Stipe and Buck met at an Athens record store, where they bonded over a shared love of The Velvet Underground and Television, and soon met Mills and Berry at their university. After choosing their band name at random from a dictionary, the foursome all dropped out of school to focus on the band, quickly finding success in the local scene.
R.E.M. began a tour of the South and then released their first single Radio Free Europe in the summer of 1981. It was met with critical acclaim. Murmur, the band’s debut album was released two years later and received a similarly positive reception, being named record of the year by Rolling Stone.
During their early career, the band received huge support from US college radio, but their fifth album Document (1987) allowed the band to breakthrough into the mainstream, giving them the opportunity to leave I.R.S. records and sign to Warner Bros.
During the 90’s the band took a break from touring for several years, during which time they reached the top of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, returning to the road in 1995. The band’s second deal with Warner Bros is believed to have been the biggest record deal ever signed at the time.
In 1997 Bill Berry decided to leave the band, giving them his blessing to continue without him, and, just a year later, due to decreasing album sales, the band decided to focus their efforts on the UK, the country where they had always enjoyed the most success. The band chugged along during the early 00’s, releasing two albums to decent reception, however, in 2011, the band announced their plans to split.
Along with band’s like Violent Femmes, Hüsker Dü and The Smiths, R.E.M. were instrumental in the creation of the alternative rock genre. R.E.M. albums are best known for their mix of folk and traditional rock influences, with Michael Stipe’s famous mumble-like vocals being at the heart of the band’s sound.
Over their 30 year career, the band released many genre-defining records, and this list of R.E.M. albums will examine ten of the best.
# 10 – Monster
Monster is the band’s ninth studio album and was released in September 1994. Whilst its predecessors, Out of Time and Automatic for the People, were more slow-paced, this album marked a deliberate attempt to be more dynamic and rock-based.
The band managed to successfully update their sound, with the album’s lead single, the brilliantly named What’s the Frequency, Kenneth? introducing this new direction, throbbing with broad and throaty guitar. The album debuted at number one in the US, UK and many other countries. This is rather ironic since much of the album’s lyrical content is a reaction to the band’s immense popularity, touching on themes regarding celebrity and obsessive fandom.
Other notable tracks include the slightly glam-rock Crush With Eyeliner and, Everybody Hurts’ similar sounding younger brother, Strange Currencies. The track Let Me In, full of distorted and grungy guitar, sees a grief-stricken Stipe addressing his departed friend Kurt Cobain (of Nirvana). Stipe clearly wishes he could have done more to help his friend (who he planned to record with) but ultimately understands that it’s unlikely it would have made any difference.
Nirvana were inspired by R.E.M. and, in many ways, Monster sees the band return the favor, with a sound clearly influenced by Cobain and co’s grunge movement. Monster may not be the most memorable of R.E.M. albums but it was certainly a breath of fresh air at the time.
# 9 – Chronic Town
The band’s debut EP, Chronic Town, came about because their manager, Jefferson Holt, believed it was time for the band to record a longer release but that they were not quite ready to record an entire album. The group met up with Mitch Easter who, a fan of Kraftwerk, encouraged the band to be as experimental as possible.
The album begins with Wolves, Lower, a catchy guitar-driven track with a memorable hook. The song features the obscure and obtuse lyrics which the band would become known for, whilst Gardening At Night is an early example of Stipe’s infamous mumbled vocal style. The band’s groundbreaking alternative rock sound is evident throughout the album, and it’s easy to pick up on stylistic choices which have clearly influenced innumerable modern rock artists.
The album sold decently enough for a debut EP, thanks to the support from college radio stations. Critical reaction to the album was good, with the record being praised for being different and complicated without being pretentious.
Chronic Town is one of those R.E.M. albums which feels completely timeless. That the band were able to craft such an accomplished and enjoyable debut EP should have been enough to make people sit up and take notice, but surely few could have imagined that this was the beginnings of a band who would go on to conquer the world.
# 9 – Green
Whenever a band moves from a small label to one of the majors you can be sure that there will be accusations of “selling out”. Predictably, this was the case for Green (1988) which saw the band leave I.R.S. and move to Warner Bros. The group felt that their previous label was inadequate when it came to international distribution so, with Warner Bros also promising total artistic freedom, the move was a no-brainer.
Green was intentionally different to any previous R.E.M. albums, with the band going out of their way to avoid their usual sound. This was done by recording in a major key and playing different instruments to usual, such as the mandolin. The lyrics continued the band’s political themes and was released on the same day as the 1988 presidential election, allowing the band to use their increased visibility to sway voters.
It is believed that the album was originally intended to be half electric and half acoustic, though this did not end up being the case. The tracks are a diverse mix, with songs like Pop Song 89 and Get Up being joyful and poppy, in contrast to the harsher and heavier sounds of Orange Crush and I Remember California.
Ultimately, Green was a well-received album, becoming a favorite of Kurt Cobain and being included on many British “best albums of all time” lists.
# 7 – Lifes Rich Pageant
The title of the band’s fourth album, besides being a well-known phrase, was taken from the 1965 movie A Shot in the Dark. The band removed the apostrophe from the title because of the humorous belief that a good rock album has never had an apostrophe in its title.
Lifes Rich Pageant is the only R.E.M. album produced by Don Gehman, who had previously worked with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, as well as Blood, Sweat & Tears. Gehman took the band’s sound into more accessible territory, taking influence from pop-rock. This move towards the mainstream proved very successful for the band, with the album becoming their most commercially successful to date and peaking at number 21 on the Billboard 200.
Tracks like Begin the Begin and These Days are standard pop-rock fair, but the album is not without the kind of avant-garde elements typical of R.E.M. albums. Underneath the Bunker is a short latin-infused number with distorted loud-speaker-like vocals, whilst Swan Swan H features the type of exquisite whine which Stipe is so good at.
The album features numerous references to environmental issues, most notably on Cuyahoga and Fall On Me (one of Stipe’s favorite tracks) and also in more esoteric ways. For instance, Superman, a cover of the Cliques song, begins with a sample from a Godzilla movie, which often revolve around environmental themes.
Lifes Rich Pageant is a pleasure to listen to, bursting with interesting and important ideas, as well as memorable and powerful tunes.
# 6 – New Adventures in Hi-Fi
For New Adventures in Hi-Fi, the band’s tenth album, they were inspired by Radiohead’s creative process and recorded parts of the album whilst on tour. This would be the last album to feature Bill Berry, who departed from the band a year later.
Sonically the record is a mix of all the albums which came before, featuring the heavier sound of Lifes Rich Pageant and Monster, and the acoustic-folk of Automatic for the People. Despite having been recorded on the road, this is a very polished album with every element sounding slick. This is particularly noticeable on the sweet keyboard of The Wake-Up Bomb and the moody bass of Low Desert.
Given that the album was primarily recorded on tour, it’s interesting that the album features many songs about movement. Leave and Departure are the most obvious examples of this, whilst Low Desert and E-Bow The Letter contain many lyrical references to travel.
Michael Stipe has listed the record as his favorite of any R.E.M. albums, perhaps because it marked the last time the band’s original lineup all recorded together. Critical reception to the album was good, with the record appearing on many “best of” end of year lists. New Adventures in Wi-Fi sees the band attempt to bridge the gap between the contrasting musical styles of their past, and the record is all the richer for it.
# 5 – Reckoning
Unbelievably, Reckoning, the band’s second album, was released over 30 years ago, in 1984. Whilst Murmur was an appropriate title, given the vocals of their debut, this sophomore effort sees Stipe venture slightly out of his shell. He sounds self-assured, confident and bursting with energy on songs like (Don’t Go Back To) Rockville and Second Guessing, whilst Camera sees him tell a deeply personal story about an ex-girlfriend who tragically died in a car accident.
After Murmur became a sleeper hit, the band were anxious to record it’s successor, writing many new songs in a short amount of time. Though this was partly down to the band’s burning creativity, they also wanted to finish the album before meddling record company representatives could get involved. I.R.S. wanted the band to be as commercial as possible. whilst R.E.M. just wanted to properly express themselves. As such, the album was recorded in a semi-secret fashion.
Much of the music on Reckoning sounds multi-layered, as if the listener is hearing a live show. This is thanks to the album’s producers, Dom Dixon and Mitch Easter, who sought to capture an immediacy of sound, with Dixon making use of binaural recording techniques to create a three-dimensional effect. You can really feel every kick drum and guitar strum on this album, making listening to tracks like 7 Chinese Bros at full volume an almost religious experience.
Reckoning is one of those R.E.M. albums which, despite its age, never seems to get old.
# 4 – Document
The band’s fifth album carried on the movement towards the mainstream which was started by Lifes Rich Pageant. With the band’s previous singles either having scraped into the far end of the top 100 or failed to chart at all, it was quite a surprise when The One I Love, the lead single from Document, managed to peak at number nine.
The album is also notable for Stipe’s increasingly political content, discussing free speech, political witch hunts and the corruption of power. Welcome to the Occupation is a powerful assessment of America’s activities in Central America whilst Exhuming McCarthy seeks parallels between the America of the 50’s and that of the late 80’s. In many ways Document is the most lyrically relevant of R.E.M. albums, with its themes and ideas being painfully current.
Musically, the album features some tightly produced alternative rock classics, with the opening track (and third single) Finest Work Song being particularly brilliant. All members of the band brought their A-game to this record. Bill Berry shines with the military drumrolls on King of Birds, whilst Oddfellows Local 151 features some of Peter Buck and Mike Mill’s best work.
Document marked the start of R.E.M.’s mainstream career, something which is quite surprising for an album which is openly political. This is no doubt down to the weighty and slick rock sound which made the band just slightly more palatable for the masses. An album like this certainly deserves as big an audience as possible.
# 3 – Out of Time
If Document marks the band’s first tentative step into the mainstream then Out of Time represents them striding to center stage. Losing My Religion was released a month before the album, and the iconic, mandolin-heavy track increased public interest in the band even more. This resulted in the album becoming the first R.E.M. record to reach number one in both the US and the UK, two countries where it stayed in the charts for over one hundred weeks.
Out of Time is notable for its emphasis on a country-rock sound, with tracks like Texarkana and Me in Honey bubbling with bright and lively guitars. The album also features Shiny Happy People, a jangle-rock classic which, despite its popularity, is often disliked by hardcore R.E.M. fans, with even the band being somewhat disdainful of it.
The packaging of the album is worthy of discussion as well, as it featured a petition for fans to sign in support of making it easier to register to vote. Warner Bros executive Jeff Gold was particularly passionate about this, hoping young voters would help put a stop to a music censorship bill. Stipe was happy to join the campaign and, when the bill was eventually passed, he and the band were credited for their efforts.
The band’s small part in changing the law is a great example of how R.E.M. were at the height of their power and popularity during Out of Time. It may be an exaggeration to describe it as the most politically significant album in American history, but it definitely features some great tracks.
# 2 – Automatic for the People
The band’s eighth album, released in 1992, features some of R.E.M.’s best-known songs which, despite their ubiquity, still sound extremely fresh and interesting. Everybody Hurts, a tender and low-key alternative rock track and surely the band’s most famous song, is a vital reminder of the importance of hope. Meanwhile, Man on the Moon is a catchy tribute to comedian Andy Kaufman, full of nods and winks to his career and various conspiracy theories.
Originally, the band planned to create a guitar-heavy rock album, but Automatic for the People ended up being much more than this, with Sweetness Follows being an edgy, baroque-tinged song, full of brilliantly discordant guitar whines. Similarly, Nightswimming and a few other tracks contain string arrangements by Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones. Much of the album leans towards lower-tempo ballads, which are perfectly suited to the album’s thoughtful lyrics and Michael Stipe’s distinctively intimate vocal stylings.
The album name comes from the motto of a restaurant from the band’s hometown, showing that, even at this stage in their career, the band were proud of their roots. The record was well-received by critics and fans alike, proving that it is possible for a band to gain mainstream attention without losing their edge.
# 1 – Murmur
This is where it all began. Not just for the band but for an entire genre of music which is still hugely relevant today. From start to finish, the band’s debut album is an absolute masterpiece, and there are no other R.E.M. albums which could possibly top this list.
From the oddly bouncing, synthesizer-like chords of the first few seconds of Radio Free Europe to the sustained keyboard notes at the end of its mesmerizing final track, there’s not a single stylistic choice which could improve Murmur. Every guitar riff chimes with brightness, whilst the bass is punchy and impossible not to get caught up in. Each note somehow sounds just as life-changing today as it did back in 1983.
Despite the band’s cult popularity, they were little known to most of America. This makes it all the more astounding that Murmur was met with such a great critical reception, truly showing that R.E.M.’s music was genuinely revolutionary. Rolling Stone was particularly enamored with the album, naming it their album of the year over Michael Jackson’s iconic Thriller.
Murmur is a brilliant album, simultaneously high energy yet shoe-gapingly thoughtful. Every corner hides secret and weird meanings to unwrap and discuss. The band built on what made Chronic Town so good, forging a glossy and jagged debut album which set the blueprint for alternative rock.
Over their impressive 30 year career, the band created some timeless records which still resonate today. All of the R.E.M. albums on this list are the best of the best, coming from a band which never really produced a single dud. Although they split up in 2011, their body of work, along with the way they inspired bands like Nirvana, Radiohead and Coldplay mean that the legacy of R.E.M. will live on and on.
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