R.E.M. came along when most reasonable people my age were growing up and getting married. I latched onto them in 1984 after I heard that their first album, “Murmur” very nearly beat out “Thriller” for top album of the year in a major critic’s poll in 1983. Back then, they were even able to get some airplay for “Radio Free Europe”, because they, along with U2, were cult favorites of AOR radio stations. That probably wouldn’t happen now.
The difference between the two bands was that Bono could swallow a stadium whole when he sang, whereas Michael Stipe preferred to go hide in the corner. I could relate a lot better to the latter, so I went with R.E.M.. The wife chose U2, but we worked through it.
No artist who has been around for nearly thirty years can expect their fans to get their every record. After all, there are other artists, too, not to mention baby formula to buy.
If you have nothing by them, I suppose it would make some sense to pick up one of their best-ofs, but such collections rarely give me the satisfaction that I get from the original albums of any good artist.
I can reasonably cover the 1982 – 1997 period, and have summarized the high points below. I work my way down from what I think you might like best, to their less accessible, but very worthy work:
Automatic for the People (1992):
This one seems to please the most people and I can understand why. I don’t think it’s quite their best but it is right up there. You already know the hits – “Man on the Moon”, “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight” and “Everybody Hurts”, but you may not have heard “Nightswimming”, “Find a River” or “Sweetness Follows”, which are at least as good.
Out of Time (1991):
There is so much beauty on this record (“Near Wild Heaven”, “
”, “Belong”) it’s nearly unbearable. The only reason I don’t rate this one higher is that it you might find it too pretty, or you may not like the rap on “Radio Song”. or the brooding “Low” (which to me is merely the deep breath before the rush to follow, which itself doesn’t stop until the Neil Young-like “Country Feedback”). Okay, that’s everything you could possibly find wrong with this record. The rest of it is absolutely joyous. Oh yeah, it’s got “Losing My Religion” and “Happy, Shiny People”, too. It finishes off with “Me in Honey”, which, thanks to Kate Pierson, is one of the best songs of the decade. Texarkana
Now playing: R.E.M. - Me in Honey
My personal favorite, on principle really, since I heard it first. But I’m having trouble justifying it since “Out of Time” came out. While it’s arty and obscure (it’s been called “Mumble” by some detractors) I hear it as classic rock coming from the room down the hall. I’ve gotten it as a present for at least a few people, and their initial look of puzzlement eventually gives way to a grudging acknowledgement that this is a really good album. It’s probably the album of the 80s, too.
Chronic Town (1982):
This EP is their first splash, and it practically trips over itself in its rush to hit you with words, drums, guitars. Fast, tuneful and strange. And I would love for someone to do a more commercial version of “1,000,000” or “Gardening at Night”. It’s also available as part of the B-side/rarity oriented “Dead Letter Office”.
This one is loud and fierce. It’s got “The One I Love” and “It’s the End of the World as We Know It”. It’s also got the great “Finest Worksong”. Great line: “Standing on the shoulders of giants, leaves me cold…”
New Adventures in Hi-fi (1997):
A little too long, but with a lot of variety. And “Electrolite” is one of their best ever. And the rock and roll is actually stronger than “Monster”.
The records I’ve skipped over ("Reckoning", "Fables of the Reconstruction", "Life's Rich Pageant", "Green", "Monster") are good but not great. They have many fine moments but seem to be halfway points or commercial compromises. Someone could make a great mix CD from them. But if you start from the top down here, you’ll know what all the fuss is about.