I stumbled across quite a discussion that shot up on a couple of my favorite blogs recently regarding REM. (which seems appropriate given their recent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) Song, by Toad posits that REM was once a great band that has fallen on hard times. I cannot disagree with his thesis, after all has anyone actually listened to their last record? It's as if Micheal and the boys were asleep for half of it waking up just in time to record "Leaving New York" (which I believe was probably a left over from prior recording sessions that some A and R guy unearthed and said, why not at least give me one good single to play with...)
Anyway, the consensus from both the comments on this thread as well as from another outstanding blog, The Vinyl Villian, is that NEW ADVENTURES IN HI-FI might be the best REM record in totality. Again, on this point I don't entirely disagree. NEW ADVENTURES is a record made by four professional musicians at the height of their talent (coincidentally the last with original drummer Bill Berry). However many of the comments seem to feel that MONSTER is a less than steller effort. maybe I have a personal attachment to that album since it was that tour that I finally saw them live. But what make me give it more weight is how it affected the band. While touring for that album, much of NEW ADVENTURES was constructed. MONSTER pave the way for the subtler HI FI. Without MONSTER'S harder edge, NEW ADVENTURES doesn't work (I don't think the band could have made "Leave", "Undertow", or Wake Up Bomb" if this record had followed AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE) It's almost as if the two records are companions of one another. After that, things go way down hill.
But this brings to mind a larger problem. How do you judge a body of work by a band such as this. Do we penalize them for the fact that their early work was so groundbreaking that it's easy to marginalize? After all, off the top of your head how many bands can you think of that have openly aped Peter Buck's guitar sound? (10,15?) What about GREEN, OUT OF TIME or AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE. I think those three records (back to back to back no less) show such wide variance of music and such a depth of lyrical accumen that might just be unparalleled in music. (Not even U2, probably my favorite band of all time, can hang with that strong a three album stretch, but that is for another argument.)
I guess my point is this. REM has fallen victim to much the same curse that most great bands do. Time simply passed them by. Their body of work is so great that whatever they do at this point will be poor in comparison to what they once were. Word is that a new record is forthcoming. I'm sure I will buy and listen to it many, many times. But it won't be as good as their early work. How can it?
Having said that, I give you a couple of selections with no relation to this argument. "Turn you Inside Out" off of GREEN is, at least in my mind, the definitive REM sound. (plus it kicks major ass live!!). "Witchita Lineman, from the "Bittersweet Me" single, was recorded during a soundcheck on the MONSTER tour (which is where much of NEW ADVENTURES came from). I like this because you can hear the band working it out as they go. Allowing the song to develop and eventually by midpoint finding the spot when it all comes together and makes it theirs.
Just my two cents...feel free to leave me yours.
REM -- Begin the Begin (Live at Rock and Roll Hall of Fame)