Discographically Speaking: R.E.M., Part 2

(Yesterday's Part 1)

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.

By David Malitz |  June 11, 2008; 9:23 AM ET Discographically Speaking
Previous: Discographically Speaking: R.E.M., Part 1 | Next: Talk About the Passion

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"Harborcoat" actually opened the show in Raleigh last night. We also got "7 Chinese Bros." and "Pretty Persuasion", plus--in the encore--"Sitting Still" with Don Dixon and Mitch Easter guesting on guitars and backing vocals.

Posted by: Dirty Davey | June 11, 2008 9:45 AM

Good list. My own preference, but I'd put Life's Rich Pageant at the top. It's always been my favorite and it also has one of the best intro songs ever. I'd drop Automatic for one reason - "Drive." I never understood the popularity of that song. Maybe this should be a "Please Explain to Me..." Finally, I'd move up Fables because I have to disagree - I think "Can't Get There From Here" is a terrific song. Basically, my top 5 would be the first 5 albums (in order: Pageant, Reckoning, Murmur, Document, Fables).

Posted by: Swan Swan H | June 11, 2008 10:06 AM

Wow...you didn't mention they also did "Auctioneer" and "1,000,000." What a set.

Going to the show tonight and I can't wait to see what they pull out.

Posted by: AnotherEngine | June 11, 2008 10:07 AM

Ok, no way would I put New Adventures above Life's Rich Pageant and Fables. And I like some of the songs on Automatic, but I just hate Everybody Hurts so much, it brings down the rest of the album for me...and I don't think much of New Orleans Instrumental No. Whatever, either. Once that album hits the middle, I start skipping tracks.

1,000,000? HARBORCOAT? Holy cow! I can't wait!! (I mean, I don't need those specific songs, but wow!!)

Posted by: h3 | June 11, 2008 10:14 AM

And there stands R.E.M.

I'd shuffle these a bit:

Murmur
LRP
AFTP
Document
Reckoning (like Murmur pt. 2, but... something's missing)
NAIHF (like Wowee Zowee in scope and hindsight requirement, amiright?)
FOTR

Posted by: David | June 11, 2008 10:15 AM

Here's my list. I don't consider anything post 1992 since I don't know those records:

1. Reckoning
2. Murmur
3. Life's Rich Pageant
4. Fables
5. Green
6. Document
7. Automatic
8. Out of Time

My list turns out to have a pattern in terms of chronology. 2->1, 4->3, 6->5, 8->7

I am going to check out New Adventures in Hi-Fi

Posted by: vincey | June 11, 2008 10:19 AM

There's about a 3% chance that we don't get "Rockville" tonight, but if they played multiple Reckoning songs yesterday then I will still hold out hope for "Pretty Persuasion". And "Sitting Still" too! Hope they do that again. As far as Chronic Town (which is not in the list, by the way) goes, I'd rather hear "Wolves, Lower" or "Gardening at Night" than "1,000,000", but I'll try not to be too picky. :)

Anyway, I basically agree with the list, though I'd drop Document down a few spots.

Posted by: KR | June 11, 2008 10:33 AM

KR, we can do a separate ranking of albums that aren't quite albums. My list:
1. Chronic Town
2. Dead Letter Office

Posted by: h3 | June 11, 2008 10:41 AM

I know this is a minority opinion, but Murmur seems dated to me. At the time it came out, it was huge and I loved it then. As new wave began defining the sound of that era and synthesizers ruled, the guitars sounded so fresh. But I listen to it rarely now. Automatic and New Adventures, though, are in steady rotation. Those are my top two, followed by Reckoning, whose songs were better than Murmur.

Posted by: Steve | June 11, 2008 11:05 AM

Agree with h3 and Swan Swan H: Lifes Rich Pageant rules. Definitely better than New Adventures, which has too much filler for a Top 5 finish.

The I.R.S. albums take the top five spots for me, then Automatic, then New Adventures or Out of Time (depending on my mood).

Posted by: SSMD | June 11, 2008 11:26 AM

Totally agree with Dead Letter Office -- it's brilliant.

For the others, I go with:

LRP
Murmur
Reckoning
Document
Fables
Monster

Posted by: front row (don't i wish) | June 11, 2008 11:41 AM

I can't explain or defend this in any rational way, but I just never listen to Murmur. Ever. I love all of the other I.R.S. Records records -- well, except Fables of the Reconstruction or vice-versa, which I keep thinking will start to sound great to me someday, though I do dig the tracks off of it that Malitz cited, plus "Wendell Gee" -- but for whatever reason, I spin Reckoning way more often than Murmur (i.e., more often than never).

I suppose a 25th anniversary Murmur super-deluxe reissue must be on the way, right? Maybe I'll check it out again. Not sure what they'll do for extras; it seems like I.R.S. has already been back to the well many, many times for early R.E.M. outtakes and alternate mixes and such.

Posted by: Chris Klimek | June 11, 2008 2:37 PM

These days, I get more excited about classic album reissues than new albums, at least for established artists. If I had to choose between spending $10 for Accelerate and $25 for a very deluxe version of Murmur, I'd choose the latter. Maybe I'm in the minority on this issue?

Posted by: Living in the Past | June 11, 2008 3:21 PM

Add me to the LRP lovers. I think it probably has to do with the fact that as a freshman in college in 1986 it was my introduction to "college music". My roommate was a DJ at our college radio station so he turned me on to that whole sound. So, LRP has a special place for me. We went to see REM on the Pageantry tour and they blew me away. It was my first real concert and I have been going ever since.

Why does the fact that a couple of the songs are about the environment sink it on your list? This was 1986. They were way ahead of their time.

I like all of the albums up through Green a whole lot. I remember we waited with bated breath every year for the new REM release and ran out to buy the cassettes, and then once CD came out.

I was never a huge fan of Out of Time. There are a couple of songs that I like. It's not their fault that LMR got overplayed to death. Hopefully one day they will be able to leave it out of the live set.

I feel the same way about Automatic. A couple of songs I really like, but otherwise just kind of bloated. I never liked Man on the Moon very much. And I never got Drive either, but it appears to be one of Peter's favorites for some reason.

I never really got into the later albums all that much. I never even bought Up.

I like Accelerate, but it is just way too short. $15 for 34 minutes?

As for last night's show...a very good performance but no Murmur and no Chronic Town. :-( A little more rocky and jangly unfortunately.

Posted by: Glenn | June 12, 2008 11:16 AM

oops. I meant to say a little more rocky THAN jangly. I prefer the jangle.

Posted by: Glenn | June 12, 2008 11:18 AM

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