By the time I came to R.E.M., they already belonged to the world. Only by retracing their catalog did I understand they had belonged first to Athens, Georgia; then to the South; and then to the college rock underground. But even when they strode the earth like giants— stadium-fillers and soul-winners second only to U2—there was always a pulse of strangeness to their music, a shroud of mystique, an aroma of the unknowable. Maybe this makes their success uniquely resonant in the South: Even winning mass acclaim didn’t make them feel less like outsiders. Their triumph was in how they brought a regional accent to a universal tongue. It was in how they started out strange, and mostly stayed that way.
Much of their other-ness can be attributed to Michael Stipe, one of the great rock singers of all time, whose earliest contributions to the band were cryptic lyrics delivered in mumbles and murmurs. Eventually he learned to enunciate, which isn’t the same thing as making himself clear: Even in their commercial prime, R.E.M.’s songs were often emotionally resonant and logically inscrutable. There’s also Peter Buck, who became one of the era’s most notable and influential guitar players by cribbing the jingle-jangle of The Byrds and the ragged simplicity of garage rock. Mike Mills, ostensibly the bass player, provided some of the band’s most memorable flourishes on organ, keys, and most crucially on harmony vocals; he and Stipe belong on any list of the all-time great rock and roll singing foils. Drummer Bill Berry was the band’s pulse— and, as became clear following his departure in 1997, their voice of reason.
If there’s an opposite to striking while the iron’s hot, R.E.M. did it masterfully and perhaps pathologically. Every successful album was followed by one that felt completely opposite. Sometimes these U-turns generated even greater successes: Consider that, after spearheading a revival in guitar rock, they got the biggest hit of their career by trading the guitar for a mandolin.
Ranking my favorite R.E.M. albums is tough because so many of them are good, and they are good for very different reasons. A majority of their studio albums are included here, but I will note one emphatic absence: Around the Sun, a limp and listless album released in the fall of 2004. Upon its release, I listened over and over, hoping to hear something that would redeem it. That’s the album that broke my heart.
Perhaps because the band never burned out— they amicably retired in 2011, a decade and a half past their commercial prime— their music isn’t romanticized like that of, say, Nirvana. Such is the curse of their steadiness and longevity. Kids today don’t know just how great this band was; here’s where I would start:
01. Lifes Rich Pageant (1986)
Captures a band in transition—but also a band in triumph. On their fourth album, R.E.M. still sounded every bit the scruffy Athens scene-setters, but by now it was obvious they were headed for the big leagues. To help them get there, they enlisted producer Don Gehman, who cleaned up their sound just enough for you to hear Berry’s beats glisten, and Stipe articulate his lyrics with greater clarity than ever. Rather than sounding boxed in by their ambitions, they sound inspired: How else do you explain the way frantic punk (“Just a Touch”) crashes into a stately Civil War ballad (“Swan Swan H”), with both of them preceded by an apocalyptic salsa (“Underneath the Bunker”)? This is also the album where Stipe’s slanted verse coalesced into a clear political worldview, or at least a galvanizing call against disengagement. I can’t necessarily parse every line, but I can tell that “Fall on Me” betrays a conservationist’s heart, and “These Days” champions the wisdom of youth. Years later, I don’t know which is more rousing: Stipe’s idealistic appeals (“we are hope despite the times”), or Mills’ pure bubblegum closer (a cover of The Clique’s “Superman”). The future seemed so bright!
02. Automatic for the People (1992)
By 1992, R.E.M. were ready to embrace their role as elder statesmen— meaning, a ruminative, ballad-heavy exploration of age, mortality, and lost innocence. Ruminative doesn’t mean austere, as Automatic for the People is richly textured and colorful. Part of that’s the string arrangements from John Paul Jones, but part of it’s the varied material, which includes a simmering sex song (“Star Me Kitten”), grown-up nursery rhymes (“The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite”), and Stipe’s hammy Elvis Presley impression in “Man on the Moon.” These songs are emotional counterweights to the more pensive songs, and make Automatic more than a funeral dirge: It’s actually a bracing affirmation of life lived fully. That’s important context for “Everybody Hurts,” the most basic thing Stipe ever wrote, which gains particular resonance when you hear it as a rejoinder to grunge’s nihilism and despair.
03. Reckoning (1984)
The one I play when I just want to hear R.E.M. in careening, garage-rock mode… which is pretty often. With the phrase “rivers of suggestion,” Stipe provides the perfect shorthand for describing his own lyrics; an adroit piece of self-criticism.
04. Monster (1994)
At the height of their celebrity, R.E.M. took to hiding in plain sight. On Monster, they bury their songs in murky wah-wah pedals, and Stipe evades the spotlight with story-songs of anguish, dysfunction, and kink. It sounds like the work of a band desperate not to be seen, yet they’re writing about characters crawling out of their skin for some kind of connection. The feedback-drenched “Let Me In,” written in eulogy for Kurt Cobain, tops “Everybody Hurts” to be their most persuasive answer to grunge. And the trashy, thrashy “Circus Envy” remains one of the underappreciated gems in their catalog.
05. Out of Time (1991)
Their sweeping, blockbuster pop album, loaded with lavish string arrangements and high-caliber guest vocalists. This generates some expensive filler, like the instrumental “Endgame,” but mostly it speaks to their confidence as a band: Even when they lean hard into platinum-plated studiocraft, they still sound like R.E.M. Most of the album feels irresistibly sweet, though its two best songs happen to be its most anguished: A mandolin-driven unrequited love song (“Losing My Religion”) and Stipe’s dejected, stream-of-consciousness relationship postmortem (“Country Feedback”). Some would say the album sounds a little too sweet, at least on the unabashedly chipper “Shiny Happy People,” which the band later said they hated. But by hearing it as a satire of the artificially upbeat, I think we should allow it.
06. Green (1988)
Among the things that R.E.M. were very good at, spindly folk songs and delirious bubblegum pop both rank fairly high on the list. Green is heavy on both, bearing witness to a band that was always going to sound idiosyncratic because they just had no other way to be. “Stand” always makes me wish they’d made a children’s album. Three songs later, Stipe is singing about chemical weaponry!
07. New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996)
One of the classic “recorded on the road albums” where the band channeled pent-up adrenaline into brave experimentation. (See also: U2’s Zooropa.) New Adventures contains some of their most adventurous writing, their goofiest larks, and their most muscular rock and roll performances; it’s a hodgepodge, but it adds up to a picture of a band with limitless possibility in front of them. A year later, Bill Berry left the band, and they would never sound quite this confident ever again.
08. Document (1987)
Fierce, polished, professional rock and roll; the one you’re most likely to hear playing on AOR radio stations to this day (assuming those still exist). I’m more partial to the ragged feel of Lifes Rich Pageant, but there’s no denying the power of their performances here. Contains two of their most essential songs (“The One I Love,” “It’s The End of the World as We Know It”), but my favorite moment is a boisterous take on Wire’s “Strange,” which they perform as a bubblegum anthem, and which sounds like it’s a song about R.E.M.: “Michael’s nervous and the lights are bright/ There’s something going on that’s not quite right.”
09. Murmur (1983)
They’d go on to write better songs, but Murmur remains an iconic debut. Come for the weird textures, the blurry vocals, and the perfect jangle of the guitars. Stay for the tunes: From the very beginning, R.E.M. were melodists of the highest order.
10. Reveal (2001)
Berry left the band in 1997, and the remaining trio embarked on a three-album boondoggle through increasingly-labored, synth-driven studio experiments. I would describe the first of these albums, Up, as an uneven but admirable adventure; and the third, Around the Sun, as hot garbage. Reveal is the trilogy’s middle chapter, and its most successful: Though it wants for the kinetic energy of the band’s rock and roll recordings, it almost makes up for it with its ravishing and romantic melodies, testimonies to the group’s fascination with The Beach Boys. This could almost pass for a Stipe solo album, and he has never sounded more tender as a singer or as a lyricist, penning warm, accessible songs about childlike faith, imagination, and the pains of growing up.
11. Accelerate (2008)
R.E.M. shook off the malaise of Around the Sun with this tight, fat-free rock and roll album—a risk-averse update of Document’s rock and roll professionalism. And professionalism is hardly without its merits. By this point R.E.M. knew a thing or two about cranking out monster riffs, pacing an album with real momentum, and refusing to wear out their welcome. They couldn’t recapture the mystique of the earliest records, and perhaps were wise not to try; they still knew how to sound like a cutthroat rock and roll band, and some days that’s all you can ask for.