Last week, we ranked the work of Pearl Jam, from worst to best, as part of our new regular feature Counting Down. This week, we’re taking on the catalog of R.E.M. Make your case for Monster in the comments!
While it is doubtless an oversimplification, the pantheonic 30-year run of R.E.M can essentially be broken down into a three-act drama.
Act One: Emerging without seeming explanation, as if some new, weird version of the Byrds had just crawled out of a backwater Georgia swamp, R.E.M. landed forcefully on the college radio and independent music scene with a seemingly fully formed and utterly indelible sound. Pete Buck’s unmistakable Rickenbacker, Mike Mills’ tuneful bass work and compelling harmonies, and Bill Berry’s forceful drumming all served to abet the mysterious, oblique presence of lead vocalist Michael Stipe, a singer whose habit of mumbling non-sequiturs only seemed to invest them with a strange profundity. The youthful iteration of R.E.M. felt alien but approachable. Although many of their influences were cosmopolitan — the Velvet Underground, Warren Zevon — their own songs could often feel like vestiges of the antebellum South, set to a jangle rock beat. Brilliant, strange hooks appeared in seemingly endless multitudes. They were at once artistically ambitious and almost impossible to dislike. It was the closest thing to inevitable that they would, for better or worse, soon become ubiquitous pop stars.
Act Two: So it was foretold — R.E.M. crosses over from indie favorites into the most famous band in the world. While the seeds were initially sown by the radio hit “The One I Love” on their brilliant final record for the indie label IRS, rock stardom was truly consecrated for the band on their first two major label releases Green and Out Of Time. This period marks the emergence of two elements of middle-period R.E.M., which will ultimately inspire, grate and occasionally run together. Leaving behind his idiosyncratic teen-journal utterances, Stipe emerges as a full-throated lyricist with a “message.” Their ambition to grow the band’s sound and scope is admirable, and on more than one occasion R.E.M. delivers terrific politically based anthems that prove as catchy as they are occasionally preachy. On the other hand, for the first time ever, some of the songs just out-and-out suck. Even many years after the fact, it is difficult to look at made-to-order hits like “Stand” and “Shiny Happy People” as anything more then a sad capitulation to the demands of what was then called “modern rock radio.” Eventually, R.E.M.’s middle period would be utterly redeemed by the stark and uncompromising albums Automatic For The People and New Adventures In Hi-Fi. But there can be little doubt that amongst their peers (The Pixies, Meat Puppets, Replacements, etc.) R.E.M. was better positioned and more ambitious in their attempts to gain parity with the likes of U2.
Act 3: Following the frightening brain hemorrhage and subsequent retirement of original drummer Bill Berry in 1997, R.E.M. struggled admirably, but often fruitlessly to regain their footing. Berry, it seems, was more than a gifted drummer, but also a crucial part of the songwriting process and an invaluable arbiter of the direction of the band’s sounds. In his absence over the proceedings, previously perceptible fault lines between the band members became more palpable, while the lengthy and drawn-out process that characterized the breach birth of many of R.E.M.’s later releases was a polar remove from the seemingly savant-like like ease of their earlier recordings. It is a tribute to R.E.M. that none of these records sound tossed off or indifferent; to the contrary, too often the listener can hear the gears grinding amidst the terrific exertion to find something, anything, that worked. They were really trying. Having recognized their own artistic exhaustion as a unit, R.E.M. made the principled decision to disband in 2011, unwilling to subject their legacy to a profitable but humiliating never-ending oldies tour.
Let’s be clear that rankings like these should be viewed as a conversation starter rather than scripture. Any number of R.E.M. albums could certainly be called their best, and there is always the chance that they knew something we didn’t, and 20 years from now, one of the lower-ranking items here will ascend to a much higher place of privilege. So let’s buckle up and try this. The countdown begins here. Please, no wagering.