Friday Fun: My Top Ten 90s Songs, #2 [tie]

#2: "Drive" by R.E.M. (off of Automatic for the People (1992))

#2: "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" by R.E.M. (off of Monster (1994))

I've talked about R.E.M. before, and there is much more than could be said.  What is perhaps the most notable thing about 90s R.E.M. is that they were probably the most popular band of the decade, without producing particularly accessible music.  They released five albums in the 90s--Out of Time (1991), Automatic for the People (1992), Monster (1994), New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996), and Up (1998).  All five of these albums were enormous hits--the "disappointing" New Adventures in Hi-Fi "only" peaked at #2 on the U.S. Billboard charts.  New Adventures in Hi-Fi has to be one of the grimmest and most inscrutable albums to ever reach number #2 on the charts--nothing on it is remotely radio friendly, and all of it is depressing.  Nevertheless, it sold almost a million copies in the United States alone.  That's amazing.

The other thing that is notable about R.E.M. is their range.
I could have picked anyone of a number of songs, but the two I went with are representative of the diversity of their sound and style.  "Drive" is the first track off of Automatic for the People, and it is a deeply reflective, intentionally slow song that sets up a slow, reflective album (except for "Ignoreland," which is by far the weakest song on the album).  It also showcases Michael Stipe's songwriting at its most arcane.  Stipe has this way of writing songs that are clearly about something, but it is hard to figure out what exactly they are about.  But, and here is the key, they are written in a way that encourages you to substitute your own experiences and meaning for the ambiguities present in the song.  The songs are inscrutable on their face, but they are inscrutable in a way that almost begs you to fill in the blanks yourself.  I don't know exactly how that works, but it does, and no one is better at it than Stipe.  Every time I listen to "Drive," I have a new theory about what it means, and each theory is entirely idiosyncratic and keyed to my own life experiences.

Frankly, if all R.E.M. songs were like "Drive," R.E.M. would be kind of an annoying band.  But then they have songs like "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?," which is a straight forward rock song with a tremendous guitar intro.  It is also is about a very concrete, albeit weird, incident--CBS news anchor Dan Rather getting attacked in Central Park in New York City by a mentally ill man who yelled "Kenneth, what is the frequency?" as he attacked.  It is also about how we can't understand media, or something, which I suppose places it closer to the "deliberately inscrutable" camp than I would have thought.

The line that connects both songs, and the thing that makes R.E.M. great, is that they have this incredible ability to create mood and emotional resonance.  Whether or not you really understand what Stipe is getting at, you feel something when you listen to their music, and you react to those feelings.  In this, R.E.M. walks down a path that Radiohead would trod in the 2000s--"I don't know what "Pyramid Song" means, but it sure does give me the feels."  R.E.M. did all of that first.  That's incredibly hard to pull off and its even harder to pull off in a way that is not utterly insufferable.  Surely, R.E.M. and Radiohead often creep over the insufferability line from time to time, but the fact that they are not completely impossible is in itself an achievement.  

Anyway, R.E.M. is one of the all-time great bands, and one can make a strong case for the #1 spot.  But, in the end, I had to go with the guys who have been with me from the start.  But, that's for next week.


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