(ed: ahem..!..i must confess to being in the r.e.m.-camp..)
In your heart you know who is better.
Arguing about the merits of lead singers opens another can of worms: Woe to the person who poses the question ‘Was David Lee Roth or Sammy Hagar the better lead singer of Van Halen?’ without having hours available to moderate a flame war.
Comparing and contrasting R.E.M. and U2 also remains a lively topic of online conversation.
On the surface it’s easy to see why people have found this a vital discussion for decades now: To several generations of music fans the two groups were akin to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones — rock bands who transformed culture via powerful art.
Passionate art of course produces passionate fans — and liking U2 and/or R.E.M. signaled that you stood for something and looked at the world through a specific lens.
These lenses didn’t always overlap: For numerous reasons Bono and co. were and are a polarizing presence that attracts plenty of vitriol.
However, U2 and R.E.M. do share somewhat parallel career arcs and aesthetic influences.
Both groups are deeply inspired by Patti Smith and the Velvet Underground as well as the visual work of Anton Corbijn and prioritize sonic integrity and sincerity.
Both bands were (and are) politically minded and represent the activism-oriented principled bent of the 1980s.