List item: Listen to the 1000 Most Acclaimed Albums
With seven albums in the 1000, R.E.M. are one of the better represented groups to appear on the list. Two of these, Murmur and Automatic for the People are in the upper 250 of the list in rather lofty positions. Whilst I am not looking at placements for the remaining albums on the 1000, Reckoning is one of the lower of the R.E.M. albums that I will be listening to – although still in a respectable position, which is rightfully higher than FutureSex/LoveSounds.
It’s hard for me to not think of R.E.M. as their Automatic for the People selves rather than this darker group that they were at the beginning. A little bit disorientating at first, but you get used to it eventually and then try to remember back to how they were on their debut.
As a second album, Reckoning is not a massive departure from their work on Murmur. It’s more a refining of what made for a great debut rather than them necessarily trying something new on for size. Is it missing the great single? Yes, there are no songs on here that quite reach ‘Radio Free Europe’. In fact, when listening to this I was beginning to feel a real need to listen to ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’ – guess that there is a mood similarity between this album and that song.
This isn’t to say there aren’t really good songs on here. Me being me, I like it when R.E.M. go a bit more on the upbeat side like the alternative country stylings of ‘(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville’, the jangle pop of ‘So. Central Rain’ or the faster moving ‘Little America’ which has a bit of U2 in it. Reckoning is a really good album and it is over so quickly that you just want more.
List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 162/250Title: Automatic for the People
Like thousands of other people, I listen to the Earwolf podcast R U Talkin’ R.E.M. RE: ME? where hosts Scott Auckerman and Adam Scott go through and discuss each of the R.E.M. albums in order (when they aren’t inventing other weird sub-podcasts). I’ve gotten to the point where the next album they’re going to cover is Automatic for the People – so I thought this would be as good a time as any to give this a spin.
As I have been realising whilst listening to previous episodes of the R.E.M. podcast, I actually know a lot of this album from my mum. I remember, when I was much younger, her playing R.E.M. every now and then (mostly Automatic for the People and Out of Time) so it has been an interesting bit of nostalgia to properly listen to these songs.
For the most part, Automatic for the People is actually quite a bit darker than I first realised. This isn’t just because of ‘Everybody Hurts’, which I remember crying to when I was a teenager when I was in my more fragile moments. No, there are tracks like ‘Sweetness Follows’ which deals with death and ‘Monty Got A Raw Deal’ which is about the unfairness of Montgomery Clift’s live post-car crash.
However, whilst these songs can be a little bit maudlin, the album never succumbs to the weight of it’s own darker topics. For one thing, Automatic For The People also contains three far more positive and rocky songs that help to break up the sadness. ‘Man on the Moon’ is one of my favourite R.E.M. songs ever and knowing more about the weird references to Andy Kaufman and the conspiracy of his faking his own death just makes it better. ‘Ignoreland’ is an angry look at the Republican party and there is ‘The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite’ which is just a whole lot of fun.
What makes me enjoy this album more than Murmur is how far their melodies have come. By this time R.E.M. were in the spotlight more than ever, but they still never allowed themselves to become fully mainstream. Unlike a lot of other bands, I don’t think you can accuse them of selling out or not trying to stay true to who they were. Automatic For The People is the best that they ever sounded and whilst future releases still contained flashes of their genius, this is where they peaked. At least for me that is.
List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
I am in the very privileged position to have seen R.E.M. live in concert before their unexpected split a few years ago. In fact, it was during their final tour, supporting their penultimate album Accelerate, where I saw them supported by Guillemots and Editors at Twickenham. I will always remember a bit when he dedicated a song to all the redheads in the audience and everyone surrounding me briefly stared in my general direction. As someone who has had bottles thrown at me for having red hair… it made me feel special.
Since I really enjoyed the gig, and all the R.E.M. I had on my iPod was Automatic From The People and a greatest hits compilation I decided I would further explore the back catalogue which is how I got to the first time I ever played Murmur. Since it did not really have much in common with the music I listened to I pretty much abandoned this album but never actually deleted since I figured that one day I would probably grow into it. Seeing how I eventually grew into Radiohead this was not a bad idea.
Of course I had no idea when I first listened to Murmur how important an album it was (for a very well written explanation behind this see this review on Popmatters) and that in an era where punk had died and there was a bit of a creative vacuum in the music industry R.E.M. emerged from a growing scene and shaped it in a big way. It helps that with Murmur they were able to do so with an album with tracks like ‘Radio Free Europe’.
Since Automatic For The People is also on this list, and is 16 places higher, I will probably go more into R.E.M. specifics then (especially since it is my favourite album of theirs) but I will leave this write-up of Murmur with the following note: it is one of those debuts that definitely spells out what is to come for their career. It’s just… not an album that did it for me completely after a number of playthroughs.