Discographically Speaking: R.E.M., Part 1
R.E.M. Week continues at Post Rock. Today begins the trek through the band's entire 14-album catalogue with a Discographically Speaking countdown. First comes the weaker half of the band's recorded output. It's all relative, though. When you start your career with five near-classic albums, your later work is bound to pale in comparison.
14. "Around the Sun" (2004) The lone R.E.M. album that really has nothing positive to offer. It's over-produced and substance-free. At its best, it just kind of floats along innocuously. At its worst, it sounds like an animatronic R.E.M. cover band playing some bland, unreleased R.E.M. songs. The band had its suspicions about how bad it was, too, as its release was sandwiched in between a pair of best-of collections.
13. "Reveal" (2001) This album feels like pandering, but they're not really pandering to anyone successfully. "Up" alienated lots of longtime fans, so the band shied away from some of the more experimental aspects of that album in favor of a more "classic" sound. But the guys didn't totally ditch the new effects, so the final product consists of more traditional R.E.M. songs with production that doesn't really fit, leaving nobody too happy.
12. "Monster" (1994) Maybe you remember this album fondly because it came out when R.E.M. was still among the world's biggest bands and it had a great lead single with "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" But go back and listen again and you'll find that it hasn't aged well and is an album that sees the band sacrificing some of its songwriting chops in favor of a big alt-rock sound that never really suited it. I count a couple of the other singles - the sappy-but-sterling "Strange Currencies" and groovy, delay-driven "Crush With Eyeliner" - as great moments in R.E.M. history; but after those three, there's really not much here.
11. "Up" (1998) It's certainly not perfect, but I'm willing to give the gang a semi-mulligan on this one. It was the first album without Bill Berry and they didn't want to simply replace him. So they went out of their comfort zone and used more synthesizers and drum machines than ever before - and a few times that approach even worked ("Suspicion," "Hope"). "At My Most Beautiful" is an enjoyable "Pet Sounds" tribute and "Daysleeper" is a much better re-writing of "Man on the Moon" than "Imitation of Life." The album does tend to drag, not just because it's long, but because it's generally a dour affair. The highlights - and there as many if not more than on most later R.E.M. albums - are well worth seeking out.
10. "Accelerate" (2008) At least this one has five standout songs, compared to the three on "Monster." And the aggressive nature of the album simply sounds more natural. Back in 1994 it could be seen as an obvious attempt to stay relevant during the alt-rock boom, and sure, you can argue that this time it was the band trying to inject some youthful energy. Here's the main difference: On "Monster," it was as if the band knew what kind of sound it wanted to achieve and tried to fit the songs into that sound. On this album, the songs and sound work in better unison. "I'm Gonna DJ," "Horse to Water" and "Man-Sized Wreath" have a singular purpose - rock hard and loudly.
9. "Out of Time" (1991) If it was just "Radio Song," that would be ... close to tolerable. If it was just "Shiny Happy People" that would be ... something a bit worse than "close to tolerable." But having those two on the same album means it can only place this high. Add the fact that "Losing My Religion" is pretty much unlistenable at this point thanks to serious overplay for almost two decades and "Out of Time" just doesn't get too many spins. It would be even lower if we didn't get a delightful double-dose of Mike Mills on lead vocals with "Near Wild Heaven" and "Texarkana."
8. "Green" (1988) In third grade, this was absolutely my favorite album in the world. I definitely bought that cassette at Waxie Maxie's. Seeing R.E.M. at the Capital Centre on this tour was my first "cool" rock show. (Sorry, Huey Lewis.) So I'll admit there might be a bit of nostalgia at play in placing it here. Listening to it now, the production and overall sound is definitely of its time, and since that time is the late '80s, that's not a good thing. But the best songs are all so different and kind of weird - "Pop Song 89," "World Leader Pretend," "Orange Crush," whatever that last song is called.
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