4. Reckoning (1984)
This is where it gets tricky. I look at an album like Reckoning and think: only at number four? It almost seems insulting, but it had to go somewhere and it ain’t better than the next three. This, to me — and I’m certain I’m not alone — is perhaps the R.E.M. album that would be much more popular and beloved (if that’s possible) had the band split after making it. We would be asking: listen to that confidence, the growth just since the first album — R.E.M. could have owned the next decade. Fortunately, the band did not split and it did own the next decade.
3. Document (1987)
Document was the quantum leap, commercially, and it has aged remarkably well. It also contains some of the best work the group ever did. Let’s name names: “Finest Worksong” is not only a slice of perfection, it’s the full flowering of the new and improved (improving?) R.E.M. aesthetic: the huge drums continuing from the previous album, the clearer and more confident vocals, Mike Mills elevating his impeccable harmonizing into an almost back-up role and, of course, Buck eschewing solos in favor of a true technician’s approach — power chords and sluicing slide hooks and undeniable power. This is the sound of the best underground band in the world breaking through the floor and beginning to lay claim to the entire world.
“Welcome to the Occupation”, like “Auctioneer (Another Engine)”, packs a tremendous amount of excitement, emotion, and erudition into under three minutes. This is music as smart bomb figuratively and, well, literally, featuring some of Stipe’s finest vocals ever. “Exhuming McCarthy”: great message then, now. Nice early use of non-rap sampling with the famous Joseph Welch bitch-slap (“Have you no sense of decency sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”). This has the edge of the earlier work but is employing new layers and angles: a band hitting on all cylinders. “Disturbance at the Heron House” recalls its earliest work but again with new heft and clarity. Sick hook, crystal-clear vocals, and Berry never sounded better.
There are two songs that keep this from being a near-perfect album: “Strange” (facile lyrics) and “Lightnin’ Hopkins”, which seems ideally suited to be a live-only song that never made it to record. Neither song is terrible, but neither come close to matching the highs reached before and after them. Then there is the one-two punch of songs that simply got played too much (no fault of the band or the songs themselves): “The One I Love” helped put R.E.M. over and has historical import for that reason alone. It still manages to not irritate no matter how many millions of times it gets played. Talk about the passion: no one in the band is faking it, and it’s that honesty and unaffected feeling that keeps this radio-friendly anthem fresh. Courteous golf claps all around for “It’s the End . . .”, but I can’t listen to or talk about that one anymore.
Finally, a trifecta of unheralded tracks: “Fireplace” still sounds effulgent almost a quarter-century later. There is also a sense of adventure, adding some scorching sax work from Steve Berlin (from Los Lobos) — an inspired choice that takes the song to a whole other level. “King of Birds” and “Oddfellows Local 151″ combine to create one of the band’s best one-two punches, particularly as album closers. The former invokes the Southern march stylings that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Lifes Rich Pageant, but with the addition of a dulcimer (another inspired choice) it sounds both psychedelic and postmodern. The latter is just a tour de force from everyone involved and, in hindsight, is almost like a last gasp of innocence.
After 1987 the band would never be underground again, and they would (could?) never make music that sounded like this again. To its credit, R.E.M. grew, experimented, and refused to rest on any laurels (even when the group was the unanimous choice as the best and most important band in the world). On the other hand, there is a reason the hardest core of fans have an unshakable nostalgia for the I.R.S. years.
2. Murmur (1983)
How could this not be the top choice? Well, it may be a cop-out, but I’ve always described Murmur as at once better (or at least more important) than the sum of its parts, but also too historically significant — for the band, for rock music — to cheapen by ranking. It is, in its way, like Love’s Forever Changes; it remains an album everyone knows but not everyone owns. Or everyone loves but not everyone likes. Or, to avoid any unintentional cuteness, ask yourself how many fellow R.E.M. fans could name every song on the album, in order. How many casual fans? How about yourself?
Nobody needs to read another historical analysis citing the far-reaching influence of Murmur (it is not debatable), and little more is left to be said about the inimitable world the band created here. Again, like Forever Changes, it’s not necessarily the individual sounds so much as the place that gets conjured up — by the album and by yourself as you listen to it. Even though this is R.E.M.’s opening salvo, it somehow seems less “Southern” than its next two albums, and it does (no, really) have that timeless vibe. It doesn’t sound like it could be made today, or in the ’60s (I don’t think that is what people mean when they say a particular work is “timeless”).
Rather, it makes itself — by virtue of its sheer quality and inscrutability — impervious to fads and critical trends. It just is and few albums of any era have ever just been the way Murmur manages to be. At the end of the day, I still listen to a song like “Perfect Circle” and just shake my head, awestruck and grateful. How did something like this happen? Where did this come from? How is this possible?
1. Lifes Rich Pageant (1986)
Here’s the thing: if it wasn’t for Murmur there would be little disagreement about what album best represents everything so great about R.E.M. To be sure, there are songs you can isolate and put on a mix (or hits collection) but the full power of this one–like any masterful album–should be experienced from start to finish. The cumulative effect of these 12 songs represents a high watermark of the ’80s and while it is not out of time (pun intended) in the way(s) Murmur manages to be, that’s okay.
For starters, Murmur is among the handful of sui generis statements from a rock band, and in some regards, the fact that Lifes Rich Pageant at times screams 1986 is a very good thing. When we remember how much awful music was made in that decade, it becomes refreshing almost to the point of hero-worship status that there is nary a synthesizer to be found. And just because a song like “Fall on Me” became anthemic doesn’t mean it was (necessarily) written with an eye on radio play. This work caught on because it was too powerful and significant to be ignored. The band had not hit pay dirt yet, but it had, without question, arrived.
After the so-called jangle-guitar (an oft-invoked but facile charge) era, there is no question that R.E.M. was evolving with each album. Arguably, this was the first major advance, stylistically and sonically. On “Begin the Begin” the urgent, almost menacing tone of Buck’s guitar dispenses with all pleasantries: this joint is rocking from jump-street. And then there is the moment that Berry’s drums crash in: the ethereal, occasionally unintelligible quirkiness of the earlier work has been supplanted in favor of a crystalline sound and booming back end. This is a direct, and very confident, call to arms.
There are several songs that illustrate how much Stipe is growing as a singer; the earlier mumblings were delightful (even addictive) in their way, but one senses he means — and believes — what he is saying now. Indeed, the social consciousness is in full effect, as evidenced by two stunning tracks. The first, “Cuyahoga” is equal parts history lesson, lament, and rallying cry. The second, which is on the shortlist of songs that have been played into the ground, is “Fall on Me”. Even after so much exposure, little can take away from or tarnish the sublime harmonies (some of Mike Mills’ finest work) and the poetic indictment of a careless (or worse, uncaring) society. It is an incrimination that manages to sound vulnerable and very human.
Finally, there are the two tracks that tend to defy description. First, the almost painfully raw yet gorgeous “Flowers of Guatemala”: this is, in many ways, the apotheosis of everything R.E.M. had achieved, and represents an apex of the aesthetic it was steadily working toward. Where later songs of this sort tended toward preciousness or self-conscious sermonizing, the band members — perhaps because of where (and who) they were at this time — are able to balance earnestness and elegance.
“Swan Swan H” is an archetypal R.E.M. moment that conjures up the Deep South from another century, specifically the Civil War era (Johnny Reb). It is straightforward yet surreal; disorienting yet deliriously familiar, like a smell or sound prompting a memory you can’t quite place. It’s an unequivocal embrace of the underdog, a position R.E.M. would make a career out of in part because it understood what it means to be an outsider. It remains a bit ironic, yet oddly perfect, that this sensibility was fully explored on an album that saw the underground’s favorite band forever leave the alternative scene.
This article was originally published on 12 October 2011.