Too many words have been written about R.E.M. in their thirty-one years as a band and their one day of retirement. Even before mainstream success, they made for great copy in the alt press. Media coverage of the band actually created some of the important narratives of (indie) rock: artistic integrity, credibility, resisting the imperative to "sell out," reluctance and liberal guilt in the face of success, the transition from indie label to major label. R.E.M. pioneered these now-ubiquitous narratives. Ditto the fan narratives: I knew them before you did. I discovered the band early on. Their early stuff is great. Ditto the idea of a gateway band. Just as kids today discover Dylan and the blues through Jack White, kids in the 80s and 90s found Television, Velvet Underground, and Mission of Burma through R.E.M. Without R.E.M., there's no Kurt Cobain telling his fans they can't like both him and Axl Rose. There's no Eddie Vedder retreating from the media gaze and retooling Pearl Jam as journeymen instead of buzz-band. There's also no "modern rock" format on your FM dial. If it weren't for R.E.M.'s string of I.R.S. records, there would be no fan-boy worship of Sub Pop and Third Man.
Like thousands of other nerds (not indie rock nerds...nerds) in 1986 or so, R.E.M. made sense to me and around the time that "Document" came out, they became my favorite band. In junior high, Jack Kerouac's book "On the Road," the notion of going off to seminary, and the music of R.E.M. (and to a lesser extent The Smiths, Dead Kennedys, and 10,000 Maniacs) created this odd and incongruous universe that seemed so anti-establishment. A fourteen-year-old needs a favorite band. My college roommate Jim and I saw R.E.M. three times on the "Monster" tour--in Auburn Hills, East Lansing, and Ann Arbor. By that time (post "Man on the Moon," "Losing My Religion," and "Everybody Hurts"...the big three), they were big enough to play three Michigan shows on the same tour...and with opening acts like Wilco, Radiohead, and Patti Smith! The last R.E.M. show I saw was on the Vote For Change tour in support of John Kerry in 2004--a show in Cleveland with Bruce Springsteen, Bright Eyes, and John Fogerty. They all came out to jam on a finale of "Born to Run," "People Have the Power," and "(What's So Funny Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding?" Michael Stipe and Springsteen trading verses on "Born to Run" was a good moment.
All of that is well and good, but says little about the music itself. Much of R.E.M.'s catalogue is unfuckwithable rock and roll. It's jangly, artsy, punky, melodic, evocative, and illusive. Just for the hell of it, a dozen great R.E.M tracks:
1. Life and How to Live It (1985's "Fables of the Reconstruction)**
2. Begin the Begin (1986's "Life's Rich Pageant")
3. Rockville (1984's "Reckoning")
4. What's the Frequency Kenneth? (1995's "Monster")
5. Finest Worksong (1987's "Document")
6. I Believe (1986's "Life's Rich Pageant")
7. Harborcoat (1984's "Reckoning")
8. Radio Free Europe (1981 single)
9. Feeling Gravity's Pull (1985's "Fables of the Reconstruction")
10. Lotus (1998's "Up")
11. So Fast So Numb (1996's "New Adventures in Hi-Fi")
12. Man-Sized Wreath (2008's "Accelerate")
And a few live covers to find on youtube: See No Evil (orig. by Television), Crazy (orig. by Pylon), Superman (orig. by The Clique), Strange (orig. by Wire)
UPDATE: **Upon further reflection, I feel the need to add the following assertion about my list's number one: the lines "if I write a book it will be called Life and How to Live It" represent the best closing lines of a rock and roll song, ever.
Two nice links from salon.com
A series of remembrances of the band.
An essay about the band's influence.