Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Someone Should Bury Florida Georgia Line's Music in a Time Capsule and Never Dig It Up

I can usually deal with a lot of music that I don't like. For example, I've never heard but a few Taylor Swift songs and I haven't ever heard "Let It Go" from "Frozen." I'm lucky in that way that my son doesn't like crap like that and my daughter is too young to like it. Bad music is just a part of life. I find the band (band? group? duo?) Florida Georgia Line so offensive on so many levels that I can't even handle hearing their music and not being irritated by it. If you don't know who they are, please stop reading so you don't get irritated too. They are a terrible, terrible "country" band. They aren't even a band really. They are two dudes who aren't talented enough to be rappers and aren't talented enough to write pop songs, so they throw some twang in their voice, absentmindedly strum some guitars, turn up the Auto-Tune and roll in the cash of aimless morons who think this is country music...or even music. It's not. Florida Georgia Line is nothing but background noise for a life lived in a beer commercial. Here is their hit "Cruise," which if you can tell me what is country about this then you are a better person than me.

The remix even features Nelly! I won't link that because there's no need to bring Nelly into this discussion. Their music speaks to the lowest common denominator of music fan. These are some of their song titles from the two albums they have miraculously gotten money from a record company to record:

Get Your Shine On

This is How We Roll (here's the video!)

And yes, that video starts off with them picking up hitchhikers and having a party on top of a rig. Because, that's fucking COUNTRY! Okay, back to the song titles...

It'z Just What We Do (yep, spelled that way...because that's fucking COUNTRY!)

Hell Raisin' Heat of the Summer (they have a severe dislike for proper punctuation using apostrophes...why? That's fucking COUNTRY!)

Tip It Back

Dayum, Baby (I mean, it's not even a joke. That's a song title from these mental midgets)

Party People

Sun Daze

Dirt (Otherwise known as "Where this album should be buried"'s the video!'s a love song about dirt. Why dirt? Because that' fucking COUNTRY! It's farmin' man!)

Sippin' on Fire (again, proper punctuation with apostrophes isn't COUNTRY like these guys try to be)

Bumpin' the Night

Like You Ain't Even Gone

Those are the song titles. What's most irritating about them is an endless list, but here's my partial list.

1. Their name- It's a stupid fucking name. Bottom line. No way around it.

2. They are not country music. I'm not interested in getting into a traditional v. non-traditional country music discussion. I'm not a huge fan of country music, but I do own a good amount, and this isn't country music. It's played on country music stations because it sounds country enough to get advertisers' money and ears listening to that certain country music radio station. It's bro-country, which is basically country music for those individuals who lack enough talent to make it in another genre. There's rarely been a more apt description than to call them the Nickelback of country music.

3. These guys don't have talent. They don't write their own songs. Well, they co-write them, but they have professional songwriters come in and make it sound 10% less shitty. They can't sing because their songs are Auto-Tuned all to hell. If you can't sing country music, then it's time to take that job at Arby's, because you are not a very good singer. Country music doesn't require a ton of talent to sing, though there are really great singers who do sing country music. Basically, you shouldn't be Auto-Tuned to sing country music. They don't even really play instruments. They strum the instruments to give the appearance they are playing, but they are simply playing some rhythm part that is barely noticeable.

4. The music. It's music dedicated to good times and living the COUNTRY life that they know morons will purchase in the hopes of reliving those wild nights out in the country they have never had. If Taylor Swift's music is that of a girl yearning for someone to love her, while pretending that she doesn't want love, Florida Georgia Line's music is the music of that girl who just let the cute guy in the hat standing outside Wal-Mart screw her in the bed of a truck and wanting to pretend he's the one who really loves her while he's bro-ing out with his friends bragging about that's how he rolls.

5. Again, the music. It's elementary, it's not really deep and it's not really even that complicated. It sells, so that's good, but there's nothing really good about it. It rhymes, it gets people to hold their Bud Light in the air and remember the good times of hanging out at the lake all day, and sells the good life to people who seem to really want the good life sold to them.

I'm not trying to be hater. Wait, yes I am. Florida Georgia Line is all that is wrong with the modern state of music and country music. It's over-produced crap where talent is set aside for production skills and two marketable looking guys who are more interested in their image than they are in their music. That sad part is their image is of two guys who aren't afraid to have some fun 90% of the time, but get really serious about dirt. If you are the type of person whose dream is to stand on a big rig and sing about "how you roll," then this music is for you.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Best and Worst R.E.M. Albums

I find R.E.M.'s discography to be fascinating. It's most likely because I have really liked their music for most of my life, but their discography is very interesting to me. It's full of experimentation, whether it be ideas that really worked or ideas that didn't work at all, and through this experimentation they still maintained the "R.E.M. sound." What makes their changes in sound most interesting is they were always a working band. They longest they went between albums releases was four years, between "Around the Sun" and "Accelerate," and in a span of seven years released five albums (this was at their peak by the way...when they could have toured and counted their money instead of making new music) that went from pop-rock, acoustic-rock, grunge, a road album, and finally their attempt at being Radiohead. It's a bi-polar discography, especially considering they spent most of the 80's as the typical college band that made it big.

It's a cliche to say they spent most of their career going against the grain. It's also not true, but they were making jangle rock in the 80's when hair band music was popular and spent part of the 90's pulling what I call the "Rolling Stones fuck you we can do what you do better than how you do it" move. What I mean by that is the Stones (in my opinion) had a habit of taking a popular form of music during an era and putting out an album that shows they can do that music better. The Stones put our "Some Girls" which was an obvious answer to disco and the sort of New York punk rock at the time, they answered the country rock trend in the late 1960's/early 1970's with a string of four albums that were as good as anything "real" country rock bands put out, and of course there was the "Satanic Majesties Request" album which wasn't that great and was a friendly answer to the Beatles "Sgt. Pepper's..."

R.E.M. was sort of drifting and doing their own thing with "Out of Time" and "Automatic for the People" when the grunge phenomenon hit. They decided it was time to put out their rock album they had promised for years and showed they could do grunge pretty well too. They then tried to combine their early 90's sound with the grunge sound on the next album to mixed results. Then in 1998 after their drummer, Bill Berry, left the band they decided they would do some electronic-sounding music like Radiohead was putting out at the time and I fell asleep so I'm not sure how that ended up (I'm kidding). It was pretty fucking dreary. So in a nutshell this is what makes R.E.M.'s discography so interesting to me, that they spent part of their career chasing what was popular in mainstream, another part going away from what was popular, but started out creating a sound that would become popular in the mainstream. Any time I listen to early Strokes albums I feel like I can hear the R.E.M. influence in the way the guitar sounds and how the vocals are unintelligible.

So I figured because R.E.M.'s discography was so interesting and varied I would rank the albums. #1 was the easiest one for me. It's one of my "desert island" albums. The rest weren't so easy because some albums had really high peaks with filler and other albums had fewer high peaks but less filler. That's probably true for nearly every album I guess. So here goes. I'm going in reverse order until I get to the R.E.M. album I consider to be #1. I rank these albums essentially in order of which albums I would most want to hear from the first to the last track. How good is the album as a whole if I am tied to a chair and forced to listen to the whole thing? That's how I rank them. It's all relative too. A low-ranked R.E.M. album is better than some other bands' high-ranked album.

These Albums Just Aren't Good

15. Around the Sun

Oh, this album. It's easy to tell in retrospect when a band's album is probably the worst. When band members are like, "Oh yeah, we almost broke up after making that album" or "We specifically made further albums before breaking up to prove that we were better than this album." Those were paraphrased quotes from R.E.M. members about "Around the Sun." Oh, and Peter Buck (the guitarist) said "it wasn't listenable" and they were "bored with the material." That's the material THEY WROTE by the way. So yes, this album deserves to be in the very bottom of any R.E.M. album list based on these quotes alone. Unfortunately, the music backs up these quotes.

I think the song titles on this album are a meta-criticism of the music they were making. Some of the song titles are Make it All Ok, The Final Straw, I Wanted to be Wrong, Boy in the Well, High Speed Train, and the Worst Joke Ever.

If those titles aren't the sign of a band crying out for help then I don't know what titles would be. To be fair, Leaving New York and Electron Blue are decent songs, but this album just isn't very good overall. It's a slog, it's slow and the song writing isn't as crisp as any other album in their catalog. It's the typical late-career album where a band simply is mailing it in. There's very little crispness and fight in the songs, which aren't characteristic of an R.E.M. album and probably is a reason why their next album came out with songs that are fast and punch hard immediately. I would like to talk more in-depth about this album but there's really not much to say. It's a drag and if anyone starts their R.E.M. collection with this album then they will never understand what's great about the band. It's like handing a copy of "Undercover" to someone who wants to hear a Rolling Stones album or give someone looking to get into Bon Jovi a copy of any album they have made in the last 20 years.

(Though as an aside, I almost always recommend a certain band's second-best album to those looking to get into that band. I learned that lesson from buying a band's best album and then buying their other albums only to be disappointed the other albums don't measure up to that one. If you recommend a band's second-best album then it's still good, but there is somewhere to go but up from there...speaking of "Up")

14. Up

It's interesting this album is called "Up" since it's the first R.E.M. album that really was "down." What I mean by that (and not just being cutesy) is this is the first R.E.M. album without Bill Berry and the first album that consists of slower songs which tend to meander. This album isn't bad, but it's clearly the sign of a band that is lost. They tried to be Radiohead and use some more electronica in their sound. They even hired Radiohead's producer to work on the album. The problem is Radiohead may not always play upbeat music but playing weird electronica isn't what R.E.M. does well. What comes off as creative when done by Radiohead comes off as meandering and aimless when done by R.E.M. It's not a criticism of them, because if Radiohead tried to do jangle pop or an album of mostly acoustic tunes I don't believe they could pull it off.

What's most frustrating about "Up" is even the good songs on the album sound like R.E.M. trying to sound like someone else. Daysleeper is a mid-tempo song that sounds like R.E.M. doing a cover of an R.E.M. song, At My Most Beautiful is a rip-off of a Beach Boys song and sound without adding anything that makes it sound like R.E.M., while Lotus again sounds like an outtake from "Monster." The amount of aimlessness on this album is astounding and I chalk it up completely to Bill Berry's absence. R.E.M. always had a very collaborative approach to music and without a permanent drummer it seems the urge to let the songs wander overcame them. Songs 6-14 consist entirely of wandering music that doesn't seem to know when to end. One of my favorites on the album, Why Not Smile, would have been perfect as a sub-3:00 minute melancholy tune, but instead has a fade out that lasts for almost a minute and a half.

It's like the band decided there's really no need for instrumentation and they would just let Michael Stipe's voice carry them. No offense to Stipe, but he's a great vocalist in the concept of a band (which is why I give him total credit for never going solo...he gets that he's great because the people behind him are great and he can't carry a band by himself, which is a lesson Richard Ashcroft had to learn the hard way) and a focus on his vocals helps the listener recognize the lyrics aren't always strong and focused. It's amazing how a little instrumentation can make average vocals sound better (see: Van Halen during the David Lee Roth era) and while Stipe is certainly not a weak vocalist or songwriter, an entire album of his thoughts without a strong melody starts to call out his weaknesses as a songwriter.

The Highlights Don't Overshadow the Lowlights

13. Green

I recognize the next three albums probably are people's favorite albums or there is a belief they should not be ranked so low. It's just how I feel. I like "Green." I really do. There is some strong material on here that looks great on a Greatest Hits album or stands alone as a single. It's just taken as a whole, there is a lot of filler, and put all together the album isn't as strong as some of the individual highlights. It's difficult to explain. I like many of these songs individually, but when put together they sound very fluffy and meaningless, which isn't something a strong R.E.M. album should sound like. I think this record was intended as a reaction to the more political and focused "Document." Except, this album was political too. It's a weird dichotomy to go from light pop ditties to songs about war and Agent Orange. 

Three of the first four songs are the simple pop ditties that I enjoy, but are also the reason I wouldn't consider this to be a great album. Stand, Get Up, and Pop Song '89 are good tunes but not the sort of tune I want to hear followed by a few more political songs. It was like the band was saying, "Hey, we are political but we can be fun too!" and they never quite got the combination right. This was their first major label release so I'm sure Warner Brothers probably didn't get a hard-on for a bunch of songs about war and vague-sounding critics of politicians. They wanted "It's the End of the World As We Know It" because that's a fun fucking song. Do that again! So they did try. But being a band that likes to control their own destiny they also put World Leader Pretend, Orange Crush, and Turn You Inside-Out on the album as well.

The highlights of this album, which I consider to be 7 of the 11 tracks, should overshadow the lowlights and move this album up in my rankings, but they don't flow for me. The album was originally going to be a side of harder material and a side of softer material (this plan was thrown out) and what resulted was an album where it wasn't entirely clear what the band wanted to be. The second side of the album is a great example of this problem and that's where most of the filler from this album comes from. The first side doesn't flow well for me and the second side is filled with filler. Maybe better sequencing would have corrected this (for example, I've always hated Orange Crush being the 7th track, it seems the track was buried there in order to prevent listeners from just rewinding the first side constantly), but the individual tracks don't make a great album.

12. Out of Time

I have an incredibly difficult time being impartial about "Out of Time." It sold over 18 million copies, so clearly someone liked it, but it absolutely drives me crazy. The entire album does. You can tell by now I don't like R.E.M. albums without a central theme, but "Out of Time" is the worst of the worst and the only reason it's ranked above "Green" is because the best tracks on this album are some of the best stuff the band has ever written, even though there is less of it. This album was R.E.M.'s attempt to be a strong pop band and it worked. There are five songs on this album that would have fit in perfectly with "Automatic for the People" and are indicative of the band's strengths and then there is stuff like Radio Song, Shiny Happy People, Me in Honey, Low, and Endgame that I consider to be pretty much shit songs that only serve to get the band on the radio and speak to the lowest common denominator.

Then there is Losing My Religion, Country Feedback, Near Wild Heaven, Texarkana, and Half a World Away that are some of the best songs that the band has ever written. Tracks 8-10 (Half a World Away, Texarkana, and Country Feedback) are one of the strongest three song stretches in the band's catalog and sets up the band for their (spoiler alert) masterpiece album that came out a year later. It's good music and highlights the band's ability to create atmosphere in a song. Not coincidentally, two of the tracks on this album are sung by the underrated Mike Mills and he does a bang-up job with both of them. The highs on this album are really high, but there is some junk to be waded through in order to get there.

The line that begins Half a World, "This could be saddest dusk I've ever seen, turn to marigold..." and the ad-libbing of Country Feedback where Stipe ends up repeating "It's crazy what you could've had, I need this..." over and over just can't make up for the pop crap of Shiny Happy People and Radio Song (which is probably why some people bought the album). "Out of Time" is a great example of how the best music doesn't necessarily mean album sales. If someone started an R.E.M. collection with this album it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world, but I have a feeling after some time the bloom would be off this rose.

11. Fables of the Reconstruction

This was the second R.E.M. album I ever purchased. I still don't think I completely get this album. It's not bad, there's just not a lot of great songs on the album and there is an overall feeling of drab to the album. It's definitely a more experimental album for them and was probably worth recording simply so the band could start to test the limits of their sound. Feeling Gravity's Pull is a slow, weird way to start off the album. It's not a death-knell to start an album off with a slow song, but it's almost five minutes long and doesn't feel like it necessarily goes anywhere.

The middle portion of the album like Drive 8, Life and How to Live It, Green Grow the Rushes Grow, and Can't Get There From Here are the highlight of the album. Again, this is a grading scale that acknowledges this is basically R.E.M. albums being compared to each other. It seems like there are 4-5 really good songs on the album and the rest are just album filler that aren't some of my favorite tracks. The energy wasn't quite there on this album and this may be due to the increased use of different instruments not melding well with the band's sound. It could also be "the difficult third album" effect where bands want to do something different on a third album and aren't quite sure exactly how to take their sound in a different direction.

There is a dark tone to this album that I'm not sure the band was entirely able to work into the confines of their current sound. They did a much better job on the next album and on future albums in taking a different sound and trying to put together a group of songs that aren't loud, but aren't dreary.

The Album That's Not Overly Bad, Just Hard to Get Through

10. New Adventures in HiFi

This album frustrates the shit out of me. It's a long album at almost 66 minutes and seems to be the band's attempt at a "road record." The problem is it's a road record that stays around too long and has a tremendous amount of filler on it. Unlike Jackson Browne's "Running on Empty" where he seemed inspired by being on the road, R.E.M. seems just tired and the songs reflect it. Of course they had just gotten off the "Monster" tour (where I saw them in Charlotte) and everybody in the band seemed to have gotten sick at one point or another, so there's a good chance they were tired. It's not good to put out a road album where the songs seem weary from the road trip and the songs become a slog due to this.

There's a lot being juggled on this album. The songs are a step back from the reverb-feedback sounding "Monster," but still contains the basic sound on some tracks, while also trying to get some of the mellow vibe the band had on "Automatic for the People," all while writing a road album. It's too much. So what results is an album of good songs, but it runs out of steam and even the good songs hang around too much. I love E-bow the Letter but does it have to be over 5 minutes long? The synthesizer effect on Leave is great, but 7 minutes of it isn't so great. New Test Leper has Michael Stipe singing in an octave below his normal voice (either that or he is really, really tired...and he sounds really, really tired) but it goes long as well. It does have a good organ part.

This would have been a much better album if the tracks were cut down into a real road album and the sequencing were changed. Here's the track listing I would have chosen for this album:

1. Leave (cut it down to below 7 minutes)
2. New Test Leper (cut it down)
3. Wake Up Bomb
4. E-Bow the Letter (again, cut it down a bit)
5. Bittersweet Me
6. How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us
7. Departure
8. Be Mine
9. So Fast, So Numb
10. Electrolite

It's shorter and even if the songs aren't cut down the album won't be such a drag to get through. I thought Leave would have been a great way to start the album and Electrolite is a great way to end the album. It's just there is too much mediocre music that takes too much time to listen to. It's just not a fun album to go all the way through.

9. Collapse Into Now

This was the band's last album and it's not a good thing and it's not a bad thing. They went out like a lot of bands probably would like to go out, on an album that wasn't terrible to where it messed up their legacy, but also wasn't such a great album they felt the need to prove they are still on the top of their game. The band knew they were going to break up and made this album with the full knowledge this would be the last time they cut an album of new material together. Of course this album got all the typical reviews that contain quotes like, "Not their best, but they still have life" and "It's not Album X, but it's certainly really good." It seems all older bands get those medium-type reviews that don't bash the new album, while also acknowledging it's not as good as the old material.

If anything, this is a good album that only serves to remind the listener that there isn't a great track on the album. Therefore, it's hard for me to listen to the album despite the fact it's a consistently good album. You know how on certain albums there is a song or two (or three...or four...) you can't wait to hear? Well, this album lacks a song like that. So it's an album of really good music (Discoverer, All the Best, It Happened Today, and Mine Smell Like Honey) and the band still has an edge to it lacking from much of the late 90's and early 2000's material, it's still just an album of pretty good songs. It sounds crazy to write, since I put this as the 9th best album, but there are really no bad songs on this album. There's nothing shockingly embarrassing like "Out of Time" has, but there are also no great songs in the form of Electrolite. These songs if put on an album with any of the albums ranked above it would just be good songs on a good album.

So that's why I say it's hard to get through this album. It's good enough to listen to, not so bad you want to turn it off, but it mostly reminds you that R.E.M. still makes good music. Unfortunately, I don't see any great music on this album and that is the problem. An entire album of good, listenable music isn't a great album in this case.

The Ironically Titled Album

8. Accelerate

This was a "return to form" album for R.E.M. They had just made "Around the Sun," which was embarrassingly bad. They were getting older and probably didn't want to get into the "Dylan in the 80's" period of the band's career where they sold records off a good single or two and the brand name of the band. Plus, Michael Stipe is really liberal and George W. Bush was good for more liberal, political-minded songwriters to use for a muse. This was an exciting album at the time because it was the sign of the band being aggressive, loud and alive again. Seven years later some of that perspective is lost because "Around the Sun" is now a decade old and R.E.M. is broken up.

The album title is ironic because this album accelerates out of the game strongly with six really good songs in a row that have Mike Mills on background vocals and Michael Stipe spitting out lyrics from the outset of the album. It only slows down a little at the beginning of Hollow Man and then the pace picks up again. It's good, strong material, especially the first track Living Well is the Best Revenge, where towards the end of the song it seems Mike Mills' background vocals are simply trying to keep up with the pace of the song. Then Until the Day is Done begins and the rest of the album slows down and isn't as strong. It accelerated out of gate and then slows down into filler and songs that aren't as strong. This album is like a runner who is running a 10K who spends all of his energy on getting the lead in the first four miles and has no energy left to stay in the lead until the end.

There is a song called Sing for the Submarine which refers to a song from Around the Sun, Electron Blue. Why? I'm not sure. Then the album closes out with a song that, for me, is another silly song that I thought the band wouldn't record at this point in their career, I'm Gonna DJ. This song contains the lyrics:

"Death is pretty final,
I'm collecting vinyl,
'Cause if heaven does exist with a kicking playlist,
I don't want to miss it at the end of the world."

and then "I'm gonna DJ at the end of the world" is repeated over and over again. It's just not a great track. This is an album that proves R.E.M. can still write good music, but there's always some filler on their albums. If this were a seven track CD then there wouldn't be a weak track, but the way the album slows down after track 6 is very disconcerting.

The Highlights Do Overshadow the Lowlights

7. Document

When I was younger, I did not understand the politics behind this album. It's pretty damn political all the way through. They managed to include horns and a synthesizer on a song or two. I partly think this album came out of their attempts to vary their sound a bit more on "Fables of the Reconstruction" except they were a little more upbeat this time and the songwriting was much stronger. It's a more inspired album, mostly because the band was pissed off at Ronald Reagan (see? Republican presidents are good for songwriting) and the direction he was taking the country.

I tend to blame It's the End of the World World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine) for a lot of the later cutesy-songs the band tried to write. I'm probably off-base, but I feel like that song being a hit is responsible for side 1 of "Green" and the crap that is on parts of "Out of Time." This album has six classic R.E.M. songs on it, including the love song that is not at all a love song The One I Love. It's a song about using another person so I'm pretty sure the title is to be taken ironically and not literally.

The album starts off with three political songs that are only political if you pay attention to the lyrics, and since this is R.E.M., you probably are avoiding the lyrics a little bit since sometimes they are gibberish. Not so in this case. There is also one of my favorite R.E.M. songs, even though I have no idea what it's about, King of Birds, on the second side of the album. It's a very good album that takes a certain mood to listen to. If you want to hear R.E.M. at their kindest and most romantic then this is not the album to do so. It's more angry and jaded than anything else, though that's the brilliance of the band. It's angry and jaded but the music sounds happy and not angry at all. The lyrics are a different story of course.

On a different tangent, since I'm a person who has different moods then it makes sense R.E.M. has albums that can fit those moods. Sometimes I'm in the mood for jangle-pop and can put "Reckoning," "Murmur," "Lifes Rich Pageant." If I'm angry I put on "Accelerate" and "Document." If I want to annoy myself with what could have been I combine "Green" and "Out of Time" into one album without the crappy songs. If I want to hear more introspective and atmospheric songs then "Up," "Fables of the Reconstruction," "Automatic for the People," and "Reveal." If I want to fall asleep, I listen to "Around the Sun." Speaking of "Reveal..."

6. Reveal

This album deserves to be in the Hall of Very Good, but I recognize I'm biased because I love this album so much. There is some not-good material on here, so I have to place it at #6 and out of the "Hall of Very Good." On a day when I'm ready to hear the album, it's a top-3 album for me. It's moody, introspective and has a couple tributes to the Beach Boys on it. It's a really good album, though it's also not a very loud album. Sometimes it's hard to believe this album was made four years after "Monster."

"Reveal" has what I would consider to be the quintessential R.E.M. song on it in the form of Imitation of Life. I know, it sounds like high praise and it is. This song has all the attributes of a great R.E.M. song all packed into one.

1. Jangle-sounding guitar

2. Non-sensical lyrics

3. Mike Mills on background vocals where you can actually hear him

4. A chorus that sticks in your head and won't leave

5. A song title that just sounds interesting

6. Lyrics that may actually be nonsense or may actually be deep...who the fuck knows? Take it how you want.

My favorite song on this album is I've Been High. It's just a beautiful song (again, the meaning of it...I'm not sure, so take it how you want and I do take it how I want) about a person who wants to live their life "on high" but seems to be missing those things he wants and has seemingly tried too hard to get someone to believe in him.

do my eyes
do my eyes seem empty?
I've forgotten how this feels.

I've been high
I've climbed so high
but life sometimes
it washes over me...

was I wrong?
I don't know, don't answer.
I just needed to believe.

I've been high
I've climbed so high
but life sometimes
it washes over me...

close my eyes so I can see
make my make believe believe
in me

This song is seemingly the type of song that the band was trying to make on "Up," except this song is straight to the point in under three-and-a-half minutes. I'm a sucker for introspection and this album has a lot of that, as well as All the Way to Reno, which is another really great jangle-pop song. There's also The Lifting, She Just Wants to Be, Summer Turns to High, (the total Beach Boy tribute) Beachball, and I'll Take the Rain, which is basically a song where the narrator says if this is happiness he is experiencing with a person then he'll take the rain on his own (again, how I take it). It's not the most upbeat album, but on a given day I would put it up against nearly any other album in their catalog based on the great songs on the album. 

The Hall of Very Good

5. Lifes Rich Pageant

I consider this to be a sort of transition album for R.E.M. It's got one foot stuck in the college rock they did so well (Fall on Me, Hyena), while also previewing the harder rock that can be found on "Document" and "Green" (Begin the Begin, These Days), while also previewing some of the more pop-oriented jangle-rock and acoustic numbers they would record in the early 90's (Superman, and Swan Swan H). There are some really great individual songs on this album.

This is just a personal opinion, but it just doesn't add up to a great album for me. I can't really describe it too well, and it's still a very good album. It lacks cohesion for me. They are all really good songs, but it feels scattershot when listened to all together. Maybe it's that the album has a foot in several different sounds R.E.M. had over the years, because the album would have sounded great in 1986, but I hear the songs and think, "Well they did that song better on 'Monster' or I prefer the acoustic sounds of 'Out of Time' better." It's an album of really good songs, but they are all sort of really good songs, not exceptionally great songs throughout the album. Therefore I can't really rate it as a masterpiece.

4. Monster

I can't ever forget the first time I heard What's the Frequency Kenneth? on MTV. I was in love with R.E.M. at that point and was really excited to hear their new album which promised rock songs. The second I saw the video and heard the song I knew I was buying the album (which I probably would have done even if I didn't hear the song). Ready for a contradiction? This album is TOO cohesive for me. R.E.M. promised a rock album and they delivered a rock album with a ton of reverb, very little acoustic guitar, and loud sounds. It's great, but it's also very consciously a glam-rock album.

I have mentioned how one of R.E.M.'s strengths is they can play different types of music and do it well while making that sound their own. They did that here too. It lacks the masterpiece status for me because some of the songs go on too long (which was intentional by the band) and the songwriting just isn't strong enough to justify it being a masterpiece. It's got a great front side and one of my favorite R.E.M. songs in Strange Currencies, but the second half tends to go too falsetto and ramble at times. Tongue, You, and even I Took Your Name aren't my favorite songs by the band. It's a very conscious record in that they know they aren't sounding like R.E.M. and it only shows on a few tracks. Tracks where it is clear Michael Stipe is doing things vocally he hasn't normally done and the reverb gets to be too much for me. It's those moments when I notice it's R.E.M. trying not to sound like R.E.M. more than it is R.E.M. expanding their sound. Still, I think "Monster" is a great album overall.

The Masterpieces

3. Murmur

2. Reckoning

I hate to package these two albums together, but I consider them to be the same kind of album. Like "Van Halen I and II," Boston's self-titled album and "Don't Look Back," and a lot of Dave Matthews Band's early output "Reckoning" and "Murmur" are different in packaging and name only. Each of those bands added a different sound or instrument to a track or two or in order to have some diversity, but if you through their first two albums together it would be hard to figure out which songs came on which album. I rank "Reckoning" over "Murmur" only because the songs on "Reckoning" feel like a more grown-up and expanded version of what R.E.M. recorded on "Murmur." I love "Murmur" (obviously from the ranking of it as a masterpiece), but the songs are a little thinner-sounding compared to "Reckoning."

There isn't a bad song on either album really. "Murmur" is the typical debut album from a college band that doesn't have quite the big production and Stipe's vocals feel buried and completely unintelligible at times. It's not a bad thing at all, but "Reckoning" has slightly more diverse song-writing and sounds on it while still being an obvious sequel to "Murmur." It's an album where R.E.M. takes the sound of "Murmur" and expands on it with a more country sound on Don't Go Back to Rockville or going straight acoustic on Time After Time. It's a stronger album for me because the production is better, the songwriting is tighter and more focused, while the performances are also more streamlined and don't feel like it's simply really, really good college rock.

"Murmur" is the sound of a great college band changing the sound of music, while "Reckoning" is the sound of a band continuing to change the sound of music while also changing the band's sound in small ways just to see what they are capable of while keeping their own sound. This attempt to change went bad at times on "Fables of the Reconstruction" and they learned from that, but the attempt to grow while still keeping their signature sound is what makes "Reckoning" a better album in my mind.

The Best Masterpiece

1. Automatic for the People

This is a desert island disc for me. It can be a depressing album, so if I was stuck on a desert island then I would probably be pretty depressed and this would be an appropriate album, even if I didn't think it was R.E.M.'s best album, which I do. It probably has more filler than other R.E.M. albums, but the filler isn't bad and fits perfectly with the tone of the album. While I wouldn't choose New Orleans Instrumental No. 1, Monty Got a Raw Deal, Star Me Kitten, or Ignoreland as my favorite R.E.M. songs, they fit in perfectly with this album and how it was sequenced. The last two songs on that list (Star Me Kitten and Ignoreland) are on the back side of the album as a preview of the sound the band would pursue on "Monster" and break up the melancholy first side and the melancholy last couple of songs.

New Orleans Instrumental No. 1 fits in wonderfully after Everybody Hurts and before Sweetness Follows. It's an incredibly nice way to transition between the two songs. It's not a challenging or great instrumental, but it serves as a great outro to Everybody Hurts while also being a good intro to Sweetness Follows. Whereas Everybody Hurts is about holding on when times are tough, Sweetness Follows is about the same topic, but is just a little more jaded about it. Everybody Hurts says that life sucks and sometimes you just have to carry on (as anyone who has seen the video knows) and rarely has Michael Stipe been this pointed with his message in a song. Sweetness Follows is basically saying why continue carrying on with life when people you love will die and bad things happen? It's inspirational to just carry on while also being less uplifting than Everybody Hurts. My point is I think the instrumental breaks up the sort of sameness and downerness of these two songs.

So the sequencing is great to where the songs don't have to be the best to make sense in the context of the album. It's impeccably sequenced and the album ends with three of the best songs on the album. It's dark, hopeful, nostalgic, depressing, funny (The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight) and even political at times. It's a very cohesive album with death and reacting to death in some fashion dominating the album, but not being so dominating that it influences the listener's thoughts about the album.

Nightswimming is a favorite of a lot of people, but I think I prefer Find the River (which the opening notes sound like were nicked by Lisa Loeb on Stay) to Nightswimming. It's a song that even Michael Stipe has said is so personal to him that it probably doesn't carry the same meaning to everyone else, as well it being a song the band has struggled playing live. I have no idea what the song is about. It could be about death, it could be about taking chances in life because at some point it all ends (which is death) or it's just about taking life as it comes and not trying to speed up things. It's one of my favorites on the album, especially when he sings about "Nothing is going my way." It seems so random since a lot of the song is more flowery and poetic imagery, while this seems like a simple statement of frustration. It's tough to analyze it too much I guess.

I never get tired of "Automatic for the People." I think it's a perfect album. It's an acoustic album that doesn't feel soft and a depressing album that doesn't always feel depressing. That ends the overly-long list of my ranking the best and worst R.E.M. albums. For someone who doesn't love lists I sure do write a lot of them.