Thursday, October 29, 2015

Costumes Mandatory, Fear Optional: A Halloween Playlist 2015

From paper artist Melina Hermsen on Flickr, used under a creative commons license.

I made a Halloween playlist. Before I could come up with my playlist, however, I needed to decide what the Halloween holiday is all about. Here’s what I decided: Halloween is about pretending to be something we’re not or being in a situation that seems unreal. Fear (often fear of the supernatural) is also a big contributor, but it is optional.

Why is music a big part of Halloween? Well, music can help convey emotions. Because music is abstract, it is actually very easy to come up with sounds that are scary or other-worldly—the music just needs to be indecipherable or grating or surprising. Music can also help tell a story, and Halloween storytelling is a big part of unreal situations or being something we are not. Music can add to the story by providing emotional suggestion, moving the plot along, or giving extra information not found in the lyrics.

This playlist is more about storytelling than facilitating horror, though; each selection has a little Halloween-themed vignette. I also decided to leave out obvious songs and artists like Alice Cooper, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, the Addam’s Family theme song, or “Ghostbusters” (if you want those types of playlists, they are easy enough to find).

Here's my playlist, with some notes on each:

  1. Creepy Doll, by Jonathan Coulton - Classic horror story. There comes a point when the tropes (musical and literary) start adding up, though, that we start laughing at the horror. Which is kind of point of Coulton's song. But are we laughing in fear...?
  2. Something the Boy Said, by Sting - A great story about how fear can creep up on you.
  3. Happy Phantom, by Tori Amos - She's putting on a ghost costume to see what it would feel like. Fear is definitely optional here.
  4. A Rose for Emily, by the Zombies - A song by the Zombies! Of course it counts! But seriously, this song is reported based on a creepy short story by William Faulkner which involves (spoiler alert!) a suspected murder and a decomposing corpse.
  5. Turn Around, by They Might Be Giants - The ultimate Halloween song. I'm not sure how this doesn't end up on all the big lists. The turns of phrase are just masterful, as is the ghost train music in the third verse. Always good to be reminded of your impending death.
  6. They Are Night Zombies!! by Sufjan Stevens - From the Illinois album, this song is about ghost towns.
  7. Heads Will Roll, by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Besides "Thriller," this should be the dance track for your Halloween party.
  8. House Carpenter, performed by Nickel Creek - This well-known folk song is a chilling tale. In many versions, the woman notices the sailor has cloven hooves for feet. Too late.
  9. The Maid on the Shore, performed by Solas - Continuing the folk song theme, this song is also about disguises, deceptions, and supernatural singing, and a reminder to be careful what you wish for.
  10. Fashion Monster, by Kyary Pamyu Pamyu - There are places in Tokyo where you become your costume. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is from one of those places. You can read my in-depth analysis of this song here.
  11. When You Play the Violin, by the Gothic Archies (Stephin Merritt of Magnetic Fields) - inspired by Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events #5, The Austere Academy. I mean, what's scarier than a badly-played violin? My favorite line: "Sculleries, skulls, and skulduggery, sir." 
  12. Trogdor, by Stongbad - The Burninator himself; fear his burnination. The best version is from the CD Strongbad Sings and Other Type Hits, which features "wicked dueling guitar solos."
  13. Psycho Killer, by Talking Heads - Actually, I take back what I said about violin playing. A crazy person speaking French is scarier.
  14. Ghost Chickens in the Sky, performed by Moosebutter - A warning to all you poultry farmers out there—your time is numbered.
  15. The Hazards of Love 3 (Revenge) by the Decemberists - This is a song late in the concept/story album The Hazards of Love. Earlier in the story, a rakish father kills his kids so he doesn't have to deal with them. During this song, the ghosts of children come back to get their revenge. The whole album could be included in this playlist, really. Actually, maybe everything by the Decemberists...
  16. Faster, by Janelle MonĂ¡e - From The ArchAndriod, also a concept/story album. The narrator knows she should run from a freaky relationship, but is caught up in the gravity of her lover.
  17. Wuthering Heights, by Kate Bush - Another in the genre of songs based on creepy stories, the song is told from the point of view of a ghost trying to talk her way back into a house to seek forgiveness from her lover.
For those of you on Spotify, I’ve also created a Spotify playlist that has all but three of the selections.

Having presented this Halloween playlist, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the greatest Halloween live music experience I’ve ever had: the Utah band MonkeyGrinder. This band pretty much only perform on Halloween night at Provo’s Velour Music Gallery. They are variable in size, but the main characters are usually Colin Botts, the main songwriter, a percussionist playing found objects and who always dressed as a pirate because he has an actually peg leg, an accordionist, a trumpet player, and a clarinetist.
All of their songs are Halloween-esque, mostly about death and circuses. I think they came out with an album and every once in a while, I kick myself for never having bought it. You can listen to a few of their songs on Colins Botts's SoundCloud page, though it just doesn't match the live experience. The highlight of the show I saw was the song “Welcome to Hell, here’s your accordion,” a heavy metal song, which in my memory featured no less than 7 accordions on stage.

If you live in the Utah, though, it turns out you are in luck. MonkeyGrinder is performing at Velour for the first time in five years on October 31. Don't think: Go! And have a wonderful Halloween!