How did I not notice this until just now, 12 years after R.E.M. retired as a band?
The first song on three consecutive R.E.M. albums includes the word “song” in the title. It can’t be a coincidence! It also can’t mean much other than just being a goofy little thing, so probably not worthy of a Dan Brown novel (what happened to him, anyway?)
Finest Worksong (Document, 1987)
Pop Song 89 (Green, 1988)
Radio Song (Out of Time, 1991)
Did the word “song” appear in any of their other song titles?
It’s now been 12 years (!) since R.E.M. packed it in. Their first album, Murmur, was released 40 years ago (!) when vinyl was more than hip, it was one of only two real formats for buying music (the other was cassette tape–the kind that any tape deck eventually ate).
Here is my re-revised list of R.E.M. albums–from #1 to #15.
First, the chronological list of albums as released:
Fables of the Reconstruction, 1985
Lifes Rich Pageant, 1986
Out of Time, 1991
Automatic for the People, 1992
New Adventures in Hi-fi, 1996
Around the Sun, 2004
Collapse Into Now, 2011
My 2023 ranking (numbers indicate position relative to the 2013 ranking):
Automatic for the People, 1992 (-)
Lifes Rich Pageant, 1986 (-)
Murmur, 1983 (+2)
Monster, 1994 (-1)
Out of Time, 1991 (+4)
New Adventures in Hi-fi, 1996 (+1)
Green, 1988 (+6)
Reckoning, 1984 (-2)
Fables of the Reconstruction, 1985 (-1)
Collapse Into Now, 2011 (-6)
Up, 1998 (+3)
Document, 1987 (-1)
Accelerate, 2008 (-3)
Reveal, 2001 (-2)
Around the Sun, 2004 (-)
Only three albums didn’t change positions, and they are at the extremes: #1, 2 and 15.
The gap between #14 (Reveal) and #15 (Around the Sun) is the biggest between any two albums. ATS is easily the worst album R.E.M. put out. It should probably be at #20.
The biggest slide is Collapse Into Now, their final album, dropping from #4 all the way to #10. It’s a fine album and a worthy send-off, but it just doesn’t shine as bright as the others ahead of it, in retrospect.
Four of the bottom five albums are four of their last five–not a good trend for a long-lived band!
Green leaps from #13 to #6. Why? While it may not have been the band’s artistic peak, it captures them in an experimental mood, expanding their sound and–importantly–sounding like they are having a lot of fun while doing it. Especially after Automatic for the People, the band appeared to have sent its collective sense of humour into the universe’s largest black hole.
Murmur and Monster, despite being very different albums, are basically interchangeable, ranking-wise.
Sometimes I like it when R.E.M. rocks out (Monster), and sometimes less so (Accelerate), although to be fair, the latter is an excellent album to jog to.
If the second half of Up (#11) was stronger, it would probably rank near the top five.
In hindsight, Document is a good but not great album. I feel like the band was shifting gears and the album catches them midway through. If you think of it as the first half of Green, it makes more sense, in a way.
Also, when you look at the albums in chronological order, you may ask yourself: Did R.E.M. alienate a large part of its fan base with Monster being the follow-up to Automatic for the People? Yes, yes they did! Observe:
Monster (which I think is one of their most inventive and creative albums–if you like that feedback-laden, wall of sound approach) was the utter opposite of Automatic. It still sold well, probably propelled at least in part by momentum.
New Adventures in Hi-fi probably hit many people as a weird blend of the previous two albums, with loud rockers like on Monster, combined with hushed meditations like on Automatic–and being neither fish nor fowl, it began their first real decline in sales.
Up: With Bill Berry (drummer) leaving the band, they began to experiment more openly, using sequencers, drum machines and noodling around with atmospherics, resulting in an album that was part R.E.M. and part whatever-they-were-turning-into.
Reveal is a weird one, too. It mixes sunny, Beach Boys-style songs with classic R.E.M. (“Imitation of Life”) and goes fully experimental on other songs, like “Saturn Return”. The production is intricate, and the sound is dense. This is not an album designed to hit the top of the pop charts.
Around the Sun: Or “What a band completely uninterested in being a band anymore when they are 3/5ths of the way through a record contract sounds like.” This one managed to put off everyone: the experimentation was replaced by a bunch of limp songs that generated no heat, didn’t sound like classic R.E.M.–or any other version–and featured lyrics by Michael Stipe that were so straightforward they were just bland. An impressively lacklustre outing.
The last two albums turned things around, preventing them from destroying their legacy, but it was pretty obvious after Collapse Into Now that they were done.
R.E.M. famously knocked their own song, “Shiny Happy People”, dismissing it as a “children’s song” with the implication that this somehow made it less worthy than their more serious fare.
And R.E.M. got VERY serious with the albums that followed the release that featured this song (1991’s Out of Time). The zany R.E.M. was dead, replaced by the self-important band that was happy (!) to leave behind any sense of playfulness. Instead, we got Around the Sun.
But prior to 1992’s (actually excellent) Automatic for the People, R.E.M. wasn’t afraid of being light and silly, with songs like this or “Stand” (1988) or “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine”) (1987).
That said, while I still find the song an effervescent pop gem, I have to admit the video is a bit cringy. Peter Buck looks vaguely uncomfortable every time you see him. Bill Berry is hamming it up and having a good ol’ time. Mike Mills is earnestly pitching in on a stand-up bass. Kate Pierson (of The B-52s) is slinky and fabulous. Michael Stipe is dressed in clothes that look randomly collected from a thrift store and is wearing a weird backwards cap (his hat phase).
Things get interesting at about the 2:43 mark when a bunch of people appear alongside the band to shimmy and shake their way through the rest of the video. It’s an eclectic mix of people, the clothes have a clear earl;y 90s vibe. and…wait, that mix of people isn’t as eclectic as it first seems. If you look, there are a lot of young college-age guys dancing around. In fact, if you were casting a movie about a bunch of young college guys, you’d have them right here, ready to go. Why do I get the feeling that Michael Stipe hand-picked each one of them? That rascal.
Here’s the video. Judge for yourself!
UPDATE: Nic offered a perfect description: “That video is precisely calibrated to make 90s bisexuals explode”
Here’s what I consider the prime example: Purple t-shirt guy with some sort of beret (?). He seems VERY happy (and look at Bill Berry in the background. He is clearly grooving).
The album consists of four discs (for those who remember physical media):
The original album
A collection of outtakes and demos from the Monster sessions
A remix version of the album
A collection of live songs recorded in Chicago in 1995 (Monster came out in 1994)
It’s a veritable cornucopia of R.E.M. stuff, but I want to focus on is that third disc, the remix of the album. I’ll have more thoughts later, as I’ve only just listened to the album, but it’s a bit bonkers.
Scott Litt, the original producer, was allowed to handle the remix, and he apparently had some big regrets in how he handled Monster back in 1994, chiefly being:
Burying Michael Stipe’s vocals deep in the mix
Overemphasizing the feedback, tremolo and fuzzy guitars, which was popular at the time due to the rise of grunge (in retrospect it was kind of the “onion on the belt” of the early 1990s)
Both of these are true of the 1994 original release, but each was a deliberate choice. On the other five albums Scott Litt produced with the band, including one that came after Monster, Stipe’s vocals (and his singing in general) is clear and in the front of the mix. With Monster, there was a conscious effort to give R.E.M. a different, “bigger” sound, as well as one that was looser, muddier, with the illusion of being sloppy, although the production was actually quite meticulous.
This makes the album unique among their releases. They never recorded anything that sounded quite like it before or after.
The remix feels like a completely different album at times. All the same songs are here, but the presentation at times is so dramatically different that they feel like they came from somewhere else. Stipe’s vocals are indeed pushed much more to the front, providing a clarity to his words that is at times almost startling. But Litt goes further, sometimes using completely different vocal takes entirely. “I Don’t Sleep, I Dream” ends with a completely different extended outro. The reverb in “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” is simply gone. There are even a few bits here and there that seem to be trying to brighten the overall mood.
It’s all a little weird.
Some songs emerge relatively intact. “Strange Currencies” was always pretty straightforward, and the remix version is mostly the same, apart from Stipe’s vocals being pushed up that much more in the mix.
Is this a better version of Monster? My impulse is to say no, not better, just different.
One of the effects of the new clarity of Stipe’s vocals is to slightly diminish the feel of the characters he’s portraying in some songs. He sounds more like himself now, which is great in a general sense, but a bit of flavor is lost as a result. It’s trippy to hear how utterly clear the vocals really are, though.
“Let Me In”, with the fuzz all but removed, sounds far more plaintive, and again I think this weakens the flavor of the original, but the new crispness of Stipe’s delivery somewhat compensates.
There are a few choices that are puzzling. “Tongue” now fades out for no discernible reason. Little flourishes that didn’t exist before have been added here and there, to no real effect. “Crush with Eyeliner” begins with Stipe singing “lalala” sans instruments It’s quirky, but leaves me wondering why it was added.
I will say I love that this remix exists alongside the original. Seeing bands (and producers) rework their material is always enjoyable, even if the results aren’t necessarily better–sometimes specifically if they aren’t better. This is a distinctive alternate take on Monster and makes it “fit” better with the albums that came before and after it. Whether that was the right choice is really just a matter of opinion.
Peter Buck, the artist formerly known as the lead guitarist for R.E.M., has released his second solo album, Warzone Earth. Like his first solo album, this one is only available through indie record stores on vinyl. It’s the perfect gift for hipster dinosaurs, which I assume is the demographic here.
Perhaps we should be grateful he didn’t cut his teeth on the 8-track cassette.
R.E.M. released 15 studio albums between 1983 and 2011. I tend to group the albums into three eras:
The Early Years. This covers their first four albums from 1983-1986.
The Big Success. This covers their platinum sales era, six albums from 1987-1996.
The Post-Berry Funk. The five albums they were under contract to do after drummer Bill Berry left the band. Covers 1998-2011.
I’ll eventually come back and justify my rankings but for now here are two lists, the first is all 15 albums in chronological order followed by my arbitrary list of best to worst.
Fables of the Reconstruction, 1985
Lifes Rich Pageant, 1986
Out of Time, 1991
Automatic for the People, 1992
New Adventures in Hi-fi, 1996
Around the Sun, 2004
Collapse Into Now, 2011
Automatic for the People
Lifes Rich Pageant
Collapse Into Now
New Adventures in Hi-fi
Fables of the Reconstruction
Out of Time
Around the Sun
It’s a testament to the ultimate resilience and strength of the band that the top five albums encompass their entire 28 year span of releasing albums.
Although I do not listen to it as often these days I still rank Automatic as their best album because it’s a perfectly balanced combination of maturity, experimentation and accessibility. The band went ‘dark’ but lost none of their tunefulness in the process. They also produced some of their most beautiful songs.
Their follow-up Monster nearly matches every strength of Automatic, including having no filler but does so with a completely different sound, as brash, weird and cacophonous as Automatic is quietly majestic. In between the two I’ve placed their final album Collapse Into Now which has the band exiting in fine form with an album that offers a little of everything in an energetic, well-crafted package that recalls their best work while staking out its own identity.
At the bottom of the list is the only R.E.M. album I’d describe as weak. Around the Sun is not a poor effort but much of it has a listlessness that suggests the band was either bored or tired of the whole thing.
Illustrating how whimsically I can change my mind, reference this post in which I ranked the top five R.E.M. albums as follows:
Released in March 2011, Collapse Into Now is R.E.M.’s 15th studio album, coming 28 years after their first (Murmur, 1983). It also fulfilled their five-record contract with Warner and, as it turned out, was their last studio album period, as the band announced in September 2011 that they were ‘calling it a day’. Despite an interview around that time where Mike Mills, the bassist, had claimed relief at being free of the contract, Collapse Into Now doesn’t sound anything like a contractual obligation album. Instead, it is a fitting end to a career that spanned three decades.
Before getting to the album itself, a little background on the latter half of those 30 years is worth exploring.
First, this chart:
The last two albums are missing from the list but according to Wikipedia, the sales for them were:
Accelerate (2008): 350,000 in North America, combined worldwide sales of 627,500
Collapse Into Now (2011): 142,000 in North America (prior to the band’s announced breakup)
Out of Time is easily the band’s biggest success commercially and despite being a ‘dark’ album, Automatic did very well, too. The band changed course with Monster, going for a grungier straight-up rock approach but the majority of fans stuck with them. That changed with New Adventures in Hi-Fi, which (barely) failed to reach the coveted 1 million mark. The decline continued apace and didn’t reverse until Accelerate. Collapse Into Now sadly failed to catch on, performing even worse than the somnambulant Around the Sun. It’s hard not to imagine the tepid reaction factored in the band’s decision to break up.
R.E.M signed a gigantic contract in 1996 and at the time it was widely viewed as too rich but the band had proven their worth to Warner with multiple million sellers, so it seemed like a small risk at best. Two things happened, though, that made that risk much larger than it initially seemed. First came Bill Berry’s departure in 1997. While he left on good terms and went on to periodically play with the band, it created the first stirrings of break-up talk. It also coincided with a restlessness the band seemed to be experiencing. New Adventures has a number of good tracks but to me the album feels like an at times uneasy hybrid of the feedback-laden Monster and the darker, more acoustic sounds of Automatic. The impression is that of a band exploring and trying to find new things to stay interested and engaged in the process of creating music, with mixed results.
With their drummer departed the band seized on the chance to play with drum machines or to completely de-emphasize percussion, leading to 1998’s Up, an album that opens with the murmuring echo of “Airportman” and overall has a melancholy feel to it. The band shed most of the melancholy for the follow-up, Reveal (“Imitation of Life” is classic R.E.M.) but the arrangements were becoming ever-denser and elaborate, almost baroque (see: “Saturn Return”). By 2004 the band was adrift and Around the Sun, though opening strongly with “Leaving New York” is a muddled affair, none of the songs actually awful but likewise none distinguishing themselves in the mid-tempo morass that comprised the album. Sales cratered.
In 2008 they decided to strip things down and came up with Accelerate, a 34-minute album that lives up to its name, starting out with the propulsive “Living Well is the Best Revenge” and ending the same way with “I’m Gonna DJ”. In-between the album does slow down to catch its breath on a few tracks. Audiences responded by lifting its sales past Around the Sun. But something happened after that. It’s almost as if a large contingent of fans felt they had met their own obligations in supporting the band so when Collapse Into Now released, it debuted decently (#5) but sank quickly. (The negative-sounding album title and first track “Mine Smell Like honey” probably didn’t help.)
And that’s a shame (here comes the review) because Collapse Into Now is the band’s best album since 1996. It builds on the strengths of Accelerate by maintaining the energy and joy of that album while expanding the musical palette to include a better mix of songs and styles. Still exploring, the band reins in a lot of the excesses of the post-Berry era and for the most part delivers a worthy coda to their career.
Two of the same keys that worked on Accelerate are featured here — Mike Mills’ prominent backing vocals and keeping the percussion forward in the mix. At the same time the album breathes more freely than Accelerate so quieter tracks like the plaintive “Walk it Back” and “Oh My Heart” fit better as part of the whole. In a callback to their earliest albums Michael Stipe’s vocals are often pushed back in the mix. Not that he seems to mind, as he whispers, shouts and croons with enthusiasm throughout the record.
The standout tracks are the opening “Discoverer”, “Uberlin”, “Oh My Heart” and “It Happened Today”, all if which can easily stand beside the band’s best efforts. The latter features soaring, wordless vocals for much of the song, recalling a similar approach used in the chorus for “Orange Crush” from 1988’s Green. “Discoverer” is a speeding train of an opener, an energetic track that segues into the similarly up-tempo “All the Best” before pulling back for the simple acoustics of “Uberlin”. “Discoverer” reappears as the coda to the album’s final song, “Blue”, closing the circle and perhaps hinting at the band’s coming demise. “Blue” is a great example of R.E.M. going back to its older material for inspiration, with Peter Buck’s mournful guitar at the beginning echoing “Country Feedback” from Out of Time and Stipe’s spoken word performance calling back to the same album’s “Belong”. Heck, even Patti Smith shows up, providing ethereal backing vocals just as she did on “E-bow the Letter” from New Adventures.
In the end, the lack of commercial success for Collapse Into Now doesn’t matter much as R.E.M. is no longer an ongoing concern and the bandmates have vowed never to reunite. I wonder if it will some day become the ‘forgotten classic’ of R.E.M.’s catalog. It would be worthy of the designation.
R.E.M. has released their final album, a compilation that for the first time covers their five albums with I.R.S. as well as the 10 they recorded for Warner. Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage 1982-2011 also includes the obligatory new tracks (three, in this case) to lure completionists into buying the double disc set — a tactic that worked better before the ascendancy of digital music. Now an R.E.M. fan can just buy the bonus tracks separately. Record executives somewhere are shaking their fists over that.
Here’s the total list of tracks via Wikipedia. As one would expect of a retrospective, it covers the band’s entire career and includes all of the singles/hits along the way. It’s also clear — since the band chose the tracks themselves — that they have a few personal favorites (Automatic for the People gets four tracks).
They picked 40 songs so I’m going to do the same and pick my favorite 40 songs and see how our lists compare. Like R.E.M., I’ll pick at least one track from every non-compilation album, including the Chronic Town EP released in 1981 (30 years ago, egad).
Stumble (Chronic Town)
Sitting Still (Murmur)
7 Chinese Bros. (Reckoning)
So. Central Rain (Reckoning)
(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville (Reckoning)
Pretty Persuasion (Reckoning)
Feeling Gravity’s Pull (Fables of the Reconstruction)
Maps and Legends (Fables of the Reconstruction)
Begin the Begin (Lifes Rich Pageant)
These Days (Lifes Rich Pageant)
Fall on Me (Lifes Rich Pageant)
Cuyahoga (Lifes Rich Pageant)
The Flowers of Guatemala (Lifes Rich Pageant)
Finest Worksong (Document)
Exhuming McCarthy (Document)
It’s the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine) (Document)
World Leader Pretend (Green)
Orange Crush (Green)
Losing My Religion (Out of Time)
Texarcana (Out of Time)
Nightswimming (Automatic for the People)
Find the River (Automatic for the People)
Crush With Eyeliner (Monster)
Bang and Blame (Monster)
New Test Leper (New Adventures in Hi-Fi)
Bittersweet Me (New Adventures in Hi-Fi)
Electrolite (New Adventures in Hi-Fi)
At My Most Beautiful (Up)
Imitation of Life (Reveal)
Leaving New York (Around the Sun)
Man-Sized Wreath (Accelerate)
Supernatural Superserious (Accelerate)
Discoverer (Collapse Into Now)
Uberlin (Collapse Into Now)
Oh My Heart (Collapse Into Now)
It Happened Today (Collapse Into Now)
My original list had too many songs (five from Lifes Rich Pageant alone) so I culled a few to get down to 40. I found it especially difficult to pick only a handful of favorites from Murmur, Reckoning and Lifes Rich Pageant — each of these albums are remarkably lean, each song equally worthy of inclusion. A big surprise was finding four songs from Collapse Into Now. Although it sounds drastically different than something like Murmur recorded 28 years earlier, it’s perhaps R.E.M.’s most thoughtful and mature work, but free of the pretension and torpor that afflicted lesser efforts like Around the Sun. It is, in other words, one of their best albums.
Comparing R.E.M.’s list to mine, we overlap on 18 songs, roughly half and we both matched on at least one song from every album. And looking over the official listing I see they included “Bad Day” from the In Time compilation album. Cheaters. It’s a worthy song, though, so I could probably find some song to punt in order to squeeze it in.
Notably absent from my list are some prominent hits like “Stand”, “Shiny Happy People” and “Everybody Hurts”. I’m not one of those who hates R.E.M.’s silly songs nor grinds my teeth at their ballads but I felt in each case there were other songs on each album that resonated more for me (even if they were ultimately overplayed, like “It’s the End of the World as We Know It”, the song that was my R.E.M. gateway drug).
And now a bonus list, my picks for R.E.M.’s best five albums (they released 15):
Lifes Rich Pageant
Automatic for the People
Collapse Into Now
It’s fashionable to think of Automatic as overrated and over-serious but I still appreciate that the band produced a richly dark meditation on mortality that expanded their musical palette with confidence (and was more successful than the various experiments of Out of Time). The simple beauty of “Nightswimming” and “Find the River” lift the album significantly.
The worst album? That would have to be Around the Sun. It’s perhaps the most personal album, nearly all of the songs centering around relationships, but the pacing and energy of the songs never picks up. It’s the musical equivalent of a car stuck in second gear. Even the allegedly peppy songs like “Wanderlust” never generate much heat. The musicianship and vocals are fine throughout but they are in service to songs that are ultimately dull (“Leaving New York” is a solid opener, though). While Up and Reveal also had their share of so-so songs, neither album falls into the slumber of Around the Sun.
Maybe it’s just me but in the live video of R.E.M’s “Oh my Heart” (a fine song from a fine album, by the way) Peter Buck looks a bit like a woman. It’s the hair, I think. It reminds me of the old Monty Python gang when they would dress as (rather frightening-looking) women for some of their sketches.
To his credit, Mr. Buck is not frightening looking at all. Except for the hair. It is mildly frightening — much like my own.
Also, Micheal Stipe appears to be the only member of the band still looking lean. Maybe that explains why he started taking nude photos of himself. Brr.
As I said on Quarter to Three’s forum, this makes me sad but it’s not too surprising. They seemed to be drifting since before Bill Berry left the band in 1997.
They did their ‘rock’ album in 1994 with Monster, a deliberate change-up from their previous sound but the follow-up to that album, New Adventures in Hi-Fi felt at times like an awkward blend of the two previous albums, Automatic for the People and Monster, suggesting the band was unable to settle on a direction.
Once Berry left they got more experimental and production-heavy, with dense arrangements that were pretty much the antithesis of their IRS records. There was some good stuff in there but some of it felt labored or worse, was forgetful. The latter albums also felt (to me, anyway) as if an individual band member drove each one — Accelerate was Buck’s album, Around the Sun was Mills’, Up was Stipe’s, there was a sense that the group no longer shared a vision, they just worked agreeably together.
I quite liked Accelerate, their self-described attempt to stay relevant. In all the years since 1986 it’s the album that most recalls my favorite, Lifes Rich Pageant. In retrospect it was a penultimate last hurrah.
Still, 30+ years is a hell of a run.
And I’ll admit, I’d pick up a Mike Mills solo album.