R.E.M. grew out of the prolific (and under-appreciated) so-called Amer-Indie scene of the 1980's into one of the biggest rock'n'roll bands on the planet (read more about that in the Slate piece I've linked to above). They worked together for over 30 years, and over that time they honed their original voices as songwriters and created a thoroughly distinctive sound, which has resulted in an extremely consistent oeuvre; even if I haven't cared much for their records since New Adventures in Hi-Fi, the worst I can say about their most recent albums is that they've sounded uninspired (Ok, some songs are downright boring, but still).
R.E.M. was also rare in that they are one of the few bands since, well, the 70's where the record buying masses and critical approval went hand in hand, especially in the early 90's. Granted, that rise to mass fame coincided with the alternative rock/grunge explosion, but their's felt separate somehow, and the groundwork for their popularity arguably was laid with the late 80's records Document (peaked at no. 10, 33 weeks on the chart, certified platinum) and Green (peaked at 12, certified double platinum).
Their popularity is just a side note, though. It means they'll probably stay in the public consciousness as one of the "great bands", but it's not their popularity that has made them that. It is, quelle surpirse, the quality of their music (than you, Mr. Obvious).
On a personal note, I discovered Green via the striking video for "Orange Crush" some time in 1989, and it became one of the first records that got me seriously interested in music as something more than, eh, "entertainment", though I might not have been able to articulate that at the time. So in a way, R.E.M. was integral to my coming of age as a consumer, in every possible sense of the word, of music. Thank you for that, as well as for the great songs.
To end this short note, my thoroughly off-the-cuff ratings of R.E.M. records up to and counting Hi-Fi:
- Chronic Town EP (1982, I.R.S.) 7
- Murmur (1983, I.R.S.) 8
- Reckoning (1984, I.R.S.) 7
- Fables of the Reconstruction (1985, I.R.S.) 6
- Life's Rich Pageant (1986, I.R.S) 7
- Document (1987, I.R.S) 9
- Green (1988, Warner Bros.) 8
- Out of Time (1991, Warner Bros) 9
- Automatic for the People (1992, Warner Bros.) 8
- Monster (1994, Warner Bros.) 7
- New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996, Warner Bros.) 7