Because I've been diving into the band's songs and history, I'm going to write a review on what I think so far, and what I've discovered and therefore think.
Diving in, what I'll say right away in summary is this: R.E.M. is like a virtual chameleon, in music, style and even physical appearance.
I haven't really listened to any of their recent stuff. The most recent I've gotten is 'Bad Day,' which they released in 2003. But I've made little jumps here and there into their stuff from the 80s and 90s.
The first song I ever listened to by them, if my memory serves, is 'Losing My Religion.' Growing up, that was the song they were known for in the back of my mind. I never thought anything of it nor did I have an image or much impression of the band. In those days I related Michael Stipe to Phil Collins, in voice and short or balding hair. I related them to each other and nothing more. I thought Stipe was much older actually, thanks to the sound of his voice. That was my first impression, from only hearing that song and knowing it was him and R.E.M. And back then, it wouldn't have been "Michael Stipe and R.E.M." to me, but "that old guy who sings 'Losing My Religion.'" I was a kid then. It was the same way I saw The B-52's - "the two backing girls and weird lead guy that sing 'Love Shack.'"
Everything has a great deal of depth and history to it, though. Eventually I came to know their song 'Everybody Hurts,' which sort of introduced me to the rest of the band thanks to the music video. Then 'Stand' came along while I was in the Merivale Harvey's and I mis-heard the lyrics as "I'm standing in the place where you live." Off to the wayside was 'It's the End of the World... (And I Feel Fine)' which I'd heard before but hadn't connected to them. I'd end up accomplishing that while looking up songs like 'Stand' on Wikipedia, etc.
'Shiny Happy People' was probably what helped spring my interest into listening to their other stuff properly, that song as well as putting together that list of music, because I was arranging all of the songs by R.E.M. I'd heard up to that point that I'd liked which opened up more interest in them. So there I went.
I can't speak much for their very early stuff as I haven't tried any of it yet, but they sure have a range. 'I Can't Get There From Here' has a nice guitar to it as well as a good rhythm. I've read that in the early days you could barely hear or decipher anything Michael Stipe sang, and the band's decision to skip putting their lyrics down in the album sleeve didn't help. That's mostly the case for the aforementioned song (which came out in 1985). All I can really hear is the chorus. If you're only familiar with what they're known for, you won't really recognize Stipe's voice because it's much lower. You wouldn't recognize the singer by voice or eyes in early interviews at all because like I said, if you know him as the shaved-head bright-voiced singer in 'Losing My Religion' or 'Everybody Hurts,' by contrast he's got neck-length curly hair that's tied, a fuller face, and a super-deep voice that kind of comes out a bit thick, as if he's got a slightly stuffy nose. In the 1980s, anyway.
I remember when I saw the 'Stand' music video. I hadn't really seen the rest of the band before by that point, and only remembered the fact that other people were present in the 'Everybody Hurts' video. The only time you get a proper view of their faces is near the end, where they sort of hit the ground, and the camera pans up from their feet to their smiling faces. The first one is a bespectacled guy with hair almost like a bowl cut. I'd thought it was actually a nerdy boy. Rather it was bassist Mike Mills. Then a tall person with deep sunglasses and long hair stands, and my impression was by huge contrast that it was a much older guy in his thirties, with an almost long-haired rockstar look. I didn't notice the super-thick eyebrows at first. Then a normal-looking guy shows up, not really smiling but looking rather awkward, and finally what I thought was an effeminate boy with fine long hair finished the standing lineup. He smiles boyishly, and then suddenly becomes shy to the camera. That was Michael Stipe? Really?
Mike Mills, Bill Berry, Peter Buck, & Michael Stipe
That's what I mean, at least in the physical sense, that they were like chameleons. Bill Berry lost the long hair, Mike Mills grew it, and Michael Stipe got rid of it altogether. The only constant is Peter Buck.
Most might think that their glory days were the early 90s, when they came along with Out of Time (the album that included all the songs I've been mentioning). I think they accomplished a lot more and transcended a lot in their musical style. They refused to do a lot of standard things - from withholding lyrics to eschewing guitar solos. Stipe apparently disliked lip-syncing in music videos, which he only really did in their hits and some of their later stuff. And his voice is just as ranging, not in speaking to singing but from song to song. You get his deeper registers in 'Can't Get There From Here' and his much higher ones in 'The Lotus.' That ran amok in my head for years and years, its line 'let it rain, rain...' yet I never thought it was R.E.M. until I stumbled across it tonight. I thought it was an even older singer singing it, and thought of that singer exactly the way I thought of Stipe before I actually listened to him proper - an old guy whom I would relate to Stipe and by extension Phil Collins. Then he turned out to be Stipe himself. Funny, but I want to say "duh."
The most likable of them to me seems to be Peter Buck, at least in what I've read on Wikipedia and seen on YouTube. He's usually the one providing quotes to songs or albums in their articles and seems the easiest to talk to in interviews. He spent the Out of Time album sessions learning mandolin, which was incorporated into several songs (most obvious in LMR). I like his rhythmic playing in ICGTFH - and I recently noticed he goes from B major to E major, then back. Then he'll change nicely to B minor. Nice. He's quoted as saying a lot of R.E.M.'s songs use minor chords, which is true for a few of them. Mike Mills often harmonizes with Stipe on vocals in songs, like 'Stand' or most noticeably on 'Shiny Happy People' where he starts the chorus.
R.E.M. disbanded three years ago. In a farewell interview, Mike Mills simply stated that it 'felt right' and that it was the most reason-less time to stop - no drama, no heat, no issues, nothing. They simply could, and they did. They did everything they wanted to do, and in Stipe's words, they can own everything - every success and every mistake. Hey, if you've accomplished all of that and gone everywhere - whether on tour or in musical genres/styles - and you're perfectly able to stop amicably and because you simply can, you're in a very awesome spot. I think that's neat and simple and positive. I applaud the band for hanging around for such a long time, and for being different and innovative at the same time. I didn't understand some of their music videos - 'It's The End...(And I Feel Fine)' showcases a preteen boy sorting through a mess in a run-down room throughout the entire song - but they did what they wanted to do, and they no doubt had fun.
1985. Recognize/hear Michael Stipe's voice in this one? The music is fast and rhythmic and nice (B!).
1987. This sounds a little different...more rock.
1989. Definitely alternative. You get a clear image of how Stipe looks in this (if you aren't busy focusing on the bare-chested women in the background) as well as his typical singing style. I think this kind of shows how the band sounded different to their contemporaries, both in sound as well as Stipe's video direction (again, not the chests, but the camera angles and scene cuts). He doesn't lip-sync a single lyric.
1991. The one they're known for. Stipe got a haircut and lip-synced, and Buck picked up a mandolin. I once did a sort of photo-collage parody of the song, which I may post here.
1992. This sound anything like the previous stuff? I remember walking into the music department in high school one day, and a girl in ninth grade saw me, smiled, ran over to the little keyboard they had in there, and immediately started playing chords to this song. Inside my head, Michael Stipe automatically started singing the chorus. Of the entire room, only I recognized the melody.
1992. Another slow song.
1994. Back to their (roughly) usual genre. Suddenly Mike Mills has longer hair and a loud-looking suit.
1998. This is after Bill Berry left in 1997. Michael Stipe looks and sounds high-pitched and the music has an unusual feel to it.
2003. The most recent I can get.
Finally, these are probably the best things anyone can watch about the band. Someone interviewed each member in 1990 - while they were in the process of recording Out of Time, which had their biggest hits - and asked Stipe, Buck, Mills and Berry definitive questions about what they thought about the songs, album, and the band in that particular year.
Stipe sure had a lot of confidence in 'Shiny Happy People,' considering I read that the band quite dislike the song in retrospect.
"I like Shiny People..."
I realize they all sort of cut off, but they're still pretty neat. I like the question about what they think of where the band is in 1990. They'd been together for ten years by then...still had another 21 to go.
I really need to get to bed, it's after 3am, but I hope anyone who reads and looks at this review ends up tempted or interested to go check out their other songs, from whichever period, early, mid or late. They're a great, ever-changing, unique, innovative act that I think is pretty awesome.