We all know how pointless it is, but still we take part of conversations along the lines of “The best band ever was…” or “The best guitarist in history will always be…”. It is pointless, because there is not a parameter that we could agree upon to base the judgment on. Is the best guitarist the one with the best technique? The one with the fastest fingers? The one who plays the best solos? I recall the uproar caused by a list published in Rolling Stone detailing the “100 Best Guitar Players Ever” in which Johnny Ramone was in the Top 20. Some were enraged, and some defended the placement.
Still, I think that we take part of such discussions if only because we feel that championing our best-loved band is a way of bringing new converts in. And if you are over 30, I know that you have taken part of the “What’s the best band of the 80s?” discussion. And chances are, if you didn’t go for U2 you actually went for R.E.M.
Hailing from Athens (Georgia), the band fronted by Michael Stipe has had a career of note. It can be split in three sections. The first was the underground one. It started in 1982 with the release of the “Chronic Town” EP (on Hib-Tone), and the subsequent releases for I.R.S. This stage ended when they signed up with Warner in pursuit of broader international outreach in 1988.
With Warner, they were to get that and become international superstars. The albums “Out Of Time” (1991) and “Automatic For The People” (1992) are indisputably the high points of their tenure at Warner, and the guys were to eventually renew their contract for about 80 million dollars (a record-breaking amount at the time). The year was 1996, and the next year they were to lose their long-standing drummer owing to health complications.
This incident marked a downward spiral that is more perceptible to some bystanders than to others, since the band continued being acclaimed and landing hit singles, specially in the UK. But their records became more and more softer in sound, with both “New Adventures In Hi-Fi” (with Berry still around) and “Up” (already without him) standing a little lethargic not only for my liking but for most people I know. “Reveal” (1999) was to yield the successful “Imitation Of Life” (a big hit in Europe), but the band was sliding not necessarily into obscurity, but more into cult status, as if they were coming full circle. Their most recent release (“Accelerate”) does reinforce that point of view, as it is the closest they have issued to their I.R.S. records in terms of vigorousness in a long time.
I don’t necessarily think that the band has played out its role, but I do feel (and they do as well) that their main contributions have already materialized. Now it looks like they are aiming to provide some smaller ones, and that is also entirely reputable. Everybody knows they are not coming up with another “Losing My Religion”, but they are going to come up with pieces like “I’ll Take The Rain” time and again – reflexive cuts in which we learn that the way things are in itself might be unimportant. We are the ones that attribute a value to them. Leaving aside actual record sales, the band has never really released an album that was redundant. And that is not going to change anytime soon for sure. “Life sometimes/it washes over me”, Michael sings in “I’ve Been High” (“Reveal”, 1999). But the tide recedes sooner or later. What matters is to remain where you were, and then go forwards one step at a time. Sweetness will follow indeed.