No band but Nirvana made more breathtakingly transformative use of MTV Unplugged than R.E.M., the only act to headline the show twice. This set of 33 songs, 11 of which never aired, revisits both sessions, boiling their magical greatness down to two base elements: achingly sugared melodies and Michael Stipe’s potent voice, in all its deep grain, swooning vibrato and radiant empathy.
The ’91 sessions came just as the semi-acoustic Out of Time was taking R.E.M. from big to huge. The hits “Losing My Religion” and “Radio Song” (appealingly rap-less here) gain intimacy; ditto beloved deep cuts like “Perfect Circle,” even more of a 4 a.m. confidence than the Murmur original. B-listers – “Disturbance at the Heron House,” “Fretless,” “Half a World Away,” “Low,” “Swan Swan H” – bloom in wonderful new ways, as Stipe recalibrates phrasing and Mike Mills repositions his fragile backing vocals. By 2001, drummer Bill Berry and some of the campfire vibe are gone. But new songs like “At My Most Beautiful,” with its neo-Beach Boys harmonies, and the elegiac bubblegum of “Imitation of Life” show a band that could still sucker-punch hearts, while quietly magnificent takes on “Cuyahoga” and “So. Central Rain” conjure the same triumphant melancholy they did in the last century. How about a reunion like this in 2021, guys?