In 1991, R.E.M. released Out of Time, an album that transformed the group from underground darlings to mainstream superstars. The LP was released a few months before college rock morphed into the vague-yet-buzzworthy behemoth known as “alternative rock” thanks to the rise of Nirvana, Soundgarden, and the rest of the grunge movement.
Out of Time brought the group global success on a level they hadn’t experienced before, but then what? Where could Berry/Buck/Mills/Stipe go from there? The ensuing eight studio albums — released from 1992 to 2011, when the group amicably disbanded — were indicative of a band who reached their pinnacle, decided to experiment, lost a member, and idled on for a bit before calling it a day.
Previously, we ranked the best tracks from the LP, and to commemorate the release of the 25th-anniversary deluxe edition of Out of Time we decided to analyze all of their releases since ’91. Looking back we were surprised to discover just how solidly their creative output has held up, making our job of ranking these LPs more challenging than we initially expected. Here’s how everything shook down.
8. Reveal (2001)
Proving that they could continue on as a group with their Up LP, R.E.M.’s 12th studio album Reveal made listeners wonder exactly when the group would begin to talk, if not sing, about the passion once more. Despite the typical yearning songcraft of “Imitation of Life” (whose accompanying video, featured above, is a visual melding of Rube Goldbergian theatrics and time loops that would make Doctor Strange take notice) and “All the Way to Reno (You’re Gonna Be a Star),” fans were left with the sinking feeling that R.E.M. were spinning their wheels creatively. As pleasant as the album’s experimental tracks like the 1970s soft rock-inspired “Beachball” may be, such sonic detours were too few on an album that didn’t have anything considerable to add to the group’s canon. Not bad by any stretch, but Reveal‘s indistinct nature may be its greatest crime.
7. Collapse Into Now (2011)
When Collapse Into Now was released in March of 2011, R.E.M. had found themselves light years away from where they began. Now millionaires multiple times over, their political edge had been dulled by the hard-earned contentment the Obama White House provided. In effect, they had said all they had to say. Accomplished more than they ever dreamed. Realizing these things early on in the album’s production process, the decision was made that Collapse Into Now would be not only their 15th studio album, but their last. And so, Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mills — joined by special guests ranging from Eddie Vedder to Joel Gibb of the subversive (in the best possible way) Canadian folk-pop outfit The Hidden Cameras — embarked on a mission to create one final album that would serve as a farewell and thank you to the world.
Possessing this information, it’s somewhat difficult to slight the band for the album’s lack of cohesiveness. This is an effort in which each of the core members of R.E.M. get their own opportunity to shine, and, arguably, Mills and Buck’s work here on tracks like “Discoverer” and “Mine Smell Like Honey” are a career best. If there’s one moment of true beauty to be found here, though, it is on the track “Oh My Heart.” A companion song to post-Hurricane Katrina song “Houston” from the band’s Accelerate album, “Oh My Heart” is a song that honors New Orleans and the unbreakable spirit that resides there. Yet politics aren’t front and center here, but rather the sort of deeply felt humanity that R.E.M became known for across the decades.
6. Around the Sun (2004)
If there’s a red-headed stepchild in the R.E.M. discography, 2004’s Around the Sun is almost surely it. Largely overlooked by fans and rumored to be hated by the group themselves, the album’s worst track is also the one that garnered the most attention. The anti-George W. Bush “Final Straw” first made an appearance on the political action benefit album Future Soundtrack for America before being re-recorded for this LP and it is a surprisingly on-the-nose commentary given the group’s history with covering social issues in strong material like “Orange Crush” or, most obviously, “Ignoreland.” However, the rest of the LP is one hidden gem after another, including the soaring lead single “Leaving New York,” one of the best breakup songs of the early aughts. The album closes with “Around the Sun,” a hopeful reminder that whatever may happen in the world, we can get through this together. It was originally crafted in relation to a second term for W, but its message feels just as vital and timely today. There’s no other effort in R.E.M.’s catalog so deeply worthy of a reappraisal than this. Check it out.
5. Accelerate (2008)
R.E.M. rocks once more. That was the unspoken (scratch that, as it was probably screamed) mission statement of their 14th album, Accelerate. Disappointed by their experience with Around the Sun (guys, c’mon, it’s kind of great), R.E.M. set out to break out the guitars and do some damage. This resulted in an album that layers on instant classics like “Supernatural Superserious,” “Living Well Is the Best Revenge,” and “Sing for the Submarine.” Unfortunately, the bombs on this album hit hard and do a lot of damage. “I’m Gonna DJ” sounds like a group of middle-aged men desperately trying to cater to the Urban Outfitters demographic. “If death is pretty final, I’m collecting vinyl. I’m gonna DJ at the end of the world,” Stipe croons, embarrassingly. Ultimately a tad uneven, Accelerate is still an admirable effort that deserves all the critical acclaim thrust upon it.
4. Up (1998)
When Bill Berry left R.E.M., many wondered how the band could possibly go on without its founding member; a gentle, unibrowed soul who gave the band’s early years it’s most timeless song, “Perfect Circle.” After making much use of the old adage that a three-legged dog could still walk, R.E.M. released Up, their eleventh and oddest album. At the time, Michael Stipe was enjoying a friendship with Thom Yorke, and there’s a bleepy bloopy (technical term) Radiohead influence woven into Up‘s DNA. In fact, much was made about how the opening track, “Airportman,” would be at home on OK Computer around the time of this LP’s release.
Since R.E.M. was essentially reinventing themselves here, experimentation ran wild. “Lotus” is a funky jam filled with nonsensical lyrics and ample hey-heying and “At My Most Beautiful” wouldn’t be out of place at a 1950s dancehall. The album is rich with surprisingly emotional moments, from the unofficial “Everybody Hurts” sequel “Walk Unafraid” to the pensive hidden track “I’m Not Over You,” which wears its vulnerability as well as its heart on its sleeve. What the group was saying here is that while they had forever changed, there was still plenty of life in this dog yet. And the songs more than backed up this sentiment.
3. Monster (1994)
With its overwhelmingly contemplative nature and ‘quiet is fine’ aesthetic, Automatic for the People showcased a somber, reflective R.E.M. So when 1994’s bombastic Monster arrived buoyed by F-bomb dropping first single “What’s the Frequency Kenneth?,” those expecting an LP with gentle “Sweetness Follows” follow-ups were shellshocked. This was an R.E.M. for the age of grunge: dirty, raw, and in your face. Songs like “Crush with Eyeliner” and the lusty “I Don’t Sleep, I Dream” had the band creating songs that were, gasp, sexy — a clear evolution of the themes briefly played with on the previous LP’s “Star Me Kitten.” The pained “Let Me In” may have been written for Stipe’s lost friends River Phoenix and Kurt Cobain, but its pleas for emotional openness struck a universal chord. Balanced with these more experimental songs was familiar material like “Strange Currencies” and “Bang and Blame.” This delicate mixture illustrated the R.E.M. of the mid-90s, walking a tightrope between looking back and leaping down into the unknown.
2. New Adventures In Hi-Fi (1996)
The most aptly named album in R.E.M.’s catalog (with apologies to Murmur fans), New Adventures in Hi-Fi offered up just that when it was released in 1996. When audiences heard the LP’s weirdo lead single, the Patti Smith-featuring “E-Bow the Letter,” they knew they were in for something unusual. If there’s a thematic link between the songs on this effort it is trying to figure out what the America of the 1990s is. This subject keeps resurfacing throughout the album’s 65-minute running time in ways explicit (“How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us”) and opaque (best illustrated by “Undertow” and the devastating “New Test Leper”). There are some remnants of Monster-esque swagger in “The Wake Up Bomb” and the looping, hypnotic “Leave,” yet the album ends with “Electrolite,” a sort of Intro to R.E.M. 101 that further showcases the band’s ability to dominate the decade with soaringly optimistic singles.
1. Automatic for the People (1992)
Was there any doubt where 1992’s Automatic for the People would land on this list? The best post-Out of Time album is also R.E.M.’s undisputed masterpiece. This was an album released in a world of uncertainty. Would Clinton become president? What would the future be like? Is there hope to be found? Everything old is new again, and these obvious parallels to current events only further solidify the album’s timeless nature. Nearly a quarter of a century later, subject matter featured in the album’s 12 songs feel as urgent and relatable as ever. The dissolving family dynamics of “Sweetness Follows,” the uncertainty of “Drive,” the bruised innocence of “Nightswimming,” and the unvarnished hope of “Everybody Hurts” and “Find the River” will never not feel relevant. The title of the album may have been taken from the motto of a restaurant in Athens, Georgia, but it sums up what this album accomplished — bringing rich emotion and unforgettable songs to the masses, instantly upon its release and forevermore.