Perfect single-disc greatest hits collections are hard to come by. For prolific heavy hitters, it’s almost impossible to fit every hit on one CD, and for artists whose hits can be counted on one hand, well, their greatest hits compilations are invariably padded with gratuitous album tracks. While R.E.M. was certainly no flash in the pan, the fact that In Time: The Best of R.E.M. 1988-2003 focuses solely on the band’s major label material should have made it more than possible to fit all of their hits on one disc. But alas, In Time commits both of the aforementioned crimes: missing is “Drive,” the dark lead single from Automatic For The People (though it can be found on the limited edition version), and 1991’s innocuously pretty “Shiny Happy People,” and in their place are lesser singles like “Electrolite” and “At My Most Beautiful.”
Like a solo DVD commentary track by only one member of a film’s crew, vital perspectives are missing from the album’s liner notes. Still, Peter Buck’s ruminations are both humorous and enlightening (the origins of certain song titles are often as interesting as the songs themselves), and most of R.E.M.‘s “greatest” hits are indeed present and accounted for: “Losing My Religion,” “Man On The Moon,” which Buck calls “the quintessential R.E.M. song,” and “E-Bow The Letter.” “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite,” a song that sounded out of place on Automatic For The People, fits nicely alongside the meaningful meaningless of “Orange Crush” and “Stand,” which Buck calls “the stupidest song we’ve ever written.” What becomes evident in Time is that the band’s later, comparatively less successful singles (like “Daysleeper,” for example) are just as infectious. Sadly, “Imitation Of Life,” from the band’s most recent studio album, Reveal, is the massive summer hit that never was.
Despite its flaws, In Time is a must-have for ardent R.E.M. fans, as the album includes the soundtrack gems “The Great Beyond,” a track that features the band’s signature strings, a propulsive hook and the gurgling ambient effects that have become part and parcel in R.E.M.‘s post-Berry days, and “All The Right Friends,” a pre-fame song resurrected for the 2001 film Vanilla Sky. And if the album’s two new tracks, “Animal” and the politically-charged “Bad Day,” are any indication, R.E.M. is making a move back toward a more exuberant, rock-oriented direction—good news for fans who have abandoned them since 1996’s New Adventures In Hi-Fi. Until their inevitable comeback album (which will undoubtedly coincide with the return of drummer Bill Berry), In Time is a truncated refresher course on one of our most enduring bands.