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)
New 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)
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)
“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)
My 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. 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?