I was inspired to pull this stuff out in part by this:
I was particularly struck by the high ranking of Monster, which is probably their most maligned album (and is probably the number 1 Used CD of all time). I had always thought it was seriously sub-par, especially because it was a total 180 from Automatic, which was my favorite album at the time. But listening to it now, totally out of context, it's actually fantastic! Every song is interesting and good, and the ones that, at the time, seemed like pale rewrites of their hits totally stand on their own. (Check Strange Currencies, which I always thought of as an Everybody Hurts rip, but is actually the much better song).
The other separately interesting thing is that a new REM album came out yesterday. I heard a bit of the stream from NPR and it seems reasonably solid, though not terribly exciting. But what I'm most excited about is that the REM Record Review Pattern seems to be holding strong.
I posted about this before, but this post did some great research on the phenomenon:
It's really a must-read illustration of the absurdity of mainstream rock criticism.
The pattern is, basically, that every REM that comes out is an improvement upon the last album, which was, for one reason or another, problematic. Thus, the new album becomes their best album since [an older album, usually from the Bill Berry era]. I would have thought that, since Accelerate was such a self-conscious throwback/comeback album, and it got such good reviews, that the pattern would break. It actually seems like the pattern did break, though, Pitchfork, of all things, sticks with the script:
After releasing the plodding Around the Sun, the band attempted a "return to rock" with 2008's Accelerate, barreling through a forceful but generic set and grasping at a raw, aggressive sound that was never really R.E.M.'s to begin with. So, it comes as something of a relief that Collapse Into Now sounds unmistakably like an R.E.M. album. At its best, Collapse Into Now evokes R.E.M.'s best work while capitalizing on the energy conjured during Accelerate.
To Rolling Stone's credit, they seem to have finally broken the streak:
Collapse Into Now is the first truly messy album R.E.M. have made in 10 years, since their underrated 2001 gem, Reveal. Their recent albums have focused on one musical approach at a time: 2004's Around the Sun was all slow-motion torpor, and 2008's excellent Accelerate went for spiky rockers. But Collapse Into Now touches on all their favorite tricks: punk raves, stately ballads, piano, accordion and the most mandolin they've put in one place since "Losing My Religion."
Relatedly, I was glad to see the AV Club's Steven Hyden partially acknowledge the ridiculousness of his article saying that REM was never all that good to begin with:
Perhaps more than anything else I’ve written in my four and a half years with The A.V. Club, “R.E.M.’s Incredible Shrinking Legacy” left an indelible impression on readers. And by “indelible,” I mean “negative.” Very negative. Countless pieces with my byline have come and gone, but this particular essay has followed me around like an especially unseemly sex scandal. From time to time, whenever commenters wanted to cite an example of my writing that proved incontrovertibly that I was a buffoon, “R.E.M.’s Incredible Shrinking Legacy” was what they pointed to.
It's a pretty good read, and it grapples with the strange place REM occupies in the rock canon. For a long time they were sort of parallel to U2 as huge, mega-selling bands that had their roots in the postpunk/college rock scene in the early 80s. But whereas U2 keep making hits, REM have sort of returned to just having a cult audience (albeit a very, very large one). It's hard to imagine them having the kind of profile that U2 still have. (Though U2 are doing their best to tarnish it with the Spiderman musical).