Collapse into…Hey, that ain’t bad!
I’ve spent the last couple of nights listening to the songs that have been released onto the interwebs from REM’s forthcoming album, Collapse Into Now, and, I must say, that I am downright giddy at the prospect of buying it March 8. I did like their last album, Accelerate, but with time concede that part of my enjoyment of that record stems from the fact that it wasn’t Around the Sun, their 2004 dud of a recording, which amplified a good record a bit beyond it’s actual worth. If Accelerate was the sound of a band struggling to regain their identify and see if they “still had it,” what I’ve heard of the new record resembles the band that made 1996’s New Adventures in Hi Fi and a string of great music throughout the 80’s. How the new material sounds in the context of the album and blends with the so far unreleased songs remains to be seen, of course, but color this longtime fan (if you hadn’t guessed that from the name of this blog already) optimistic for this record.
In honor of their soon to be 15th studio album, I’m presenting you with the official JLo REM album rankings, starting at the bottom and working up. In the meantime, you can go to their youtube channel if you are so inclined to preview several of the new tracks. They even made an album “trailer,” which is a pretty cool idea (even if it does highlight the fact that Peter Buck is apparently slowly transforming into Severus Snape.)
Now, on to the rankings:
14. Around the Sun (2004)
This is the one REM album that I outright dislike, not so much for the quality of the music (there are, after all some really good songs on it: Electron Blue, Leaving New York, the title track), but it’s just downright boring as a whole. It’s the one time in their career when it sounded like they made an album because it was a contractual obligation.
13. Green (1989)
I loved this when it came out, but for me this record shows it’s age more than anything else the band did in the years before Bill Berry’s departure in 1997. It does contain one of my favorite REM songs of all time (You Are the Everything) and several other standout tracks (Turn You Inside Out, World Leader Pretend), but these are weighed down the hackneyed pop of Stand, the meandering I Remember California, and the frankly bizarre Hairshirt. Still, when this is your second worst album, things are more than ok.
I’ve nothing really bad to say about this record. It’s certainly not one of my favorites, but I thought it was a creative and sonically beautiful record. Lord knows U2 would like to write songs as good as The Lifting, All the Way to Reno, She Just Wants to Be, and I’ll Take the Rain 20+ years into their career.
11. Out of Time (1991)
Their biggest selling record and the one that vaulted them into true rock star status thanks to Losing My Religion and it’s Tarsem directed video. It suffers from the same failings as Green in that it hasn’t aged as well as some of their other material, but contains a handful of simply great songs (Low, Belong, Country Feedback, and Half a World Away among them).
10. Accelerate (2008)
A breath of fresh air on its release, this was the album that captured the band’s live energy and heralded the “return of the Rickenbacker.” Hollow Man and Houston especially compare favorably to anything the band has done in the last 20 years.
9. Monster (1994)
A companion piece to Accelerate in a lot of ways in its “return to rock” mantra, this is the one record I wish they had recorded after original drummer Bill Berry had left the band. While his Stewart Copeland influenced, syncopated style meshed well with everything else the band did prior to 1997 (not to mention his songwriting and backing vocals), Monster would have benefited from a “bigger,” more aggressive sound, and it would have been interesting to see how this album fared with current drummer Bill Rieflin. Has there been an odder song played on mainstream radio than “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”
8. Up (1998)
An album that was unfairly maligned at the time, for two good reasons. One of course is that it was the first post-Bill Berry record and there is an unsettled, almost flailing vibe prevalent throughout the record. Up also suffered in comparison to the magnum opus that REM disciples Radiohead had just released on the world a year early, OK Computer. This album has grown on me with time remains a “lost” REM classic.
7. Automatic for the People (1992)
That I rate this their seventh best album is not a reflection it’s quality, but rather recognition of the greatness that remains in their catalog. In fact, you can basically take the remaining 7 records and randomly order them and come up with a defensible list. Sweetness Follows remains one of the most moving takes on death and loss ever put down in vinyl (or cd or digital 0101010101s for that matter) and the album closer, Find the River ranks among the elite of their top songs ever.
6. Document (1987)
Recipe for a great album: Ripping, pulsing opener (Finest Worksong, check), iconic party anthem, karaoke favorite, and concert warhouse (The End of the World, check), engaging, socially and politically aware college rock (Welcome to the Occupation and Disturbance at the Heron House, check) and under the radar, sneaky great tune (King of Birds, check).
5. Life’s Rich Pageant (1986)
How is this not higher on the list? I don’t know and I’m the one writing it. Oh yeah, it suffers from the 10 point Underneath the Bunker penalty. The album is an embarrassment of songwriting riches otherwise: Begin the Begin, These Days, Fall on Me, Cuyahoga, I Believe, etc etc etc.
4. Reckoning (1984)
Again, and album of ridiculous quality and one that would likely top the career best list for countless rock bands. So good that Pavement wrote a pretty awesome song about it (The Unseen Power of the Picket Fence). And like Malkumus, Time After Time was my least favorite song, even though it’s a great song on its own, but what surrounds it is of such quality (Pretty Persuasion, So Central Rain, Letter Never Sent, Rockville) that it’s hard to stand out.
3. Fables of the Reconstruction (1985)
In many ways my favorite REM record, this collection of songs about dreams, travel, and characters on the edge of society/reality is the band’s most quintessentially “Southern” record, even though it was recorded in London. Wendell Gee is my favorite song on this album, seriously, I’m not lying.
2. Murmur (1983)
The album that defined an entire genre (college/alternative/modern rock) and one of the great debut albums of all time. Despite the fact that countless bands basically tried (and mostly failed) to rewrite/copy large portions of this album (well, except maybe We Walk), it still sounds as fresh and original as when it was released. 28 years ago (swallows hard, dear god I am old). If only they had stuck with the original HibTone version of Radio Free Europe!
1. New Adventures on Hi Fi (1996)
A minor upset at the top spot. Yes, Murmur is objectively the “better album” and Hi Fi is probably one or two songs too long, but this has won out over the years as my favorite REM album of all time. It stands out for me over early classics like Murmur or Reckoning based on the breadth and depth of styles and songwriting on display. It has the rock bombast of Wake Up Bomb and Departure, the Leonard Cohen-esque How the West Was Won and Where it Got Us, the tender but ultimately creepy love/obsession song Be Mine, and is topped off by the back to back powerhouse combo of E-Bow the Letter and Leave. And oh yeah, it also has Electrolite. And So Fast So Numb. And Bittersweet Me. It’s just a great, raw record (much of it was recording during sound checks on the Monster tour) that’s infinitely listenable and ultimately the one that I think best defines the band.
Am I spot on? Crazy? What say you? And what do you think of the new songs? Why am I asking so many questions?