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R.E.M. spent the majority of their 31-year career putting out top-quality albums, while a chunk of their audience wished they would just break up already. Though some of this was a bit reactionary and a by-product of their roots in the nascent indie rock scene of the 1980s, it was mainly a consequence of one of the band’s most admirable qualities– a restless desire to reinvent themselves with each record and create a discography in which each new entry had a distinct character. This much was clear by 1984: R.E.M. could have mined indefinitely the fascinating blend of murky atmosphere and crystal clear chiming guitar parts on their debut, Murmur– lord knows many other bands of the era tried– but they took a left turn into the sunnier, more lyrically direct Reckoning and kept throwing curveballs at their audience from that point onward.
This tendency yielded a rich body of work spanning 15 studio albums, but the creative shifts– however organic they may seem in context– gave listeners valid reasons to jump ship along the way. It makes just as much sense to enjoy all their records as it does for someone who favors Peter Buck’s early jangle-centric guitar style to recoil at his flamboyantly distorted tone on Monster, or for fans of their immensely popular chamber pop records Out of Time and Automatic for the People to shrug off the skewed, highly politicized arena rock of their late 80s records. This isn’t even factoring in the uneven albums they made following the departure of original drummer and songwriter Bill Berry, which spanned from the tentative lounge pop of Up to the often dreary melodrama of Around the Sun and the “back to basics” rock of Accelerate.
With this in mind, Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage: 1982-2011— the band’s first career-spanning anthology– does an exceptional job of presenting this body of work as a chronological survey that neatly summarizes their major themes and artistic tangents while being highly listenable. The song selection is exceptional– a few relatively minor singles didn’t make the cut, but every major hit is here, presented alongside crucial album tracks such as “Country Feedback”, “Begin the Begin”, and “Life and How to Live It”. The quality of the material up through at least the middle of the second disc is unimpeachable; the sheer concentration of classic tunes makes a strong case for the band ranking among the 20th century’s greatest songwriting partnerships. The set handles the band’s leaner years with grace and minimal revisionism, though the electronic and ambient textures of Up are sidelined in favor of that album’s delicate Beach Boys homage “At My Most Beautiful”. A few wild card selections from their more recent records, such as Accelerate’s “Living Well Is the Best Revenge” and “Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter” from Collapse Into Now, shine in this context. – Pitchfork
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