Editor’s Note: This definitive ranking of R.E.M.’s discography first appeared in November 2017, several years after the band called it quits. So, here this list will remain not only to commemorate all the great music R.E.M. has given us over the years but also to burn like a candle — and keep vigil — just in case we one day get to add to it. Either way, we’ll keep going back to Rockville until it truly is the end of the world.
Wow, this Sunday will mark 40 years since R.E.M. played their first show, a friend’s birthday party in an abandoned church in Athens, Georgia. Double-wow, it’s been nearly nine whole years without R.E.M. as an active outfit. Either one of those reactions makes a lot of sense this week. In the first case, it’s hard to believe that a band with a catalog we kept holstered, cocked, and ready throughout our adolescences have turned such an advanced age. In the second, we acknowledge that we’ve been drifting through a slightly emptier world for some time now without Athens’ favorite sons. In either case, our reactions signify much the same thing. This was a damn fine band at the height of their powers, and they were nearly as fine when they hung it up earlier last decade.
You can’t make that claim for many bands. Then again, R.E.M. wasn’t like many other bands. And looking back through their body of work, you also realize they were far from a perfect band. But what made them special was a singular momentum that allowed them to evolve, adapt, and carry on. They always seemed to be figuring things out rather than polishing what they’d built and perfected. The toll of popularity, rigors of touring the globe, losing a founding band member, pressures to follow up both groundbreaking and career-stalling records — none of these challenges, or any others, seemed to ever keep Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, and Bill Berry down for very long. In fact, the band made a habit of coming back and feeling more indispensable than ever — gifting us albums, songs, and performances that once taken in can never be truly taken away.
We grew up on them, we grew with them, and now we’re growing old together… And we feel fine.
15. Around the Sun (2004)
Runtime: 55:21 (13 tracks)
The Song I Love (Best Song): Nearly every song off of Around the Sun works better live (listen to the R.E.M. Live release), but one that actually works just fine in studio-recording form is a deep cut in an album full of them: “The Ascent of Man”. It has more passion in the chorus than you’ll find on any other track here. The chorus technically has lyrics, but it’s dominated by Stipe wailing “Yeah” with added syllables over and over again. If not indisputably intense, it’s at least going for it, which is more than anyone can say for the rest of the album.
The Worst Song Ever (Worst Song): A wise man once said that if you throw a dart at a map of the world, you’ll hit the world. I think that analogy works here, and to be honest, I think I made it up. Anyway, let’s see (randomly points at track listing on Wikipedia entry). Eureka! It’s “Wanderlust”, a listless song that aims for “Stand” or “Shiny Happy People” goofiness but ends up, for lack of a better expression, generic as fuck. The mix is so dialed back we’re wondering if they forgot to finish it. This is a familiar feeling throughout.
Harmonycoat (Best Harmonies): “Leaving New York” has a good harmony section in its back half that is curiously only performed by multiple recordings of Stipe. This isn’t a rare instance. In the decade that followed drummer Bill Berry’s departure, Mike Mills’ vocal harmonies disappeared. We could still hear him during tours, so it wasn’t a physical issue, but we never got him on record. You’d figure after losing a quarter of your band, you’d want to double down on familiarity, but hey, I’m just a listener. Check out the track on R.E.M. Live to hear the fully realized version.
Mine Smell Like Honey (Stipe-iest Lyric): “Leaving was never my proud.” –“Leaving New York”
Imitation of Life (Best Music Video): The victor goes to “Aftermath”, which features band members acting out in front of what is obviously a green screen for no reason. Stipe leaves his apartment, “walks” down the street, hops in elevators, “runs” down glitchy pathways. The rest of the band joins him as the video goes on, but the real reason why it’s the best video is because Peter Buck’s wearing striped pajamas during the proceedings, holding a book on DNA. Why? Who knows? The “Aftermath” video has a unique association to Around the Sun’s history: it’s not predictable.
Reckoning (Analysis): Personally, I could go to bat for every R.E.M. record … except this one. Hell, we here at CoS were just about universal in Around the Sun coming in dead last. Say what you will about Up and Reveal, but at least those records had focus, a connection, a mission statement. Producer Pat McCarthy worked on those as well as Around the Sun, but instead of feeling ethereal, the band’s unlucky 13th album feels lost in space. Buck perfectly captures the whole experience: “[It] sounds like it did because we were bored of playing the songs over and over again for no reason.” R.E.M. would correct its course going forward. It would have been awful to go out on Around the Sun. You could say it would have been (puts on sunglasses) “The Worst Joke Ever”. –Justin Gerber
14. Reveal (2001)
Runtime: 53:43 (12 tracks)
Any Sides With That: Side one – “Chorus Side”, Side two – “Ring Side”
The Song I Love: Trying to be kind, but “Imitation of Life” is the proverbial oasis in the middle of the desert. It’s the equivalent of pronouncing the patient dead a half-hour ago and then all of a sudden finding a pulse. It’s quirky, bursting, and utterly lovely — a lone blossom in that aforementioned desert.
The Worst Song Ever: Does someone have a seven-sided coin to flip? At a certain point, you start to lose the ability to differentiate between quiet, whispered songs that sound as though the band went out for a smoke break and just left a recording playing on repeat. I’m not even going to attempt to play this game. Life’s too short.
Harmonycoat: Stipe goes it alone here as far as we can tell, and, as far as we know, there is no truth to the rumors that Mike Mills had a trial membership in a monastery during these sessions and was practicing his vow of silence. Simply put, times had changed.
Mine Smell Like Honey: “Now, sweet/ You’re so sugar sweet/ You may as well have had ‘kick me’/ Fastened on your sleeve” — “All the Way to Reno (You’re Gonna Be a Star)”
Imitation of Life: Johnny Cash played in prisons. R.E.M. opted instead for a Brooklyn Catholic high school in the video for “All the Way to Reno (You’re Gonna Be a Star)”. As clever as the life-on-repeat zooming of “Imitation of Life” remains, nothing bests seeing Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, and Mike Mills take to the halls of Bishop Ford Central with the help of Michael Moore and four student camera persons. Whether it’s watching the band float through the hallways alongside students, Buck and Mills getting their dreams of being musicians shot down by a guidance counselor, or Stipe instigating a food fight, the song, particularly its refrain of “You’re gonna be a star,” coupled with the faces of so many bright, young people can’t help but feel inspiring. It really is the band at their most beautiful.
Reckoning: If Up was R.E.M. at its most experimental as it searched for a new identity following Bill Berry’s departure, Reveal finds a band that sounds confident and assured in what they have settled upon. From the swirling atmospherics of opener “The Lifting” and the chirping glitches of follow-up track “I’ve Been High”, Reveal makes known that it’ll be an album that floats rather than soars. That’s not necessarily a negative attribute on its own. However, the album’s painfully consistent polish, tempo, and quiet hum bleeds together to the point where it’s a challenge to differentiate between songs and not succumb to boredom. Only “Imitation of Life”, with its warm chug, manages to ground itself in something unique and memorable — just as a song like “The Great Beyond”, also from this time period, found its magic in a building chorus that mandated sing-alongs. The real shame here is if many of these songs were to pop up in an R.E.M. playlist, they’d perhaps charm or offer a welcome change of pace or atmosphere. On Reveal, they’re resigned to simply being track numbers on a long, snoozy record. –Matt Melis
13. Up (1998)
Runtime: 64:31 (14 tracks)
Any Sides With That: Side one – “Up Side”, Side two – “Down Side”
The Song I Love: Unlike Reveal, Up’s got some truly magnetic experiments, like the blissful ASMR vocals and Chinese scales of the opening “Airportman” and the skittering, electronic Leonard Cohen homage, “Hope”, but the most fully realized song is still the one that most resembles classic R.E.M., the woozy waltz of first single “Daysleeper”, with its “talk of circadian rhythms” for a nocturnal worker whose nights are “colored headache gray.”
The Worst Song Ever: “Diminished” uses an unsettling lounge backdrop to spin a first-person narrative of a guilty defendant, but for once, Stipe isn’t oblique enough, and lines like “I watched you fall / I think I pushed” and “Can I charm the jury?” are just painfully on-the-nose, especially for six minutes. Monster’s “You” was a creepier character study.
Harmonycoat: Latter-day R.E.M. began to lose interest in harmony around this time, but the unabashed Beach Boys homage “At My Most Beautiful” delivers what its title promises.
Mine Smell Like Honey: “And you want to cross your DNA/ To cross your DNA with something reptile” — “Hope”
Imitation of Life: “Daysleeper”, a stop-motion animation of hundreds of still photos, disappointingly works better on paper, so the homoerotic and angular blue glow of “Lotus” takes this prize easily, as it’s the sexiest performance Michael Stipe has ever given.
Reckoning: In the wake of Bill Berry’s 1997 departure, R.E.M. didn’t just take the opportunity to use technology such as drum machines to reassess what R.E.M. was. They used technology to reassess how they could create beautiful sounds: “Why Not Smile” used the same chintzy materials as “Everybody Hurts” to arrange a sort of lullaby, but they went off the rails with various noises and percussion presets and synthesized harpsichord. “Daysleeper” took a page from Beck’s playbook and put a found field recording in the bridge, and tracks like “Suspicion” and “Diminished” utilized vibraphones for half-successful mood pieces. It’s easily the band’s most experimental record, and its greatest virtue is its unforced nature; even completely alien ideas like “Airportman” were totally sincere and warm in their embrace of new frontiers. It was the Zooropa to Reveal’s Pop. –Dan Weiss
12. Collapse into Now (2011)
Runtime: 41:05 (12 tracks)
Any Sides With That: Side one – “X-Axis”, Side two – “Y-Axis”
The Song I Love: The glam-rocking Peaches duet “Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter” is a total head rush, but the way the furious “All the Best” kicks in after the spacious anthem “Discoverer” opens is maybe this band’s most intense recorded moment since Document, and the claustrophobic minor chords really push home the lyric (“I’ll give it one more time/ I’ll show the kids how to do it/ Fine, fine, fine”) quite literally about a band at its end pressuring themselves to make one last go of rocking out when they know they no longer can.
The Worst Song Ever: Collapse into Now has fewer outright duds than any post-Berry R.E.M. album, but the drab and uninteresting “Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I” commits the unholy sin of never once making the listener invested in learning what’s up with that title.
Harmonycoat: Built on some glockenspiel and one of Peter Buck’s prettiest arpeggio figures in years, “Every Day Is Yours to Win” is a little goofy in the lyric department, but it all comes together lovingly on those “hey-ya!” refrains with Mike Mills’ help.
Mine Smell Like Honey: “You’re going to take the leading chair at the fairground/ You’re going to sing the praises of your fruit” — “Mine Smell Like Honey”
Imitation of Life: The outlandish, multi-colored outfits alone in “Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter” will make you wish Michael Stipe and Peaches started working together ages ago.
Reckoning: Accelerate rocks harder and with a more desperate edge a lot of the time, as far as R.E.M.’s last-ditch attempts to reclaim their rock mantle go, in part because of its political restlessness. But Collapse into Now is fuller and more comfortable in its mission, which was to make an R.E.M. record for no one but the band themselves. There’s no forced nostalgia, only happy returns to familiar comforts. It might’ve been a better record if it was shorter on ballads like “Oh My Heart” or an “E-Bow the Letter” retread like the Patti Smith duet “Blue”, but it wouldn’t have been as honest of one. It’s the most at ease the band had sounded since New Adventures in Hi-Fi, especially Michael Stipe, who sounds so confident it doesn’t even matter that his lyrics are often the weaker half of full-force delights like the sub-two-minute “That Someone Is You.” –Dan Weiss
11. Fables of Reconstruction (1985)
Runtime: 39:44 (11 tracks)
Any Sides With That: Side one – “A Side”, Side two – “Another Side”
The Song I Love: A lot of good here, but the winner is “Driver 8”. After the dreamlike “Feeling Gravitys Pull” and brooding “Maps and Legends”, “Driver 8” is the first track to kick into (ahem) eighth gear. It’s vintage R.E.M. from its jangly guitar intro to its choral harmonies. Like many of their great songs, its upbeat tempo is misleading. The material here is no less dark than the rest of Fables: “Take a break Driver 8/ Driver 8 take a break/ We can reach our destination/ But we’re still a ways away.” Note to self: do not record an album in rainy London.
The Worst Song Ever: It’s gotta be a toss-up between “Cant Get There from Here” and “Auctioneer (Another Engine)” Don’t @ me! The latter has a lame chorus, but the former is lame throughout. Stipe takes on a country bumpkin affectation, but the joke wears thin fairly early on. This is an example of producer Joe Boyd unsuccessfully capturing the wit that permeates more successful R.E.M. records. The guitar is uninspired despite the speed. The vocals clash against the rhythm. It’s a mess and not a deliberate one. Long story short: It’s no “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville”.
Harmonycoat: Strong harmonies aplenty, but let’s focus on opening track “Feeling Gravitys Pull”, which is also notable for being one of two tracks not to use apostrophes in its title (see “Worst Song”). The song is nothing like the openers from the first two R.E.M. albums, as the band’s vibe turned towards southern-gothic-by-way-of-London for album No. 3. Murky and mysterious verses give way to lovely albeit still-mysterious choruses, with Mills’ repeating “looking down” while Stipe sings of the easy task of holding his head straight. I’m underselling it here, but it’s all quite gorgeous.
Mine Smell Like Honey: “The air quicken tension building inference suddenly” – “Life and How to Live It”
Imitation of Life: Though they became famous for the format starting around Document, the band very rarely appeared in music videos during their I.R.S. years. For Fables, they finally relented and released a couple vids. “Feeling Gravitys Pull” and “Life and How to Live It” are videos that feature the band in a series of sequenced pictures/stills from a live performance. The former works best. The combination of certain frames lingering longer than others and the off-putting, bright lighting scheme successfully sync with the track’s uneasy tone. Just don’t seek out the “Cant Get There from Here” video. That is all.
Reckoning: The band was unhappy during the recording of Fables due to rainy weather, adjusting to life as strangers in a strange land, and not gelling with producer Joe Boyd. However, time has been kind to Fables. It has a couple clunkers and pales in comparison to the rest of their I.R.S. output (including the Chronic Town EP), but it does succeed in separating itself from what came before. The band would not be pigeonholed. Ryan Adams’ favorite R.E.M. song happens to be “Kohoutek”, a track that best defines Fables as a whole: indecipherable, involving, murky, and mysterious. Sweetness follows, but this is arguably the band at their darkest. –Justin Gerber