In devising a Halloween-themed playlist for y’all, I tried to make a point to avoid the usual suspects that turn up on every Spotify or Pandora Sounds of the Season mix: So no “Bad Moon Rising,” no “Dead Man’s Party,” no “Werewolves of London” and certainly no “Thriller.” This is a playlist that may just surprise and delight your friends—and, hopefully, freak them out a little—at your socially distanced costume party.
The Mekons, “Club Mekon”
If Halloween is about hedonism, this noirish post-punk classic about a garish nightclub with some unusual denizens—including ghosts and a vampire gliding across the floor “lusting for youth in the mirror”—is a celebratory party for all, pulse not required.
Future Bible Heroes, “I’m a Vampire”
The wittiest, most dancehall-ready song on the list is a campy synthpop earworm from a Stephen Merritt side project, in which vocalist Claudia Gonson gloriously trumpets the benefits of being a blood-sucking mistress of the night. It’s just fun, that’s all.
Lou Reed, “Halloween Parade”
Reed’s vivid and poignant chronicle of an urban costumed gathering is reported to be about Reed’s friends lost to the AIDS epidemic. But on the surface, its twinkly, shuffling rhythms speak to a jauntier sort of decadence, and it remains a poetic staple from my favorite Reed album.
Suicide, “Ghost Rider”
Art-rock pioneers Suicide’s stark and inimitable debut, crafted stunningly before its time in 1977, opened with this churning riff on the ghost rider mythos, and you can practically feel the lick of waves heating the speakers. Alan Vega’s spasmodic yawping makes this a startling track for any scary occasion.
The Cramps, “I Was a Teenage Werewolf”
As much as I’m trying to avoid the obvious, no Halloween playlist can be complete with the Cramps, the kings of gonzo psychobilly. Pretty much anything by these guys will scare away any pestilence, but you cannot go wrong with this tribute to libidinous lycanthropy, appropriately nasty and unhinged.
Roky Erickson, “I Walked With a Zombie”
Here’s another rock iconoclast whose near-complete oeuvre, especially as a solo artist, involved scary monsters and super creeps. This one is a study in infectious minimalism; the only lyric in the song is the declarative sentence of the title, spoken with pride and repeated until it sticks. Given the mental illness that likely led to Erickson’s passing, in 2019, I’m afraid it may have stuck to him a little too much.
The Mountain Goats, “Lovecraft in Brooklyn”
When released in 2008, this staggered, and staggering, depiction of a Lovecraftian apocalypse was the Mountain Goats’ loudest recording to date; I imagine it still holds that honor. I particularly dig the lyrics “Someday something’s coming/From way out beyond the stars/To kill us while we stand here/It’ll store our brains in mason jars,” delivered with singer-songwriter John Darnielle’s most paranoid bleat.
Zombies! Organize!!, “Sycophantic Drudgery”
My favorite, if short-lived, South Florida band, Zombies! Organize!! were cult favorites during the Bush 43 years, finding cultural and political subtext underneath club-ready lyrics about the undead that would make George A. Romero proud. I can only imagine the kind of music they’d be making today.
Tom Waits, “What’s He Building in There?”
This spoken-word death rattle from Waits’ 1999 masterpiece Mule Variations might just be the creepiest thing in the songwriter’s canon, which is truly saying something. Waits’ gravelly gossip shares details on the lonely life of a tinkerer neighbor, suggesting all sorts of sordid rumors made ever more real by the disturbing sound design.
Scott Walker and Sunn O))), “Brando”
In a combination that shouldn’t really work, experimental doom metal band Sunn O))) recorded an album with the late British pop vivant Scott Walker. Between the masochistic lyrics, knife-like guitars and rhythmic sounds of a whip slashing the troubled singer, it is decidedly not for everyone. Walker and Sunn O))) are truly a match made in Hell, which in this case is a compliment.
Swans, “I Crawled”
Before they embraced melody, and even a degree of beauty, in their songs, industrial misfits Swans recorded some of the most bludgeoning and alienating drone music put to record. This is the cavernous soundtrack to a torture chamber, and if any haunted attraction wanted to truly scare the bejeesus out of its customers, it would play early Swans on repeat.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, “Stagger Lee”
The piece de resistance of Nick Cave’s 1996 classic Murder Ballads is among his most profane songs, an incendiary rendition of the Stagger Lee myth first propagated in song in 1897 and popularized by Mississippi John Hurt in 1928. Cave’s take is a particularly indecorous tribute that imagines an even darker future for the title character.
Listen to the full playlist on Spotify below: