Green, Out of Time, Automatic for the People, Monster, New Adventures in Hi-Fi, Up, Reveal, In Time: The Best of R.E.M., Around the Sun
(Warner Bros.)

Here is a list of five once-great bands that will never again make a great record: The Beatles, Minutemen, Bob Marley & the Wailers, Nirvana, R.E.M. Four of them have an excuse. R.E.M. does not.

Famously breaking a promise to disband if an original member ever left the fold (drummer Bill Berry wisely split in 1997), R.E.M has trudged drearily and disappointingly through the past few years, releasing albums that keep fans hoping that the group will finally regain its musical composure. The three post-Berry albums R.E.M. has released – Up (1998), Reveal (2001) and Around the Sun (2004) – all suffer from varying degrees of wretchedness, but even the last albums on which Berry appeared – Monster (1994) and especially New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996) – were creatively lacking, so it's not like he was some sort of linchpin in the band's sound.

What should be apparent to both the band and its fans is that R.E.M. has, for most of its career, been a decidedly mediocre band. This is a hard concept for many loyalists to come to terms with, considering the supernova of awesomeness that was R.E.M.'s first half-decade or so of existence. But the truth remains that, when the band resigned its post as King of Independent Rock to sign with Warner Bros., they were already in a creative decline, amplified by the utter averageness of Green, the major-label debut.

Although R.E.M. temporarily stopped the bleeding with a pair of excellent albums – Out of Time (1991), Automatic for the People (1992) – those discs in retrospect are merely the last creative gasps. The odd melodic phrasings of Peter Buck's ringing guitars and the dark mumbles of Michael Stipe had given way to a simplistic clarity that showed a band swamped in its own self-importance and unable to live up to it. With the release of the utterly execrable Monster (probably the second most common item in used CD shops, after that Spin Doctors record), the band's stumble turned into a full-on collapse. Album after album came, greeted with hesitant expectation – and hype about "boldness" and "new sounds" – that soon turned into all-out disappointment, culminating in the limp noodle that was last year's Around the Sun.

So just what the hell was R.E.M. thinking when they signed off on these double-disc editions of all their Warner Bros. albums? Sure, the high-resolution remastering and DVD-Audio presentations of Out of Time and Automatic for the People (and OK, Green) represent an incredible sonic improvement, and the additional docu-video on the discs is interesting to watch. But do they think that by playing some sort of equivalency game – like Around the Sun is as fine an album as Out of Time? – as well as making the subliminal argument that these eight albums deserved the special treatment more immediately than their I.R.S. material, we'll suddenly grow to respect late-period R.E.M.?

Not a chance.


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