Listen to R.E.M. and it's hard to put your finger on any single innovation with which they can be credited. Yet for more than 20 years they've been making some of the most distinctively beautiful music of our times, characterised by a rare melodic brilliance, the enigmatic lyrical flair of Michael Stipe, a rich and eclectic vision and a consistently uncompromising spirit that has remained intact, even when selling 10 million copies of an album like Automatic For The People.
Over their long career they have grown and diversified. And yet in a way they have never really changed. Their full-length debut album, 1983's Murmur, was built around the age-old four-piece format of guitar, voice, bass and drums. There was no studio trickery and they weren't even technically very proficient. Yet few bands have wrenched so much feeling and emotion out of such simple elements.
Through the '80s they grew from college parties to filling football stadiums by playing the same style of garage-tinged folk rock and by the time of Green, their first album for Warners in 1988, they were on their way to becoming the biggest band in the world. The dramatic growth of Peter Buck as a musician meant his ringing guitar took on a greater force and they hit a purple patch with the release of Out Of Time and Automatic within little more than a year during 1991-2.
They've barely faltered since. There have been experiments with different textures and instruments and each album has displayed a subtly different personality - Monster (1994) had a harder rock edge, Up (1998) was more conversational, Reveal (2001) struck out for the sunny uplands. Yet their core values remain unshakeable and 2004's Around The Sun was another masterpiece, which in “Leaving New York” and “Boy In The Well” contained songs to rank alongside their all-time best.
The title of R.E.M.'s full-length debut perfectly reflects its subdued, haunting atmosphere and eerily timeless ambience. On one level it patented the band's trademark sound. On another, they never again made anything that sounded quite like it. And therein lies its genius.
Out Of Time
Despite a strongly acoustic core, Out Of Time is also R.E.M. at their lushest and most ambitious as strings, keyboards, mandolins and cameos from rapper KRS-1 and the B-52's Kate Pearson open up new sonic possibilities. And “Losing My Religion” remains one of their defining moments.
Automatic For The People
Reflective songs dealing with themes of aging, loss and death combine with music possessed of an epic sweep to make Automatic the culmination of R.E.M.'s first decade. From the warmth of “Man On The Moon” to the plaintive “Everybody Hurts”, this is a near flawless record.
Late-period, mature R.E.M. at their very best. Stipe's gauzy vocals have never sounded more convincing and the dreamy tunes and rich lyrical imagery make for a more spirited set than any 20-year-old band has a right to make.
Best Of R.E.M. 1988-2003
15 years of music condensed into 76 minutes, with the bonus of two new songs. “Shiny Happy People" is a surprising omission. But several less commercial selections, including a couple of movie themes, make this 18-tracker more interesting than your average 'greatest hits' package.