Welcome to Audiofemme’s record review column, Musique Boutique, written by music journo vet Gillian G. Gaar. The last Monday of each month, Musique Boutique offers a cross-section of noteworthy reissues and new releases guaranteed to perk up your ears.
“Well, they call me a hard-headed woman/I tell ‘em ‘I work at it every day’” is the proud, take-no-prisoners opening line from the title track of Natalia King’s latest album, Woman Mind of My Own (DixieFrog Records). It’s an album reverberating with the unvarnished power of the blues — despite most of it being recorded in Paris, where the Brooklyn-born King is now based.
At its heart, the blues is an expression of profound human emotions, and King’s album resonates with deep feeling. “AKA Chosen” is a stirring song of self-empowerment. “Once was part/but now I’m whole,” King sings, as the simple guitar opening gives way to a stomping beat and lively backing chorus. “Forget Yourself” seduces with an insinuating tenor sax solo. “So Far Away” is a compelling portrait of estrangement in a relationship. “Play On” cleverly uses gambling metaphors in its dissection of the game of love, as a moaning slide guitar hints of the danger that may lie ahead. Along with her own songs, there’s also an interesting selection of covers; a reflective rendition of John Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses,” and a wonderfully intimate version of George Michael’s “One More Try.”
State of the world got you down? A little Bitchcraft (Kill Rock Stars) will lift those spirits. “You’re the man, you’re the man, you’re the man,” Bitch sings in the song of that name, ending the litany with the telling reminder, “Well, I’m the woman.” Yes, she certainly is. The artist, formerly one half of queercore duo Bitch and Animal, has created an album that delights and dazzles, from the bright pop of “You’re the Man” (with its rallying cry “In the underground, the most amazing sound/We sing through everything that tries to cut us down”) to the stark, brittle sounds that percolate in “Easy Target,” to the soothing harmonies of “Polar Bear,” which imagines the natural beauty of a world without humanity.
She’s as much a visual artist as a musician. Check out the eye-popping video for “Hello Meadow!” – the explosive color and rapid-fire editing match its pointed lyrics attacking the corporate greed that’s destroying the natural beauty of our delicate planet. The more somber “Nothing in My Pockets” dissects the nature of heartbreak with the liberal use of black light and streaks of day-glo paint. Aurally and visually, Bitchcraft casts an enticing spell.
This month marked Yoko Ono’s 89th birthday, on February 18, and in celebration of that event comes a new tribute to her work, Ocean Child: Songs of Yoko Ono (Canvasback Music/Atlantic Records/Chimera Music). The various artists compilation was conceived and curated by Ben Gibbard, lead singer/guitarist of Death Cab for Cutie, in hopes of generating new appreciation for her work.
Ono was originally a visual artist, and, more enigmatically a “conceptual artist,” as demonstrated by such “instructional poems” as this — “Painting To Be Constructed In Your Head: Observe three paintings carefully. Mix them well in your head” (from her book Grapefruit). Not coming from a traditional rock or conventional pop music background gives Ono’s music its unique quality; she’s made up her own rules about how she wants to make music. Hence the nursery rhyme in the middle of “Dogtown,” a song that benefits greatly from Sudan Archives’ cool delivery.
There’s also an undercurrent of sadness in much of her work. It’s understandable in a track like the haunting ballad “Nobody Sees Me Like You Do” (a beautiful performance by Japanese Breakfast), which was written in the wake of the murder of her husband, John Lennon. But it’s also there in “Run, Run, Run,” which predated that tragic event, in which a “run to the light” becomes a “run for your life;” Amber Coffman’s rendition has a decided Americana vibe. Other contributors include U.S. Girls, Thao Nguyen, Sharon Van Etten, and The Flaming Lips, making for an imaginative collection honoring an equally creative artist.
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More solo endeavors are sprouting up now that many musicians have been left separated from their bands due to social distancing. Most recently, Manny Nomikos of Catty released a music video of him dancing alone in quarantine and a cover of Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” featuring Rosie Slater. His latest project, Illithios (meaning idiot in Greek), stemmed from a collection songs that never fit well enough to bring to a band. All musicians write songs sometimes that come out of left field, but for Nomikos, a true New Yorker born and raised by a Greek father and Korean mother, the project has its roots in an identity of not feeling a true sense of belonging to either side of himself. The project’s namesake serves as a cover so that “no matter how idiotic it all turns out, at least it’ll be in character,” while the songs themselves range from Thom Yorke-inspired pop to personal drum machine fused folk. Never having performed live before the quarantine, Nomikos will have the unique experience of debuting this project via Instagram livestream. There are only a few tracks available online, so tune in for Illithios surprises tonight (4/27) at 8pm. We chatted with Illithios about how to get better livestream sound quality, Dodge Caravans, and his spirit animal quiz.
AF: You’re livestreaming your live show debut on Instagram. Is that as nerve wracking as having your first show in person?
MN: I hadn’t considered that really, but I suppose it’s way more nerve-wracking. Besides performing on your own, there’s also no physical audience to engage with, which makes the whole performance feel very unfamiliar.
AF: What is your live stream set up like? What’s your favorite piece of gear?
MN: This was the hardest part for me cause I was debating how much I should actually play vs. using samples/pre-recorded parts. I felt that rather than just play the guitar the whole time, I’d use a sampler and tape deck to trigger parts and focus more on a performance. Wasn’t sure I’d be very entertaining just playing a guitar for 30 minutes on the internet. So with that said, my fave piece of equipment is my Critter and Guitari Organelle which I’m using as the central part of the sound.
AF: It says your live stream will be presented in Hi-Fi, what does that mean exactly?
MN: Since being stuck at home I’m sure we’ve all been catching streaming shows and they all sorta have their ups and downs. Instagram live has the best foot traffic for live-streaming but their audio is garbage. So I’m running a bunch of software stuff I found to get IG live running off a laptop and using a proper audio interface so the audio doesn’t have that streaming washiness. Hopefully people put on their headphones and I don’t blow it in the mix and we all have a good time.
AF: One of your cover photos is what I think is a ’90s Dodge Caravan. I owned a 1995 Dodge Caravan named Patrick that was very dear to my heart. Do you have any good Dodge Caravan stories?
MN: There’s a special camaraderie of ’90s Dodge Caravan people. I have yet to meet someone who drove a Caravan who’s not a pretty alright person. I married a Caravan driving gal. One story that sticks out was driving with friends to the mall to get Doom 2. We were so excited to get home that I started to drive before my bud Lamar had closed the sliding side door. And I suppose the momentum or gravity or science did its thing and the door slid back so fast it flew off which was not good. We got it back on but it was never the same.
AF: What is your quarantine anthem?
MN: “Play at Your Own Risk” – Planet Patrol. Or Forest by Stella (with a Greek sigma).
AF: I saw on your Facebook invite you made a spirit animal quiz. What is your spirit animal?
MN: Ooooh… well first off, wanna make sure it’s clear that it’s not like a spammy quiz where I collect data or anything like that. I keep getting butterfly mixed with baby deer. Which is sad cause I made the quiz so I wouldn’t get butterfly but I suppose it can’t be avoided.
AF: What spirit animal do you think I am?
MN: We’ve had limited interactions so I’m gonna guess, based on your Kurt Cobain persona from your Sharkmuffin Halloween show… I’d guess you’re a bat mixed with a little bit of dog spirit. Bats have good intuition, they’re night creatures, are highly motivated but on their own schedule. Like you will make a plan to do your taxes, and you will do it and it will be well done, but like you’ll miss the tax deadline by like a few months. Dog mix gives loyalty and playfulness. I dunno, take the test and see how off I am!
AF: I took the quiz and turns I am 48% an Owl (so you were on track with the night creature), and 43% a Panda.
We have officially entered the holi-daze time between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, so let’s review all the beautiful-to-bizarre Christmas music released last week.
Spider-Man released a Christmas album. The Flaming Lips covered David Bowie and Bing Crosby’s Christmas Medley. Mac DeMarco collaborated with Kirin J. Callinan and covered Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song;” it appears on a benefit comp featuring Alex Cameron, Weyes Blood and more. Mariah Carey broke the all-time single-day streaming record on Christmas Eve with her 1994 Christmas original “All I Want For Christmas is You” (it was streamed almost 11 million times).
The New New
A few artists have released new music not focused on the holidays as well! Unknown Mortal Orchestra released a 19 minute instrumental track titled “SB-06.” Cardi B released a music video for her latest track “Money.” Ty Segall released his sixth full length of the year with a new band, The C.I.A., featuring his wife Denee Segall on lead vocals.
New York City will be renaming streets after Notorious B.I.G., Wu-Tang Clan and Woodie Guthrie.
For decades, musicians have been known to experiment with LSD to stimulate their creative process. Because of the drug’s effects on the serotonergic system, people tripping on it not only experience warped sounds and images that might inspire music and lyrics but also become more open to experimenting with different styles. The result of these effects was no less than a musical revolution in the ’60s and ’70s and innovations in music that have continued up to the present day.
Many of the songs you’ve listened to have probably been inspired by acid trips, whether you realize it or not. Here are some songs that probably wouldn’t have existed as we know them without the help of lysergic acid diethylamide.
“Acid Rain” by Chance the Rapper
Hip hop may not be the genre you typically associate with LSD, but Chance the Rapper told MTV in 2013 that the drug inspired his album Acid Rap. This is perhaps most obvious on the track “Acid Rain,” where he raps, “Kicked off my shoes, tripped acid in the rain.” The song, like several on the album, is a tribute to his late friend Rodney Kyles Jr.: “My big homie died young; just turned older than him / I seen it happen, I seen it happen, I see it always / He still be screaming, I see his demons in empty hallways / I trip to make the fall shorter.” Presumably, his use of the word “trip” indicates that his psychedelic experiences helped him through the loss of his friend.
“Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” by The Flaming Lips
Though The Flaming Lips haven’t come out and said that this nonsensical story of a karate black belt’s battle with humanity-destroying robots was inspired by LSD, there are a few clues, the first being the weirdness of the whole story. The second clue is the album cover, which features the number 25 on a wall behind the robot, as James Stafford at Diffuser has observed. We also know that lead singer Wayne Coyne is a fan of LSD; he once said that the psychedelic “SuperFreak” video with Miley Cyrus was “originally intended to be for a song that has a reference to the drug LSD.”
“White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane
This list would not be complete without “White Rabbit,” possibly the trippiest song known to humankind. “It became the signature for the people who were doing the things it had reference to,” the band’s bassist Jack Casady told Louder Sound. The song is based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, which in turn is based on — you guessed it — acid. “One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small… logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead,” Grace Slick sang, evoking the visual distortions of psychedelic trips.
“I Am the Walrus” by The Beatles
The only song to rival “White Rabbit” as the world’s most obviously LSD-inspired song is “I Am the Walrus.” “I am he as you are he as you are me,” the opening line philosophizes before segueing into descriptions of “egg men,” “yellow matter custard dripping from a dog’s eye,” and a “pornographic priestess.” In case that doesn’t convince you that the song was written on acid, here’s a quote from John Lennon: “The first line was written on one acid trip one weekend, the second line on another acid trip the next weekend, and it was filled in after I met Yoko.” (I would’ve included “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” but Lennon has said this name actually came from the title of a drawing by his son. Still, it’s very possible that it was written on acid, too.)
“Lysergic Bliss” by of Montreal
With their wacky lyrics and colorful, over-the-top shows, of Montreal has a reputation for embracing the weird. This song leaves no mystery regarding its meaning, with a title referencing LSD’s full laboratory name, lysergic acid diethylamide. The song, however, appears to be not just about LSD but also about falling in love (perhaps falling in love on LSD?), with lyrics like “If we were a pair of jigsaw puzzle pieces / We would connect so perfectly.” But other lines like “Wearing an olive drab but feeling somehow inside opalescent” sound more like they’re about the drug itself.
“Acid Tongue” by Jenny Lewis
“Acid Tongue,” the eponymous song off Jenny Lewis’s first self-titled album, references Lewis’s first acid trip as a young teen in the line, “I’ve been down to Dixie And dropped acid on my tongue / Tripped upon the land ’til enough was enough.” She described the trip to Rolling Stone: “It culminated in a scene not unlike something from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas—the scene where Hunter S. Thompson has to lock the lawyer in the bathroom. I sort of assumed the Hunter S. Thompson character and my friend – she had taken far too much – decided to pull a butcher knife out of the kitchen drawer and chase me around the house. … At the end of that experience, my mom was out of town on a trip of her own and she returned to find me about 5 lbs lighter and I had—I was so desperate to get back to normal I decided to drink an entire gallon of orange juice. I saw that it was in the fridge and decided that this would sort of flush the LSD out of my system, but I didn’t realize that it did exactly the opposite.”
“Black Peter” by The Grateful Dead
Robert Hunter, a songwriter who frequently worked with The Grateful Dead, consumed apple juice containing about a gram of crystal LSD worth around $50,000 in 1969, after which he experienced firsthand the deaths of JFK, Lincoln, and other assassinated public figures. This scary and expensive trip paid off, though, because it inspired him to write “Black Peter,” which recounts this experience of dying in lyrics like “All of my friends come to see me last night / I was laying in my bed and dying / Annie Beauneu from Saint Angel / Say ‘the weather down here so fine.'”
With the impending release of their third studio record, Love Is Dead, slated for release May 25, Scottish synth-poppers CHVRCHES shared a video for the LP’s fourth single, “Miracle.” It’s a bit of a bait-and-switch, featuring lead singer Lauren Mayberry lit in gauzy neon hues, her voice sweet from the song’s first notes. But the glimmer fades to a heavy drop, her vocals distorted with ’90s alt-rock fuzz, reminiscent of The Breeders’ “Cannonball.” The video reflects that change by bursting into violence – extras and band members alike clash in carefully choreographed slo-mo fights, turning the once ethereal setting into a war zone. The surreality of it, along with the appearance of a pulsating blue heart, might remind some viewers of Darren Aronofsky’s recent cinematic raspberry, Mother – but that’s territory CHVRCHES already has covered.
The band’s next scheduled New York appearance will be in June at Governors Ball; most of their dates this summer include high-profile stops on the festival circuit throughout Europe and the United States.
J.Cole released his fifth studio album KOD last Friday, and instead of getting lost in hype he’s staying true to his message. The artist is known for socially-conscious hip-hop, eschewing common tropes on women, making money, and drinking Hennessey in favor of more serious issues like capitalism, addiction and death. His latest video for “ATM” makes a very blatant statement on the perils of addiction to money; things quickly turn dark as we see just how far someone might go for the dollar.
Yes, Janelle Monáe has made our list quite frequently as of late, but with Dirty Computer finally arriving tomorrow, her creative antics haven’t slowed one bit.
While I can’t say the song itself is a stand alone favorite, Seinabo Sey’s video for her single “Breath” is full of beautiful imagery. The video depicts simple vignettes of mothers, daughters, and the strength of female sisterhood.
The Flaming Lips released a 7″ pressed with beer (you heard me) on Record Store Day, and to generate a little more (ahem) buzz, they’ve created a playful new video for its a-side, “The Story Of Yum Yum and Dragon.” Reviving the beloved space bubble that Wayne Coyne spends so much time in, this video feels like an ode to the goofy indie rock spirit of a decade ago, even as the band looks for new a take on the old framework.
When you’re a teenager, you start to realize that a lot of the songs you liked as a kid were about sex. Then, when you reach your 20s, you start to realize many of them were actually about drugs. A lot of drug terminology can fly right over your head if you’re not a user and don’t know any users. But becoming familiar with a drug culture is sort of like learning a new word – suddenly, it’s everywhere.
“Sex, drugs, and rock and roll” famously go together, so it’s not surprising that many songs either are about drugs, were inspired by drugs, or mention drugs. Here are a few songs you listened to (and quite possibly sang along to) as a kid without ever realizing they contain drug references.
“Semi-Charmed Life” by Third Eye Blind
I remember humming along to the “do do do dos” in this song, not realizing that the rest of it included not only overt sexual references like “she comes over and she goes down on me” but also lyrics like “Doing crystal meth will lift you up until you break” and “then I bumped up, I took the hit I was given, then I bumped again.” Yup, this song is definitely about meth.
“There She Goes” by The La’s
Ever since I heard this song in The Parent Trap while Lindsay Lohan gets to know her long-lost mother, I thought it was a sweet tribute to some woman the songwriter loves. But said woman might actually be heroin. “She” is “racing through my vein” because the narrator has literally injected “her” into their vein, according to some interpretations. The band’s singer-songwriter Lee Mavers was rumored to have a heroin addiction, so you do the math.
“Burn One Down” by Ben Harper
You had to be pretty oblivious to miss this, but I was. I thought that what is now clearly a stoner anthem was just a song extolling a “live and let live” ethos and wanting other people to let you live, too. Which it is. But it’s also about the desire to “burn one from end to end.”
“Needle in the Hay” by Elliott Smith
You don’t need to understand the lyrics to know this song is depressing as hell. But once you do know that “6th and Powell” is an intersection in San Francisco where drug addicts hang out and “taking the cure” is a phrase used to describe heroin rehab in William S. Burroughs’ Junkie, it becomes even more sad. So let’s move on to something a little more light-hearted.
“Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” by The Flaming Lips
“Those evil-natured robots / They’re programmed to destroy us / She’s gotta be strong to fight them / So she’s taking lots of vitamins.” What fun imagery! Also, it’s highly likely that Wayne Coyne was on acid when he wrote this (or at least came up with the idea). He’s a fan of the drug, and the cover art for the song’s eponymous album features a girl (presumably Yoshimi) casting a bird’s shadow, as well as the number 25, potentially referencing the drug’s lab name LDS-25.
“Pepper” by The Butthole Surfers
Some have speculated that the lines “They were all in love with dying / They were drinkin’ from a fountain /That was pouring like an avalanche coming down the mountain” reference heroin. What we do know is that lead singer Gibby Haynes struggled for some time with a heroin addiction. Another fun fact: The band members “sprinkled LSD on their cornflakes every morning,” Mark Kramer, a former touring member of The Butthole Surfers, told Noisey.
“Loser” by Beck
In this social outcast anthem, Beck slips in lyrics like “Butane in my veins so I’m out to cut the junkie” and “One’s got on the pole shove the other in a bag with the rerun shows and the cocaine nose job.” Other lyrics like “With the plastic eyeballs / Spray paint the vegetables / Dog food stalls with the beefcake pantyhose” make you wonder if he was on drugs when he wrote it, but he’s actually anti-drug.
“Walkin’ on the Sun” by Smash Mouth
This sounded to my seven-year-old self like a fun song about space exploration, but it’s actually about the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, spurred by police brutality toward black taxi driver Rodney King, the band’s guitarist Greg Camp told Songfacts. “I’d like to buy the world a toke,” frontman Steve Harwell sings in reference to the chaos of the time; though he sees marijuana as a peace-maker, he warns about the perils of harder drugs with a prescriptive in the last verse: “Put away the crack before the crack put you away.”
“Tubthumping” by Chumbawamba
PSA: Alcohol is a drug. Once you understand that, it becomes clear that this is the most drugged-up song on the list. The British version of the album booklet reads, “‘Tubthumping’ is Shouting to Change The World (then having a drink to celebrate). It’s stumbling home from your local bar, when the world is ready to be PUT RIGHT…'” It then quotes Charles Baudelaire as saying, “It is essential to be drunk all the time” — or, as the band might put it, “pissing the night away” (nope, they’re not saying “kissing,” though Americans unfamiliar with the British slang phrase might have thought otherwise). Now that we’re older, hopefully we’ve learned that mixing whiskey drinks, vodka drinks, lager drinks and cider drinks is less a recipe for revolution than it is for a brutal hangover.
Anyone who’s worked in retail can tell you what a headache Christmas carols can be. You’re working eight hour shifts surrounded by irate customers who forgot the meaning of holiday cheer in a rush to get presents for their shitty boyfriends and picky sisters. These people have no regard for the fact that you’re stuck in a mall neatly folding the pile of t-shirts they just demolished instead of out getting sloshed with your friends or exchanging gifts with your loved ones. And all the while, that awful Mariah Carey song is just blaring. Over and over and over again.
I’m of the opinion that not even David Bowie could save “Little Drummer Boy” from being the most annoying piece of music ever composed, and that “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is basically a rape-carol. But that doesn’t mean the whole Christmas catalogue is a lost a cause. There have been a handful of songs (usually lesser known and therefore less overplayed) that can still manage to put me in the holiday spirit instead of making me want to gouge my eyes out with a nutcracker. These are my personal favorites.
The Kinks – Father Christmas: Somewhere along the line, I stopped asking my parents for gifts around the holidays and started requesting practical things instead: a trip to the dentist, a gift card to Target, rent money. These things would keep me alive whereas candles from the Dollar Store would not. So I am not sure if I side with Ray Davies or the antagonistic children who mug him while he was playing Santa, but choosing sides isn’t the point. On the one hand, threatening violence is not cool, children can be terrifying, and machine guns are not appropriate gifts. But what these kids really want is jobs for their dads or the cold hard cash that will allow them to survive their harrowing, impoverished existences, rather than dolls or blocks or whatever. They’re just trying to check some volunteer Santa’s privilege (and ours) by reminding us that there are plenty of folks out there who can’t put food on the table at Christmastime (or any other time). But this isn’t some depressing ballad; the message comes in a catchy rock ‘n’ roll wrapping, its riffs Xmassed up with some cheery chimes that make a nice foil for Davies’ ragged snarl.
Sufjan Stevens – Christmas Unicorn: The thing about Sufjan is that all of his songs are about 10,000% better if you just imagine he’s a singing unicorn. And from the first line of this song, he presents himself as not just any unicorn, but a Christmas unicorn, with a mistletoe nose and a shield and a gold suit. Sounds cool right? But wait: Sufjan as the Christmas Unicorn is actually a symbol for American hypocrisy, out-of-control consumerism, Christians adopting Paganism, Baby Jesus, drug addiction and insanity. But this outlandish gem from last year’s epic (what isn’t epic with Sufjan?) Christmas-themed limited edition six LP vinyl boxset Silver & Gold doesn’t stop there. It goes on for twelve minutes and gets so weird it needs a play-by-play. After the introductory takedown of hodgepodge Anglo-American Christian-Pagan ideals, there’s an expansive instrumental break that falls somewhere between swirly space rock and something you’d imagine playing over loudspeakers at a Ren-faire, flutes and all. About halfway through, the meandering melody grows pegasus wings and starts flapping around all wildly a la those choruses from “Chicago”. And eight minutes in, it becomes a Christmasified cover of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. This song is the best kind of holly-jolly trainwreck.
Joni Mitchell – River: Easily one of the most gorgeous songs in Mitchell’s oeuvre (and of all time, pretty much), the power of “River” lies in Mitchell’s ability to evoke nostalgia via her contemplative lyrics and her timeless voice. She’s alone on Christmas due to perceived failures on her part, ruminating on a recent breakup and feeling detached from the festive mood of the approaching holiday. It’s an anthem for any adult’s first Christmas away from home, the first holiday where those carefree childhood days have faded and you can no longer escape all the grown-up responsibilities you have in the simple act of lacing up a pair of skates and taking to the ice. Extra points on the shout out to all the evergreens slaughtered for the sake of Christmas spirit.
The Waitresses – Christmas Wrapping: The Waitresses had two songs. One was the theme song for “Square Pegs” which famously starred Sarah Jessica Parker (before she was famous). And the other is this Blondie-esque narrative about a semi-Scroogey girl having a frustrating holiday/life. See, all year long she’s been bumping into this cutie, and because of her first world problems (like sunburn – ugh!) she’s never actually able to connect with him. The daily stresses keep piling up until she just, like, can’t even with Christmas. I mean, her turkey was all in the oven and she forgot cranberries! But in a fateful trip to the only all-night grocery, she finally finds love; her crush is in the check-out line, having also totally fucked up his grocery shopping. Bright brass and zippy guitar lines are the perfect accent for this tale of bitterness diminished by serendipitous Christmas magic.
The Sonics – Don’t Believe In Christmas: While it seems like any number of bands (especially those on the Burger Records roster) might write a song like this today, it was released in 1965, a decidedly un-scuzzy era for rock n’ roll. It’s snarky and skeptical and goes beyond greedy to straight up entitled, moving about a mile a minute all the while. When you don’t get cool presents or kisses from the ladies, there’s simply no reason to celebrate. Ironically, the single finds its home on an Etiquette Records compilation entitled Merry Christmas, also featuring The Sonics’ singular contemporaries The Wailers and Galaxies. Most of the songs are brilliant originals completely overlooked every December. It makes sense that they don’t play The Wailers’ scathing anti-consumerist romp “Christmas Spirit???” in Saks Fifth Avenue but “She’s Coming Home” and “Maybe This Year” evoke melancholic hope with a slightly psych-tinged execution. That sound carries over into the Galaxies’ unique covers of Christmas favorites. Elsewhere on the record, Santa stiffs The Sonics once again; lead singer Gerry Roslie asks the titular Claus to bring new guitars, money and babes in his sack but gets “Nothin’! Nothin’! Nothin’!”, according to Roslie’s embattled cries. Looks like not believing in Christmas didn’t stop the guy from trying.
John Lennon & Yoko Ono – Happy Xmas (War Is Over): Shortly before the rest of The Beatles started recording Christmas fluff, John Lennon furthered his anti-Vietnam War protest efforts by releasing this 1971 single featuring Yoko Ono and Harlem Community Choir. Lennon believed that coating the political content in sweet, sugary Christmassiness would make his message easier to accept (his Christmessage?). It was not an instant classic, but endures today as a reminder that we should all just get along. It also reminds us that the English say “Happy” instead of “Merry” which shouldn’t fuck with my head as much as it does. The track was produced by Phil Spector (who certainly did not get along with Lana Clarkson, the actress whom he murdered). If you’re going to listen to traditional carols, though, you can do no better than 1963’s A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records on Spector’s label. There’s even a bearable version of “Frosty the Snowman” by the Ronettes.
The Everly Brothers – Christmas Eve Can Kill You: It’s not just the twangy pedal steel that gives this song its melancholy mood. Its emotionally devastating lyrics are narrated by a sad hitchhiker trying to catch a ride on a frigid Christmas Eve, ignored by drivers in a hurry to get home to their families. The moral of the story is that you should really be kind to your fellow man, especially in the winter, and even more especially on holidays. But let’s also be real – it’s actually dangerous to pick up hitchhikers; they can kill you too.
The Fall – (We Wish You) A Protein Christmas: Okay, so this bizarre offering from The Fall is way more cryptic and terse than say, “Dashing Through The Snow” – what is a Protein Christmas anyway? We may never know. It’s a reference to (and a rewrite of) “Proteinprotection” but, just like a previous episode of Lost, we had no idea what was going on the first time around either and were basically left hanging without answers to the mystery. It might have something to do with DNA, or aliens, or both. But Mark E. Smith’s atonal poetics and Scizophrenic laughter punching through meditative, repetitive bass rhythms make for a great debate winner with your punk friends who think they’re too cool for Christmas.
Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings – There Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects: No one’s gonna make a fool out of Sharon Jones. Least of all her mother, with that trifling explanation of how presents wound up under her Christmas tree. Replete with a jazzy sax solo that revisits “Jingle Bells”, this groovy soul number from the prolific funk revivalists takes a cynical look at all the continuity errors in the Santa myth while simultaneously pointing out economic inequalities that don’t simply end with a lack of fireplaces in housing developments.
The Flaming Lips – Christmas at the Zoo: In this hazy, lazy jam from Clouds Taste Metallic, Wayne Coyne sings about freeing animals from the zoo Brad-Pitt-in-12-Monkeys style. Zoos are sad fucking places, it’s true, but something about listening to this song is akin to flipping through and filling in a coloring book with your most psychedelic crayons. Rubbery guitars waver like the bars bent back on peacock cages, trumpets sound like liberated elephants. Coyne’s Christmas obsession didn’t fizzle after the release of the song in 1995; they released a secret Christmas album in 2007, re-recording one of the tracks (“Atlas Eets Christmas”) four years later with Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band. And then there’s Christmas on Mars, a film Coyne wrote, directed, and starred in with other members of the Lips. It debuted at Sasquatch Festival in 2008.
Joey Ramone – Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight Tonight): This is the only worthwhile selection on Joey’s 2002 Christmas Spirit… In My House EP. It’s got to be one of the few Ramones-related songs that separates “want” and “to” instead of using the stylized “wanna”; I was under the impression that the Ramones had no idea such a thing could be done. Yet here it is, right at the intersection of Christmas cheer and heartfelt pleas to your significant other to end the bickering for once. The reason this song is listenable when the others on the EP are not is mainly because it hearkens back to Ramones glory days, only trading a bit of the usual grit for some shades of Doo-Wop and festive jangle.
Crocodiles/Dum Dum Girls – Merry Christmas Baby (Please Don’t Die): Dum Dum Girls’ collaborated with Crocodiles in a 2009 all-night recording session that resulted in this Yuletide look at love and mortality. Christmas, no joke, is a time when a lot of people struggle with depression, and this song is particularly sweet in that it addresses a lover who seems to have fallen prey to those demons. Real-life couple Dee Dee and Brandon Welchez take turns spreading the cheer in this garage pop jam, which should be enough to rouse even the saddest bopper.
Kishi Bashi – It’s Christmas, But It’s Not White Here In Our Town: In this short and swoony number, the multi-instrumentalist with a heart of gold longs for an idyllic, frost-covered wonderland, the reflections as dreamy and romantic as a tape on rewind. Kishi Bashi’s vocals are extra angelic, layered airily over sweet strings. It could have been a great opener for one of those claymation Christmas specials, maybe one in which the protagonist has to fight to save the town from a snow-less winter. But in a real-life heroic move, the musician donated all proceeds from sales of the snowflake-shaped flexi-disc to Ear Candy, a charitable organization that provides kids with used instruments.
The Pogues – Fairytale of New York: There really aren’t enough Christmas songs with the word “faggot” in them. JUST KIDDING, THERE’S ONE TOO MANY. Kirsty MacColl’s cavalier use of the epithet almost disqualified it from the list, but this song is a fixture on so many lists already because all anyone associates with it is ending up in the drunk tank on Christmas and those triumphant “And bells were ringing!” chorus declarations from Shane MacGowan. I considered including Wham!’s “Last Christmas” or The Vandals’ “My First Christmas (As A Woman)”, decided that the latter did more harm than good and that the former represents the kind of annoying things I hate about Christmas songs in the first place. Incidentally, there is no such thing as the NYPD choir. According to the song’s Wikipedia entry, the NYPD does have a Pipes and Drums unit but they didn’t know “Galway Bay” when they appeared in the video for “Fairytale”, playing the Mickey Mouse Club theme instead.
So there you have it. These songs go above an beyond the cloying carols dripping with good tidings. Whether political or personal, they represent a more thoughtful, far less narrow view of what Christmas is about, embracing the controversial and updating the conventional.
In other news, Iggy Pop wants you to have a happy holiday, or go swimming, or cuddle with his cockateel, or something.