.

R.E.M.

      Murmur (I.R.S., 1983)
      Reckoning (I.R.S., 1984)
      Fables of the Reconstruction (I.R.S., 1985)
      Lifes Rich Pageant (I.R.S., 1986)
      Document (I.R.S., 1987)
      Dead Letter Office (I.R.S., 1987)
      Eponymous (I.R.S., 1988)
     Green (Warner Bros., 1988)
     Out of Time (Warner Bros., 1991)
      Automatic for the People (Warner Bros., 1992)
     Monster (Warner Bros., 1994)
     New Adventures in Hi-fi (Warner Bros., 1996)
    Up (Warner Bros., 1998)
    Reveal (Warner Bros., 2001)
     In Time: The Best of R.E.M., 1988-2003 (Warner Bros., 2003)
   Around the Sun (Warner Bros., 2004)
     - And I Feel Fine... The Best of the I.R.S. Years 1982-1987 (I.R.S., 2006)
    R.E.M. Live (Warner Bros., 2007)
    Accelerate (Warner Bros., 2008)
     Live at the Olympia (Warner Bros., 2009)

R.E.M. came roaring out of Athens, GA, in 1981, bursting with melody and spearheading the college-rock movement of the Eighties. Peter Buck's percussive guitar playing sounded fresh against Mike Mills' fluid bass lines, Michael Stipe's vocals were cryptic and languid when not downright inaudible, and Bill Berry's drums skittered underneath everything, driving it all forward with a danceable momentum. That sound has been intact from the band's first 1981 single, "Radio Free Europe," and the 1982 EP Chronic Town. "Radio Free Europe" also kicked off their first proper album, Murmur, a murky, alarmingly original collection that wasn't punk, hard rock, country, new wave, or anything else on the radio in 1983. It was the first true shot of what came to be called college rock. Murmur showcased Buck's wandering semileads on gorgeous but inscrutable tracks like "Moral Kiosk" and "Catapult." Murmur would have almost been folk rock if not for Stipe's self-consciously opaque vocals: "Standing assumed shoulders high in the room," he seems to say on the chorus of "Perfect Circle."

Reckoning lightened things a bit, with the effervescent pop of "(Don't Go Back to) Rockville" and the classically constructed, moody "so. Central Rain (I'm Sorry)" nearly becoming hits. The songwriting was as strong as Murmur's though the atmospherics were more conventional. Fables of the Reconstruction was significantly darker; even the single "Driver 8" tells a story of death and destruction. The instrumentation broadened slightly, with punchy horns on "Can't Get There From Here" and the banjo arpeggios of the heartbreakingly beautiful "Wendell Gee" exploring the shadowy corners of Americana, even though the record was made in England. Existing almost entirely in minor keys, Fables was somewhat overlooked, but it stands up nearly as well as the first two albums.

R.E.M. continued to step forward on 1986's Lifes Rich Pageant, which may be the band's best album. Equal parts gorgeous and whimsical, Pageant is highlighted by the stunning, swooning "Fall on Me," and the almost-as-perfect Civil War reverie "Swan Swan H." Openhearted and accessible, Pageant starts off with the rollicking "Begin the Begin" and doesn't let up until Mills takes his first solo vocal on the Clique's "Superman."

 

Document was a commercial breakthrough as well as another landmark record. "The One I Love" became the band's first Top Ten hit, though the anthemic single "It's the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)" had more lasting power. If the songwriting wasn't as consistently extraordinary as on the previous albums, Stipe was showing more political sensibility, not to mention enunciation, on "Exhuming McCarthy" and "Welcome to the Occupation."

Green, released on Election day, 1988, ended the first phase of R.E.M.'s career with the catchy classic "Stand," complete with wah-wah-guitar solo and double key changes at the end; it found a deserved second life as the theme to Chris Elliott's deeply weird Fox sitcom "Get a Life." Buck took the album's lead, from the churning near-metal guitar of "Turn You Inside-Out" to the chiming mandolin on "Hairshirt" and the harmonics ringing through "Orange Crush." It was followed by the B-side collection Dead Letter Office, which demonstrated that even in its throwaway efforts, R.E.M. had more ideas than most bands could put into an entire album. They covered Aerosmith, Roger Miller, and Pylon; reworked their own songs for no reason other than amusement; and tucked meaty hooks into jokey toss-offs, like their attempted theme for Walter's Barbecue. While far from great, Dead Letter Office is an enjoyable trip through a terrific band's most lighthearted moments; the CD version, with Chronic Town tacked onto the end, is a don't-miss.

R.E.M. returned in 1991 with Out of Time and the intricately constructed single "Losing My Religion." But aside from that gorgeously fragile piece, the band sounded bored, switching instruments for no apparent purpose and tarting up unfinished song ideas with string arrangements and Kate Pierson (e.g., "Shiny Happy People"). The experiments work the best, including "Country Feedback," with Stipe spewing vitriol over a lone Western guitar, and the half-spoken fable "Belong." (Out of Time is also the third R.E.M. album, after Murmur and Green, to begin with a song about the radio, in this case, "Radio Song.")

The pensive Automatic for the People found Stipe not just clear and direct but almost didactic on paeans to the kids on Top 30 hits like "Drive" and "Everybody Hurts." The Andy Kaufman tribute "Man on the Moon" was an unlikely smash, but more of the album was given over to dark, death-haunted ballads like "Sweetness Follows," "Try Not to Breathe," and the rippling "Nightswimming." Although the songs were straightforward in their construction, the lyrics' open emotions combined with some of R.E.M.'s sweetest compositions resulted in what many consider the band's finest hour.

Monster, the followup, couldn't have been more different: The guitars were amped up, but the songwriting was far less consistent and the emotions had returned to opacity. Buck storms through the excellent single "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?," complete with backward guitar solo, and his flamethrower chords power through "Circus Envy." Again, the experiments—the River Phoenix tribute "Let Me In," with its scrabbling distorted guitar and lack of drums; the audacious, falsetto "Tongue"—work better than the conventional songs: "Crush With Eyeliner" and "Band and Blame" were simply interminable exercises in subpar songwriting. New Adventures in Hi-fi, from 1996, feels like a retreat—it was largely recorded live on tour and lacked anything resembling a hit single. The songs were drawn out; Many of them clocked in at five minutes; the siren-fueled "Leave" tops seven. While "New Test Leper" and "E-Bow the Letter," with guest vocals from Patti Smith, sound like classic R.E.M., the album as a whole was too unfocused for many listeners.

In 1997, Bill Berry, who had suffered a brain aneurysm during a show in Switzerland in 1995, retired from R.E.M. to operate his farm in his hometown of Macon, Ga. When R.E.M. regrouped without Berry for 1998's Up, it seemed as if the band wanted to forgo drums altogether. While the songwriting was still strong, particularly on the single "Daysleeper" and the Pet Sounds tribute "At My Most Beautiful," the arrangements were sluggish, almost mushy, without much to differentiate one track from the next. Understandly confused as to how to carry on as a trio, the band's experiments, such as the Brian Eno–ish "Airportman" and the chilly come-on "You're in the Air" weren't exactly unsuccessful, but they weren't memorable either.

Reveal, from 2001, was worse. The rhythmic drive of classic R.E.M. was missing, despite the sweetness of tracks like "Imitation of Life" and "All the Way to Reno." Layered arrangements and strings couldn't compensate for the lack of sharp edges the band's best work had displayed. R.E.M. had always been the most democratic of bands; every song was credited to all four members, and each musician brought a distinctive tone and set of strengths to the band. Without Berry, however, the brilliant, groundbreaking R.E.M. seemed increasingly like a thing of the past.

R.E.M. was never less interesting than on Around the Sun, easily the worst album of its career. The virtually lifeless material was unrecognizable from past glories, with electronic adornments, leaden pacing and bewildering guest appearances (Q-Tip, anybody?) proffered in place of the substantial songwriting R.E.M. used to routinely purvey. For what it's worth, Buck later denounced the album as "boring" and vowed to never make another one like it.

Enter Accelerate, which, although not the complete return to form advertised by sympathetic journalists, was certainly a step back in the right direction of R.E.M.'s stripped-down, fast-paced roots. Featuring material tested out live in Dublin in 2007 and buzzing by in a lightning-quick 34 minutes, the album gave fans hope that R.E.M. wasn't dead yet. The band seemed determined to keep its foot on the gas on songs like "Living Well's the Best Revenge," "Supernatural Superserious" and the noisy, angular "Horse to Water," and throughout, there was a sense of urgency noticeably lacking on its two predecessors.

The first R.E.M. best-of, 1988's Eponymous, is worth owning, as it compiles every hit through Document, but those early albums are must-haves for fans anyway. In Time picks up most of the best of the latter half of R.E.M.'s career and may make more sense to own than Eponymous, since the later albums are less essential. "And I Feel Fine" also spotlights the band's pre-major label days and includes some fun vintage live tracks plus odds-and-ends and alternate versions.

Berry was clearly irreplaceable. And in his wake, R.E.M. tended to have more success sounding relevant when playing live versus in the studio, as evidenced by 2007's R.E.M. Live. Without all the studio goop, songs like "Electron Blue" and "Walk Unafraid" revealed their true selves as worthy additions to the canon, but there were still too many Reveal- and Around the Sun-era songs on the track list to fully recommend the set. Live at the Olympia, drawn from the aforementioned shows where most of the "Accelerate" material was debuted, featured solid renditions of old classics like "Harborcoat," "Sitting Still" and "1,000,000," which had been largely abandoned from R.E.M. set lists for two decades.

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