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REM Christmas singles

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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.

Shout outs:
  • 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.




  • I spent the last month listening to every REM studio album in chronological order - Reveal

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    Here my history with REM ends. Not because I disliked Reveal, quite the opposite, I was very surprised to find out that a lot of fans rank this album as one of their worst, especially as my sister (who had given up on REM after Monster) liked Reveal. Reveal came out in May 2001, shortly before my Abitur and the summer before I left home to go to Iceland. I spent most summer enjoying the absolute freedom of school out forever and hanging out with my childhood friends, appreciating it even more, because I knew we would all be going our separate ways soon. REM did a few free concerts in order to promote this album and as luck would have it, one was in Cologne, just one hour away from my home. Me, my sister and friends went. We did not bother even trying to get anywhere near the stage, but found a nice sunny spot, sat down with snacks and relaxed. Then my live changed, I went to Iceland and after to university. I went on concerts in small venues and listened to the music of the bands I saw there with REM fading into the background.

    Reveal
    They recorded a lot of Reveal in the Caribbean. You can hear this. It is a relaxing summer record and it feels very light. The lyrics are very summary too, there are songs called Summer Turns Too High and Beachball, in The Lifting Stipe sings "the weather's fine, the sky is blue", he also mentions butterflies and dragonflies twice. Of course there is also a song called I'll take the Rain, because he just loves his rain metaphors. They still use the drum machines and electronic toys from Up, but more playfully, like the "blub blub blub!" in All the Way to Reno. They work really well on this album, they create a light and playful, especially on I've Been High, All the Way to Reno, Beachball, Let's just say someone had listened a lot to Moon Safari by Air and gotten inspired. The production is pretty slick, to me it adds to the soft and light feel of the album, but some critics found it lifeless.

    The album is more guitar heavy, there is some nice fingerstyle guitar on She Just Wants To Be, Buck's typical jangly guitar on Imitation of Life and Disappear, even some Monster like guitar effects on Chorus and the Ring. Mills's bass is somewhat subdued, mixed in the background and softer sounding than on other records. His background vocals, which were already few on Up have been reduced to a minimum, except in Imitation of Life. He is still busy, almost all songs have Organ, Keyboard or Piano parts. (I just have to say again, REM know how to use an organ). Additional to the drum machines and electronics there are string arrangements, mostly high lofty violins and some really well placed brass arrangements.

    Some songs are all the way out there in the new experimental style, like Saturn Return, Summer Turns Too High or the electronic rumba rhythm and brass section of Beachball. Others combine the folksy old style, best known from Automatic for the People with the new elements, like Beat a Drum, I'll take the Rain and Chorus and the Ring (the best songs on the album other than I've Been High). Imitation of Life is the song sounding most like a typical REM song and was the first single (I don't know if chosen by the band or requested by the studio). However, it is a mediocre REM song, still better than Daysleeper though. The strings remind me of the arrangements on Out of Time, especially Shiny Happy People. Stop having one of these cop out songs on your album, guys, just boldly go to the new sound!
    Just like Up, Reveal sounds different than previous REM albums, some key elements (Mills's bass and background vocals being prominent, the crisp production from Scott Litt) have vanished and been replaced with keyboards, drum machines and electronics. It is my main reason for liking it, and also the main reason for others disliking it.

    Shout outs:
  • I've Been High is the reason these blog posts exist. I was really stressed in March (as everyone) and sitting alone at work (it was closed for my clients), so I thought to listen to some music. It was still winter and dark outside and I wanted something relaxing that would remind me of summer, so I though "I haven't listen to Reveal in years, let's see if it still holds up". After The Lifting the drum machines and keyboard of I've Been High started and I could feel myself relaxing. It's is such a relaxing song and has such a pretty melody. I love the several drum machines, keyboards, high violins and lazy guitar of the album version, though the minimalist live version with only keyboard and acoustic guitar is lovely as well. The small piano part in the bridge is wonderful. I remembered how much I loved this song in particular and REM in general and with several weeks of alone in front of my computer ahead of me, the idea of checking out ALL their albums was born.

  • Beat a Drum and I'll take the Rain all have a lot of things going on. I like how the brass and drum machines in Beat a Drum come together with the more traditionally REM guitar, piano, organ and background vocals. I think the harmonica sounding instrument is a keyboard on I'll take the Rain, then there is another keyboard and a piano in the background (I think Mills just went a bit wild adding parts there). This song is the one truly melancholic song, but cozy, like a rainy day on your summer holiday. I love the bridge, with the high arpeggios by the violins and the guitar riff.

  • I don't know if this actually is a melodica on Chorus and the Ring, but it does remind me of Automatic for the People, while the guitar effects seem inspired by Monster. It's like they deconstructed their own music to reassemble it to something new.


  • Closing thoughts:
    I still like Reveal, I think it holds up. Of course a lot of it comes down to taste, but I enjoyed my three weeks of listening to it on repeat. Why three weeks instead of one? Because I really was trying to delay listening to Around the Sun. I listened to it once and hated it. The next blog post will be short.


    I spent the last month listening to every REM studio album in chronological order - Up

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    And then they were only three. The remaining members were reassuring reporters during the promotional interviews, that Bill Berry was happily living on a farm upstate. They themselves had not had a good time during the recording of the album. Without Berry as a mediator the different working styles (and personalities) of Mills and Buck clashed and they spent little time composing together, each feeling their ideas did not get heard by the other. They only united to nag Stipe about finishing lyrics (he was suffering from writer's block). They almost split up.

    One can hear this on the album, there are a lot of ideas and they often do not click. But when they do it is amazing. The highs are extremely high. They had decided to use the opportunity of Berry leaving to try something new. It is not so much that they tried to go electronic, more that they in-cooperated drum machines and some other retro pre-electronic music sound machines. Only Stipes voice still makes the album distinguishable as REM (except one song, which I will mention later). You can also play, guess which instrument Peter Buck is playing with this album. While Mills always had been very versatile on albums, playing pianos, keyboards, accordion and guitar next to his bass, Buck had usually stayed with string instruments (guitar, mandolin, dulcimer, maybe bass). On Up he really got to (or was made to) stretch himself. He plays most of the drum machines, some keyboard and bass several times as the album is very guitar light. The few times he plays guitar are wonderful though. The e-bow is back on Walk Unafraid, the long sustained guitar which he first played on Country Feedback and was one of the main features on Automatic for the People can be heard on Sad Professor and I love his impressionistic soloing on Why not Smile.

    Up
    I'm glad that unlike with Fables of the Reconstruction, where the stressful recording sessions led to the band disliking the album, some members have expressed a liking for the strange experiment that Up is. It is low energy and in parts seems to lack focus, but there are so many beautiful moments on it and being so different from any other REM album makes it more interesting to someone like me, who has listened extensively to them. Which is why I do not particularly agree with the decision to have Daysleeper even on the album, not to speak of it being a single (they were asked to make it a single by the record company). It is the only song, which sounds very REM like, but not as good as any old ones. The song also has Stipe writing very linear lyrics, with a clear topic, which I never find works as well as his stream of consciousness word salad or lyrics built around a few phrases. More linear lyrics are always difficult, because it is hit or miss if one can identify. Stipe started writing these kind of lyrics from New Adventures in HiFi and for a teenager it was sometimes hard to relate to middle age perspective. On this album it is Sad Professor, conveying the bitterness of middle age, on New Adventures it was Bittersweet Me, songs which always makes me think of the Edward Albee plays we were reading in English class or the time my theater group performed Season Greetings from Alan Ayckbourn.

    Shout outs:
  • Just like Up, Hope is the opposite of it's name. It is a song about complete hopelessness and confusion at the meaninglessness of calamity. As strange as the lyrics are ("cross your DNA with something reptile") the emotional feeling it conveys is perfect. I also think it is one of the best use of the sound machines and layered keyboards on the album.

  • At My Most Beautiful is the only non-cynical love song Stipe wrote and he made it count. It is lovely.

  • Stipe seems to be sorry a lot. After So.Central Rain ("I'm sorryyyy!!!") on Reckoning he is now repeatedly "so sorry" on the apologist. In concerts they play the two songs back to back, because, yes REM can make fun of themselves. (go and look up Stipe's rant on koalas on a concert of the promotional tour for Up)

  • Thanks to Why Not Smile, I get to write the sentence "I really like the harpsichord on this song" again. I always felt like it was the more honest sibling to Everybody Hurts, also talking to somebody going through a mental health crisis, but instead of telling them to "go on" expressing helplessness. It even is written in the same key (D major) and starts with two counts of D and then G in the chord progression. All of this is my excuse, why for a decade I have played this song with the same 6/8 picking pattern of Everybody Hurts and not the actual 8/8 pattern the harpsichord plays. Has nothing to do with my inability to hear tempo (I have learned the correct pattern now.). As pretty as the song is with just guitar and voice (the way they play it live), I really like how on the album layer of layer is added, with drum machines, piano, effects and guitar coming in bit by bit, building a sound carpet.

  • I really like how Diminished is built around the melodic bass line, especially as there is a lack of them on this album. The harmonies in the chorus "sing along" give me goosebumps, in a different way, the opening line "I watched you fall, I think I pushed" does as well. However, I do not understand the random mention of genocide (smallpox blanket) in a song about a murder court case. Just Stipe things, I guess. The hidden song is a needed moment of just simple emotional sincerity on an album that is a bit overthought.

  • Parakeet and Falls to Climb are two songs where the concept of the album works very well.


  • Conclusion: Up is a gloomy November day with sudden rays of sunshine breaking through the clouds. They also had a new producer on the album, Pat McCarthy and I do not envy him, his first job with the band being to babysit the dramatic recording sessions. Additional to Up he oversaw the next two albums Reveal and Around the Sun. While Up (which wasn't well received when it came out) has gotten more (deserved) appreciation with time, Reveal and Around the Sun are considered the only bad REM albums. I only listened to Around the Sun once, a few weeks back and am not sure if I can make myself to go through it again, but I fully agree with Mike Mills, that Reveal is lovely, a perfect summer album and criminally underappreciated. I'm looking forward to listening to it on repeat the next week.






    My REM the Warner Bros era with Bill Berry playlist

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    This is a bit of a different playlist. It includes Green, Monster and New Adventures in HiFi. There is no way I can only choose 4 or 5 songs from Out of Time of Automatic for the People. Just get both albums and listen to them both
    (except Radio Song ).

    Even without Out of Time and Automatic for the People this playlist is quite a journey, from very poppy songs, over screaming guitars to mandolins and accordions, it's sweet, angry, bitter, sad and ironic. So much for REM always sounds the same.
    I also did not put all the singles this time, some are here, some are not, I chose the songs I thought were the best / most representative of each album.


      Green
    1. Pop song '89 (a single, it's delightfully weird in lyrics and music "Hi, hi, hi")
    2. Get Up (a pop song about wanting to sleep your life away, also proof that REM can be cute)
    3. You are the Everything (the way the lyrics flow remind me of the Cure. Best song of Green)
    4. Orange crush (the best example of the rock sound of REM in the Green era. Also cool call and response in the chorus)

    5. Monster
    6. What's the Frequency Kenneth? (Here they succeeded with their plan to write proper rock songs for touring)
    7. Crush with Eyeliner (The Remix version, because I actually really like it, even if I do not agree with most of the other remix decisions, very glam)
    8. Star 69 (THE REVERB!!!)
    9. Let Me In (no words)

    10. New Adventures in HiFi
    11. Undertow (after I listened to the album again, this song became one of my favourites, like the impressionistic guitar, the religion inspired lyrics and the chilling background vocals)
    12. E-Bow The Letter (was my favourite song from this album since I first saw it on MTV)
    13. Leave (I actually like the siren effect on this song)
    14. So Fast, So Numb (it is a good representation of the many great rock songs on this album and the bitter tone in many of the lyrics)
    15. Electrolite (the violin solo is amazing as is the piano part and I really wanted this playlist to end with "I'm outta here")



    I spent the last month listening to every REM studio album in chronological order - New Adventures in HiFi

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    This album wins worst title. Also we have to talk about REM selling out again, not because of the album, but because of the record deal following it and the departure of the best member of the band.

    With New Adventures in HiFi the 5 album record deal with Warner Bros ran out and they negotiated a ridiculous lucrative new record deal of a rumoured 80 million dollars with Warner Bros. REM had long ceased to be the small band from a small town in Georgia that could and had become an institution over the last 5 years . Music snobs (some music journalists included) resented that "their" cool secret cult band were internationally successful stars now. Pricey concert tickets during the Monster tour were held against them (fair) as well as playing stadiums after having said in the 80s that they dislike the idea of playing in front of an audience of more than 5000. It also did not help that they had stopped inviting music journalists to hang out with them in Athens (2 of the 4 members had moved away) and that they parted ways with their long term manager and college friend Jefferson Holt (most probably because he was harassing an employee, but I guess REM were expected to follow bro-code here? Instead they removed him, changed the lyrics of the song where he was mentioned and never spoke of him again). Claims from REM that they have maintained their creative freedom with the new contract were outright rejected, Up would very much prove them right there, but the whole discussion eclipsed New Adventures in HiFi.

    One year after New Adventure in HiFi was released Bill Berry left the band to be a farmer. First of all, how cool is Bill Berry? He got offered a multi million dollar contract and went "Nah, I'd rather be farmer instead". Hands down the coolest member (the correct order is Bill Berry, Peter Buck, Michael Stipe, Mike Mills. Fight me). The others decided to continue. For years REM had maintained that each member is essential (reflected by sharing song writing credits) and that the band would cease to exist if any member left. For the "REM is selling out" crowd, continuing after Bill Berry left was just another example of them abandoning their principals. The departure was amicable. Berry wanted to leave, because he did not like being a rock star anymore, he hated travelling, hated giving interviews and (as he said recently) did not actually like playing drums that much. He also did not want to be the reason his friends had to give up something they love. They continued with his blessing, he returned once, when they were inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and otherwise plays with Buck and Mills in some of their side projects every now and then. Whether they should have broken up or not, his departure was the end of an era and for many New Adventures in HiFi was the last great REM album.

    New Adventures in HiFi
    The album is great. Most of it was recorded during the Monster tour and it has a lot of energy because of it. It is more of a rock album than Monster was, which had in a way only two fast tempo rock songs (What's the Frequency Kenneth? and Star 69), New Adventures in HiFi has 5 (The Wake-Up Bomb, Leave, Departure, Binky the Doormat and So Fast, So Numb). Instead of overloading his guitar with effects Buck combines the rockier guitar sound with his melodic playing style. He also is exploring some more playing styles, with a more impressionistic style on Undertow and the e-bow on E-Bow the Letter. The more melodic, folkier sound from Automatic for the People is back as well, on songs like Electrolite. The mixing is back to the clean production sound that started with Lifes Rich Pageant. Which is really good, as they are all really on the top of their game, with something musically interesting going on in each part, be it an interesting bass line or guitar riff, piano part or lyric.


    Shout outs:

  • I sat in front of MTV for hours, waiting for E-Bow the Letter to come on. Warner Bros has blamed choosing this song as single for the album not selling well (I explained in the Monster review and above why I think it sold less than its predecessors). I still really love the song, I love the e-bow on it (yay Peter Buck!) and I'm a fan of melancholic songs anyway.


  • The bass line in New Test Leper is a 3 minute long bass solo.


  • I like the siren sound in Leave. Also Leave was written by Bill Berry.


  • On Binky the Doormat you can hear Berry sing "yeah, yeah, yeah" over the chorus. Which made me make this meme:



  • I forgot about the violin in Electrolite. I forgot what a pleasent song Electrolite was in general, I remember liking the piano part. I also think it is cool that the album ends with "I'm outta here"


  • Closing thoughts: There are two kind of REM records, the more concept records, with a thought out musical style, like Automatic for the People or Monster and the once like this one, where they have lot of different musical ideas in one album. Sometimes it creates a whiplash effect, like Green, here it really made a very varied and interesting album. I somehow never connected to it as much as I have with other albums, but I understand why fans rank it very high. If you like REM, this is a good album to have. Next is the first album without Bill Berry, the very inaccurately named "Up".


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