Rules for a Good Halloween Playlist

It’s not often I claim to be the best in the world at something. Now I know what you’re thinking – “Don’t be so modest”. It’s true, but one thing I’m starting to believe is that no one puts together a Halloween playlist like I do¹. There are just so many ways it can go wrong. You can go too cheesy, relying on worn-out novelty songs like Monster Mash, and Purple People Eater. Or there’s the dreaded “vaguely spooky word in the title rock song”; your Werewolves of London, I Put a Spell on You, or Black Magic Woman. Worst of all are the clichés. Thriller. Ghostbusters theme song (performed by a low-rent cover band usually). Rock Lobster. The Time Warp.

What makes a good Halloween song is itself a tricky definition. Either the song itself should “sound” spooky or macabre instrumentally, or the lyrical subject matter should be predominantly horror-themed. Preferably both elements will be combined.

Even though it totally counts as a cliché, John Carpenter’s Halloween Theme is pitch-perfect as far as “sounding” Halloweeny. Certainly that has much to do with the cultural status the movie achieved, but objectively it is a haunting tune. The odd time signature and deep, swelling strings backing it have a lot to do with that. (To keep from being too obvious, I use the newer version that was in the Halloween Remake. Sacrilege? I’ll take that chance.) Metal music can sound Halloweeny, but it’s a delicate balance because going too extreme will turn off anybody who doesn’t already love metal. Oddly enough, surf music is VERY easy to make Halloween songs out of. I’m not sure if it’s the heavy use of minor chords or what, but I always have a few surf songs in my playlists (provided they strike the proper tone, like The Bomboras’ A Fistful of Evil). Nearly every Danny Elfman song written for a soundtrack hits the tone of Halloween. His theme to Tales from the Crypt is an ideal example.

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Danny Elfman – Tales From the Crypt Theme

And here’s the surf song I mentioned – A Fistful of Terror

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The Bomboras – A Fistful of Terror

As far as lyrical content, again, it’s about the “feel” of Halloween. You’re looking for horror, but FUN horror. Going back to metal, a whole lot of death metal lyrics are about the violent and macabre (hence the name), but it’s not always meant to be fun. You want your audience to listen to the playlist and smile, even though they are thinking about ghosts, monsters, and murder. Thriller² actually has perfect Halloween lyrics, but I won’t use it because it’s too overdone and the sound of the song isn’t consistent with my theme.

Have a listen to this song by Captain Clegg and the Nightcreatures – Day of the Dead. The lyrics are amazing.

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Captain Clegg and the Nightcreatures – Day of the Dead

For the past 6 years, I’ve made an annual Halloween playlist. Usually about 20 songs – whatever fits on an average CD-R. Each year I include a few classics, a few of my eternal favorite Halloween songs, and a few new ones. But each year it gets harder and harder to find great Halloween songs I don’t already have. My Halloween Master playlist has 120 songs by now. So I turned to our old friend Google and tried to find new ideas for additions to a good Halloween playlist. It was nearly all the same well-worn standards. That’s why I wrote this article – we need to get away from the Thriller/Monster Mash/Werewolves of London/Purple People Eater/ Ghostbusters Theme/Time Warp trappings and seek out stuff that really gets us in the mood.

But in writing this I realized something else: My Halloween playlist is the perfect collection of Halloween songs… for me. And maybe for those with similar music tastes. So when it comes to making the best Halloween playlist for ME? Yeah, I’m the best in the world.

Post-script: Soon I’ll be posting my Top Ten Halloween songs of all time, so I can better illustrate the feel that I look for. If you look over to the right, and down a bit, you can listen to my 2009 playlist – one of my favorites. The 2012 version is in the works as we speak.

¹ Maybe Matt from X-Entertainment

² Read all about my complicated relationship with Thriller here.

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