Finding the best R.E.M. album is easy at first because you can quickly separate the wheat from the chaff. There are very few meh R.E.M. albums. They’re either phenomenal or terrible.
But the thing about R.E.M. is it’s hard to pick a favorite. You might poll 10 fans and get 10 different answers. I’ll probably get scathing emails from people because I’ll say that 1994’s Monster is the worst album they’ve ever made, and they’ll proclaim its perfection.
But there you go. I’ve already plucked one from the list, and it’s my blog, my list. I invite you to play along at home and publish your own blog with your own favorite R.E.M. album.
First, the Bad
So yeah, we almost have two lists, the bad and the good. Sadly, most of their later output falls under the bad category, starting with 2001’s Reveal. So we take that one, 2004’s Around the Sun and their last release, 2011’s Collapse Into Now, off the list immediately. All have precious few merits, and they’re not enough to keep them in this evaluation.
Also gone from contention are some albums from their middle-aged years, which includes Monster and New Adventures in Hi-Fi. I’ll also cut 1987’s Document from consideration. It has about three songs that are well-thought-out, and the rest just sounds like they phoned it in.
The one release from their later years that I haven’t mentioned, 2008’s Accelerate, is their only album in the middle of the pack. It starts off with energy and excitement for three songs, recalling their early years, only to falter as it goes on.
Surprisingly, at the top of the discard pile, I’ll put Automatic for the People, whom many would put at the top of their lists. It’s R.E.M. at their commercial peak, having sold 3.5 million copies, but it spawned the three most overplayed R.E.M. songs in history — “Everybody Hurts,” “Nightswimming” and the truly awful “Man on the Moon.” Its opening ballad, the morose “Drive,” quotes “Rock On” by David Essex, which belongs in the garbage heap of rock ‘n’ roll.
Getting Close to the Top
Even more of a shocker: 1998’s Up, their weird, electronic release (and the first without drummer Bill Berry) is the first album I’ll place in the top tier. It took some getting used to, but I’ve found it to be the first album that I really liked from this era. Berry’s departure forced them to think differently, and despite its oddities, it’s Eno-esque in places and is more different than anything they’ve ever done. It also includes my favorite R.E.M. song, the pristine Beach Boys-influenced “At My Most Beautiful.”
Then it’s a race to the top for the other six albums.
I always think Out of Time is better than it really is, with its monster single “Losing My Religion” and its rootsy sound. And “Near Wild Heaven” makes my blood glucose rise, it’s so full of sugary goodness. “Radio Song,” for all the criticism it gets, has a beautiful chorus and some old-school rap. But the album fades in quality toward the end, and “Shiny Happy People” drives it down a notch.
Next is the dark Fables of the Reconstruction, an album that almost tore the group apart. It’s brilliant in spots, subpar in others, and its consistency is its undoing. It defines the Southern gothic genre. “Green Grow the Rushes” is a favorite of mine, as is “Good Advices.”
Murmur used to be at the top of my list, but that was because everyone else had it at the top of their list, and it was Rolling Stone‘s Album of the Year when it was released in 1983. Certainly, for a debut album, it’s remarkable. The group sounds seasoned and more mature than they really were. “Radio Free Europe” has to be one of the best debut singles ever, and “Sitting Still” is jangle-pop at its best. But again, it also suffers toward the end; it’s as if R.E.M. doesn’t know how to finish off an album. They can do it, as we’ll see soon.
1988’s Green was the group’s major-label debut and yielded a top 10 hit in the corny “Stand,” one of the worst songs on the album. The first two tracks, “Pop Song ’89” and “Get Up,” are almost the best starters to an R.E.M. album you’ll find. And “Hairshirt” is melancholy perfection, as R.E.M. begins to experiment with a mandolin and finds its bittersweet sound to their liking.
Reckoning is their most underrated and forgotten album, although I noticed that NME ranked it No. 1 on their list of R.E.M. albums. I can’t point to a standout track here, but it’s probably their most consistent album, with the popular “Don’t Go Back to Rockville” and its country influences being my least favorite song on the LP.
That leaves Lifes Rich Pageant at the top of the mountain. This album is magnificent, from the angry strains of “Begin the Begin” to the bubblegum strains of “Superman.” It’s energetic but melodic, and the single “Fall on Me” is as good as it gets for this group. It’s also the first R.E.M. album I heard, so it holds a special place for me.