Their debut EP, Chronic Town, illustrated R.E.M's signature musical style: jangling guitars, chords played in arpeggio, murmured vocals, and lyrics that completely avoid the standard topics of popular music - love and relationships. Their debut album, Murmur (1983), is held to be one of the best records of the 1980s. The album is stylistically unified. The jangling guitars, so prominent on Chronic Town, are used more sparingly. The melody is found in the bass notes, and the lyrics are practically indecipherable. The songs on the album blend together, creating a mood that evokes the greyness of a late autumn day. Yet the album ends on hopeful notes. Arpeggio and jangling guitars return in "Sitting Still", and "Shaking Through", where Michael Stipe asserts that indeed, 'Autumn marches on'.
R.E.M's second album, Reckoning (1984), explored a number of different musical styles. Song topics include cold weather, a fairy tale in which a child drowns, a flood, superficiality, and separation. Yet the jangling guitars and beautiful melodies hide the dark lyrics. The final song, "Little America", is written about rural America, and the song is a prelude to the Southern themes on the subsequent album.
Fables of the Reconstruction (1985) explores the mythology of the Southern United States. A celebration of an eccentric individual is the subject of no less than four songs on the album ("Maps and Legends", "Life and How to Live It", "Old Man Kensey", "Wendell Gee"). "Driver 8" is a song about the scenery surrounding railroad tracks. Trains are a frequent topic of Southern music; they epitomize the freedom and promise of an escape from one's home environment. The source of the title of "Can't Get There from Here" is a curious phrase heard when asking directions in a rural area. "Kohoutek" is about a comet, and is perhaps the first song by R.E.M. about a romantic relationship. By the time this album was released, R.E.M were already well-known and critically acclaimed, and the video for "Can't Get There from Here" was played frequently on MTV. R.E.M. practically defined college rock by this time.
The next album, Lifes Rich Pageant (1986), takes its name from a Pink Panther movie ("You'll catch your death of cold!" "Yes, I probably will. But that's all part of life's rich pageant, you know."). The songs are upbeat, the tempo is fast; this is a fairly hard-rocking album. One of Michael Stipe's favorite R.E.M. songs is found here ("Fall on Me"). The lyrics were becoming both more intelligible and more direct, with political themes appearing more explicitly ("Begin the Begin", "Flowers of Guatemala", "Hyena"). "Cuyahoga" is about the river in Ohio that caught fire due to pollution. Ironically, the 'hit' from the album ("Superman") was a cover song. In many ways, this album marked the end of the first period in the band's history.
Document (1987) was their last album for the indie record label IRS, and provided their first major hit with "The One I Love". The popularity of this song of grim satisfaction over the death of an unhappy relationship was due mainly, however, to its misinterpretation as a love song. "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" recalls the rapid-fire lyrical style of Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and can be described as pre-apocalyptic.
Dead Letter Office (1987) was a collection of B-sides and outtakes. Highlights include three Velvet Underground covers, an Aerosmith cover, an uncommissioned commercial for a barbecue restaurant in Athens, and a boozy version of "King of the Road". The CD also has the EP Chronic Town at the end. The album is described in the liner notes as "A little bit of uh-huh and a whole lot of oh-yeah".
In 1988 R.E.M. signed to the major label Warner Brothers and released Green. This was the band's first time with heavy promotion, and they toured stadiums extensively in 1989. Some fans from the IRS days complained that R.E.M. had become too commercial and that the quality of the music had decreased, but the band had now been brought to international attention.
Their next records, Out of Time (1991) and Automatic for the People (1992), were both critically acclaimed international hits, featuring hit singles including "Losing My Religion" (also misunderstood, the phrase is Southern slang for losing one's temper and has nothing to do with religion), "Shiny Happy People", "Everybody Hurts" and "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite". Although "Out of Time" is sometimes thought of as a sugary pop record, and contains some of the band's biggest radio hits, it also includes such emotional, contemplative tracks as "Belong," "Half A World Away" and "Country Feedback" (which Michael Stipe acknowledges as his favorite R.E.M. song ever) On Automatic, the band developed a reserved, meditative sound that took them back to their roots, and the record's 10 million copies were sold in spite of such melancholy themes as death, suicide and sexual jealousy. Recently (2004), as a tribute to such a landmark record in rock history, Dashboard Confessional have announced that they are recording a cover of "Automatic For The People" in its entirety.
The band's 1994 release, the grunge-influenced Monster, including "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?", proved to be a crossover hit and their best selling album to date, though many critics disliked the band's foray into glam rock. The album was followed by a massive tour during which drummer Bill Berry suffered a brain hemorrhage on stage, which would eventually lead to his leaving the band. While on this tour the band recorded the album New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996), a long, roughly produced and decidedly bleak record which featured, in the seven-minute "Leave", perhaps the band's most intense song. Other notable tracks on that record include "E-Bow the Letter" (a collaboration with the legendary Patti Smith) and the intense western-themed rock of "Low Desert" (another Stipe favorite).
After Berry's departure, the band returned with Up (1998), another long and reflective record but mellower and more diverse, with the lead single "Daysleeper." The band were no longer selling as well as in the peak days of 1991-94, but they had not stopped producing compelling records. Their latest, 2001's Reveal, confirms the return to an even mellower songwriting approach, with songs such as "Imitation of Life," "All The Way To Reno (You're Gonna Be A Star)" and "She Just Wants To Be" garnering some radio play. Their most recent single, "Bad Day" (2003), was written back in the late 80s, and is rumored to have been the genesis of "It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)," with similar stream of consciousness lyrics and jangly guitars.