I’m biased, in that I’m of a certain age. For me it has to be REM, The Smiths, or The Cure.
I came “of age” in the 80s, and it was the age of cds. I distinctly remember hearing my first albums on this new technology of compact disc. Obviously the sound was great. A radically different experience from 8-tracks and a whole new game from the tapes that so many of us had relied on. (For those too young to know, we used to tape radio stations for new songs and hope to catch new groovy songs. Tape. Not good quality.) Of greater importance to me, though, was that the music was different. Tears for Fears. U2. All sorts of Brit imports with interesting hair.
One band stood out to me and that was REM, perhaps because they were the American band, the sole American Band that in 1983-86 seemed to actually matter, at least to me. Don’t get me wrong, I listened to Michael Jackson just like everyone else did, and Phil Collins, and I had grooved on the Gap Band and obviously Prince. I knew rap was on the way and loved Run-DMC as much as anyone. But there was something about this band from down South.
REM seemed real and authentic. They sang of a world I knew nothing about – places, experiences, a way of life that was totally foreign to me. And while I liked the Brit thing going on – for instance, who did not love Elvis Costello from 1978-1984??? – it was great to hear this thing going on in American music that wasn’t dictated by the New York scene but was still one-of-a-kind. Digging on The Cure was a lot of fun at college and that Robert Smth had not only a look but a sound of his own. I was and remain a fan of The Smiths to as much a degree as is possible. But REM. Murmur is a great album, and I listen to it often. But in my book, there has never been a band on fire like REM was in the making of Reckoning.
Here, live, is the track that sets the stage:
I love Stipe’s hair, the guitars, the everything in this clip. I love “Harborcoat.” The jangly guitar against the steady drum, the vivacity, the playfulness, the harmonies, the playing with language. And that’s about the weakest track on the album. Please see other songs. I have yet to see something that betters this album in the last 25 years. It’s rock and roll at its finest – a band at its apex right here. At the time I was digging other bands, and I’ve loved others since…but this captures the band at its best. Lyrically, the band did some fascinating things in this album and followed them with the stunning Fables of the Reconstruction and Life’s Rich Pageant, which only solidified their place at the top lyrically but especially ideologically and musically.
The best song, though, then and now, continues to be “Letter Never Sent.” If ever a song takes me back to a time it is this one: “If I’m moving too fast, here is my new address.”
This song equals the mid-80s to me, and part of that is because it’s part of an imperfect album that works so very well as an album. There’s nothing I would change about Reckoning, and nothing of any of their first three albums, truth be told. I know I’m partial, but this is still the best band in the world to me for what they were able to do over a span of those three albums from about 1983-1987 – capture perfectly a time and place like no other band has in my lifetime. The Beatles and Stones? Probably. But REM in the mid-80s were independent in a way that didn’t exist in music back then and doesn’t now. They were the best band of that decade and the best until Kurt Cobain started doing his thing. They forced you to deal with what they were doing. They were the best band in the world.