As I have mentioned in previous entries, I hate the sound of ’80s music… which is why Murmur makes the list — it’s anti-’80s. That this album came out in 1983 sounding like this is nothing short of astonishing. There aren’t any synthesizers or drum machines, and its ambient atmosphere is legitimate, accomplished without gobs of the cheap, horrendously tacky reverb that’s usually found on ’80s recordings. In fact, if you’re an alternative rock fan, you need to buy this album. Now. Because Murmur, R.E.M.‘s debut, is the first great alt-rock album. Nevermind may have been the album that brought alternative rock into the mainstream, but Murmur put it on the map, and every alternative record that has come after it is greatly indebted to it, regardless of whether or not they realize it.
In the late ’70s, a string of bands rose to prominence that have since been classified as “corporate rock”: Journey, Van Halen, Styx, Foreigner, Bon Jovi, Boston, and others that you’ll hear very frequently on classic rock radio. A novice listener won’t be able to distinguish between the above bands and the ones that came before them earlier in the decade, but the bands I just mentioned favored overblown, arena-ready rockers fit for stadium tours. Rock & roll had become decadent and self-indulgent and had lost touch with its bluesy roots, and there was an explosive reaction to this development in the form of punk. Some critical punk albums that dropped in the late ’70s are the Ramones’ Ramones (1976), the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols (1977), Television’s Marquee Moon (1977), and the Clash’s The Clash (1977) and London Calling (1979), the latter of which is punk’s magnum opus. (London Calling and Marquee Moon are both honorable mentions, incidentally.)
Punk was defiantly anti-arena rock. Bands played in clubs, not stadiums, and the music was fast, noisy, and, for the most part, inarticulate. I’m not a huge fan of punk, mostly because my taste tends to favor more articulate music, but its influence is profound and undeniable; without punk, there would be no alternative rock. There wouldn’t be U2, who began as a post-punk band. I remember watching Davis Guggenheim’s outstanding documentary It Might Get Loud about Jimmy Page, Jack White, and the Edge a few years back and being struck by how deeply the Edge — U2’s guitarist — was influenced by punk. In the early ’80s, hair metal, Thriller and “Come On Eileen” may have thrived in the mainstream, but music evolved rapidly in the underground. When R.E.M. released Murmur in 1983, alternative rock was born.
It just sounds so far ahead of its time. It sounds more ’90s than ’80s to me, if only because I most associate R.E.M. with the ’90s. The truth is, Murmur doesn’t really sound like it belongs to any decade in particular. When I think of well-produced albums, the Dire Straits’ 1978 self-titled debut is one of my favorites — in fact, it narrowly missed making this list, making it the third honorable mention of this entry. It’s especially interesting to compare Dire Straits with their 1985 blockbuster Brothers in Arms, which is as ’80s as anything out there. Pretty much every band from the ’70s that lasted into the ’80s fell victim to the latter decade’s unflattering production techniques, which highlighted then-new technology that’s horribly dated now. R.E.M. had the balls and the sensibility to say no when everyone else at the time said yes to making use of that technology. As a result, they made a timeless classic, debuting a sound that had never been produced before.