Editor’s Note: The Albumism staff has selected what we believe to be 50 Essential Albums by LGBTQ Artists, representing a varied cross-section of genres, styles and time periods. Considering that the qualifier “LGBTQ” can often be open to various interpretations, for the purposes of this particular list, we have defined an artist as LGBTQ if he, she or they have ever publicly identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and/or queer. Moreover, albums by groups have been included in the list if any of their members fit the aforementioned criteria, even if some members do not.
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R.E.M. | Automatic for the People
Warner Bros. (1992)
Selected by Mark J. Marraccini
In the early ‘90s, R.E.M. were arguably one of the biggest bands in the world. They scored their first #1 album on the Billboard 200 with 1991’s Out of Time, won several GRAMMYs, and landed hits on the Mainstream Rock, Alternative and Adult Contemporary (gasp!) singles charts with songs like “Losing My Religion,” “Shiny Happy People,” “Stand” and "It's The End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).”
With that overwhelming level of global success, it’s no wonder why Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Bill Berry and Mike Mills found themselves downshifting from the chaos and looking inward at life’s mysteries on their mostly serious, lushly produced and intensely reflective ’92 classic, Automatic for the People.
In the midst of early sessions for the album, Stipe told Rolling Stone that the vibe was turning out to be “Very midtempo, pretty fucking weird.” Coming after juggernaut releases like Green and Out of Time, Automatic for the People definitely is a little weird—it’s almost a folk album, but from a distinctly emotional and intelligent R.E.M. perspective.
Automatic’s opener, “Drive,” with its minor chords, orchestral strings and deserted country road vibe, immediately signals that this album is going to be a MOOD. What reveals itself as the long player progresses is a mostly dusky and introspective song cycle about death (“Try Not To Breathe”), the passage of time (“Find The River”), family dynamics (“Sweetness Follows”), and the cost of celebrity life (“Monty Got a Raw Deal”) that was a marked left turn from their shimmering, but smart, alterna-pop-rock that filled stadiums around the world.
But amongst the soulful, weighty explorations of adult life strewn throughout the album, there are still sparks of the ol’ “college radio” R.E.M. In the rocking political rant “Ignoreland,” Stipe protests about Republican presidential administrations, media coverage, and Americans who only get their news through television. But, having relinquished the label of “generational voice” to bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, he stops short of demanding action, “I know that this is vitriol / No solution, spleen-venting / But I feel better having screamed / Don't you?”
The signature song on the album, though, is the hopeful “Everybody Hurts.” Sung by an artist lacking in emotional maturity, this gentle, anti-suicide “keep on going” message would come across completely hokey. But when Stipe empathetically pleads, “Don't throw your hand / If you feel like you're alone / No, no, no, you're not alone,” you feel like he’s singing to you from across a rushing river, with his hands outstretched, right before the sun goes down. Still gets me choked up every time I hear it.
Over 25 years later, Automatic for the People stands out as their contemplative “Band in Black” album. Amongst their impressive and varied catalog, it’s forever cemented as the moment R.E.M. turned a corner, looked in the mirror, and recorded a grown-up, timeless album about what was ruminating inside the minds of the men who were staring back.