Who’s better: R.E.M. or U2?
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.
With R.E.M. releasing its 14th album, Accelerate, and U2 planning their 12th album, I wanted to look at how their careers compare. I can’t guarantee that I’ll come up with a winner at the end; that would be like choosing which of your children is your favorite.
R.E.M. vs. U2: The numbers
Here’s a table of every year since 1980 that either R.E.M. or U2 has released an album:
|1984||Reckoning||The Unforgettable Fire|
|1985||Fables of the Reconstruction|
|1986||Lifes Rich Pageant|
|1987||Document||The Joshua Tree|
|1988||Green||Rattle and Hum|
|1991||Out of Time||Achtung Baby|
|1992||Automatic for the People|
|1996||New Adventures in Hi-Fi|
|2000||All That You Can’t
|2004||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||12th||18th|
|Average album chart position, UK||18th||7th|
|Top 10 albums, US (Number 1 albums)||7 (2)||7 (6)|
|Top 10 albums, UK (Number 1 albums)||8 (7)||9 (8)|
|Number of albums sold, total||19.5 million||43 million|
|Top 10 songs, US (Number 1 songs)||4 (0)||6 (2)|
|Top 10 songs, UK (Number 1 songs)||11 (0)||33 (5)|
|Top 10 Modern Rock songs (Number 1 songs)||14 (6)||18 (8)|
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.
Given that both R.E.M. and U2 both represented the rise of alternative rock in the 1980s, it’s surprising that their musical styles rarely, if ever crossed.
U2 often sang of the political problems of the moment and perfected the rock anthem, Bono’s emotional voice ringing above the Edge’s chiming guitars. R.E.M. – well, for the first five years, nobody knew what Michael Stipe was singing, and Peter Buck’s guitar playing paid homage to the Byrds. Let’s take a closer look at their musical styles.
U2 is from Dublin, Ireland, and it’s hard to believe that their musical style was not influenced by their country. Fiercely patriotic with a history of political and economic troubles, U2 reflected their society in their music. Bono’s passionate vocals are usually very clear and descriptive, whether he was speaking of Bloody Sunday (“And today the millions cry / We eat and drink while tomorrow they die”) or Martin Luther King, Jr. (“Early morning, April 4 / A shot rings out in a Memphis sky”)
Musically, the melody usually carries the song, with simple bass lines and chords; one of their most enduring songs, “Bad” from The Unforgettable Fire, consists mainly of two notes in the bass. “With or Without You,” their biggest hit, has four chords played over and over. The choruses are usually anthemic, with Bono holding long notes for dramatic effect (“In the n-a-a-a-me of l-o-o-o-ve”; “With or Without Y-o-o-ou”), usually by himself, with no harmonies. It makes it easy for audiences to sing along.
R.E.M. could not be more different. In the early years, Michael Stipe’s lyrics were indecipherable; fans held listening parties to try to decipher his warbling and mumbling, and even when one could understand the lyrics, you still couldn’t tell what it meant. (“They called the clip a two-headed cow”? Is “Fall on Me” about nuclear war or acid rain?) Once Stipe’s lyrics became clearer, he began to enunciate his political views more, but the jabs were more subtle than Bono’s.
But Stipe did tend to get more lyrics into a song, whether it was reading the liner notes of a gospel album (“Voice of Harold”) or rattling off nonsensical phrases (“It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”). Their music tends to be more complex, with bassist Mike Mills singing harmonies or countermelodies with Stipe.
The music was usually upbeat with R.E.M.; while they didn’t come up with the most hummable tunes, there were very few subpar songs. Until their later years, they were remarkably consistent. And they never took themselves too seriously.
Well, that got us nowhere. Let’s try to face each band member one-on-one to see who’s better:
Vocals: Both are the undisputed leaders and spokesmen for their group, although neither would acknowledge it. Both have a distinctive voice that one instantly recognizes as the sound of the group. Bono is more of a showman – no, a diva, with his now trademark sunglasses and his many alter egos onstage. Stipe says little during concerts, and his off-stage persona is shy and quiet. In the early years, his vocals were buried beneath the music, but as his voice and pitch improved, he was brought more to the forefront.
Who’s more annoying? Bono. Who’s the better singer?…Bono.
Guitar: Both the Edge (U2) and Peter Buck (R.E.M.) have developed their own styles that, like the lead singers, give the group a signature sound. The Edge’s guitar playing is set with a delay that makes it sound like a train sometimes, clanging and chiming and echoing into nothingness and creating an atmosphere on which Bono lays his vocals. In its time, it was unlike anything being played in popular music, but it has since been copied by other groups such as Radiohead and Coldplay.
Peter Buck’s style is a little more derivative, having shaped his sound from the Byrds. It’s an arpeggio-styled “jangle” (R.E.M. has been put in the “jangle pop” genre) that fills in the holes between Stipe’s ramblings and adds an extra layer of texture. They’re both indispensable. This one’s a toss-up.
Bass: The only clear winner in this face-off. Adam Clayton of U2 has been described by some as the luckiest person in rock; he has three marvelous musicians to hide behind. As described above, the bass lines in U2’s songs are simple, giving Clayton an easy job. But if you listen closely to “All Along the Watchtower” off of Rattle and Hum, a song with only four notes in the whole song, played the same way over and over, he still messes up.
Mike Mills, on the other hand, is an accomplished musician. His bass lines are often complicated and alive, and he assists the band in playing keyboards and background vocals. Mike has also written and sung lead on several songs as well. Mike Mills in a landslide.
Drums: Hmmm… This one’s a tough one, given that I know very little about the art of drum playing, and what constitutes good drumming. I notice Larry Mullen Jr.’s (U2) playing more, from his rat-a-tat-tat snare in Sunday Bloody Sunday to his booming tom-toms on The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree. He even survived U2’s foray into electronica. Bill Berry of R.E.M. complements the band, rarely taking stage center. So at first glance, it seems that Mullen gets the nod. But when Berry left R.E.M. in 1997, the band fell apart, releasing one bad album after another. Perhaps he is more valuable.
Sigh. Another tossup. U2 – 1, R.E.M. – 1, and two ties.
My Own Personal Opinion
I’ve read that, like Star Wars vs. Star Trek fans, you can never love both R.E.M. and U2; it’s either one or the other. But it’s just not true. I do love both of them. And at one time or another, I’ve hated both of them.
U2 was one of my first true loves. I discovered them in 1984 in the middle of the second British invasion, when my attention was drawn more toward Thompson Twins, Kajagoogoo and Wham! (Yes, I said Wham!). The Unforgettable Fire was a perfect introduction to the group, even though it was an atypical album for them. Their previous releases had been passionate, even angry; The Unforgettable Fire was both soothing and stormy. Laden with keyboards and synthesizers, it was dreamy, not unlike producer Brian Eno’s ambient works.
But it was their signature hit, “Pride (In the Name of Love)” that caught my attention. With the Edge’s guitar chiming away, I discovered that Bono was singing about something important. This was different from songs about Mickey and New Moons on Monday and Karma Chameleon. And as I discovered their back catalog, I heard their more political songs like “Sunday Bloody Sunday” (Gasp! They had a whole album entitled War!).
The Joshua Tree
As the buildup to The Joshua Tree grew, so did my anticipation. I was on a choir tour during spring break when it was released in 1987, and I persuaded the bus driver to stop at a mall in Macon, Ga., so I could buy it. And now as I look back, I can safely say that The Joshua Tree is the only follow-up album that has surpassed my expectations.
I played it constantly – so much that the cassette wore out and I had to buy another. I felt a rush of emotion as Larry Mullen beat the drums with a frenzy, opening the album and the first cut, “Where the Streets Have No Name.” I felt like crying every time I heard “With or Without You”, its slow beginning building until a sudden release of emotion by Bono, met just as intensely by the Edge’s echoing guitar and Mullen’s tom-toms that mimicked the beating of a heart. And I felt at peace with the strings accompanying “Mothers of the Disappeared,” the song that ended the album.
These guys could do no wrong. I loved them, I went to their concerts with a religious fervor, I readied myself in 1991 for the follow-up, which would vault them into the rock stratosphere.
Achtung Baby was the biggest disappointment of any follow-up I’ve ever heard.
The album has received great reviews, ranking right alongside The Joshua Tree as their masterpieces. But that new creative spurt meant exploring new sounds: European, techno, and electronic music. Distorted vocals, guitars and synthesizers were the norm, and their singles (e.g., “Mysterious Ways”) sounded too polished. In my view, U2 had sold out.
When their next two albums came out, I ignored them – especially Pop, in which they looked and sounded like Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Bono grew cocky, calling the White House and ordering pizzas during concerts, strutting around on stages adorned with giant lemons and the golden arches of McDonald’s, and sporting the now trademark wraparound sunglasses.
During most of the 90s, I was estranged from the group. They have since redeemed themselves partly with their last two releases, which have seen them get back to their roots. But still, in the back of my mind, I remember their experimentation. I have forgiven, but not forgotten.
R.E.M was a wild strange group when I first heard about them in 1986, (I grew up in north Georgia, where there was no access to college radio) but when I started listening to Lifes Rich Pageant, I found that they were relatively harmless. Little did I know then that LRP was about as hard-edged as the band would get; their back catalogue was surprisingly tame.
Over the next few years, I waited for the masterpiece that never came, but I was never disappointed, and each album was a new twist in genre and sound: The political overtones of Document, the pop sensibilities of Green (my favorite), the mandolin-laced Out of Time and the dark but accessible Automatic for the People. So when Monster was released in 1994, promising a return to the hard edge of Lifes Rich Pageant, I was excited.
Monster – a disappointment
Disappointment #1. Monster sacrificed melody for feedback and fuzzy guitars; it seemed as if Stipe and Co. were trying to reach out to Nirvana and Pearl Jam fans. It quickly became my least favorite R.E.M. album, soon replaced by the rough, hastily assembled New Adventures in Hi-Fi, and then replaced by the minimalist, electronic (!) Up, and then Reveal and Around the Sun. I can’t tell you anything about those two, they were so nondescript.
The loss of Bill Berry after New Adventures (he retired to his farm in Watkinsville, Ga.) seemed to be a huge blow, for they never really found their sound, or maybe even their identity. Sadly, R.E.M was no longer relevant. Like U2, they have begun to redeem themselves with this year’s Accelerate, but after five duds in a row, it’s a big hole to climb out from.
R.E.M. vs. U2: Who’s the Winner?
I guess I can say that my fervor for U2 was greater and more intense, but after Achtung Baby, I felt cheated, and U2’s fall from the pedestal was a long way down. R.E.M., on the other hand, has always seemed like a casual acquaintance, not letting you close enough so that you really know them. I liked most of their songs; I loved very few, and only one (“At My Most Beautiful,” the only jewel from Up) would make my Top 20 songs of all time. (That’s just a guess; I’m still formulating that list in my head.) Likewise, they’ve never had a true masterpiece of an album, but until the 90s, all of them were great. My heart belonged to U2, my head R.E.M.