Together for thirty years, R.E.M.’s greatest albums showcase the Athens, Georgia, legends’ incredible artistic progression for what it was — a true Rock rarity. They also serve as a welcome introduction to the rest of the band’s deep discography. Though there’s plenty of great writing about what the band’s music means to contemporary listeners in relation to their breakup earlier this week, I prefer to focus on the music itself to see what made R.E.M. stand apart from the crowd.
These five albums have proven to be the ones I’ve gone back to most often, the albums which provide the best look at what the band had to offer musically, where they’ve been and where we’re left now that there will be no sixteenth album. These may not be the albums you’d expect from a critic, since we’re supposed to prefer only the “indie” releases, shying away from respecting the hits which saw “mainstream” success, leading to the band’s inevitable demise. As a listener I don’t feel there’s a need for “guilty” pleasures, and in the case of R.E.M. the singles are as much a part of why they’ll be remembered as are the indie albums that built their success to the point where multi-platinum success was a reality.
Few bands in the modern rock or alternative landscape have managed to craft such a diverse discography, so many albums which managed to build upon each other, creating mainstream success through recording, touring and then living the music and letting it live through them. Though R.E.M. will be remembered for their singles, a look back through the band’s strongest albums shows that their music was always built on a strong recognition of pop hooks and songwriting. The band has left us with fifteen albums which cement their legacy, leaving plenty of room for future exploration. Their influence on the world of rock and alternative is far from over.
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R.E.M. was forced to transition to being a trio when drummer Bill Barry left the band in the late 90s, and though they attempted to carry on with experimentations with drum-machines on Up, R.E.M.’s early 2000s albums (Reveal and Around The Sun) showed they were floundering creatively. The latter album actually failed to even go Gold in the United States, the first album since Document put them into the stratosphere, to fail to do so.
Thankfully, Accelerate, their 14th studio album was a complete turnaround — the band seemed reinvigorated, accelerating their sound by returning to the garage rock of their late 80s / early 90s work. It was immediately clear from the up-tempo opening track “Living Well Is The Best Revenge,” as Michael Stipe piled on the garage-rock hooks to push their sound back to the underground days of their first four albums, while emphasizing their studio abilities in the strong production values. “I’m not one to sit and spin,” he growls, “because living well is the best revenge!” Indeed. Accelerate was a tight 11-track album which proved you can go back again.