With the benefit of hindsight, we can break R.E.M.’s career into three rough periods: the underground I.R.S. Records years, the Warner Bros. “wonder years”, and the post-Berry output. Out of respect for the post-Berry content, we won’t need to damn the band’s last five efforts with faint praise. While difficult (if enjoyable) to rank the band’s ten best recordings, it should surprise few folks that the albums after 1997 don’t make the cut. Some albums that were monster hits have not aged especially well; another album entitled Monster has. The usual suspects remain indelible after all these years. Here is my brief overview of R.E.M.’s enduring legacy.
10. Green (1988)
From any other band, this would be pretty close to a total winner. From R.E.M., it’s merely a good — at times very good — album. “World Leader Pretend” is one of the great R.E.M. songs.
9. Automatic for the People (1992)
This seemed like the immediate and universal candidate to be R.E.M.’s masterpiece. I thought it was the result of hype and (typical) critical consensus, e.g. groupthink. I felt that way then, and I feel even more strongly, now. It’s a very good album with some amazing tracks, but there are some serious stinkers on here (including the ubiquitous and unbearable “Everybody Hurts”). Not hating, just saying for my money, R.E.M. did much better than this.
8. Out of Time (1991)
Man, I loved this one when it came out. I still love it in bits and pieces, but of all R.E.M.’s albums, this one has aged the most poorly in my opinion. I dug “Radio Song” (with the KRS-One cameo), but it sounds pretty damn dated now. Being dated is fine, no harm in that; it just means some of these songs don’t get the frequent replays that some of the albums on this list merit and the ceaseless replays some of the others get. “Losing My Religion” is a fantastic song that just got played too much; can’t fault the band for that. The less said about “Shiny Happy People”, the better.
But boy, are there some stunners on this set: “Low”, kind of like R.E.M. saying “Yeah, you want to make Velvet Underground comparisons? Well, this is what Lou Reed would sound like if he could actually sing!”; “Country Feedback” which is just quietly devastating (and showcases why Peter Buck is so amazing: nothing flashy, nothing that will get this song featured on Guitar Hero, just a brilliant composer who can paint with color and kill you with the feeling he can conjure). The rest is a hit/miss affair that can/will always bring me back to my senior year of college (fall semester), and that’s far from a bad place to be.
7. New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996)
Another one that did not — and does not — get a lot of love. But I’ve noticed that while the critical fawning for Automatic has rightly waned, this one seems to be growing. Actually — and I never really thought about this until just now — perhaps because it signals the last time R.E.M. was really R.E.M., it has taken on a sort of “final statement” quality. In any event, some seriously awesome tunes on this sucker (“Be Mine”, “Electrolite”, “New Test Leper”, “Bittersweet Me”).
6. Monster (1994)
Coincidentally, I wrote at length about this album. Here is the crux of my argument:
Monster was not a lackluster album in 1994 and time has only amplified its strengths and its unique place in R.E.M.’s catalog. Perhaps it’s ultimately, as always, a matter of taste, but while I did — and do — dearly love Automatic, I think the praise it receives is as excessive as the hits Monster takes. On some of the softer, slower songs the band—especially the singer—lapse into preciousness and an earnestness that seems shoehorned in for maximum effect (“Everybody Hurts”, I’m talking to you). Early R.E.M. was irresistible in part because it was so inscrutable: Stipe’s indecipherable lyrics and moon pie-mouthed vocals, along with Buck’s ever-jangling guitar, gave the band a distinctive, inimitable sound. Eventually the drums were worked more prominently into the mix, almost but not quite over-compensating on albums like Lifes Rich Pageant and Document.
The production was crystalline on Green and Automatic, while Monster, by comparison, could be considered a step backward. Except for the fact that the heft and fury is so obviously intentional: Peter Buck should always be celebrated for being the anti guitar hero, content to “merely” establish—and embellish—the songs with his multi-faceted but always understated approach. On Monster he strides brazenly to the forefront and the results are magnificent; he even allows himself the luxury of a few solos! His guitar sound is not only dominant, it is often delightfully distorted and laden with feedback. It is entirely understandable why this less kind, less gentle R.E.M. was not for everyone, but that has little bearing on why this album is incredibly satisfying on its own terms.
5. Fables of the Reconstruction (1985)
The least great of the first five, which means it’s still great and, again, compared to most bands, this would be career-defining work. A bit muddled in places, maybe even a tad uninspired in others (probably due more to exhaustion than effort). Yet some of the band’s best work is found within. Does it get better than “Driver 8”? Everyone knows it; everyone has heard it a million times. But it still feels fresh and totally unique as R.E.M. is simultaneously creating and perfecting an original sound, and while this song practically screams “The South”, it is also all-world.
You can almost pinpoint the moment R.E.M. was poised for greatness. “Auctioneer (Another Engine)” seems to sum up everything great the group had done to this point. It has a frenzied concentration, like the band is trying to fit a longer song with extra lyrics into under three minutes (in a good way of course), and is honing in on that totally fresh and original sound. You can hear the fully-formed breakthrough records steaming down the tracks, and yet it could be argued that the group never sounded this great again.