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An Octoberish Playlist

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Autumn: my favorite time of year. Last year to celebrate, I gave you lists of books and movies suitable to the season; this year, to get my Octoberish mood on, I'm turning to music--popular music, to be precise. (Maybe next year I'll do a classical music edition.) 

I tend to default to melancholy, anyway, so it wasn't hard to come up with songs to get me in an October frame of mind--and genius WMWC DJ Christian (our oldest son) came up with some other excellent ones as well.

We didn't get into any nasty stuff; there's no grindcore or screamo here. Also, I'd be just dandy if I never heard "Monster Mash" or "Ghostbusters" ever, ever again.

Instead, most of these songs tell a sad, strange, or tragic story, with haunting vocals and atmospheric accompaniment. So, light the candles, fill the candy bowl, and put on this playlist while you wait for the costumed kids to ring your doorbell. Your house will be the most Octoberish on the block. 

1) “When You’re Strange” The Doors

Okay, Jim Morrison is probably talking about getting stoned. But it doesn't have to be that. In my experience, the world is weird enough without any chemical help, and this song communicates that perfectly. "Riders on the Storm" would also have worked for this list. 

2) “Fake Palindromes” Andrew Bird

Andrew Bird is way talented and more than a little creepy at times. Someone else characterized this song as "the David Lynch movie of songs"--subtly horrifying images strung together in a way that evokes rather than narrates a tale. Even though it's perfectly "SFW," this song in on the unnerving edge for me. 

3) “The Ghost Who Walks” Karen Elson

Elson is a very successful British fashion model and designer. But apparently, that's not enough for her--and that's lucky for us. (Her former husband) Jack White produced her first album, which includes this song. Its production feels very Doors-y (especially the keyboards); Jack knew what he was doing. A very 21st-century story song with an old-school feel. 

4) "Go 'Way from My Window" Joan Baez

Folk music enthusiast John Jacob Niles collected this eerie song in his travels around the United States back in the day, and virtuoso Joan Baez tinges it with both longing and fear. Stalking is not a new invention, it seems. I love the version by bluegrass artist Sally Jones, but I couldn't find it online. 

5) “The Tinkerman's Daughter” Niamh Parsons

No one does October as well as the Irish, and you don't need ghosts or psychotics to create a chilling story song. Niahm Parsons's mournful interpretation is exquisitely accompanied by pianist Eddie Friel. Unparalleled excellence; Niamh (pronounced "Neeve") is a goddess. For other Octoberish goodness by Niamh Parsons, try "The Lakes of Coolfin," "Orphan's Wedding," and "The Water is Wide." 

6) “Nebraska” Bruce Springsteen

Whenever I tell people that Nebraska is my favorite Springsteen album, they get a little confused. No "Thunder Road," no "Born to Run," no E Street Band. Just a series of dark, moody pieces of Americana--brilliantly realized by The Boss all by his lonesome. I wonder if Bruce binge read Flannery O'Connor before he sat down to write these songs. The title track is one of its best. Love that harmonica, Bruce.

7) “Country Death Song” The Violent Femmes

This song naturally follows the one above. In the early 1980s, The Violent Femmes brought a new level of irony to the alt-country scene--which is really saying something. Gordon Gano's acerbic vocals ensure that you feel no sympathy for the delusional father who pushes his daughter down a well.

8) “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” Bauhaus

Talk about influential: this song started the whole Goth scene. Dracula. Bats in the bell tower. Somber lyrics delivered in Peter Murphy's best funereal monotone. Creepy percussive effects and a bass line that bores into your brain like no other. Pure gothic awesomeness. 

9) "She's Lost Control" Joy Division

Sad, sad story. Singer Ian Curtis wrote this song after being diagnosed with epilepsy, a condition that drastically affected his ability to perform. He committed suicide on the eve of the band's first American tour--but even without all that context, it's an unsettling piece of music. 

10) “Mad World” Michael Andrews

Let's travel even farther down the rabbit hole of gloom, shall we? "Mad World" was creepy when Tears for Fears debuted it, but in the hands of pianist Michael Andrews, who used it as part of his soundtrack to the cult classic film Donnie Darko, it's absolutely delicious. "And I find it kind of funny, I find it kind of sad/The dreams in which I'm dying are the best I've ever had." Shiver

11) “Wuthering Heights” Kate Bush

Kate Bush wrote this song when she was a mere eighteen years old, after finishing the novel and finding out that she and Emily Brontë shared a birthday. For me, it perfectly evokes the mood of the book. Pat Benatar's cover is equally great. (It's probably better not to watch Kate's official video; just listen. Her dancing and emoting date her badly. This was music video in its infancy, people.)

12) "Bad Moon Rising" Creedence Clearwater Revival

Dude, the bayou is inherently freaky (have you seen True Detective?), so John Fogerty has an edge when it comes to Octoberish fodder for classic rock songs. Bad Moon's catchy beat and singable melody completely belie the apocalyptic lyrics. "Hope you're quite prepared to die." Yeesh.

13) "The Killing Moon" Echo and the Bunnymen

Vocalist/songwriter Ian McCulloch isn't quite as subtle as Fogerty, but this post-punk ballad works on every level. "Fate up against your will"--that's always the struggle, isn't it? 

14) "Strange Fruit" Billie Holiday

One of the earliest and one of the best protest songs. "Strange Fruit," which describes the real-life horrors of lynchings in the American South, has October written all over it. Holiday's grace and understatement perfect the piece.

15) "Under the Milky Way" The Church

Baritones have a natural advantage in the October department, and the jangly, neo-psychedelic guitar along with the bagpipes (!) in the bridge all work together with the vocals to produce a slick but spooky song. 

16) "Miss You" The Rolling Stones

In their long history, the Stones have probably produced at least thirty-one Octoberish tracks all by themselves. "Paint it Black," "Sympathy for the Devil," and "Under My Thumb" immediately come to mind. But "Miss You," a flat-out mercenary reach for some of the crazy money that was disco, reigns supreme. Hooting, howling, and growling--this is some of Mick Jagger's best vocal work."I bin walkin' Central Park, singin' after dark/People think I'm craaaaaazy." It doesn't get better than that. 

17) "Stan" Eminem

Dido's dreamy vocals and the sounds of a thunderstorm are an ideal opening for Eminem's epistolary song. It's the story of Stan, an obsessive fan who writes increasingly erratic and menace-filled letters to his idol, Slim--ending with Stan's murder-suicide and Slim's belated response. (I love Marshall's nod to Phil Collins's "Something in the Air Tonight," which was also a contender for this list.) 

18) "Undertaker" Southern Culture on the Skids

According to Wikipedia, SCOTS usually writes music about "dancing, sex, and fried chicken," all worthy muses, to be sure. But they take a sinister turn with this tune--like James Taylor's "Handyman" gone even more wrong. Dig that musical saw at the end of the track.

19) "Long Slow Goodbye" Queens of the Stone Age

Then again, tenors can also rock the creep factor. Stalkers are bad; ghosts are worse. Ghost stalkers? We're done here, people. A simple, subtle blues riff with pared-down lyrics--this track shows off the Queens' genius, which I've only recently begun to appreciate. Thanks, Christian.

20) "Shallow Grave" The Parlor Soldiers

Here's another song introduced to me by Christian. This hip, attractive duo from Fredericksburg, Virginia describe their music as "niche pieces about outlaws, sheriffs, hookers, and whiskey." Well, alrighty, then. Hop aboard the October train, young'uns. 

21) "Jenny Was a Friend of Mine" The ​Killers

Christian suggested "Midnight Show" for this list, but I chose instead another from The Killers' "Murder Trilogy." Brandon Flowers is a little bit messed up--and I mean that as the highest of compliments. The song's story is told from the point of view of a boy brought in for questioning regarding the murder of young Jenny. "There ain't no motive for this crime," the boy protests. "Jenny was a friend of mine." I love the minor key, and dig that funky bass line--like Duran Duran on steroids. 

22) "The Stranger" Billy Joel

I bought this album when I was thirteen, and I love it dearly still. This song muses on the masks we wear for one another--as well as what lies beneath. "Everyone goes south every now and then"--oh, yes, Billy. Yes, they do. That whistling, that piano--pure gold. 

23) "Golden Brown" The Stranglers

What's timeless and mournful about this song? The harpsichord and the minor key help; so does the compound rhythm (3/4-6/8-4/4). But it's the ambiguous lyrics, sung wistfully by Jean-Jacques Burnel, that are the key to its poignancy. Is the song about heroin? Maybe. But, as with Simon & Garfunkel's "Like a Bridge over Troubled Water," that might be part of its appeal.

24) "Gallows Pole" Great Big Sea

Folks have been singing versions of this macabre song for centuries, and it was most famously recorded by Led Zeppelin. And as much as I love that version, GBS's somehow rocks even harder. (Maybe it's the bodhran.) My best darlings Sean, Alan, and Bob usually sing very cheery, upbeat songs--even when they're about wakes, drowning, freezing to death, and other Canadian tragedies. But this time, they're unreservedly savage in telling the story of a woman willing to sacrifice everything to save the one she loves. Awesome.

25) "No Quarter" Led Zeppelin

"Close the door, put out the light/You know they won't be home tonight." I've been listening to this song for thirty-five years, and it still gives me chills. Nordic ghosts? Fallen soldiers? Barrow wights? Whoever or whatever "they" are, Robert Plant and the boys want to warn us all. 

26) "Creep" Stone Temple Pilots

True confession: I listened to almost no popular music during the 90s. (Don't judge; I was busy with Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Benjamin Britten, Ralph Vaughan Williams, etc.) With Christian's help, I've been catching up ever since. In this song, the Stone Temple Pilots are unflinching in their self-examination. "Feelin' uninspired/Think I'll start a fire." Written in D minor ("the saddest key of all," as the band claims), it's a veritable hymn to despair.  

27) "Harlem River Blues" Justin Townes Earle

What's scarier than drowning? Drowning in the frickin' Harlem River, man--especially when you've got a gospel choir cheerfully backing up your suicidal intentions. Justin Townes Earle is Nashville royalty--the son of Steve Earle and godson of Townes Van Zandt--and his aesthetic, genius, and Cash-like voice reflect his heritage. 

28) "Yesterday" The Beatles

Other Beatles songs could be on this list, "Eleanor Rigby," "She's Leaving Home," and "Golden Slumbers" among them. But is there any song ever written that is more replete with regret and sadness? This is one of my favorite songs of all times, and Paul McCartney should go straight to the highest heaven just for writing it--and then singing it in such stunning, simple fashion. Perfection in 2:05; Octoberish in the extreme. 

29) "Drowned Lovers" Kate Rusby

Kate Rusby's angelic vocals weave a terrible tale; Kate, like Niamh above, can convey yearning like few else. Even her Christmas album is mournful. It makes sense; she's from Yorkshire, after all, and they know a bit about October up there on the moors.

30) "Arlington" The Wailin' Jennys

Ah, my Jennys. "Does it stray very far?" The brilliant lyrics ask questions that have no answer, celebrating the ineffable mysteries of life and death. Pair them with exquisite harmonies. Add minimal accompaniment. Gorgeous. 

31) "October" U2

An obvious way to close the list, I admit, for the title alone--not to mention the provenance of the band. But Bono himself said "October is an ominous word"; I can't argue with that. As evocative and inevitable as leaves falling from maple trees. 

My work here is done! But, tell me: what did I leave out? What would be on your Octoberish playist?

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Reader Comments (3)

The Civil Wars have some lovely melancholy music. C'est la Mort and Barton Hollow come to mind, although many of their songs have a haunting quality to them.

October 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHeffalump

Also...Book on Tapeworm. Last I checked you can only get their CD via their website or at one of their concerts. I saw them in concert in April, and I bought their CD there. Their music is very melancholy, haunting and beautiful. They have several literary references in their lyrics, which I love. Even their album art is Octoberish.

October 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHeffalump

Thanks, Heffalump! I really enjoy these new-to-me songs!

October 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLuisa Perkins

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