R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe sings so passionately and so well that it's too bad he doesn't actually sing about anything in particular. As it is, he simply strings together neat-sounding words and enigmatic phrases in the solipsistic belief that a song is nothing more than a suggestive stimulus for the listener. This is even more apparent on the new R.E.M. album "Document," which makes Stipe's lyrics more audible than ever before.

"Document" is being widely touted as the Georgia quartet's commercial breakthrough, because Peter Buck has invented some of his most irresistible guitar riffs yet and because producer Scott Litt has brought a new focus to the catchiest of Stipe's catch-phrases. The band's fast-selling new single begins with Stipe announcing that "This one is dedicated to the one I love." It's unclear just what he's dedicating to his lover, but if it's only Buck's seductive folk-rock guitar and the rhythm section's steady pressure, that may be enough. Nothing else on the record boasts as sturdy a structure, but everything offers the band's trademark atmospherics.

Earlier this year, R.E.M. released "Dead Letter Office," a collection of B-sides that Buck describes in the liner notes as a "closet of failed experiments, badly written songs, drunken jokes and occasionally a worthwhile song." That this album differs so little from the other R.E.M. albums says something about the band's sense of craftsmanship. In fact, it offers some refreshing humor in contrast to the usual dour existentialism, and it provides the best songwriting they've ever had: three tunes by Lou Reed and one by Roger Miller. "King of the Road" may be the most coherent, eloquent lyric Stipe has ever sung.

In sharp contrast to Stipe, Natalie Merchant takes the same ingredients of bohemian folk-rock and creates tightly crafted songs that can stand on their own without production camouflage. Her band, 10,000 Maniacs, isn't as harmonically creative nor rhythmically persuasive as R.E.M. but her vocals are as smart and as urgent as her lyrics. "What's the Matter Here" from the Maniacs' new album "In My Tribe" treats child abuse with the same powerful understatement as Suzanne Vega's "Luka." Merchant's "Hey Jack Kerouac" captures the breathless beebop rush of Kerouac's prose style; her songs about her brother joining the army or her sister getting married are authenticated by unmistakable details. R.E.M. --

"Document" (IRS 42059). "Dead Letter Office" (IRS SP 70054).

10,000 MANIACS --

"In My Tribe" (Elektra 60738-1).

Both appear at the Patriot Center Saturday.