When the annual critics polls were tallied for 1983, lots of people were surprised to find R.E.M.'s debut album, "Murmur," topping records by vastly more popular and equally creative acts like the Police, U2, Talking Heads and David Bowie. "Murmur" won the Rolling Stone Poll for best album and ran a close second in The Village Voice to the most successful album in pop history, Michael Jackson's "Thriller." There was no doubt that R.E.M.'s evocative instrumental fabric and atmospheric moodiness had captured the critics' imaginations and those of the more adventurous portions of the rock audience.

Much of what was written about this quartet from Athens, Ga., focused on the organic impenetrability of its sound and, even more, on lead singer Michael Stipe's knack for rendering his lyrics indecipherable. Of course, Stipe occasionally dangled an intelligible phrase, which could be taken either as a provocative clue to the band's collective unconscious or as a meaningless snippet for the critics to mull over.

Some even concluded that R.E.M.'s music was an aurally rich but empty intrigue--a murky pool of jangly guitars, Stipe's mumbling and surging rhythms that succeeded precisely because you could dive into them again and again and always come up empty-handed. It was suggested that the band's appeal was built on not conveying anything but sound itself, albeit an extremely attractive, rippling synthesis of post-'60s guitar pop.

R.E.M.'s second album, "Reckoning" (IRS SP 70044), proves that both Stipe's lyrical obfuscation and the band's textural haze, both of which are cleaned up here, are irrelevant to this band's wondrous music or its meaning. Producers Mitch Easter and Don Dixon are back again, but this time they have cut back the undergrowth of overdubs and let some light in. The music rings clearer, Stipe's vocals are at least as intelligible as Mick Jagger's (i.e., the choruses can all be understood), and the band's 10 originals trump even "Murmur's" outstanding songwriting.

Best of all, "Reckoning" retains the band's wholly original sound and the emotionally disquieting feel of all of its previous work. Song after song conjures a mood of cultural estrangement and weariness that can become surprisingly uplifting, as the music climbs out of the solemnity of the verses into a gorgeous, hook-laden chorus.

If Stipe is still largely unconcerned with his words, it's probably because he has fashioned a more emotionally fluent language from the sound of his voice. A little burry and slightly nasal, Stipe's singing conveys a feeling of both lassitude and perceptiveness, not unlike that of early Bob Dylan. The missed connections of "Letter Never Sent" are conveyed by Stipe in painful, syllable-stretching moans and groans, while the ominous desolation of "So. Central Rain" is underscored in a despairing crescendo of cries. The stirring choruses of "Pretty Persuasion" and "Harborcoat" become almost spooky as voices float to the surface like specters.

What can be made from the few words and richly emotional sound R.E.M. offers is a sense of personal unease and cultural dislocation that can find neither answers nor a place to rest. The romantic remembrances of "Letter Never Sent" and "Camera" are consumed by a tragic air of estrangement and loneliness. In "So. Central Rain," Stipe cheerlessly mumbles, "the cities wash away," before crying out the chorus, "Sorry . . . sorry." In this sense, R.E.M. is a wholly American rock 'n' roll band, not unlike X or Green on Red or even T-Bone Burnett, all acts that convey a sense of America lost, unmoored from its past and with no vision of its future.

If much of what Stipes conveys is disconsolate, even depressing, R.E.M. remains a resplendent rock 'n' roll band, one that basks in the shimmering textures of Peter Buck's guitar and its irresistible minor-key melodies. In "Time After Time," Buck's droning guitar figure casts an exotic psychedelic aura, while "7 Chinese Bros." takes on a childishly innocent air thanks to Buck's delicate and ornate guitar work. The rhythm section of Mike Mills and Bill Berry swells and subsides in such faultless sympathy with each song's emotional structure that the band sound is rendered indivisible.

The musical triumph of "Reckoning" comes to a grand, if unsettling, conclusion on the album's last two numbers. The band indulges in a few seconds of inept funk (perhaps a satiric comment on rock bands who insist on copping fashionable black rhythms) before breaking into a rolling country-western tune, "Don't Go Back to Rockville." Stipe pleads for a woman's return, before knowingly confessing, "If you were here I'd only bleed you." Then comes "Little America," a rousing, propulsive rocker about life on the road that finds Stipe matter-of-factly stating to the band's manager, "Jefferson, I think we're lost." Lost or not, there isn't an American rock band more worth following than R.E.M.