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.