This Athens band's initial mix of Velvet Underground strum, Byrds-like Rickenbacker jangle, and charismatically oblique singing, became the sound of the 1980s as legions of bands followed suit. But even as imitators codified R.E.M.'s approach into the money-making "alternative rock" sound, the group refused to stand still, constantly changing and developing without ever abandoning their underground principles. Somehow they became superstars along the way, but it's never affected their commitment to their music. In 1997, drummer Bill Berry left the band, but Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, and Mike Mills soldiered on in his absence.
Continuing to specialize in the art of curve-throwing, R.E.M. followed up its 1991 smash, Out of Time, with this fragile album of soft melodies and string arrangements. The sympathetic ballad "Everybody Hurts" must have prevented countless suicide attempts, while the Andy Kaufman tribute "Man on the Moon" (with Michael Stipe affecting an Elvis Presley imitation) and the rock-into-oblivion "Drive" are among the quartet''s strongest hits. (The opening line, "Hey, kids, rock and roll," isn''t so much a rallying cry as an expression of anxiety.) It takes a few listens for its charms to unfold, but Automatic is the gem between bigger hits Out of Time and Monster. --Steve Knopper
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