R.E.M. Albums Best To Worst!!

1. Murmur

After original producer Stephen Hague tried his darndest to turn them into a synth band, R.E.M. revolted, appealing to their label to let them work with Mitch Easter and Don Dixon instead.  After a test session resulted in a superior version of "Catapult", IRS Records gave Easter and Dixon the green light and the rest, as they say is history.

Sadly, the world is probably chock-full of great bands who just got stuck with the wrong producer for their first album and were never heard from again.  What always made R.E.M. so different was that they knew exactly what they DIDN'T want and stuck to their guns.  As a result, the arrival of Murmur in April 1983 was met with almost universal critical raves, which is quite an accomplishment when you think about what Murmur would have sounded like if Hague had produced it.

Instead, discerning rock fans were treated to something vaguely familiar, yet decidedly unique as the opening notes of "Radio Free Europe" announced the arrival of a band whose identity was already fully formed, yet free of pretense or label trickery.

You didn't have to know what Stipe was singing about to feel the honesty.  Just as importantly, Easter/Dixon's genius was in knowing enough to stay out of the way and let R.E.M. be themselves.
In the end, that simplicity and respect for the songs is what makes Murmur the best R.E.M. album.

From a production standpoint, it's almost a field recording, capturing the band in their natural habitat and embracing their idiosyncracies rather than trying to "fix" them with synths and studio trickery.  R.E.M. of course, brought in a stellar batch of soon-to-be-iconic tunes: Radio Free Europe, Pilgrimage, Laughing, Talk About The Passion, Moral Kiosk, Perfect Circle and that's just Side One!

2. Life's Rich Pageant

One need only listen to the opening strains of album-opener "Begin The Begin" to realize that "the little band that could" had successfully fought off the growing pains that had grounded Fables Of The Reconstruction and were now firing on all cylinders.   With their best batch of tunes since Murmur and a new producer (Don Gehman, best known for his work with John Cougar Mellencamp), the sky was now the limit and R.E.M. took full advantage of the resources at their disposal.

Up to this album, being an R.E.M. fan meant being a part of a small, but growing community of oddballs and outcasts and not having to share them with the mainstream crowd.  For better and worse (mostly worse), this album, and the success of "Fall On Me" on radio and MTV, began to change that forever.  Having said that, the middle part of the record ("Cuyahoga", "Hyena", et al) is not all that far removed from the early murkiness of Murmur.

3. Reckoning

Coming a year after Murmur, Reckoning could just as easily be called Murmur, Part Two if not for the band's newfound musical confidence coming off of a year of steady touring.  Whle this batch of songs is admittedly not as strong as those on Murmur, the high points ("South Central Rain", "Pretty Persuasion", "(Don't Go Back To) Rockville") are higher.  From a production standpoint, Easter and Dixon appear even more hands-off this time around when, in truth, the album could have used a little more ambient weirdness.

4. Document

This album marked the beginning of R.E.M.'s "angry period", for lack of a better term.  From the album's opening moments ("Finest Worksong" and "Welcome To The Occupation"), it was easy to see that this was a band on a mission and that Document was an honest-to-goodness no-holds-barred protest record.
It's also oddly fitting that this would be the album to propel the band to the top of the charts, as "The One I Love" went Top 10 and the super-catchy "It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" got heavy MTV play.

Listening to the album today, the songs wash over you like the last sunny day before the arrival of the storm of commercial success that would ultimately turn them into arguably the biggest band in the world.

5. Green

Their first effort for Warner Bros., this is the album that officially marked the end of the band's "angry period" and forever closed the door on their "indie rock" days.  While the once small, but thriving community of R.E.M. fans had now grown to include frat boys and cheerleaders, the band's subject matter was never darker, yet their musical execution never more upbeat.

Still, the appearance of a song like "Stand" certainly ranks as one of the band's mightiest missteps, but the rest of the album marches to its own drum, which just happens to be played by Bill Berry, who is at his rock-solid best on this outing.  "World Leader Pretend" may sound like something that would not have sounded out of place on Murmur, but Stipe's vocals were now almost fully intelligible and seemed to be declaring an entirely new mission statement, recognizing the "weapons" of a huge media corporation (the WB) now at their disposal and using them to shine light on societal injustices and bring about positive change.  This is R.E.M. at their most ambitious, each track crackling with urgency.

6. Fables Of The Reconstruction

Perhaps fearing a fall into formulaic ways after two albums with Easter/Dixon, REM left the comfort zone of Charlotte, NC's Reflection Studios and headed to England to work with legendary producer Joe Boyd.  Despite some truly choice tunes (Driver 8, Life And How To Live it, and Can't Get There From Here), most of the album is mired in a sort of mid-tempo morose that weighs down the entire album.  Boyd's production adds nothing to the proceedings and to whomever sequenced the album, I can only say, "what were you thinking?"  Not a bad album, mind you, but one that sounds more like a collection of outtakes and B-sides than the band's actual collection of outtakes and B-sides (Dead Letter Office).

With the release of Out Of Time and Automatic For The People, R.E.M. became a singles band, for lack of a better term.  While those albums are not without great moments, the continuity that had held seemingly disparate groups of songs together to tell a singular story was gone.  Forever.

Monster, while reasonably successful, revealed a band no longer happy to be ignored by a generation of kids more interested in the brooding yarl of Eddie Vedder than Micheal Stipe's earnest wail.  The band cranked up the amps in hopes of competing, thereby making R.E.M. the momentary follower of the latest musical trends.

New Adventures In Hi-Fi had its heart in the right place, but lacked the strong material to truly be a return-to-form.  More like Automatic Adventures For The People.

Subsequent albums Up, Reveal, Accelerate, Around The Sun and Collapse Into Now are completely interchangeable and, sadly, forgettable.

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