Fright Sound Tape: Your Halloween party playlist

My PostMore than any other night of the year, Halloween is your chance to dance like you’re somebody – or something – else.

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Don’t fuck it up! Turn off the lights, fill up your goblet, and whack on this spooky Spotify playlist of 20 holy Halloween classics – 10 old, 10 new.

1. Echo & The Bunnymen – The Killing Moon (1984)

‘Fate up against your will.

Through the thick and thin.

He will wait until

you give yourself to him’

‘The Killing Moon’ is a great post-punk rock record, period. The chorus above unravels with spontaneous grace, every word coming naturally and serving a purpose. Okay, purpose might be too active a word. The song’s presiding feeling is one of resignation – an acceptance of Fate’s master plan.

At the story’s centre is a romance doomed to end in at least one death. But the plot beats are signposted by gothic symbolism that keep things just on the right side of ghoulish fun. A serious piece of music then, but one that evokes the morbidity of the Halloween season as organically as a bloodied butcher knife.

2. Lady Gaga – Bad Romance (2009)

Catchy monster sounds? Yas! Nightmarish storytelling? Yas! Dance routine? Yaaaaass!

3. Michael Jackson – Thriller (1982)

The iconic ‘Thriller’ video opens with a disclaimer that Michael Jacksonin no way endorses a belief in the occult‘. Scoff as we might of the quaintness of the message – perhaps it was necessary. After all, no one in pop culture icon before or since has made the supernatural look more fun.

4. Britney Spears – Freakshow (2007)

Britney has never been afraid to experiment, sprinkling this slut-dropper with menacing dubstep wobbles way back in ‘07.

5. Bobby Boris Pickett – The Monster Mash (1962)

My friends and I sang the entirety of ‘The Monster Mash’ at our school talent show when we were 16 – with absolutely no backing track. That’s how iconic it is.

6. OutKast featuring Kelis – Dracula’s Wedding (2003)

Even when playing vampires sentenced an eternity together, Kelis and André 3000 are a match made in heaven.

7. Grace Jones – I’ve Seen That Face Before (Libertango) (1981)

Fusing a classic Argentine tango with reggae arrangements, this is a Frankenstein’s Monster of a song. But as usual, it’s Miss Grace Jones – singing with suicidal detachment – who brings the spook.

8. Childish Gambino – Boogieman (2016)

Like much of Donald Glover’s “Awaken, My Love!” LP, ‘Boogieman’ uses horror clichés to allude to racial tension in America: ‘But if he’s scared of me / How can we be free?

9. Cerrone – Supernature (1977)

TL;DR ‘Donna Summer does “The Monster Mash”’.

10. Katy Perry – Dark Horse (2014)

Shielded by walls of trap-for-kidz – before the real thing dominated radio – Katy plays the role of sexy sorcerer with aplomb.

11. Warren Zevon – Werewolves of London (1978)

Sharp imagery – ‘Saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand’ – and a howl-along chorus. What’s not to love?

12. Rihanna – Disturbia (2008)

There is a grim irony in this four-on-the-floor headfuck being co-written by Rihanna’s own Big Bad, Chris Brown.

13. Talking Heads – Psycho Killer (1973)

It’s almost unfair that we associate one music’s finest basslines with David Byrne’s paean to the murderous mind. But on an eerie October evening, the pairing emulsifies splendidly.

14. Peaches – Trick or Treat (2009)

A sleazy synthpop romp – with a lesson Michael Myers and his sexually active prey can agree on: ‘Never go to bed without a piece of raw meat.’

15. Rockwell – Somebody’s Watching Me (1984)

Rockwell owes a debt to Michael Jackson’s generous ‘backing vocals’ (he does the unshakeable hook), but the one-hit-wonder’s own paranoid rants are worth the price of entry alone.

16. Shakira – She Wolf (2009)

The lycanthropic ‘ah-woos’ may be fabulously half-hearted, but the Columbian superstar’s sexual liberation is anything but.

17. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins – I Put A Spell On You (1956)

The legendary blues singer claims not to remember recording ‘I Put A Spell On You’. How fitting that he wails like a man possessed.

18. Travis Scott featuring Kendrick Lamar – Goosebumps (2017)

The goosebumps in question are romantic ones, but the horror-movie atmospherics still get under the skin.

19. The Rolling Stones – Sympathy For the Devil (1974)

Going solely by its lively groove, you could almost forget this is a darkly comic celebration of Satan’s role in historical atrocities. A devilish sleight of (red right) hand that makes it perfect for a Halloween party playlist.

20. Kanye West, Jay-Z and Nicki Minaj – Monster (2010)

On a career-defining verse, Nicki swaps alter egos with the ferocity of Linda Blair in The Exorcist. But by the end, the Minaj brand is as recognisable as any Halloween costume.

 

Troye Sivan’s ‘Bloom’ needs a splash of colour

bloom

Stream on Spotify

Score: 7/10

Add to library: ‘My! My! My!’, ‘Bloom’, ‘Plum’, ‘Lucky Strike’

Anyone on the pop blog scene will be au fait with Troye Sivan’s ‘My! My! My!’ – the synthpop spectacular that sounds like Phil Collins sharing drugs with M83 in the bathroom of a Berlin gay club.

Understandably, the poptimist who fell for its whirring groove back in January might have tentative hopes for the Australian singer’s sophomore album to be something on the scale of Carly Rae Jepsen’s Emotion, an unapologetically sugary listen with enough five-star press clippings to soften its perilous fall from the charts.

But for better or worse, Bloom never again matches the glittery nerve of its big single (or its fabulous, voguing video).  

Then again, Troye was never obliged to stray far from his 2015 debut Blue Neighbourhood. The uncluttered, Lorde-ish stylings that album embraced have since proved popular with the masses, embedded in the kind of slow-burn hits synonymous with the streaming era. 

Troye plays it safe with ten mid-tempos buffed to a lustrous electropop sheen. Ironically, for all its approved-by-committee glory, there are zero single options here. Yet as a collection, Bloom is a rather fetching vehicle for its star, and at a mere 37 minutes, never outstays its welcome.

Queer lyrical themes aside, there’s not much of a spark to slower songs like ‘The Good Side’ and ‘Seventeen’. The former is John Grant-lite, the latter plugs the holes in its melody with a crap ‘oh oh oh’ line. At the same time, they’re both tenderly written snapshots of a young man’s burgeoning sexuality.

The pop-cynic would argue that the short runtime flatters Troye’s limited range, both as a vocalist and an emoter (not least next to a guesting Ariana Grande on the misleadingly titled ‘Dance to This’). Doe-eyed apathy is his brand, and although his flower is certainly in bloom, you might come away hoping for a splash of colour next season.

 

Ariana Grande’s new album is sweet and sour

ariStream on Spotify

Score: 7/10

Add to library: ‘No Tears Left to Cry’, ‘God is a Woman’, ‘Breathin’

Sweetener is Ariana Grande’s fourth album, and it’s a bit soured by its over-reliance on Pharrell William’s dry, faux-funk beats. Considering the two hits pulled from the LP – ‘No Tears Left to Cry’ and ‘God is a Woman’ – are both Max Martin cuts, surely the writing was on that wall that something wasn’t quite working?

If Williams’ productions win critical acclaim, it will be from journalists on a tight schedule. His songs are interesting enough for a minute, but Pharrell soon depletes his sachet of tricks. Not that you’d notice if you’re prone to the skip button and have a glut of albums to review by midnight.

Fortunately, I have time on my hands.

The Nicki Minaj-assisted promo single ‘The Light is Coming’ is admirably mental island-tinged pop, full of white-hot percussion and digital grind – until you realise the irate male vocal sample has been looped without any plan or artistic intention. It’s as if Pharrell built a skeletal first draft in the studio, popped out for a coffee, and never came back.

Ariana keeps her end of the bargain on ‘Successful’, toasting to herself and womankind with slinky cool, but her effort is somewhat undone by cheesy groaning keyboards. ‘Borderline’ harkens back to The Neptunes’ early-00s album fillers, and I now understand Kelis’ decision to cease working with them exclusively in 2003.

To Pharrell’s credit, the Piña Colada-flavoured ‘Blazed’ and the dreamy goodness of ‘R.E.M’ are fully realised successes, and prove Ariana’s collaborative instincts weren’t too off-the-mark.

Electro slowies like ‘Better Off’ and ‘Goodnight and Go’ offer pleasing restraint, but the first single ‘No Tears’ still towers over the album. Max Martin has crafted a daring piece of theatrical dance-pop here, as laden with UK garage as it is with heavenly wails.

This is Ariana’s first project since the terrorist attack at her concert at Manchester Arena last May tragically claimed 23 victims. In choosing the first single, Ariana and her team had to strike a delicate balance – uplifting but not glib, respectful but not in mourning. And they’ve passed with flying colours. It’s just a shame the rest of Sweetener doesn’t always hit the same sweet spot.

 

All Saints’ ‘Testament’ is proof they’re here to stay

testament

Stream on Spotify

Score: 10/10

Add to library: The whole damn thing

Maybe it was the ten-year gap between albums. Maybe it was the emotional gravitas Nicole Appleton’s tabloid-devoured divorce lent the songs. For whatever reason, 2016’s Red Flag gave All Saints the reboot they deserved. Testament isn’t blessed with a dramatic backstory, making its categorical brilliance all the more impressive.

This is simply All Saints at their creative peak. Unofficial fifth member K-Gee is back as producer, and ‘Pure Shores’/ ‘Black Coffee’ maestro William Orbit brings two tracks. Swirling electronica, 80s soul-pop, and tripped-out garage are among the many genres tested out, but they’re bound by meticulous percussion, a heavy low-end, and impeccable harmonies.

It helps that Shaznay Lewis is one of Britain’s most underrated pop songwriters. Love is the sole theme, and she paints it in all its forms. ‘Love Lasts Forever’ comforts a child nearing adulthood; ‘Three Four’ is a smutty sex romp; and ‘Don’t Look Over Your Shoulder’ escorts a freshly-dumped ex out of the house. 

The women relive their Orbit-helmed glory years on the transcendent ‘After All’. But ‘Testament In Motion’ points to an exciting future for both band and producer, with blissful balladry dissolving seamlessly into hip-winding electroclash.

Isolated from Red Flag’s PR opportunities, Testament makes All Saints’ raw talent impossible to ignore. In 2018, their boundary-pushing Britpop is even more audacious than it was in the 90s. Who among their peers can claim the same?

 

Years & Years refuse to obscure queerness on ‘Palo Santo’

Palo-Santo-artwork.pngStream on Spotify

Score: 8/10

Add to library: ‘All For You’, ‘Palo Santo’, ‘Up In Flames’

Years & Years introduced their second album with two uninteresting singles and a preposterous concept.

So it’s a relief that Palo Santo is a solid collection of tropical electropop, dripping with sweat, tears and charisma from frontman Olly Alexander.

The title refers to a pansexual metropolis that sprung from Alexander’s imagination, a place where androids rule, and humans are plucked from the streets to writhe around on a stage, using their flesh to provoke genuine emotion in an audience of automatons.

The accompanying short film is the kind of thing a person dreams up after eating a block of cheese and watching Blade Runner. It’s a lofty gimmick, but at least it’s one that articulates the record’s inherent queerness rather than obscures it.

What Palo Santo does successfully is depict the life of a socially mobile, twenty-something gay man in 2018. Across atmospheric ballads and glow-in-the-dark dance tracks, hookups (‘Rendezvous’), heartbreak (‘All For You’) and internalised homophobia (‘Preacher’) are each captured in golden melodies.

Like 2014’s Communion, images of Catholic flagellation appear as thinly-veiled metaphors for anal sex. When written to bouncy, playlistable beats – ‘Hallelujah’, ‘Preacher’ – they make for welcome additions to the band’s canon. First single ‘Sanctify’ exhausts the premise with a plodding tempo that had me checking my watch, but as the opener it’s inoffensive. 

Alexander brings an unapologetically queer perspective that deserves to be heard loud-and-clear. Trailblazing? Absolutely not. But his visibility shouldn’t be taken for granted in the current political climate.

Forget the sci-fi window dressing – by bucking heteronormativity, Palo Santo is a futuristic work in its own right.

Let’s Eat Grandma bend future-pop to their will on ‘I’m All Ears’

Lets-Eat-GrandmaStream on Spotify

Score: 10/10

This gifted duo from Norwich were just 17 years old when they released their first album. 2016’s I, Gemini made waves for fearlessly – if not seamlessly – blending prog-grunge with psychedelic synthpop. Expectations for follow-up I’m All Ears are high, but thankfully so is the budget.

Scottish musician SOPHIE is the intersection between underground and mainstream cool – working with everyone from Charli XCX to Madonna (and reportedly charging $10,000–20,000 a track). Despite only co-producing two songs (out of 11), she’s a savvy choice of collaborator.

Rosa Walton and Jenny Hollingworth’s vocals are parodically girlish, and scarily reminiscent of the hyper-feminine aesthetic SOPHIE weaponises in her own music. The pair’s creative bond has been maturing since they met aged four, and girl power permeates throughout.

Pre-release single ‘Hot Pink’ uses angelically angry harmonies to deconstruct the shortcomings of gender norms: ‘I just want anything and everything / Just can’t make it obvious’. SOPHIE dangles sickly-sweet synthwork like a lure, all before a crunching bassline takes the patriarchy in its jaws.

Let’s Eat Grandma’s strong way with melody isn’t fully revealed until mid-album cuts like ‘Snakes & Ladders’, a faithful reimagining of Portishead, and the lovely ‘I Will Be Waiting’.

This is thanks in part to Welsh producer David Wrench, who takes on the bulk of the album and simply gets the band’s elastic sound, deftly stretching and restraining it whenever necessary. Even at its most reserved, as on the chillingly sparse ‘Cool & Collected’ and ‘Ava’, I’m All Ears is unlike anything you’ll hear all year.

Florence humanises the machine on ‘High As Hope’

florenceandthemachine-highashope

Stream on Spotify

Score: 8/10

Has any pop singer in recent memory evolved their sound with more care than Florence Welch?

It’s been almost a decade since Lungs made her a star – a wood-dwelling sorcerer of booming goth-art pop that scored both indie and mainstream kudos. That ethereal character (and brand) is still present on fourth LP High As Hope, but this time, she works her magic in more mundane settings.

The arrangements are airer – piano, tribal drums, sly strings, the occasional brass section – and the songwriting doesn’t quite demand your attention like previous releases, but here there’s a deliberate – and welcome – effort to humanise the machine.

‘South London Forever’ knows it has a lot to catch us up on, and so starts with Florence’s boozy adolescence and E-fuelled partying days (name-checking legendary gay bar The Joiners Arms) before moving on to her millennial woes. What could have been self-indulgent ends up a sweet and confiding mini-epic.

This is a more frayed Florence than we’re used to, but even with the layers pulled back, she’s a fascinating artist. Guided by her titanic voice, ‘Hunger’ is exultant gospel-pop on the surface, but the connections the lyrics make between body positivity (‘At seventeen, I started to starve myself’) and emotional fulfilment are rich in pathos.

Welch’s range can be jaw-dropping, and the set’s many ballads give her ample room to explore it. But despite all the nips and tucks to her sound, it’s that banshee wail that tells you you’re listening to a Florence and the Machine song. And when those lungs get to work, she’s an instantly recognisable force in British music.