The Six Best R.E.M. Non-Singles

Categories: Nitpick Six

When I was in seventh grade, before I knew anything about indie rock or Athens, Georgia, or Reagan-era politics, R.E.M. was my favorite band. I'm certainly not alone; the band was a landmark in many lives for both the music it created and the doors it opened up for young listeners. And like many, the band's breakup hurts more than it probably should. As a thirteen year old, I assumed that by the time R.E.M. broke up (or, worse, if Michael Stipe passed away), I would be a famous musician and would cover "It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" for the inevitable tribute album. Since that didn't happen, I pay my homage with a list of the six best R.E.M. tracks that weren't released as singles. Feel free to interject your own favorite forgotten tracks in the comments section.

6. "The Wrong Child" from Green
There's an element of schmaltz in Michael Stipe singing about a lonely kid trapped indoors envying his peers exercising freedom on a playground. The smart arrangement helps the sentiment of "The Wrong Child" sting. Two Stipes meander around each other, unraveling the melody where others would simply weave. The disorienting verses come into focus when he sings "I will try to sing a happy song / I'll try and make a happy game to play" over chords that shift into major as if forcing a smile for the camera. "The Wrong Child" relies heavily on Peter Buck's mandolin, a sound that became his signature in the mid '90s, ten years after he seized global control over the clean Rickenbacker guitar tone. In the recent past, he has contributed mandolin tracks to artists like Pete Yorn, the Decemberists, Robyn Hitchcock and the Long Winters. So if Peter Buck plays mandolin on your record, you're probably either indie rock royalty, or you're the Long Winters.

5. "Little America" from Reckoning
While not exactly one of his stream-of-consciousness ventures, Stipe sidesteps often enough on "Little America" to keep Reckoning's final number from being swallowed in the shadow of previous track "(Don't Go Back To) Rockville". The big sell here is drummer Bill Berry, whose speedy hi-hat makes the tune feel like an early New Order song spinning off its axis like the wagons Stipe sings about in the song's hook. Only R.E.M. could write a song about early American expeditions, reference the founding fathers and make it sound like a party. (Not even you, Sufjan).

4. "Welcome To The Occupation" from Document
Anybody who bought Document on the strength of "The One I Love" must have been stoked when "Welcome To The Occupation" came first the record. The song has a similar footprint as a middle of the road minor key pop tune with bass higher in the mix than others at the time would dare. But "The One I Love" is open about its desire to be liked while "Occupation" plays hard to get. It teases you with choruses and then backtracks into verses of thematic wordplay. R.E.M. is notorious for its political messages, and this is one of the few in the band's catalog vague enough to not date itself. Whereas "Ignoreland" singlehandedly plants 1992's Automatic For The People within the Bush Senior Administration, "Occupation" speaks in terms of universal fears and stress. When Stipe finally lets go in the song's final seconds with strains of "Listen to me," the desperation is timeless.

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Annie Zaleski
Annie Zaleski

Hi Ryan--Had no idea you were such a R.E.M. nerd. :) One small note to "The Wrong Child"--Stipe himself said a few years ago the song was about this:

"i’m fine with any and all interpretations that arent manifestedin real life as harmful, hateful or violent. The wrong child was notwritten about the boy in the bubble or a gay kid, but was instead theinfluence of HUGO LARGO[who I was working with at the time],particularly mimi goese, and her particular and brilliant flair ofsinging and writing[the double tracked lead voc was at one point goingto be mimi or mike]. I just wrote it about a kid who is physicallyhandicapped, and left it purposely undefined."

So it's actually a pretty heartbreaking, not schmaltzy, song, when you read it over in this context... It's one of my favorites too!

Also, "Welcome To The Occupation" is not the first song on Document, it's the second one. And the song is "Beachball," one word.

And for the record: My personal favorite non-singles are "Kohoutek" or "Cuyahoga."


Beach Ball as best post-2000 non-single? While reasonable minds can differ, you're out of your mind.  Saturn Return and Living Well is the Best Revenge are both great. 


"Welcome to the Occupation" is the second cut on Document. "Finest Worksong" was the first cut. Also, it's "Feeling Gravity's Pull," not "Feeling Gravity's Effects."

Not that *I'm* nitpicky or anything. I'm taking the breakup as hard as you and at 43 I suspect I'm considerably older than you and should know better.

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