R.E.M. – Dead Letter Office: #357 of best 1,000 albums ever!

R.E.M. - Dead Letter Office

So why is R.E.M.’s Dead Letter Office on this best 1,000 albums ever thing?

I’ve been waiting a long time to dive into a music podcast that runs under varying names, and that’s hosted by Scott Aukerman of Comedy Bang! Bang! fame and Adam Scott, a versatile and hilarious actor known mostly for comedies (such as Party Down and Parks & Recreation) but can also pull off dramatic material really well (Big Little Lies).

The podcast is super unusual – both insightful and a crackpot crackup, often at the same time. It debuted back in 2014 as U Talkin’ U2 To Me?, which is heralded as “a comprehensive and encyclopedic compendium of all things U2.”

The joke is that it’s anything but. Instead, the podcast is roughly one-half wild improv and experimental comedic asides where the fellas take on various personalities and dive headfirst into any comedy morsel that pops into their minds. And then the other half is an earnest history and song-by-song review of each album the band produced by the superfan hosts.

My entry point into the podcast was when it was renamed R U Talkin’ R.E.M. Re: Me? in 2018 to shift focus onto another band that I’m guessing you can figure out the name of.

For each “version” of the podcast, a soundbite from a single song is used as the intro music. For U Talkin’ U2 To Me?, it’s “Vertigo,” off of How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.  

And for R U Talkin’ R.E.M. Re: Me?, it’s “White Tornado,” a fun surf rock instrumental song that I’ve now heard so many times via the podcast that I associate it closely with R.E.M. as a whole.

And speaking of random asides, how about this Ajax “white tornado” ad that dates back to 1970?

Anyway, this all brings us to Dead Letter Office. Released in 1987, it’s a quirky, rangy, and fun collection of B sides and rarities that fleshes out and deepens our understanding of what R.E.M. is capable of. The CD version that I picked up back in the day included the entirety of Chronic Town, R.E.M.’s debut EP from 1982, and as a whole sounds fantastic from end to end.

Dead Letter Office is the kind of album where no song particularly stands out as the “best” or even as a particular favorite: everything is really good, and each song provides a different flavor or shade to the band, and it often finds them in a more relaxed and off-the-cuff mode versus how they come across on the vast number of their studio-produced tracks.

I’m really drawn to a pair of Velvet Underground cover songs – “Pale Blue Eyes” and “There She Goes Again” – which are performed as bluesy, jangle-y gems with a hint of the band’s southern roots.

“Ages of You” is driving rock with a bit of mystery to it, and sounds like it could have fit in comfortably on an early album, even Murmur (which is high praise, indeed).

All Music notes that “Walter’s Theme” is “a drunken attempt at a commercial for a local restaurant that segues into a clueless cover of ‘King of the Road.’”

I disagree with the “clueless” remark (there’s our snarky reviewer, Stephen Thomas Erlewine, for you again!). I completely dig and buy into the late night, beer-driven and slow, swinging vibe of “King of the Road,” which was originally recorded by Roger Miller in 1965.

Pop culture stuff that has something to do with R.E.M.’s Dead Letter Office

The podcast I talk about at length above has gone on to focus on bands such as the Talking Heads (U Talkin’ Talking Heads 2 My Talking Head?), Red Hot Chili Peppers (R U Talkin’ RCHP Re: Me?), and most recently, Bruce Springsteen (U Springin’ Springsteen On My Bean?), along with standalone episodes ranging in focus from Huey Lewis & the News to Staind.

A recurring bit that the podcast employs is vamping into fake podcasts-within-the-podcast (examples range from normal-sounding titles such as I Love Film to, let’s say less so, like This Is How I Talk When I Talk About Cuisine and What’s Your Deductible, Bro?), in which the fellas play themselves… but not, and serve as platforms to take on even further flights of comedy fancy. When they really get rolling, they’ll pull off Inception-like feats in which they will keep segueing into new “podcasts,” and then challenge themselves to segue back to the original (real-ish) podcast in the exact reverse order. It’s a whole thing. If this appeals to you at all, trust me, it’s incredible stuff.

Some stats & info about R.E.M. – Dead Letter Office

  • What kind of musical stylings does this album represent? Rock Music, College Rock, Jangle Pop, Indie Rock
  • Rolling Stone’s greatest 500 albums ranking – not ranked!
  • All Music’s rating – 3.5 out of 5 stars
  • When was Dead Letter Office released? 1987
  • My ranking, the one you’re reading right now – #357 out of 1,000

R.E.M.’s Dead Letter Office on Spotify

A lyrical snippet from R.E.M.’s Dead Letter Office that’s evocative of the album in some way, maybe

Look at all the flags and all the banners waving – open up our arms, a magic kingdom, open-armed and greet us all.

What does the “best 1,000 albums ever” mean and why are you doing this?

Yeah, I know it’s audacious, a little crazy (okay, maybe a lot cray cray), bordering on criminal nerdery.

But here’s what it’s NOT: a definitive list of the Greatest Albums of All-Time. This is 100% my own personal super biased, incredibly subjective review of what my top 1,000 albums are, ranked in painstaking order over the course of doing research for nearly a year, Rob from High Fidelity style. Find out more about why I embarked on a best 1,000 albums ever project.