7 Songs That Demonstrate Cristina’s Art-Pop Genius

Even in New York City where she achieved her peak (although admittedly limited fame) in the early ’80s, Cristina was never a household name. But during one of music’s most experimental, fertile transitional period, a woman born Cristina Monet-Palaci became an essential, undervalued influencer on future generations of dance-pop with an acerbic wit and penchant for prickly pop. After being persuaded to record music by then-husband Michael Zilkha (founder of ZE Records, an indie label eons ahead of the genre-blurring curve), Cristina embarked upon a brief but influential recording career, delivering the John Cale-produced send-up “Disco Clone” and two solo albums.

Despite her passing involvement in the music industry, she left an impact that’s stunningly ahead of its time for those who favor oddball pop. Below, following her coronavirus-related death at age 61, we’re celebrating seven of her best recordings.

“Disco Clone”

There are numerous versions of this Cristina song – the sparse, roomy John Cale-produced original, the string-laden Studio 54 send-up, the tongue-in-cheek pretension of the French version (Cristina’s father was a French psychoanalyst). Any way you cut it, this is a delightful skewering of the way many cultural tourists viewed NYC nightclub hookup culture in the late ’70s/early ’80s. As perfect as it is, its parodic levels don’t demonstrate the full scope of her take on a seminal period in NYC history as much as…

“Is That All There Is”

Doubling down on Peggy Lee’s Kurt Weill-influenced “Is That All There Is,” which was drenched in the ennui of life’s myriad disappointments, Cristina took the measured, somber tone of Lee’s version and catapulted it into the dancefloor stratosphere, intoning droll calls for partying in the face of meaninglessness amidst a bed of spiky guitars, slide whistles and a shuffling rhythm. It might sound hopeless on paper, but truly, few recorded statements want to make you live more than hearing Cristina recount the (fictitious) story of her mother lighting her house on fire when she was a child and concluding, “I stood there shivering in my pajamas and watched the whole world go up in flames / And when it was all over I said to myself, is that all there is to a fire.”

“Drive My Car”

Beatles covers are plentiful – hell, there are entire blockbuster films devoted to reworking Fab Four compositions. But by eschewing any sense of fealty to an acclaimed songwriting duo and allowing herself to completely reinterpret the arrangement, Cristina produced one of the most low-key genius versions of a Beatles song. Part of its brilliance lies in the fact that non-discriminating ears will hear it and dismiss it outright as bizarro pop pabulum, but anyone who pauses and gives it a fair shake can relish in the sardonic delight of her cooing, parodic sex kitten vocals and complete refusal to approach the song with any degree of professional seriousness. In a world where most cover the Beatles like a priest reading from the Gospel, her footloose take on the Rubber Soul standout is a much-need breath of fresh air.

“Blame It On Disco”

The disco era was a strange time. Unlike the ’60s, which welcomed new noise, this exuberant, innovative strand of music was subject to critical and public disdain mainly because its celebratory club vibe didn’t jibe with the purported seriousness of ’70s classic rock (without a doubt, prejudice over the fact that the genre came from predominantly queer Black artists contributed to the idiotic ‘Disco Sucks’ movement). So Cristina’s island-inflected “Blame It on Disco” (drenched in the production vibes of August Darnell, the Kid Creole and the Coconuts frontman who produced her debut) serves as a perfect defense for the genre and send-up of its detractors.

“Things Fall Apart”

A song named after a Chinua Achebe book named after a line in a W.B. Yeats poem could be insufferably pretentious, and yeah, this Cristina song is not light fare. But the energetic production, the spiky guitars and her matter-of-fact delivery make this one a perfect Christmas song that appeals to both sides – it’s not a happy story, but she acknowledges the familial importance of tradition. Later on, Cristina dedicated it to Lizzy Mercier Descloux, another vastly underrated avant-pop pioneer.

“When U Were Mine”

Cyndi Lauper certainly wins the competition for best cover of this song, but Cristina’s take on it – alternately confused and curious – is indispensable. Considering her lover’s proclivities without truly accepting them (“I know now that you’re going round now with a guy” is a beautifully low-key inversion), Cristina embodied the all-too-relatable reality of jonesing after an unattainable person who’s just out of your reach.

“Don’t Mutilate My Mink”

The sloppy no wave alternative to Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen,” Cristina’s “Don’t Mutilate My Mink” eviscerates the self-obsessed wealthy and their penchant for animal fur – way before it became fashionable.

Branford Marsalis Pays Tribute to His Late Father, Ellis Marsalis Jr.

Saxophonist Branford Marsalis had loving words to describe his relationship with his father, New Orleans jazz patriarch Ellis Marsalis Jr, who died from complications from coronavirus on April 1, according to his son.  Marsalis Jr., 85, was admitted to the hospital on Saturday (March 28).

“My dad was a giant of a musician and teacher, but an even greater father,” Marsalis said. “He poured everything he had into making us the best of what we could be.”

The senior Marsalis first studied clarinet before switching to piano, playing alongside artists such as Ornette Coleman and Cannonball Adderley. He was renowned as an educator, schooling generations of New Orleans musicians, include Harry Connick Jr., Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison and Nicholas Payton. But his most renowned students were his six sons — Branford, Wynton, Ellis III, Delfeayo, Mboya Kenyatta and Jason.

Marsalis ended his statement with a text he had received from Harvard Law professor David Wilkins, following his father’s death: “We can all marvel at the sheer audacity of a man who believed he could teach his black boys to be excellent in a world that denied that very possibility, and then watch them go on to redefine what excellence means for all time.”

And… Relax: 10 Electronic Chillout Tunes From Back in the Day

Keep chill and carry on. We’re all locked-in and wound-up tighter than an E string in these times of self-isolation. Right about now, music, movies and your mates are more important than ever. Here at Billboard, we can sort you out with the first of those.

After lining-up ten bangers from the ‘90s club scene, it’s time to wind it down, stretch it out and take a seat for something a little smoother.

From Jean-Michel Jarre, to Aphex Twin, Brian Eno, Boards of Canada and more, Billboard selects ten timeless throwback tunes for those of you with electronic music in your DNA.

Massage your brains with these agents of calm.

Jean-Michel Jarre, “Oxygene 1”

Aphex Twin, “#3”

Brian Eno, Ambient 1, Music for Airports

Schiller, “Fernweh”

Vangelis, “Memories of Green”

Chicane, “No Ordinary Morning”

Future Sound of London, “Papua New Guinea”

William Orbit, “L’Inverno” (Antonio Vivaldi)

Boards of Canada, “Macquarie Ridge”

Union Jack, “Water Drums”

Cristina Monet Zilkha, ’80s Left-Field Pop Great, Dies at 61

Cristina Monet Zilkha — who was born Christina Monet-Palaci, and recorded under the mononym Cristina — died on Wednesday (Apr. 1). Her death was confirmed by Michel Esteban, co-founder of her label ZE Records, who wrote on Facebook, “Wake up this morning with this devastated news, dearest Cristina past away. So sad..” She was 61.

The daughter of a French psychoanalyst and an American novelist, playwright and illustrator, Cristina dabbled in theater (both as a writer and a critic) before turning to pop music at the behest of her eventual husband — Michael Zilkha, co-founder with Michel of ZE, an influential New York post-punk label. Zilkha persuaded her to record “Disco Clone,” a single ultimately produced by Velvet Underground guitarist John Cale and released on ZE in 1978. Campy, self-aware and infectious (with a young Kevin Kline as Cristina’s spoken-word co-star on a later re-recording), the song developed an underground following.

Cristina would release two full-length albums on ZE, 1980’s self-titled effort and 1984’s Sleep It Off — produced by a pair of left-field disco fixtures in August Darnell (of Kid Creole & The Coconuts) and Don Was (of Was (Not Was)), respectively. While the former followed in the winking disco model of “Clone,” the latter adopted a sharper, punchier new wave sound to match Cristina’s increasingly dry, acerbic songwriting: “My life is in a turmoil, My thighs are black and blue/ My sheets are stained, so is my brain/ What’s a girl to do?” lamented the chorus to “What’s a Girl to Do,” arguably her signature track.

The two albums caught some critical attention and underground favor, particularly in New York — as did jagged reinventions of Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” and The Beatles’ “Drive My Car,” both released as standalone singles — but little national renown. Cristina left the music industry shortly afterwards, retiring to move to Texas with Zilkha and their child. The couple divorced in 1990, and Cristina returned to New York, where she wrote sporadically, but never resumed her music career — though a pair of expanded reissues of her two ZE albums brought her newfound attention in 2004. By that point, she had already been battling “an MS-like ailment” for years, according to a Time Out New York interview.

While Cristina never achieved mainstream success, her wry songwriting, deadpan delivery and infectious beats proved roundly ahead of their time, a touchstone for the electroclash movement of the early ’00s, and a precedent for later post-modern pop superstars like Lady Gaga and Lana Del Rey. “Cristina was a HUGE inspiration to me,” tweeted art-pop singer-songwriter Zola Jesus after news of the artist’s passing broke. “I loved how she was too weird for the pop world and too pop for the weird world.”