REM's announcement last week that they were retiring/breaking up brought forth a lot of snarky "they were still around"/"shoulda broken up years ago" type commentary. Which is fine, maybe even true. Looking back, their days of vital music making ended when Bill Berry left the band, and they'd already begun to fall off even then. Still, this is a band with a real legacy that is well worth looking at.
1.) Murmur: REM began their career with what was basically a folk-rock album that got all sorts of "four stars in Rolling Stone" reviews. Mostly a quiet, hushed atmosphere prevails. Even the rock tracks like "Shaking Through" have a feathery feel.
The Hit: "Radio Free Europe"
Deep Tracks: "Catapult" "Shaking Through"
2.) Reckoning: a rousing rock record with the "jangly" sound we all think of when we think of early REM. This has some of Peter Buck's best riffs. I've probably listened to this more than any other REM album.
The Hits: "So. Central Rain" "Don't Go Back To Rockville"
Deep Tracks: "Seven Chinese Brothers" "Harborcoat" "Pretty Persuasion"
3.) Fables Of The Reconstruction: the last of their jangly college rock records. Begins with the brilliantly odd "Feeling Gravity's Pull" followed by folk-rock songs that are more folk than rock. "Driver 8" was the hit, and provided the basic chord changes for a ton of REM songs.
The Hits: "Driver 8" "Can't Get There From Here"
Deep Tracks: "Feeling Gravity's Pull" "Green Grow The Rushes"
4.) Life's Rich Pageant: a real rock record (recorded by John Cougar's producer) with distorted guitars, rousing anthems, and gorgeous ballads. One of REM's great ones, even the dopey songs about the environment are good. This is the album that really launched them into the mainstream.
The Hits: "Fall On Me" "Superman"
Deep Tracks: "I Believe" "Swan Swan H"
5.) Document: Kind of mediocre, but the hits were definitive REM songs, so everything worked out OK. Had to love how they recorded a Wire song, thus ensuring that the members of one REM's foundation bands could enjoy a comfortable retirement. Side 2 showed that REM was as capable of making forgettable filler as any LA glam metal band.
The Hits: "It's The End Of The World As We Know It" "The One I Love"
Deep Tracks: "Finest Work Song" "Strange"
6.) Green: another "big" rock record. Buck's guitar sound on this album is almost perfect. A lot of old REM fans threw their hands up in disgust when they heard "Stand," and became even more disgusted when it became one of those hit songs you literally couldn't escape from. Some of the songs on here were in heavy rotation on the world's alternative radio stations for years.
The Hits: "Stand" "Orange Crush" "Pop Song 89"
Deep Tracks: "World Leader Pretend"
7.) Out Of Time: A great album hearkening back to the folky Murmur and Fables, only this time REM was a world-famous, wealthy band with limitless time and resources. They use their opportunity well, as this is one of those rare records that is both timeless and very much of its moment. Most days I think "Losing My Religion" is the definitive REM song.
The Hits: "Shiny Happy People" "Losing My Religion"
Deep Tracks: the whole album is one deep track after another, but special mention should go to the impassioned "Half A World Away" and the two songs that Mills sings ("Texarkana" and "Near Wild Heaven")
8.) Automatic For The People: REM recorded a lot of great albums, but this it probably their best, which is remarkable when you realize they'd been making music for over a decade at this point. A grateful nation agreed, making this a mega-seller on par with Back In Black and Joshua Tree. Quite an achievement for what is an atmospheric, moody album dominated by piano and acoustic guitars with string arrangements by John Paul Freakin' Jones.
The Hits: "Drive" "Everybody Hurts" "Man On The Moon"
Deep Tracks: again, every track is a deep track, so I will simply point you to "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight," which is usually one of my favorite songs ever.
9.) Monster: the fall off begins. This isn't a bad album. It's a return to their rocking side and certainly better than, say, Document. But, the guitars were monochromatic, the art work uninspired, and the filler was just filler. I've had trouble developing a "personal" relationship with this album.
The Hits: "What's The Frequency, Kenneth?" "Crush With Eyeliner" "Bang and Blame" "Star 69"
Deep Tracks: I don't know, "King Of Comedy?"
10.) New Adventures In Hi-Fi: ugh. whenever a band announces they are releasing an album made up of tracks they either wrote and recorded during soundchecks, or left off their not-very-good previous album, you know you're not going to be getting Abbey Road. Still, it's shocking how literally unlistenable this is. REM had always excelled at making murky, atmospheric music, but this time the murk was just murk. Incredibly, this got rave reviews, but the People knew better. So, did Bill Berry. He quit the band soon after. You can mark this as the end of REM's creative road, but that didn't mean they didn't stop making music.
The Hits: "E-bow The Letter" "Bittersweet Me"
Deep Tracks: gotta go real deep. "How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us," maybe?
11.) Up: electronica was being hyped up the wazoo at the time, so REM "went electro" using synths and drum machines in place of guitars and drums over most of this album's tracks. Yes, this was the dreaded "we're taking our sound to new places" record. Not as bad as you would think. Actually, it's quite good, but it's the sort of thing that ends up on people's lists of "underrated" and "overlooked" albums. Also, it wasn't really REM, and it pretty much killed their career as platinum-sellers.
The Hits: are you kidding?
Deep Tracks: "Daysleeper" "Lotus" "The Apologist"
12.) Reveal: kind of a return to form, only without memorable songs. This album sounds great with reverb-drenched, jangly guitars and string arrangements. But, there's only a couple of songs that stick with you. Mostly, it's in one ear, out the other. "Imitation Of Life" brings back the "Driver 8" chords for one last go around, and they still work.
The Hits: "Imitation Of Life"
Deep Tracks: "All The Way To Reno"
I know REM put out more albums after Reveal, but for me this was the end. I never bought an REM album after this, so I can't really give those a fair appraisal.