For a brief time, I'm offering free MP3's of a five
treasures from my voluminous collection - songs I love, or love to hate. Feeling either lazy or bored this year, I've chosen to spotlight a single artist - alternative rockers R.E.M. The favorite sons of Athens, Georgia started recording Christmas tracks in 1988 just after leaving little I.R.S. Records for corporate behemoth Warner Brothers. The first one ("Deck The Halls") was little more than a glorified version of those "seasons greetings" that record labels have their artists record every year for radio stations to drop between songs. It first appeared on a promotional album called Winter Warnerland, and it's the only one of R.E.M.'s Christmas catalog to ever be issued commercially - and then only on an MP3 compilation album, Gift Wrapped.
The same year the band began issuing an annual holiday single for their fan club. Initially, these were 45 rpm records, usually featuring a tossed off punk cover backed with an ad libbed Christmas song - not much more than a good laugh. The jocular quality of the singles contrasted with the band's generally weighty tone, though the ones I've chosen here are among the more substantial tracks. Predictably, as the years rolled by the 45's turned into CD's, and the selections got heavier - sometimes neglecting to include any holiday content whatsoever. However, that didn't prevent R.E.M. from releasing a version of Eartha Kitt's "Santa Baby" just last year. To learn more, read my article and discography; the singles do show up for sale on Amazon and elsewhere, but they tend to fetch a pretty penny.
Anyway, these are relatively lo-fi files (128 kbps) so
no one should get too upset (we hope) at this petty larceny. Click on the pictures,
song titles, or MP3 links to get your Christmas off to a rockin' start! Like Phil
Spector, I'm pleased to offer this Christmas gift for you.
Ghost Reindeer In The Sky (1990)
On their annual holiday fan club singles, R.E.M. initially seemed intent on murdering the classics á la Spike Jones. They followed a seemingly unrehearsed "Parade Of The Wooden Soldiers" (1988) with a version of "Good King Wenceslas"(1989) that sounded like it was being sung by those creepy soldiers in The Wizard Of Oz. By comparison, the next year's "Ghost Reindeer In The Sky" is positively masterful. That said, it's simply a reverb-laden cover of "Ghost Riders In The Sky," a Western epic which made the charts numerous
times over the years starting in 1949 as sung by Vaughn "Leather Lungs" Monroe. Here, R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe sings "reindeer" instead of "rider" - and only on the second chorus! Even so, it's a ripping track - way more fun than, say "Wolves, Lower."
2.2 MB (ripped from vinyl)
Christmas Griping (1991)
If I'm doing my math right, "Christmas Griping" is the only original R.E.M. holiday song (assuming we discount the instrumental "Christmas In Tunisia"), and it's barely a song at all. Over a bouncy jungle beat straight out of an Yma Sumac session, the boys shout out the things that bug them the most about Christmas - shopping, fruitcake, department store Santas, Burl Ives, and "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer." And then, their good friend Syd Straw drops by to ask, "And what is this thing about mistletoe?" To which the band replies in unison, "Boom shaka laka! Ho! Ho! Ho!" Think too hard, indeed.
2.6 MB (ripped from vinyl)
This Christmas chestnut dates back to 1903, and it's arguably not a Christmas song at all. Written by Glenn MacDonough and Victor Herbert for their operetta Babes in Toyland, the song - like "Jingle Bells,""Sleigh Ride," and Let It Snow" - has become associated with a holiday not mentioned within its lyrics. Though brief, the R.E.M. version is surprisingly earnest and forthright given the band's cynicism and lack of piety in previous holiday singles. Michael Stipe, accompanied by little more than piano (probably by bassist Mike Mills) and sleigh bells (drummer Bill Berry, I presume), sings reverently about the place that all modern American children associate with Christmas - and it ain't church! It's worth noting that Stipe merely sings the chorus twice, skipping the dreary, almost frightening verses. The chorus duly warns, however, "Once you pass it's borders, you can never return again." Yikes!
1.5 MB (ripped from vinyl)
Silver Bells (1993)
This fan club single marks the only time R.E.M. issued a record where both sides were Christmas songs (the flip was an instrumental cover of "Christmas Time Is Here" from A Charlie Brown Christmas). The band arranges "Silver Bells" (which first appeared in the 1951 Bob Hope movie The Lemon Drop Kid) as a country weeper, drenching it in maudlin steel guitar and handing the lead vocal over to Mike Mills, who sings it with an over-the-top hick accent. Introducing the guitar solo, Mills drawls, "Play it, Santa," and Peter Buck proffers 16 poignant, single-string bars that would make Luther Perkins proud while wryly inserting the melody from "'Til There Was You," for reasons not entirely clear.
3.3 MB (ripped from vinyl)
Jesus Christ (2002)
After "Silver Bells," R.E.M. recorded the aforementioned (and ephemeral) "Christmas In Tunisia" in 1994 and then dropped the whole topic of Christmas for the remainder of the century. In 2000, the band waxed a cacophonous, nearly tuneless version of The Beatles' "Christmas Time (Is Here Again)," which had itself originally appeared on a fan club single (read more). And then they skipped another year. But in 2002, they recorded what I consider their best fan club single ever - a slamming rendition of Badfinger's "No Matter What" backed with a sterling reading of Big Star's "Jesus Christ." Like "Silver Bells," this one was sung by Mike Mills. Mills performed the song again two years later - this time with singer Sally Ellyson from the New York band Hem. That version was only briefly available on iTunes, but you can grab a copy from last year's Christmas Gift for You.
2.7 MB (ripped from CD)
Have you been very, very good? Well then, you get to reach into Santa's swingin' sack one more time! Peruse our MP3
giveaways from 2003 (including Weezer and Keith Richards), 2004 (Shelby Lynne, White Stripes), 2005 (Cheap Trick, Leon Russell), 2006 (Marshall Crenshaw, Screaming Santas), 2007 (T. Rex, Turtles), 2008 (MxPx, BoDeans), and 2009 (Aimee Mann, The Fray).
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