MUSIQUE BOUTIQUE: Joan Armatrading, Hard Nips, The Montreux Years

Welcome to Audiofemme’s monthly record review column, Musique Boutique, written by music journo vet Gillian G. Gaar. Every fourth Monday, Musique Boutique offers a cross-section of noteworthy reissues and new releases guaranteed to perk up your ears.

As Joan Armatrading recently told the New York Times, she was born to write songs; “I always say I can’t take credit for it because I did nothing for it. All I did was be born, and was then given this gift.” And there are always more songs to be written. On her latest album, Consequences (BMG), Armatrading brings her keen insight about the inner workings of relationships to a set of well-crafted songs of joy and heartbreak.

Given Armatrading’s generally upbeat outlook, there’s more of the former than the latter. The buoyant “Natural Rhythm” and “Glorious Madness” each capture the delirious, giddy rush of newfound love. “To Be Loved,” couples the lush harmonies of the chorus with wonderful observations like “Every day feels like a weekend with you around.” “Already There” is sung from the unique perspective of having already fallen in love and waiting for the object of your desire to catch up.

“Consequences” opens with watery-sounding keyboards before pivoting into a taut, edgy backing that’s perfect for illustrating the roiling turbulence that’s descended into a relationship. The closing song, “To Anyone Who Will Listen” is a heartfelt plea for connection, reaching out for solace. “Sunrise” is a laidback instrumental, with a shuffling beat, the lead melody traded between guitar and piano. Armatrading’s distinctive musical mix draws on rock, jazz, pop, blues (and she’s playing all the instruments as well), and arrangements featuring all sorts of percussive rhythms percolating underneath. It’s a great, optimistic album to welcome in the summer.

Hard Nips might have formed in Brooklyn in 2009, but their music has a late ’70s/early ’80s pop/punk/new wave vibe ‑ think Blondie, B-52’s, the Ramones. Smart and sharp, a bit of an edge, but a good dose of humor as well. The Japanese foursome (bassist Gooch, drummer Hitomi, and keyboard/vocalist Yoko born in Japan, guitarist Saki hailing from Long Island) are drawn as stylish superheroes on the cover of their new album Master Cat (Dadstache Records), soaring through the air as they spread the gospel of “sex, sushi and rock ‘n’ roll!!!”

Great, chunky guitar is to the forefront here, as you’ll hear from the kickoff, “Blender,” which also has a kitschy keyboard line. The album is mostly on the up-tempo side: the strut of “Workaholic;” “Analog Guys,” with its propulsive “My Sharona”-esque backbeat; the quirky “Motto.” Then there’s the moody “Cupid Devil,” where everyone gets a chance to be in the instrumental spotlight. The title track mixes it up, opening with an ethereal keyboard and a cool vocal, then shifting gears to a bright, poppy beat before spiraling down again into the mist.

“The Montreux Years” is a new series of recordings launched by the Montreux Jazz Festival and BMG, celebrating the many artists who’ve performed at the Festival, and featuring rare and previously unreleased material. And the first two releases in series are by some true legends: Etta James: The Montreux Years and Nina Simone: The Montreux Years.

James’ album draws on concerts from 1977 to 1993, with the CD version also including her first appearance at the Festival, on July 11, 1975. “I can’t speak French,” she explains to the audience at the start of the set. “The only thing I can say you might be able to understand is ‘Get down.’ Can you say that? Get down! Get down!” Having won the crowd over, it’s straight into a steaming version of “Respect Yourself;” sterling performances of the blues standard “Dust My Broom,” a slow and soulful take of T. Bone Walker’s “Stormy Monday,” and James’ own decidedly bawdy “W-O-M-A-N” follow. The album also features sizzling renditions of some of her best known work, like “Something’s Got a Hold On Me,” “Tell Mama,” and “I’d Rather Go Blind.”

Simone’s album features songs from each of her five performances at the Festival, including her very first appearance on June 16, 1968, the first time the complete show has been available on CD. It’s a riveting set, opening with Morris Bailey Jr.’s fierce “Go to Hell,” with potent lyrics that still resonate: “So you’re living high and mighty/Rich off the fat of the land/Just don’t dispose of your natural soul/Cause you know darn well/That you’ll go to hell.” You can never hear “Backlash Blues” too many times, and she reworks “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” and “House of the Rising Sun” and makes them her own. Elsewhere, Simone covers Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry” and delivers an absolutely stunning version of Janis Ian’s “Stars,” which is mostly just Simone and her own piano accompaniment.

As a bonus, this month also sees the digital release of Simone’s classic 1959 debut album, Little Girl Blue (BMG/Bethlehem Jazz), in a new stereo mix that gives the music a fresh, crisp sound. This album introduced the world to Simone’s unique mix of classical and jazz influences; check out her breezy performance on “Mood Indigo” and her inventive reworking of the title track. The album comes out on colored vinyl in July, and black vinyl and CD in August.

Photographer Sherry Rayn Barnett Shot Music History As It Happened

All photos © Copyright by Sherry Rayn Barnett; Author photo courtesy of Adam Michaels

Having spent over half a century working as a photographer, you’re sure to have seen Sherry Rayn Barnett’s work at some point. Maybe on such album covers as Nina Simone’s Let It Be Me, Toni Basil’s Best of Mickey & Other Love Songs, or What’s That I Hear? The Songs of Phil Ochs. Maybe in books like The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, or the documentary Joni Mitchell: Woman of Heart and Mind. Sherry began taking pictures at the time rock ‘n’ roll was becoming rock, and rock was becoming art, and legendary careers were just getting off the ground. Her new book, Eye of the Music: The Photography of Sherry Rayn Barnett: New York to LA 1969-1989, offers an engrossing look through her personal archives, charting the career development of a professional photographer and the heady musical atmosphere of times.

Ironically, the COVID pandemic gave Sherry the time to complete the project, which had long been in the making. At the beginning of 2020, she was preparing for the release of a new album by her band, Mustangs of the West, set to be followed by a tour. The album, Time, came out as scheduled in March, but the tour ended up getting cancelled. The unexpected downtime allowed Sherry to focus on Eye of the Music and get it published by last December, making 2020 a busy year after all. “The fact that I was able to have an album release, and a book release, during the pandemic — it’s just absolutely amazing,” Sherry says, still in disbelief. “I doubt it will happen again.”

Music and photography were linked at a young age for Sherry. Her mother was an aspiring songwriter, living in Queens, New York, who would take Sherry with her when she went to pitch her songs at the Brill Building, home to numerous music publishers. “We got on the subway, we went to Manhattan, and would go to this building where I would get either a 45 record from the secretaries or an autographed picture of the artist,” Sherry recalls. “Those pictures really stuck in my mind; it was kind of the full spectrum of, here’s the music and here’s the person, or the group, who’s singing it. And I was fascinated by that. And when I got into my teens, it was like, ‘I want to take those pictures. I want to see these artists in person and I want to photograph them, the same way.’”

By then, Sherry was attending the High School of Performing Arts — the “Fame” school — studying classical guitar. But when she realized she had no interest in becoming a solo performer, she began to focus more on her photography. Soon, she was living something of a double life, attending school during the day, and photographing music performers in the evening: a mini-skirted Linda Ronstadt at Town Hall, backed by musicians who would later form the Eagles; Joni Mitchell, John Denver, and Miles Davis at the Schaefer Music Festival in Central Park; Janis Joplin at Forest Hills Tennis Stadium, just two months before her death. And the rise of underground rock publications provided a ready outlet for her work. Her first gig was a plum assignment to shoot Ike and Tina Turner for a short-lived magazine called CORPUS. Sherry rose to the challenge, capturing the two in concert, then giving an up-close-and-personal look at the couple offstage, lounging on their beds at the Chelsea Hotel.

Emmylou Harris

Sherry credits being a self-taught photographer with giving her a sense of freedom. “I think the advantage of being self-taught is that you’re not regimented,” she says. “Thinking photographically, it’s not like you are told ‘This is how you need to look at something’ or ‘This is how you need to compose a shot.’ So for me it was better. On the other hand, the advantage of being schooled in photography is that you can probably breeze through a lot of technical mistakes. I thought that the way to crop a photograph was to cut the negative. Which of course is absolutely ridiculous! I ruined some of my early shots.”

She was also drawn to acts that tended to play smaller venues, enabling her to get the intimacy so evident in her photographs. “I think that most of the guy photographers went to photograph these guy rock bands: the Who, and Zeppelin, and the Rolling Stones,” she says. “And I was more eclectic. I was really drawn to the singer-songwriters that were starting to emerge. I just loved vocal harmony, I loved the songs, I loved the playing. I don’t think as many photographers were driven to go to, say, Bonnie Raitt early on, at the Gaslight Café [in New York], because they didn’t really know of her yet. But I was always listening to stuff that was a little outside the mainstream.

“I’m grateful that I didn’t shoot as many loud rock bands as your typical rock photographer. Looking back, I realize that I’m a music photographer; I’m not as much a rock photographer. If you look through the book, you’ll see, of course, I photograph bands. But the emphasis really is on the individual performers, whether it’s somebody like a Chuck Berry or a Bette Midler. It’s a lot of solo artists, because I was really drawn to the different personalities.”

Bonnie Raitt, 1981

But the most important factor, she says, is the access she was able to secure for what she wanted to photograph. “I just walked up to the front of the stage, and there was no one to stop me,” she says. “I was pretty bold; I just did what I wanted to do. It’s nothing like today. Now there’s this whole glut of photographers at every show, and to get in to shoot is a whole other thing, and then there are all the restrictions of how long you can shoot for; shooting three songs is a lot now. I heard for some artist it was like 30 seconds — it’s crazy!”

In the early 1970s, Sherry relocated to Los Angeles. “Really, because of the music,” she explains. “I just heard all this music I loved coming out of LA, and I had a friend who was a session singer. She said, ‘Hey, if you want to come to LA, I’ll show you around.’ She took me to all these sessions she was doing and set me up in Beachwood Canyon. And I fell in love with the canyons. It was such a far cry from the way I had been living. And I think I was just done with Manhattan; having to carry my gear on the subway all the time, and the crowds in the streets. I loved the openness, at the time, of LA, where you had some greenery, and you could get in your car and be by yourself. You didn’t have to be in a crowd all the time.

“I started going to the Troubadour and the Ash Grove and McCabe’s, and the Bla Bla Café, where Al Jarreau got his start. A lot of great performers were still playing those small to mid-sized clubs, and you could go out and see them and not have to pay a fortune and be hundreds of feet back. It was growing, but it was still at a level that you could experience and capture a performance in a very intimate way. The intimacy of it was really important to me.”

Linda Ronstadt, The Troubador

It’s not surprising to find that many of the photos in Eye of the Music were taken in small venues. “I’m sure that was deliberate, but it wasn’t conscious. It was just what I was attracted to. After I was able to afford bigger lenses, I could be further back [in a venue]. But I was really passionate about being up front and center as much as I was allowed to be.” Her picture of Little Richard, at the Felt Forum (the smaller room at Madison Square Garden), is a case in point. Sherry’s positioned right at Richard’s feet, her camera looking up, close enough to capture the beads of sweat on his bare chest. “That was not a telephoto lens, that was right there,” Sherry notes with pride. “He looks like a prizefighter. Looking back, it’s an amazing shot, and I don’t say that from an ego standpoint. It’s just like, wow!”

The majority of photos are live shots, each conveying the excitement of a performance: Bette Midler letting loose, Carly Simon looking particularly joyful. There’s a nattily-attired B.B. King, and Phil Ochs in the gold suit he patterned after the same costume Elvis wore on the cover of 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong. And there’s a rare shot of Karen Carpenter behind a drum set, drums being her original instrument.

“I was always drawn to the live moment and that’s what really connected me to the music,” Sherry says. “It’s really the nature of my work. And when you do a portrait, it’s a whole different element. It’s pretty much staged, with the exception of candid portraits; it’s a whole other environment. I would say 90 percent of great studio photographers are educated; they’ve gone to school for it and are technically excellent. I’ve shot album covers, and I’ve done portrait photography, but I’m never as relaxed, I guess, doing a fabricated shot. I leave great portraiture to the people that really do that well. So yeah, I’ve always been drawn to the live aspect of these performers, because that’s exactly what they are. They’re performers.”

Nonetheless, Eye of the Music does contain some offstage, and even “staged” material. Most notable is the picture Sherry surreptitiously snapped while attending a recording session for Joni Mitchell’s classic album Court and Spark at the A&M Records studio in LA. “There was nobody with cameras. And I could tell this was not going to be a photo shoot day. But I did have my camera, and I did get it out for literally just a handful of quick shots.” Joni is seen playing her guitar, lost in thought, the boom mic looming in the foreground.

There’s also an outtake from a memorable session Sherry did with Nina Simone. Sherry had previously photographed the music legend at the Village Gate in Greenwich Village. In 1987, she was hired to shoot the cover shot for Simone’s Let It Be Me album. “I had a home studio, and I had a piano there. We sat around waiting for Nina for, oh, I think close to four hours before she arrived. And she was not in a good mood. I can’t really say what she said about the makeup person, but it was not very kind. She had said when she called in that she wanted a white sheet, so I had gotten her a white sheet. I gave it to her when she got there, and she literally stood there and disrobed in front of the window, in front of everybody. We all just kind of turned our backs. She completely disrobed and put the white sheet on.

“And you can tell [in the final shot], she’s just bare shouldered. You don’t know what she’s wearing, but she’s wearing a white sheet. And I actually had her autograph an album cover for me while she was there; I didn’t usually do that, but she was just so legendary. It wasn’t the most pleasant shoot, but we got a great, great shot of her that she used up until she finally passed as her promo shot. So that was really complimentary.”

Nina Simone, Village Gate, NYC 1970

There’s also a spread devoted to the all-female bands Birtha and Fanny, acts Sherry felt never got the acclaim they deserved. It’s made her consider her own role in music history. “I’m paying more attention now, because people have asked me along the way, ‘Hey, have you felt any prejudice as a female photographer?’ or ‘Did you get fewer jobs?’ I never really thought about it. I didn’t bulldoze my way through anything, but I really didn’t let anything stop me if it was accessible to me, if it was a possibility. But looking back — or even looking now, and at a number of the rock galleries and photographers who are really successful, there is such a small percentage [of women] that I’ve actually sat down and gone, okay, you’ve got a hundred rock photographers here, and truly, it’s lucky if there are 10 percent that are women.”

Sherry ended up in an all-female band herself, when she joined the Mustangs on lead guitar in the late 1980s. “I realized I could be in a band and not have all the focus on me,” she says. Sherry had developed a growing appreciation for new country performers like Roseanne Cash, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Dwight Yoakum, and Randy Travis, and the Mustangs became part of LA’s country-rock “cowpunk” scene. “After I joined, they put me onstage with them the next night, which was completely unnerving, because we were opening for Lucinda Williams! So that was my start with the band.”

The Mustangs split in the mid-1990s, and Sherry went back to photography full-time. By 2017, she felt the time was right to put the group back together, reuniting with two other original members and adding two new ones, becoming the Mustangs of the West “because there were so many more bands named ‘the Mustangs.’” Making Time brought Sherry full circle; it was recorded at the site of the same A&M Records complex — now Henson Studios — where she once photographed Joni Mitchell. She also ran into Wendy & Lisa, the duo known for their time in Prince’s band the Revolution, as well as their own work, at the studio. Wendy ended up loaning Sherry one her vintage Fender Mustang guitars to play on the album.

Eye of the Music has photos of a somewhat scrawny 21-year-old Prince at the Roxy, as well as shots after his fame exploded, from the Purple Rain premiere, and Sherry’s book was originally going to cover the years up to 1999 in another nod to the Purple One. “We thought 1999 was a great year,” she says. “It just sounded good, and the Prince connection and everything. But we ended up spending so much time on the ’70s, we barely got to the ’80s!” Sherry spent the ’80s photographing the likes of Go-Go’s, Elvis Costello, k.d. lang, the Eurythmics, Cyndi Lauper, Lionel Richie, and the sole US season of Top of the Pops. But you definitely get the sense that there are more photos, and stories, to share.

Cyndi Lauper, Beverly Theatre, 1984

“I’ve been shooting for a very long time. Doing this book, going back, it was almost like telling somebody else’s story, because some of the pictures were taken that long ago. I uncovered things that I had forgotten existed. So revisiting them and revisiting that part of my life was a very interesting process. It’s hard when one picture gets used in a documentary, one picture gets used in a book, one picture gets used in a CD reissue, and there’s no story to tell about that. And I didn’t realize, once the book came out, how people really connected and related to the stories. So I might do a book of the 2000s, because I’ve been shooting another 20 years. Or I’ve also considered doing another book on the same eras that I just covered, but digging a little deeper into each shoot.

“But I’m very grateful to have been in the places where I was at the time. Because I got the unique photos. Because I got the ones that nobody else had.”

Follow Sherry Rayn Barnett on Facebook and Instagram for ongoing updates, and purchase the book via her website.

NEWS ROUNDUP: RIP Chris Cornell, More PWR BTTM Controversy & More

  • RIP Chris Cornell

    Chris Cornell, the frontman of Soundgarden and Audioslave as well as one of the most important figures in the Seattle grunge scene, was found dead yesterday morning. By the afternoon, his death was reported as a  suicide by hanging. Though it seems like an endless stream of musicians have passed since David Bowie’s death in early 2016, Cornell’s was particularly unexpected and left many reeling, as he had performed a concert in Detroit the night before and was active on social media throughout the night as well. He was 52.

  • PWR BTTM Respond To Allegations, But Is It Enough?

    In the week since the allegations of sexual assault and other inappropriate behavior against Ben Hopkins of PWR BTTM, there has been a ton of fallout – the duo was dropped by their label and management, their touring members and opening bands left the tour before it was cancelled for good, Father Daughter Records has stated they will remove their old releases from streaming services, and Polyvinyl is even issuing refunds if former fans send back their brand new record, Pageant. But other than a statement that asked potential victims to email an account that would at some point be monitored by a mediator, a move that was deemed inappropriate for a variety of reasons, the band was silent until yesterday. They’ve released a new statement, but it seems to raise the same questions and criticisms: about consent, about accountability, and the language used to discuss it. Namely, that their statement contains a whole lot of words, but dances around the issue in an unsettling way. You can read both the statement and a thoughtful response here.

  • Chelsea Manning Is Free & Has Her Own Compilation

    Chelsea Manning, the former Army intelligence analyst who came out as transgender after being convicted of espionage for leaking classified information, has finally been released – Thanks, Obama! Now, rockstars are voicing their support for in the form of a benefit compilation. Michael Stipe, Thurston Moore, Against Me!, Tom Morello, Ted Leo, Downtown Boys, Priests, Screaming Females, Talib Kweli, Amanda Palmer, and Kevin Devine have all contributed to Hugs For Chelsea, the proceeds of which go toward her cost of living as she reenters society. Check it out on Bandcamp.

ONLY NOISE: Cover to Cover


“What a drug this little book is; to imbibe it is to find oneself presuming his process.” In her latest memoir M Train, Patti Smith speaks of W.G. Sebald’s After Nature with bibliophilic hunger. She is seeking inspiration and therefore turns to a favorite work. Smith continues:

“I read and feel the same compulsion; the desire to possess what he has written, which can only be subdued by writing something myself. It is not mere envy but a delusional quickening in the blood.”

As I read her book with a similar hunger, I realize that I’ve felt this way before, in the precise way she has described it – when I listen to the music I love. “The desire to possess” what has been written, played, and sung. This desire is so strong that it ventures upon wish fulfillment; I often feel as though I am taking communion with the music…eating it, so to speak. For a split second, I near convince myself that I have written it. That it is mine.

I often wonder if this is a personal quirk (a hallucination) or if others experience the same phenomenon. I wonder if it is perhaps the subconscious impetus to cover songs, even. What if instead of mere flattery, or tribute, possession also informed Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah” or Jimi Hendrix’s take on “All Along the Watchtower?” They certainly made both songs their own. I do not mean a jealous possession, necessarily, but an attempt to be “one with” the song, at the risk of sounding faux-metaphysical.

Cover songs as a genre get a bad rep, it seems. Covers = karaoke, or worse, Covers = Cover Bands. It was after all a throng of home-recorded cover songs that launched Justin Bieber’s career. But cover songs lead a double life. In their pop/rock identity, it is often considered a lowbrow, unoriginal form – sometimes even an attempt at latching onto the search engine optimization of the artists being covered. But in a cover song’s blues/folk/country life it goes by another name: a traditional. Throughout countless genres that could be filed under the umbrella of “folk” or “roots” music, artists recorded their own versions of songs passed down by performers before them.

Much like the poems and fables of oral history, it was common for the original authors of traditional songs to remain unknown. Take for instance the trad number “Goodnight, Irene,” which was first recorded by Lead Belly in 1933, and by many others thereafter. But the original songwriter has been obscured from music history. There are allusions to the song dating back to 1892, but no specifics on who penned the version Lead Belly recorded.

Lead Belly claimed to have learned the song from his uncles in 1908, who presumably heard it elsewhere. “Goodnight, Irene” was subsequently covered by The Weavers (1950), Frank Sinatra (1950, one month after The Weavers’ version), Ernest Tubb & Red Foley (1950 again), Jimmy Reed (1962) and Tom Waits (2006) to name but a few.

The reason so many artists (I only listed a couple) covered “Goodnight, Irene” in 1950 was because that was the way of the music biz back then. If someone had a hit record – like The Weavers, who went to #1 on the Billboard Best Seller chart – it was in the best interest of other musicians to cash in on the trend while it was hot by recording their version of the single. Not as common today of course, but in a time when session musicians were rarely credited and hits were penned by paid teams instead of performers, it made sense.

The history of traditional folk songs or “standards” is a fascinating one because it is like a musical game of telephone. The songs’ arrangement and lyrics change with the times, the performer, and the context. And that same model of change can be applied to both the artist’s motive for covering certain music, and the listener’s reaction to it.

For years I quickly dismissed cover songs, finding them boring at best and unbearable at worst. But in my recent quest to become more open-minded, I have revisited many covers…and become a bit obsessed in the process. The first cover song to move me was The Slits’ version of “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” which in itself is a pop traditional as it has been covered by everyone from Marvin Gaye, to Creedence Clearwater Revival, to The Miracles. Gaye’s version is the most widely recognized, however, making The Slits’ rendition all the more fascinating. Their 1979 stab at the Motown classic was what taught me that a cover song could be more than just a karaoke version of something. It can become a completely new medium of expression when the artist tears the original apart and stitches the pieces into a new form. The Slits did this so effectively, to the point that theirs and Gaye’s versions are incomparable.

The Stranglers achieved a similar result by reconfiguring the Dionne Warwick classic “Walk On By” in 1978, morphing the lounge-y original into a six-minute swirl of organ-infused punk. Another master of pop modification was the one-and-only Nina Simone, who somehow took the already perfect “Suzanne” by Leonard Cohen and managed to make it…perfecter. I remember a friend playing this cut for me three and a half years ago, and I haven’t gone so much as a week without putting it on since. Nina’s phrasing can make Dylan’s seem predictable, and she dances through Cohen’s poetry in a way that astonishes me to this day, no matter how many times I’ve heard it. I feel that her version is, dare I say, better than the original, though I love both dearly.

But of course, not all covers exist for the purpose of possession. Sometimes the simplest answer is the correct one: that a cover is an opportunity to pay tribute, not ironically, but with reverence. Of course, even artists performing the best reverent covers make the songs their own. Take Smog’s version of Fleetwood Mac’s “Beautiful Child,” which is such a gorgeous recording that I was heartbroken to learn it was a cover, and disappointed upon hearing the original. Ditto Bill Callahan’s more recent take on Kath Bloom’s “The Breeze/My Baby Cries.” Bloom’s take isn’t short on oddball, winsome charm, but Callahan brings a barge full of sorrow, which always wins in my book.

In similar form, Robert Wyatt somehow out-Costello’d Elvis Costello when he covered “Shipbuilding” in 1982, which reaches another dimension of despair with Wyatt’s wavering vocal performance. Another favorite is Morrissey’s interpretation of “Redondo Beach,” an oddly bouncy rendition by the King of Sad.

Though I once turned my nose up at cover songs, I seem to fanatically collect them now. I often dream up cover song commissions that will likely never come to fruition: Cat Power singing Bob Dylan’s “Most of the Time” or King Krule doing “Bette Davis Eyes” by Kim Carnes. I’d pay them to do it myself if I could damn well afford to. Until then, let the covers of others stoke your desire to possess.

PLAYLIST: A Spooky Scary Halloween Playlist

So you’re throwing your annual Halloween party but you shot your wad on all the holiday classics ( the Monster Mash, the Time Warpthe Purple People Eater, etc, etc) on last year’s mix. So you’re going as Will Smith circa “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and you’re looking for something seasonal to blast from the boom box slung over your shoulder. So you’re psyching yourself up to wear your Sexy Einstein costume complete with the 3-inch hair (go for it, Miss/Mister Thang!!). So you’re hosting a seance and you need some tunes to help you commune with the spirit.

WE GOT YOU. Behold AudioFemme’s spookiest, scariest, most rockin’ and rollin’ Halloween playlist, guaranteed to thrill, chill, and catch the eye of that babealicious witch doctor in the apartment down the hall. Onward!!


1. Walk Like A Zombie – HorrorPops

This Danish psychobilly act shares its guitarist Kim Nekroman with the thrashier but stylistically related Nekromantix, for which Nekroman plays a recognizable coffin-shaped bass. HorrorPops formed in the late 90s, when Nekroman met Patricia Day at a music festival in Germany. Day now fronts the group, which draws aspects of ska, rockabilly, and punk that both she and Nekroman found lacking in their other projects. The two eventually married, and fittingly, “Walk Like A Zombie” is doo-woppy and more than a little romantic. Perfect for that un-dead high school prom you’re DJing. Just make sure to keep the glassy look of death in your eyes.


2. Chainsaw Gutsfuck – Mayhem

Off the seminal Norweigian black metal album Deathcrush, released in 1987, “Chainsaw Gutsfuck” won the prestigious title of having the Blender award for “Most Gruesome Lyrics Ever” in 2006. Fifteen years beforehand, it was inspiring black metal bands in Scandinavia and beyond to delve deeper into lyrical bleakness, to glorify extremity in violence and misery, and to distort their music into the grainiest, harshest possible sounds. “Chainsaw Gutsfuck” is one of the doomier songs on a very doomy album, with lyrics that sexualize death and corporeal decay. But, if you can handle the black metal sludge, it’s totally catchy, too. Want to dress the part? Christ, you could go as any of Mayhem’s members or black metal contemporaries and stand a solid chance at being the scariest monster at the party. The group’s most recognizable figure is perhaps Euronymous, its founder and guitarist, who held some nasty political views and achieved infamy when, upon discovering the body of his band’s singer Dead after the latter committed suicide, allegedly made necklaces out of his skull fragments and possibly (though it’s unlikely) cannibalized him by stirring flecks of his brain into a stew. Euronymous himself was murdered by another bandmate, Varg Vikernes, the following year. Halloween is the time to be tasteless, so wear corpsepaint, long hair, black and leather.


3. I Put A Spell On You – Nina Simone

Originally performed by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Nina Simone’s “I Put A Spell On You” is seething, brooding and betrayed, like she’s looking into a crystal ball to discover a lover’s duplicitous carryings-on. Especially towards the end of her career, Simone had a reputation for fire and fury on stage, too. A life in the music business left her weary and long-embattled, bitter alike to the people who loved and exploited her. Released decades before her death, “I Put A Spell On You” foreshadows the betrayal she seemed to come to see in the people around her. But, no matter her demons, Simone’s genius is present here–as everywhere–glowing like an ember, dying down when it’s still, and firing up again in a slight breeze, even after you think it’s gone out.


4. Tainted Love – Gloria Jones

And speaking of women scorned, “Tainted Love” is practically an anthem for love gone frighteningly awry. Gloria Jones recorded “Tainted Love,” which later became an electronic single for the band Soft Cell, in 1964. The original fell somewhere short of Motown, akin to demonic bubble gum pop that had been steeped in the sultry blues. Five years after recording “Tainted Love,” Jones began singing backup for the British rock band T. Rex and met her future husband, Marc Bolan. It was Jones who was driving the car when, one night in September of 1977, Bolan died in a car accident. Jones–who nearly faced charges for impaired driving after drinking wine on the night of the accident–lost the couple’s house and moved back to L.A. “Tainted Love” remains her longest-lasting hit, with covers aplenty and appearances in current film and TV soundtracks.


5.  Somebody’s Watching Me – Rockwell (featuring Michael Jackson)

It’s not just those Jackson hee-hees in the chorus that bring to mind the campy spook of “Thriller.” This track is pop-culture paranoid, stocked with references to television and the everyday horrors of being spied on. “Somebody’s Watching Me” dropped in 1984, and its theme of a dystopian state, in which even “normal people” fall under invisible scrutiny, feels ever more prescient today in light of Internet freedom issues and heightened technological development. Plus, “Someone’s Watching Me” has a spooky synth line that sounds like it’s played on a xylophone made of a cartoon rib cage!


6. Walkin’ Through A Cemetery – Claudine Clark

Claudine Clark, whose early single “Party Lights” proved her only song to score high on the charts, experimented with the spooky side of pop in “Walking Through A Cemetery.” Hindsight’s 20/20, but I’m not surprised that after “Party Lights”–which is about trying to convince your mom to let you go to a party–“Walking Through A Cemetery” flatlined. The lyrics took a serious turn in the for-whom-the-bell-tolls direction, after all: “If you’re walking through a cemetery one dark night/ Up jumps a creature and he gives you a fright/ Ain’t no use to turn around and walk the other way/ ‘Cause if he’s for you, baby, he’s gonna get you anyway.” Geez. Pretty serious stuff, for someone whose most popular work to date dealt with the injustice of not being allowed to do the twist, the fish, the watusi, and the mashed potatoes. But no one said Halloween was all fun and games. We’re all destined for the grave, but in this danceable number, Clark sings om bop bop, om bop bop sha doo dee doo dee all the way there.


7. Spooky – Dusty Springfield

Dusty Springfield’s gender-switched cover of the classic “Spooky,” a song that tells the story of a “spooky little girl” who compels and mystifies, and, like a ghost, only seems to show up when no one else is around, is further “spookified” by Springfield’s sly and porcelain-pretty vocals. The performance is ghostly–the woman herself was more complex. Springfield–a lesbian performing at a time when gayness was professional suicide–made a second career of cloaking her identity. The flip side of the doll-like vocals was a person who raged, drank too much, had a problem with pills. And its restraint makes Springfield’s spooky all the eerier.


8. The Whistler – The White Buffalo

Singer/songwriter Jake Smith is a big man, with a big, big voice. Nowhere more so than on “The Whistler,” off the 2013 album Shadows, Greys and Evil Ways. His stage name is apt, and like a large herd animal, Smith’s performances are often remarkable for the gentle giant-ishness. When he roars, though, the earth quakes. “The Whistler” marks the interior battle of a man who knows what the right thing is but chooses its opposite, and revels in his own destruction. The scariest demon of all is the demon inside, kids!


9. God Alone – Altar of Plagues

Out of a host of powerful metal records to come out of 2013, Teethed Glory and Injury–from Altar of Plagues, AKA Irish musician James Kelly–stands out as one of the most precocious and innovative within a genre wreathed with tradition and homage to be paid. “God Alone” stands out as the record’s most violent track, but that violence is achieved through skill and technical manipulation, not blunt force. The rhythms tilt and hang off-kilter; the beats deploy sudden, booming jolts that make you jump out of your seat.

10. Little Fang -Avey Tare’s Slasher Flicks

I wouldn’t call “Little Fang”–or the group behind it–scary, but damned if Welcome To The Slasher House, this year’s debut release from Slasher Flicks, isn’t Halloween-ishly kitschy. The group plays shrouded in  a backdrop of glowing skulls, leering in neon green, and plays on dissonance and surreal lyrics. “Little Fang” is less Fright Night, more sticky fingers and sugar rush.

And there you have ’em, folks. Consider this list your musical Trick Or Treat offerings from your friendly neighborhood Femmes. Don’t egg our house, please, but do tell us what we missed! What are your favorite Halloween tunes? Let us know in the comments below!