56: R.E.M. – Radio Free Europe (1981/1983)
With its jangling guitars, spare production and Michael Stipe’s unintelligible vocals, this was the single that essentially launched college rock, forging a template that countless bands would follow over the coming decade. Furthermore, it established this independent quartet from Athens, GA, as a highly marketable commodity, one that encouraged increasingly larger labels to scour the country for the next college rock hit. R. E.M. helped usher in an era in which the underground gradually began to filter into the mainstream.
Originally released in 1981 on the short-lived Hib-Tone label, “Radio Free Europe” was rerecorded for the band’s I.R.S. debut, 1983’s Murmur. Where the original was all jangly nerves, frenetically insistent snare/high hat-heavy drumming and Stipe’s marble-mouth, the version that kicked off Murmur was slower though no less groundbreaking. In both versions, Stipe’s lyrics are wholly indecipherable. While frustrating for listeners looking to parse meaning, this intentional muddling of the words makes Stipe’s voice a fourth instrument rather than a traditional front man. Chalked up to being notoriously shy, this unintelligibility became the band’s stock and trade for much of the ‘80s.
Along with the re-recorded, re-released single, the band filmed its first of its visually compelling, often symbolically abstract music videos. Playing like an experimental student film, the video helped further establish the college rock aesthetic that would come to dominate much of the underground. This approach also gave viewers their first glimpse inside the southern clubs the band was then frequenting, as the video features interstitial footage of the band mid-performance. “Radio Free Europe” established not only the college rock sound but cemented the R.E.M. sound in the public consciousness. This remained largely unchanged through the remainder of its career and helped create one of the more immediately recognizable sounds in pop music. – John Paul
55: George Clinton – “Atomic Dog” (1982)
You can hear its genesis in real time – George Clinton walks in to the studio fresh out of the club, hears the beat for the first time, hears a dog somewhere in its depths, and starts riffing: funky dogs. Nasty dogs. And the kind of truisms that only the wasted are confident enough to take as wisdom: “The dog that chases his tail will be dizzy.” “Why must I feel like that?/ Why must I chase the cat?/ Nothing but the dog in me.” “Atomic Dog,” entirely ad-libbed, comes close to providing a step-by-step tour through George Clinton’s creative process. If you ever wondered how this man thinks – especially when he’s drunk out of his mind – here you go.
This is surely one of the most brain-bending pieces of music ever to find ubiquity in kids’-movie trailers (“The song has been included in trailers and TV spots for many films,” Wikipedia helpfully explains, “many dog-related.”) We might be able to read Clinton’s wacked-out mind, but who knows what was going on when his fellow P-Funkateers Garry Shider and David Spradley were cooking up the beat. The instrumental is like a machine that’s a little too well-oiled, with its different synth parts sliding in and out of place. Like the best funk, it’s fun and also kind of scary.
“Atomic Dog” is part of the pop lexicon, in no small part due to being extensively sampled throughout hip-hop history. It’s also exemplary of the more skeletal form of funk that would develop in the 1980s once its practitioners started sipping on Kraftwerk and switching out their guitars for synths. But while even greats like Zapp and the Jonzun Crew aged prematurely in the pop-cultural eye, “Atomic Dog” is still a marvel because it still sounds like nothing else. It could have been a Timbaland beat in the 2000s or an Actress production in the 2010s. Luckily it was given to Clinton, who found a dog in the beat and used it to find the dog in himself. – Daniel Bromfield