The Good: Wonderful collection of intriguing songs, Great vocals
The Bad: Somewhat repetitive instrumentals, Where is "Shiny Happy People?!"
The Basics: This two-disc set is a wonderful way to learn about or expand your appreciation of R.E.M., one of the most original, poetic groups of our time.
R.E.M.'s album Automatic For The People is probably the group's most enduring, best album. That would explain why the two-disc The Best of R.E.M. 1988 - 2003 album has four (out of 18) tracks from Automatic For The People on the first disc and alternate versions of two songs from that album (out of 15) on the second disc. The Best of R.E.M. 1988 - 2003 follows in the tradition of U2's two "Best Of" albums by providing a first disc that has all of the recognizable songs and a second disc with alternate versions and b-side tracks. I love this format as it gives you all the hits you know and then allows you to expand your appreciation for the group. That pleases me.
That said, the real detraction to this album (for those who are more casual fans of R.E.M.) is the lack of "Shiny Happy People." "Shiny Happy People" is not R.E.M.'s best song. Not by far. But, it was their follow-up to their smash single "Losing My Religion" on Out Of Time, and it has a special place in the hearts of many radio listeners for just being a silly little song. And it is noticeably lacking from a "Best Of" album that does have "What's The Frequency, Kenneth?" and at least one version of "Drive."
That said, this is one of the best albums I've heard in a long time. On the first disc, upbeat and offbeat songs I've heard for years, like "Man On The Moon" and "Losing My Religion" are mixed in with songs that continue to grow on me with each listen, like "The Great Beyond" and "Daysleeper." In fact, my familiarity with R.E.M. is largely from my listening to the radio and I was just blown away by hearing "Daysleeper."
"Daysleeper" is an excellent study of the range R.E.M. has. The strength of R.E.M. is in its poetic lyrics. "Daysleeper" is a song about a night worker who is tired all of the time and how that person sees the world. The poetry of "I see the day in newspaper gray, my night is color . . ." is set to a sleepy, hazy melody that makes it instantly recognizable to anyone who has lived that way for a time.
In all, the first disc has eighteen songs and they are all good, most of them are very recognizable. It truly is a great representation of R.E.M. from 1988 - 2003.
I am a huge fan of Best of albums that have a second disc with "b-sides" and R.E.M.'s second disc does a great job at giving me more to appreciate. As someone who heard most R.E.M. songs only on the radio, hearing live or alternate versions of R.E.M. songs I have not heard before is quite a treat. In fact, outside listening to "Daysleeper" repeatedly, I've found myself drifting to the b-side album because it is so pleasantly different from the R.E.M. I've heard repeatedly.
One of the real treats on the second album is "Star Me Kitten," one of R.E.M.'s ethereal songs from Automatic For The People. The alternate version has poet W.S. Burroughs simply reading the lyrics, beat-poet style. For the first time, you can understand clearly all of the lyrics and the presentation is weird and amusing in a "William Shatner sings the classics"-type way.
More than anything else, this best of album illustrates that R.E.M. is a pop-rock band that has maintained close ties to its alternative rock roots. R.E.M. is not afraid to sing about politics, artists and even simple absurdity ("Stand"). All the while they make it sound great and they make their topics relevant by infusing each of their songs with genuine emotion. "Daysleeper," for example, is sung with such longing and tired desperation that everyone can relate, not just those who have worked the night shift. Their classic "Everybody Hurts" perfectly characterizes the pain and sadness we have all experienced. And the newly presented live version of "Drive" (on the second disc) is great at portraying the confusion, rebellion and angst of teenage life.
The only drawback is that the Best of album shows some of the limitations - musically - of a quartet, then trio, that uses primarily drums, guitar, piano and bass to make music. The saving grace for R.E.M. is that over the course of the two albums, they mix the instruments up enough and provide alternate sounds to make the music very listenable. Still, a careful ear will hear how closely "Daysleeper" and "Beat A Drum" (on disc 2) begin. Is it enough of a detraction to make the album not worth it? Absolutely not.
The Best of R.E.M. is a perfect solution to the garbage that is currently on the airwaves. The lyrics are diverse, articulate and well presented. These albums rock and the two-disc set holds up remarkably well over multiple listens. As well, the booklet that comes with the two-disc set has wonderfully written notes on all of the tracks, allowing those who have not been die-hard R.E.M. fans to appreciate the sentiments and ideas that went into making each song.
For other "Best Of" albums that are more exceptional than average, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Greatest Hits And Videos - Red Hot Chili Peppers
Then: The Early Years - They Might Be Giants
The Best Of 1980 - 1990 - U2
For other music reviews, please visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!
© 2011, 2005 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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