Discographically Speaking: R.E.M., Part 2
7. "Fables of the Reconstruction" (1985) This one is rightfully seen as the weakest album of the band's I.R.S. years. "Feeling Gravity's Pull" and "Maps and Legends" let you know from the start that it's going to be an odd, gloomy, Gothic affair. It's a slippery sort of album; you can never get into a nice comfort zone when listening to it. After those first two, it settles down with some classic R.E.M. singles ("Driver 8" and "Life and How to Live It"). But then there's "Old Man Kensey" (I always thought this sounded like a Cure song) and the bizarre "Can't Get There From Here." I'm still not sure what that's all about.
6. "Automatic for the People" (1992) My main beef is that it feels like the band was quite clearly attempting to make a big, important, super-breakthrough album. To R.E.M.'s credit, it worked brilliantly. There are only a few moments where the goofy/fun R.E.M. shows up (the Elvis impression on "Man on the Moon," the entirety of "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite"), but there's no shortage of heavy-handedness. The songs ("Drive," "Man on the Moon," "Nightswimming") are good enough that it doesn't much matter - although "Everybody Hurts" was, is and always will be the most treacly song in the band's catalogue. This is R.E.M. trying to be everything to everyone and pretty much pulling it off, but still losing some of its charm in the process.
5. "Document" (1987) Through the first seven tracks, this can match any R.E.M. album. But it seriously loses steam at the end. It's an important transitional album because it was the first with Scott Litt and the band immediately sounded comfortable with bigger production values. The first five seconds of "Finest Worksong" must have been startling to fans at the time, but the band only sounds out of its element for a few brief moments (that weird drum into to "Lightnin' Hopkins" and the muted guitar on "Oddfellows Local 151"). Bonus points for one of the greatest novelty songs ever with "It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" - and for one of the most popularly misinterpreted songs ever in "The One I Love."
4. "Life's Rich Pageant" (1986) I'll admit that this one would have placed higher than "New Adventures" a few years ago. But while it may have been common knowledge to most people for a long time, I was only recently tipped that both "Fall on Me" and "Cuyahoga" - my two favorites on the album - were about, like, the environment. So I had to knock it down a notch. At least it will always hold the title of R.E.M. Album With the Best Final Track. We love Mike Mills here at Post Rock. Can you blame us?
3. "New Adventures in Hi-Fi" (1996) This was the beginning of the end for R.E.M. as a commercial force, but most people have come around on this album being the band's best post-"Automatic" effort. I probably like it a little more than most. A lot was made of how the album was recorded in different spots on the road during the "Monster" tour as opposed to doing the traditional single-studio thing. That commitment to the songs - the eagerness to get them right onto tape - really shines through. Like I said yesterday, "Monster" was an album with pre-defined parameters and it didn't really work. So the band's palette was wide open here and it's the last time they found success with so many different sounds. The rock songs ("Bittersweet Me," "So Fast, So Numb," "The Wake-Up Bomb") work as well as anything on "Monster." Stipe's sappy romanticism shines on "Be Mine" and "Electrolite." "New Test Leper" sounds like classic R.E.M. without feeling like a throwback. And then there's "E-Bow the Letter," one of the band's finest moments.
2. "Reckoning" (1984) And you thought it would get the top spot just because it's the only R.E.M. album Pavement wrote an entire song about. Well, it's really, really close. The drums on this one are a bit more forceful and there's a bit more bite in general. "Camera" is a near-epic, the first time the band really stepped away from its reliable jangle-pop formula. But man, was that jangle-pop formula perfected on this album - this time with a great sing-along element, as with "So. Central Rain" and "(Don't Go Back to) Rockville." And you couldn't ask for better side-starters than "Harborcoat" and "Second Guessing." This album has nine great songs, "Murmur" has 12, so it wins. (Yes, "Time After Time" is my least favorite song.)
1. "Murmur" (1983) It's not very multifaceted. It doesn't have a bunch of hit singles. It's still impossible to understand what Stipe is saying much of the time. It's not some groundbreaking piece of high art. But man, there is not a single thing you'd change about this album. Just 12 impeccable songs where every element works in perfect harmony. Peter Buck's jangle here remains one of the great guitar sounds of the past few decades. Mills and Berry find the perfect midsection of rhythm and groove - this could be the ultimate swaying album, which is perfect for non-dancers like myself. It's not lo-fi, over-produced or dated in any way. Simply a timeless classic.
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