Friday, 20 June 2014

The albums of R.E.M. ranked

Here's another thing I wrote some time ago with the intention of fitting it in somewhere amongst my story. Like Monday's rap piece, it never quite managed to fit in anywhere, so I just kept it to one side for a rainy day. Today is such a day (though as I'm scheduling it in advance I can't tell if it's a rainy day or not).

As you may have gathered over the past six months, R.E.M. have played a very significant part in my adult life. Here's my attempt at trying to rank their albums in order of awesomeness. Since I first wrote it, I've come back to it a few times; surprisingly I've never actually regraded or re-ranked anything.

So here is TheRobster's definitive guide to the albums of R.E.M. I've graded them out of 10, but bear in mind the gradings are relative; exceptionally high standards are expected for R.E.M. For instance, a 5 is below par for an R.E.M. record, but it’s probably equivalent to a 9 had anyone else made it. Except maybe Pixies...

1. Document (1987) 9.5
(from The College Years: Part Two posted 15 March 2014): 
The moment it started... the day R.E.M. entered my life and my very soul was changed forever. ‘Document’ was a revelation to me. To begin with I had never heard a voice like Stipe’s. By now out front and dominant, its reedy, almost sneering resonance disconcerted me for a bit. It was something I clearly needed time to get used to. It took about 40 minutes.

“The time to rise has been engaged,” he sings as the album’s opening lines, over a solid drumbeat and a repeated guitar note, all chiming and distorted. To a 16-year-old raised as a working-class socialist through the god-awful Thatcher years, this was an inspiration; a call-to-arms, a rallying cry. “What we want and what we need has been confused.” Wow, truer words have never been spoken, or indeed sung. Those first 20 seconds of Finest Worksong woke me from my teenage slumbers. I already sensed I was listening to something special, even if it did take a little longer to realise just how special R.E.M. were.
Over the years my fondness of ‘Document’ has not diminished; on the contrary it has grown and grown. I would easily name it in my top 5 albums of all-time purely on the music alone. In terms of what it means to me in respect of my whole life, the only other serious competitor would be the Pixies’ masterpiece ‘Doolittle’.

Finest Worksong - R.E.M. (from 'Document')

2. Murmur (1983) 9
To this day, regarded as one of the greatest debut albums of all time. And rightly so. A remarkable work for such a young band. Enough has been written about it already, just listen to it.

Sitting Still - R.E.M. (from 'Murmur')

3. Lifes Rich Pageant (1986) 8.6
4. Green (1988) 8.5
5. Fables of the Reconstruction (1985) 8.4
Very difficult to separate these. LRP just wins out because of its opening sequence of songs. 'Green' excites me to this day; Turn You Inside-Out, World Leader Pretend and Orange Crush truly represent R.E.M. at their absolute zenith. While 'Fables' is the band’s least favourite record, its southern storytelling, Byrds-esque guitar jangles and melodic vocals demonstrate American folk music at its very best and makes it one of my faves.

Begin The Begin - R.E.M. (from 'Lifes Rich Pageant')

Turn You Inside-Out - R.E.M. (from 'Green')

Life And How To Live It - R.E.M. (from 'Fables Of The Reconstruction')

6. Automatic For The People (1992) 8
I dunno, maybe I’m just bored with it. It is no doubt a phenomenal record, and any multi-platinum record that has a dirge like Drive as its opener is always going to be somewhat special. But it also has the embarrassing The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite on it, and I could really do without ever hearing Man On The Moon AGAIN! I’m in two minds with this album: is it worthy of being no. 6, or should it be lower? I’m far more likely to listen to 'Accelerate', 'Monster' or 'New Adventures' than AftP. Then I remember its sheer depth and the wonderfully emotive music and lyrics in songs like Try Not To Breathe, Nightswimming and Find The River, so on that basis, here it stays.

Try Not To Breathe - R.E.M. (from 'Automatic For The People')

7. Accelerate (2008) 7.9
8. Monster (1994) 7.8
9. New Adventures In Hi Fi (1996) 7.7

I love R.E.M. most when they rock out. These three do that. 'Accelerate' was a record they needed to make to reassure fans they still had it in them. It’s also short and to-the-point. 'New Adventures' by contrast was three or four tracks too long, but the fact most of it was recorded live gives it the edge their next three albums sadly lacked. Typically, while the critics unfairly derided 'Monster', I always unashamedly loved it, and still do.

Living Well Is The Best Revenge - R.E.M. (from 'Accelerate')

I Took Your Name - R.E.M. (from 'Monster')

Leave - R.E.M. (from 'New Adventures In Hi-Fi')

10. Out Of Time (1990) 7.6
Let down by its cringeworthy opener Radio Song and the horrible Shiny Happy People, a song even the band despises, OoT nonetheless contains some of R.E.M.’s finest moments. Forget the stupidly overplayed Losing My Religion, what about Low, Belong and my favourite R.E.M. song ever Country Feedback?

Belong - R.E.M. (from 'Out Of Time')

11. Reckoning (1984) 7.5
Putting this so far down my list may be deemed sacrilege, but I could never get into 'Reckoning' the way most die-hard fans could. I can’t explain why, there’s barely a bad song on it. Each to his own, I guess.

Camera - R.E.M. (from 'Reckoning')

12. Up (1998) 6.5
There was so much wrong with 'Up', I sometimes wonder why I defended it as much as I did. It was unfocused, lacked any real edge and was way too long. But the band had just lost their drummer, the guy who is generally accepted to have musically underpinned the band’s sound since their inception. This was, in many ways, an experimental record, and it does have plenty of high points. At My Most Beautiful remains a track Brian Wilson would probably kill to have made, while Hope, a homage to Krautrock icons like Kraftwerk and Neu!, is an unbridled triumph and a highlight of the band’s post-Bill Berry years (even if it does blatantly pinch its melody from Leonard Cohen).

Hope - R.E.M. (from 'Up')

13. Collapse Into Now (2011) 4
14. Reveal (2001) 2
15. Around The Sun (2004) 1
The game was up by 2011 and they knew it. From being one of the most critically revered acts of all time to a succession of poor reviews, there can only be one dignified outcome. Sadly, it came one album too late. 'Accelerate' would have been a great album to go out on. Instead, 'Collapse Into Now', a hotch-potch of mainly uptempo, but little-more-than-average songs, became R.E.M.’s swan song. Only its opener Discoverer raised its head above the mire enough to keep me interested. I still think it’s a really good song, actually.

The first time I heard 'Reveal', I felt so depressed. For a band to whom I had given the best part of 15 years of my life to put out something so drab and uninspired – I felt cheated, angry even. I hated the single Imitation Of Life. It sounded (and still does) like two completely different unfinished songs they welded together when they couldn’t be arsed to spend any more time on them. 'Reveal'’s one redeeming feature – the lovely I’ve Been High – wasn’t enough to save the band from my defection towards the far more exciting White Stripes. And then came 'Around The Sun', a record so resolutely awful, I can’t bear to even associate the name R.E.M. with it. It has no redeeming moments whatsoever. It sounds like a Travis record. The best record Travis ever made, mind, but that’s hardly a ringing endorsement.

Discoverer - R.E.M. (from 'Collapse Into Now')

I've Been High - R.E.M. (from 'Reveal')

Wanderlust - R.E.M. (from 'Around The Sun')


  1. Excellent post Robster and one which I'm sure will generate debate. I suspect that most folk's lists won't be radically different from yours.
    You've answered my question as to whether you could get one decent album from their last five - probably not!

  2. Great post, sooner or later I'll have to listen to all REM albums back-to-back. I do love 'Monster' too, btw.

  3. I can't agree with all your choices- Reckoning so low? And i think New Adventures is better than Monster, but both are too long. But a good piece. Most bands don't have such a big back catalogue now. I never got round to Accelerate so can't comment on that one. I still like Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight but haven't listened to AFTP for years.

  4. I am the oddity that really likes the 3 of Up , Reveal and Around the Sun - I will go and lie down now