When people talk about the wondrous music of 1984—which saw the release of underground watersheds like Husker Du’s Zen Arcade, The Replacements’ Let It Be, and The Minutemen’s Double Nickels On The Dime, along with commercial monsters like Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The U.S.A. and Prince’s Purple Rain—one album that doesn’t get mentioned nearly enough is R.E.M.’s second, Reckoning. That has a lot to do with the band’s 1983 debut Murmur, which is probably more important though not necessarily better. But even if Reckoning doesn’t get namechecked as much as it deserves, it’s undeniably the most R.E.M.-sounding album R.E.M. has made; more than Murmur, Reckoning’s jangly guitars, snappy rhythms, and oddly catchy choruses play like a mission statement. Today, a full quarter-century later, the record sounds like more than just quintessential R.E.M.—the hipster Americana of “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville” and “Pretty Persuasion” continues to be hardwired into the DNA of countless Middle American rock bands.
After the murkiness of Murmur (whose title is a bit too literal), R.E.M. and producers Mitch Easter and Don Dixon quickly set about making a follow-up that would approximate the band’s live sound. Judging by the concert disc packaged with the remastered Reckoning—taken from a July 1984 performance at Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom—they were smashingly successful: While “So. Central Rain” loses its majestic guitar intro live, energetic rockers like the album-opening “Harborcoat” and “Second Guessing” are just as kinetic in the studio as they are in front of an audience. Even more impressive is that with just two studio albums and an EP to its name (along with a few songs that would turn up on future releases), R.E.M. could already pack an hour-long set with nothing but great songs. Ten years later R.E.M would be a millionaire arena-rock act, but creatively it never got any better than this.