R.E.M.: Murmur (1983)
I arrived at college in the fall of 1984. I had been an obsessive rock fan throughout middle school and high school. Classic rock, prog, new wave, whatever I could get my hands on. I was optimistic that when I got to college, however, that I would be exposed to all sorts of music that had evaded the narrow confines of my suburban youth. Great music ignored by radio. Something edgy and wonderful.
Instead, I got Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA and Prince's Purple Rain blasting from every dormitory window, every radio on campus. Great albums, sure, but where were all the great new discoveries I'd anticipated? Shouldn't college students be open to something more interesting than what was dominating the Top 40 airwaves?
Fortunately, I ultimately found the students that shared my passion for new music outside the mainstream. I joined the college radio station, where every week saw great new albums rolling in, where the shelves were filled with amazing music I had never heard before. This was the heyday of "college radio," the precursor to alternative rock, indie rock, whatever it goes by these days. The Replacements, the Feelies, Husker Du, Minutemen, Sonic Youth, and on an on.
The band that made the biggest impression on me was R.E.M. I was turned onto their debut EP (Chronic Town) and their first two albums (Murmur and the recently released Reckoning) at the same time, and they all blended together for me into one fantastic piece of work. Here was a band that took elements of some of my favorite bands -- the Byrds, the Velvet Underground -- and wove them into something fresh and exciting. Peter Buck's jangly treble-heavy arpeggiated guitar picking that eschewed power chords, Mike Mills' melodic baselines and wavering harmonies, Bill Berry's snappy snare, and above all Michael Stipe's cryptic mumbles, largely indecipherable yet nonetheless suggesting gravitas and significance, bending to interpretation.
Unlike some of the more thrashing or experimental underground albums of the time, this sounded non-threatening and radio-friendly. It struck me as the sort of music that should be all over the radio, dominating MTV, blaring from every window on campus... yet it seemed largely to exist outside of mass awareness (despite rave critical reviews). This made no sense to me. But it also meant that, if a band like R.E.M. could be this great and still evade the mainstream, who knew how much other great music I had been missing. It was the discovery of Murmur and Reckoning which gave me hope, inspired me to search for other artists and albums I knew had to be out there, a search that has continued unabated for 35 years.
Here they are on Letterman in '83: