Ranking R.E.M.: The 10 Best Albums
One author's farewell ranking of the top 10 R.E.M. LPs illustrates that some albums that were monster hits have not aged especially well, while another album entitled Monster has, and that the usual suspects remain indelible after all these years.
R.E.M.'s recent announcement that it is officially calling it quits has resulted in a predictable and appropriate outpouring of respect and appreciation. While some older school fans may have stopped acknowledging the band following drummer Bill Berry's 1997 departure, some folks from the younger generation might not have realized how long R.E.M. had been around. Impossible as it may be to believe, "Losing My Religion" was a smash hit two full decades ago. 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 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 just wrote at length about this album, defending it here. 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.