Today three middle-aged men I have never met dissolved a business relationship on the other side of the Atlantic. So far, so prosaic. Yet when I found out about it, it felt like a chapter of my life was over. I’ll admit that must seem fairly odd to most people. But these three men (and a fourth, for a time) had inspired, entertained and taught me for all my adult life and most of my youth too.

This is going to be a subjective blog (although if you disagree with the sentiment in the title, you’re just plain wrong). It’s also going to be an emotional one.

But I’m in danger of disappearing up my own backside here… What made R.E.M. great was that they wrote fantastic pop songs. Everybody Hurts, Losing My Religion and Man On The Moon won’t make my top ten (see below) but they were undeniably superb pop records. DJs agreed, journalists agreed, but most importantly millions of people across the world agreed. They bought R.E.M.’s music in droves.

Massive sales don’t make great music, of course. So what gave the band from Athens, Georgia the title of America’s Greatest Band for me? Well, maybe it was the track Texakarna, which was on one of the earliest compilation tapes I heard and fell in love with. Maybe it was the Bulgarian bootleg album my mate Pete had in is car which we all listened to on repeat when we were 17. Or maybe it was one of my first arena gigs in 1998, where they blew me away with the power of What’s The Frequency Kenneth? and the subtlety of Try Not To Breathe.

I’m sure all those experiences have a lot to answer for. The personal experience of a band can never be taken away from the link we have with them. I adore the Smiths, but never had the joy of seeing them live, so a part of my appreciation of that band will never be complete.

But R.E.M. were exceptional, not just because I enjoyed their music while I was coming of age…

For a full history and thorough analysis of the band’s music I would recommend the peerless book Fiction by David Buckley. But here are just a few thoughts about why R.E.M. stand above all other US bands.

1) The Music. Sounds obvious eh? But the revolutionary style of early-80s R.E.M. can’t be overstated. Yes, they were influenced by Gang of Four, Wire and Pylon. But this was a band which arrived with a fully-fledged and unique sound. Buck’s jangling guitar, Berry’s driving rhythms, Stipe’s sensational voice and other-worldly lyrics and Mills’ inventive bass playing became so much more than the sum of their parts.

Then in the 1990s they wrote smash hits without ever conforming to what the record industry wanted them to do.

By the time of Up, Reveal, Accelerate and Collapse Into Now they were making esoteric, yet life-affirming music. This was a band who experimented and took their fans with them.

2) The lyrics. They may have started as indecipherable nonsense, but by the time the band hit its mid-1980s peak, there was a treasure trove of lyrics on every record. Songs about obscure Southern characters mixed with damning indictments of US foreign policy. Which other band offered so much? Astonishingly they didn’t write a proper love song until 18 years into their career. When they did it contained such gorgeous lyrics as this: “At my most beautiful, I count your eyelashes, secretly/With every one, whisper I love you/I let you sleep, I know you’re closed eye watching me, listening/I thought I saw a smile.”

3) The activism. My favourite bands tend to be those who inspired me to do more than just listen to pop music. And R.E.M. never let me down. Their politicking was never as obvious as that of their good mate Billy Bragg or The Clash, but their subtle guiding and prompting was every bit as essential to my political and social awareness. The activism was separate from the music, but also featured heavily in it. Who could fail to be moved by Flowers Of Guatemala, be enraged by Orange Crush, or be moved by Final Straw? How ironic that these great supporters of liberal causes should announce their split on the same day their home state of Georgia executed a man who was most probably innocent.

4) The aesthetic. Yes it’s a cliché, but the image of a band really matters. Not necessarily what they look like but the whole package. From their enigmatic record covers in the early days to Stipe’s androgynous image in the later years, there was always something compelling about the band’s visual presentation. Even the tickets to their gigs which I treasure to this day have carefully designed artwork. These things matter to music fans and Stipe knew that intimately.

5) The influence. It’s not an overstatement to suggest alternative music would not exist in its current form without R.E.M. There are massive acts like Radiohead and Nirvana who were directly influenced by them, but their inspiration spread far and wide. Bands as diverse as Pavement and Idlewild were cited as descendents of R.E.M. and even today I received a tweet from Andy Mort of Atlum Schema describing them as “soundtracking his whole life.”

Yes, maybe they should have finished when Bill Berry quit in the 1990s. Maybe they should have been more transparent about exactly what caused the fracture in their relationship with Jefferson Holt. Undoubtedly they made a couple of dud albums (Monster and Around The Sun very rarely make it to my speakers). But today let’s remember R.E.M for what they truly are. America’s greatest ever band. Cheers for everything guys…

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So here, in chronological order, are my top ten R.E.M. tracks:

1) Radio Free Europe.   Their first single – astonishingly good.

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2) Harborcoat.   What’s it about? Not a clue, but listen to those harmonies!

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3) Begin The Begin.   One of the greatest opening tracks to an album ever.

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4) Cuyahoga.   One of the most marvellous choruses I’ve ever heard.

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5) Welcome To The Occupation.   A superb didactic pop record. Who’d have thought a damning indictment of the CIA could be so catchy?

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6) Texarkana.   Lovely,  lovely song.

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7) It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).   Need I say more?

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8) Leave.   The longest R.E.M track. Hypnotic and utterly brilliant.

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9) At My Most Beautiful.   Just a gorgeous track.

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10) The Great Beyond.   R.E.M.’s biggest-selling UK single.

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The NME got in on the act early. This Sunday the Observer Music Monthly publishes its top 50. So I thought I might as well have a go. I wanted to get mine done first and see how much common ground I’ve got with the OMM seeing as its my favourite music mag. It’s harder than you’d think to select just 50 albums that span 2000-2009. I’ve had to leave out some records I really like. But here we go… Please comment as you feel necessary!

50 – Daft Punk: Discovery.

49 – Bob Dylan: Modern Times.

48 – Camille: Le Fil.

47 – Arctic Monkeys: Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not.

46 – The Blue Nile: High.

45 – New Order: Get Ready.

44 – Mercury Rev: All Is Dream.

43 – R.E.M.: Accelerate.

42 – Fionn Regan: The End Of History.

41 – The Beatles: Love.

40 – The Avalanches: Since I Met You.

39 – Badly Drawn Boy: The Hour Of Bewilderbeast.

38 – Roots Manuva: Awfully Deep.

37 – Bon Iver: For Emma, Forever ago.

36 – Mark B & Blade: The Unknown.

35 – Coldplay: Parachutes.

34 – Malcolm Middleton: Into The Woods.

33 – Seafood: When Do We Start Fighting…

32 – Doves: The Last Broadcast.

31 – Duke Special: Songs From The Deep Forest.

30 – Morrissey: You Are The Quarry.

29 – Guillemots: Through The Windowpane.

28 – Bruce Springsteen: The Rising.

27 – The Gaslight Anthem: The ’59 Sound.

26 – Billy Bragg & Wilco: Mermaid Avenue Vol. II

25 – Richard Hawley: Coles Corner.

24 – Fleet Foxes:  Fleet Foxes.

23 – Athlete: Vehicles & Animals.

22 – Spin Doctors: Nice Talking To Me.

21 – Sigur Ros: Takk…

20 – Goldfrapp: Felt Mountain.

19 – Maxïmo Park: A Certain Trigger.

18 – Delirious?: Glo.

17 – The Shins: Wincing The night Away.

16 – Ben Folds: Rockin’ The Suburbs.

15 – Green Day: American Idiot.

14 – Neil Young: Living With War.

13 – Ray Lamontagne: Til The Sun Turns Black.

12 – Death Cab For Cutie: Narrow Stairs.

11 – Idlewild: The Remote Part.

10 – Johnny Cash: American IV: The Man Comes Around

An extraordinary achievement for a man in his final year. Johnny Cash’s last ‘proper’ album has the power to bring me to the edge of tears. I bought it the week he died in 2003 and played it a lot. A mixture of originals and covers, Rick Rubin’s brilliant production means there’s pathos dripping from every track. ‘Hurt’ is one of the songs of the decade which couldn’t even be ruined by that dire Nike advert. When I first heard ‘I Hung My Head’ it stopped me dead in my tracks. Just like most of the rest of this awesome album.

9 – Interpol: Turn On The Bright Lights.

I think there’s a good case to be made for Interpol as the band of the decade. To my shame I’m yet to see them live but their three dark, brooding and melodic albums demand that I get round to it soon. I think their debut is the pick of the bunch. Starting with ‘Untitled’ which takes its cues from the shoegazing bands of the early 90’s, the album goes onto channel the best of My Bloody Valentine, Joy Division and classic Krautrock. I suppose it can be said about all the records in the list but I can’t listen to this album too many times. It sends me to sleep, it wakes me up and generally soundtracks my life.

8 – Vampire Weekend: Vampire Weekend.

The drums alone deserve some kind of award. Chris Tomson is, for my money, the best drummer in a rock band at the moment. But this isn’t Keith Moon fury, or John Bonham theatrics. He sees the drum kit as a melodic and harmonic instrument. The kit is a lead instrument here and when allied to fantastic songwriting, it’s a winning combination. The African influence if overstated (this isn’t even the noughties’ Graceland, let alone Fela Kuti or Ali Farka Touré). However, the hints of afrobeat are enough to make this stand out from the crowd. Walcott is a great track – but there aren’t any duds here.

7 – Grandaddy: The Sophtware Slump.

This outstanding record is often compared favourably with ‘OK Computer’. Well, I’ll put my cards on the table. There’s only one winner; and it isn’t Radiohead. Grandaddy are impossible to categorise, but this record combines the best bits of alt-country, electronica and post-rock. The audacity of a 9 minute opening track has been matched by many bands. The difference is they’ve not made a song as arresting as ‘He’s Simple, He’s Dumb, He’s The Pilot’. ‘The Crystal Lake’ is among the best songs of the decade while ‘Undreneath The Weeping Willow’ showcases a brilliant knack for melancholy. Released at the start of the decade, very few records have got anywhere near matching Grandaddy’s Magnum Opus.

6 – The Hold Steady: Boys And Girls in America.

‘Best bar band in the world blah… blah… blah’ said the music press. Talk about damning with faint praise. The Hold Steady are one of the greatest bands of the 21st Century, full stop. And though their earlier albums are packed with gems, this breakthrough album sees their manifesto fulfilled. How many bands could start a record quoting Jack Kerouac but never fail to be fun? The sound was compared to classic E Street Band and that’s probably as close as you can get to describing this joyous racket. Craig Finn’s lyrics are always interesting and frequently brilliant. So looking at our checklist we’ve got superb music, superb lyrics and some guys that seem delighted just to be playing rock and roll. It’ll do for me.

5 – Elbow: The Seldom Seen Kid.

I suppose too much has already been written about this album. It’d be easy to include ‘Asleep In The Back’ to prove I’ve liked Elbow since I used to play them on student radio in 2000. But that would miss the point: for once, the awards committees, journalists and hype-merchants got it right. This is an amazing album. There’s not an average track in sight in an hour’s running time. Picking highlights almost seems crazy, but ‘Grounds For Divorce’ and ‘On A Day Like This’ have deservedly grabbed the headlines and soundtracked a million daytime DIY programmes. But some of the less well know tracks contain stunning music and lyrics. When Guy Garvey croons “We kiss like we invented it” on ‘Mirrorball’ it’s enough to melt your heart.  We await their next move with eager anticipation.

4 – Midlake: The Trials of Van Occupanther.

Take a moderately successful Texan indie band and give them a copy of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Rumours’. Stand well back and light the blue touch-paper. Doesn’t sound promising does it? How wrong could we be??? This was THE album of 2006. Inventive harmonies, layered synths and lyrics pining for the antebellum South came together to produce a stunning record. The guitar solo that comes halfway through ‘Head Home’ is one of my favourite musical moments of the decade, but this album contains several contenders for that title. The real genius of ‘…Van Occupanther’ is its ability to keep you on your toes. Just when you think it may slip into mid 70’s FM rock pastiche, the band pulls out a track like ‘Young Bride’ which forces you to admit this is a record which is far more than the sum of its considerable parts.

3 – Damien Rice: O.

David Gray is a perfectly decent singer songwriter. The same can’t be said for the likes of James Morrison and James Blunt. But how any of them came to be spoken of in the same breath as Damien Rice is beyond me. The irishman deserves to be in far better company (Jeff Buckley for example). This debut album was a slow-burning word-of-mouth behemoth that managed to retain artistic dignity while being offered on 2-for-1 deals in Tesco. Its strengths have been repeated endlessly, but any blogger who can’t find room for Lisa Hannigan’s beautiful vocals, the stunning string arrangements or the strange re-working of Silent Night is a fool. If this album has a flaw, I’m yet to find it. I can’t pick one track as a highlight because the others simply look at me reproachfully and say ‘actually we’re all rather lovely’. And they truly are.

2 – My Morning Jacket: It Still Moves.

This album sounds like the best party you’ve ever been to. If you want to label it I suppose it’s alt-country. But what on earth does that matter when the music is as much fun as this? Don’t get the idea this is some kind of comedy record though. Howling vocals, squealing guitars and pounding drums fuse together to create a brilliant racket. ‘One Big Holiday’ has a guitar hook to die for, but this isn’t an album of simple pleasures. The genius of the songs reveals itself slowly. The first time you hear it, it sounds like these are well crafted and edited jams. But like Led Zep at their peak, the tracks are more cunningly moulded than that. Crazy Horse are another reference point and when talking about a rock and roll band there are fewer bigger compliments than that. It’s a long record (71 minutes) but unusually for an album of that length, it doesn’t outstay its welcome. Superb.

1 – Stephen Fretwell: Magpie.

I’m annoyed I couldn’t find a decent picture of this album without the parental advisory sticker on it. Ok, maybe it doesn’t make an ideal present for a toddler, but any parent who’s doing their job properly should be investing in this if their child shows any kind of serious interest in music. It’s as close to a perfect record as its possible to get. At the start of the decade, Scunthorpe’s Stephen Fretwell found himself in Manchester as a promising singer-songwriter. A little while later, he was in a recording studio creating some of the most beautiful music that great city has ever produced. By 2004 it was ready for release. In reality, the Manchester thing is a bit of a red herring. Fretwell owes little to the genius of the Smiths and Joy Division or the more prosaic talents of Oasis. He’s just a good old-fashioned acoustic troubadour. So who are the key influences here? I’d guess Neil Young, Bob Dylan et al. But that doesn’t tell you much about this record’s greatest strength. Fretwell’s gift for melody is astounding. Songs like ‘Emily’, ‘New York’ and ‘Rose’ are beautifully crafted and sung. But there isn’t a track here which leaves you cold. You may know ‘Run’ as the Theme of ‘Gavin and Stacey’ but don’t stop there. Investigate it immediately. Buy it and love it. There’s only one album of the decade after all; whatever the Observer says!