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November 18, 2003

Don't take it from Warner Brothers: In Time is behind the times

It's a little strange to think of the members of R.E.M. as old men. But, Father Time does not lie: they have been a band since 1980, for a full 23 years (if one counts the last five years without founding drummer Bill Berry). Michael Stipe is 43, Mike Mills is 44, and Peter Buck is a whopping 46. Granted, 23 years does not make a lifetime; it normally makes a recent college graduate, looking in vain for a job and subsequently thinking about grad school. But 23 years is an eternity in a musical life. Most bands are lucky if they last to be old in housefly years and are fortunate to be relevant for 15 minutes. R.E.M. breaks the mold: a venerable group whose later years, with some exceptions, rival its first few in terms of quality and consistency.

In Time: The Best of R.E.M. 1988-2003 documents more than half of R.E.M.'s career, the period in which they were riding the wave of the mainstream, scored platinum albums, and were briefly hailed, most notably by Rolling Stone, as the biggest and best band in the world. This neat 15 years of recorded history is no insubstantial epoch; it bookends the exact period of R.E.M.'s major label career, when they joined Warner Brothers and left the starving artist life behind. Some would say that they "sold out." Others would say that they "grabbed the bull by the horns." Whatever phrase you most agree with, what can't be denied is that R.E.M.'s success was well earned after years of tireless touring and recording. They brought "alternative" rock to the masses and continued to make great music even after signing their fat contract.

Let me just say up front that R.E.M. is my favorite band of all time. I own all of their albums, either on CD or cassette (yes, tapes), so I am intimately familiar with almost all of their recorded material. Therefore, any collection claiming to be the "best of" R.E.M. is met with my skepticism. And I'm sure I'm not alone. The band deserves a career highlight reel, to pick up where 1988's best-of collection Eponymous left off, but not at the cost of people ignoring the rest of their album content. For any greatest hits collection, there is danger in settling for the Cliffs Notes when the entire novel is much more interesting.

That said, In Time provides a good mix tape for the last decade and a half of R.E.M.'s sublime career. Except for those living in caves, everyone should recognize at least a handful of these 18 songs, namely "Man on the Moon," "Losing My Religion," and perhaps "Electrolite." All are wonderful songs, yet merely introduce R.E.M.'s sonic and lyrical complexity, and their ability to mix genres while still sounding like no other group. To hear the true R.E.M., you'll have to listen to the seven diverse studio albums and one soundtrack that they've recorded in the last 15 years, because you're just not gonna get it on this compilation.

The assembling of this album must have been a tricky balancing act of sometimes-conflicting agendas. Not surprisingly, it feels as if the interests of R.E.M's record label clash with the interests of the fans, who perhaps have a better sense of the band's best music. Imagine, if you will, a board meeting of Warner executives, with perhaps an R.E.M. representative there at the table. They have 18 tracks to work with, but they can't all be old, because that way the diehards will never buy the album. What to do? Include two mediocre new songs, as well as a song that nobody cares about that was only previously included on the Vanilla Sky soundtrack.

You also have to be democratic, spreading the wealth of those eight albums. It's like baseball's all-star game: every team must be represented. So that leaves "The Great Beyond" as the logical choice (and only single) from the Warner-released soundtrack to the tepidly received movie Man on the Moon, which the band scored. Now, don't get me wrong, it's a fine song. But what I wouldn't give to trade "The Great Beyond" for a track or two from Monster, R.E.M.'s stab at rawk that has for some reason become a pariah in the music press. The cryptic, anthemic (only R.E.M. could pull that off) "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" is the lone track from that stellar album, since Warner chose to ignore some of Monster's atypical, even daring, R.E.M. fare.

While picking perceived "all-stars" from every album at your disposal, it is inevitable that you will leave off songs that should have been all-stars, yet just didn't fit on the roster. So every single (read: money-maker) is included, while other deserving tracks are left to back-catalogue obscurity. It is clear that the wealth has not been culled discriminately, since the most recent release, Reveal, a relatively sub-par R.E.M. effort, is given more songs than the far superior Monster. And the songs chosen from Reveal aren't even the most deserving ones! What is it with these record label mucky-mucks!?!

So yes, this is one man's opinion. But believe me when I tell you that In Time gives only a skewed reflection of the R.E.M. that I know and love. This album sentences R.E.M. to an afterlife in soft-rock radio purgatory, while the group deserves much more than that. This band can get loud, it can get dark, and it can weird and obscure, which is something that only the legends of classic rock can say. R.E.M. should not be sandwiched between Barenaked Ladies and Sister Hazel during the All Request Lunch Hour.

I ask you to ignore Warner's spoon-feeding. For the true fans, buy this album only for Peter Buck's often hilarious liner notes. For those on the periphery of fandom, go buy Automatic for the People, or better yet, New Adventures in Hi-Fi. Or have you heard Document? God, Green has some great songs too. Same with Lifes Rich Pageant. See what I mean? You have to pick your own all-stars. These old guys are still in the game, and they deserve your support. Just don't show it by buying this album.