All Roads Lead to R.E.M.

Strange Currencies Blog

“Why Strange Currencies?”

Because it had to be an R.E.M. reference. There were other options that I liked just as much, or perhaps even more, but none that checked off the most important box: that the site would be named after the band most responsible for my lifelong obsession with music.

R.E.M. wasn’t the first band that I loved – that would be U2 – but they were the first band that I loved that I never felt the need to apologize for.

They aren’t the band whose catalog is most thoroughly seared into my long-term memory – that would be The Beatles – but they’re the one whose catalog has remained in my own personal heavy rotation the longest without ever leaving.

They aren’t the band that I’ve read, wrote, or talked about the most – again, The Beatles – but they are the one that I use as a barometer of compatibility when meeting other music obsessives.

And so, it became Strange Currencies – a website named after a song that probably doesn’t even make it into my top 40 tracks by R.E.M., but one that’s fitting all the same.

“I don’t know…” why this “official” video cuts off just before the ending. Shoddy work, guys.

I was too young to experience R.E.M.’s “best” work when it was new. Yes, Chronic Town came out when I was three, but it wasn’t until the late eighties that the band came into my orbit; I distinctly remember first hearing about them when my older brother informed me that they were a band that “skaters” were into (citation needed).

Oddly enough, the first R.E.M. album to actually make it into my family’s household was owned by my mom. It was a cassette of Out Of Time, purchased for her as a Mother’s Day gift, based on her liking “Losing My Religion.” Admittedly, I developed something of a love/hate relationship with that album; after all, what self-respecting pre-teen wouldn’t harbor at least some resentment toward an album that their mom played incessantly?

It was shortly after this initial encounter with R.E.M. that my allowance money started to get redirected away from baseball cards and toward music. My family bravely entered the digital era when my older brother got a CD player for Christmas in 1991; my own arrived for my birthday the following summer. Several of his and my first CD purchases – we essentially had a joint music collection until he moved out of the house in 1997 – were R.E.M.’s I.R.S. Records catalog, plus Green.

My 80s R.E.M. “first pressing” collection

Those albums became fundamental building blocks of my developing musical tastes – and my own musicianship as well – but as much as they meant to me, they seemed, at least slightly, to be the property of a slightly-older demographic. Ultimately, it was 90s R.E.M. that I really grew up alongside. Those were the albums that I experienced in real-time – the ones whose critical reputations did not precede them. 80s R.E.M. may have been the best R.E.M., but 90s R.E.M. was mine.

I suppose that personal connection is why I’d still contend that Automatic for the People is the band’s true masterpiece – over Murmur, Reckoning, or Life’s Rich Pageant. That album – released in the fall of 1992 – soundtracked my entry into the teenage years, and it stayed in constant rotation as my family moved to Flagstaff, Arizona, as I started high school in the fall of 1993. I was a “new kid” again – as I had been several times before – but being the new kid enabled me to start high school with a completely blank slate.

The identity that I chose was “music nerd,” and at the center of that identity was a love for this band of music nerds, who made music for other music nerds. I wore my faded thrift store Green t-shirt on the first day of high school, carried my Walkman with me at all times, and told anybody who would listen that I played the bass and was looking to start a band. While some of the details have changed, that’s who I still am, twenty-seven years later.

Portrait of the blogger as a young man (with unidentified cohort), 1994

I’m certain that I’ll spend plenty of time talking about R.E.M. on this site: about how I taught myself to play guitar along to their albums; about buying every record from Monster to Collapse Into Now on its day of release; about how they directly led me to discover The Velvet Underground and Pet Sounds; about how “Find the River” has been my “song of solace” for nearly thirty years; about how my band opened a show on the night after R.E.M. broke up by playing “7 Chinese Bros.” to a paying crowd without ever rehearsing it; and about how never getting to see them live is one of my few true regrets.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with one of my favorites. Thanks for reading…

Author

  • Matt Ryan founded Strange Currencies Music in January 2020, and remains the site's editor-in-chief. The creator of the "A Century of Song" project and co-host of the "Strange Currencies Podcast," Matt enjoys a wide variety of genres, but has a particular affinity for 60s pop, 90s indie rock, and post-bop jazz. He is an avid collector of vinyl, and a multi-instrumentalist who has played/recorded with several different bands and projects.

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