This is a piece I wrote back in 2007, as R.E.M. was about to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame:
The first time I saw R.E.M. was in June 1981, and I didn’t really like them.
I had gone to Athens to see angular punk-funk pioneers Gang of Four. But in retrospect, the night’s most memorable event was the set by the opening band. R.E.M.. was just one month from releasing its first single, “Radio Free Europe”/”Sitting Still.”
The set went by in a deafening, Ramones-like blur, with little to distinguish this young band from any number of punky pretenders. It could have been the less-than-stellar sound at Tyrone’s, an Athens club that burned down a year later, or it might have been my 17-year-old ears. Either way, I promptly forgot about R.E.M.
The moral? First impressions are sometimes wrong, a lesson brought to mind this past week when the band was named to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
It wasn’t until the next summer, when I heard the new R.E.M. EP “Chronic Town” in a Clemson, S.C., record store, that I heard the band again. The dark jangle of “Wolves, Lower” filled the air, and I was converted.
Soon, everyone I knew seemed to be an R.E.M. fan. My friends and I awaited every new release with youthful enthusiasm. We trekked to see them play, and if we had to choose between them and school, R.E.M. usually won.
Some of the best shows were at Georgia’s Legion Field. The first time, about six months after “Murmur” was released in 1983, we stuffed cars full of people and coolers for the hour-and-a-half drive. The road between Clemson and Athens would become very familiar.
During one of our many road trips, I had the fan-boy thrill of meeting guitarist Peter Buck at a DB’s show at the 40 Watt Club. Another memorable show was a goofy joyride through some cool cover versions by the Hindu Love Gods (made up of R.E.M.’s instrumentalists and Time Toy frontman Bryan Cook) at a sometime strip club in Athens called Bourbon Street.
Since the band broke big in 1987, I’ve been a less-than-devoted follower, but I’ve collected every subsequent album.
Still, it’s those five early, magical years of music I treasure. Whenever I hear those songs I become that zealous young fan again, getting caught up in a legend, unknowingly watching R.E.M. grow into one of the best bands the United States has produced.
R.E.M. has released 13 full-length studio albums, but only the diehard fan needs them all. Here’s a list of those we like best, highlighted by the most essential downloads from each. (Most of the tracks listed below are available on “And I Feel Fine: The Best of 1982-1987 — The I.R.S Years.” The later years are covered by “In Time: The Best of R.E.M. 1988-2003.”)
“Murmur” (1983) Keynote: The murky jangle that helped define ’80s college rock. Download: “Sitting Still, ” “Radio Free Europe, ” “Perfect Circle, ” “Talk About the Passion”
“Automatic for the People” (1992) Keynote: The mature masterpiece. Download: “Find the River, ” “Man on the Moon, ” “Nightswimming, ” “Everybody Hurts”
“Document” (1987) Keynote: The breakthrough. Download: “The One I Love, ” “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine), ” “Finest Worksong”
“Reckoning” (1984) Keynote: What sophomore slump? Download: “Harborcoat, ” “So. Central Rain, ” “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville”
“Fables of the Reconstruction” (1985) Keynote: Underrated turning point that added new textures to the R.E.M. sound. Download: “Feeling Gravity’s Pull, ” “Driver 8, ” “Maps and Legends”
“Out of Time” (1991) Keynote: The album that solidified the band’s place in the mainstream. Download: “Losing My Religion, ” “Shiny Happy People, ” “Half a World Away”
“Lifes Rich Pageant” (1986) Keynote: Rumbling drums and riffing guitars announce the hardest-rocking R.E.M. album aside from the spotty, forced-sounding “Monster.” Download: “Begin the Begin, ” “Fall on Me, ” “Swan Swan H”