R.E.M. emerged in the wake of punk from Athens, Georgia. They began their career as a folk–flavoured post-punk band, with cryptic albums that enjoyed a cult following. Early albums like 1983’s Murmur and 1984’s Reckoning were staples of the college-rock scene.
Over the course of 1980s R.E.M. beefed up their sound, enjoyed radio airplay, signed up to a major label, and became one of the most popular bands in the world. R.E.M.’s peak period of success was in the early 1990s, when the acoustic pop of Out Of Time, the sombre Automatic for the People, and the glam of Monster were all huge-sellers.
R.E.M. endured a medically eventful 1995 tour in support of Monster, and drummer Bill Berry departed the band. The group soldiered on until 2011’s Collapse Into Now, but were arguably never the same. Here are their five most essential records.
R.E.M.’s Five Best Albums
#5 – New Adventures in Hi-Fi
New Adventures In Hi-Fi was largely recorded during sound checks on a horrific tour, during which drummer Bill Berry nearly died from a brain aneurysm, and Michael Stipe and Mike Mills were both hospitalised. At 65 minutes there’s filler, but this is exactly the kind of album that dedicated fans will enjoy wading through, and in spite of, or perhaps because of, its sprawling nature New Adventures In Hi Fi is among the group’s best records. It’s the last album to feature the original quartet, while Patti Smith guests on ‘E-Bow the Letter’.
#4 – Reckoning
The dourness of Murmur was lightened for R.E.M.’s second album, with a more conventional college rock sound. Reckoning is punchier than previously, and less acoustic, but Stipe’s vocals are still low in the mix; he’s credited as the “lead vocal instrument”. Opening track ‘Harborcoat’ demonstrates the potential of this micro-era of R.E.M., marrying an arrangement that’s more propulsive than anything on Murmur, opening with a Bill Berry fill, to a pretty folk-rock melody that would have been right at home on that album.
#3 – Automatic for the People
“Today I need something more substant, more substantial” sings Michael Stipe on Automatic for the People‘s ‘The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite’. And R.E.M. deliver with Automatic for the People, a vast improvement from the fun but shallow Out of Time. While the two albums share an acoustic sensibility, Automatic for the People has a sincere and poignant core, and it’s a much more affecting album. One important and unlikely collaborator is Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones, who contributes some gorgeous string parts, particularly to the slow burning opener ‘Drive’.
#2 – Murmur
My father liked to tell me the story of a Scottish folk singer who earned respect for his precise enunciation. He would not have appreciated the vocal stylings of Michael Stipe on Murmur; the title refers to his virtual incomprehensibility. R.E.M.’s debut album is an absolute critic’s favourite, and it’s not difficult to see why; the group already had their entire sound figured out, and they’d only get more mainstream and less interesting. The key R.E.M. elements are recognisable on Murmur; Michael Stipe’s arty and cryptic lyrics, Peter Buck’s jangly guitars and Mike Mill’s harmonies are all present.
#1 – Lifes Rich Pageant
R.E.M. took a step toward the mainstream with Lifes Rich Pageant, enlisting John Mellencamp’s producer, who gave them a more commercial and rock oriented sound, with Stipe’s vocals higher in the mix. Although R.E.M. lose some mystique in the process, the more direct sound is helpful, resulting in my favourite R.E.M. album. It’s packed with overlooked classics – the opening ‘Begin the Begin’, the lovely guitar solo on ‘Flowers of Guatemala’, and the hard-hitting chorus of ‘Cuyahoga’.
Did I leave out your personal favourite R.E.M. album? Am I crazy to neglect Document? Is Out of Time brilliantly tuneful, or a collection of fluffy, throwaway pop songs? What’s your R.E.M. top 5?