Somebody asked me what I thought was the best R.E.M. album. They had several great albums so it took some deliberation to come up with a worthy and well considered response. But I did know that R.E.M.’s three best albums are easily Murmur, Reckoning and Automatic For The People, so I could start there.
Murmur is amazing. It is an album that is out of time. It sounded like nothing else when it came out. It sounded like nothing before it and, actually, like very little after it. It is a masterful and enigmatic debut from a band with a new sound that was fully formed when they arrived. Murmur’s influence on music then and contemporary popular music since is profound and inestimable. For all the great albums out there, not all of them can claim that they changed music. Murmur is definitely one of the albums that did.
A year after their auspicious debut, R.E.M. amazingly soars to new heights with their follow up, Reckoning. Here they craft their sound into pop songs that are at once catchy like you’ve known them all along but that also sound like absolutely nothing that came before. The songwriting is unique and memorable and the band plays with a propulsive drive that is unequaled on any of their other albums. Reckoning’s influence on almost all alternative music since is as far-reaching as Murmur if not more.
Five albums and a switch to a major label later, R.E.M. deliver their most transcendent masterpiece, the haunting and elegiac Automatic For The People. It is a timeless album from a band at the height of their powers. Moving away from the pop of their two previous albums, Green and Out of Time, Automatic harkens back to their roots but their ruminations on life and loss make it epic in scope. Automatic may not be as exciting as Murmur or Reckoning but it has the edge on them because of its emotional depth and what it lacks in importance it makes up for with greatness.
Here’s how R.E.M.’s top five albums shake out for me:
1. Automatic For The People (1992)
2. Reckoning (1983)
3. Murmur (1983)
4. Life’s Rich Pageant (1986)
5. Document (1987)
With a band like R.E.M. it is always good to revisit their albums in their entirety from time to time because it reminds us of how great their body of work actually is, where they were at the time and a little of how it felt when each was released. They were truly a great band. They arguably had thirteen years or so of greatness – which were basically the years with Bill Berry – and then thirteen years that were good but, unfortunately, never attained the same level of greatness. They definitely made some very good music in the second half of their recording career but Berry’s departure feels like something from which the band never quite recovered. It was like there was always something missing and some of the magic was lost. That drummer was more of an integral part of the band than anyone could have realized.
Here is my playlist of the best R.E.M. songs from when they were a quartet (1982-1996), presented chronologically. In some instances, especially for the first couple of albums, I chose the best version of the song I could find when the version I would have preferred was not available.