Some bands make very good careers out of repeating the same album over and over again. R.E.M. made a similarly good career out of never making the same album twice. Over 15 albums, they touched on everything from post-punk to jangly pop, low-fi to glam rock. It’s something that always made them incredibly exciting to listen to, but which makes ranking their albums something of a challenge. One fan’s favorite is another’s worst nightmare, and vice versa. Still, if everyone’s allowed an opinion, we’re exercising ours as we rank all 15 R.E.M. albums.
15. Around The Sun
Getting things off to a less than stellar start is Around the Sun. It’s not a complete disaster, and certainly not as bad as some people have made it out to be. It’s not good though, with the band showing very little emotional connection to either the songs or the audience and seeming to have almost nothing to say about anything. There’s a few moments of relief, but not enough to save it.
By the time they came to record 1998’s Up, R.E.M. were clearly still reeling from losing their original drummer Bill Berry, who’d left the group the previous year. Its main problem is its length: with a running time of over an hour, it’s simply too long. If they’d had enough decent songs to fill the time with, it wouldn’t be such an issue. The problem is, they didn’t. Daysleeper and Falls to Climb are both lovely, but the rest are at best average and at worst completely forgettable.
The first single released from Reveal gave us hope. Imitation Of Life is a gorgeous piece of jangly pop reminiscent of R.E.M. at their best. The opening track, The Lifting, looked equally promising. After that, it all starts to get a little murky. It’s simply too fussy and too lacking in emotional depth to work. It’s not horrible, just instantly and completely forgettable.
12. Collapse Into Now
The band’s final studio effort is Collapse Into Now. Released in 2011, it was sufficiently energetic to be a good, if not great, swansong. It might not be up there with their best work, but it’s got life, which is a lot more than can be said of some of its predecessors.
After the disappointment of Reveal, R.E.M. came back with renewed vigor for its follow-up, 2008’s Accelerate. For the first time in years, R.E.M. sounded like, well, R.E.M. Not necessarily R.E.M. at the peak of their powers, but R.E.M. nonetheless. Lean and purposeful, it was, as Q Magazine said, “the sound of a band having enjoyed a good word with themselves—and us.”
Monster is a strange album with a strange reputation. It went triple-Platinum in the UK and quadruple Platinum in America but is widely considered a commercial flop. It’s been called grunge, whereas, in reality, its heart lies in glam rock. It’s been called one of the band’s biggest disasters, but it’s littered with stone-cold classics like What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?, Strange Currencies, and Let Me In. A conundrum, then, but certainly not a bad album.
9. New Adventures In Hi-Fi
New Adventures In Hi-Fi, R.E.M.’s 10th album, isn’t one of the band’s best-known efforts, nor their most loved. But it’s not without its charms, with some gorgeously elegant songs like E-Bow The Letter, a couple of trip-hop experiments, and even a couple of fist-pumping rock numbers. An underrated, underappreciated album that deserves a lot more love than it gets.
8. Fables Of The Reconstruction
Fables Of The Reconstruction has some great things going for it. The songcraft is extraordinary, the band is on form, and it’s certainly not short on first-rate songs (Can’t Get There From Here, Life And How To Live It and Green Grow The Rushes and Driver 8 are superb). The problem is the production, which is simply too weak to match what the band is trying to do. Even so, it’s still essential listening.
The first album to be released after R.E.M. signed a $10 million move to Warners was Green. If Warners were hoping for an overtly commercial album, they didn’t get one. There are a few nods to the mainstream, but it’s got too much naked passion and eclecticism to be a major chart botherer. It’s still a very worthwhile listen though, even if the inconsistencies do get a bit tiring after a while.
6. Lifes Rich Pageant
According to Rolling Stone, the title of Lifes Rich Pageant is taken from a remark made by Peter Sellers’ character Inspector Clouseau, which suggests that even the most absurd setbacks are part of “life’s rich pageant.” If R.E.M. used it as a means of suggesting the album was either absurd or a setback, they were on the wrong track. Although it presents a very different R.E.M. to usual, that’s by no means regrettable. Key to its success is producer Don Gehman, whose decision to bring Michael Stipe’s vocals to the forefront and create a more layered, dynamic guitar sound was inspired.
5. Out Of Time
Fans from R.E.M’s early days didn’t much care for their best-kept secret in rock suddenly being revealed to the entire world. As a result, 1991’s Out Of Time took a lot of flack, very little of which is deserved. It’s not necessarily the evenest record in the world, but regardless of what you think of Shiny Happy People, tracks like Losing My Religion, Near Wild Heaven, and Country Feedback are as good as anything the band had ever done before, and anything they’d do after.
As Louder Sound says, if Murmur lived up to its name, then its follow up, Reckoning, turned up the volume. Michael Stipe is still mumbling about bad things that have happened to other people, but the overall dynamic is more upbeat and energetic than anything we’d heard from them before. The band still sound a little unsure of themselves at times, but when an album is this much fun, it’s hard to care.
On 1987’s Document, R.E.M. started making concessions. Stipe agreed to stop mumbling and the band agreed to let producer Scott Litt rein in some of their weirder habits. The quirks are still there, but they don’t ride roughshod over everything else. Early R.E.M. rarely gets better than this.
As NME notes, it’s easy to overlook just how exceptional Murmur seemed when it was released in 1983. Its opening track, Radio Free Europe, is dazzling, with a radiant chorus, cryptic lyrics, gorgeous basslines, and Peter Buck’s jingly-jangly guitar. The rest of the album is just as astonishing. As debuts go, it’s up there with the best.
1. Automatic For The People
It’s the obvious choice for sure, but sometimes, there’s no harm in being obvious. Automatic For The People took what R.E.M. had done on the previous year’s Out of Time, got rid of the bits that didn’t work, amplified the bits that did, and in the process, created an almost faultless album. If any band wants to learn how to become one of the biggest acts in the world without losing their soul in the process, this is the album they should be listening to.