Read my reviews of albums by R.E.M.
1982: “Chronic Town” (9/10)
I cannot be objective about this EP.
R.E.M. was the first contemporary band I ever got into after spending my childhood listening to oldies; the first band that was still recording in my lifetime. (That’s not entirely true: I listened to The Nylons and Weird Al, so you could say the first “serious” band.)
I first heard this, like many fans who came to the band during their ’90s heyday, on Dead Letter Office. It quickly became my favourite early REM album.
I cannot divorce that experience of my youth from an attempt to review it now. It’s too important to my own personal musical journey for me to ever be critical of it. But in attempting to do that, I still think all five songs are classic early R.E.M. songs and, moreover, it is literally the epitome of the “punk Byrds” sound that R.E.M. introduced to the world. Really, you don’t need to listen to another R.E.M. album between this and Document if you’re wondering what the deal is. (I would encourage you to listen to those albums, but if you’re not a fan of the band and wonder why people were, just listen to this and think “1982.”)
I’m not sure it’s the birth of American alternative rock – there are too many other bands who participated in that (The Dream Syndicate and Mission of Burma, to name two) but it’s still a pretty important record.
In addition to being important, it’s great.
1983: Murmur (9/10)
I used to have this bizarre idea about Murmur, one I thought about pretty much only when I wasn’t listening to it; I decided that the songs here sounded as if they came from the “ether,” as if they had always existed.
Then, when I’d listen to the record, I’d realize I was completely utterly wrong – if this record could have come at a different time than the early ’80s in the US, I don’t know what time that is – but I would pretend it wasn’t true for some reason.
Many years later, I’m not sure Murmur is even my favourite ’80s R.E.M. record but it was first. And though R.E.M .didn’t invent this sound, they sure perfected it, and created their own unique spin that made it perhaps more lasting than it would have been otherwise. And this is the record that started that – that started the jangle pop fad, that started the “college rock” fad, that gave another path to alternative rock, which didn’t involve distortion.
1984: Reckoning (9/10)
This was the first ’80s REM record I think I ever heard, certainly it was the first of their records I heard from when before Stipe learned to sing. I might have heard Dead Letter Office before it, so I technically heard “Chronic Town” first, but in terms of LPs, it was this one. So this one is the one I like the most.
I’ve heard it so many times, it’s really, really hard to be objective about it. But I think it’s a little more self-assured and a little more diverse than Murmur. It’s also less mysterious, but that’s the trade off you get when you get better (and make a better sounding record).
I could basically listen to every record of theirs from “Chronic Town” to Document over and over and over again, so I’m not sure I have anything to say that could convince anyone who doesn’t think much of R.E.M. to check this one out, but it’s probably their most accessible of their early records, while still containing everything about the band that made them special.
I love it. I cannot be objective.
1985: Fables of the Reconstruction of the Fables of the Reconstruction of the Fables of the… (8/10)
R.E.M. was the first contemporary band I was ever persuaded to listen to. I can’t remember when I bought this, but it’s been about two decades or so. I don’t know if I can be objective.
This is, in many ways, a transitional album, from their sort of “punk Byrds” Americana mysticism to their later, more polished sound. It’s the first album where more of Stipe’s lyrics are intelligible than not – and, apparently, the first one in which he was actually trying to make lyrical sense, which is a bit of revisionist history, but anyway. And it marks their first use of session musicians (I think). They worked with Joe Boyd, he of the British folk rock revolution of the late ’60s and early ’70s. (I learned something new recently: Joe Boyd is American!) It’s also the only album they recorded outside of the US, even though it is very much about the US. As someone else on R.Y.M. noted, there is a definite attempt at creating something akin to the college rock version of Faulkner.
I like pretty much all the songs, but that’s because I’ve known them for 20 years. But regardless of whether or not I can be objective, the idea that this is their worst album – or worst album prior to Berry’s departure – strikes me as kind of insane. I’d much rather listen to something like this that, for all its more professional sound, still retains something of their indecipherability than a couple of their polished later missteps. This still sounds like the band that somehow managed to bridge punk with traditional American music in a way that (at least to my ears) no other band could do. (The rest of them all sound like they are of their time – early R.E.M. sometimes strikes me as out of it.) And this is probably the last time they ever sounded like that.
1986: Lifes Rich Pageant (8/10)
I have a hard time judging this after so many years, after listening to it way too many times. Alas.
It feels, in some ways, like the first latter R.E.M. record – there’s distortion where there wasn’t before, it’s often more alternative rock than jangle pop, you can understand what Stipe is saying, and the whole thing sounds more like Document than it sounds like Murmur.
I like most of the songs and so I have a really hard time trying to be objective and look at it as something less than good. It’s just too damn familiar to me at this point.
1987: Document (9/10)
I was a massive R.E.M. fan as a teen and it is hard, even all these years later, to properly assess their records. As a teen and even as a young adult, this was one of multiple masterpieces (well, at least three) that the band had released. I certainly do not believe that any more, but I am still inclined to like this music more than someone who didn’t grow up with it.
It’s worth noting that this is a rather big record for R.E.M.: not only was it their first real hit it also features the clearest singing from Stipe to date, finally his lyrics can be completely understood. And if Stipe ever seemed like he wasn’t the person to write about politics and society in the past (if we thought we could understand him) that is clearly not the case now (nor was it on Lifes Rich Pageant but these are more forceful). Stipe’s lyrics are fierce and angry and passionate. It’s hard for me to think of an album from the ’80s this angry that wasn’t made by a hardcore or thrash band.
And R.E.M. backs Stipe with the loudest, most aggressive and most difficult music of its career to date. (They wouldn’t get this difficult again until Monster.) This record manages to be both R.E.M.’s least accessible record musically to date and their most popular. It’s a rare feat.
Is it a masterpiece? I’m not so sure about that any more. But the songs are strong, despite some of those difficult riffs and melodies, and the lyrics are among Stipe’s very best.
If there is one essential R.E.M. album from 1980s, this is probably it, even if it sounds nothing like their earliest albums.
1988: Green (5/10)
When I first got into R.E.M., my friends who got me into REM told me Green was the worst album. And so I didn’t listen to it for over 20 years. (Makes sense, right?) I do know a few songs from a mixtape a friend made me, but that’s less than half of the tracks.
I think you could say this is the second R.E.M. album where Stipe was singing “properly” (to hear him tell it) and that was both a good thing and a bad thing, since a lot of the appeal of their early albums is the mystery from the (nearly) indecipherable lyrics. That being said, it’s not like I dislike Stipe as a lyricist, he just seemed more profound when I couldn’t hear everything he said.
So Green finds them in a weird place. On the hone hand, some of the tracks feel like an attempt at following up the success of Document, only with a slightly more accessible sound – the lyrics are less obviously political and most of the songs have less of a deliberate difficulty to them (though “Get Up” has its arty moment). But on the other hand, a number of the songs see them embracing a kind of folk pop – that, we know now, would be more fully expressed on their next two albums – which they haven’t quite mastered here.
And it’s this odd fit that makes me agreement with the assessment of my tweenage friends 20+ years ago. I think Green is probably the weakest REM album between “Chronic Town” and when Berry left.
1991: Out of Time (6/10)
REM’s biggest hit to date (biggest hit ever) is one of their most flawed records (at least pre-Berry’s departure).
- It’s got weird, failed experiments, such as their weird Hip Hop crossover with KRS-1.
- It’s got the most annoying song they ever recorded, which somehow became a hit (“Shiny Happy People”).
- It’s got two Mike Mills-led songs that wouldn’t be recognizable as R.E.M. were it not for that unmistakable jangle.
- It’s got Stipe-sung songs that don’t sound like R.E.M. (“Belong”).
- And it’s got a bunch of delicate baroque pop that shows that they could really do a whole different spin on their jangle thing.
- Finally, it contains one of my favourite R.E.M. songs of all time, “Country Feedback.”
In short, it’s a mess.
Despite being a mess, it’s still an improvement on Green, their weakest album prior to Berry’s departure. And the parts that work, well they work quite well.
But it’s a shame that the introduction that so many people get to this band is through this record. Because it’s not representative.
1992: Automatic for the People (9/10)
I said this, perhaps as recently as 2015 or 2016:
R.E.M. take their baroque pop rock first explored on Green and Out of Time to its logical conclusion and the result is their best album since Document, perhaps their best ever. (Certainly it’s their most consistent.) And this time there’s nothing else competing with the style.
For R.E.M.’s most famous album, it’s odd that it sounds pretty much nothing like their earlier records. (That’s a good thing, I think.) It’s pretty much unrecognizable from their jangle pop of the ’80s. And it’s immaculately produced too, which feels foreign, even though they’d gone down that road years earlier.
I have had a copy of this album for longer than most, so I have trouble seeing it in any kind of objective light. But I think it’s their strongest set of songs with a distinct set of arrangements that are unlike most of what they made before.
This may have been the first contemporary album I ever bought. It was this, Monster or Eric Clapton Unplugged. My relationship to it is such that it has been a “classic” record for me for as long as I have been thinking about music.
But 20-something years on, I think I might have overrated it just a tad. It’s not entirely consistent in tone (case in point “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight”) and I perhaps lean a little more towards ’80s R.E.M. in my tastes now.
Still an immaculate record with one of their best sets of songs.
1994: Monster (8/10)
This was the first “contemporary” album I ever bought. What I mean by that was it was the first album I ever bought that had been released recently. I probably bought it in 1994. Every other CD or tape I owned had originally been released on vinyl back in the ’60s. So I have had a long relationship with this record. It’s one that has seen me change my mind on it multiple times: from liking it enough to eventually buy Automatic for the People to thinking it was their second worst record before Berry left to thinking it was not great but underrated. But I’ve once again changed my mind.
Fans were demanding a rock album after AFTP and R.E.M. went all weird and delivered their loudest and densest record yet. They don’t sound like R.E.M. sounded before this record. They mess around with stuff they’ve never tried; not just the down-tuned guitars and weird contemporary production but other genres like with those soul songs. And Stipe often steps out of his comfort range.
It’s a weird rather difficult record despite its commercial success. And I like it. I particularly like “Let Me In,” which is one of my favourite R.E.M. songs.
1996: New Adventures in Hi-Fi (8/10)
This was the first album I ever bought that I knew about before it came out. So it has always had a special place in my heart. I have come to realize, though, that I have long exaggerated how good it is because it’s long and it’s a bit all over the place.
But the songs are strong – there isn’t much filler – and it inhabits this weird place in their discography where they seemed to be trying to reconcile two separate sounds that they were about to abandon, the sort of chamber folk rock of Automatic for the People and the artsy, noisy alternative rock of Monster. As such, I think it does a pretty good job of walking somewhere down the middle.
It’s better than Monster, though less interesting, and it has moments that are almost worthy of Automatic for the People.
1998: Up (7/10)
I didn’t write a review for this record when it came out because I was pissed off. I was pissed off that the only contemporary band I actually listened to would dare change its sound. (Well, I think the real reason I didn’t write the review because I didn’t write reviews yet, and this site probably didn’t exist. But, later, I went back and rated the record anyway!)
This is, at times, a really brave departure from their previous sound. At other times, it’s not that far off what they were doing on their last three albums, at least in its quieter moments. But there are enough moments that sound nothing like the R.E.M. we knew and loved that it feels like a real change.
Whether that’s for the better or not is up to the fan, I guess. And in 1998 I just wasn’t willing to hear it. Now I think it was brave of them, and it mostly works. I still think the old version of the band was better, but I admire the guts.
2001: Reveal (???)
Though I remember the single I didn’t listen to this record. Perhaps because I heard the single.