A Halloween Party Playlist
The snake, the cat, the rat, the dog
A decent Halloween party really doesn't need any particular playlist, since people are probably going to be too busy getting smashed and arguing over who has the best costume to even notice. And if you're actually throwing a party, you'll probably be too busy hanging up fake cobwebs to even read this post. But I like the idea of tapping into a sort of tense, ghoulish undercurrent running through popular music, of soundtracking a party with the sort of songs that make your heartrate inch up a little bit when you're walking home late at night and they come on your iPod. These songs don't actually have to be about werewolves or demons, though it doesn't hurt if a few of them are. They just have to have some eerie quality, something that'll unconsciously creep everyone out. If I felt like dealing with the hassle of throwing a Halloween party, it might sound something like this.
1. John Carpenter: "Halloween Theme." Preview/Buy at iTunes
Duh. This itchy, evocative little piece of music is about ten times better than the shockingly shitty and boring movie that it accompanies, and it's also the reason that DJ Paul and Juicy J have a production career. It's nothing more than a spookily insistent little piano figure, a few urgent electronic ticks, and a couple of ominous synth-noises, and it's probably my single favorite piece of soundtrack music ever. Dr. Dre sampled it for "Murder Ink" on Chronic 2001, and he somehow managed to fuck it up and turn it into a boring pseudo-horrorcore song.
2. DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince: "Nightmare on My Street" Preview/Buy on iTunes
"Parents Just Don't Understand" is probably still the greatest novelty-rap song of all time, but this one, from the same album, comes pretty close. The plotline: Prince goes to see Nightmare on Elm Street with a bunch of friends and then goes to sleep and gets visited by Freddy Krueger, excellently voiced by Jeff & Prince's beatbox Ready Rock C in his scary metal voice. Prince thinks he's just dreaming, so he makes fun of Freddy ("Yo Fred, I think you got me all wrong / I ain't partners with nobody with nails that long.") This turns out to be a bad idea. The song ends when Freddy kills Jeff, which totally gave me the heebies back in 4th grade. More importantly, the track samples the glistening, evil theme from the Nightmare movies and turns it into a really good spooky electro beat; Jazzy Jeff or whoever did the group's production also deserves credit for making great use of the Twilight Zone theme on "Then She Bit Me." If you're me, the nostalgia rush you get from hearing this song will probably trump any shivers you might get from it, but we're still in the early part of the evening, so there's no sense scaring everyone off yet.
3. Geto Boys: "My Mind is Playin' Tricks on Me" Preview/Buy at iTunes
The only Halloween party songs more obvious than this one are probably, like, "Thriller" and the Ghostbusters theme, but this is the only one that has anything like a legitimate sense of fear and paranoia. The best part, of course, is where Bushwick Bill is out on Halloween stealing kids' candy and attacks a huge guy who turns out to be in his imagination; Bill's performance in the video is some hilariously over-the-top shit. But the song is really about a sort of fierce paranoia, the feeling of walls closing in on you, and the lazy, insinuating guitar-line in the beat worms its way into your head and keeps nagging at you. Fifteen years later, I'm not sure anyone's managed to record a rap song anywhere near this unsettling.
4. Tricky: "Hell is Round the Corner" Preview/Buy at iTunes
The lyrics don't make a lick of sense, but the half-conscious mumbles and humming strings and dusty drum-lope and wispy, dissolving female vocals all wash together into an impenetrably dark and forbidding mood-piece creepier than anything RZA ever came up with. It sticks with you. Worth noting: iTunes has Maxinquaye for $5.99, so now there's no excuse for not owning it.
5. The Specials: "Ghost Town" Preview/Buy at iTunes
The hyperactive British second-wave ska OGs had their biggest hit ever with this one, though I'm not sure they ever recorded a song that sounds less like hyperactive British second-wave ska. The song starts with a lonely siren seeping through a fog of howling-wind sound-effects before a horror-movie organ and a few rumbling horns kick in. The song is about a town falling to pieces, clubs shutting down because people can't stop fighting each other. All these weirdly little otherwordly vocal effects drop in out of nowhere, shriek away for a few seconds, and then disappear. There's heavy echo everywhere; both this song and "Hell is Round the Corner" steal heavily from dub and come out sounding better than any actual dub tracks I've ever heard. "Ghost Town" sprawls out slowly and languidly until it dissipates into the air and you're not sure what you just heard.
6. Soft Cell: "Sex Dwarf" Preview/Buy at iTunes
Just a deeply fucked song. Marc Almond already had beefed up the standard icy posthuman new-wave singing voice with a haughty snarl, and here he turns it up to demonic levels while talking about some S&M shit that I still can't even understand. And the track throws all these shrieks and moans and graveyard sound-effects over its Moroder pulse and implies all the nasty shit that your next-door neighbor is probably doing right now.
7. Iggy Pop: "Nightclubbing" Preview/Buy at iTunes
I love this: it's 1976, and punk is just emerging and biting the torn-up blues that Iggy had perfected years earlier. He could've just attached himself to these new kids and kept plugging away at it, but instead he latches onto David Bowie and applies his bleary destroy-everything aesthetic to disco, which was on its way to temporarily replacing blues-based rock as the most culturally important music in the world. "Nightclubbing" starts out with heartbeat drums and luxuriant pianos and smeary synths, just like a disco song, and the lyrics are about going to clubs and dancing. But instead of ecstatically gelling and unfolding, all those elements slash into each other and trip all over themselves. Iggy's voice just drips merciless sarcasm and contempt. The song sounds like it hates you, and it still somehow works as party music.
8. Laid Back: "White Horse" Preview/Buy at iTunes
Disco didn't always need Iggy's help to sound scary. This one is clipped, evil synth-disco that might've learned a trick or two from John Carpenter. Everything is slick and harsh and synthetic: sharp, bubbling drum-machines, staccatto plinks, damaged flutes. When the vocal comes in, it takes the form of a multitracked horde of affectless goth-vampire cabaret-singers warning you not to do coke (I think). It sounds greasy and fucked-up and dangerous. Also: creepiest-man-alive Lars Von Trier directed the group's video for "Bakerman," which is some truly disturbing shit if you're as afraid of heights as I am. For some indefensible reason, iTunes is only selling "White Horse" in the form of its Funkstar De Luxe remix, but I can't imagine Funkstar De Luxe could fuck up a song this perfect that badly.
9. Danzig: "Twist of Cain" not on iTunes, WTF
It's not disco at all, but the relentless pulse at the center of this one makes it sound pretty great after "White Horse." Danzig's never really been scary, but I'm not sure anyone's ever done the whole over-the-top theatrical child-of-the-night act better. And this song has one of the all-time great metal riffs, a ballsy stomp that sounds huge even coming out of my shitty laptop speakers. If you pick the Misfits' infinitely shittier and dumber "Halloween" over this masterpiece, you are an idiot.
10. Lil Scrappy: "No Problem" Preview/Buy at iTunes
In the first track-review I ever wrote for Pitchfork, I said this was "zombie crunk." It still is; that oozing, throbbing piano is the sort of thing that Dario Argento and Goblin might've come up with for the Dawn of the Dead soundtrack. I hope Scrappy manages to maintain that snarly menace now that he's down with G-Unit; "Money in the Bank" does not bode well.
11. Sean Paul & Mr. Vegas: "Haffi Get Da Gal Yah" Preview/Buy at iTunes
Like the last couple of tracks, this one has a dark, authoritarian stomp, this time courtesy of the martial beat and Sean Paul's monumental growl. But it's Mr. Vegas's ghostly, nagging chorus that really drives this one into the stratosphere. He sounds like he's hurting you and laughing about it.
12. Goodie Mob: "Cell Therapy" Preview/Buy at iTunes
Everything about this song screams fierce paranoia: the floating, dubby pianos, the helium singsong Cee-Lo verse, the miles-deep roars of the other three guys. But the single creepiest thing about this song is that burbling noise that inexplicably phases in and out all through it; it sounds like there's a demon watching you and chuckling to himself.