Halloween, other than Christmas, is the holiday most identified with music. Which makes sense as the supernatural imagery of All Hallows Eve lends itself to the already often macabre lyrics of genres like metal, industrial, punk and even good old fashioned rock n’ roll. So if you’re hosting a party or just want to give your porch an atmospheric soundtrack, here’s our guide to the best Halloween songs to set the spooky mood.
The Classics – You Know Them, You Love Them, They’re Must Haves
1. Bobby “Boris” Pickett and The Crypt Kickers – “The Monster Mash”
If there is one song that is the epitome of Halloween, it’s this novelty hit from 1962. Yeah it’s a bit overplayed, but it’s actually a pretty good song with some solid rock drumming and the girl group style backing vocals which are the best part of the track. The lyrics and Dracula-like delivery are goofy fun that make it an enduring favorite, even if the dance never quite caught on, in a flash or otherwise.
2. Michael Jackson – “Thriller”
It’s the title track of what is widely regarded as one of the greatest albums of all time, and also was an early video that pushed the boundaries of the format. Beyond that, it’s a supremely funky ode to all things that go bump in the night. If you do end up dropping this at your party, make sure you study up on the “Thriller dance” moves that MJ and his zombie friends bust out in the video so you can recreate them. Vincent Price’s rap at the end pushes the whole thing over the edge into absolutely legendary status.
3. Oingo Boingo – “Dead Man’s Party”
Oingo Boingo have a few Halloween themed tracks, including the title song on the Weird Science soundtrack, but they’ll probably be remembered best for this zombie themed hit. Oddly enough, it was a tie in for the Rodney Dangerfield vehicle Back to School with the band even appearing in the film. Regardless, it’s the epitome of undead themed fun with stabbing horns, so to speak, and Danny Elfman’s catchy chorus.
4. Ray Parker Jr. – “Ghostbusters”
It’s one of the funniest movies of all time and the theme song was a huge hit in the summer of 1984. So much so that Huey Lewis filed a lawsuit over similarities to his “I Want a New Drug“. Plagiarism aside, it’s a little slice of ’80s pop perfection with spooky synths, funky horns and a call and response chorus of “Who you gonna call?/Ghostbusters” that gave smart alecs fuel for decades.
Other Essentials – Not Quite as Obvious But Still Indispensable
5. Black Sabbath – “Children of the Grave”
The bulk of Black Sabbath’s catalog could be considered appropriate for Halloween, as are many of frontman Ozzy Osbourne’s solo tracks, in particular “Bark at the Moon“. But “Children of the Grave” not only fits the theme but showcases the precision of early Sabbath with percussive guitar riffs and impeccably tight drumming. It’s also one of the songs that would provide the blueprint for countless metal bands to come.
6. DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince – “Nightmare on My Street”
Back in the golden age of rap in the late ’80s, many of the best tracks were complete stories with a beginning, middle and end, and The Fresh Prince’s scary tale he spins on “Nightmare on My Street” is a classic example. Ok, it isn’t really all that scary as Will Smith’s rapping is as jokey as ever, but its Freddy Krueger referencing lyrics and samples from the soundtrack make it a no brainer, pun intended, for any Halloween gathering.
7. Blue Oyster Cult – “Don’t Fear the Reaper”
Here’s an interesting one, it was a moderate hit upon its release in 1976 and remained a classic rock radio staple forever after. But then in 2000, a Saturday Night Live sketch featuring Will Ferrell as an overzealous cowbell player egged on by an as always oddball Christopher Walken breathed new life into the song, pun once again intended. It’s no stretch to say it was the catalyst for one of the most memorable SNL sketches of all time, which alone makes it a hall of famer. The track itself is an excellent composition, combining floaty Byrds style vocals, an earworm guitar riff and yes, prominent cowbell. The flamenco style solo in the middle gives it a more sinister vibe than the rest of the track.
8. The Charlie Daniels Band – “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”
You ever notice that the devil probably should have won the fiddle off?
Obscurities – Under the Radar Picks
9. The Cure – “Lullaby”
Goth rockers The Cure are known for their sullen demeanor and eerie songs, but somehow this track off their 1989 masterpiece Disintegration gets a little lost in the shuffle. Vocalist Robert Smith describes a truly horrific encounter with a “spiderman”, but this is not the friendly neighborhood webslinger from comics and movies. No, instead it’s a nasty character that ends up literally devouring the hapless narrator. It’s not exactly lighthearted fun, but Smith and Co. perfectly capture the vibe of Halloween right down to the haunting vocals and synth strings. The video is stylishly creepy and you gotta love the wicked sense of humor in naming the track “Lullaby”.
10. Fela Kuti – “Zombie”
The king of Afrobeat effectively uses zombies as a metaphor to protest the tyranny of the Nigerian government on one of his best known songs. The typically lengthy groove goes through multiple sections and breakdowns featuring funky chicken scratch guitar, his signature electric piano and jazzy horns. If your Halloween gathering ends up being a dance party, this one will keep the crowd moving.
Bonus Tracks – The Halloweenesque
Pink Floyd – “Run Like Hell”
It’s not overtly about Halloween, but this highlight from the epic 1979 album The Wall is scary enough with its warnings to the listener to “run all day and run all night” and to “park the car well out of sight” in order to avoid the vengeance of Gestapo-like authorities. The shrieking synth solo is right out of a midnight horror movie and cements its status as an unsettling but uptempo affair. If you really want to get dark, keep the album rolling with the next track, “Waiting for the Worms”. Just kidding, don’t do that.
Tom Waits – “What’s He Building”
If you’re looking to freak out trick-or-treaters, or anyone for that matter, try this creepy tale of a neighbor that’s up to some disturbingly secretive work in his domicile. The jarring sound effects and Waits’ gravely delivery make for a song that isn’t necessarily designed for Halloween, but sure seems like it would fit right in as the music for a haunted house or anytime you are just looking to get extremely weird.