#4 — Reckoning (1984)
Already a sonic reinvention on just their second full album, R.E.M. returns to the garage-rock of their early demos, proving that a band’s music could be upfront in its creative intentions without necessarily being “straightforward.” Though the follow-up to Murmur roughened the band’s garage edges, emphasizing the rock end of their sonic palate, R.E.M. also strengthened their hooks significantly on Reckoning. It’s particularly noticeable on “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry),” which was perhaps the first R.E.M. single to hint at the mainstream palatability which would later lead to their breakthrough with ballads like “Everybody Hurts.”
Their credibility, thankfully, remained intact, as the band found itself with a college radio hit on its hands, while they were still able to earn their fans through touring, letting the songs build a personal presence through their live show. Therefore they built their audience one fan at a time, and by the time they’d find mainstream success it would be because the music led the mainstream to them rather than the other way around. And though Michael Stipe’s vocals during this era have a reputation for being indecipherable, I’d say that’s something of an unearned exaggeration. The best songs on Reckoning stand out because they’re well crafted enough to emphasize R.E.M. as a whole rather than as the sum of its parts. Though Stipe would later work to annunciate his vocals more clearly, the vocals fit the nature of their record-by-the-seat-of-your-pants reality at the time. This is classic alternative which stands with the best.