15‘Around The Sun’ (2004)
Any career that spans over 30 years is bound to hit a low point or two. There’s no question that R.E.M. never managed to truly redefine themselves without drummer Bill Berry and ‘Around The Sun’ is definitely the low point of that era. But it isn’t the horrendous disaster that most fans would have you believe. There’s nothing here that would earn a place on a career-spanning ‘Best Of’, but no abominations either. Its greatest sin is that it lacks any emotional impact, sounds almost nothing like R.E.M. and has absolutely nothing to say. OK, admittedly written down that sounds pretty bad. But even the songs that start off promisingly (‘Leaving New York’, ‘The Outsiders’) either outstay their welcome or take ill-advised detours.
R.E.M. were always unpredictable but, coming off the back of ‘New Adventures In Hi-Fi’’s bold cinematic soundscapes and the shock of Berry’s departure, ‘Up’ was probably the hardest to predict. The record’s ponderous tempos, electronic flourishes and drum machines feel very 1998 and speak to a band that viewed Berry less as someone to be replaced and more as a lost limb that meant learning a new way to live. Occasionally ‘Up’ throws out a song that causes the ears to jolt to attention, such as the gorgeous ‘Daysleeper’ or the sweetly droning ‘Falls To Climb’. Otherwise, it’s too middling and murky to leave much of an impression.
Lead single ‘Imitation Of Life’ and opening track ‘The Lifting’ raised hopes for a return to classic R.E.M. jangle pop, and while there’s enough to elevate ‘Reveal’ over its more experimental predecessor, the album suffers from the fussiness, sterility and lack of true emotional connection that affected so much of R.E.M’s work from ‘Up’ to ‘Around The Sun’. There’s nothing especially off-putting about ‘Reveal’, but beyond a few real highlights (‘Imitation Of Life’, ‘She Just Wants To Be’ and the desert twang of ‘All The Way To Reno’), it’s quickly forgettable.
12‘Collapse Into Now’ (2011)
It would have been one of the great tragedies in music history if R.E.M. had surrendered with the whimper of ‘Around The Sun’, so it’s to their credit that they somehow found the impetus to reinvigorate themselves for their final two albums and call it a day with heads held high. ‘Collapse Into Now’ is never going to be regarded as highly as ‘Reckoning’ or ‘Automatic’, but it showcases a band that still has blood running through their veins, especially on the livewire opener ‘Disappear’, a spiritual cousin to ‘The Wake-Up Bomb’ and ‘So Fast, So Numb’.
If the R.E.M. story can be separated into three volumes (their first label I.R.S Records, the classic Warner Bros era in the mid-to-late ‘90s and post-Berry), then ‘Accelerate’ is the unquestionable high point of book three. After hitting their nadir with ‘Around The Sun’, the band once again defied expectations and returned with a record that sounded more like R.E.M. than they had in over a decade. ‘Accelerate’ is a lean, streamlined rocker of a record, leaning into the band’s strengths instead of stubbornly rejecting them. ‘Living Well Is The Best Revenge’ has more spit and vinegar than the band’s last three records combined, Peter Buck’s distorted Rickenbacker ringing out like a call to arms. Even when the pace lets up (such as the superb ‘Houston’), R.E.M. still feel revitalised and rejuvenated. It’s the musical equivalent of when Thierry Henry temporarily returned to Arsenal and scored the winner in a cup tie against Leeds United. Not quite the glory days, but a victory nonetheless.
And so to one of the most divisive records in R.E.M.’s catalogue. ‘Monster’ has suffered from a host of misconceptions since its release 25 years ago. It’s often viewed as a commercial disaster, even though it went triple-Platinum in the UK and quadruple Platinum in America – although a lot of those ended up in charity shops and second-hand record stores. It’s also wrongly viewed as R.E.M.’s grunge record, landing at the height of the Seattle gold rush with fuzzed out guitars and a song about Kurt Cobain. In truth, ‘Monster’ finds Stipe and co. delving into glam-rock in a dramatic about-face from the brooding, acoustic ‘Automatic For The People’. It doesn’t always work, but when it does (‘What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?’, ‘Strange Currencies’, ‘Let Me In’) it works like gangbusters.
‘Green’ is about 75% brilliant and 25% irritating. Focus on the irritating quarter and you’ve got all the warning signs for ‘Shiny Happy People’. Focus on the rest and you’ve got ‘World Leader Pretend’, ‘You Are The Everything’, ‘Orange Crush’ and ‘Turn You Inside Out’, essentially the blueprint for R.E.M.’s imminent world domination. It showed that the band could court the mainstream without losing the essence of what made them so unique in the first place.
8‘Out Of Time’ (1991)
Many fans weren’t ready for their college rock darlings to become overnight pop stars, which would explain why so much animosity remains towards ‘Green’ and ‘Out Of Time’. But even ‘Out Of Time’’s missteps still have an element of charm, even if listening to the tongue-in-cheek ‘Radio Song’ now is an exploration to the furthest reaches of cringe. The debate over ‘Shiny Happy People’ will rage forever, but the record also finds R.E.M. hitting dizzying heights with the irresistible ‘Losing My Religion’, the pop perfection of ‘Near Wild Heaven’ and the awe-inspiring ‘Country Feedback’ – perhaps the best song they ever recorded.
7‘Fables Of The Reconstruction’ (1985)
With stronger, meaner production, there’s a chance ‘Fables’ would be much, much higher in this list and in most fans’ estimation. The songcraft is all there, especially on career highlights such as ‘Can’t Get There From Here’ (which showcases the band’s knack for pulling a huge chorus out of thin air), ‘Driver 8’, ‘Life And How To Live It’ and ‘Green Grow The Rushes’. It’s just a huge shame that the thin production (from Nick Drake and Fairport Convention producer Joe Boyd) robs the music of any impact.
6‘New Adventures In Hi-Fi’ (1996)
Recorded at soundchecks and in mobile studios during and shortly after the tour that very nearly killed R.E.M., ‘New Adventures’ is the band’s last great record. What stands out is how unified and coherent the album feels, considering it was recoded in such a transient, piecemeal fashion. The big rock numbers land better than most of their equivalents on ‘Monster’ – especially the full throttle ‘Departure’ – while some of the quieter moments are on a par with R.E.M.’s best; not least the ominous ‘E-Bow The Letter’ and the tender sweetness of ‘Electrolite’ and ‘Be Mine’. The centrepiece, however, is the epic ‘Leave’, R.E.M.’s longest song and one of their finest moments. ‘New Adventures In Hi-Fi’ is the sound of the band letting the music take them where it wants and ends up looser and more vibrant than anything else post-‘Automatic For The People’.
‘Document’ is so nearly R.E.M.’s finest hour, but for a side B that doesn’t quite match the exhilarating rush of side A. But, boy, that run from ‘Finest Worksong’ to ‘It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)’ is one of the best sides of an LP in existence. R.E.M. come out of the gate sounding like they mean business. Stipe’s vocals are front and centre, Bill Berry’s drums sound enormous, Peter Buck’s guitar snarls and chimes in all the right places and Mike Mills’ backing vocals are given the space they deserve. Where 1986’s ‘Life’s Rich Pageant’ gave the band a commercial, rock radio sheen, ‘Document’ dials it back just enough to let their idiosyncrasies creep back in, especially on the wonderfully restless ‘Exhuming McCarthy’. That a record this good only just cracks the top five says all you need to know about their extraordinarily high standards in that initial era.
4‘Lifes Rich Pageant’ (1986)
R.E.M.’s fourth record now feels like a blueprint for their fifth. Paring things back after the overly fussy ‘Fables’, R.E.M. again changed producer, teaming up with the slightly incongruous Don Gehman (the man responsible for John Mellencamp’s megahits ‘Hurts So Good’ and ‘Jack and Diane’). The result was the band’s heaviest rocking album, announcing itself in no uncertain style with ‘Begin The Begin’, a muscle car of a song that sounded unlike anything the band had done up to that point. For the first time you could actually hear what Michael Stipe was singing and Gehman pinpointed the band’s secret weapon – Bill Berry – and made his jittery drumming the focal point. The band would strike a finer balance between their indie sensibilities and rock bluster on ‘Document’, but the songwriting here is simply flawless, featuring some of the band’s best ever songs, such as ‘Fall On Me’, ‘These Days’ and ‘Swan Swan H’.
3 ‘Automatic For The People’ (1992)
After seven albums and one EP of infectious, jangly indie rock, it’s somewhat curious that R.E.M. became the biggest band on the planet off the back of a quiet, brooding, mostly acoustic record that ruminates on death and departure. ‘Everybody Hurts’ and ‘The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite’ suffered from their omnipresence in 1992, but 27 years breathing space has allowed them to stand on their own feet as two of the finest pop singles of the ‘90s. Maybe it’s the videos to ‘Drive’ and ‘Man On The Moon’ or maybe it’s just the cover art, but ‘Automatic For The People’ feels like a resolutely monochrome record, punctuated by occasional bursts of colour, the record’s dark clouds making the sunshine feel all the brighter. In hindsight, it’s unsurprising that R.E.M. changed tack so dramatically for ‘Monster’. There’s just no improving on this.
It’s so easy to overlook just how exceptional ‘Murmur’ seemed when it was released in 1983. The ‘Chronic Town’ EP suggested that R.E.M. were a band to watch, but even that early taster didn’t hint at the fully formed brilliance to come. ‘Radio Free Europe’ sets that to rights. From the eerie, atmospheric intro to Stipe’s enigmatic mumbling on the verse to the radiant chorus, it’s everything that’s wonderful about R.E.M. laid bare in one astoundingly great song. ‘Murmur’ is the sound of a band that began life as one of the best in the world. It just took the world a decade to catch up.
Some bands might take exception to their first two records being regarded as their best. But not all bands kick off with a one-two like ‘Murmur’ and ‘Reckoning’. In truth, the top five records on this list could be rearranged in any given order on any given day and still be objectively correct. R.E.M. were so restless and eclectic from record to record that it’s hard to declare any one record their absolute best.
But ‘Reckoning’ holds a special place in this writer’s heart that keeps it eternally a nose ahead of the competition. It could be the rolling, toe-tapping ‘(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville’. It could be the grin-inducing intro to ‘7 Chinese Brothers’. It could be how Stipe’s mumble, Berry’s jittery drumming, Mills’ winding basslines and Buck’s arpeggios seem to be all part of one symbiotic organism. Or it could just be the fact that ‘Reckoning’ is the most fun R.E.M record ever.