Addicted To Vinyl Musical thoughts from the open road, with headphones on


Happy 30th Birthday, R.E.M.!

Dear R.E.M.:

Happy birthday! Today, you turn 30 years young -- a milestone birthday that might make your car insurance a wee bit cheaper and keep you from being carded as often. On April 5, 1980, you played your first show at a church in Athens, Georgia. Back in those days, you were a ragged garage act with surf-rock undertones and jangle-thrash overtones. The gig began what would become a long, successful career full of Grammy wins, arena tours and global superstardom.

The eras of your career are pretty well-defined at this point. 1983's Murmur, 1984's Reckoning and 1985's Fables of the Reconstruction mark your college-rock-darling phase. Thanks to Byrds-like Rickenbacker strums, brisk repetition borrowed from the Feelies and cryptic vocal mumbles -- all poetic, mysterious and dreamy -- you were faves of music nerds and earnest English majors alike. 1986's Life's Rich Pageant through 1988's Green ushered in your ability to fill arenas, on the strength of clearer lyrical messages, staunch political activism and accessible rock singles such as "The One I Love," "Stand" and "It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)." 1991's melancholic orchestral love-song cycle Out of Time sent you into the stratosphere; 1992's ruminative Automatic for the People and 1994's glam-trash Monster kept you in heavy rotation on MTV and in the upper echelon of American rock bands.

After that, things get stranger. 1996's New Adventures in Hi-Fi was a diverse collection (things included: electro, blues, piano-cabaret, Patti Smith) and seemed to confuse fans. Then drummer Bill Berry left, and you released the airless, keyboard-laden Beach Boys homage Up. Even more befuddling upon its release, it's now considered by many (including me) to be a minor masterpiece. The last decade wasn't kind to you, however. Several greatest-hits packages and 2004's Around the Sun, which is widely considered the worst record of your career, put a dent in your credibility.

It's no secret that in 2010, you're at an interesting place in your career. Judging from fan club missives and video snippets, you're hard at work recording a new album, the follow-up to 2008's Accelerate. That LP rejuvenated your sound after Around the Sun -- but didn't quite have the trenchant mainstream impact I think you wanted.

If anything, you guys have never been more uncool: A recent AV Club article on "Culture that makes you feel old" included a brief anecdote from writer Kyle Ryan, who had asked two people he met at SXSW to name their favorite R.E.M. albums. Says hte article: "The first one, who was 22, had no knowledge of R.E.M., so she couldn’t name an album or even a song. The second one, 24, was vaguely familiar with the band (I think she knew a couple of the hits), but also couldn’t name an album or song she liked." Still another half-baked list recently called Berry a terrible drummer -- a wholly unfair, if not uninformed, assessment by someone apparently out to get pageviews by being contrary.

Lately, I've been thinking that you're one of the first huge bands of the '80s and '90s to be forgotten by time, an act buried by this century's hunger for everything new. Your quaint rock and Southern mysticism -- and buzzsawing rock numbers -- aren't even nerdy-cool enough for today's savvy music hipsters. I'm not sure why your star has fallen and why U2 -- another act that's stumbled in the album quality department in recent years -- has remained so popular. But I've noticed that people are also way harder on you than they are any band; it's way more acceptable to rag on R.E.M. than it is to note that U2 isn't still at its creative (or performance) peak.

Why is this? I'm still not sure. But I do know that your music still hits the emotional sweet spot for me. This morning, while I was driving to work, I heard "Imitation of Life" on the radio. The song's coppery jangly guitars and gloss-coated vocals matched the humid, abnormally warm spring day. I flashed back to the first time I heard the song -- during my junior year of college, on a spring break visit to my then-roommate in England. Every time I've heard the song since then, I recall that sunny, hopeful mental place I was a decade ago -- and smile.

I've detailed my personal connection to R.E.M. in many places around the web. So I'm certainly biased in my fandom. Above all, however, my love for you is temporal; I can hear a song from any of your albums and flash back to a place of heartache, or of happiness, or of triumph or of hardship. And you've always been there. Listening to your records is like coming home. Cheesy, maybe. But also true. And that's why I'll always be one of your fans, and note your birthday with a reverential blogpost -- and a spin of your tunes.

Annie Zaleski

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