I've posted this on a previous REM thread, it still sums up my views of them
On balance, I'd go for the early IRS particularly Murmur and Reckoning (I'm not that much of a fan of Fables, it seems that they're straddling between the enigma and opening up) which have a mood and pull to them that the Warners records, on the whole don't.
But really, there isn't that much different in approach between, say, Murmur and Automatic... . They're both records about communication and a sense of universality, the difference, of course is in age and approach. Murmur is about holding yourself in and the music is directed at the band alone, whereas Automatic is about trying to connect with the outside world and the music therefore assumes a proxy universality.
In Murmur for me it's all about the little inferences, the backwards guitar that arrives at the end of Stipe's final verse on "Perfect Circle", the jangled harmony on "Talk About the Passion" ( "not...everyone...can carry the weight of the world"), the darting guitar passage on Catapault, and the line "could it be that one small voice...doesn't count in the room" on the otherwise dirgesome "Shaking Through." I suppose it's all about half statements, but there's a fullness to the claustrophobia which is quite powerful in the right (adolescent) mindset.
With Automatic For the People, it's the big sweep of the "moments", the repetition/simple manipulation of a phrase in Drive ("maybe you did, maybe you don't, maybe you rocked around the clock), the obvious, clearcut "message songs" (not just "Everybody Hurts" but "Try Not to Breathe" and "Ignoreland"), and the way the record seems to bring itself to a defiant "stop" with "Find the River."
Similar to Murmur, the arrangements are very crucial to the record's appeal to listeners, except I do think that John Paul Jones's work on the record gave it that extra pull- everything about it is pretty huge, in its sedate fassion.
As for Document, Green and Out of Time, all of the records have their "moments," (the "hits" or songs) but I do think pacing, Automatic aside, remained a big problem for a lot of their Warners' records.
Seeing nobody really cares about my thoughts on this, my top REM would look something like this:
4. Life's Rich Pageant
5. Probably a tie between Out of Time and Document.
Top 11 songs (as of today)
(Don't Go Back) to Rockville, Find the River, Talk About the Passion, Fall On Me, World Leader Pretend, Radio Free Europe, It's The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine), Perfect Circle, King of Birds, Catapault, Drive...
On A side note, I'd say that REM are one of the more talked about bands on these boards. At the start of the year there were about 3 or 4 threads on them running cocurrently, though everyone (including myself) pretty much agreed that it all turns to custard post-Berry.
It's before my time but I've been told, he never came back from Karangahape Road.