The top 10 performances on R.E.M.’s massive new BBC sessions box set



It’s a bittersweet experience, being an R.E.M. superfan in 2018.

Seven years have paaed since the first-ballot Rock and Roll Hall of Famers' amicable split and there's no hint of a reunion anytime soon. And yet, the band has been regularly emptying their archives for a decade now, delighting diehards with 25th anniversary deluxe editions of each of their studio LPs (Monster is up next in 2019) and filling the off-years with treasure-filled live albums.

R.E.M. at the BBC is the Georgia group's most immersive archival release yet, chronicling their longstanding relationship with the Beeb across 104 songs on eight discs. The seven-hour box set (which also includes a DVD) features R.E.M.'s triumphant headlining performances at the Milton Keynes Bowl in 1995 and Glastonbury in 1999, two hour-long sets recorded exclusively for the BBC, and five other shorter visits to the British radio giant.

If the 8 CD/DVD set's $80 retail price is too hefty for your moderate or even higher-than-average enjoyment of R.E.M.'s oeuvre, there's a two-disc best-of edition available on CD and vinyl for less than half that. But why let Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, and Bill Berry (or, more realistically, Warner Bros. Records) determine the highlights for you when you could let someone who unsuccessfully tried to perform a mashup of “Near Wild Heaven” and “Endgame” at his own wedding do that for you? Here are my top 10 moments from R.E.M. at the BBC.

10. “Losing My Religion,” BBC Radio 1's Nicky Campbell Session Into the Night, 1991

It's hard to imagine a time when “Losing My Religion” wasn't a radio staple and karaoke standard, but this version of R.E.M.'s biggest hit was recorded the day after Out of Time came out in March 1991. The song hadn't yet become the world's first mandolin-led stadium anthem, so this restrained rendition was perfect for an acoustic session. Its paranoid lyrics meld perfectly with the slowed pace and darker instrumentation.

9. “Why Not Smile,” Live at Glastonbury, 1999

Before playing this deep cut from 1998's Up live for just the second time ever, lead singer Stipe dedicated it to good friend Patti Smith, who played at the English festival the next day. “I suggest you bust your ass over there and check it out,” he told the audience. This acoustic version is two minutes shorter than it is on record and lacks Buck's uncharacteristically heroic guitar line, but the vocal melody shines through and the listener is ultimately left wanting more, in the best way possible.

8. “Strange Currencies,” Live at the Milton Keynes Bowl, 1995

If 1994's Monster had been more highly regarded upon release and not relegated to becoming the most bargain-binned album of all-time, third single “Strange Currencies” might compete with the Police's “Every Breath You Take” as rock's most unassuming stalker song. Stipe takes his forlorn vocals up a notch for the massive crowd at the 65,000-capacity amphitheater outside London, selling the chorus so hard that his shy 1983 self would've been painfully embarrassed.

7. “Electrolite,” BBC Radio 1's John Peel Session, 1998

Backed by Mills' plaintive piano lead, Stipe's ode to Los Angeles and the 20th century is on par with the version from 1996's New Adventures in Hi-Fi. Its place as the final R.E.M. song to feature drummer Berry (he retired in 1997) is made all the more poetic as the band inches towards the 21st century without him.

6. “Perfect Circle,” BBC Radio 1's John Peel Session, 1998

“We're going to dig way back into the Pleistocene era, before anyone even imagined that the 21st century would exist, and do this quite beautiful song that was written by Bill Berry,” Stipe informed the audience for Peel, who overcame his notorious grudge against the band to have them on his show to promote Up. Another piano ballad led by Mills, this classic from 1983's Murmur fits alongside the atmospheric new material perfectly, even though the lyrics are far less comprehensible.

5. “Let Me In,” Live at the Milton Keynes Bowl, 1995

Kurt Cobain had been gone less than six months when the pained “Let Me In” was included on the back end of Monster, so his death was still fresh in everyone's minds when R.E.M. played this ode to the Nirvana frontman in Milton Keynes the next year. Mills' organ and Stipe's vulnerable vocals are key here, the latter's voice sometimes cracking as he sings about his fallen friend.

4. “At My Most Beautiful,” BBC Radio 1's John Peel Session, 1998

Peter Buck had put the mandolin back on the shelf by Up, but he brought it back out for this rendition of that record's “At My Most Beautiful.” One of the greatest love songs by a band that once swore to never include that word in a song, the Beach Boys homage sounds as gorgeous as ever during this stripped-back session.

3. “Wendell Gee,” BBC Radio 1's In Concert, 1984

Though R.E.M.'s developed a deep kinship with the U.K., they almost broke up while recording 1985's Fables of the Reconstruction (my favorite album of all-time) in London. The band hated how the tracks were sounding and Stipe got sick from eating only potatoes for weeks on end. In this radio performance from the year prior, they’re still finding their way through the banjo-led album closer, which takes on an even twangier identity here and benefits from a focus on Berry's drums. The innocence was yet to be lost.

2. “Cuyahoga,” Live at Glastonbury, 1999

R.E.M. weren't too fond of digging into the back catalog by the late '90s, especially for deep cuts like this one from 1986's Lifes Rich Pageant. That they slotted “Cuyahoga” as the second-to-last song before “It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” makes it even more special here. The tune about environmental ruin and “starting a new country up” still rang true in 1999 and remains as relevant as ever over three decades later.

1. “E-Bow the Letter,” Recorded for BBC Radio 2, 2004

Stipe thanks the audience for paying exorbitant ticket prices to get into this exclusive London session, but they certainly got their pound's worth. As if seeing Stipe, Buck, and Mills run through a career-spanning 12-song set in a unique and intimate setting wasn't enough, Radiohead singer Thom Yorke joins the band for this rare airing of the spoken-word first single from New Adventures. He takes Patti Smith's part on the chorus, lifting the song to even higher heights while punctuating Stipe's reading of a letter never sent to the late River Phoenix.