RIP, R.E.M.: Looking back on the career of a great American rock band

In case you somehow missed R.E.M. before they broke up, here's a crash course on their discography.

reM.JPGAPR.E.M. in 1994

Did somebody already come up with “it’s the end of R.E.M. as we know it” yet? Dang. How about “Everybody hurts upon receiving news of R.E.M.’s breakup”? Get it, everybody hurts? Cool, that’s what I’ll go with.

If you’re just joining us, the Internet heaves with mourning (and some truly terrible puns) over news REM has called it quits. Since most music writers had deleted their pre-written R.E.M. obituaries in recent years following a mild creative resurgence, this leaves everyone scrambling to properly eulogize a group that laid the groundwork for the alternative rock of the 90s and mainstream-friendly indie-rock of the 2000s.

So hats off to R.E.M., a real trailblazer, a band that dragged underground weirdness into mass culture and kept it there, a band that refused to age gracefully. A band that may have written the greatest pop song ever (don’t deny it), and whose best records rank among the finest American rock released in the past three decades. In other words, a true American original.

Here I offer an utterly makeshift armchair guide to one of rock’s richest discographies. Pull up a chair and prepare for plenty of nostalgia and unnecessary capitalization:

The Most Pleasurable Use of a Free Afternoon I Can Imagine — Listening to the band’s whole I.R.S. catalog — “Murmur” (1983), “Reckoning” (1984), “Fables of the Reconstruction” (1985), “Lifes Rich Pageant” (1986), “Document” (1987) — front to back. It takes an amazing band to put out five great records at all, let alone consecutively, let alone in five years, and still have some of its best work ahead of it.

Not to Be Confused With “Reconstruction of the Fables” — “Fables of the Reconstruction,” duh.

When Things Get Seriously Awesome — “Lifes Rich Pageant” (sic the no apostrophe) contains one of rock history’s strongest opening runs — “Begin the Begin,” “These Days” and the still jaw-dropping “Fall on Me.”

The Major Label Debut That’s Stranger Than It Gets Credit For — “Green,” the band’s first album for Warner Bros., has its share of radio gold — “Pop Song 89,” “Stand,” “Orange Crush” — complemented by some of the knottiest art-rock the band ever has recorded — “Hairshirt,” “World Leader Pretend,” “You Are the Everything,” “I Remember California,” etc. Predecessor “Document” contained a similar ratio of pop gems (“…End of the World…”, “The One I Love”) to oddities (pretty much everything else on it).

Spotty Album Featuring One of the Greatest Songs of All Time, Right After One of the Worst Songs Anybody’s Ever Recorded — That’d be “Out of Time”, which contains “Losing My Religion” (best) and “Radio Song” (worst). “Shiny Happy People,” though, sounds way better than I remember.

The Consensus Masterpiece — That’s easy: “Automatic For the People” (1992) is wall-to-wall excellent. The hits hold up, the deep cuts hold up, the smoldering rockers hold up and, man, do the ballads ever hold up.

In Which Previously Trendsetting Band Awkwardly Embraces New Trend — The grunge-era curiosity “Monster” (1994) attempts to drown the band’s whimsy and tenderness in layers of fashionable distortion and fails in some very interesting ways.

Late-Period Masterpiece That Gets Nowhere Near the Respect It Deserves, Possibly Due To Its Drab Cover — “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” stands alongside “Lifes Rich Pageant” and “Automatic For the People” as serious, A-grade, top-shelf R.E.M. Nothing but great songs here. Whether they’re routine-sounding hits, lovely ballads, experimental detours or stuff with with weird titles shoehorned at the end of the album, these tracks sound alive, fresh, daring and so, so good after all these years.

Interesting At the Time, Hasn’t Aged All That Well — “Up” (1998), the band’s first album without drummer Bill Berry is accordingly unfocused, full of interesting digressions, but not enough great songs. “Lotus,” though, still is a pleasant reminder that a monkey died for your grin.

Record Everyone Seems to Hate That Actually Has Some Pretty Good Stuff On It — “Reveal” (2001). No, really, “Imitation of Life” is good. “I’ll Take the Rain,” good. “Chorus and the Ring,” good. “The Lifting,” good!

The One Legitimately Terrible R.E.M. Album — “Around the Sun” (2004), about which the less said the better.

The So-Called “Return To Form” That Actually Only Contains One Or Two Good Songs — “Accelerate” (2008), whose single, “Supernatural Superserious,” is admittedly excellent.

The Actual Return to Form — “Collapse Into Now” (2011), the band’s best record in at least a decade, provides a nice career bookend.

Why You Can Never Find “Radio Free Europe” and “Man on the Moon” on the Same Best-Of Comp — Different labels starting with “Green,” like I said. Just buy the individual records, already.

Saddest Possible Song to End This Post With — Among many contenders:

Email Troy Reimink or follow him on Twitter.

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