It may not seem like it now, but for most of the 80s and part of the 90s both groups seemed to stare eyeball to eyeball, releasing one album after another. And their careers have been remarkably similar. Both bands:
Started in the early 80s, gained popularity during the decade and rose to prominence by the late 1980s.
Carried the banner of college and alternative rock and at one time were called the best rock band in the US/UK/World.
Had guitarists with a distinct sound.
Punctuated their songs with political messages (albeit in different ways).
Experimented with new sounds, with varying degrees of success.
Here’s a table of every year since 1980 that either R.E.M. or U2 has released an album:
The Unforgettable Fire
Fables of the Reconstruction
Lifes Rich Pageant
The Joshua Tree
Rattle and Hum
Out of Time
Automatic for the People
New Adventures in Hi-Fi
All That You Can’t
Around the Sun
How to Dismantle
an Atomic Bomb
U2’s career spans more years (28 to 25), but R.E.M. has released three more albums (14 vs. 11). In fact, R.E.M. has been remarkably consistent until recently, releasing albums annually from 1983 through 1988 and churning out five from 1991 to 1998. What’s remarkable is that during that first spurt of creativity, they put out their best work: Murmur, named Best Album in 1983 by Rolling Stone; 1985’s Fables of the Reconstruction, a dark, epic album that captured Southern tales and culture; and Lifes Rich Pageant, arguably their first (and best) rock album. They have been less productive during the 2000s, releasing only three albums since 1998 – and two of those are considered among their worst material.
U2 has been more deliberate, starting quickly (with four albums in five years). But it has spent four years between albums three different times, the latest being right now, as we’re waiting for the follow-up to 2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. But let’s take a look at the middle of the table, from 1987 to 1991. During these years, both bands were at their commercial and creative peak. U2 released what some consider one of the greatest albums in the rock era – The Joshua Tree – and after a mediocre soundtrack to their documentary, they waited three years before rebounding with their pivotal Achtung Baby. Meanwhile, R.E.M. finally got a top 10 song with “The One I Love” from 1987’s Document. They switched labels to Warner Brothers, got another Top 10 song with “Stand,” and then captured seven Grammy nominations (winning three) from their 1991 album Out of Time.
Here’s another table:
Top 10 Mainstream Rock songs (Number 1 songs)
Average album chart position, US
Average album chart position, UK
Top 10 albums, US (Number 1 albums)
Top 10 albums, UK (Number 1 albums)
Number of albums sold, total
Top 10 songs, US (Number 1 songs)
Top 10 songs, UK (Number 1 songs)
Top 10 Modern Rock songs (Number 1 songs)
Wow. Looking at it from a pure sales standpoint, there’s no contest: U2 wins hands down. They’ve sold more than twice as many albums and had more top 10 and number 1 songs. R.E.M. has never hit number 1 on either the US or UK charts, but surprisingly, they have fared better in Britain than in the US, with more top 10 albums, almost four times as many number 1 albums, and almost three times as many top 10 songs. Of course, U2 has amassed an amazing 33 top 10 songs in the UK. The only solace R.E.M. can take from these numbers is that they compare pretty closely on the mainstream and modern rock charts. But we already knew that they’re both darlings of college and alternative rock.
U2’s success has been energized by The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby, which account for 18 of the 43 million albums sold. Those two albums vaulted the band into Greatest Band in the World status, and despite a drop in popularity during the late 90s, they have bounced back in the 21st century with two solid albums, “reapplying for the job of best band in the world,” said Bono. They are arena rock superstars, and every one of their albums has gone at least platinum (1 million units sold).
R.E.M. can point to the early 1990s as the pinnacle of their commercial success. Out of Time, Automatic for the People and Monster each sold 4 million copies. But as they say on Wall Street, past performance is no indicator of future success. Once R.E.M. lost its drummer, Bill Berry, the group moved toward a more production-oriented sound, settling for conservative, middle-of-the-road folk-pop. As a result, Up and Reveal only went gold, and 2004’s Around the Sun barely sold 200,000 copies. That would get some bands dropped from their label. In fact, Blender magazine recently named Warner Brothers’ $80 million record contract with R.E.M. in 1996 as the 13th biggest record company screw-up of all time.
One final note: Some of both bands’ most popular songs did not transfer to chart success. Take, for instance, R.E.M.:
Radio Free Europe (#75)
Fall On Me (#94)
It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) (#69)
Everybody Hurts (#29)
Man on the Moon (#30)
Here are some of U2’s famous releases:
Sunday Bloody Sunday (did not chart)
New Year’s Day (#53)
Pride (In the Name of Love) (#33)
One (#10) – Successful, yes, but when compared to its legacy, not so much. Rolling Stone places it at #36 among the all-time greatest songs, and a similar Q magazine poll has the song topping the chart.
Beautiful Day (#21)
NOTE: These are U.S. chart positions only; most of these songs performed better in the UK, especially U2’s songs. We have a lot of work to do here in the USA. Hence, my blog.