Let’s finally agree that R.E.M. is the Best Band Ever.
The Best ____ Ever is a new Spectrum Culture feature that subjectively argues for the canonical status of an artist, performance or work. Our inaugural entry highlights a humble quartet from Athens, Georgia, one that’s indeed the Best Band Ever.
Back when Rolling Stone still loomed large as the definitive voice of music criticism, it called Michael Jackson’s Thriller the second-best album of 1983. Its top pick was Murmur, the debut by an unknown foursome (Bill Berry, Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Michael Stipe) with an inscrutable name, a scrappy David that felled Jackson’s Goliath. The publication would eventually proclaim R.E.M. “America’s Best Rock and Roll Band” four years and four proper albums later.
In a review of a recent box set, a writer for Pitchfork (today’s closest proxy to Rolling Stone) wrote that R.E.M. “still elude final judgments. Weird but refined, popular yet coy, they confounded the dreary sellout-versus-purity narrative for so long that they seem now to go unnoticed in each context.” According to the review’s gloss, this is “a band whose legacy is largely undecided.” Oh, how the worm has turned. Let’s investigate that disputed legacy and finally agree that R.E.M. is the Best Band Ever.
First, some purely subjective ground rules. The Beatles, Rolling Stones and Beach Boys are thrown out because naming Zeus, Athena or Apollo the Best Greek God Ever is boring and basic. Give me, instead, a Hermes or a Dionysus or – better yet – the exiled sorceress Circe. Influence and popularity come at a premium, but so does longevity. One or two great albums does not a prodigious catalog make. A minimum of five essential records should be the prerequisite. The final variable is the most subjective: cachet, how a band presents itself to the public. By my non-objective calculus, we’re left with Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac, U2, Sonic Youth and Radiohead all vying for the runner-up title. R.E.M. is clearly the winner.
Let’s first talk about why R.E.M.’s “legacy is undecided.” The main problem is, I suspect, a consequence of what makes the band unique: a long lead-up to international fame. The boys didn’t score a top 10 Billboard hit until “The One I Love”, the lead single from 1987’s Document, album number five. But the band’s hugest hits – “Losing My Religion,” “Shiny Happy People,” “Everybody Hurts” – wouldn’t come until the early ‘90s, and as such, didn’t properly represent the bulk of its prior significance. They don’t even sound like most R.E.M. songs.
The second issue is a corollary to the first. New fans started paying attention during a mid-career high point: Out of Time and Automatic for the People. At that moment, the only direction to go was down. By the time Monster was released, listeners were perplexed by its self-conscious, quote-unquote “rock” sensibility. It mattered little that Monster’s follow-up, New Adventures in Hi-Fi, was an outstanding R.E.M. album. A backlash crested and a lovely new single (“E-Bow the Letter”) was washed away, the victim of a post-grunge tidal wave.
Given these fluctuations in notoriety and creative output across the decades, there is a narrative to be traced in R.E.M’s discography. No single greatest-hits collection can properly capture their greatness, so let’s saunter, hand in hand, through an immortal oeuvre.
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Start here: R.E.M.’s pivotal debut Murmur (1983) seems beamed in from another, stranger sonic universe. It lingers as a touchstone of college rock, which became alternative, then indie, and then – what? – the modern equivalent of jazz, I suppose. Contemporary tastes aside, Murmur’s cryptic pop-rock feels timeless (“Talk About the Passion,” “Sitting Still,” “Shaking Through”) and nigh indescribable (“Pilgrimage,” “Catapult,” “Moral Kiosk,” “9-9”). Few albums sustain a mood this specific. Fewer debuts sound so assured and elusive at once.
The band lets loose and bursts open with the thrilling Lifes Rich Pageant (1986), a call-to-arms that turns celebratory. Here’s the first evidence of the arena act and happy political warriors R.E.M. would soon become. Its songs alternate between high-octane anthems (“Begin the Begin,” “I Believe,” “These Days”) and folk-inflected balladry (“Fall On Me,” “Swan Swan H”), sometimes on the same track (“Cuyahoga,” “The Flowers of Guatemala”). Best of all, a sense of playfulness – so evident during early live shows – finally makes an appearance on record with the mambo of “Underneath the Bunker” and a spirited cover of the Clique’s “Superman” (sung by Mills with impossible glee). This, here, is quintessential R.E.M.
The tuneful, melancholy beauty of Automatic for the People (1992) is eternal, an equal to Murmur’s anomalous jangle-rock. And much like R.E.M.’s debut, half the songs represent the apex of the quartet’s songwriting prowess. Death haunts these mid-tempo gems (“Try Not to Breathe,” “Sweetness Follows”), but so do the ghosts of popular culture (“Monty Got a Raw Deal,” “Man on the Moon”). Nostalgia and rebirth reign supreme on the album’s concluding tracks (“Nightswimming” and “Find the River”). Automatic for the People, which once stood as counterprogramming to grunge, became the template for Nirvana’s incredible MTV Unplugged in New York. The torch, once passed, was abruptly extinguished when Kurt Cobain swallowed shotgun fire.
Next steps: R.E.M.’s Chronic Town EP (1982) stands as a bizarre and exciting, if truncated, opening salvo. Side A alone (“Wolves, Lower,” “Gardening at Night” and “Carnival of Sorts (Box Cars)”) heralds future brilliance. Reckoning (1984), as a title, is a reference to the sophomore slump this follow-up isn’t. Though its songs are more lively and inviting (“7 Chinese Bros.,” “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville”) than those on Murmur, Reckoning’s 10 tracks veer into darker territory, such as betrayal and loss (“So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry),” “Camera”).
The three albums that positioned R.E.M. for big-time commercial success – Document (1987), Green (1988), and Out of Time (1991) – also deepened and expanded the band’s sound. Yes, they’re heavy with hits (“Finest Worksong,” “Stand,” “Losing My Religion,” just to name three) but also fan favorites (“Disturbance at the Heron House,” “You Are the Everything,” “Country Feedback”) and genuine twists and turns (“King of Birds,” “Hairshirt,” “Belong”).
R.E.M.’s 10th and final album as a quartet towers proudly beside their earliest works. The remarkable New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996) was mostly recorded on the road during the Monster tour. But you wouldn’t know it by listening to this sprawling collection of straight-up barnburners (“The Wake-Up Bomb,” “So Fast, So Numb”), sighing ballads (“E-Bow the Letter,” “New Test Leper”) and mid-tempo classics (“Bittersweet Me,” “Electrolite”). The woefully underrated New Adventures is R.E.M.’s last indisputable triumph.
Deep cuts: Fables of the Reconstruction (1984) is a murky slice of Southern Gothic storytelling that contains deeply odd exercises (“Feeling Gravitys Pull,” “Kahoutek”) and crucial catalog entries (“Driver 8,” “Life and How to Live It”). Accelerate (2008) and Collapse Into Now (2011) are valedictory albums from a reinvigorated trio that capture the piss and vinegar (“Living Well Is the Best Revenge,” “Supernatural Superserious,” “Discoverer”) and splendor (“Hollow Man,” “Überlin,” “Oh My Heart”) of past glories.
Approach with caution: The majority of Monster (1994) is superb (“What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” “Strange Currencies,” “Tongue,” “I Took Your Name,” “Let Me In,” “Circus Envy”). But incessant, processed guitar histrionics muddy its brilliant melodies. Up (1998) and Reveal (2001) find a three-legged dog (a band minus a drummer, Bill Berry) struggling to stand upright. “Hope,” “Falls to Climb,” “I’ve Been High” and “Imitation of Life” may be late-career pinnacles, but the rest of these songs are often exhausted experiments. The fuel runs dry with Around the Sun (2004), R.E.M.’s anemic, sleepy nadir. “The Outsiders,” “Boy in the Well” and “Leaving New York” roughly approximate former highpoints on a good day, and if you’re feeling generous.
See also: Live at the Olympia (2009) is a career-spanning live extravaganza that celebrates the past and points to upcoming peaks. Dead Letter Office (1987), a joyful and slapdash compendium of rarities and covers, highlights R.E.M. at its most inessentially vital (“Burning Down” and its twin sibling “Ages of You” should’ve been early hits). “R U Talkin’ R.E.M. RE: ME?” is an album by album analysis of the band’s catalog. Adam Scott (“Parks and Recreation”) and Scott Aukerman (“Comedy Bang! Bang!”) come together on an Earwolf podcast to “break down everything and nothing” about R.E.M.
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R.E.M.’s original sprint of 10 albums, the first five on I.R.S. (an indie label) and the latter half on Warner Bros. (a bigger one), remains unparalleled. The band coined an everyday expression (“It’s the end of the world as we know it”), canonized a once-obscure comedian (Andy Kaufman) and provided the ironic soundtrack for sad-sack moments in pop culture (“Everybody Hurts”). Some have argued, convincingly, that Out of Time is “the most politically significant album in U.S. history,” for a non-obvious reason.
R.E.M. inspired Nirvana and Radiohead – the two most important rock acts of the last three decades – with unyielding egalitarianism, an intra-band blueprint for spreading around the riches of songwriting and publishing credits and fierce artistic integrity in the face of massive stardom. In Utero and Kid A exist as no-fucks-given masterpieces thanks to R.E.M.’s mainstream juggernauts (Out of Time and Automatic for the People and, to a lesser extent, Green and Monster). And yet, this band’s superiority boils down to its beguiling, and often magnificent, albums and singles: an exhilarating legacy that’s regularly (and unfairly) downplayed.