommate, Todd, working on a paper on his computer. Back then, in the pre-Internet surfing age, computers were used mainly in lieu of then-verging-on-antiquated typewriters. In the background, I was playing the music cassette I'd bought earlier, Green by R.E.M., the band's sixth full-length studio release, which had been released that day.

Green was seminal for several reasons. First, it was R.E.M.'s debut album for a major label, Warner Bros. Records, coming hot on the high-charting heels of their first Top 10 single, "The One I Love," from 1987's platinum Document. Also, it was the band's most overtly political statement to date, released on the day of the final showdown between George Bush Sr. and Michael Dukakis, the former Massachusetts governor and Democratic Presidential candidate perhaps now best known as the cousin of actress Olympia Dukakis, who would go on to win the best supporting actress Oscar the following year for playing Cher's mom in Moonstruck.

Along with the Smiths and the Cure, R.E.M. was the most significant group of that era for me. Two years earlier, Life's Rich Pageant had been the first "college-rock" album (yes, vinyl) that I'd ever bought, and within five years, after the release of 1992's Automatic For The People, R.E.M. would become my favorite active band, a title previously claimed by the Cure and still held by R.E.M.--though I've yet to listen to their 2008 CD, Accelerate, in its entirety. The Smiths, by the way, is No. 1 with a bullet overall, but they broke up in 1987, so R.E.M. takes the favorite active group title. For me, Green was the offical beginning of R.E.M.'s upward trajectory, and it joined The Hardline According To Terence Trent D'Arby and Morrissey's Viva Hate to become the de facto soundtrack of my sophomore year at UF.

Today, Green remains my second favorite R.E.M. album, sandwiched between Automatic For The People (the first one I bought on CD) and Life's Rich Pageant. On this occasion of its 20th birthday, I thought I'd take a trip down memory lane and list my 15 (well, technically 16) favorite R.E.M. songs. I thought about including 20 (as in 20th anniversary), but that seems like a few too many, and I'd like this group to have some semblance of exclusivity. And 10 just wouldn't do justice to a band that has been so influential in my life and produced so much music that I love. Without any further delay, here is my best of R.E.M.

  1. "Begin The Begin" The second R.E.M. song I ever heard (after "So. Central Rain"). Falling somewhere between rock and a hard-rock place musically, it still makes me want to jump and shout, baby.
  2. "Can't Get There From Here" Should have been their second Top 10 single, after "Fall On Me," but they'd have to wait until "The One I Love" from the next album to graze the upper reaches of Billboard's Hot 100 for the first of four times.
  3. "Catapult" I don't worship its parent album, Murmur, the way some fanatics do, but for those who say the guys have no rhythm, I say shut up and dance.
  4. "Drive" Absolutely haunting. R.E.M.'s crowning achievement. Hands down.
  5. "Feeling Gravity's Pull" Spooky, creepy and slightly arch, all in the best possible way.
  6. "First We Take Manhattan" The B-side of the "Drive" single and the opening track on the 1991 Leonard Cohen tribute album, I'm Your Fan. It made me a Cohen fan, too.
  7. "Half A World Away" An unbelievably gorgeous waltz. "Losing My Religion" is stunning for sure, but it wasn't the best mandolin-based torch song on Out Of Time.
  8. "Ignoreland" A bracing indictment of George Bush Sr.'s American nightmare. Their most biting political commentary.
  9. "Low" Sexy, brooding and oh...so...slow, this would be the perfect score to a futuristic western.
  10. "Sad Professor" The lyrics (something about displacement, disappointment and disillusionment that include the title of this post) are a bit of a conundrum, but they get me every single time.
  11. "So Fast, So Numb"/"Low Desert" A knockout two-part rock & roll suite near the end of 1996's underrated New Adventures In Hi-Fi.
  12. "Turn You Inside-Out" R.E.M. is a three-sided coin: country rockers (a la the Flying Burrito Brothers), jangly folk band (a la the Byrds) and kick-out-the-jams punks (a la the Stooges). This is about as good as the latter incarnation gets.
  13. Untitled R.E.M.'s first traditional love song? The naming device (or lack of it) is pretentious as hell, but the couplet "This light is skewed to keep you warm/This song is skewed to keep you strong" is my favorite in the band's canon.
  14. "What's The Frequency, Kenneth?" The perfect cardio accompaniment, inspired by, of all things, an incident involving Dan Rather, of all people, and some thugs on the mean streets of New York City.
  15. "Why Not Smile?" Reprising the anti-suicide theme of "Everybody Hurts," it leaves the earlier hit in the dust.
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