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by Justin Farrar

November 15, 2011

R.E.M. and the Legacy of Southern Alternative Pop

by Justin Farrar  |  November 15, 2011

Though the South has long been mythologized as the birthplace of the blues, country music and jazz, in the 1980s the region spawned a cluster of quirky bands -- often tagged "college rock" -- that would lay the foundation for alternative pop and indie rock, both of which took shape by decade's end. The sound these groups crafted was simple, but deliciously effective: a scruffy DIY fusion of post-punk's nervous energy, power-pop hooks and chiming folk-rock from the 1960s.

It should come as no surprise that our story's protagonists are the iconic R.E.M. They were, as The Posies' Ken Stringfellow points out in Blurt magazine's recent tribute, "the band that brought me into contemporary music of the '80s. Perhaps that's their legacy: as the highest achieving band of both the '80s college rock years and the '90s alterna-years." The scene from which R.E.M. emerged, based in and around Athens, Ga., produced several other vital groups, including the New Wave-tinged B-52's and the criminally underappreciated Pylon. Another band with strong ties to Athens was Let's Active, led by Mitch Easter, a musician who ultimately made his name as a producer. Having worked with R.E.M., Pylon, Game Theory (from California) and many others, he was pivotal in the development of college rock and, more specifically, jangle pop. It was Easter and fellow producer Don Dixon who were behind the boards when R.E.M. recorded their now-legendary 1983 full-length debut,  Murmur.

Let's Active actually hailed from central North Carolina, a region that spawned a slew of key outfits, among them The Sneakers, an earlier Easter project that also included Chris Stamey and Will Rigby. These two, along with Peter Holsapple, would go on to form the core of The dB's, a profoundly prescient group whose music is like the Rosetta Stone tying together power pop, New Wave, post-punk, college rock and indie pop. If you have never listened to the group's 1981 debut album, Stands for Decibels, do so right now. Utterly fantastic. These dudes were doing the whole irreverent slacker thing a good decade before it became de rigueur with Pavement's "Cut Your Hair" video.

Outside the major players mentioned above, the playlist you're about to explore also spotlights several peripheral characters. Up in Maryland, Tommy Keene turned heads with his Anglo-pop stylings and exerted a considerable influence on Guided By Voices' Robert Pollard (the two would eventually collaborate under The Keene Brothers and The Ascended Masters monikers). Meanwhile, back in Athens, a young Matthew Sweet hung around with R.E.M. while logging time in a few power pop bands that didn't achieve much recognition outside Georgia. There were also Atlanta's Drivin' 'N' Cryin', best known for their hard-rock stuff (see their  Fly Me Courageous album), but early in their career they focused on roots pop with a decidedly R.E.M. feel.

I've also included tracks from Big Star, along with solo stuff from Alex Chilton and Chris Bell. Though children of the 1970s, their influence on all these Southern groups is truly incalculable.

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