Out of respect for the post-Bill Berry content, we won’t need to damn the last five efforts with faint praise. Instead, I’ll settle on the Top 10, which happen to be the ten albums made before 1998.
From any other band, this would be pretty close to a total winner. From R.E.M., it’s merely a good, at times very good album. “World Leader Pretend” is one of the great R.E.M. songs.
This seemed like the immediate and universal candidate as R.E.M.’s masterpiece. I thought it was the result of hype and (typical) critical consensus, e.g. groupthink. I felt that way then, and I feel even more strongly, now. It’s a very good album with some amazing tracks, but there are some serious stinkers on here (including the ubiquitous, and unbearable “Everybody Hurts”). Not hating, just saying for my money, R.E.M. did much better than this.
Man, I loved this one when it came out. I still love it in bits and pieces, but of all R.E.M.’s albums, this one has aged the most poorly in my opinion. I dug “Radio Song” (with the KRS One cameo) but it sounds pretty damn dated now (which is fine; no harm in that, it just means some of these songs don’t get the frequent replays that some of the albums on this list merit and the ceaseless replays some of the others get). “Losing My Religion” is a fantastic song that just got played too much; can’t fault the band for that. The less said about “Shiny Happy People” the better. But boy are there some stunners on this set: “Low”, kind of like R.E.M. saying “yeah, you want to make Velvet Underground comparisons? Well this is what Lou Reed would sound like if he could actually sing!”; “Country Feedback” which is just quietly devastating (and showcases why Peter Buck is so amazing: nothing flashy, nothing that will get this song featured on Guitar Hero, just a brilliant composer who can paint with color and kill you with the feeling he can conjure); the rest is a hit/miss affair that can/will always bring me back to senior year of college (fall semester) and that’s far from a bad place to be.
Another one that did not –and does not– get a lot of love. But I’ve noticed that while the critical fawning for Automatic has rightly waned, this one seems to be growing. Actually, and I never really thought about this until just now, but perhaps because it signals the last time R.E.M. was really R.E.M., it has taken on a sort of final statement quality. In any event, some seriously awesome tunes on this sucker.
Coincidentally, I just wrote at length about this album, defending it here.
Here is the crux of my argument:
Monster was not a lackluster album in 1994 and time has only amplified its strengths and its unique place in R.E.M.’s catalog. Perhaps it’s ultimately, as always, a matter of taste, but while I did—and do—dearly love Automatic, I think the praise it receives is as excessive as the hits Monster takes. On some of the softer, slower songs the band—especially the singer—lapse into preciousness and an earnestness that seems shoehorned in for maximum effect (“Everybody Hurts”, I’m talking to you). Early R.E.M. was irresistible in part because it was so inscrutable: Stipe’s indecipherable lyrics and moon pie-mouthed vocals, along with Buck’s ever-jangling guitar, gave the band a distinctive, inimitable sound. Eventually the drums were worked more prominently into the mix, almost but not quite over-compensating on albums like Life’s Rich Pageant and Document. The production was crystalline on Green and Automatic, while Monster, by comparison, could be considered a step backward. Except for the fact that the heft and fury is so obviously intentional: Peter Buck should always be celebrated for being the anti guitar hero, content to “merely” establish—and embellish—the songs with his multi-faceted but always understated approach. On Monster he strides brazenly to the forefront and the results are magnificent; he even allows himself the luxury of a few solos! His guitar sound is not only dominant, it is often delightfully distorted and laden with feedback. It is entirely understandable why this less kind, less gentle R.E.M. was not for everyone, but that has little bearing on why this album is incredibly satisfying on its own terms.
The least great of the first five, which means it’s still great and, again, compared to most bands, this would be career-defining work. A bit muddled in places, maybe even a tad uninspired in others (probably due more to exhaustion than effort). Yet some of the band’s best work is found within: does it get better than “Driver 8”? Everyone knows it; everyone has heard it a million times. But holy shit it still feels fresh and totally unique; they are simultaneously creating and perfecting an original sound and while this song practically screams “the south” it is also all-world:
You can almost pinpoint the moment they were poised for greatness: “Auctioneer (Another Engine)” seems to sum up everything great they’d done to this point; the frenzied concentration, like they are trying to fit a longer song with extra lyrics into under three minutes (in a good way of course) and honing in on that totally fresh and original sound. You can hear the fully formed breakthrough records steaming down the tracks, and yet it could be argued that the band never sounded this great again:
This is where it gets tricky. I look at an album like Reckoning and think: only at number four? It almost seems insulting but it had to go somewhere and it ain’t better than the next three. This, to me –and I’m certain I’m not alone– is perhaps the R.E.M. album that would be much more popular and beloved (if that’s possible) had the band split after making it. We would be asking: listen to that confidence, the growth just since the first album; they could have owned the next decade. Fortunately, the band did not split and they did own the next decade.
Here is some priceless video of the band on Letterman:
With the possible exception of people who think Reckoning should be ranked higher, I can’t think of many R.E.M. aficionados that would quibble with these final three choices. Actually, I can imagine that some folks would want to swap Reckoning and Document. I understand, but I don’t agree. Document has the one song that I simply can’t stomach anymore (even more so than “Losing My Religion”), “It’s The End of The World As We Know It…”, but I did used to like it, so I can’t hold it against the song that I got sick of it. Although, as mentioned earlier, the mark of a truly transcendent song is one you never tire of, and along with “Driver 8” there are least a dozen R.E.M. songs I could play until the day I die without complaint: several of them, in fact, are on Document.
Let’s name names: “Finest Worksong” is not only a slice of perfection, it’s the full flowering of the new and improved (improving?) R.E.M. aesthetic; the huge drums continuing from the previous album, the clearer and more confident vocals, Mike Mills elevating his impeccable harmonizing into an almost back-up role and, of course, Buck who eschews solos in favor of a true technician’s approach –power chords and sluicing slide hooks and an undeniable power…this is the sound of the best underground band in the world breaking through the floor and beginning to lay claim to the entire world.
“Welcome To The Occupation”: like “Auctioneer (Another Engine)” this packs a tremendous amount of excitement, emotion and erudition into under-three minutes. This is music as smart bomb figuratively and, well, literally. Some of Stipe’s finest vocals ever. Aside from “Driver 8” perhaps the song I’ve listened to the most times and I’ll never, ever get tired of it. In fact, I still find new ways to marvel at how engaging and mind-boggling it all is (Listen to me…Listen to me…Listen to me!…Listen to me…Listen to me…Listen to me…Listen to me!)
“Exhuming McCarthy”: great message then, now. Nice early use of non-rap sampling with the famous Joseph Welch bitch-slap (“Have you no sense of decency sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”). This has the edge of the earlier work but is employing new layers and angles: a band hitting on all cylinders.
“Disturbance at the Heron House” recalls their earliest work but again with new heft and clarity. Sick hook, crystal-clear vocals and Berry never sounded better.
There are two songs that keep this from being a near-perfect album: “Strange” (facile lyrics) and “Lightnin’ Hopkins” which seems ideally suited to be a live-only song that never made it to record. Neither song is terrible, but neither come close to matching the highs reached before and after them.
Then there is the commercial one-two punch: “The One I Love” helped put R.E.M. over and has historical import for that reason alone. It still manages to not irritate no matter how many millions of times it gets played. Talk about the passion: no one in the band is faking it and it’s that honesty and unaffected feeling that keeps this radio-friendly anthem fresh. Courteous golf claps all around for “It’s the End…” but I can’t listen to or talk about that one anymore.
“Fireplace” would possibly be my pick as the ulitmate unheralded R.E.M. song: I sedom if ever hear anyone name-check it, yet it still sounds effulgent almost a quarter-century later. There is also a sense of adventure, adding some scorching sax work from Steve Berlin (from Los Lobos): an inspired choice that takes the song to a whole other level.
“King of Birds” and “Oddfellows Local 151” combine to create one of the band’s best one-two punches, particularly as album closers. The former invokes the southern march stylings that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Pageant, but with the addition of a dulcimer (another inspired choice) it sounds both psychedelic and postmodern. The latter is just a tour de force from everyone involved and, in hindsight, is almost like a last gasp of innocence. After 1987 the band would never be underground again, and they would (could?) never make music that sounded like this again. To their credit they grew, experimented and refused to rest on any laurels (even when they were the unanimous choice as best and most important band in the world). On the other hand, there is a reason the hardest core of fans have an unshakable nostalgia for the IRS years.
How could this not be the top choice? Well, it may be a cop-out, but I’ve always described Murmur as at once better (or at least more important) than the sum of its parts, but also too historically significant –for the band, for rock music– to cheapen by ranking. It is, in its way, like Love’s Forever Changes (more on that album, and band here), it remains an album everyone knows but not everyone owns. Or everyone loves but not everyone likes. Or, to avoid any unintentional cuteness, ask yourself how many fellow R.E.M. fans could name every song on the album, in order. How many casual fans? How about yourself?
Nobody needs to read another historical analysis citing the far-reaching influence (it is not debatable), and little more is left to be said about the inimitable world the band created here. Again, like Forever Changes it’s not necessarily the individual sounds so much as the place that gets conjured up; by the album, by yourself as you listen to it. Even though this is their opening salvo, it somehow seems less “southern” then their next two albums, and it does (no, really) have that timeless vibe. A word every writer, including this one, leans on too often, if any album of the last thirty years can be called “timeless” in the sense that it seems to have just arrived and remains impossible to adequately describe or even celebrate. It doesn’t sound like it could be made today, or in the ’60s (I don’t think that is what people mean when they say a particular work is “timeless”); rather, it makes itself –by virtue of its sheer quality and inscrutability– impervious to fads and critical trends. It just is and few albums of any era have ever just been the way Murmur manages to do.
At the end of the day, I still listen to a song like “Perfect Circle” and just shake my head, awestruck and grateful. How did something like this happen? Where did this come from? How is this possible?
Here’s the thing: if it wasn’t for Murmur there would be little disagreement about what album best represents everything so great about R.E.M.
To be sure, there are songs you can isolate and put on a mix (or hits collection) but the full power of this one –like any masterful album– should be experienced from start to finish. The cumulative effect of these 12 songs represents a high water mark of the ’80s and while it is not out of time (pun intended) in the way(s) Murmur manages to be, that’s okay. For starters, Murmur is among the handful of sui generis statements from a rock band, and in some regards, the fact that Pageant at times screams 1986 is a very good thing. When we remember how much awful music was made in that decade it becomes refreshing almost to the point of hero worship status that there is nary a snythizer to be found. And just because a song like “Fall on Me” became anthemic doesn’t mean it was (necessarily) written with an eye on radio play. This work caught on because it was too powerful and significant to be ignored. The band had not hit pay dirt yet, but they had, without question, arrived.
After the so-called jangle-guitar (an oft-invoked but facile charge) era, there is no question that R.E.M. was evolving with each album. Arguably, this was the first quantum leap, stylistically and sonically. The urgent, almost menacing tone of Buck’s guitar dispenses with all pleasantries: this joint is rocking from jump street. And then there is the moment that Berry’s drums crash in: the ethereal, occassionally unintelligible quirkiness of the earlier work has been supplanted in favor of a crystalline sound and booming back end. This is a direct, and very confident, call to arms.
Even ostensible throw-aways like “Underneath the Bunker” (less-is-more showcasing for Buck, as always) and the cover of “Superman” (Mills on lead vocals!) help transition and end the onward, irresistible rush of this album. There are mini anthems like “These Days” and “I Believe”, which illustrate how much Stipe is growing as a singer; the earlier mumblings were delightful (even addictive) in their way, but one senses he means –and believes– what he is saying now. Indeed, the social consciousness is in full effect, as evidenced by two stunning tracks. The first, “Cuyahoga” is equal parts history lesson, lament and rallying cry. The second, which is on the short list of songs that have been played into the ground, is “Fall On Me”. Even after so much exposure little can take away from or tarnish the sublime harmonies (some of Mills’ finest work) and the poetic indictment of a careless (or worse, uncaring) society: it is an incrimination that manages to sound vulnerable and very human.
Then there are the two tracks that tend to defy description. First, the almost painfully raw yet gorgeous “Flowers of Guatemala”: this is, in many ways, the apotheosis of everything R.E.M. had achieved, and represents an apex of the aesthetic they were steadily working toward. Where later songs of this sort tended toward preciousness or self-conscious sermonizing, the band, perhaps because of where (and who) they were at this time, are able to balance earnestness and elegance. Peter Buck’s solo is a case study of how a musician’s musician makes magic happen without pyrotechnics or power chords.
Finally, “Swan Swan H”, an archetypal R.E.M. moment that conjures up the Deep South from another century, specifically the Civil War era (Johnny Reb). It is straightforward yet surreal; disorienting yet deliriously familiar, like a smell or sound prompting a memory you can’t quite place. The vocals here could not be more opposite from the approach on Murmur and while it’s still not entirely clear (nor should it necessarily be) exactly who and what Stipe is describing, there is little doubt he’s articulating the thoughts and feelings (and fates) of the soldiers and civilians who did not get mentioned in the history books. It’s an unequivocal embrace of the underdog, a position R.E.M. would make a career out of in part because they understood what it means to be an outsider. It remains a bit ironic, yet oddly perfect, that this sensibility was fully explored on an album that saw the underground’s favorite band forever leave the alternative scene.