Wolves, Lower

R.E.M. – Wolves, Lower

A friend of mine recently wondered “what WOULD be the R.E.M. song you’d send into outer space?*” even allowing for two or three songs if you had trouble nailing it down to one. I am unable to narrow it down to the single digits.

But the question reminded me of a musical challenge that a friend posed a few years ago. He had gone on a road trip with his wife and in preparation, he had decided to make a bunch of mixed CDs to take along. Some were based on a theme but a few were just music by one band. Not exactly a greatest hits, because sometimes the big hits are not your favorites (cough), but more of a personal best of. The sort of compilation you might make if trying to show an uninitiated friend why this band is great.

As he made these CDs, he spent too much time on the themed ones and left himself not enough time before their trip to give the band specific ones the kind of thought he felt they deserved. So he came up with some rules to get it done in time, the house on fire method of creating a best of CD. 1) Spend no more than 10 minutes on each band, 2) arrange the songs in chronological order, 3) if more than one song from an album, put them in the order they appear on the album, 4) include every album in the band’s catalog (but not compilations, live tracks, or B-sides), 5) when conflicted, go with the song that is a better road trip tune. My challenge was to follow these rules and make one CD for R.E.M. (and later, Radiohead), then we would compare setlists. Part B of the challenge was for each of us to take all the time you need and throw out all the rules except for it must fit on one CD and see how different the results were from your 10-minute version.

As someone who used to spend days, if not weeks, crafting mixes to fit a particular theme, endlessly refining the setlist and adding up the minutes to fit perfectly within the confines of a 90 minute tape (there’s a few in the TapeDeckTuesday category for old time’s sake), I was up for the challenge. The 10-minute rule was going to be tough but the point was to not overthink it, that was what the part B challenge was for. We later discussed the merits of doing a third round, when you specifically geared it for driving rather than a best of, but we never got that far.

I allowed myself a day or two of reconnaissance as I hadn’t really listened to the three-legged-dog albums** in years and had never committed them to memory like the earlier ones. The whole process is infinitely easier than it used to be because now there is iTunes (we traded them in Rdio, sniff! still miss you Rdio!) so you can just drag and drop and the minutes are added up for you. Still, it was not an easy task. I was so pleased with myself when I completed it in the 10 minutes allotted, only to go back and realize I’d inadvertently dropped two albums (Monster and Up) when trying to adjust for the 80-minute cut off of one CD. I readjusted it to include those so maybe it took 11 minutes. My mix was pretty good and I thought the flow from one song to the next was not bad, all things considered. It was a fun exercise and it was interesting to see where our choices overlapped. If you’re bored or need a diversion from the horrors of the day, I highly recommend giving this a try.

Part B was hard. Surprisingly hard given the rules were relaxed. The old master tape maker in me felt it had to be perfect. Without the rule about including every album I ejected five of the records so I had room for more favorites. Even then, my first pass ran close to three hours and I was hopelessly stuck on which songs I could sacrifice and still have a perfect best of. In the end I scrapped what I had and took a different angle, going for the personal more so than the best of. Which songs did I feel really expressed not just why this band was great, but why they were great to me. The insider’s mix, if you will. There were a few repeats from the 10-minute version but the “real” (versus the “house on fire”) version is really great. I still listen to it.

Not sure why the audio at the beginning of this video sounds warped but I couldn’t pass up the video. So Much Younger Then. Happy birthday, Michael. This is one of the few songs that made it onto both versions of my best of CD.

* Prompted by this video that was part of the Out of Time 25th anniversary promotional blitz.

** Up, Reveal, and Around the Sun. This was how Peter Buck described the albums they first did as a trio after Bill Berry left the band and I have always thought it was a very apt description.

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5 comments

  1. Fantastic post. I love this exercise in mix making. Had not seen that video, BTW. Although I was an obsessive REM fan for years and certainly made every song through Automatic FTP a part of my DNA, I disengaged with them from Monster onwards. I still have mixed feelings about Out of Time (tho country feedback, low, Texarkana are great)

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    1. Yes, well, you know my feelings about Out of Time, to an extent. If you have the time and are interested in taking the challenge (10-minute or painstaking or both) I would be happy to share my playlists after you’re done so as not to influence your choices. Or if you are just dying of curiosity and have no time to play along, I can be persuaded to send them anyway. 😉

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  2. Not sure I can even attempt the ten minute version but would love to swap playlists at some point. Course I might need the ten minute rule just to ever get it done. Thanks for the post.

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    1. On the ten minute version, I found it was almost harder to pick one song from albums I didn’t really listen to than it was to narrow down from three or four songs to just two (or one) on albums I know inside out. Partly that’s because in those cases where I didn’t have a clear favorite, it was hard to figure out what could be the best song and I felt like just taking whatever the single had been was a cop out. When I had albums with multiple favorites, the road trip rule helped and sometimes if it was a toss up between two, the shorter song would win from a time perspective. The “real” version is way harder.

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