There I was, grooving to “Monster Mash” (as is my duty as Official Commissioner of Halloween), when Becca Gleason – trusted Nerdist music blogger – stepped into my office and asked, “What song is this?” I know. You probably need a moment to let that sink in (and to wipe off the milk you surely just spit all over your monitor). It’s shocking. It’s appalling. Our schools have failed us. Needless to say, Becca’s blogging-license is suspended until she learns a little Halloween Party Music 101:
1. Bobby “Boris” Pickett & The Crypt-Kickers– Monster Mash
Let’s get this one out of the way. Boris Pickett is the godfather of all Halloween dance songs and “Monster Mash” – a spoof of the “Mashed Potato” – is his crowning achievement. He followed up its successful release with an entire Monster Mash album, and inspired whole slew of Halloween-themed parody acts. Identifiable by the obligatory sounds of dragging chains and Boris Karloff impersonations, most of these parodies don’t live up to the original. A couple do stand-out: The Ghoul’s “Be True To Your Ghoul” (an oddly violent Beach Boys parody), and John Zacherle’s “Dinner With Drac, Part 1,” are sure to raise some eyebrows.
2. Stevie Wonder – Superstition
Not into funk? How about some heavy blues-rock from The Black Keys? Their song “Howlin’ For You” gets a free pass on Halloween simply for incorporating the word “Howl.” Other free passes go to “Howlin’ for my Baby,” and “Moanin’ at Midnight”, both, fittingly, by Howlin’ Wolf.
3. Bing Crosby – Headless Horseman (from Disney’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow)
Crosby dominates the Christmas classics scene, so why shouldn’t he have a Halloween song or two… or an entire radio special? His song, “Halloween,” with Victor Moore & Boris Karloff (at 7:00 on this video), is as much a crowd-pleaser as it is a reactionary critique on the modern age (You’ll hear what I mean). For a jazzy version of “Headless Horseman,” check out this classy cover by Kay Starr.
4. The Clovers/The Searchers – Love Potion #9
Love love-songs about witchcraft, but sick of hearing the same thousand versions of “Love Potion #9” over and over again? Then give Johnny Otis & Marci Lee’s fast, twangy “Castin’ My Spell” a spin on the ol’ gramophone. I’ve been hand-jiving to it for three days straight, so the spell must work.
5. Frantics – Werewolf
I don’t know much about this one, outside of it’s from rainy Puget Sound, and it bleeds nicely into Bat For Lashes’ “What’s A Girl To Do?” Listen to both, then listen to Cults’ “Bad Things,” and you got a story about a love-sick werewolf, a moody vampire, and the girl caught in the middle. That’s right, you just listened to Twilight.
6. The Rocky Horror Picture Show – “Time Warp”
Easily one of the most danceable songs on the list. But lets face the facts: gender-bending musicals are a bit of an acquired taste and popular dance has changed a lot in the last 35 years. Solution: balance it out with Kanye West’s dark, twisted “Monster.”
7. The citizens of Halloween Town – This Is Halloween (from Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas)
Oh, what I wouldn’t give to live in Halloween Town and be best friends with Jack Skellington. Fortunately, Disneyland provides a pretty close experience every fall, when the Haunted Mansion transforms into the Haunted Mansion Holiday, incorporating Nightmare characters and music into the ride. But its tough to compete with the original, particularly the graveyard scene with its playfully frenetic tune “Grim, Grinning Ghosts”- a masterful balance of spookiness and harmlessness. (And if you’ve never heard the Marilyn Manson version of “This Is Halloween,” click here.)
8. Harry Belafonte – Jump In The Line
A Halloween favorite, thanks to its enduring use in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice. If you’re looking for a calypso song a bit more on topic, get your conga on to Belafonte’s “Zombie Jamboree (Back to Back).” A lot of calypso songs deal with voodoo, so this is just the tip of the iceberg.
9. Warren Zevon – Werewolves of London
The perfect compliment to your Tom Cruise/The Color of Money costume. Not the case if you’re dressing as Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman. Then, might I suggest Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer?” David Byrne said he wrote the song imagining “Alice Cooper doing a Randy Newman-type ballad.” Same could be said for “Werewolves of London,” if you ask me.
10. The B-52’s – Rock Lobster
I can’t say why “Rock Lobster” ranks so high on the Halloween hit list (its throwback surf-rock about towels and fish), but I’m definitely not complaining. I do have my theories: 1) Kate Pierson’s keyboard and shrill screams are reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann’s screeching violins in Psycho; 2) the song, which trumpets “lots of trouble” in the ocean, hit the airwaves while the average, American beach-goer was still recovering from 1975’s Jaws and ‘78’s Jaws 2; and 3) like the schlocky sci-fi movies of their time, ’60s surf-rockers were early adopters of sound-distorting electronics (fuzz pedals, synthesizers). Before long, the connection between surf-rock and monsters was cemented in our collective consciousness. Two very Halloweenie works similar to “Rock Lobster” include: The Cramps’ “Zombie Dance” and 45 Grave’s “Riboflavin.”
11. Ray Parker, Jr. – Ghostbusters
This theme song was such a hit when released, it claimed Billboard’s #1 spot for three weeks and pulled in about $20 million of the film’s $238,632,124 gross (Thanks, Wikipedia). Meanwhile, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince were writing an unlicensed ode to Freddy Krueger, called “A Nightmare On My Street.” That song was also a huge hit. So much of a hit, New Line Cinema sued the duo, and then offered them the starring roles in the film House Party. Or so the legend goes.
12. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins – I Put A Spell On You
Hawkins music drips with so much of the macabre, you could make a killer Halloween playlist featuring absolutely no one else. My personal favorite: “Little Demon.”
13. Michael Jackson – Thriller
Here it is: the one song that guests not only expect, but will mutiny against a DJ who doesn’t give it play. Seriously, if your choice is between “Thriller” on repeat for three hours or playing every other song on this list, play “Thriller” on repeat for three hours! As for comparable alternates, there aren’t. But consider these two comparably pervasive, comparably expensive-to-license hits: The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy For The Devil” & The Beatles’ “Helter Skelter” (you know, thanks to Charles Manson).
There are two musical acts that immediately popped in my head when I started this list, yet both went unmentioned. That’s because they so exemplify the spirit of Halloween, that I’d be doing a disservice by singling out one song, or comparing their work against any of the above artists. They are Tom Waits, who is so morbid, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins covered his songs (my Halloween favorites: “Little Drop of Poison” & “Whistlin’ Past the Graveyard“), and Ryan Gosling & Zach Shields’ band, Dead Man’s Bones (“Dead Man’s Bones” & “My Body’s A Zombie For You” being my personal favorites). The Dead Man’s Bones album has become to my October what Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas is to my December.
You can find my full Halloween playlist on Spotify (user: abelcharrow), and let me know what I’m missing by dropping a comment below. For you runners out there, check out my running playlists at www.6n6challenge.com/music
Thanks, Becca, thanks, Chris, for inviting me to make this list. Happy Halloween to all, and to all a ghoulish night!
Additional reporting by Becca Gleason.