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.