Due to inherent laziness, it’s tempting to avoid doing Discography posts for bands who have released more than about five albums, but I couldn’t really ignore one of my favourite bands, especially as I named my website after them. So here’s R.E.M., with apologies to those to who stick to the ‘they’ve been rubbish since 1986’ line and complain every time they release a new album…
While I’ve already given away my impatience with people who write off latter-day R.E.M., you can’t really deny that their early albums were works of genius. Debut Murmur got them off to a pretty much perfect start, jam-packed with some of the best indie rock you’ll ever hear anywhere. Radio Free Europe, Talk About The Passion and (particularly for me) Perfect Circle are the obvious stand-outs, but it’s one of those albums that you sing along to every track when you’re in the car, even if you frequently struggle to work out what the heck Michael Stipe is actually saying (or what any of it means). Simply an incredible debut album.
After the critical acclaim that Murmur got, how would R.E.M. follow it up? By just going away and making another album that is possibly even better, of course. There was some pressure from the record label to provide a hit to match the nice things that were being written, but the band managed to shrug off that potential problem by recording it so quickly that no-one from the label got down to hear it. There’s no signs of it being rushed though, with ten pretty much perfect jangly alt-pop songs making the ‘difficult second album’ look almost embarrassingly easy. Murmur was great, but Reckoning is probably just a little bit better.
Fables Of The Reconstruction (1985)
You’d think ‘more of the same’ would have been the order of the day after two such wonderful records, but R.E.M. instead decamped to London to make their follow-up, working with renowned folk producer Joe Boyd. This led to a slight change in their sound, adding more dense layers of instrumentation and a slightly darker murky atmosphere hangs over most of the tracks. The band claimed for a while afterwards that they weren’t fans of Fables, but it’s had a bit of a revival more recently and there’s no doubting that there’s a lot of great stuff on it, not least Driver 8 and Cant Get There From Here. It’s not quite as perfect or endlessly listenable as Murmur or Reckoning, but it’s still a very good album.
Lifes Rich Pageant (1986)
It seems astonishing now that R.E.M. managed to make such consistently good music when they kept turning out a new album every year between 1983 and 1988, but they showed no signs of slowing down on their fourth release. They ditched the murkier sound of Fables for a step towards the (gulp) more commercial music they’d be making in coming years. However, it’s far from a sell-out record, and is decidedly lacking in hits. It’s not lacking in classics though, Begin The Begin, Cuyahoga and Fall On Me are amongst my favourite R.E.M. tracks and Lifes Rich Pageant is a cracking album.
Dead Letter Office (1987)
A collection of b-sides released only a few months before the next studio album, Dead Letter Office is largely comprised of covers of songs by bands like Aerosmith, Velvet Underground and Roger Miller. It’s a ragged and patchy album, with some of their most raucous material, but with a lot of the b-sides getting added as bonus tracks to CD versions of their albums, it started to seem a bit redundant. Still, its own CD release does contain their debut EP Chronic Town, which makes it worthwhile as an addition to anyone’s R.E.M. collection.
Depending on your viewpoint, this is either the beginning of a brave new era for the band or the beginning of the end. With Scott Litt coming in on production, a role he’d take for the next five albums, R.E.M. pushed their sound towards the mainstream and were rewarded with a hit in the shape of The One I Love. With Michael Stipe’s vocals more clear and more prominent, the band also got more political, most blatantly on Exhuming McCarthy, and there’s a righteous anger in quite a few of the lyrics. With classics like Finest Worksong and It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine), Document is one of the very strongest and most consistent albums of R.E.M.’s career.
R.E.M.’s first major label album and the first to feature Peter Buck’s mandolin, Green really is a step away from their IRS days in more than just the name on the back of the album. Stand was their first real ‘pop’ single and was a huge hit in the States, along with Orange Crush and Pop Song ’89. It’s sometimes a patchy album, but the band were clearly less constrained by their indie ethos and felt more able to write unashamedly commercial songs as well as folky tunes like World Leader Pretend and hard rock tracks like Turn You Inside-Out. Green isn’t quite as good as it could have been, but it’s still very, very good.
Out Of Time (1991)
And into the stratosphere. R.E.M. had been getting bigger and bigger over the last couple of albums, but things would never be the same again after Out Of Time, which lifted them up into the kind of space only occupied by the likes of U2. Mega-hit single Losing My Religion pretty much did it on its own, along with the very poppy (and much-despised) Shiny Happy People, which was their first UK Top 10 single. They even branched out, featuring rapper KRS-One on opener Radio Song, while Mike Mills got his turn in the spotlight on the lovely Near Wild Heaven, one of my personal favourites, along with Half A World Away. By this stage, the more precious of their indie fanbase were really starting to despair, but there’s so much good stuff here.
Automatic For The People (1992)
Having taken an unusually long break between albums prior to Out Of Time, R.E.M. wasted no time following it up. Apparently they had been trying to make more of a rock album as a reaction to their newfound success, but instead found themselves making a subdued and largely acoustic album instead. The slow base is more than half a world away from their earlier albums, but here it works really well as the sound of a band who have had to grow up and watch their music scene disappear around them. It helps that there’s so many fantastic songs here too, including more upbeat tracks like The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite and Man On The Moon as well as the more reflective Drive and Everybody Hurts. My highlight comes right at the end with the beautiful Find The River.
Monster is presumably the album they had been intending to make when they made Automatic For The People. With the guitars turned up loud and the ballads kept to a minimum, this was a very different R.E.M. and it’s a sound that doesn’t consistently work across the album, making Monster one of their less successful releases. What’s The Frequency Kenneth? is a great opener that sets the tone well, while Strange Currencies works as this album’s Everybody Hurts, but there’s too much filler and not enough great songs to make it work as the kind of ‘back to our roots’ album it was presumably intended to be.
New Adventures In Hi-Fi (1996)
Recorded largely whilst on tour for Monster, New Adventures works a lot better than its predecessor, showing more of a spirit of (appropriately) adventure and freshness that was badly lacking before. Getting Stipe’s hero Patti Smith onboard for the stark and astonishing E-Bow The Letter (referring to a letter Stipe had written to his friend River Phoenix about his drug abuse, never sent because of Phoenix’s death from an overdose) was a huge success, both musically and commercially, getting to number 4 in the UK charts. Electrolite is another classic while my favourite R.E.M. track of all time is Leave, so it’s no surprise that I’m a huge fan of this album.
Losing their manager, drummer and long-time producer meant that R.E.M. were in a state of flux when they came to make Up, an album that almost never got finished. After deciding not to replace Berry following his amicable departure, the new trio continued along the path New Adventures had started by moving further away from both their early sound and their commercially-friendly mid-period. When it works, Up is great, with At My Most Beautiful (a Brian Wilson song in all but name), The Apologist, You’re In The Air, Walk Unafraid and Daysleeper all in that category. But when it doesn’t work, it’s not an easy listen, and that makes for their least accessible release, if not actually their least successful.
Perhaps as a reaction to the difficulties some people had with Up, the band returned with the very accessible Reveal as their next album. Released in time for summer, it’s a warm and lushly-produced collection building on the Beach Boys influence felt on At My Most Beautiful, and has the fantastic single Imitation Of Life, as well as the woozy All The Way To Reno and another of my personal favourites I’ll Take The Rain. Critics say that it’s a bit overproduced and a world away from their early albums, but I think it works perfectly as a deliberately styled album by a band feeling comfortable in their own skins.
Around The Sun (2004)
The most maligned album of R.E.M.’s career, Around The Sun really isn’t THAT bad. For a start, it’s got Leaving New York, which is one of their very best singles, while Final Straw works well as a pointedly political song released at a time when the band were at the forefront of anti-Bush campaign Vote For Change. I also really like The Outsiders, which features rapper Q-Tip in a much more natural and cohesive way than KRS-One’s work on Radio Song. However, it’s fair to say that it doesn’t all work as well, and Around The Sun has more than its fair share of songs that just pass you by.
As a reaction to the critical and commercial failure of Around The Sun, as well as their own antipathy towards it, R.E.M. followed it up with an album that took them closer to their ‘traditional’ sound than anything they had released for a very long time. They worked on the albums in live shows before recording them, and that energy rushes through the material in a way that it never did on Around The Sun, and tracks like Living Well Is The Best Revenge and Supernatural Superserious. There’s also excellent slower songs, like Until The Day Is Done, making Accelerate a very impressive return to form.
Collapse Into Now (2011)
Continuing to work with producer Jacknife Lee, R.E.M. returned three years later with an album that blended Accelerate’s sense of urgency with the more reflective and experimental work they had done since. It finds a nice balance, with fast-paced rockers like Discoverer, Mine Smell Like Honey and Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter sitting alongside Überlin, It Happened Today and beautiful closer Blue (with Patti Smith returning for the latter). This mix seems to paint a picture of a band who have found way to reconcile their past and their present, but I suppose only time will tell where they go next.