True confession: It has been years since I seriously listened to R.E.M., beyond just a song or two. In the 1980s, this was one of my favorite bands, before they took the big record company money and tried to appeal to the stadium audience. Their sound was fresh, jangly and succinct. R.E.M. was not a jam band by any means; those bands had gone out of fashion and R.E.M. took their que from 1960s garage bands that aimed for delivering the goods in about three minutes.
This is not a complete, or in-depth deep dive into their musical discography, but my sampling of R.E.M. albums. I remember watching this band on David Letterman’s first late night show and was blown away by the supercharged folk-rock. Those crazy kids could really swing!
So, it was fun to listen to every R.E.M. studio album. There are many other live albums and bonus CDs of demos, unreleased tracks, B-sides and alternate mixes, but I wanted to stick with what they released on albums. I still have R.E.M.’s first four albums on vinyl in my collection. I found those and gave each a listen.
Collapse Into Now (2011)
The final R.E.M. studio album, and it’s a decent one. The band balances freshness with its classic formula. Guitars are still the core of the sound, although keyboards provide nice fills. Occasionally, the band fires up the energetic shuffle beat, reminding fans what it was like 30 years ago. “Überlin” is one of the best songs in the set, along with “Mine Smell Like Honey,” an updated version of their early sound. “Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter” with Peaches is a rousing, stomping, rave-up. Patti Smith shows up later on “Blue,” which is an uncharacteristic song from the band, and a terrific one. I wish they had gone more in this direction.
Reviews heralded Accelerate as a return to form, which I take as upbeat, guitars and quirky harmonies. It is all of those. The first thing I notice are the gritty, distorted guitars where they used to be jangly. Classic attitude, just a bit more contemporary. These songs are short: three minutes or less, yet the band says a mouthful in that time. While it’s upbeat, the acoustic-flavored songs have bite of the early albums, in part because of new producer Jacknife Lee. A listening delight.
Best songs: “Hollow Man,” “Supernatural Seriousness,” Houston,” “Mr. Richards.”
Around the Sun (2004)
The reviews I read mostly said the same thing, overproduced, directionless and vanilla. More of a return to their earlier, classic sound, but they’ve changed a lot since then. Overall, I found the album workman-like, polished a bit too much, songs that sound a lot like REM, but are good, not great. Even the band would express disappointment in the final product, and it sold poorly. I wasn’t buying REM albums when this one came out, but I have to admit, I like it, I might learn to love it, let’s go around the sun and I’ll let you know.
Best songs: “Leaving New York,” “The Outsiders,” “Aftermath,” “The Ascent of Man.”
The first album as a trio. The album didn’t have the staying power of past efforts and sales were soft. It could be that R.E.M. was experimenting again and the sound changed just enough to confuse record buying fans. The band goes back and forth on the guitar sound. Jangly or distorted power chords or echoes like U2 or simply buried in the mix.
New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996)
The last album with founding drummer Bill Berry. A big selling album, it was partially recorded on the road, then the tracks were finished in the studio. The sound is more raw, not necessarily more powerful, and is is hauntingly dissonant. One might think this record was made in Seattle by one of those alt. rockers.
“How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us” is the lead off track and it announces this album will be different. “E-Bow the Letter” also does not sound like your grandfather’s R.E.M., and for a first single, that was a gutsy choice. Patti Smith on vocals. There are straight rockers like “Departure,” “Low Desert” and “Bittersweet Me.”
Overall, this is a pretty strong member of the R.E.M. discography.
A more basic, less frills album. More focus on gritty guitars. A pattern that R.E.M. played over and over: experiment, get complex, then simplify. Dense and distorted, this album rocks harder than the usual album from these guys.
“What’s the Frequency Kenneth?” is a cool song and interesting story. “Crush With Eyeliner” has those tasty distorted and echoing guitars. “Don’t Sleep, I Dream” is sludgy and hypnotic. “Star, 69” is not a great single, but as a track, is it muscular. “Tongue” is a piano and organ song, an unusual soundscape for these guys, but a buzz saw guitar shows up later. “Bang and Blame” another solid track with incredible guitar work, the same with “I Took Your Name” and “Let Me In.”
Automatic for the People (1992)
A hugely successful record, deeply reflective and more serious than their last album. Many critics called this their greatest work to that point. Not as pop as Out of Time, these are mature songs to listen intently to, it might be the folk sensibility that demands a focused mind. Eighteen million copies sold; it seemed to be a success. Not my top R.E.M. album, but hard to ignore the success.
“The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight” sounds like it could be from an early album, although it has a very textured arrangement. “Ignoreland” is another of my favorites, a bright, sassy tune. “Nightswimming” is a mellow, ballad that has a relaxed charm. “Star Me Kitten” an odd, but likable song. “Drive,” “Everybody Hurts,” “Man on the Moon” were the big hits, with the latter being one of my favorites, the ode to Andy Kaufman.
Out of Time (1991)
A huge seller and award-winning album. This effort put the band into the stratosphere. “Losing My Religion” was a huge song. The rich mandolin sound provides a folky, yet punchy groove. The album is mellower and more personal, the band uses arrangements and more instruments to fill out the sound, making it lusher and more expansive soundscape. This album really resonated with the public. It is an eclectic batch of songs, upbeat, but more folk-pop than rock.
“Near Wild Heaven” could have been a Byrds or Association song from the 1960s, jangly guitars and sweet harmonies. “Shiny Happy People” was a cheerful, poppy song, a top ten chart hit. “Texarkana” is a rare song not sung by Michael Stipe. It’s a rocker with jangly guitars and familiar arpeggios.
A tale of two albums. Really big, powerful songs, and several that weren’t. The singles were big, but the album itself feels a disjointed collection and has that 1980s production goo. Life in the big leagues has great expectations and threatens to ruin what got you there. Signed to a big contract with new label Warner Bros., the reviews were mixed.
This album is no failure, their are some hits and some misses, but even the weaker songs still offer a good listen. “Pop Song 89” is catchy, but a bit shallow. “Get Up” is just average, not sure why it was a single. “You Are the Everything” is folky, with mandolin and accordion. “Stand” was a big hit, featuring some great guitar work. “World Leader Pretend” has the old shuffle and jangly guitars. “The Wrong Child” is a mellow, acoustic song with mandolins. “Orange Crush” is probably the most played song from the album, featuring heavier guitar work, on “Turn You Inside-Out” as well. “Hair Shirt” is just okay. “I Remember California” is a dark, moody and heavy rocker. “Untitled” is a throwaway.
Top ten album in the U.S. More rock and less folk, but the album still has the R.E.M.’s quirky grooves. The songs have a more pointed social and political message. “Welcome to the Occupation” is an example, along with “Exhuming McCarthy.” Scott Litt joined as a producer that would work with the band for the next group of albums.
R.E.M. would be known for such anthems as “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” “Finest Worksong” and “The One I Love” were fine singles, especially the latter.
Document showed R.E.M. maturing, moving toward mainstream rock, reigning in the quirky rawness and folky vibe. The band sounds less like the Byrds and more like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. “Oddfellows Local 151” might be the best rocker the band has ever written, the guitars have a hypnotic drone, and shows the toughness of these guys.
Life’s Rich Pageant (1986)
Producer Don Gehman gave them a more mainstream 1980s rock sound. The audience was growing, so it probably made sense to broaden the sound.
“Begin the Begin,” “These Days,” “Fall on Me” have the R.E.M. vibe, just a slicker sound. All around, an album known more for the direction of the sound than the songs. Competent, but fewer standout tracks.
Fables of the Reconstruction (1985)
It’s interesting to see the band’s growth from album to album. This album was recorded in England and what you first notice is that the bright, bouncy folk that blasted on college radio is now more complex, somber and downright moody. The soundscape is murkier.
“Driver 8,” “Cant Get There From Here,” and “Feeling Gravitys Pull” are my favorites.
R.E.M. is a bit of a conundrum, as their second album sounds more like the EP Chronic Town, than their first proper release, Murmur. That’s not a bad thing, just as the band hardly ever repeated itself going forward. The Reckoning does not surprise the listener because you expect elements of the R.E.M. sound. The first few albums showed the growing pains of the band and how the songwriting had to catch up with their musical sound. “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville” is the song I think of with this album. It has the energy, swing, trademark chorus and acoustic beat that got me hooked on the band from the beginning. “So. Central Rain,” “7 Chinese Bros.,” “Second Guessing” and “Pretty Persuasion” are my favorites. It’s a toss-up whether Reckoning or Murmur is by favorite R.E.M. album. I need to listen to both again, and again.
Amazing that “Rockville” didn’t chart as a single, which was evidence that mainstream radio hadn’t discovered these guys yet. The peaked at number 27, but stayed on the charts for a longtime as the audience slowly grew beyond colleges. I’m surprised that “Harbor Coat” was not released as a single, it is quintessential R.E.M. jangly guitar, full-speed shuffle and interlinking harmony vocals. It a great slice of folk-rock.
I call this power-folk, dressed in 1960s garage pop. The sound is unmistakable. As good as the EP was, the album that followed, Murmur, invented an entirely genre of rock. Energetic, post-punk with jangly guitars, a pounding shuffle-beat, folky harmonies and likely to shift tempo or chords, this music will get you tapping and shaking your body.
“Radio Free Europe,” launches the album and college alternative radio snapped up the group. “Laughing” is lightning fast in pace, the bass guitar of Mike Mills doesn’t get enough credit for powering these songs. He has a melodic style of playing. Peter Buck handles most of the guitar work, he’s a versatile player, capturing a variety of styles, it’s his playing that is at the heart of R.E.M. Bill Berry’s drums are the gas pedal for the band, but he does far more than beat the skins. Michael Stipe has a unique vocal style, which you with like or don’t, but his style fits this band. “Talk About the Passion,” “Catapult,” “Pilgrimage,” “Sitting Still,” “9-9” and “Shaking Through” make this a fun listen and still fresh after 40 years.
Chronic Town (1982)
Not an album, rather an Extended Play, which is more than a single, but less than an album worth of material. Their first release on IRS Records. Wow, I forgot how crazy good this group of songs are!
“Wolves, Lower” has that fast-paced, guitar-picking that REM was famous. It’s a killer. “Gardening at Night” has that kick-ass guitar jangle that helped give them the college following. Forty years later it sounds fresh, like a pop gem from the mid-1960s. “Carnival of Sorts (Boxcars)” is another breakneck fast tune that’s nicely in their trademark sound. It has that punk rock energy, but a folky groove. “1,000,000” is good, not great, but would have been gear on more serious, later albums. “Stumble” has the jangly guitar and pounding beat, but the drums are the star of this song. Thankfully, the mix has them right upfront.