Not bad, could have been better. The more I hear this, the more these remastered studio cuts sound muffled. Less than 4 stars if I could; 3.5 at best in a calibrated estimation. I agree with many comments posted here: more rarities, live cuts, unreleased songs, and alternative mixes should've filled up all of disc 2--the reason anyone with the REM albums would bother to buy this anthology in the first place, right?
Why not three discs: one live, one rare, one great tracks (not merely the familiar ones)? Oh well. What works best on disc 1 is the sequencing; I imagine this is what circa 1987 might have been a wonderful concert set list. Even the five or six songs out of the 21 that I tend to skip when playing the original albums fit in and you can see the intelligence with which the melodies segue from track to track.
But, if this was all, as on the cheaper one-disk version, it'd be another cash cow, milking the magical potion that sparked the imaginations of REM at its best around twenty years ago. Less so by ten years ago, and as for now, well their last two post-millennial CDs show sadly another band that should have packed it in like they promised, either by our millennium's arrival or the departure of one of the original quartet. Both events came and went, and what REM stood for in the annals of college rock is best left to the best songs on this disc.
These may not be the songs with which they'd rise (like U2) to the top of the charts across the world, but as the notes show, these are the songs that built, listener by listener, town by town, concert at the club and college radio station at a time, their artistic reputation among their first American followers. In the mid-80s, each album sold a bit more than its predecessor, and each year brought another vinyl chapter in the band's sonic experiments. They sang of their political musings and left behind a quasi-spiritual chronicle. Berry, Buck, Mills & Stipe tripped up here and there. Lyrics could be clumsy, but they were honest and sincere.
Yet, only one cut from the Chronic Town EP? The other four tracks would have benefited from sonic upgrading. The remastering by Capitol's Dave McEowen is certainly controversial. The realignment was not as dramatic to me since I have Murmur on the old "gold standard" Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab "original studio master" series, and that version sounds sharper and deeper than the cleaner renderings on this anthology.
The other songs gussied up do flatten and fill up more of their allotted space, although this fits the Don Gehman & Scott Litt-produced albums and their boomier, more accessible, classic "heartland" arena rock-ish drift. I never liked the slicker sound on these LPs as much, as they strove for a more commercial, easier to listen to expression in music and especially enunciation which broadened the band's appeal but detracted from their calculated charm and cultivated mystique. These tracks tend to simmer more steadily on the anthology; they bubbled, sank, or floated in their original album niches. But the harmonium that sighs in the danker corners of many Life's Rich Pageant tracks does emerge here. The more idiosyncratic, underwater-sounding Fables with Joe Boyd and the first records' Mitch Easter & Don Dixon carnivalesque productions do not necessarily gain from the brighter remastering. They sound dimmer, evened out and diffused. Maybe more palatable for today's ears via iPods? A tonal adjustment follows after these songs have been laid out in the disinfectant sun and hauled out of the tangled kudzu.
The wobbly nature of the originals, their shimmering surface yet murky depth, do become pushed more to the front and their quirky shifts in volume and tone are somewhat smoothed out. Once in a while, you can hear bits of the Easter-Dixon LPs calliope swirl and sudden chunk with an off-kilter placement that the remastering possibly by accident manages to highlight. The choice seems to have been made for a more expansive rendering of the IRS years, so some of their stranger songs and eccentric efforts are left out. For instance, there are no Dead Letter Office cuts: selections would have benefitted the scope of this project, which to me lacks surprises in its studio cuts. However, I Believe and Life & How To Live It, for me the best cuts from their albums, are often ignored so it was good to find their classic jangle lilts here.
Disc 2 does mercifully leave off those annoying songs from the increasingly ponderous second side of Document, for instance, so some quality control persists. As with the "In Time: The Best of REM" WB two-disc anthology mostly from their 90s period, the unreleased songs on this collection are too few, and not as revelatory as we fans might have hoped. Pavement in their double-disc, very affordable, overly generous re-issues of their Matador LPs show what could have been done: lots of ephemera, studio failures, concert cuts, alternative mixes. Why R.E.M. chose not to do this puzzles me. But the live tracks, as others have observed, do show what only "In Time" for the later years and the discredited "REM in the Attic" odds-and-ends WB disc from a decade ago has done for the IRS era as a (semi-)official release: to demonstrate their rawer thrust and rowdier concert appeal.
I do agree with Steven Malkmus and Pavement who in "The Unseen Power of the Picket Fence" lamented "'Time After Time' is my least favorite song" from the band, and ending it with this track perhaps is a sly wink at them and those of us who, while we are devoted to the early efforts of this band, have enough critical savvy to not follow along blindly with every song and every album with equal fervor and shallow enthusiasm. REM does respect their audience-- this is good value for the money (especially when combined at Amazon's price with their clunky and self-conscious primitive videos on the companion DVD. The band members' comments and Anthony DeCurtis' liner notes do provide enjoyment and add to the value of this flawed but still essential purchase, naturally, for any committed REM fan who longs for more than the band's usual ten songs played on the radio.