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Ranked: R.E.M. Albums from Worst to Best
With the release of new album Collapse Into Now, Fluxblog founder and R.E.M. diehard Matthew Perpetua revisits the band's entire output.
By Matthew Perpetua
R.E.M.'s fifteenth album, Collapse Into Now, comes out this week. Wanting to rank their discography, we got in touch with the best qualified writer on the planet, Matthew Perpetua, who reviewed every single R.E.M. song for his blog Pop Songs 07-08. He also founded the world's first MP3 blog, Fluxblog, in 2002. Take it away, Matthew.
15. Around the Sun (2004)
There is no clear consensus on what the best R.E.M. album is, but pretty much everyone can agree on which one is the worst. Around the Sun isn't exactly a bad album, but it is well below the standard set by the band's body of work. It's a wildly uneven set of songs. A handful of strong tracks, like "Electron Blue," "I Wanted to Be Wrong," and "Around the Sun" are sprinkled in among uncharacteristically bland and mawkish tracks such as "The Worst Joke Ever," "Leaving New York," and "Make It All OK," the last of which may be the worst album cut in the band's history.
Listen: "Electron Blue"
14. Reveal (2001)
Reveal is only slightly less uneven than its successor, Around the Sun, but it's more successful in evoking a sustained mood. This is R.E.M. at their most languid and luxurious, but for every lovely, ornate track such as the electronic ballad "I've Been High," there's an overbaked, drowsy number like "Beachball" to drag down the album's overall quality.
Listen: "I've Been High"
13. Accelerate (2008)
Accelerate was a welcome return to loud rock and roll after a decade focused on muted, keyboard-centric studio pop, but in retrospect the album was a bit too narrow in its focus. The band certainly sounds lively, and tracks like "Living Well is the Best Revenge" and "Horse to Water" are among their very best rave-ups. But their obvious need to prove themselves as a viable rock band and the lyrical focus on Bush-era politics have made the album age awkwardly.
Listen: "Living Well is the Best Revenge"
12. Up (1998)
Up would rank a lot higher on this list if only the album were a bit shorter. R.E.M.'s first record without longtime drummer and co-songwriter Bill Berry finds the group doing their best to adjust to their new status quo, resulting in some successful experiments with electronica and atmospheric lounge pop. Even the weakest tracks are pretty good, but it just goes on for too long without many noticeable dynamic shifts.
11. Collapse Into Now (2011)
Collapse Into Now is the best R.E.M. record since the departure of Bill Berry, if just for its casual, relaxed tone. Whereas the other post-Berry albums sound like the band is either trying to solve a problem or prove a point, Collapse finds them playing to their strengths as songwriters and delivering a cohesive album without getting stuck on a particular musical theme.
10. Out of Time (1991)
R.E.M. broke into the mainstream with Out of Time, an oddball grab bag of mannered chamber pop ("Losing My Religion," their biggest hit), mournful dirges ("Country Feedback") and upbeat bubblegum ("Me in Honey"). KRS-One's cameo on "Radio Song" may be cringe-inducing and the aggressively cheerful "Shiny Happy People" is certainly not for everyone, but nevertheless, the record features some of the lushest, most lovelorn songs of their career.
Listen: "Country Feedback"
9. Fables of the Reconstruction (1985)
Fables of the Reconstruction is the band's most "southern" album, at least in terms of atmosphere and lyrical content. Most of the songs are portraits of eccentric small-town loners; the rest deal with themes of isolation, escape, and imagination. There are a few minor cuts in the mix, but there is no question that "Feeling Gravity's Pull," "Good Advices," and the gleefully unhinged "Life and How to Live It" rank among the band's finest works.
Listen: "Life and How to Live It"
8. Lifes Rich Pageant (1986)
Lifes Rich Pageant marks R.E.M.'s first major creative shift, with the band downplaying its established jangle-pop and embracing a brash, lively rock sound better suited to the bigger rooms they had worked their way up to on the touring circuit. The most memorable cuts fall between those aesthetic extremes, such as the beautifully harmonized single "Fall On Me" and the folksy rockers "These Days" and "I Believe."
Listen: "These Days"
7. Green (1989)
Green is a transitional work for the band, caught between the politically aware arena pop of Document and the more delicate acoustic music that would follow on Out of Time and Automatic For the People. The album splits evenly between perky rockers and gorgeous ballads, but it's remarkably coherent as a whole, thanks in large part to Michael Stipe, who turns in some of the most impressive vocal performances of his career.
Listen: "You Are the Everything"
6. New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996)
The band's final album with Bill Berry is an eclectic travelogue written and recorded mainly while on their troubled world tour for Monster in 1995. It's an ambitious, nakedly emotional collection of songs that touches on most of the band's established strengths while staking out new territory in experimental cuts such as "Leave," "How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us," and the heartbreaking Patti Smith duet "E-Bow the Letter."
5. Reckoning (1984)
R.E.M.'s second album is full of references to storms and floods, but it sounds like wide-open bright blue skies. That's because Reckoning is basically a record about living in the aftermath of trauma and change (like, say, suddenly becoming a rock star after years of being a shy introvert). This is the R.E.M. jangle pop sound at its most elemental — Peter Buck would spend the rest of his career either trying to avoid repeating his guitar sound here or attempting to reconnect with it.
4. Monster (1994)
R.E.M.'s most underrated album, bar none. Monster's detractors claim that it was a cheap attempt to cash in on the grunge zeitgeist of the early 1990s, but the truth is, the record sounds very little like anything from that era, much less anything that came before or since. All through the album, the band buries elements of glam and soul music under loud, super-processed guitar parts that evoke images of super-saturated colors and melting candy. It's a flirty, sexy record with a dark undercurrent — nearly every track is about obsession in one form or another.
Listen: "Crush With Eyeliner"
3. Document (1987)
Document is a strange yet totally natural synthesis of political folk-pop and arena-rock grandeur. The lyrics have a dark, cynical edge, but the melodies are vibrant and assertive, particularly on stand-out tracks such as "Disturbance at the Heron House," "Exhuming McCarthy," and "Finest Worksong." Document's balance of apocalyptic dread and manic energy reaches its pinnacle on "It's the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)," a song that has evolved from a minor hit at the time of its release to one of the band's most iconic tunes.
Listen: "Disturbance at the Heron House"
2. Murmur (1983)
Much like Monster, the band's first LP is a distinct musical world unto itself, full of chiming, crystalline guitar arpeggios, unconventional harmonies, crisp percussion, and no shortage of foggy late-night ambiance. Stipe establishes himself as one of rock's most fascinating and inscrutable frontmen, mumbling his way through verses while dropping evocative references to mythology, dream worlds, and severe anxiety. Murmur ranks among the most confident and fully-formed debut albums of all time, and if R.E.M. had broken up immediately after releasing it, they might still be legends to this day.
1. Automatic For the People (1992)
Automatic For the People is often understood as being R.E.M.'s album about death and mourning, but it's really their meditation on living with the awareness of mortality. Stipe and the band touch on deep, elemental fears and existential dread with remarkable subtlety, while knowing enough to make the soulful anti-suicide anthem "Everybody Hurts" as direct and obvious as possible. The spectre of death hangs over every cut, but the album's most moving songs, such as the sentimental remembrance "Nightswimming" and the cautiously optimistic "Find the River," rejoice in the small moments that make life worth living. Automatic For the People is timeless and profound, and manages to be uplifting without ever seeming condescending or corny.
Listen: "Find the River"