Do We Need Another R.E.M. Greatest Hits Package?

The announcement was surprising, although it really shouldn’t have been.  After more than 30 years of musicmaking, the most successful band to come out of Athens, Georgia mutually agreed to call it a day.  A truly rare occurrence in modern times.

R.E.M. had just released their latest studio album, Collapse Into Now, this past March.  A cross between Out Of Time and their previous effort, Accelerate, like those titles, it’s a welcome entry in my growing CD collection, a nice mix of acoustic ballads and driving rockers.  If it has to be the last collection of original material from this consistently solid band, then I can live with that.  At least they ended on a good note.

So, why is the band (in association with longtime label, Warner Bros.) collaborating on yet another greatest hits package?  More on that shortly.

In the meantime, let’s briefly review the band’s history for a moment.  After releasing one single on an indie label called Hib-Tone in 1981, the original version of Radio Free Europe, R.E.M. signed with another indie, I.R.S. Records, the following year.  That relationship lasted until 1988 when the band, fed up with the limitations of independent distribution channels, signed with Warner where they spent the rest of their recording career.  (I.R.S. went belly up in 1996.)

During their entire run they hit the Top 40 nine times but they also accumulated three times that amount of memorable songs on modern rock and classic rock stations.  After they left I.R.S., the label issued the first of several compilations (most of which, unfortunately, were released primarily in Europe).  Eponymous featured most of the singles issued during that period including a rare soundtrack contribution and a couple of alternate mixes.  (The double-disc version of And I Feel Fine…The Best Of The I.R.S. Years collects all the American singles (minus Wendell Gee from Fables Of The Reconstruction which wasn’t a commercial success, anyway) and adds album cuts, a few B-sides and rarities.)

As for the Warner era, there was In Time, a terrific hits collection that very clearly should’ve been a double-disc set in its own right (or a triple, if you count the limited edition B-sides and rarities version that I’m desperate to find).  Nonetheless, it was absurd that big hits like Bang And Blame, Shiny Happy People and Drive didn’t make the cut while flop singles like All The Way To Reno and At My Most Beautiful did.  (Don’t get me wrong.  I enjoy those songs but if you’re going to just offer a single-disc overview, stick with the hits.  All of them.)

Which brings me back to my original question.  Why are Warner and the band putting out another singles collection so quickly after the last one?  (In Time came out in 2003.)

R.E.M. hasn’t had a conventional Top 40 hit since 1994.  In the 8 years following In Time’s release, only Supernatural Superserious from Accelerate has gotten any traction on rock radio.  With the exception of about a dozen other songs, including the 4 I just mentioned, all their previous hits (and occasional flops) have already appeared on several previous compilations.

If Wikipedia is to be believed, the new collection is going to be called Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage (not a bad title) and will cover not just the blockbuster Warner era but also the indie stuff, as well (after all, the subtitle is 1982-2011).  That’s never happened before.  Singles from the two periods have always been segregated on separate releases. 

While it’s more than likely the record will be entertaining, is it really necessary?  Unless it covers all the hits or all the singles regardless of chart status, what would be the point?  In Time and The IRS Years collections are still in print so it’s not as if most of the material expected to be included on the new CD are hard to find.

More details are forthcoming, according to R.E.M.’s official site.  But when the collection surfaces on November 15, will it really matter all that much?

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, September 23, 2011
2:51 a.m.

UPDATE:  Rolling Stone reports that the collection will feature “a handful of tracks recorded this year after the completion of the band’s final album, Collapse Into Now.”.  So it’s the old buy-the-songs-you-already-own-in-order-to-get-a-few-new-exclusive-goodies routine.  Even though it remains to be seen whether this greatest hits release will be any better or different than the previous ones (the combination of both eras, notwithstanding) I’ll reserve judgment until I hear it.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, September 24, 2011
2:02 a.m.

Published in: on September 23, 2011 at 2:51 am  Leave a Comment  

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