On Wednesday, R.E.M. -- one of the most important alternative rock bands of all time -- announced it was calling it quits. But with the group having been described as "important" for so long, it's possible that it's been all too often taken for granted.
Upon learning that R.E.M. announced it was disbanding yesterday, my reaction was a mixture of dull acceptance and a steadily increasing, wistful sadness. Although the landmark, three-decade-old alternative rock group has somewhat stealthily become one of my favorite bands over the last decade (one day you’re walking around your apartment and you realize you own four out of the first five full-lengths and a best-of, and then decide it’s time to get more), after 30 years and its best work long behind it, the end of R.E.M. is an eventuality that would’ve been coming sooner than later. Judging from the information currently available, the breakup was amicable, which at least allows the band to be put to rest on a peaceful note.
Instead of laboriously laying out in meticulous detail what R.E.M. (first as a quartet, then continuing as a trio of singer Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck, and bassist Mike Mills ever since drummer Bill Berry retired in 1997) has accomplished and what it has meant to music, I’ll give you the quick hits. R.E.M. was not the first alternative rock band—there really was no such thing, as the genre’s messy birth out of punk and post-punk landscapes resulted in simultaneous, like-minded strains that would meld together to form the basis of a broad style—but it might as well have been. In the early 1980s, the (then) quartet’s ringing Rickenbacker guitar jangle, intertwined yet arching harmonies, and obtuse lyrics and artwork were a refreshing contrast to punk’s straightforward anger, New Wave’s slick kitsch, post-punk’s dour demystification, and hard rock’s feel-good macho swagger—and a definite portent of things to come.