This record basically started the modern musical underground, in terms of aesthetics, business strategy, artistic conscience and songwriting technique. It also revitalized folk styles, made the pop scene embrace old folk values, mumbly vocals and lo-fi recording. So, kinda important.
R.E.M. helped to reinvent the typical career trajectory of a rock band, while still remaining genuine to themselves and their fanbase by offering variations on their now-classic sound with each new record. That style is a bizarre art-country-folk amalgam which was certainly influenced by forerunners the Byrds and the Velvet Underground, but which is still quite singular. In their music, lyrics and image, they repurposed old Americana into something fresh and new, yet vaguely recognizable.
R.E.M.’s eventual popularity marked a sea change in what was considered “cool” – after the pomp and self-gratification of hard rock and the abstraction and nervousness of new wave, the new trend was to be equally fragile and soft. Sensitive introspection and cryptic prose were the new norms, an aesthetic embraced by much of the underground scene from the 1980s onward into the heyday of grunge. They pioneered roughly the same things in similar ways as their U.K. contemporaries the Smiths, but I find R.E.M. to be a far better, more diverse and melodic band (not to denigrate the Smiths’ many positive qualities).
Stipe and Co.’s mystical, elliptical lyrics and bizarre, seemingly offhand songwriting changed the face of music as we know it today, fostering the fashions of irony, obliqueness and detachment that run rampant in indie rock. But, as usual, the progenitors of a trend do it best. These songs are memorable, alluring and concise.
They were also one of the most democratic bands in history, working in tandem and trying to wrest artistic control back from labels and promoters in an era where musicians all too frequently gave it away. Their sound mutated slightly over the years, but they kept the same foundation and ideals. The bottom line is that this group of four Georgia outcasts and their blocky, jangly, harmonic sound had a huge effect on the world. And Murmur is their best album.
Key track: “Catapult”
See also: Reckoning – R.E.M. (1984), Lifes Rich Pageant – R.E.M. (1986), Louder Than Bombs – the Smiths (1987), Document – R.E.M. (1987), Green – R.E.M. (1988), Out Of Time – R.E.M. (1991), Automatic For the People – R.E.M. (1992), Bee Thousand – Guided By Voices (1994), Alien Lanes – Guided By Voices (1995), New Adventures In Hi-Fi – R.E.M. (1996), If You’re Feeling Sinister – Belle And Sebastian (1996), Under the Bushes, Under the Stars – Guided By Voices (1996), Summerteeth – Wilco (1998), Yankee Hotel Foxtrot – Wilco (2002), A Ghost Is Born – Wilco (2004), Sky Blue Sky – Wilco (2007), Wilco (The Album) – Wilco (2009), The Whole Love – Wilco (2011)