I never was part of the REM fan club. It must have been cool being part of it though, they put a lot of work into their official fan club, sending news letters (per post! after all they are a 80s / 90s band) and releasing a free Christmas single for fan club members since 1988 (with 2 - 4 songs on it each year). As these singles were only released to fan club members, each were only about 6000 copies each. Thanks to the internet though, nothing is ever truly lost, so after some hunting I found all 23 of them (my Christmas present to myself). I feel kind of bad talking about them after listening to them, there are a lot of delightful and silly surprises in there, which I will spoil.
Some of the singles were just recordings of live performances, some were covers, some were instrumentals (left over song ideas from recordings), there are two original songs: Live for Today (1997) and Magnetic North (2007) and of course Christmas covers. Most of all they are a lot of fun, they mostly used the opportunity to be silly.
There is not a lot to say about the live performances, at some point Radiohead show up. Some were released as videos (in 1998 they send a VHS tape as the Christmas single to their fans via post...) I actually removed the 20 live performances from my playlist, leaving me with 30 song: two original songs, fun covers and silly Christmas antics.
Of the two original songs, Magnetic North is the more complete one. It sounds more like something from New Adventures in HiFi than from the Around the Sun era (thank god): Maybe it's the organ.
The covers are two kinds, either songs from small unknown bands they met during the years or off beat covers of famous songs, clearly recorded as a joke live or in the studio. I really enjoyed getting to know some of the unknown songs, highlights include See No Evil, Academy Fight Song, Where is Captain Kirk (a punk song) and Crazy Like a Fox, which sounds like it is from the 60s, but was written in the 80s. I remember hearing this version of I Will Survive before, it is also really close to the Cake version, popular in 1996. You can hear Stipe giggle during his performance.
The instrumentals are relaxing breaks between the songs, though they are clearly unfinished ideas for songs, I really like IHT->U->EDIYTW a dubmix instrumental.
But let's get to the meat, the actual Christmas songs. I don't think they took the Christmas part very serious, it took them until 2002 to record a a Christmas song, which was not a joke of some kind.
Of course the fanclub singles had to be recorded and produced long before Christmas, but the drunken Christmas party vibe is strong with a lot of them. We have drunken playing (Parade of Wooden Soldiers), drunken singing (Good King Wenclas) and drunken everything (Christmas Time Is Here Again, where they have to restart as no one is in the same tempo or key). Christmas Griping is just them complaining about Christmas over playing Christmas songs badly (and teaching me the phrase "frosts my _ off", REM, still teaching me English through their songs 27 years later).
Sometimes they got lazy. Ghost Reindeer in the Sky is just Ghost Riders in the Sky with added reindeer. Christmas in Tunesia is a left over instrumental, which just got a christmassy name.
Even some of the the not drunkenly recorded Christmas songs are hilarious. Toyland could be a song for a Christmas themed horror movie and Silver Bells has Mills singing in what I think is supposed to be a Texan accent (I asked a friend from the South and they were not sure what that was supposed to be, but it was not a Georgian accent). He even does the little cowboy yodel. Santa Baby on the other hand, is super funny because Mills sings it straightforward, as it is a very silly song by itself. Sometimes when men sing it they change the lyrics, not here, Mills is sincerely telling Santa Baby that he was a very good girl and deserves the diamond ring he wants for Christmas. I think I ship them now.
Speaking of Mills, he really shines on this play list. He sings a lot of the cover songs and all the properly sung Christmas songs (except Toyland). He has such a warm and happy voice, which sounds very 60s, which is perfect for a Christmas album. Merry Xmas Everybody and Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) are the two best Christmas songs on this album and both sung by him.
Java is quite a known instrumental, it was familiar to me through cultural osmosis. Stipe is improvising some spoken lyrics over it, which are super weird. I think he is reading some coffee advertisement?
Crazy Like A Fox and Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) makes me wish Mills had released a solo album with covers of classic songs. They are just so ... happy.