R.E.M. is synonymous with the term “alternative rock.” They showed that quirky, guitar-based music had a place on the charts. And they proved you didn’t have to sacrifice your integrity to do it. That’s one of the reasons why R.E.M. albums are ranked so highly by critics and fans.
But R.E.M. didn’t only get by on reputation alone. At its very best, each new band release involved a new artistic risk. Each was exciting and inventive.
Furthermore, R.E.M. wasn’t merely a studio band either. Their live shows were colossal, energy-filled events. And, in Michael Stipe, they had a reluctant but magnetic frontman who, for all of his misgivings, became one of the figureheads of his generation.
I’ve found it impossible to talk about alternative rock on Alt77 without discussing R.E.M. This is why today I’m embracing artsiness, pricking my ears to make out the words, and digging through the discography of R.E.M. in order to rank their albums from worst to best.
R.E.M. Albums Ranked
16. “Around the Sun” (2004)
“Around the Sun” was a pleasant enough affair for casual listeners. But it dashed hardcore fans’ of a later career revival.
This is not to say that it’s an embarrassing release. Many artists have had to accept a decrease in quality decades into their work. The main trouble with, “Around the Sun” is that it doesn’t know exactly what it is.
“Leaving New York” is a saccharine number fishing for a hit single. “The Outsiders” samples vocals from rapper Q-Tip. And “Final Straw” features electro shimmers over a country-rock instrumental.
Even as a conservative pop-rock record, “Around the Sun” lacks energy. Peter Buck’s guitar is subdued throughout. And Michael Stipe, no a bonafide superstar, sounds boring rather than intriguing on the album’s lyrics.
15. “Reveal” (2001)
It took R.E.M. nearly three years to provide a new album. “Reveal,” was a satisfying listen to those hoping that the band would embrace its role as elder spokespeople for alternative-rock.
“Reveal” is a more balanced effort than “Up” was. The band plays within its melodic strengths for much of it. But they also acknowledge the era in which they’re making the album. Drum loops and modern sound effects work alongside Joey Waronker’s percussion.
The lead single, “Imitation of Life” approaches the dizzyingly pleasant pop-rock of the 1990s. Meanwhile, “I’ll Take the Rain” and “All the way to Reno (You’re Gonna Be a Star”) are pleasant and well-meaning.
Buck and Mills’ love of The Beach Boys and complex orchestration can be sampled on “Beachball” and “Summer Turns to High.” Meanwhile, many of Stipe’s lyrics continue to express unwelcome mental anguish such as on “Disappear.”
R.E.M. was not trying on daring innovation at this stage in their career. But they were still supplying believers with confident, adult-oriented pop-rock.
14. “Collapse into Now” (2011)
R.E.M. prove with “Collapse into Now” that they can still play by their own rules and create good songs when motivated. It’s a much better chapter-closer than what their early 2000’s records risked being.
There are plenty of nods toward the band’s past. “Discover” shimmers like an indie-rock track from “Murmur.” “Überlin” is as moody and lush-sounding as an “Automatic for the People” b-side. And “That Someone Is You” show that R.E.M. still possessed a love for catchy garage-rock singalongs.
“Collapse into Now” is a nice remembrance of everything R.E.M. achieved. It never risks turning into one of their best albums. It simply doesn’ have the stamina, or novel ideas.
As it turns out, “Collapse into Now” was the final album by R.E.M. before they announced their disbandment in 2011, 31 years into their careers. As far as career-closers go, Stipe, Mills and Buck delivered a respectable one.
Liked they’d always done throughout their careers, R.E.M. maintained complete over their decisions.
13. “Up” (1998)
R.E.M. faced up to the uncertainty of carrying on as a trio with a really good collection of pop-rock songs for the album “Up.”
Bill Berry’s departure as the band’s drummer had sent the group reeling. While Stipe may have been the figurehead of the group, it was apparent that R.E.M. was an anomaly: a group in which every band member contributed to its sound.
As a consequence, the R.E.M. trio opt to rely on familiar sounds. It’s the first time that the band does not attempt to update its style.
The results are occasionally great. “Daysleeper” features a great melody and Stipe’s lyrics about insomnia.
“At My Most Beautiful” is a slow, piano-driven ballad with Beatles-like harmonies. It’s one of the best R.E.M. slow songs.
And “Lotus” happens to be my favourite R.E.M. song of all time. It’s grimey 60s-sounding garage-rock number about the desire to change skins.
“Up” wasn’t a massive step forward artistically, nor a commercial smash. It showed, however, that R.E.M. could move on as a trio. As it turns out, it was also something akin to the end of a golden era.
12. “Chronic Town” (1982)
“Chronic Town” is the debut EP by R.E.M. Much as The Smiths had done in England, “Chronic Town” helped make jangly-guitar music exciting for young American audiences.
R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck had worked in a music store before befriending singer Michael Stipe. This EP showcases, first and foremost, great taste in music.
Songs like “Gardening at Night” or “1,000,000” benefit from an almost 60s folk-rock arrangement. Jangle-guitars are prioritized. And Stipe’s singing is as mysterious and impenetrable as Syd Barrett‘s.
11. “Accelerate” (2008)
“Accelerate” makes a plea toward the faithful R.E.M. fans. This time around they have more energy. And they’re less interested in pleasing anyone outside of their hardcore fanbase.
In retrospect, “Reveal” had failed because R.E.M. attempted to be everything-to-everyone just like similar-minded arena rockers U2. That record simply did not have the songs, nor the charisma to do that.
Instead, on “Accelerate” the band allows itself to sound downright nasty such as on “Man-Sized Wreath” or ghostly like on “Houston.”
Meanwhile, “Living Well is the Best Revenge” is immediate, and direct, a song that could be played live to the large arena audiences that still paid to see R.E.M.
If there’s one thing that works against “Accelerate” it’s an ineffable charm factor. Their earlier works all had it. Their later albums do not.
10. “Green” (1988)
R.E.M. did the most elegant thing they could for the follow-up to “Document” and didn’t try to make a copy of it. While “Green” is not as immediate as its predecessor, it contains some strong moments.
For the most part, this means that the band juggles musical styles while Stipe tries to make sense of the world once more.
“Pop Song 89” and “Stand” are great silly pop songs. The rootsy “You Are the Everything” finds Stipe at his most darkly romantic. And “Orange Crush,” one of the best songs by R.E.M. features some of the anthemic qualities found on their 1987 smash-hit album.
“Green” is not a collection of songs that equals “Document.” It did not achieve the same kind of commercial success. But this seemed to suit R.E.M. just fine as they continued marching proudly to their own drum.
9. “Monster” (1994)
Few bands achieved as much success as R.E.M. did during the 1990s, and “Monster” was a way to tell the world about the price paid for success, and a reason to update their sound once more.
Unlike “Out of Time” and “Automatic for the People,” “Monster” does not feature lush orchestration. The sound is darker, smaller, even claustrophobic.
At this stage, R.E.M. was not in the business of making the same kind of record twice. Sonically, “Monster” veers toward an almost grunge-like tone on songs like “Bang and Blame” or glam-rock on “Crush with Eyeliner.”
Peter Buck’s guitar-playing is the propelling force on the album’s best song, “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” Meanwhile, Stipe is at his most emotionally exposed on songs like “Strange Currencies” or the empathetic “Tongue.”
“Monster” is not nearly as consistent as some of their best work. Still, it has some incredible highlights. And bands like Radiohead or Blur were still receiving indirect encouragement from REM’s risk taking.
8. “Lifes Rich Pageant” (1986)
In its earliest days, R.E.M. could quickly jump from one style to another and triumph in various genres. “Lifes Rich Pageant” is an excursion into a heavier rock sound while retaining the power of excellent vocal melodies.
The excellent vocal lines, courtesy of Stipe, are most obvious on the lead single “Fall on Me.” In retrospect, it makes the band’s future success easy to understand.
But elsewhere, Don Gehman’s production work helps to create a surprisingly muscular sound. “Just a Touch,” “Begin the Begin” or the garage-rock cover of “Superman”, sung by Mills, prove REM’s musicians were students of hard rock and punk as well as 60s pop-rock.
7. “Out of Time” (1991)
“Out of Time” is the moment that R.E.M. became a global phenomenon. While it includes some of its most famous songs, it’s also not as strong as some of its predecessors.
R.E.M. didn’t court success which made the recognition of “Out of Time” receive all the more satisfying.
It also marks another brave sonic detour. For the first time, REM invites a large, warm production to assist this collection of bittersweet pop-rock songs.
Mills sings on the excellent jangle-pop of “Near Wild Heaven.” Meanwhile, Kate Pierson of fellow Georgia natives The B-52s sings on the saccharine “Shiny Happy People.” The similarly catchy “Radio Song” features rapper KRS-One.
However, it’s in the darkest moments that R.E.M. shines brightest. The mandolin-driven, confessional “Losing My Religion” is the best-known song by R.E.M. and for good reason.
Meanwhile, on “Country Feedback” Stipe’s tortured poetry is delivered with an alluring force. I think it’s one of the best songs of the early 1990s.
“Out of Time” was a gigantic hit. It was number one on the U.S. Billboard charts and sold over 18 million copies.
And while knowledgeable fans knew it wasn’t the band’s best work, few could deny that the band deserved its success. “Out of Time” may not be as consistent as some of their other albums, but it’s not a commercial compromise either.
6. “Fables of the Reconstruction” (1985)
R.E.M. was an established independent-rock band by 1985. But the group members were determined not to make the same album twice. “Fables of the Reconstruction” is a conscious divorce from the past.
In both sound and concept, “Fables of the Reconstruction” is something of a Southern-gothic album. The atmosphere is dark throughout. Buck’s guitar parts are crunchy more than they are jangly. And tracks revel in almost continuous nervous tension.
There are some great moments. Highlights include “Driver 8,” “Green Grow the Rushes”, or “Feeling Gravity’s Pull.”
But Stipe, Buck, Mills and Berry sound fed up with the world and each other. This helps some compositions and works against others.
5. “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” (1996)
“New Adventures in Hi-Fi” is the polar opposite of the early jangle-pop sound of R.E.M. Instead, it’s an album that focuses on textures and ethereal soundscapes.
The moodiness of the previous record, “Monster,” is given a conclusion here. Most of the songs deal with travel, and the search/loss of identity.
“How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us” and “E-Bow the Letter” are beautiful, but mournful travel songs. The latter allows Stipe to duet with his hero, Patti Smith.
Throughout them, Peter Buck’s guitar heroics are nearly muted, with moody piano and guitar patterns looping over the tunes.
And while “The Wake-Up Bomb” or “Departure” bring some energetic rock to the mix, it is moody ballas like “Electrolite” that help to define it.
4. “Document” (1987)
“Document” wasn’t just one of the finest alt-rock records of the 1980s. It was also a testament to hard work, integrity and perseverance.
Bands could easily be excused for thinking that commercial success involved compromise. In 1987, every indie band could point to college rock favourites R.E.M. for the contrary.
Every album by the band did a bit better commercially than its predecessor. But “Document” certainly had the ingredients to achieve much greater exposure.
Producer Scott Litt gives the record a polished but powerful sound. Meanwhile, the songs, while dark, are anthemic. Large hooks and choruses abound here.
“The One I Love” features some of the most emotional and pleasing vocals by Stipe. While its lyrical content may be dark, the pacing also makes for a wonderful live song. It helped R.E.M. to have this in their repertoire while they became a bigger concert draw.
The manically-delivered lyrics of “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” defined the mood of the era. It’s also one of R.E.M.’s best songs.
“Finest Worksong” and “Disturbance at the Heron House” are other notable highlights.
“Document” reached the U.S. top 10. The album earned great reviews. Alongside Talking Heads, R.E.M. was one of the few bands championed both by the people and the magazine pundits.
Meanwhile, unlikely as it seemed, music reviews proclaimed Michael Stipe, alongside Bono, as would-be “voices of a generation.”
3. “Reckoning” (1984)
“Reckoning” showcased REM’s diverse musical interests. It was a success and not the last time that they’d take great chances.
Songs like “So, Central Rain (I’m Sorry)” or “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville” all feature gorgeous melodies. All shimmer with a brightness akin to 1960s folk rock.
However, all the songs are played with a garage-rock-like intensity, such as on “7 Chinese Brothers” or “Pretty Persuasion” while Stipe’s excellent vocals continue working with lyrics of nearly impenetrable meaning.
In its early days, R.E.M. never looked like a band meant to last. Had the band ended after “Reckoning,” its status as one of the most important U.S. guitar bands would’ve already been established.
2. “Murmur” (1983)
R.E.M. was, from the very beginning, a band determined to do things differently. Their debut, “Murmur,” is clear proof of this.
“Murmur” introduced a new kind of guitar music in the American underground. Peter Buck wasn’t a player much interested in lengthy solos. Instead, the swirling ambience of his guitar arpeggios created an otherworldly feel.
“Murmur” also proved R.E.M. could live up to the hype. The “Chronic Town” EP and the single “Radio Free Europe” had turned them into underground sensations.
Musically, the record is defined by the interplay between Buck’s guitar and the melodic rhythm section comprised of bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry.
Singer Michael Stipe’s enigmatic vocals function almost as an additional instrument helping set the mood on tracks such as “Perfect Circle” or “Talk About Passion.”
1. “Automatic for the People” (1992)
“Automatic for the People” is the most satisfying album by R.E.M. It allowed the band to meet commercial and artistic expectations and to bask in light of success among the many alternative-rock bands it had inspired.
Love it, or hate, R.E.M. are one of the bands that make grand statements with their songs. U2 and Coldplay function in a similar space. However, R.E.M. had the knack of focusing on irking, personal issues and imbue them with a universal sense of longing on “Automatic for the People.”
For all of its success, once more this was not predictable. Listen to the agony captured in “Everybody Hurts” or the longing for teenage freedom of “Nightswimming” and it’s hard to hear hits.
Meanwhile, the excellent “Drive,” “Monty Got a Raw Deal,” or “Try Not to Breathe” all deal with the unwanted consequences of bad decisions.
“The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” eases some of the tension with its rock groove and Stipe’s funny, high-paced, and often misheard lyrics.
What these sombre songs have in common, however, is a wonderfully lush orchestration. Led Zeppelin‘s John Paul Jones provided string arrangements. This, and Scott Litt’s production makes “Automatic for the People” sound ageless.
It’s the best R.E.M. album of the 1990s. Even Rolling Stone or Pitchfork will agree. Future band compilations and band playlists would focus heavily on the songs here.
“Automatic” was another colossal seller. It shifted another 18 million copies. R.E.M was the inspiration, but also contemporaries of many of alt-rock’s biggest bands, including Nirvana or Pearl Jam. Not bad for a little rock group from Athens, Georgia.