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.

By David Malitz |  June 10, 2008; 10:31 AM ET Discographically Speaking
Previous: Six Questions (And Then Some) For ... R.E.M. | Next: Discographically Speaking: R.E.M., Part 2

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Not bad so far. I might rank OOT a little higher, over Green -- Country Feedback is great, overplayed or not LMR is great, and I do love those Mills vocals.

Also I'd probably put Reveal over Monster. Or maybe not: "Crush With Eyeliner" does rock. Always kind of liked "Let Me In", too.

I believe the last song on Green is officially named "11", though it's also referred to in some places as "11th Untitled Song" and "So Awake Volunteer".

Posted by: KR | June 10, 2008 10:57 AM

Aw, cmon, Green is great! Although I know what's coming up in the stronger half, and there's some good stuff...but I love Green!

And I believe I am on record (uh, among the people who knew me in 1994) as hating Monster from the beginning. It's grown on me a bit since, but it just sounded wrong. In fact, that's kind of when my falling-out-of-love process started, and none of the rest of the albums in this half of the list changed my mind. Until Accelerate, which I'm really enjoying.

Can't wait til Wednesday!

Posted by: h3 | June 10, 2008 11:36 AM

I often feel the same about LMR, then I don't listen to it for a month or so and find myself unable to turn it off at one point, mesmerized by how wonderful a song it is.

The Untitled track has one of my favorite REM stories - Peter wanted the drums played a certain way and Bill just couldn't comprehend how that beat would work. So Peter sat down and recorded the drums the way he wanted to.

Posted by: Brian | June 10, 2008 12:18 PM

I was all fired up to write an indignant defense of Green (not that you're attacking it, really, by ranking it as the median of the R.E.M. discography) along the lines of, "But it has one of their best songs!"

And then I had to go look up the title of the song I was thinking of, which probably says something.

It's "You Are the Everything." And it is a great song. Its semi-on-the-nose lyrics are much better than the totally-on-the-nose lyrics of "Everybody Hurts," and the tone of "Nightswimming," everybody's favorite R.E.M. non-single, is here, too.

Meanwhile, the rockers --"Get Up," "Orange Crush," "Turn You Inside Out" -- really do rock. But I wonder if my affection for Green isn't really more an affection for Tourfilm, which is just awesome.

Posted by: Chris Klimek | June 10, 2008 12:20 PM

I don't understand why everyone is so down on "Around the Sun". It's really not that bad of an album and "Leaving New York" is an amazing single. IMO, Around the Sun is a million times better than Accelerate which is vastly overrated. It's like critics feel compelled to rave about it simply because it has a catchy lead single and Peter Buck decided to plug his guitar in again.

Posted by: MasterShake | June 10, 2008 1:23 PM

Kudos to Chris K -- "You are the Everything" is one of my absolute favorite R.E.M. songs as well. But David's post about "Green" really ruined my day--This was his favorite album in THIRD GRADE??? I was a junior in college when that album came out! I suddenly feel so old . . .

Posted by: Delancey916 | June 10, 2008 2:19 PM

Green was the album that introduced me to them and I was in (ahem) 5th grade when it came out. Which now makes me feel pretty old. Man, some of those songs were pretty weird to a kid my age, primarily "The Wrong Child." And I saw the picture of Stipe on the inside & thought, "Cool, they have a girl in the band!" The untitled song is probably one of my favorite songs ever.

I've found that even on their later albums there is at least one truly outstanding song. I was surprised no one at the time, or even now I guess, thinks Reveal's "The Chorus & The Ring" is as amazing as I do.

Posted by: AnotherEngine | June 10, 2008 3:33 PM

Out of Time gets a lot of flak these days, and I agree it's inconsistent. But it also has plenty of great songs. Everything from Belong through Me In Honey is excellent. I would rank it #7, ahead of everything except Automatic and the I.R.S. albums.

Posted by: SSMD | June 10, 2008 3:45 PM

3rd grade in 1988? Yeesh! You want alt-rock? Try ELP, early XTC or King Crimson. REM blows.

Posted by: Ugh! | June 10, 2008 4:41 PM

Who said I want alt rock? I want music I like, and R.E.M. qualifies. Looking forward to the last installment of the R.E.M. blogathon!

Posted by: h3 | June 11, 2008 9:24 AM

I think I would rank Out of Time a little higher, and maybe because for me Losing My Religion still doesn't feel oversaturated (but then again I think I havn't had the full 20 years of overplayingness)

Posted by: PC | June 12, 2008 9:14 AM

Reveal is way better than what you give it credit for. Up is awful, sounds like the embarrassing Radiohead album that Morrissey thankfully avoided. Of these, Green is definitely the best (and I was in third grade too when Green came out). Btw, Dead Letter Office (w/ Chronic Town) is their best of all, but no mention?

Posted by: allabouteve | June 14, 2008 1:30 AM

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