R.E.M. Accelerate

Mid-life crisis? Bring it on. After years adrift in the modern rock scene they in large part founded, the Athens, GA institution finally get back to basics here, and it’s hard to deny that with all the fat stripped away (11 songs in 35 minutes!) they’re still a pretty damn good rock’n’roll band. What’s even more intriguing is a return of some of their earlier songwriting staples: killer choruses and bridges dressed up by Mike Mills’ trademark backing vocals. It causes one to wonder where it’s all been for the past 15 years. The answer is probably Michael Stipe, who wisely lets his compadres take the lead throughout most of the album. Instead, he offers an overall positive — if typically enigmatic — lyrical message, one that seems inherent to the spirit of change that’s marking this year in American society. Having their finger on the pulse was something that once came naturally to R.E.M., and they’ve got it back, at least for the time being. Accelerate is easily their best album since Automatic For The People and their most fiery since Document. (Warner)