Pumpkin Up the Volume: Another Halloween Playlist

Image courtesy biscuitbear via Flickr.

Last year, I posted a Halloween playlist titled Bring Your Own Boos. It was a huge hit at the Halloween party I never had…. But, at least I enjoyed it. (It got me through several boring class assignments and maybe a few boring conversations.) This year, I almost didn’t make a new playlist because, as it turns out, I had already used up all my favorite spooky songs. But then I realized, personal challenge! I would find some new favorite Halloween songs. And an even better (read: more cringeworthy) pun! (Yes, this is really what my personal challenges look like.)

Thus, Pumpkin Up the Volume was born. If you listen to only one awkwardly-titled Halloween playlist made by a stranger who makes you feel vaguely uncomfortable, let it be this one. It’s got wolf songs, devil songs, and even a song about a monster hospital. I cover all the bases.

Song list: 

Howlin’ For You—The Black Keys | The Crook of My Good Arm—Pale Young Gentlemen | Devil in Me—22-20s | Dead Man’s Party—Oingo Boingo | Evil—Interpol | Wolf Like Me—TV on the Radio | (You’re the) Devil in Disguise—Elvis Presley | See No Evil—Television | Spider Cider—Man Man | She Wolf—Shakira | Pumpkin—Starlight Mints | Haunted House of Rock—Whodini | Spooky—Dusty Springfield | Monster Hospital—Metric | There Goes the Fear—Doves | Pet Sematary—The Ramones | Hungry Like the Wolf—Duran Duran | Good Ol’ Fashion Nightmare—Matt & Kim | Turkish Song of the Damned—The Pogues | My Body’s a Zombie for You—Dead Man’s Bones

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Mini-Review: Strange Powers


Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields

Documentary, 2010

89 minutes

Starring: Stephin Merritt, Claudia Gonson, Daniel Handler, Carrie Brownstein, Neil Gaiman, Peter Gabriel

Directed by: Kerthy Fix, Gail O’Hara


In another time, or perhaps another place, Stephin Merritt would be widely regarded as a lyrical genius. He’d be the next Cole Porter, a witty wordsmith whose songs are both deliciously hummable and surprisingly poignant. He’d be famous, in demand, celebrated for his virtuosity…. In his own time and his own situation, though, Merritt is regrettably more obscure than that. While perhaps an indie icon, he is no radio star; his songs are largely unfamiliar to anyone who has not sought them out. Perhaps this suits him just fine. Or, maybe, baroque pop sensibilities and instruments like the ukulele will never be for everyone. Whatever the case, fans like me will have to take solace in the fact that Merritt is, if not an actual star, at least the star of this documentary, which chronicles the ups and downs of his band, The Magnetic Fields, over the course of 10 years. Strange Powers offers an intimate look at Merritt’s process, from writing down ideas to practicing, revising and eventually recording a song. It also gives insight into his close relationship with longtime collaborator Claudia Gonson. For anyone completely enamored of the band’s music, this documentary is a must. It provides access to Merritt that is so rarely granted, and an opportunity to connect with the music on a deeper level. And, no surprise, it has an amazing soundtrack.

On Recommendations and Top 5 Lists

Is it normal to watch “Phineas and Ferb” even when you’re at least 15 years older than its intended audience and not on any psychotropic drugs? I’m asking for a friend…who posed the question to me…in reference to me. But I think it’s something we all want to know. Is anyone’s taste completely “normal,” “acceptable,” and “genuinely not embarrassing at all”? Don’t we all have those little quirks, those differences in taste that, depending on how unshakeable our confidence is, make either us or our dissenters seem like the weird ones?

When it comes to talking about what I like—the movies, the TV shows, the defining songs of the summer—I don’t mind being an individual (or, okay, trailblazer if you must), but I tend to play it a little safe. It’s okay to say you enjoy something that has only a small cult following, or even something that is knowingly not very good, but it’s tough to stand up and admit that your addiction to ABC Family isn’t a passing fad, or an exception to any rule…that it defines who you are. I like to play off my stranger interests as if they are a lesser part of me, but the truth is that if I really were to give an honest recommendation or to compose an accurate top multiple-of-five list, I’d have to include a lot of stuff that doesn’t come with a “critically acclaimed” label. (Note to self: Start sewing “critically acclaimed” labels into all my pairs of underwear. Sounds hilarious and not lame at all.)

I don’t like being dishonest or misrepresenting myself, but it’s a delicate dance between forging a stronger connection with someone (I assume this is what engaging in a Ron Swanson quote-a-thon is called) and opening yourself up to ridicule (also known as admitting in public that you even know what “The Secret Life of the American Teenager” is). Usually I tend to freeze up, caught in that purgatory between what I perceive to be the expected answer and what I feel to be the truth. This is why, when it comes to recommending pretty much anything, I am completely terrified. Will this be the time that I am finally reprimanded for liking all the wrong things? (Or, worse yet, all the obvious things?)

I worry that I’m never equipped with the right tools for evaluation. Am I not sophisticated enough to notice how jejune that movie is? Am I too pretentious to realize that book has no substance? (And, on a side note, am I even pronouncing jejune correctly? Kind of French-y and with utter contempt?) Don’t get me wrong: I’m comfortable with the things I like when I’m by myself or surrounded by the people who revere me…but I tend to panic when I have to share an actual opinion with people who haven’t formed an actual opinion of me yet.

Say, for example, I work at a library. (I do, so this should be easy.) Say someone walks in and asks me to recommend a book to read this summer. (This never happens. No one cares.) I’m not one of those people who can confidently say, “Well, gosh, stranger, I just read the new James Patterson and it was pretty swell.” (Or, if the person walks in wearing a beret or playing a ukulele or something, “Hey there, how about the new Dave Eggers?”) I need more information on this individual before I can even consider sharing something about me. Does she look smart? Is she wearing glasses? I had better not mention that I sometimes like to read The Lying Game books. Does he look like he wandered in here on a dare from his fraternity brothers? I’m going to look like an ass if I spend any time extolling the virtues of that Nathaniel Hawthorne biography. (Is a bro-ography a thing? I would recommend that.) I’ve witnessed real people (not holograms—that’s something you need to check for these days) offer real opinions as if it were nothing. I have no idea how they do it.

Real, for me, tends to be a fluid concept. (See: seven of my past nine boyfriends.) Sometimes what I think is real is actually just what I am willing to reveal of myself in a given context. Conversely, sometimes such limitations are not based on how “Cathy”-cartoon neurotic I am, but rather how thoughtfully I want to respond to another person’s needs. (Okay, this is still neurotic, I guess. Ack!) I hate to recommend books that I liked when I’m not so sure that the person I am recommending them to will like them as well. It’s not always easy to see where tastes overlap and where they diverge; seemingly similar people may like some of the same things for very different reasons. Thus, if someone asks me for the best book I read recently, I can’t necessarily give the most honest answer. …Can I? Is that really what people want when they ask for a recommendation? Even if it would mean their slogging through, say, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which is either an amazing book or just a handy weapon depending on your taste?

Despite my skepticism, I actually read a lot of lists with “Top,” “Best of,” and “That Will Change Your Life” in the title. (I also read a lot of lists with “Bottom,” “Worst of,” and “That Are Killing You” in the title because I am kind of a pessimist.) Although I don’t always agree with these lists, I usually don’t feel betrayed or think less of the person who wrote them. That is, I can recognize and accept differences of opinion when it comes to someone else. I sometimes try to think of the lists I would create given the same criteria to fulfill. I’m never 100% honest. I wonder why I even assume honesty should be the goal.

When I reflect on it, I realize that nobody considers me an authority on anything, so I shouldn’t stress too much about how well I’m recommending things. I’m sure my own mother would take my report on the weather outside with a grain of salt, so I can’t really stress if my top five best YA books are a confusing muddle of what I really really like and what I think is most likely to endure.* And honesty—complete honesty—isn’t necessarily the best tool in an evaluation. (In some ways it’s lazy, ignoring so many other factors in order to privilege the half-formed opinions of a girl still wary of using the oven). I can still always hold back when I want to impress.

So that just leaves one final question, one conundrum to resolve: Seriously, is it okay that I’m watching “Phineas and Ferb” at 25 years old?

*My list includes Feed by M.T. Anderson; Going Bovine by Libba Bray; Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork; Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King; and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, if you were wondering.

Bring Your Own Boos: A Halloween Playlist

Image courtesy cmar via Flickr.….

The best holidays, I would argue, are the ones that can last longer than a single day, those celebrations for which anticipation builds weeks, even months, in advance. They are associated with a specific, undeniable mood, which elevates them, in essence, to a state of mind. Christmas, ideally, is a holly jolly fest of goodwill toward men, with the sights, sounds, and smells inspiring kindness (at least, outside of shopping malls), high spirits, and the overindulgence of various questionable food items, like eggnog and gingerbread. Halloween, in contrast, is like Christmas’s evil twin, exploring a darker side of human nature, which delights in tricks and treats in equal measure. Halloween is a celebration of the macabre and the attendant thrill that comes with being unnerved. It’s not all slasher flicks and haunted houses, but if the darkest you get is watching the Charlie Brown special with the lights out, then you’re not doing it right.

Every year, I create my own playlists for both of these holidays in an effort to promote the right mood even when I am doing something decidedly un-festive, like writing a paper. Below I have included this year’s Halloween playlist. (Coming November 1st, my Christmas playlist! …No, no, I’m better than that.) Some of these songs are par for the course, just shy of “Monster Mash” ubiquity, while others are more obscure, but still thematically related. All of them, naturally, are songs that I like, and that I think capture the Halloween “spirit.” Yeah, that’s right, spirit. I went there.

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Looking to make your own Halloween playlist? All it takes is a crappy image editor you downloaded for free, Halloween clipart you found by doing the most obvious Google search imaginable, and, of course, the first execrable pun you can think of! Have fun!

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