R.E.M. legitimized alternative music, signing with a major label (Warner Bros.) following the success of 1987’s Document. Their major label debut, Green, dropped the following year. Eager to tour in support of it, R.E.M. embarked on an exhausting world tour that forced them to take a one-year sabbatical like a bunch of tenured professors upon its conclusion. Of course, no one had earned it more — they had released one album per year since 1983. But it was a sign that even though they were still fairly young, they weren’t a new band anymore. Still, they hadn’t experienced broad success until the release of Document and Green, which went platinum and double platinum, respectively, so they were still new to most of their listeners, and the world eagerly anticipated their seventh LP.
It turns out they had to wait until early 1991 to hear R.E.M.’s next album, Out of Time, which arrived on the heels of “Losing My Religion,” an all-time classic single that reached #4 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song is one of my favorites, and Out of Time is one of the band’s more unheralded classics — it frequently gets left off of best-of lists, I have noticed. The album was a huge hit, as well, dramatically increasing R.E.M.’s worldwide appeal. It shifted over four million copies in the United States while going seven times platinum in Canada and five times platinum in the United Kingdom. It’s pretty common for music writers to say that Nevermind brought alternative into the mainstream in 1991, but that’s not entirely true.
It was the tipping point, for sure, but R.E.M. laid the groundwork in the first part of 1991 and a few years before that with Green and Document. (Not to mention during the early to mid ’80s when they were the American underground.) Nirvana rode that momentum like a thoroughbred in the final quarter of that year and beyond. Of course, it’s pointless to investigate who pissed on what tree when, since they’re all pretty good in my book and the focus should just be on the music, but I feel like a false — or, at the very least, skewed — narrative has emerged in the music history books. Nirvana may have been the first grunge band to catch on, but they weren’t the first alternative band to achieve mainstream success. Nirvana ended up defining a generation, operating during alternative’s period of peak functionality, but R.E.M. carried the torch for Gen-Xers long before and long after Nirvana.
But as I said before, pitting bands against each other is kind of pointless, particularly since R.E.M. undoubtedly benefited from the grunge explosion despite not being a grunge band. R.E.M. released their career high-water mark Automatic for the People on October 6, 1992, a year after Nevermind. It sports an acoustic, layered production and, more importantly, it finds them comfortably playing the role of aging veterans during the electric, volatile grunge upheaval powered by youth. The alternative music they pioneered was now the norm (no more hair metal, thank God), and the masters were at the top of their game in 1992. Automatic for the People turned out to be one of the best albums of the entire decade, and one of the very best albums in the entire alternative rock canon.
And like Out of Time before it, Automatic for the People was a global hit, going four times platinum in the United States, seven times platinum in Canada, six times platinum in the United Kingdom, and four times platinum in Australia. Fully half of Automatic‘s twelve tracks were released as singles, three of which became instantly recognizable R.E.M. classics: “Everybody Hurts,” “Man on the Moon” and “Nightswimming.” The other nine tracks are really good too, and share a similar sound, with a slow tempo and orchestral backing (with arrangements by none other than Led Zeppelin‘s John Paul Jones) to create an intimate feel. It’s an album I can’t recommend enough, as it should appeal to casual alternative fans, music lovers and non-alternative fans alike. It’s just good stuff.