1. R.E.M., Automatic For The People (Warner Bros., 1992)

Upon its release, when pressed to describe this beautifully cryptic, somber record, R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills simply noted that its songs were "weird". While far from the weirdest album to ever just miss topping the charts (Garth Brooks kept it from entering at number one), Automatic For The People was more idiosyncratic and unabashedly out of time than, well, Out of Time, the band's previous record--just scan the oblique cover photo, the in-joke of a title (supposedly a greeting belted out by a diner owner to his customers) and the puzzling song titles ("Star Me Kitten", "Nightswimming"). How did a slow, strange song cycle revolving around mortality and loss (with few obvious hit singles) strike a chord with so many people?

Before Automatic, I admired the band at a distance, enjoying hits like "Stand" and "Losing My Religion", but I wasn't in a mad rush to obtain the album--that was, until I heard the first single "Drive" on the radio. Something about that minor-key guitar arpeggio and the song's fluid, dynamic swings from acoustic splendor to charged electricity and back again really pulled me in. Admittedly, the rest of the album took more time to register. I didn't know who Montgomery Clift or Andy Kaufman were, so in terms of narrative, neither "Monty Got a Raw Deal" or "Man on the Moon" made much sense to me.

I can remember lying on my bed one Friday evening a few weeks later, listening to "Man on the Moon" on headphones, and suddenly feeling the music's pull--particularly its outgoing melody, cathedral-like expansiveness, and tremendous warmth. Soon, other songs similarly began to resonate: "Sweetness Follows" soothing all the pain away with its gently sawing cellos, "Nightswimming" capturing the melancholy, autumnal glow of a faint but significant reminiscence, "Try Not to Breathe" brightening the darkness with its sway and verve.

"Everybody Hurts" is something else altogether, and probably what drew so many people towards this album. A few fans of R.E.M.'s earlier work have criticized Michael Stipe for making his vocals, once enigmatic and garbled beyond belief, all too intelligible at this point (and thus, not as distinctive), but his clarity is vital to this song's impact. Over an arrangement as expansive as an arena power ballad (only smarter) and a melody as classic and engaging as "Bridge Over Troubled Water" or "Hey Jude", Stipe talks a friend out of committing suicide. It's melodramatic and over-the-top because it simply has to be, and it's emblematic of the whole album's urgency, humaneness and willingness to go out on a limb and open yourself up to the world. One of R.E.M.'s earliest hits was called "Talk about the Passion" and Automatic does just that more fluently than any other album I've heard.