I'm relatively philosophical on the matter. Their best years are behind them and they get relatively little commercial and critical attention these days. They don't have anything more to prove and bowing out now means they can retire with dignity, before another sub-par (but not without merit) effort like "Around The Sun" creeps out.
As per usual lead singer Michael Stipe put it best. "A wise man once said 'the skill in attending a party is knowing when it's time to leave.' We built something extraordinary together. We did this thing. And now we're going to walk away from it"
For me they're the best American act of the past thirty years, and the fathers (dare I say grandfathers?) of modern US alternative rock full stop. Many acts are indebted to them not just musically but personally - Radiohead's Thom Yorke was the recipient of some sage advice from Stipe about dealing with the limelight, while other like Pearl Jam (Eddie Vedder was himself one of those college kids in 80s America that would sit and obsessively listen to R.E.M.'s records to figure out what Stipe was saying in the songs) followed their lead with regard to humanitarianism and political activism.
I only really seriously got into the band at the start of 2008. I heard they were due to make a comeback album, so I got myself two of their best of's: "In Time", a compilation of stuff from the Warner years, and "And I Feel Fine...", which collected tracks from their earlier work when signed to IRS. These are both excellent starting points for newcomers, although with the band having come to the end of their record deal with Warner, they're now compiling a new career retrospective (which will hopefully span both the IRS and Warner eras, otherwise it will be pointless).
The band have been a constant part of my life ever since. I now own all 15 of their studio albums plus IRS-era rarities anthology "Dead Letter Office". I think the reason I hadn't got into the band a lot sooner was that I thought their biggest songs - "Everybody Hurts", "Losing My Religion", "The Great Beyond" etc - had become a big enough part of my subconsciousness that I didn't need to download/get CDs of their music. Boy I was wrong. I'd barely even scratched the surface.
For me, if I had to pick their five most seminal albums they'd be:
Their debut LP, it was named Album of the Year in Rolling Stone magazine in a year where it had the likes of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" and U2's "War" to compete with. They invented the term "all killer and no filler" for albums like this. Peter Buck's Byrdsesque guitar riffs and Michael Stipe's distinct vocal style gave the band a certain mystique that made them utterly compelling. Check out "Radio Free Europe", "Shaking Through" and "Pilgrimage".
Second album, built on the strengths of the first, so shares the same appeal. The choruses are probably bigger here though. Among it's highlights are "Pretty Persuasion", "Little America" and "So. Central Rain"
"Lifes Rich Pagaent"(1986)
A common misconception about the band was that they lost their aura and weren't as good when you could tell what Michael Stipe was singing. That's a blatant lie, and this album proves it. Everything here is as clear as a whistle. Stipe's lyrics are out in the open for everyone to hear: whereas before the way he sang things was more important, here the words he's singing begin to take precedence (see "Cuyahoga"). Other highlights include "I Believe" and the sublime "Fall On Me"
Their most resonant record for sure, full of tender moments and wistful singalongs. If you have ears you've most likely heard "Man On The Moon" and "Everybody Hurts" at some point, so instead listen closely to "Nightswimming", live favourite "Drive" and "Find The River" which is for me their best ballad and gets criminally overlooked because of "Everybody Hurts".
The last record they'd make as a truly world-class band on the top of their game. While I don't subscribe to the theory that "everything after Bill Berry quit was shit" (drummer Berry left the band in 1997), the band had a lot of adjusting to do after Bill left and it affected their output. Still, this was a great high-point for Bill to bow out on. A huge, sprawling record, incorporating many unconventional instruments. Check out and "New Test Leper", "Bittersweet Me" and "Electrolite".
But you know what? Even if you stuck to just those five albums, there's LOADS you'd still miss out on.
"Country Feedback", the entire "Chronic Town" EP (including my absolute favourite "rarity" of theirs, "Gardening At Night"), "It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)", "Maps And Legends"... the list goes on.
I'd also thoroughly recommend live album (of sorts) "Live At The Olympia".
So if you don't really know much of the band's material, there's a lot of stuff to get your teeth into there.
Anyway, thank you for everything R.E.M. it's been a blast.