With R.E.M. calling it quits, it should be the end of an era. Except most of us either considered them pretty much finished when drummer Bill Berry left the group or thought they were already broken up. R.E.M. were a band in the best sense of the word, with each moving part coming together to create something greater than the sum of their individual contributions. Besides, all the earliest fans are well out of college and onto careers that often don't leave much time to keep track or to attend live shows without finding a babysitter.You think these guys want to keep playing to a bunch of kids?
At this point, it is time to give them their final grade.
15) Around The Sun (2004) -Grade: C- Bill Berry's departure some seven years earlier left them adrift. And it's no coincidence that the albums without him are noticeably worse. Other bands were doing slow and weird far better at this point and even hardcore fans had trouble rationalizing this.
14) Up (1998) - Grade: C I would give this album a few bonus points for trying something new if it wasn't so useless and all. The band would have been better served to record solo albums. At least that way they could hire outside musicians to cover up their limitations. Their first without their drummer and it shows.
12) New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996)- Grade B- The final album with drummer Bill Berry consists of material written around the time of Monster and was recorded during and after the tour supporting that album. It's the band's Running On Empty or, as they see it,their Time Fades Away. It's around this time that the reviews of R.E.M. albums can no longer be trusted. The new album smell hypnotizes the faithful.
11) Monster (1994) - Grade:B- Considered to be the band's rock album, it's mostly notable for not rocking very well.R.E.M., for better or worse, were a moody enigma at their best. They couldn't nail Aerosmith covers and they don't know what to do with their rhythm section.So they turn up the guitars and pray.
10) Collapse Into Now (2011) --Grade: B- What now stands as their final album until the record company assembles their Coda, Collapse is the sound of musical veterans basking in the fact that their previous album was considered a comeback of sorts. Playing with the house's money - or, more specifically, Warner Brothers' - they recorded the album in four cities and invited Peaches, Joel Gibb, Eddie Vedder, Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye to keep them going.
9) Accelerate (2008) - Grade: B It was nice that what remained of the group still wanted to be a group and they surely didn't want to end their commitment together with a string of lackluster releases. This comeback is better than anyone should expect from a band nearly 30 years on. It beats Voodoo Lounge hands down. But I refuse to grade on a curve.
8) Green (1988) - Grade: B There's something about jumping to a major label that stuns a band. Their determination to remain the group they were has a hangover effect and the songs here are hit and miss. The slightly slicked-up production is nothing to worry about, but it doesn't help. That said, what is good here - "The Wrong Child," "World Leader Pretend," heck "Orange Crush" - points them in the right direction.
7) Automatic For The People (1992)- Grade: B+ The most over-hyped album in their catalog and also the one that every new album was compared against....Best Album since Automatic...Auto For the People is a decent expression of a vague world-weariness the band could never shake. "Drive" is ironic. It doesn't go anywhere. But "Everybody Hurts" and "Nightswimming"accomplished everything they set out to do.
6) Out of Time (1991) -Grade: B+ R.E.M.finally accepted the idea that they were no longer a college radio band and used the studio to their advantage. This is a divisive album. "Losing MyReligion" excites even the cynical, with Stipe's voice I.D.ing the track like the great singer he always was, despite hiding out for all those years. But"Shiny Happy People" and "Radio Song" make some people mad. Why aren't they moping? A catchy tune is a catchy tune, y'know?
5) Document (1987) - Grade:A- Here's the prime period. Just before they were exposed to direct sunlight. "The One I Love" shocked everyone not just for its mainstream success, but for its sizzle."It's The End of the World..." updated Bob Dylan, while "Strange" sent royalties over to Wire. From the opening battle shots of "Finest Work song," the band kicks into groove. Never thought these college rockers would find the groove.
4) Life's Rich Pageant (1986) -Grade: A R.E.M.figured pretty quickly that the way to alter their sound was through recording engineers. Little by little edge Michael Stipe's vocals up in the mix and play with more definition. They'll never be confused with hard rockers, but their jangle is superb, even as they find ways to slowly do away with it. Mike Mills gets to sing the Clique's "Superman" and the group puts drummer Bill Berry's uni-brow on the cover.
3) Reckoning (1984) - Grade:A It's funny to think that even with their second full-length album critics were noting the group's new found "clarity." This would be the hook for years to come and part of it is true. But did anyone think they were going to keep mumbling to themselves once the college radio audience was straining to hear what they had to say?
2) Murmur (1983) - Grade: A+ We must throw the Chronic Town EP into the bargain to complete this early snapshot of a band that already had complete control over their influences. Some heard the Byrds, others envisioned garage rock, but R.E.M. represented an emphasis on guitars at a time when much of the world was turning synthetic and poofy. The only thing I've never been able to understand is what did college radio kids listen to before this?
1) Fables of the Reconstruction(1985) - Grade: A+ A perverse pick? Perhaps. But while this album was considered a step backwards at the time - too dark, too creepy - it sounds positively alluring and enduring today. It's an album of near perfection. Or maybe I just love "Green Grow The Rushes" and "Auctioneer (Another Engine)" and "Driver 8" and "Feeling Gravity's Pull" and "Can't Get There From Here" and "Wendell Gee" so much that nothing else matters.
Even at their most uninspired, no one can doubt their sincerity. They never made a truly cheeseball move, which in this business is saying something.
Final Grade: A-
The A- puts them ahead of most, but their mid-career dip did a bit of damage.Extra-credit work by Peter Buck with outside groups was admirable but immaterial here. Mike Mills is the most likely to succeed, though Michael Stipe is the one posting nude pictures of himself, so the most likely to remain in the public eye. One assumes they will reunite at future charity concerts.