Via Falstaff, I just read this fine piece by Slate’s Dan Kois, comparing the careers of U2 and R.E.M. in the 1980s and 1990s. I love both bands, or used to back in the days when I actually listened to music and life was something more than a bleak wasteland littered with books and films: being more of an “albums person” than a “singles person”, I spent weeks on end being obsessed by, in turn, U2’s War, The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby and yes, even the reviled Zooropa; and by R.E.M.’s Murmur, Out of Time, Automatic for the People, New Adventures in Hi-Fi, Up and Reveal.
Am slightly more of an R.E.M. man overall, though I suspect U2’s superstar status/high profile has led some listeners to undermine the quality of their music, which has been extraordinarily good for close to 30 years now (they started off as a school band in the late 1970s). Also, much as I love Michael Stipe – his effete preciosity, his soporific voice, the obscure lyrics and some of the self-consciously campy things he does in music videos (watch “Lotus” or “The One I Love”) – Bono is still my pick for the world’s greatest singer.
At any rate, they are both great bands, their work taken together covers a vast spectrum and has enriched popular music immeasurably – so why not appreciate both instead of getting into the “R.E.M. vs U2” debate? You know, it's all about life’s rich pageant and so forth (that’s the title of an early R.E.M. album incidentally).
P.S. One point where I disagree with Kois is his casual brushing aside of R.E.M.’s achievements in the 1990s. That’s the period when they did some of their finest, most challenging work. On that note, do read this excellent piece by Jaideep Varma, from a 1999 issue of Gentleman magazine: “The World’s Finest Band: How R.E.M. went beyond the American Dream”.