CD Review of And I Feel Fine: The Best of the I.R.S. Years, 1982-1987 by R.E.M.

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And I Feel Fine: The Best of the I.R.S. Years, 1982-1987
starstarstarstarstar Label: Capitol
Released: 2006
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The best greatest-hits collections are the ones that feel like a mix tape you made for a friend, designed to show why you love a band as much as you do. Sure, there are gonna be the obvious inclusions – fans dig the hits, too – but alongside the singles, you throw in album tracks, maybe a B-side or a rarity to make it extra special. If you buy into this premise, then And I Feel Fine, the new two-disc compilation designed to celebrate R.E.M.’s jangly, Rickenbacker-powered years on I.R.S. Records, passes muster handily as the best compilation of their early work ever to emerge.

Or, at the very least, I’m sold.

I put together a Deep Cuts feature on R.E.M. in late 2005, and of the thirteen songs I selected from the band’s I.R.S. tenure, six of them have ended up on this new collection:

  • “Perfect Circle” (Murmur)
  • “7 Chinese Brothers” (Reckoning)
  • “Feeling Gravity’s Pull” (Fables of the Reconstruction)
  • “I Believe” and “These Days” (Lifes Rich Pageant)
  • “King of Birds” (Document)

Not that there was anything wrong with the previous best-of collections that have been compiled for R.E.M.’s early years, but they all seemed just too…obvious. This one spends an entire disc summarizing the best bits of the band’s first five albums, then throws in a second disc that includes demos, live tracks, outtakes, acoustic versions, and covers…and, as a bonus, each member of the band – Bill Berry, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, and Michael Stipe – selects their favorite song that didn’t already appear on Disc 1. As a result, we get, among others, the acoustic version of “Swan Swan H” from the soundtrack to “Athens, GA: Inside/Out,” a demo of “Hyena,” the original Hib-Tone versions of “Radio Free Europe” and “Sitting Still,” and their fondly-remembered Clique cover, “Superman.” (You knew it was a cover…right?) Also included is an early stab at “Bad Day,” a song which, ironically, ended up being re-recorded and added to the band’s Warner Brothers best-of collection as the obligatory new track.

Adding to the aforementioned mix-tape feel is the lack of any specific order to the tracks. The album opens, appropriately enough, with “Begin the Begin” (Lifes Rich Pageant), then jumps back to Murmur for “Radio Free Europe.” “Finest Worksong” from Document finds itself bookended by Fables’ “Can’t Get There from Here” and “Feeling Gravity’s Pull.” As much as a specific chronological flow generally proves preferable on a best-of collection, the decision to bounce around works well here; by blending all the material together, it negates any opportunity for the holier-than-thou fans to just turn it off right after the stuff from Pageant. (Now, at the very least, they’ll have to program around those songs…even if they shouldn’t.)

This is as close to a perfect best-of as you’re likely to find, a template all bands should use…and, come to think of it, the music ain’t bad, either. Now, if only they could’ve found room for “Underneath the Bunker”…

~Will Harris