On October 30, 1997 — 20 years ago today — Bill Berry left R.E.M. And on September 21, 2011, R.E.M. announced they were “calling it a day as a band.” During the 14 years between Berry leaving R.E.M. and everybody else leaving R.E.M., the band released five albums, more than 20 singles and videos, and countless B-sides, one-offs, covers, and live cuts. Too often this period is dismissed by all but the most hardcore fans, yet this segment of their catalog remains ripe for rediscovery and reassessment. Below are nine of the best R.E.M. songs from the late ’90s to now, which together form a playlist for new fans just discovering the band and old fans giving them a second chance.
9. “Leaving New York” (from Around The Sun, 2004)
The gem of this maligned album, roundly considered their most plodding, is a love song to Manhattan: Stipe’s own version of Sinatra’s “New York, New York” or Manilow’s “New York City Rhythm.” Post-9/11, fans were bound to read too much into it, and the glory of the song is that it can hold all those heavy sentiments. Following the Twilight Zone intro by Buck, Stipe’s sentiments range from the endearingly awkward (“Leaving was never my proud”) to the bluntly direct (“I love you forever”), and then the whole song folds back into itself, each part playing over the others as though trying to conjure the bustle and babble of its subject. A dud in the States, “Leaving New York” was the band’s biggest UK hit in years.
8. “Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter” (from Collapse Into Now, 2011)
R.E.M. recorded their final album at Tonsa Studio in Berlin, home to famed sessions by David Bowie and Iggy Pop, among others. That might explain the thrashy glam punk of this tongue-twister-titled standout, which sounds like the band and a few guests doing their best Stooges impersonation. Lenny Kaye lays down a guitar lick that splits the difference between aggressive and bouncy, but it’s Peaches more than Kaye or even Stipe who steals the show. Her vocals give the song an unruliness that matches the stream-of-conscious lyrics about violence and rebellion.
7. “All The Way To Reno” (from Reveal, 2001)
Who goes to Reno to get famous? Perhaps when the band wrote the song, they intended a bit of irony to that idea. It was, after all, originally titled “Jimmy Webb On Mars.” But Buck contributes a genuinely eloquent guitar riff and Stipe plays it completely straight, turning what could have been an anthem of delusion into a heartfelt ode to dreamers and romantics searching for their very own Renos. With Michael Moore in tow, the band invaded Bishop Ford High School in Brooklyn and let students shoot the strangely affecting video.
6. “Bad Day” (from In Time: The Best Of R.E.M. 1988–2003, 2003)
R.E.M. wrote this song during the sessions for Lifes Rich Pageant in the mid 1980s and even made a widely bootlegged demo, but they didn’t release a proper recording until nearly 20 years later, when its agitated lyrics about a “Teflon whitewashed presidency” seemed even more relevant and outraged during the Bush Administration. With its heraldic riff and pleading chorus, the song has lost little of its jitteriness 14 years later, when a reality-TV has-been is now leader of the free world and we’re all suffering through bad days.
5. “Diminished” (from Up, 1998)
“Diminished” was not a single. It didn’t show up on any greatest hits comps. The band didn’t even make a video for this deep-album cut from Up, which is a shame. It’s a richly atmospheric composition, with those vibes lending a late-night feel to Stipe’s musings on everyday uncertainties. He sings as though defending himself in court from some unseen jury. The pedal steel lends it a twisted twang not too far removed from “Country Feedback,” off Out Of Time, but that simple chorus — just Stipe singing, “Sing along” — is one of the band’s loveliest moments.
4. “Houston” (from Live At The Olympia, 2009)
R.E.M. wrote this short song in the voice of a Hurricane Katrina survivor relocated to Texas: “If the storm doesn’t kill me, the government will.” Ten years later, the circumstances have changed and the song has taken on all new force, as Hurricane Harvey has annihilated most of the places Stipe names, including Houston itself. So “Houston” becomes an ode to that city’s resilience in the age of Trump as well as to every compassionate soul’s horror at such devastation. Stipe finished the lyrics shortly before debuting the song in Dublin, and that recording, even more than the studio version on Accelerate, remains definitive.
3. “Suspicion” (from Up, 1998)
Stipe wrote about actual sex only rarely, but he wrote about the moments before and after sex much more often. “Suspicion” recalls Monster in the frankness of its come-ons if not in its mood. “Can’t you see I need nothing too deep?” he asks, playfully. “You’re so naked baby, carry me away.” Coming at the beginning of their first album without Berry, it’s one of the band’s most ingenious and eccentric arrangements, those vibes and synths lending the song a weightlessness that Stipe equates to erotic, even when he starts singing Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream” at the end.
2. “The Great Beyond” (from Man On The Moon OST 2000)
R.E.M. had already written a tune about Andy Kaufman, which provided the title for Milos Forman’s 1999 biopic. Like The Godfather II and Evil Dead II, the sequel is just as essential as the original, a sharply constructed song that teases one of the band’s best hooks. They even allude slyly to “Man on the Moon,” with Stipe quoting that song on the unedited version. Kaufman became something like a patron saint for R.E.M., a guiding spirit for three musicians who equated playing in a band to stunt comedy.
1. “Imitation Of Life” (from Reveal, 2001)
Remarkably, this lively little pop tune, whose syrupy string and spry hook recall “Stand” and “Shiny Happy People,” was almost left off the final sequencing for Reveal. It was initially thought to be too upbeat among the more laidback songs of the album, a bit too sweet in its sugary imagery (“This sugar cane, this lemonade…”). It not only made the final cut, but became the album’s first single — and R.E.M.’s first and only number-one single in Japan. The title comes from Douglas Sirk’s 1959 melodrama, which none of the band members had actually seen, but those words evoke the joys and pains of growing up and finding yourself in the world. “I thought at the time that the title was the perfect metaphor for adolescence,” Buck writes in the liner notes to In Time. “Unfortunately, I’ve come to believe that it is a perfect metaphor for adulthood, too.” R.E.M. never did bittersweet better, which makes “Imitation of Life” their best post-Berry song and one of their best songs period. That mind-boggling video certainly doesn’t hurt, either.