In 1982 R.E.M. released their first EP Chronic Town and would follow it up with their first official album release Murmur less than a year later. The original lineup would remain unchanged, with the exception of drummer Bill Berry who left in 1997 and was never formally replaced until the band’s final album Collapse Into Now almost 30 years later. R.E.M. were critical favourites that slowly built their popularity throughout the 80s into commercial success. After leaving the smaller I.R.S. label for Warner Music they became one of the most commercial successful bands of the 90s. Here is the ranking of all R.E.M’s 15 studio albums as well as their debut EP Chronic Town.
16 – Around the Sun (2004)
The worst thing that can be said about REM’s career is that they made a stinker with Around the Sun. The best thing that can be said about REM’s career is that in 30 years they only made ONE stinker of an album. I can listen to Leaving New York and Wanderlust almost any time, but the only time I ever go out of my way to listen to the rest of this album is if I’m listening through their entire discography, and even then it takes A LOT of motivation to start Around The Sun. Despite heavy production, the songs sound like they’re barely past the idea or demo stage of composition. Even the band have admitted they didn’t exactly hit the ball out of the park with this album. These songs would be passable for your average 2004 band inspired by REM, but for REM themselves this is the weakest album by a long shot.
Highlights: Leaving New York, Wanderlust, Electron Blue
15 – Chronic Town (1982)
A few months before their first proper album R.E.M. released 5 sonds on Chronic Town. The basic beginnings of REM are here without any significant stand outs. Even as a 5 song EP without any particularly memorable tracks, I still consider it to be a better release than Around the Sun as Chronic Town at least has 5 listenable songs.
Highlights: Stumble, Gardening At Night
14 – Reveal (2001)
On its initial release I was definitely a bigger fan of Reveal than I am 20 years later. It sounded closer to the REM I knew than the previous album Up. The problem is that Reveal just doesn’t age as well. I can see what they’re going for with a throwback sound. It’s almost like the REM version of Beach Boys Pet Sounds. Imitation of Life is still one of my all time favourite songs from the band, not to mention one of their best music videos. Half of the album really delivers, while the other half is made up of largely forgettable songs. On the plus side the songs are just forgettable and not necessarily bad.
Highlights: The Lifting, Imitation of Life, I’ll Take the Rain
13 – Out of Time (1991)
There is a lot to love on Out of Time. Nothing more so than Losing My Religion. It is without a doubt REM’s signature song, and they’ve had countless classics over the years. This is more than a one track album though. Half a World Away, Country Feedback and Me In Honey are all solid tracks. I’d even go as far as to say Me In Honey is a great track. Radio Song’s a decent lead off track, although it’s a lesser version of Begin the Begin or Pop Song 89. The common criticism with Out of Time is always directed at Shiny Happy People, which even the band admit to having issues with. It’s silly, but I almost feel its unfairly criticized. It’s far from a great song, but in recent years it has become cool to hate it, and it deserves slightly more appreciation than it gets. Peter Buck’s guitar and the strings keep it from being unlistenable. This started the 3 album commercial peak of the band’s career. Perhaps its just the fact they got so much better throughout the 90s creatively that I view Out of Time as a lesser album. The main issue I have with Out of Time is that it’s a solid album I rarely get the urge to listen to again. They weren’t having nearly as much fun as they had on Green a few years earlier, and weren’t nearly ballsy enough to get as experimental as they would on Automatic and Monster within the next several years. To me Out of Time sounds like the safest bet the band was willing to risk taking in 1991. Thankfully the safer bet Out of Time alone sold 18 million copies worldwide which allowed them the freedom to do whatever they wanted from this point on.
Highlights: Losing My Religion, Me in Honey, Half a World Away
12 – Fables of the Reconstruction (1985)
This is an album that takes some time for it to grow on you. Probably the only divisive REM album from the 80s. Some people are bored to tears by it, some swear it’s the single greatest album the band ever produced, There’s definitely a bit of a dreary sound to it, which after a few listens you can actually grow to appreciate. It does sound darker and less optimistic than anything else the band would make for at least a decade. The production values are the strongest of their first 3 albums though. What’s unusual is this was the only time the band ever recorded overseas, and yet Fables has the most distinctively southern rock sound of anything REM did before or after this. Something about London, England brought the Athens, Georgia out of the band. Much like Out of Time my only real complaint about Fables is that I don’t feel the need to go out of my way to listen to the album start to finish as much as others. This is without a doubt one of the more cohesive concepts in the REM catalogue. Everything on Fables of he Reconstruction sounds like it belongs only on Fables.
Highlights: Green Grow the Rushes, Wendell Gee, Driver 8
11 – Up (1998)
This is the one REM album that kind of sticks out like a sore thumb. It’s almost always ranked as one of their lowest albums, which is somewhat understandable as it doesn’t always sound like an REM album. Replacing one of the greatest drummers of all time is a near impossible task, and the rest of the band almost broke up as result. Instead they opted for drum machines and session drummers. You can hear the uncertainty in the recordings, not just in the drumming but even from Mike, Peter and Michael’s contributions. While the weaknesses of Up are obvious, I really do appreciate it for what it is, an experiment from a band not quite sure how to pull an album together. Of the first 3 albums made without Bill Berry, Up is the most bipolar, but it also contains some of the most interesting songs of this era. Definitely a sadder sounding album than most would be used to hearing from REM. At My Most Beautiful, Suspicion, Daysleeper and Falls to Climb are pretty close to being perfect songs. There’s also Lotus and Walk Unafraid to perk you up a little throughout. While I’d never rank an album higher just because of the difficulties in making it, it says a lot that there are that many really memorable tracks compared to the next few albums that would follow. Makes me wonder how great Up could have been if Bill Berry was still in the picture.
Highlights: Falls to Climb, Walk Unafraid, Daysleeper
10 – Green (1988)
This was REM’s first major label release after moving from IRS to Warner, and without a doubt the budget was spent on the production side. It sounds cleaner and at times far more complex than any of the IRS releases. The one issue with Green is how obvious it is that the band was in a transition. Half the songs sound like they belong in the company of the previous album Document, and the other half sound like a dress run for the poppier sound that would follow this on Out of Time. I’d argue that they were far more successful with the pop songs like Stand, Get Up and Pop Song 89 than on anything from Out of Time. Bill Berry might be at his best on this album. It’s an example of what every rock drummer should do. The album does drag a little on the last 3 tracks. While I’m sure fans from their earlier work in the 80s would have considered this a sell out in 88, it’s at times a brilliant step in a new direction that helped make R.E.M. a phenomenon over the next decade.
Highlights: Pop Song 89, Stand, Turn You Inside Out
9 – Reckoning (1984)
Coming only a year after their debut album, Reckoning takes a big leap in terms of the instrumental play. While it doesn’t have the same hooks and memorable melodies as Murmur, it does have more complex songs overall. From the opening seconds of Harborcoat you can tell this was a 4 piece band that all put in equal effort to sound like a cohesive unit. Every bass line, guitar chord and drum beat feel just as important as the vocals, which is something few bands put the effort into accomplishing. A few of the tracks feel a little out of place. Don’t Go Back to Rockville is a perfect example. While it may be the best song on the album, it probably belongs more on Murmur than here on the follow up. Meanwhile Time After Time and Camera have the complexity and maturity that a band this new shouldn’t have been able to achieve on only their second album.
Highlights: Don’t Go Back to Rockville, Pretty Persuasion, South Central Rain
8 – Collapse Into Now (2011)
It’s common for the later albums of a long running band to not get the love they deserve. R.E.M. knew when they entered the studio to record Collapse Into Now that it would be their final album, even though the band didn’t announce their retirement until several months after its release. It does take a few listens to fully appreciate, but once you’ve become familiar with it it’s hard to imagine a better final album from the band. Collapse eecompasses bits and pieces of every era or REM. If this album had nothing else it gave us one of the best REM songs in years with Discoverer. The fact is there’s way more to this album than it’s ever given credit for. You have the energy and fun of Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter, the epic acoustic strings ballad of Oh My Heart, the catchy pop rock of Mine Smell Like Honey and then the perfect haunting ending with the experimental Blue. The final moments reprise Discoverer to give the album and the band a closer that feels like a closer to a 30 year career. And the bands were the only ones to realize this when the album was first released.
Highlights: Discoverer, Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter, Oh My Heart
7 – Document (1987)
I often forget this was the last IRS release as the production is so top notch and polished compared to everything that came before. That’s credit to Scott Litt producing for the first time, and his work with REM would be successful enough that there would be 4 more to come. He makes this feel like a big budget major label recording, even though there’s still a year away from that. What Document has over so many other REM albums is that every song blends into the next one perfectly. That’s not to say its a chore to listen to any of these songs on their own, but I would have loved for REM to do a concert playing Document in its entirety. I feel every decade there’s that one REM album you could give someone who’s not yet a fan to win them over and understand what the band does so well. Although Document is not my favourite of their 80s albums, it is the most accessible, and most likely the smartest and most accomplished musically.
Highlights: The Finest Worksong, The One I Love, It’s the End of the World As We Know It
6 – Murmur (1983)
Nobody in mainstream music sounded like R.E.M. in 1983. They had a bit of post punk sounds on Radio Free Europe, an update of 60s jangle pop on Catapult, a brilliantly repetitive hook of We Walk, slower sad melodies on Perfect Circle and Talk About the Passion. Debut albums are often regarded as being unbeatable, and in many cases they are simply because bands have years to perfect their songs until they’re signed and start recording. In the case of R.E.M. and Murmur the album was released only 3 years after they played together for the first time, and maybe 6 months after the Chronic Town EP came out. This is a brand new band working on a limited budget that managed to make one of those neat perfect debut albums that sounds like they’d spent years perfecting the material. There isn’t one dud on Murmur. There isn’t even any so-so songs. Every song could have been released and become a hit with the right exposure.
Highlights: We Walk, Radio Free Europe, Sitting Still
5 – Accelerate (2008)
Echoing what I said about Collapse Into Now earlier, the later albums of a long running band are always judged way too harshly. Accelerate is one of the best examples of this. It’s not that it has ever been a criticized or hated album, but I believe if this exact same album were released in 1988-1998 without changing anything other than the copyright date, it would universally be considered one of the bands best albums ever. That’s exactly what I believe Accelerate is, one of the best ever efforts. After the trio of post Bill Berry albums that slowed down the pace, lacked a bit of direction and couldn’t help but depress you a little bit in the intentional choice of sounds, Accelerate is the definition of a return to form. The album is louder, more energetic and back to basics. While it perfectly fits in with the classic REM sound of the Document and Green era, it never sounds retro and therefor avoids being a complete throwback. This is both a classic sounding REM album and a very modern 2008 rock album.The opening three songs might be the most fun and up tempo the band has ever had. The album slows down enough on songs like Hollow Man and Mr Richards without losing that energy. The only purely slower acoustic songs are Houston and Until the Day Is Done, and both are infinitely more listenable than 80-90% of the songs from the previous 2 albums. I’m Gonna DJ closes the album out with just as much noise and energy as the album opened with. If there’s one album in REM’s discography that deserves a listen from those who haven’t given the band a fair enough chance since their heyday in the 90s, Accelerate is it.
Highlights: Mr. Richards, Supernatural Superserious, Living Well Is the Best Revenge
4 – New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996)
I don’t know whether this was an album ahead of its time or just largely ignored on its release. Its incredible how it went from being considered a disappointment in 1996 to being considered one of REM’s masterpieces in the decades since release. Perhaps it’s a bit of both. I never disliked New Adventures, in fact I remember loving it when it came out and always wanting to defend it to those who were dismissive of it. But in all fairness, even I find myself appreciating it significantly more as time passes than I did during the 90s. It’s definitely not as radio friendly as previous albums. Outside of Bittersweet Me, Wake Up Bomb and maybe Departure, its hard to imagine your casual fan catching onto anything on first listen. The fact that the band released one of their most experimental songs ever, E-Bow the Letter, as a first single might have alienated a lot of the more casual REM fans. They had built an audience just through the radio hits from Green to Monster, so New Adventures would have come as a bit of a shock at the time. Although this has a very modern sound for 1996, the bare bones of some of the more experimental songs like E-Bow, Leave and How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us would have fit right in during the IRS era. The unusual and daring sound of New Adventures in Hi-Fi is partly what makes it such an amazing listen. But daring production means nothing without fantastic songs which there are exactly 14 of here. And with 14 songs at over 65 minutes this is by far the longest REM album, yet not one second feels like filler.
Highlights: E-Bow the Letter, Electrolite, Wake Up Bomb
3 – Lifes Rich Pageant (1986)
Although they would still have one more album on IRS Records after this, I consider Lifes Rich Pageant to be the end of the first era in R.E.M’s evolving sound. This was like the culmination of the small time indie band reaching their peak. It was the last time one of their albums had more of a live feel than a studio feel. One of the biggest strengths of the album is Michael Stipe’s vocals. Stipe always had one of the most unique tones, but this was the album where he became a great vocalist. This is easily the most fun R.E.M. album up until this point in their career with Begin the Begin, These Days, I Believe and Superman keeping the energy up. There’s a perfect blend of depth in the album as well with Fall on Me and Swan Swan H being just as listenable at a slower tempo than most of the more rock oriented songs. Fall On Me in particular deserves to be talked about today as perhaps the first real pro mainstream song they released. It was smart lyrics, complicated vocal arrangements and the instantly recognizable lighter hook that the band would become so famous for later on with songs like Everybody Hurts, Electrolite and Losing My Religion. Lifes Rich Pageant is a transition album executed with perfection. It gives you everything the band was famous for on a bigger and better level while taking small enough steps in the direction they intend to head in without alienating the audience.
Highlights: Begin the Begin, Swan Swan H, Fall On Me
2 – Automatic For the People (1992)
I’m aware most fans would consider it a disgrace to have anything other than Automatic For the People at #1. For me it only comes down to my love for one album being slightly more than my love for this one. Even at #2 on this list I would still rank Automatic For the People in my top 10 or 15 favourites albums ever recorded. Everything on Automatic For the People sounds like the REM that had come before, and yet there isn’t a single song on the album that I believe belongs on any other album other than this one. The closest thing to criticism I have has nothing to do with the quality of the album, only that the massive success of Everybody Hurts eclipsed even better songs like Drive and Nightswimming. After Out of Time sold 18 million copies and made R.E.M. a bigger deal than anyone could have imagined it should have been an impossible task to equal or top that success. Despite the band intending to record a harder return to rock album, they instead went full acoustic with strings and piano, and yet it again managed to sell 18 million copies worldwide. Automatic for the People is the definition of lightning in a bottle. Nothing here should have worked, and yet every song manages to be absolutely perfect.
Highlights: Drive, Nightswimming, The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite
1 – Monster (1994)
Monster was well received on its release. It’s still considered to be a strong album to this day, but has really never broken out of that middle of the road reputation when compared against the rest of R.E.M’s discography. One reason could be that it’s sandwiched between Automatic for the People and New Adventures in Hi-Fi were are considered classics. Another reason could be that it’s just a radical departure from what the band’s sound, especially coming off two largely acoustic albums. This isn’t just the noisiest album they ever recorded. It’s the noisiest by a long shot. While the increased use of distortion, reverb and heavier use of effects may not be every R.E.M. fans cup of tea, I love it for being so boldly different. Often considered R.E.M’s album inspired by grunge, it’s actually a lot closer to 70s glam rock than it was the grunge music of the era. Just like Automatic For the People, you couldn’t take any of these songs and put them on a different album other than Monster. Every track sounds like it only belongs on Monster. Every track offers something completely different as well. What’s the Frequency Kenneth is a classic stadium rock anthem. Crush With Eyeliner follows and fully embraces 70s glam rock. King of Comedy brings a bit of electronic programming, not to mention unrecognizable Stipe vocals and sounds straight out of an 80s New Wave compilation. I Don’t Sleep I Dream gets moody and slow while still retaining the rock edge. Star 69 has some 70 punk influence (with an obviously dated 90s theme for the lyrics) and Strange Currencies is a full on ballad, and maybe the only conventional song on the album. That’s just the first half. There’s a lot of experimentation on Monster with different sounds and genre, and yet it all comes together and creates a cohesive sound. It’s not really the R.E.M anyone expected, and they only retained this sound on a few songs for future albums, but to me this is perfect from start to finish. I almost consider Automatic For the People and Monster to share the top spot as both would be ranked in my top 10 albums of all time, so maybe a small part of my ranking for Monster is that I see it as the more underrated album.
Highlights: What’s the Frequency Kenneth, Tongue, Crush With Eyeliner