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R.E.M. – Favourite Five

R.E.M. Lifes Rich Pageant

R.E.M. emerged in the wake of punk from Athens, Georgia, and began their career as an insular Indie band, with cryptic albums that enjoyed a cult following. But gradually they beefed up their sound, experienced airplay, signed up to a major label, and became one of the most successful bands in the world.

I’ve recently filled in a couple of gaps on my R.E.M. page – 1982’s surprisingly fully formed debut EP Chronic Town and 1988’s major label debut Green – so it’s a good time to go through a recap of my favourite five R.E.M. albums.

I’ve only covered their work in the 20th century – even though 1998’s Up is worthwhile, the group lost something with the departure of drummer Bill Berry, and their 21st century work often feels like merely a recap of past glories. There’s plenty of room for discussion – their only 20th century album that’s generally derided is the noisy glam rock of 1994’s Monster, and even that has its defenders. I tend to favour the group’s earlier work on indie label IRS, but their Warner Brothers catalogue also has plenty of highlights.

I had three albums that I awarded 8/10 to, and the unlucky one to miss out on the top 5 was 1985’s Fables of the Reconstruction.

5. New Adventures in Hi Fi (1996)
R.E.M. New Adventures in Hi FiNew Adventures In Hi Fi was largely recorded during sound checks on a horrific tour, during which drummer Bill Berry nearly died from an aneurysm, and Michael Stipe and Mike Mills were both hospitalised. At 65 minutes there’s a bit of 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.

4. Reckoning (1984)
R.E.M. Reckoning
The dour sound of Murmur has already altered for R.E.M.’s second album, and the group are pursuing 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 (1992)
R.E.M. 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 (1983)
R.E.M. MurmurMy father likes to tell me the story of a Scottish folk singer who earned respect for his precise enunciation; this is the exact opposite of Michael Stipe’s vocal performance on Murmur where 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 (1986)
R.E.M. Lifes Rich PageantR.E.M. took a step towards 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.

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?

27 thoughts on “R.E.M. – Favourite Five Leave a comment

  1. As much as I like R.E.M – and I like them quite a bit – I’d have to think hard about my Top Five. I’ll go with yours, get back to you later. Just to acknowledge, good band, good post. I’m working on something about another band right now so they’re swirling around my head. I look forward to getting no REM sleep sometime in the near future.

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  2. I joined the REM party pretty late, a fact that is reflected in my top 5.
    5) Document
    4) New Adventures in Hi-Fi
    3) Reveal (probably the only person in the world to put this one on the list)
    2) Lifes Rich Pageant
    1) Automatic for the People

    Liked by 1 person

    • My first REM album was Automatic for the People in 1998 – I loved it straight away. Then I picked up all the other stuff over a few years – except I’ve never heard Around The Sun or Accelerate.

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      • Around the Sun is generally considered their worst. Rumor is that is was supposed to be their final, but was so poorly received, they couldn’t bear to go out like that. Accelerate was a good apology for Around the Sun, and Collapse Into Now (their last album) was a fitting farewell.

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        • Yeah, I’ve heard Around the Sun was bad, which is why I’ve never listened to it. Never heard Accelerate, but I have heard Collapse Into Now. I liked it, but it seemed pretty retrogressive, like revisiting their 1990s’ work.

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    • Yeah, I love that one too – just love a couple of others even more, I kind of like the mysterious aura they had on those early records. I like to rank and rate everything – I know it doesn’t always work for music which is emotional and evokes different opinions – but it’s just the way my brain works.

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  3. Like many – and many here! – Automatic was the album that really grabbed me. Having the 1991 IRS comp on the shelves, I never really went backwards. Though I still love that comp. The REM song I love most (from those I know) is “Fall on me”; perfect power pop.

    Excellent survey. These articles take time and thought. Nicely done.

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  4. Automatic was the album that really grabbed and held my attention, but I’m gonna climb up on that table there and declare Monster to be my favourite R.E.M. album. I love that one unreservedly. Start to finish. Every song.

    The rest of my top 5 would include (in no particular order): Automatic, New Adventures (the highlights are high), Green, Document, Murmur. I think.

    And yeah, Out Of Time is fluff.

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  5. Hmmm. I’ll give you a top three and would have to think some more:
    1. Automatic for the people
    2. Life’s rich pageant
    3. Document

    I’ve been working on my own R.E.M. but I’ve been procrastinating because it involves choosing my fave 5 songs. It’s difficult.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I am glad to see a post about my favorite band! =D

    I am one of those people who defend Monster. I like it quite a bit. The only weak cuts I identify in there are “King of Comedy” and “You”. I love the rest of the bunch. Up is great, but it could have left a few tracks on the cutting floor; had it been a ten-track record, it would be a five-star work. I feel the same applies to Reveal, which would have been stellar all the way through without the terrible “Beachball” and “The Chorus and the Ring”. The only piece of their catalog I cannot defend is “Around the Sun”.

    Anyway, as for my 5 favorite albums, I would go with:

    1- Automatic for the People
    2- Murmur
    3- New Adventures in Hi-Fi
    4- Reckoning
    5- Fables of the Reconstruction

    So all in all, it is not that different from yours.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, I think Up could have done with a trim. It’s interesting, as REM kept their albums LP length in the early 1990s, but they got longer later in the decade – it worked for New Adventures, but others from the era could have benefited from being 40 minutes.

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  7. Hm, I go back a ways (all the way back to hearing and enjoying the singles from Automatic in ’92 (seriously, it’s “call me when you try to wake her”?) and really got into them for a while after I heard E-Bow The Letter on the radio, up until I heard ‘Leaving New York’ on the radio as the lead off for Around The Sun and walked away – in all fairness ‘All The Way to Reno’ and Reveal was a puddle of clumsy, overproduced stodge too before they reached that nadir.

    Still Accelerate and Collapse Into Now (very enjoyable) got me back into them in time to be bummed enough when they called it a day.

    So after some thought I think I’d throw down a Top Five that goes a little like this:

    Fables of the Reconstruction
    Document
    Automatic For The People
    New Adventures in Hi-Fi
    Lifes Rich Pageant

    Liked by 1 person

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