It’s hard to think of a band that were more integral to, or had a greater impact on, the '80's US indie underground community, and the subsequent '90's alternative rock boom, than R.E.M.
From their formation in Athens, Georgia in 1980 until their disbandment in 2011, the quartet broke down the barriers between independent music and the mainstream, blazed a trail that everyone from Sonic Youth to Nirvana to Arcade Fire would follow, and used their platform to bring taboo subject matters and important issues into sharp focus via their music. In doing so, they became global stadium fillers and released some of the most stellar albums in guitar music history.
Here is their catalogue ranked from worst to best.
15. Around the Sun (2004)
R.E.M. have never released an album that you’d call bad, but it’s a commonly held view that 2004’s Around the Sun is the weakest collection they’ve put their name to, and the band themselves have admitted to feeling bored performing these songs.
There’s not loads here that jumps out as being particularly awful, although Q-Tip's feature on The Outsiders is as close as they ever got to it. That opening song Leaving New York is so good only shows up just how average the remainder of the record is. Inessential.
14. Up (1998)
The departure of drummer Bill Berry and the end of the band's long-standing relationship with producer Scott Litt were always going to enforce a period of adjustment for R.E.M., so it really shouldn’t be a surprise that Up is somewhat lacking.
The album's opening two singles, the folksy Daysleeper and the 60’s psych rock of Lotus, featuring vocalist Michael Stipe doing his best Elvis impression, are undeniably fantastic. But some of the experiments don’t work, with the electro rock of Hope and the chamber pop of Suspicion both outstaying their welcome. A rather confused set of songs, Up has its moments, but they are fleeting.
13. Accelerate (2008)
Four years after their most disappointing album, it was good to see R.E.M. go out of their way to address the malaise that seeped into Around the Sun. But, Accelerate is still someway off the benchmark set by their very best material.
For every memorable moment, like the mandolin and cello-led Houston or the killer first single Supernatural Superserious, there is a decent but fairly underwhelming moment; Until the Day Is Done feels like a decent impersonation of the band without ever really giving you much to truly love. As an exercise in slump reversal, it's job done, but not a lot else.
12. Collapse into Now (2011)
R.E.M. had considered splitting for years before this, their last studio album, was released, meaning that there is a very clear sense of finality, of wanting to go out with a bang, on Collapse Into Now.
It starts with all the energy of a band half their age, with Discover and All the Best recalling the indie rock blasts of their early years. And, although it mellows a touch straight after that, guest features from Peaches, careering through Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter, and Patti Smith, on the swirling, majestic album highlight Blue, is an inspired touch, making R.E.M.’s final statement an essential one.
11. Reveal (2001)
Reveal came as a lovely surprise, after the fairly directionless Up three years prior. It had been a long time since R.E.M. had penned a really massive hit single, but the joyously upbeat Imitation of Life gave the band one of the biggest songs of their career.
It is no-one off either, with the majority of the record leaning into a sunny, major key vibe that makes the band sound like a kind of artsy, cynical Beach Boys. Opening track The Lifting and second single All the Way To Reno are other highlights on an album that feels like a glorious return to form.
10. Fables of the Reconstruction (1985)
After a pair of albums which received critical praise and garnered the band a committed following, R.E.M. decided to do something a little different. Fables... is a concept album of sorts, thematically exploring various characters from the Deep South, which took the band to London, England for its recording.
The result is a rich and varied record, but one that has a deeper, grittier, post-punk feel to much of it. The throbbing, popping bass and jangling guitar on Old Man Kensey isn’t a million miles away from The Cure, and it’s impressive how easily R.E.M. take to the style. Different, but thumbs up for both exploration and execution.
9. Out of Time (1991)
The two biggest songs on Out of Time pretty much sum up the album in its entirety. Losing My Religion is a song of such monumental brilliance that it turned R.E.M. into one of the biggest bands on the planet, the pained lyrics beautifully detailing Stipe’s subliminal battle with his own sexuality. The throwaway Shiny Happy People was another huge hit, but it has aged pretty terribly, and the band themselves are clearly embarrassed by it.
Out of Time may have achieved classic status due to the good things here - Belong and Near Wild Heaven are also both excellent - but the odd throwaway pop moment stops us from bestowing that accolade on it.
8. Monster (1994)
After the unreal success of the slower, sombre Automatic for the People, and an elongated period of no touring, R.E.M. were keen to get back onto the road and turn the guitars up again.
Monster’s alt-rock crunch was given a mixed reaction back in the day, and there is no doubt it is an odd and oddly paced album. And although weird dance rock numbers like King of Comedy struggle to inspire, with the gorgeous Strange Currencies, the Vegas-crooning Crush with Eyeliner and the River Phoenix and Kurt Cobain tribute of Let Me In all present, Monster deserves a reevaluation; it's not perfect, but it's hugely underrated.
7. Reckoning (1984)
After releasing an underground classic debut album, R.E.M. took exactly one year to follow it up, giving you everything you’d want from a follow-up in the process. Reckoning fleshed out the band's ideas even further, adding bigger, bolder production and making everything pop a little more in the process.
The ska-esque opening to Harbourcoat and the chiming keys tag-teaming Mike Mills bass on 7 Chinese Bros. immediately show a band unwilling to rest on their laurels, and Pretty Persuasion is basically the perfect indie pop song. Murmur gets the nod ahead of Reckoning by a nose, just for getting there first, but this is still a fantastic album.
6. Murmur (1983)
One of the greatest debut albums of the 1980s, R.E.M.’s first long-player is a record of such fantastic consistency that it seems mad to think that they'd only been a band for three years prior to its release.
The quartet seemed to arrive perfectly formed, with Stipe's unique vocal stylings, Peter Buck’s glorious 60s paisley guitar style and the Berry and Mills rhythm section all present and correct, immediately giving R.E.M. a sound and identity all of their own. Radio Free Europe, Talk About the Passion, Sitting Still... even if they’d stopped here, people would still be talking about this band in awed terms.
5. New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996)
A tough one, this, as New Adventures... is essentially a composite of everything R.E.M. had done to this point, rather than having a unique personality of its own, but scores so high on the staggering quality of songwriting.
Yes, you might have already heard versions of songs like the riffy shuffle of The Wake-Up Bomb or the quirky but inescapably catchy Electrolite on previous albums, but at this stage of their career the band were masters of their craft. An album low on surprises, sure, but as a collection of songs it’s basically flawless.
4. Life’s Rich Pageant (1986)
Maybe it’s the rocker in us that compels us to puts Life’s Rich Pageant above a bunch of R.E.M.’s most popular and critically adored work but, undeniably the band’s fourth album is a proper rager.
The opening one-two punch of Begin the Begin and These Days might be the most adrenaline-fuelled opening to anything in their entire back catalogue. It’s not all just guitars cranked up ,though; the banjo opening of I Believe and the spaghetti western oddity of Underneath The Bunker show a band still keen to experiment. But hearing Peter Buck’s guitar roaring through Just a Touch, the main component that earns this album such a high position is clear.
3. Green (1988)
The first major label R.E.M. release, with the band reportedly signing to Warner Bros due to the label's promise of total creative freedom, although the fee of $6-$12 million probably helped too. This is one time where that change to a major made total sense, as R.E.M. had clearly outgrown the indie world at this point.
Anyone grumbling would have been sated by just how magnificent Green sounds. The wiry indie-rock stylings of their earliest material had gone, replaced by absolutely massive hooks and grand, kaleidoscopic guitar pop perfection on the likes of Pop Song ‘89, Stand and Orange Crush.
2. Document (1987)
The quartet's first time working with producer Scott Litt, a man who would go on to work with the band for their next five albums and be a part of all of their major successes, Document is also their indie label swansong.
Seems fitting, then, that their fifth album perfectly balances everything that is great about R.E.M.; Stipe is on fine, rabble-rousing form on songs like Exhuming McCarthy, Buck’s guitar had never sounded sharper, Berry and Mills never more propulsive. And Litt’s skyscraper production made them sound like superstars for the first time.
Looking back, The One I Love and It’s the End of the World As We Know it give more than a little hint that this band were capable of writing all-time anthems. And while most bands can only dream about their best album being as good as Document, it’s only R.E.M.’s number two.
1. Automatic for the People (1992)
One look at the track listing of Automatic for the People should give casual readers no doubt that this is the definitive moment of R.E.M.’s career. Quite how the band managed to fit so many classic songs on to one record is incredible, for it reads like a greatest hits set; Man on the Moon, Everybody Hurts, Nightswimming, Drive... these alone are the kind of moments a band pray for one of in a career. R.E.M. managed them all on one album.
But the real reason it sits atop this list is the beautiful, aching, poignant sadness that imbues every note, every line. Stipe’s tales of loss and reflections on his own mortality on the less celebrated likes of Try Not to Breathe are as perfect as the big hitters. Leaving not a single moment wasted on this genuinely classic, truly essential record.