Ranking Songs on Albums: REM, “Automatic for the People”

Last month was the 25th anniversary of the release of REM’s last great album, the somber Automatic for the People.  A week ago, the band celebrated by setting out upon us a three-disk Deluxe Edition–could be on my Christmas list!  In honor, here’s my ranking of its twelve tunes (with more than just a nod to jb, who’s done this sort of thing for great late 70s albums such as Rumours, Some Girls, and Hotel California).

#12.  “Sweetness Follows.”  Truth be told, the bottom four are pretty easy for me.  The worst is hardly bad, but I’ve never taken time to get much into this one.

#11.  “Star Me Kitten.”  Its atmosphere is definitely of a piece with the rest of the album.  It just hasn’t grabbed me like many of the others.

#10.  “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1.”  Not a whole, whole lot going on here, but I do hear an ode to the Crescent City.

#9.  “Monty Got a Raw Deal.” A stronger tune than I thought upon first listen back in the day.  I don’t know all that much about Montgomery Clift—his career was derailed by a car accident and he died pretty young—but Michael Stipe clearly found him a sympathetic character.

#8.  “Drive.”  Now the rankings get harder, with some of the prominent tunes popping up.  This, the first track and lead single, is an obvious paean to the early 74 hit “Rock On,” by David Essex.  It’s done in such a way, though, that it sets in place an almost funereal tone for the whole album.

#7.  “Man on the Moon.”  Maybe the most well-known song on Automatic, even if it’s in part because its title was lent as the name of the subsequent Andy Kaufman biopic. Lots of good name-checking going on.

#6.  “Ignoreland.”  Righteous anger and social commentary galore from Stipe and company here.  This is the one to crank.

#5.   “Find the River.”  On the other end of the spectrum is the closing song.  Beautiful, introspective work about searching out one’s path.  It took some time for it to stand out and move its way up the list.

#4.  “Try Not to Breathe.”  Moving piece on death and dying. It’s one I’ve liked from the beginning.

#3.  “Everybody Hurts.”  This is almost certainly the most important song on the album, though not my favorite.  I had moved back to KY after six years in IL several weeks before Automatic came out.  Soon after, my dissertation advisor predicted in an email that this would be REM’s first #1 song.  Didn’t work out that way, but it’s an incredibly affecting work.  The video only enhances its power.  Probably should be #2 on the list, but…

#2.  “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite.” …I’ve got to go with the fun, sing-along piece here instead.  I love that they used a take where Stipe’s voice catches, holding back laughter right after singing, “…and a reading from Dr. Suess.”  Still, I honestly hear/feel more than a tinge of sorrow on this one, too.

#1.  “Nightswimming.” Love the piano line, love the oboe, love the strings, love the vulnerability, love the longing for times past.  Grade A+ stuff.  In my REM All-Time Top 5, for sure. Let’s give it a whirl.

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