by Ted S. McGregor Jr.
Greatest hits packages are a mixed blessing. While it's nice to have a band's best songs all in one package, when it's one of your favorite bands, it makes you worry. Generally speaking, when a band starts repackaging old hits, it's all over. I hope that's not the case with R.E.M., because these boys from Athens, Ga., are one of America's best bands -- ever.
R.E.M. -- Michael Stipe, Mike Mills and Peter Buck (Bill Berry retired in 1997) -- doesn't see this as the end, however, just a new beginning. Attempting to follow U2's resurrection, the band is reintroducing itself to folks who may have missed them in the '80s and '90s. Next year, they plan to release an album of new originals. Their last two records -- Up and Reveal -- have been their weakest, so here's hoping this look back will reconnect them with their roots. In the meantime, it's always fun to see what a band would call its best. (It's worth pointing out that this CD only documents the band's Warner Bros. tenure, starting with Green in 1988. They had an awesome run on IRS records before that, and those greatest hits are collected on Eponymous.)
In Time offers the predictable stuff -- "Stand," "Losing My Religion," "Man on the Moon" -- but it's easy to quibble with some of the other selections. New Adventures in Hi-Fi is overlooked, with only the obvious "Electrolite" and the lame-o "E-Bow the Letter." Where's "The Wake-Up Bomb," "Leave" or "So Fast, So Numb"? I guess it's not surprising that any die-hard fan would have picked different songs. Nonetheless, In Time stands as a testament to an amazing band. Anybody who still thinks R.E.M. has something to do with sleeping should pick up this CD -- you'll love it.
There are two new songs, of which only "Bad Day" is worthy of inclusion. It sounds a bit like "It's the End of the World as We Know It," but it's been updated with more current pop-cultural references. Another little gem is "All the Right Friends," an early-'80s era song the group finally recorded for the Vanilla Sky soundtrack. It sounds like it could fit right in on Reckoning. And some of the other selections gave me a reason to reconsider them, including "All the Way to Reno" from Reveal and "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" from the forgotten Monster. With Peter Buck's lively liner notes, the whole package is great. If this is the end, it was a great ride. But if, in fact, R.E.M. is poised for a revival, here's hoping the next greatest-hits package is as good as this one.
Publication date: 11/20/03