MUSIQUE BOUTIQUE: Natalia King, Bitch, and Songs of Yoko Ono

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.  

Massive 50th Anniversary Reissue of Plastic Ono Band Sessions Positions Yoko Ono as Musical Maverick

Yoko Ono portrait by Iain Macmillan at the St. Regis Hotel, New York, September 1971. © Yoko Ono Lennon

On October 10, 1970, John Lennon was busy working on his first solo album at EMI Recording Studios (not yet rechristened “Abbey Road,” after the Beatles’ album of the same name). The sessions had been going on for two weeks. But on this day, his wife, Yoko Ono, was finally going to get the opportunity to make her own kind of music.

Having just finished mixing his song “I Found Out,” Lennon, on guitar, started jamming with bassist Klaus Voorman and fellow ex-Beatle Ringo Starr on drums. After vamping through some Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins numbers, the power trio began to stretch out. And as Lennon’s playing became increasingly wild, slashing at his instrument as he spiraled down the scale, he shouted out for Ono to join him, and she did.

Ono’s vocalizations were a desperate, keening sound, matching the twisted noise from Lennon’s guitar, her persistent cry of the single word “Why?” becoming the aural equivalent of Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream. Lennon was enthralled. “She makes music like you’ve never heard on earth,” he enthused to Rolling Stone later that year. “And when the musicians play with her, they’re inspired out of their skulls.”

At the time, the general public didn’t agree. When John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band and Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band were jointly released in December 1970, Lennon’s album was heralded as a brave, uncompromising work. Ono’s was overlooked, or derided; she recalls being sent photos of her records stuffed in a garbage can. “So many people didn’t understand her,” says Simon Hilton, production manager of the new JL/POB reissue – out today, in honor of the double album’s 50th anniversary – which also includes Ono’s sessions on the “Ultimate Collection” version of the set. Hilton believes she experienced backlash not only because she was a woman, but because of her otherness: “She sounded a bit funny, and she liked screaming.” But over the years, that assessment has changed. YO/POB has come to be recognized as a pioneering album, one that laid the groundwork for independent music and alternative rock to come.

The original album is bold and bracing; there simply wasn’t another record like it. “Why” launches the album with a furious assault that grabs you from the second it erupts and doesn’t let go. In contrast, “Why Not” is a leisurely stroll, the musicians providing a steady backbeat to Ono’s ululations until the final minute, when it gradually speeds up, then burns out, drowned out by the sound of a subway rushing by. The title of “Greenfield Morning I Pushed an Empty Baby Carriage All Over the City” echoes the cryptic “instructional poems” in Ono’s book Grapefruit, and the song itself is equally ominous, opening with an industrial droning, Yoko’s vocal cutting throughout the piece like a mournful siren.

“AOS” is drawn from a 1968 rehearsal with Ornette Coleman. It is a stark, spare track (aside from a sudden torrent of sound in the middle), Ono holding her own in the company of Coleman on trumpet, Charlie Haden and David Izenzon on bass, and Ed Blackwell on drums. “Touch Me” is all sharp edges and jarring rhythms, interrupted by what sounds like a tree cracking in two, then morphing into something slower and more distorted. “Paper Shoes” has an agitated, percussive beat percolating underneath Ono’s almost breezy, wordless vocal, swooping in and out.

Ono herself had little familiarity with rock music or its culture when she began working with John Lennon. Born in Tokyo in 1933, and growing up in both Japan and the US, she was a classically-trained pianist, who dreamed of becoming a composer. Her father discouraged her ambition, sending her to take voice lessons instead, explaining, “Women may not be good creators of music, but they’re good at interpreting music.” Ono eventually rebelled against such strictures to chart her own course. In 1956, she dropped out of Sarah Lawrence College and married composer Toshi Ichiyanagi. The two moved to a loft on Chambers Street, in Manhattan’s Lower West Side, and quickly fell in with the city’s experimental arts community. The loft became a site for “happenings” – mixed media events that featured spoken word, music, and experimental performance.

Ono performed at these and other events, often playing with ways to create sound; a 1961 concert she staged at Carnegie Recital Hall (adjacent to the larger Carnegie Hall) featured a piece in which dancers moved objects around the stage while wired with contact mics. She also experimented with how to use her own voice. “In 1962, I went into shouting, but not the kind of shouting that you know of me doing it over rock music,” she told me in an interview. “It was very similar to [her 1981 solo single] ‘Walking on Thin Ice.’”

In 1966, she went to London to participate in a symposium entitled “Destruction of Art,” with her second husband, Tony Cox. She met Lennon when he came to one of her solo exhibitions. Two years later, when they became a couple, they began making experimental recordings together. Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins, Unfinished Music No. 2: Life With the Lions, and Wedding Album mixed organic and electronic sounds, vocal manipulations, and improvisations; on “No Bed For Beatle John,” for example, Ono “sings” a newspaper article to an improvised melody.

John & Yoko photographed by Richard DiLello at home at Tittenhurst Park, Ascot, 1970. © Yoko Ono Lennon

Working with rock instrumentation necessitated a more aggressive vocal style. “I was from the avant-garde, so I was still a little bit structured at first,” Ono says. “But when I went to rock and we did all that stuff, the Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band kind of thing, I was loosened up by then from doing a few shouting pieces in London. And then I just felt great! The only thing was, because they were playing electric guitar and all that, to go over that and do your voice experiments was very difficult. So that was when all that came out like ‘Aaah!’ Those things started to happen because they forced me into it. Pushed me into it!”

Today, music aficionados could recognize Ono’s music as the bridge between the Velvet Underground and Patti Smith, with a vocal style later heard in the work by performers like the B-52’s or Diamanda Galas. But in 1970, devoid of that framing, listeners were perplexed, if not outright hostile. Klaus Voorman was startled when he first heard Ono singing, as he backed John and Yoko at a “Rock and Roll Revival” festival in Toronto in 1969. “She started screaming and doing this thing,” he recalls. “And people all stood there. And I looked at Eric [Clapton, also in the band], and we looked at our feet. We were really shocked, just as much as the audience.”

But by the time YO/POB was recorded, he’d gained an appreciation for her unorthodox style. “That record is incredible,” he says. “I love in particular ‘Why Not,’ where she sings really quiet, and John is playing on the guitar; she’s doing all the squeaky noises, and he’s doing the slide guitar and it’s really floating, really simple stuff. She turned him on to all this and he says that too, that he would’ve never thought of doing these things this way. It’s definitely Yoko’s influence.”

Photo Credit: Richard DiLello © Yoko Ono Lennon

What’s especially exciting about the tracks in the new box set, is not only their length (about three times that of the original album), but also that the music is presented in its original raw state, before any editing or added effects. “Yoko did a hell of a lot of editing to it after the recording,” says Simon Hilton. “It is absolutely incredible. It’s making all of these decisions that you wouldn’t normally take, but she’s taken them with great bravery… they’re groundbreaking, in terms of not editing on the beat, but still editing somewhere that makes it work incredibly well.” Tracks were slowed down or sped up, enhanced with sound effects and delays, looping and sampling. “It was a very exciting record to do, because you never knew what was happening,” said the album’s engineer, John Leckie.

On “Why,” we can hear that the musicians were playing for nearly ten minutes before Ono chose to join them. “Why Not,” which runs over twenty minutes, has a bluesier cast to it. Shorn of its sound effects and manipulations, “Greenfield Morning” is more laid-back, but still just as haunting. Hearing just the bare tracks gives you a sense of being right there in the room with the musicians, caught up in the moment of creation. Voorman further explains their approach in the liner notes: “It’s not like really recording a song, it was recording a feeling. Ringo and my thing was, ‘We are the rhythm band, we’re just gonna put down the basis — some chair she can sit on and build a song around, build her music around.’” Three previously unreleased tracks flesh out the story; “Life” in particular percolates with a nervy energy, the musicians laying out a taut foundation for Ono’s ethereal cries to float upon.

It was the release of Rising in 1995 that helped lead to a reassessment of Ono’s earlier work. Old prejudices and misjudgments had faded away, and now younger musicians were eager to experience her music. L7 dropped a sample of Ono’s warbling into their track “Wargasm.” The Rising tour saw alternative rockers like the Melvins and Soundgarden joining Ono on stage. Remixes of her music by the likes of Cibo Matto and Tricky made her a regular presence at the top of Billboard’s dance chart. “When Yoko did her singing in Toronto [in 1969], the audience didn’t have any context to what she was doing,” says Voorman. “They didn’t know what it was supposed to be. So they were really shocked, I would say. Now, she has got an audience, and the people know what they come to see, and they know what she is presenting.” At present, the new mixes of YO/POB are only available on the Blu-rays in the “Ultimate Collection” box set, due to licensing issues; Hilton hopes to someday be able to release more material. But the original album, reissued twice since 1970, is readily available, and is well worth investigating as a barrier-breaking musical statement. For her part, Ono views her musical legacy with equanimity. “I feel that I always have my own voice and it’s different from others,” she says, “and if somebody wants to hear it, they will.”

NEWS ROUNDUP: VMAs, Nicki Minaj Tour Rescheduled & More

2018 VMAs

The VMAs aired Monday night, with Camila Cabello taking home the video for the year for “Havana (feat. Young Thug).” This year had the most high profile celebrity no shows, including Beyonce and Jay-Z, Drake, Childish Gambino, Bruno Mars and Ed Sheeran, and Halsey who stated she didn’t come because she wasn’t nominated for any VMAs despite directing all her own videos this year and MTV #wcw-ing her to death. Only J Balvin and Gambino weren’t present to accept their awards. Other notable moments included Madonna’s awkward tribute to Aretha Franklin and Cardi B making her first post-baby appearance by winning the Best New Artist. VMA viewership is unfortunately at an all time low, even after switching the ceremony to a Monday night to avoid competition from other shows.

Nicki Minaj Reschedules Tour

Nicki Minaj rescheduled the North American leg of her co-headlining tour with FUTURE, claiming she doesn’t have time to rehearse after pushing back the release of her fourth album Queen by two months (though some say the changes are due to low ticket sales). This week she also blasted Travis Scott and streaming services for her album not debuting at number one on the Billboard charts despite being number one in 86 countries. 

The New New

New indie singer-songwriter supergroup group Boygenius – consisting of Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus and Pheobe Bridgers – released three new songs this week which will appear on their self-titled debut EP, out November 9th via Matador. 

Yoko Ono released “Woman Power,” a track that originally appeared on the 1973 album Feeling the Space. The feminist anthem will be on her new album Warzone, due out on October 19th. 

J Mascis announced new album Elastic Day, and shared the new song “See You At the Movies” out November 9th via Sub Pop.

End Notes

  • A tribute to Courtney Love has been announced for Basilica Hudson’s biennial Pioneering People fundraiser in Hudson, New York, on October 27th, put together by her former bandmate Melissa Auf der Maur along with artist Joe Mama-Nitzberg. It includes a star-studded cast of hosts including Michael Stipe, Chloë Sevigny, the National’s Aaron Dessner, Ryan McGinley, Yelena Yemchuk, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Brandon Stosuy, and others.
  • Snoop Dogg will  be releasing his first cookbook, From Crook to Cook, published by Chronicle Books in October. Better stock up on those special herbs now.

NEWS ROUNDUP: Market Hotel Is Back, NYC’s Cabaret Law & More


  • Market Hotel Ends Their Hiatus

    Bushwick’s Market Hotel will host shows again starting on November 1st, with yet-unannounced special guests playing the grand reopening show. It’s been out of commission while Todd P. and his crew secure the proper licenses t0 turn the longstanding DIY club into a legit venue (in the eyes of NYC officials), but will soon be back with a new sound system. The next batch of announced shows include Tera Melos with Speedy Ortiz, The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die with Rozwell Kid, Pile with Bad History Month, Titus Andronicus, Black Marble, and Royal Trux. See the full schedule and buy tickets here!

  • NYC May Finally Repeal Its Cabaret Law

    In 1926, the Cabaret Law was created to forbid dancing in certain spaces without a license. Many have pointed out the racist implications of the law, which mostly targeted black jazz clubs in Harlem and required its musicians and employees to submit to a background check. In modern times, the law has added a mountain of paperwork to bars and clubs that want to host events with dancing, but hopefully not for much longer; the Mayor’s office has expressed support for repealing the law, as long as certain clubs are required to install more security cameras. NYC, get ready to dance!

  • Other Highlights

    Yoko Ono will voice a character in Wes Anderson’s latest stop-motion feature, Isle of Dogs, Rolling Stone is up for sale, Morissey joins Twitter and announces new song/album, women are keeping guitar makers in business, new videos from Bjork, Downtown Boys, Leonard Cohen and Torres, Avril Lavigne is apparently very, very dangerous, please don’t try to make out with musicians while they’re on stage, Taylor Swift may end up in court yet again, and ICYMI, the Juggalos marched on Washington.

NEWS ROUNDUP: Yoko Ono’s “Imagine” Credit, LCD Soundsystem Shows & More

  • Yoko Ono To Receive Songwriting Credit For ‘Imagine”
    In a 1980 BBC interview, John Lennon admitted that his wife Yoko Ono deserved a co-credit for one of his most beloved solo songs, “Imagine,” since much of the ideas and lyrics came directly from her poems. He denied her important role in its creation due to his own “selfish” and “macho” attitude (to paraphrase his words), as well as a sexist double standard, adding, “If it had been Bowie, I would have put ‘Lennon-Bowie.'” Decades after the interview and nearly fifty years since the song’s release, Ono is finally getting the credit she deserves; the National Music Publishers Association awarded “Imagine” with its “Centennial Award” on Wednesday and announced that Ono would finally be listed as the song’s co-writer. Imagine that!


  • LCD Soundsystem Surprise BK Steel Shows Sell Out in Minutes
    On Monday, LCD Soundsystem announced a second run of Brooklyn Steel shows (to follow up the run that opened the venue last April). Tickets went on sale Thursday morning and were sold out almost instantly, but began popping up in secondary markets like StubHub shortly thereafter – well above face value. LCD frontman James Murphy was not happy; he took to Facebook to condemn scalpers, bots, and folks selling fakes, calling them “parasites” and promising fans they’d get to the bottom of the lightning-quick sell-out. LCD Soundsystem’s new album is apparently complete and although no release date has been set, they debuted a couple of new songs on SNL. The Brooklyn Steel run starts tonight.


  • DIY Venue Suburbia Shut Down By Cops
    Unfortunately (really, really unfortunately), Brooklyn DIY space Suburbia was shut down on Saturday night. If you didn’t see it happen, information about the event is scarce; the venue’s Facebook page mysteriously states they can’t comment because the page is being monitored, and asks that specific details not be shared to protect the privacy of those involved. Several upcoming shows (such as Camp Cope’s) have been moved to other venues. Stay tuned for updates.


  • Other Highlights
    A new Lee Ranaldo album is imminent, a posthumous album from Alan Vega of Suicide is coming, Christine McVie and Lindsey Buckingham did a thing, listen to the new QOTSA track, & why is this thinkpiece picking on Carly Rae Jepsen?



PLAYLIST: Christmas Songs That Don’t Suck

Merry Christmas Baby (Please Don't Die)

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.

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Merry Christmas Baby (Please Don't Die)
Dee Dee of Dum Dum Girls & Brandon Welchez of Crocodiles teach Santa to rock on their single “Merry Christmas Baby (Please Don’t Die)”

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.