R.E.M – The Top Ten Album tracks of the IRS era ranked

R.E.M – The Top Ten Album tracks of the IRS era ranked

Following R.E.M’s debut single Radio Free Europe on Hib-Tone Records, the band signed with I.R.S Records and remained on that label until 1988 when they signed to Warners. The band’s five studio albums for I.R.S stand as not only R.E.M.’s most important work but arguably the most important sequence of albums released by any artist of that era. R.E.M. was working entirely on their own terms, touring endlessly, releasing music that they wanted to release. As a result of their relentless working schedule, in just 5 years, they went from touring backwater America playing to 5 people to filling basketball arenas and having a top ten U.S hit with the peerless The One I Love.

Their move to Warners saw them build on the I.R.S era success with Green turning them into an arena band and Out Of Time and Automatic For The People bringing them to the entire world’s attention. Like their I.R.S years, those three albums were recorded and released on R.E.M.’s own terms and that remains incredibly impressive. A look at those albums will be reserved for another day, however, as this is a look at the top 10 R.E.M. album tracks from the I.R.S. years.


Picking a top ten R.E.M. list is near on impossible as, really, you could begin and end with Murmur alone. When I first heard the album, Pilgrimage was a track that immediately jumped out and it still sends shivers down my spine when I hear it today. The band’s early albums are very influenced by the music of the South and Pilgrimage manages to combine that influence with a chorus that pure 60’s pop and one of the band’s finest. Michael Stipe and Mike Mills’ interweaving vocals on the chorus would bring a tear to a glass eye. A gorgeous track.


Lyrically, Shaking Through speaks of frustration (“Could it be that one small voice/Doesn’t count in the room?”) but, musically, it’s actually fairly jaunty and is home to one of Peter Buck’s most Byrds like guitar lines. Again, the chorus is a wonderful thing, powerful and uplifting with wonderfully obscure lyrics (“Shaking Through/Opportune”) that somehow make perfect sense in the context of the song. It’s like an explosion of joy.


As an opening statement of intent, Harborcoat takes some beating. As with all R.E.M. songs of the era, the lyrics are obscure and obscured so you’re never quite sure what you’re singing along to. The internet now tells you what the words are of course, and that really spoils the fun of early R.E.M. Harborcoat is, to my ears anyway, the fastest track the band had recorded at the stage, sounding as close to their live show as you could get on the record. The production is superb too and the way that each repetition of the chorus adds another layer of Peter Buck’s crackling guitar is just marvellous. The last chorus is a real R.E.M. highlight for its sheer power and noise. By the way, does anyone know what a harborcoat actually is?


Reckoning showed off a number of new sides to R.E.M. proving they were more than just a new wave/post-punk band and showing that Murmur was no fluke. Time After Time (Annelise) displays a slower, more contemplative side to the band, based around Buck’s repetitive guitar line that has an Eastern flavour to it. The lyrics are a fine example of Stipe’s use of imagery local to Athens, the band’s home – “Ask the girl/Of the hour/By the water tower’s watch” refers to the clock that sits on the top of a local water tower for example. The use of this type of imagery gives this and may other R.E.M. songs a nostalgic feel that really strikes a chord with me, despite the fact I’m from South West Scotland and not Athens, Georgia. That’s the magic of early R.E.M. really.


Fables… is a hugely underrated album. It’s a defining point in R.E.M.’s career really as it represents the last time they relied heavily on local imagery and tales and it’s unquestionably the band’s most “folky” album. Songs like Old Man Kensey, Good Advice and Life And How To Live It are all rooted in the band’s local culture and even a single like Driver 8 is almost wholly influenced by Stipe’s then obsession with the South. Maps And Legends is one of the few songs on the album that sounds most like the R.E.M. everyone would come to know but, crucially, it still retains that sense of lyrical nostalgia that permeates the whole of Fables Of The Reconstruction. It is also one of R.E.M.’s finest songs ever, beautifully melodic and, frankly, irresistible.


Auctioneer is wholly untypical of Fables… as it’s a jagged, visceral track that stands out among the gentler, folky feel of the album. Referencing Stipe’s childhood game of placing a penny on a rail track to have a train flatten it and continuing the album’s rural, and indeed train and rail travel themes, Auctioneer, like Harborcoat, gives the listener as close a feel as is possible of what R.E.M. sounded like live at the time. It’s a powerful, driving track that never fails to impress me when I hear it. As different in sound to the rest of Fables… as it is, the album would not be complete without it.


Lifes Rich Pageant saw R.E.M. lift the veil of mystery that surrounded their earliest work, with crisp sounds, a production that seemed to know the band were about to step up a level or two and, crucially, Stipe’s clearest vocals yet. Begin The Begin opens the album and sets the tone for what is a wonderful record, despite the fact that it was a bit cobbled together with old tracks like Just A Touch and Hyena being resurrected to fill gaps. Begin The Begin made numerous appearances in R.E.M. gigs until the band split up and you can see why – it’s fast, frantic, lyrically baffling (“A philanderer’s tie/A murderer’s shoe”) and just fantastic. The Tourfilm version is one that everyone must see. This track really was hugely important as it was trusted to open what was an incredibly important record for R.E.M. and that trust was repaid. Wonderful.


This is my favourite R.E.M. track and saying that, when you consider the sheer amount of incredible music they made, is quite a compliment. I once wrote out the verse “Silly rule/Golden words make practice/Practice makes perfect/Perfect is a fault/And fault lines change” and stuck it on my wall as it is masterful. I Believe never fails to make me break out in shivers and smiles. Again, it’s fast, slightly folky and probably Lifes… biggest nod to its predecessors. It’s also fun and that’s never a bad thing. Again, live, especially on Tourfilm and other Green era live shows, it’s stunning – Stipe’s opening acapella verse from Future 40’s String Of Pearls and the prolonged “I………” that becomes higher and more deranged he holds the note are simply breath-taking. A glorious, beauty of a song.


Document was R.E.M.’s last I.R.S album and it’s the point the band suddenly become a big thing. The U.S. top 10 success of The One I Love meant that Document was bound to receive a lot of attention and the band matched and indeed exceeded any expectations about the record. The opening four tracks are incredible. They are powerful, dramatic, intense and really represent some of the band’s finest work. Welcome To The Occupation is the second of those four tracks and it’s the first time Stipe got overtly political in his lyrics, with Flowers of Guatemala and Green Grow The Rushes from Lifes Rich Pageant and Fables Of The Reconstruction obscuring the message somewhat. Welcome To The Occupation goes the opposite way with Stipe railing against U.S intervention in Central America over a booming, almost full out rock song. The music doesn’t distract from the message though and the whole package is superb.


The fourth and final of the opening quartet, Disturbance At The Heron House uses animal imagery, perhaps in a nod to Animal Farm, as a way of sending another political message. It seems to display a weary cynicism about the political scene of the time (“Try to tell us something/We don’t know) and it’s really a rather fascinating song. Like Maps And Legends, you could play it to someone now and they’d know it was R.E.M. It’s probably Document’s finest example of R.E.M.’s take on guitar pop with its spritely guitar lines and incredibly catchy melody the perfect counterpoint to the lyrics.

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David McElroy 91 Articles
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