By the early 1990s, when alternative rock began to experience broad mainstream success, R.E.M. was viewed as a pioneer of the genre and released its two most commercially successful albums, Out of Time (1991) and Automatic for the People (1992), which veered from the band's established sound. R.E.M.'s 1994 release Monster was a return to a more rock-oriented sound. The band began its first tour in six years to support the album; the tour was marred by medical emergencies suffered by three band members. In 1996, R.E.M. re-signed with Warner Bros. for a reported US$80 million, at the time the most expensive recording contract in history. The following year, Bill Berry left the band amicably, with Buck, Mills, and Stipe continuing as a three-piece. Through some changes in musical style, the band continued its career into the next decade with mixed critical and commercial success. In 2007, the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The band members eventually dropped out of school to focus on their developing group. They found a manager in Jefferson Holt, a record store owner who was so impressed by an R.E.M. performance in his hometown of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, that he moved to Athens. R.E.M.'s success was almost immediate in Athens and surrounding areas; the band drew progressively larger crowds for shows, which caused some resentment in the Athens music scene. Over the next year and a half, R.E.M. toured throughout the Southern United States. Touring was arduous since a touring circuit for alternative rock bands did not then exist. The group had to tour in an old blue van driven by Holt, and the band members lived on a food allowance of $2 a day.
During the summer of 1981, R.E.M. recorded its first single, "Radio Free Europe", at producer Mitch Easter's Drive-In Studios in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The single was released on the local independent record label Hib-Tone with an initial pressing of one thousand copies, which quickly sold out. Despite its limited pressing, the single garnered critical acclaim, and was listed as one of the ten best singles of the year by The New York Times.
I.R.S. first paired R.E.M. with producer Stephen Hague to record its debut album. Hague's emphasis on technical perfection left the band unsatisfied, and the band members asked the label to let them record with Easter. I.R.S. agreed to a "tryout" session, allowing the band to return to North Carolina and record the song "Pilgrimage" with Easter and producing partner Don Dixon. After hearing the track, I.R.S. permitted the group to record the album with Dixon and Easter. Because of its bad experience with Hague, the band recorded the album via a process of negation, refusing to incorporate rock music clichés such as guitar solos or then-popular synthesizers, in order to give its music a timeless feel. The completed album, Murmur, was greeted with critical acclaim upon its release in 1983, with Rolling Stone listing the album as its record of the year. The album reached number 36 on the Billboard album chart. A re-recorded version of "Radio Free Europe" was the album's lead single and reached number 78 on the Billboard singles chart in 1983. Despite the acclaim awarded the album, Murmur sold only about 200,000 copies, which I.R.S.'s Jay Boberg felt was below expectations.
R.E.M. made its first national television appearance on Late Night with David Letterman in October 1983, during which the group performed a new, unnamed song. The piece, eventually titled "So. Central Rain (I'm Sorry)", became the first single from the band's second album, Reckoning (1984), which was also recorded with Easter and Dixon. The album met with critical acclaim; NME's Mat Snow wrote that Reckoning "confirms R.E.M. as one of the most beautifully exciting groups on the planet". In late 1983 the band embarked on its first tour of Europe. While Reckoning peaked at number 27 on the US album charts—an unusually high chart placing for a college rock band at the time—scant airplay and poor distribution overseas resulted in it charting no higher than number 91 in Britain.
The band's third album, Fables of the Reconstruction (1985), demonstrated a change in direction. Instead of Dixon and Easter, R.E.M. chose producer Joe Boyd, who had worked with Fairport Convention and Nick Drake, to record the album in England. The band members found the sessions unexpectedly difficult, and were miserable due to the cold winter weather and poor food; the situation brought the band to the verge of break-up. The gloominess surrounding the sessions ended up providing the context for the album itself. Lyrically, Stipe began to create storylines in the mode of Southern mythology, noting in a 1985 interview that he was inspired by "the whole idea of the old men sitting around the fire, passing on ... legends and fables to the grandchildren". Fables of the Reconstruction became the highest-selling record released by I.R.S. in America at that point. However, the album performed poorly in Europe and its critical reception was mixed, with some critics regarding it as dreary and poorly recorded. As with the previous records, the singles from Fables of the Reconstruction were mostly ignored by mainstream radio. Meanwhile, I.R.S. was becoming frustrated with the band's reluctance to achieve mainstream success.
For its fourth album, R.E.M. enlisted John Mellencamp producer Don Gehman. The result, Lifes Rich Pageant (1986) featured Stipe's vocals closer to the forefront of the music. In a 1986 interview with the Chicago Tribune, Peter Buck related, "Michael is getting better at what he's doing, and he's getting more confident at it. And I think that shows up in the projection of his voice. The album improved markedly upon the sales of Fables of the Reconstruction and eventually peaked at number 21 on the Billboard album chart. The single "Fall on Me" also picked up support on commercial radio. The album was the band's first to be certified gold for selling 500,000 copies. While American college radio remained R.E.M.'s core support, the band was beginning to chart hits on mainstream rock formats; however, the music still encountered resistance from Top 40 radio. Following the success of Lifes Rich Pageant, I.R.S. issued Dead Letter Office, a compilation of tracks recorded by the band during their album sessions, many of which had either been issued as B-sides or left unreleased altogether. Shortly thereafter, I.R.S. compiled R.E.M.'s music video catalog (except "Wolves, Lower") as the band's first video release, Succumbs.
Frustrated that its records did not see satisfactory overseas distribution, R.E.M. left I.R.S. when its contract expired and signed with the major label Warner Bros. Records. In 1988, I.R.S. released the compilation Eponymous, which included most of the band's singles and a number of rarities. The band's 1988 Warner Bros. debut, Green, was recorded in Nashville, Tennessee, and showcased the group experimenting with its sound. The record's tracks ranged from the upbeat first single "Stand" (a huge American hit), to more political material, like the rock-oriented "Orange Crush" and "World Leader Pretend", which address the Vietnam War and the Cold War, respectively. Green has gone on to sell four million copies worldwide. The band supported the album with its biggest and most visually developed tour to date, featuring back-projections and art films playing on the stage. After the Green tour, the band members unofficially decided to take the following year off, the first extended break in the band's career. R.E.M. reconvened in mid-1990 to record its seventh album, Out of Time. In a departure from previous albums, the band members often wrote the music with non-traditional rock instrumentation including mandolin, organ, and acoustic guitar. Released in March 1991, Out of Time was the band's first album to top both the US and UK charts. The record eventually sold 4.2 million copies in the US alone, and about 12 million copies worldwide by 1996. The album's lead single "Losing My Religion" was a worldwide hit that received heavy rotation on radio, as did the music video on MTV. "Losing My Religion" was R.E.M.'s highest-charting single in the US, reaching number four on the Billboard charts. "There've been very few life-changing events in our career because our career has been so gradual," Mills said years later. "If you want to talk about life changing, I think 'Losing My Religion' is the closest it gets". The album's second single. "Shiny Happy People" (one of three songs on the record to feature vocals from Kate Pierson of fellow Athens band The B-52's), was also a major hit, reaching number 10 in the US and number six in the UK. Out of Time garnered R.E.M. seven nominations at the 1992 Grammy Awards, the most nominations of any artist that year. The band won three awards: one for Best Alternative Music Album and two for "Losing My Religion", Best Short Form Music Video and Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal. R.E.M. did not tour to promote Out of Time; instead the group played a series of one-off shows, including an appearance taped for an episode of MTV Unplugged.
After spending some months off, R.E.M. returned to the studio in 1991 to record its next album. Late in 1992, the band released Automatic for the People. Though the group had intended to make a harder-rocking album after the softer textures of Out of Time, the somber Automatic for the People "[seemed] to move at an even more agonized crawl", according to Melody Maker. The album dealt with themes of loss and mourning inspired by "that sense of ... turning thirty", according to Buck. Several songs featured string arrangements by former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones. Considered by a number of critics (as well as by Buck and Mills) to be the band's best album, Automatic for the People reached numbers one and two on UK and US charts, respectively, and generated the American Top 40 hit singles "Drive", "Man on the Moon", and "Everybody Hurts". The album would sell about ten million copies worldwide. As with Out of Time, there was no tour in support of the album. The decision to forgo a tour, in conjunction with Stipe's physical appearance, generated rumors that the singer was dying, which were vehemently denied by the band.
In January 1995 R.E.M. set out on its first tour in six years. The tour was a huge commercial success, but the period was difficult for the group. On March 1, Berry collapsed on stage during a performance in Lausanne, Switzerland. It transpired that he had suffered a brain aneurysm. He had surgery immediately and had fully recovered within a month. Berry's aneurysm was only the beginning of a series of health problems that plagued the Monster Tour. Mills had to undergo abdominal surgery to remove an intestinal adhesion in July; a month later, Stipe had to have an emergency surgery to repair a hernia. Despite all the problems, the group had recorded the bulk of a new album while on the road. The band brought along eight-track recorders to capture its shows, and used the recordings as the base elements for the album.
R.E.M. re-signed with Warner Bros. Records in 1996 for a reported $80 million, the largest recording contract in history at that point. The group's 1996 album New Adventures in Hi-Fi debuted at number two in the US and number one in the UK. The five million copies of the album sold were a reversal of the group's commercial fortunes of the previous five years. Time writer Christopher John Farley argued that the lesser sales of the album were due to the declining commercial power of alternative rock as a whole. That same year, R.E.M. parted ways with manager Jefferson Holt, allegedly due to sexual harassment charges levied against him by a member of the band's home office in Athens. The group's lawyer, Bertis Downs, assumed managerial duties.
In April 1997, the band convened at Buck's Kauai, Hawaii, holiday home to record demos of material intended for the next album. The band sought to reinvent its sound and intended to incorporate drum loops and percussion experiments. Just as the sessions were due to begin in October, Berry decided, after months of contemplation and discussions with Downs and Mills, to tell the rest of the band that he was quitting. Berry told his band mates that he would not quit if they would break up as a result, so Stipe, Mills, and Buck agreed to carry on as a three-piece with his blessing. Berry publicly announced his departure three weeks later in October 1997. Berry told the press, "I'm just not as enthusiastic as I have been in the past about doing this anymore . . . I have the best job in the world. But I'm kind of ready to sit back and reflect and maybe not be a pop star anymore." Stipe admitted that the band would be different without a major contributor: "For me, Mike, and Peter, as R.E.M., are we still R.E.M.? I guess a three-legged dog is still a dog. It just has to learn to run differently.
The band canceled its scheduled recording sessions as a result of Berry's departure. "Without Bill it was different, confusing", Mills later said. "We didn't know exactly what to do. We couldn't rehearse without a drummer. The remaining members of R.E.M. resumed work on the album in February 1998 at Toast Studios in San Francisco. The band ended its decade-long collaboration with Scott Litt and hired Pat McCarthy to produce the record. Nigel Godrich was taken on as assistant producer, and drafted in ex-Screaming Trees member Barrett Martin and Beck's touring drummer Joey Waronker. The recording process was plagued with tension, and the group came close to disbanding. Bertis Downs called an emergency meeting where the band members sorted out their problems and agreed to continue as a group. Led off by the single "Daysleeper", Up (1998) debuted in the top ten in the US and UK. However, the album was a relative failure, selling 900,000 copies in the US by mid-1999 and eventually selling just over two million copies worldwide. While R.E.M.'s American sales were declining, the group's commercial base was shifting to the UK, where more R.E.M. records were sold per capita than any other country and the band's singles regularly entered the Top 20.
A year after Up's release, R.E.M. wrote the instrumental score to the Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon, a first for the group. The film took its title from the Automatic for the People song of the same name. The song "The Great Beyond" was released as a single from the Man on the Moon soundtrack album. "The Great Beyond" only reached number 57 on the American pop charts, but was the band's highest-charting single ever in the UK, reaching number three in 2000.
In 2003, Warner Bros. released the compilation album In Time: The Best of R.E.M. 1988-2003, which featured two new songs, "Bad Day" and "Animal". That same year Berry made a surprise appearance during an R.E.M. concert in Raleigh, North Carolina, performing backing vocals on "Radio Free Europe". He then sat behind the drum kit for a performance of the early R.E.M. song "Permanent Vacation", marking his first performance with the band since his retirement.
R.E.M. released Around the Sun in 2004. During production of the album in 2002, Stipe said, "[The album] sounds like it's taking off from the last couple of records into unchartered R.E.M. territory. Kind of primitive and howling". After the album's release, Mills said, "I think, honestly, it turned out a little slower than we intended for it to, just in terms of the overall speed of songs. Around the Sun received a mixed critical reception, and peaked at number 13 on the Billboard charts. The first single from the album, "Leaving New York", was a Top 5 hit in the UK. For the record and subsequent tour, the band hired a new full-time touring drummer, Bill Rieflin, who had previously been a member of Ministry. In late 2004 R.E.M. toured with Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, Bright Eyes and others on the Vote for Change tour. Throughout 2005, the band embarked on its first full-length world tour since the Monster Tour ten years earlier. During the tour, R.E.M. participated in the London event of Live 8.
Work on the group's fourteenth album, Accelerate, commenced in early 2007. The band recorded with producer Jacknife Lee in Vancouver and Dublin, where it played five nights in the Olympia Theatre between June 30 and July 5 as part of a "working rehearsal". R.E.M. Live, the band's first live album (featuring songs from a 2005 Dublin show), was released in October 2007. R.E.M. released Accelerate in early 2008. The album debuted at number two on the Billboard charts, and became the band's eighth album to top the British album charts. Rolling Stone reviewer David Fricke considered Accelerate an improvement over the band's previous post-Berry albums, calling it "one of the best records R.E.M. have ever made.
In a 1988 interview, Peter Buck described typical R.E.M. songs as, "Minor key, mid-tempo, enigmatic, semi-folk-rock-balladish things. That's what everyone thinks and to a certain degree, that's true. All songwriting is credited to the entire band, even though individual members are sometimes responsible for writing the majority of a particular song. Each member is given an equal vote in the songwriting process; however, Buck has conceded that Stipe, as the band's lyricist, can rarely be persuaded to follow an idea he does not favor. Among the original line-up, there were divisions of labor in the songwriting process: Stipe would write lyrics and devise melodies, Buck would edge the band in new musical directions, and Mills and Berry would fine-tune the compositions due to their greater musical experience.
Michael Stipe sings in what R.E.M. biographer David Buckley described as "wailing, keening, arching vocal figures". Stipe often harmonizes with Mills in songs; in the chorus for "Stand," Mills and Stipe alternate singing lyrics, creating a dialogue. Early articles about the band focused on Stipe's singing style (described as "mumbling" by The Washington Post), which often rendered his lyrics indecipherable. Creem writer John Morthland wrote in his review of Murmur, "I still have no idea what these songs are about, because neither me nor anyone else I know has ever been able to discern R.E.M.'s lyrics. Stipe commented in 1984, "It's just the way I sing. If I tried to control it, it would be pretty false." Producer Joe Boyd convinced Stipe to begin singing more clearly during the recording of Fables of the Reconstruction.
Stipe insisted that many of his early lyrics were "nonsense", saying in a 1994 online chat, "You all know there aren't words, per se, to a lot of the early stuff. I can't even remember them." In truth, many early R.E.M. songs had definite lyrics that Stipe wrote with care. Stipe explained in 1984 that when he started writing lyrics they were like "simple pictures", but after a year he grew tired of the approach and "started experimenting with lyrics that didn't make exact linear sense, and it's just gone from there." In the mid-1980s, as Stipe's pronunciation while singing became clearer, the band decided that its lyrics should convey ideas on a more literal level. Mills explained, "After you've made three records and you've written several songs and they've gotten better and better lyrically the next step would be to have somebody question you and say, are you saying anything? And Michael had the confidence at that point to say yes . . . Songs like "Cuyahoga" and "Fall on Me" on Lifes Rich Pageant dealt with such concerns as pollution. Stipe incorporated more politically-oriented concerns into his lyrics on Document and Green. "Our political activism and the content of the songs was just a reaction to where we were, and what we were surrounded by, which was just abject horror," Stipe said later. "In 1987 and '88 there was nothing to do but be active." While Stipe continued to write songs with political subject matter like "Ignoreland" and "Final Straw", later albums have focused on other topics. Automatic for the People dealt with "mortality and dying. Pretty turgid stuff", according to Stipe, while Monster critiqued love and mass culture.
Peter Buck's style of playing guitar has been singled out by many as the most distinctive aspect of R.E.M.'s music. During the 1980s, Buck's "economical, arpeggiated, poetic" style reminded British music journalists of 1960s American folk rock band The Byrds. Buck has stated "[Byrds guitarist] Roger McGuinn was a big influence on me as a guitar player." Comparisons were also made with the guitar playing of Johnny Marr of alternative rock contemporaries The Smiths. While Buck professed being a fan of the group, he admitted he initially criticized the band simply because he was tired of fans asking him if he was influenced by Marr. Buck generally eschews guitar solos; he explained in 2002, "I know that when guitarists rip into this hot solo, people go nuts, but I don't write songs that suit that, and I am not interested in that. I can do it if I have to, but I don't like it. Mike Mills' melodic approach to bass playing is inspired by Paul McCartney and Chris Squire of Yes; Mills has said, "I always played a melodic bass, like a piano bass in some ways . . . I never wanted to play the traditional locked into the kick drum, root note bass work. Mills has more musical training than his band mates, which he has said "made it easier to turn abstract musical ideas into reality."
R.E.M.'s early breakthrough success served as an inspiration for other alternative bands. Spin referred to the "R.E.M. model"—career decisions that R.E.M. made which set guidelines for other underground artists to follow in their own careers. Spin's Charles Aaron wrote that by 1985, "They'd shown how far an underground, punk-inspired rock band could go within the industry without whoring out its artistic integrity in any obvious way. They'd figured out how to buy in, not sellout-in other words, they'd achieved the American Bohemian Dream. Steve Wynn of Dream Syndicate said, "They invented a whole new ballgame for all of the other bands to follow whether it was Sonic Youth or the Replacements or Nirvana or Butthole Surfers. R.E.M. staked the claim. Musically, the bands did different things, but R.E.M. was first to show us you can be big and still be cool. Biographer David Buckley stated that between 1991 and 1994, a period that saw the band sell an estimated 30 million albums, R.E.M. "asserted themselves as rivals to U2 for the title of biggest rock band in the world.
Later alternative bands such as Nirvana, Pavement and Live have drawn inspiration from R.E.M.'s music. "When I was 15 years old in Richmond, Virginia, they were a very important part of my life," Pavement's Bob Nastanovich said, "as they were for all the members of our band." Pavement devoted the song "Unseen Power of the Picket Fence" from the No Alternative compilation (1993) to discussing R.E.M's first two albums at length. Kurt Cobain of Nirvana was a vocal fan of R.E.M., and had plans to collaborate on a musical project with Stipe before his death in April 1994. Cobain told Rolling Stone in an interview earlier that year, "I don’t know how that band does what they do. God, they’re the greatest. They’ve dealt with their success like saints, and they keep delivering great music.
R.E.M. has helped raise funds for environmental, feminist and human rights causes, and has been involved in campaigns to encourage voter registration. During the Green tour, Stipe took time during sets to inform the audience about a variety of pressing socio-political issues. Through the late 1980s and 1990s, the band (particularly Stipe) increasingly used its media coverage on national television to mention a variety of causes it felt were important. One example is when the band attended the 1991 MTV Video Music Awards, during which Stipe wore a half-dozen white shirts emblazoned with slogans including "rainforest", "love knows no colors", and "handgun control now". R.E.M. helped raise awareness of Aung San Suu Kyi and human rights violations in Burma, when they worked with the Freedom Campaign and the US Campaign for Burma. The band participated in the 2004 Vote for Change tour that sought to mobilize American voters to support Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. R.E.M.'s political stance, particularly coming from a wealthy rock band under contract to a label owned by a multinational corporation, has received criticism from some quarters. Former Q editor Paul Du Noyer criticized the band's "celebrity liberalism", saying,
It's an entirely pain-free form of rebellion that they're adopting. There's no risk involved in it whatsoever, but quite a bit of shoring up of customer loyalty. And when I read their expressions of how cross they are at the election of [US president] George W. Bush, I just hear the sound of Democrat teddy bears being thrown out of cots.
Since the late 1980s, R.E.M. has been involved in the local politics of its hometown of Athens, Georgia. Buck explained to Sounds in 1987, "Michael always says think local and act local—we have been doing a lot of stuff in our town to try and make it a better place. The band has often donated funds to local charities and to help renovate and preserve historic buildings in the town. R.E.M.'s political clout was credited with the narrow election of Athens mayor Gwen O'Looney twice in the 1990s.