Murmur REM (IRS Records) As an all-star line-up of multi-generational singers recently propelled their version of REM's Everybody Hurts to the top of the British singles charts in a bid to aid Haiti, it may seem as though the Athens, Georgia-based band have always been with us. But in the early 80s, the four musicians were just another starving rock act who toured relentlessly and gained followers wherever they could. Lead singer Michael Stipe had met guitarist Peter Buck in a record store and they teamed up with university students Mike Mills (bass) and Bill Berry (drums). Their first concert was at a converted church and later, after touring and gaining a growing following in a creative hometown filled with such diverse acts as the B-52s and Pylon, they recorded the unique single Radio Free Europe. Not quite New Wave and containing influences as diverse as 60s act The Byrds, it was catchy, void of guitar solos and featured such murky vocals by Stipe that every listen provoked the desire to hear it again. The New York Times called it one of their favourite singles of 1981. A five-song EP called Chronic Town followed and record labels came calling. IRS Records, a fledgling label with other offbeat groups such as The Go-Gos and Wall Of Voodoo, signed the group to record their major label debut. While that was all good, their choice of producer wasn't. Stephen Street, who went on to produce such British acts as OMD and the Pet Shop Boys, insisted on putting synthesisers on a few of the group's songs. Forty takes into eventual album track Catapult, the group decided to go back to the more organic sounds Mitch Easter and Don Dixon could help them with in North Carolina. Twelve songs later and the group had Murmur, an astonishing and unassuming debut that changed the landscape of American music. The most distinct aspect of REM's sound was Buck's 'jangly' Rickenbacker guitar riffs; Stipe's largely indecipherable but appealing vocals was another. He admitted many of his lyrics were either gibberish or intensely personal ('Up to par and Katie bar the kitchen door but not me in,' went one chorus), yet each listen brought a new interpretation. The band made the most of their ambitions and influences (ranging from US rock acts such The Byrds and Television to British group Wire) to create relatively straight-ahead rockers such as Sitting Still and the sparse, near arty song Pilgrimage. Perhaps the key to it all was that their growing number of fans could hum all the songs without actually knowing what they were singing or referencing. This vague sense of the familiar combined with the mysterious (also exemplified on the dark, murky album cover of a train trestle in Athens) demanded repeat listens. Since it was considered too obscure for major radio stations at the time, college radio DJs leaped all over the album. REM's fanbase gradually built from there and a firm case could even be made that the group helped establish the 'alternative' rock format and sound as it's known today. The critics were certainly paying attention. Rolling Stone Magazine called it the album of the year for 1983 as it surprisingly topped both Michael Jackson's Thriller and War by U2, then another fledgling act. On their next few albums, Stipe's lyrics would become more pointed - and distinguishable - while all members of the group would showcase their growing skills as they took on a wider palette of material. Eventually, a mega contract with Warner Brothers would follow, as would arena tours, but the songs heard on their debut remain as endurable and as welcomed by fans as they did when the seminal album was released nearly 27 years ago.