12 Must-Have Songs for Your Halloween Playlist
Before you go out to your favorite haunted house or visit your favorite witchy woman, be sure to have the proper monster music handy.
Editor's Note: This list was originally published back on 29 October 2014, but is still quite relevant for Halloween fun.
In pagan times, Halloween or "Samhain", meaning "summer's end" in Gaelic, marked the time of year when people believed the boundaries between the physical and supernatural worlds were at their thinnest. They built bonfires and wore masks to communicate with spirits and prepare for the coming winter. These days, while Halloween often means getting a tarty costume from Spirit Halloween and a pumpkin-flavored latte at your favorite coffee shop, it remains the most bewitching time of year. The air sharpens and cools and the leaves blush and drop to the ground. As the daylight gets a little shorter, and the shadows get a little longer, Halloween lurks just around the corner.
Before you go out to your favorite haunted house or visit your favorite witchy woman this year, be sure to have the proper monster music handy. The supernatural has inspired some exceptional and creative tunes, so it's not difficult to find the perfect song to spice up a dark autumn evening. The following list includes 12 solid staples, comprised of classics as well as a few lesser-known tracks, to add to your playlist this Halloween. Well-known or not, they all capture the essence of Halloween, from the nostalgia of childhood trick-or-treating to the superstitions we still harbor as adults. While this list is only 12 songs long, there are numerous spooky numbers that could have been added to it, so feel free to add your Halloween favorites in the comments section below.
12. Stevie Wonder – "Superstition" (Talking Book, 1972)
In 1972, Stevie Wonder's single about the risks of believing in superstitions reached number one on the US charts. The song, which was originally written with Jeff Beck, laments superstitions such as breaking mirrors, the number 13, and walking under a ladder. Beck, who co-wrote the song, did not play on Wonder's single and released his own version later on. Beck's version was eclipsed by Wonder's, which reportedly caused tension between the two musicians. Released on Wonder's Talking Book album, "Superstition" is funky and highly danceable, perfect for getting down on the dance floor with your favorite ghoul.
11. Bauhaus – "Bela Lugosi's Dead" ("Bela Lugosi's Dead" single, 1979)
In 1979, this was the first single released by gothsters Bauhaus. The tune, which is a tribute to Dracula star Bela Lugosi, was recorded live in one take, resulting in a nine-minute creep fest replete with clanging guitar, clacking sounds reminiscent of bat wings, and a morose bassline while Peter Murphy sings "Undead, undead, undead".
The tune first became a pop culture mainstay when it was featured in the 1983 horror flick, The Hunger, starring David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve as bloodthirsty, sex-starved vampires who feed on Susan Sarandon. The band appeared in the film during the opening credits as a club act who lurk around menacingly inside a cage while playing the song. In time for the release of the film, the song was edited and resulted as a promotional 7" single. Verifying the song lives on, bassist David J. released a cinematic interpretation of the song titled "Bela Lugosi's Dead (Undead Is Forever)" last Halloween.
10. Cat Power – "Werewolf" (You Are Free, 2003)
The fifth song on Cat's Power's 2003 album, You Are Free is cover of a song called "Werewolf" by American folk singer Michael Hurley. Chan Marshall makes the song her own with the use of dark, moody strings, arranged by David Campbell (Warren Ellis of the Dirty Three plays violin). Marshall condenses Hurley's lyrics, pressing the song into a hard little diamond of pining desire. When she sings, "Nobody knows my pain / When I see that it's risen – that full moon again" in her quiet, husky voice amid the sustained echo of the cello, it goes straight to the heart. You can almost picture Marshall walking through a moonlit forest, looking for her werewolf.
9. The Ramones – "Pet Sematary" (Brain Drain, 1989)
One of the biggest hits for the Ramones, "Pet Sematary" was originally written for Stephen King's 1989 movie of the same name. King is said to be a fan of the band and was friends with Joey Ramone when Joey was living. The song directly references the book, published in 1983, which King made into the film. When Joey sings, "I follow Victor to the sacred place / This ain't a dream, I can't escape", he is referring to character, Louis Creed, who moves to Ludlow, Maine, and follows dead stranger Victor Pascow to the pet cemetery (misspelled "sematary") behind Louis's new home and warns Louis not to go beyond it. Only the Ramones could make a song about bringing the dead back to life into an upbeat pop punk anthem.
8. Bobby “Boris“ Pickett – "Monster Mash" (The Original Monster Mash, 1962)
Bobby Boris Pickett released Halloween favorite, "Monster Mash", in 1962. It's not much of a surprise to learn that Pickett was an actor who was well-known for doing Boris-Karloff-as-Frankenstein imitations. Turning his talents into a song made "Monster Mash" a number one hit in the US the week prior to Halloween in 1962. Sung from the point of view of a mad scientist, much like Dr. Frankenstein, the tune is about a monster that rises from the slab one night to do a new dance called the "Monster Mash". Consequently, the dance catches on with all the ghouls, including Wolfman and Dracula who shakes his fist wondering, "Whatever happened to my Transylvania Twist?"
Several artists have covered the song, including the Beach Boys, the Misfits, and Boris Karloff himself on a 1965 episode of Shindig!. Pickett performed the song on American Bandstand in October 1964, making facial expressions that could put Jim Carrey to shame.
7. Siouxsie and the Banshees – "Halloween" (Juju, 1981)
When Siouxsie and the Banshees released their fourth studio album Juju in 1981, the album revealed its roots in dark material. With titles like “Voodoo Dolly“, “Head Cut“, “Sin in My Heart“, and “Spellbound“, it was clear there was a theme. In 2007, The Guardian stated “the Banshees honed their trademark aloof art rock to its hardest and darkest pitch on Juju". Among the tracks on Juju is “Halloween“. The song, while a fun sing-a-long with the line: “Trick or treat, trick or treat, the bitter and the sweet“, is also a contemplation on the loss of innocence. As Siouxsie Sioux sings, “The carefree days are distant now I wear my memories like a shroud“, John McGeoch's caustic guitar punctures the song alongside Steve Severin's fluctuating bass and Budgie's steadfast rhythm, making the song a poignant and eerie mediation on Halloween.
6. Alice Cooper – "Welcome to My Nightmare" (Welcome to My Nightmare, 1975)
When Alice Cooper released his concept album Welcome to My Nightmare in 1975, it would mark the first time Cooper, whose real name is Vincent Damon Furnier, would record as a solo artist rather than with a band under the name "Alice Cooper". The solo album boasts Cooper classics like "The Black Widow", "Devil's Food", and "Only Women Bleed". The opening song, which shares the album's title, is one of Cooper's most well-known. It is also a departure from his earlier grittier sound, blending components of jazz, funk, hard rock, and even disco. When Cooper sings, "Welcome to my breakdown, I hope I didn't scare you" it sounds like he's just torn himself free from the straightjacket he began wearing in his theatrical 1976 "Welcome to My Nightmare" live show. Cooper would later reveal his tongue-in-cheek sense of humor by performing the song on The Muppet Show in 1978.
5. Warren Zevon – "Werewolves of London" (Excitable Boy, 1978)
One of the most recognizable piano riffs in the world belongs to Warren Zevon's 1978 hit, "Werewolves of London". The song, which features John McVie and Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac on bass and drums, is a humorous romp through London on the heels of a well-bred werewolf. The tune stayed in the US Top 40 for six weeks in the spring of 1978 and has since become a classic, not only for its catchy piano line but also for its witty lyrics. As Zevon sings in a flippant tone: "I saw a werewolf drinking a Piña Colada at Trader Vic's / And his hair was perfect", it's hard not to crack a smile.
The song has been covered by a host of artists, ranging from Jackson Browne (who produced the original) to T-Bone Burnett as well as the Grateful Dead.
The video that accompanies the song depicts Zevon at his piano, surrounded by his band, intersected with shots of a well-dressed werewolf walking around a dark city, presumably in search of "a big dish of beef chow mein".
4. Santana – "Black Magic Woman" (Abraxis, 1970)
Originally written and recorded as a Fleetwood Mac song, "Black Magic Woman" became most well known as a Santana hit. The Santana version, which mixes Latin influences, blues, and jazz, includes an instrumental at the end titled "Gypsy Queen" by Hungarian jazz guitarist Gabor Szabo. The song became one of Santana's biggest hits, reaching #4 on the US charts while the album Abraxas reached #1. In addition to the renowned guitar solos, Santana's rendition employs an earthy organ, Cuban timbales, and conga, giving the song its air of voodoo. When keyboardist Gregg Rolie (who later joined Journey in 1973) sings "got your spell on me, baby", the song may make you want to break out the black candles.
3. Classics IV – "Spooky" (Spooky, 1967)
This clever song about a "spooky little girl" was originally an instrumental arranged by saxophonist Mike Sharpe. The most recognized version, however, is by Southern soft rock band Classics IV, who added lyrics and propelled the song to the top of the US charts in 1968. The song has since been covered by a long list of artists including Dusty Springfield, Andy Williams, R.E.M, Imogene Heap, and Lydia Lunch. The song, about a moody, mysterious girl, has a coy melody and an eerie whistle that accompanies Dennis Yost's voice. When he sings: "Just like a ghost, you've been a-hauntin' my dreams / So I'll propose on Halloween" it's no doubt the tune belongs on every Halloween mix.
2. Nick Cave – "Red Right Hand" (Let Love In, 1994)
The sharp bell and lurking bass that open Nick Cave's "Red Right Hand" set the sinister tone of the song right up front. Written about a shadowy figure lurking around town, the song from Cave's Let Love In album becomes even more chilling with the addition of Cave's tense and menacing vocals. When he sings, "Take a little walk on the edge of town and go across the tracks", you know it can't end well. In the liner notes of Cave's ninth studio album Murder Ballads, it states the "red right hand" alludes to John Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost and signifies the merciless hand of God.
Howe Gelb, whose band Giant Sand covered the track on their 2002 album Cover Magazine, sums up the song best when he told Uncut magazine, "The lyric content is maniacal. Dubious. A cold sweat begins to break out when you wonder how that hand got so red." The song has been featured in a number of TV shows and movies including The X-Files and Scream. It has also been covered by artists such as Arctic Monkeys, Pete Yorn, and the aforementioned Giant Sand.
1. Screamin' Jay Hawkins – "I Put a Spell on You" (At Home With Screamin' Jay Hawkins, 1956)
When outlandish blues performer Screamin' Jay Hawkins released "I Put a Spell on You" in 1956, it didn't make much of a splash. In fact it didn't even chart. Since its release, however, the song has become a smash and Hawkins's biggest hit. The song cemented Hawkins's reputation as an eccentric performer. According to Contemporary Musicians: Profiles of the People in Music by Julia Rubiner, Hawkins originally recorded the song as a straightforward love ballad, but when the producer "brought in ribs and chicken and got everybody drunk", Hawkins came out with the "weird" version. His voice is spellbinding (pun intended), sliding between hacking screams, grunting, and operatic refrains. Hawkins said he discovered he "could do more destroying a song and screaming it to death". Following his revelation, Hawkins began wearing a long cape and tusks in his nose, and putting on shows that incorporated voodoo props, coffins, and a smoking skull named "Henry". His outlandish performances predate Alice Cooper's and Ozzy Osbourne's horror-themed antics, and made Hawkins a pioneer as a shock artist.
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