Compile the best of R.E.M.'s earliest output on one CD, and it's easy to see why it became one of the biggest bands in the world. A feeling of optimism overwhelmingly pervades Fine, a smartly sequenced collection spanning the years before the band from Athens, Georgia, reached major-label status. R.E.M. had nothing to lose as its members evolved from freewheeling garage-rock poets to influential pop storytellers, unapologetic about their lack of cynicism. Fine underscores this fact with the inclusion of tunes that are strident (a rabble-rousing "Begin the Begin"), winsome (the sepia-toned "Perfect Circle"), and gloriously weird (the disco-funkin' "Can't Get There From Here"). But R.E.M.'s un-self-conscious innocence is most obvious in the way the band infuses even the most melancholy songs with hope. Pretty pop gems dip and soar with jangly riffs, while even the murky "Feeling Gravity's Pull" finds redemption in Michael Stipe's soothing falsetto.
Fine's limited-edition bonus disc of rarities and band members' favorite tracks is an absolute treat for R.E.M. completists and bootleg collectors. Especially choice are the delicate slow-dance version of "Gardening at Night," a gorgeous and haunting demo of "Hyena," and mid-1980s live cuts.
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