Go for Halloween. There is both more Halloween music than you would think and sufficiently little of it that people are forced to include “Bad Moon Rising" on their Halloween playlists. What you need to do is make a conceptual Frankenstein-themed album, and the plays will come rolling in. (Also, Lil Nas X, if you are reading this, you would be very good at it!)
But, in the absence of any artists who will listen to me about this, I have arranged a playlist of the songs of the Halloween canon, and gone ahead and ranked them, too.
50. “The Wobblin’ Goblin," by Rosemary Clooney: I am only sorry that by virtue of mentioning this song for this list, I may have made people aware of this song who previously weren’t. Your life may be going well; it may be going poorly; one thing I will guarantee is that hearing “The Wobblin’ Goblin” will make it worse. I hesitate to throw around phrases like “a crime against all reason and civilization,” but this song has no redeeming characteristics whatsoever yet still immediately gets stuck in your head. The universe it sets up makes no sense, one in which goblins are riding around on broomsticks but also responsive to air-traffic control, and buying an airplane is a logical solution to having a broken broom. Why wouldn’t the goblin just buy another broom that wasn’t broken? Was this sponsored by Big Air Travel?
49. “Punky Punkin,” by Roy Rogers: It is possible I did too much research to find specifically Halloween songs that had fallen into obscurity. I like this one, personally, but it is not the kind of song you can easily argue is “better” than “other songs.” It, too, sets up a confusing cosmology, in which “Punky Pumpkin’s a happy pumpkin, and do you know why? 'Cause he’s a jack-o’-lantern instead of being a pumpkin pie!” This fascinates me. I, personally, would prefer to be cooked swiftly and mercifully into something nourishing than to slowly wither and rot in the elements with a lit candle inside me.
48. “This House is Haunted,” by Roy Fox: I am blazing through the hottest Halloween hits of the early 20th century, but I think these songs are real bangers! Could you party to this? Depends on the party. Not the kind of party where people are having a good time in the present, but definitely the kind of party where you are a ghost swaying silently on an abandoned dance floor while a haunted Victrola plays.
47. “Bogey Wail,” by Jack Hylton: This is from 1929, and you feel like a black-and-white cartoon who is about to encounter a dancing skeleton. When I played it for my husband, it seemed to make him very unhappy and rob him of his élan.
46. “The Phantom of the Opera,” from “The Phantom of the Opera”: Now we are getting into the second characteristic of any Halloween song ranking, which is pleading with the reader to accept songs as applicable. I think this should be a Halloween song. The song’s got a phantom in it (many songs have less!) and also opera, which is spooky! In what other art form do people sing incomprehensibly in what you hope is German, then die, as words float ominously over their heads?
45. “Confrontation," from “Jekyll and Hyde”: As long as I am stretching this list by the addition of Broadway songs, here is a song that is scary on multiple levels: It’s about Jekyll and Hyde fighting for control of their body, and also a reminder that David Hasselhoff once starred in this show on Broadway. Another great thing about the lyrics is that they force you to shout “no!” at yourself while you are singing (“I’ll live inside you forever! NO! with Satan himself at my side! NO!”), freeing the people trapped at your party to do other more useful tasks.
44. “Time Warp," from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”: On the way out of musicals so that people do not flee the party entirely, here is an actually enjoyable Halloween song. I appreciate a dance with clear, simple instructions.
43. “Little Shop of Horrors,” from “Little Shop of Horrors”: No, I lied, we are still in musicals. This is a good song, though! And the subject matter of the musical, for someone like me who is no good at taking care even of entirely domesticated houseplants, is terrifying. If the plants I have failed to adequately nourish ever decide to take their vengeance, I will not be long for this world.
42. “Zombie,” by The Cranberries: So, nine entries in, we have arrived at the third and worst category of Halloween song, which is a Song By A Mainstream Artist That Is Actually Just A Mainstream Song, But The Theme Of It Is Plausibly A Concept That You Would Associate With Halloween If You Were Making A Word Cloud. This, to me, is cheating, but this is the stuff of which most Halloween playlists are made, because a lot of these songs are, understandably, better than most deliberately written Halloween novelty songs. But Christmas doesn’t need to do this! You don’t see people at Christmas listening to “Red” by Taylor Swift on the grounds that red is one of the top two Christmas colors! Anyway, this is a good song, but it loses points for not in fact being about zombies. It’s about, like, the metaphor.
41. “Bad Moon Rising,” by Creedence Clearwater Revival: Again, if someone would just rewrite this song so that it had one lyric that made it weird to play at other times of year, I would be okay with it. “Don’t come 'round tonight, or it’s bound to take your life! There’s a bad moon on the rise!” Spooky stuff! All it needs is a single explicit connection to Halloween so that I understand it is committed.
40. “Transylvania Twist,” by Bobby Pickett: I want to give points to Boris “Bobby" Pickett, father of “The Monster Mash” (just wait), for actually writing Halloween music. “But wait,” you are saying. “Transylvania is just a place, after all. If they happen to have a traditional dance, it does not necessarily mean it is spooky. This sort of reduction of a place to the scariest story ever told involving it is why Salem, Massachusetts, is forced to host so many ghost tours. Why is this automatically a Halloween song?” Oh, no! I have invented a voice that will nitpick this list even further! I have created a monster!
39. “Witches, Witches, Witches,” by Andrew Gold: This is just the first entry from “Halloween Howls,” an album I maintain is an unqualified success. “Tell me more about Andrew Gold’s Halloween Howls, Alexandra!” I sure will! “Halloween Howls” is an entirely Halloween-based concept album by the songwriter behind the Golden Girls theme song. It is definitely geared toward kids, which is how I encountered it, but slowly, its terrific songs are creeping out of the children’s area and into the culture. I’m not being remunerated in any way!
38. “Monster,” by Imagine Dragons: I like this band because I like any artist whose name is an imperative. But this is another Halloween word cloud entry.
37: “The Monster,” by by Eminem and Rihanna: This song explicitly states that the singer is “friends” with the monster under her bed and gets along with the voices inside of her head, and this doesn’t really seem like horror, this just seems like someone who has had good success in therapy.
36. “Demons,” by Imagine Dragons: Imagine Dragons again? I have made a mistake. I was trying to set up something where all the songs about monsters and demons were arranged in a nice row, but I am regretting it now. I should have put “Call Me, Maybe” in this position. Why is it hard to look right at you, baby? Is the addressee a gorgon?
35. “You Belong With Me,” by Taylor Swift: “There is nothing remotely Halloween-adjacent about this song,” you say. Au contraire! Here is the only information we know about the narrator of this song: They sit on the bleachers during your high school’s sporting events. They are unlike your girlfriend. They feel that they know you better than she does, and they have “been there all along.” Are we sure, from any of these details, that this is even someone you know? Could this not be just a stranger who has become terrifyingly fixated on you and is now hanging around your school? Also, Taylor Swift is a fun addition to any playlist!
34. “People Are Strange,” by the Doors: This seems high for a song whose lyrics sound like the book report of someone who was assigned a Camus novel and didn’t quite have time to get through the whole thing: “People are strange, when you’re a stranger.”
33. “The Killing Moon,” by Echo & the Bunnymen: If songs about killing count, where is “Folsom Prison Blues”? This one has a lot of maundering about fate and free will, which I can do without. I guess the question of whether we possess free will is scary?
32. “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” by Blue Öyster Cult: Okay, now we’re just admitting all songs about death. This is the same confusion that has led to “Hallelujah” being included in Christmas playlists.
31. “Halloween Breakfast,” by Swagmond: I found this by mistake on CD Baby when it was still a site you could browse freely for gems, and I think it’s good enough to be 31st on a list like this. This song makes no bones about its subject matter (“Halloween breakfast! The scariest meal! Halloween breakfast! In the devil’s kitchen!”), and I cherish it for that. Also, it is under two minutes long, so by the time people have asked you to turn it off, it is over.
30. “Black Magic Woman,” by Santana: Once again: Is this a good song? Absolutely. Is it definitely a Halloween song? Absolutely not.
29. “Day-O,” by Harry Belafonte: This is the one from “Beetlejuice”!
28. “Love Potion Number 9,” by the Searchers: This gets points for being about the unqualified horror of discovering that your most intimate feelings are actually beyond your control. “I didn’t know if it was day or night. I started kissing everything in sight,” the singer informs us. “But when I kissed the cop down at 34th and Vine, he broke my little bottle of Love Potion Number 9.” Also, is breaking the bottle a sign that the cop thinks the singer is a nuisance, or is the cop trying to become exclusive?
27. “The Cringe,” from “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”: The only problem with this song about cringing at your own past actions and remarks is that the ratio of humorous spoken anecdote to singable hook is heavily skewed in favor of humorous anecdote, but it’s a nice fear-themed song set in a cemetery!
26. “The Purple People Eater,” by Sheb Wooley: Does this creature eat purple people or is he himself purple? There is some ambiguity about this until several verses in. (Fine, yes, I admit that the novelty songs currently in the Halloween canon are a bit subpar.)
25. “Batman, Wolfman, Frankenstein or Dracula,” by the Diamonds: She needs a monster movie to put her into the frame of mind for love. Her boyfriend accepts it, and that’s terrific. This is a specific problem that feels fresh and modern, and I like that there’s a vintage song about it. "If there’s a madman whose teeth are curled who grows a bedbug that wrecks the world, she gets romantic.” Impressively open communication!
24. “Feed My Frankenstein,” by Alice Cooper: Alice Cooper seems not to have gotten the memo that Frankenstein is the creator, not the monster. Or maybe this depiction of Frankenstein as a raging libido is the most withering indictment of Mary Shelley’s Modern Prometheus yet!
23. “Dragula,” by Rob Zombie: Rob Zombie (a solid name for an artist on a song list of this nature) is making certain to dig through the ditches and burn through the witches and jump in the back of his dragula. I hope a dragula is a car!
22. “When the Night Wind Howls,” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Ruddigore”: It’s got everything: Spectres on holiday! Ghosts’ high noon! Chimney cowls! Bats! Operetta is the scariest form of live entertainment because it combines everything that is scary about musicals with everything that is scary about opera, then takes away the subtitles yet is full of rapid unintelligible patter.
21. “Would You Love A Monsterman?” by Lordi: Finland’s cherished monster-metal Eurovision winners basically re-created the song from “Beauty and the Beast” as if sung by a Finnish monster metal rocker who wears a full-face disguise and platform shoes. The content is remarkably the same, though!
20. “Walking with a Ghost,” by Tegan and Sara: I think this is nice! You know, Tegan and Sarah do good work. Anyway, I’m sure my approval means a lot to them!
19. “Evil Woman,” by Electric Light Orchestra: See, if this song can be on the list, any song can be on the list. We’ve gone from the “Black Magic Woman” (at least somewhat specific) to the generic terror of … evil woman. Okay, John Milton.
18. Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique (The Creepy Part with the Bones and Things): Full disclosure: In college, I took a class designed to teach me to appreciate five distinct pieces of music, and this was one of them. It is from the era where they were convinced you could tell a very, very specific story using only orchestral music, and so I had to answer a lot of essay questions like “When do the witches enter?” and “Where is the funeral procession going?" and “Is the protagonist having his opium dream yet?” even though all you could hear was a bassoon making bassoon sounds. I don’t think the technology was there, Berlioz!
17. The Bach song That Goes DEEDLE-EEEEEE … Na-Na-Na-Na Naaaaaaaaaah Na: It has a name (Toccata and Fugue in D Minor), but you knew what it was. Eerie! And nobody is asking me to identify when the witches enter.
16. “Space Oddity,” by David Bowie: This man is dying in the vacuum of space! Yet somehow this song never makes it onto Halloween playlists. If we are going to seize songs at random and call them Halloween music, let us include this man dying in the vacuum of space.
15. “A Nightmare on My Street,” by DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince: Now this is a Halloween song! It has a Halloween plot, it’s catchy, and it offers everything from what I assume is a detailed summary of the “Nightmare on Elm Street” franchise to the threatened dream-death of the artist.
14. “Werewolves of London,” by Warren Zevon: It’s amazing how most classic songs about werewolves lead with other aspects of their lives than the lupine transformation. This one is about how nattily dressed they are. And the song is just novelty enough that it’s strange to play at any other time of year and has found a natural home in Halloween.
13. “Psycho Killer,” by Talking Heads: Again, a non-Halloween songs with an unfair advantage. A better use of surprise French lyrics than Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.”
12. “Superstition,” by Stevie Wonder: This is just a great, classic song. I will not repeat my Halloween word cloud argument again. It is better than “Purple People Eater,” so here it is.
11. “This is Halloween,” from “The Nightmare before Christmas”: Danny Elfman did everything right with this, and I have no notes. It says Halloween very clearly in the song; it lists spooky things; it reiterates that it is a Halloween song; it urges everyone to scream, repeatedly. Thank you, Danny Elfman. You have always understood the spirit of the season, even if you like glockenspiel-like instruments more than anyone ought to.
9. “Grim Grinning Ghosts,” by Buddy Baker: According to the Wikipedia page for this song, “grim-grinning ghost” is a quote from Shakespeare’s poem “Venus and Adonis”! I am glad that what I thought of as “the song from Disney’s Haunted Mansion” actually turned out to be “an erudite 1960s classic.” I do think that the lyrics’ repeated insistence that the grim grinning ghosts are “out to socialize” and only “pretend to terrorize” feels like the ghosts are gaslighting us.
8. “Monster,” by Kanye West: Nicki Minaj’s verse on this alone is tremendous enough to put it on any list, and then you can have the added terror of remembering what it turns out her stance on vaccination is.
7. “Ghostbusters," by Ray Parker Jr.: I like how this song turns the endeavors of the Ghostbusters into a series of non-rhetorical questions, some of which sound like the singer was told something about the plot in advance (“The invisible man sleeping in your bed”) and others of which suggest he had to make his best guess from the poster (“There’s something strange in your neighborhood! There’s something weird, and it don’t look good!”). Yet it works!
6. “The Addams Family” theme: This is an irresistible number! The snapping! The rhyming! The noises! It’s telling that we are several iterations into the Addams Family and their commercials are still coasting on the absolute infectiousness of this theme song.
5. “Thriller,” by Michael Jackson: It’s a quintessential Halloween song, assuming that you subscribe to the theory of ‘death of the creator’ and can enjoy it. But given what the video implies about death, death of the creator might not be enough.
4. “Disturbia,” by Rihanna: I am breaking my own rules. This is essentially a normal non-Halloween song, but it’s great! It’s spooky! It’s Rihanna! I am putting this at No. 4 in the hopes that she will make a whole album of this.
3. “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah,” from “30 Rock”: “Spooky, scary! Boys becoming men, men becoming wolves!” This song is why I urge people to make Halloween songs. They can enter the canon so easily and bring us such joy! Another werewolf song that stresses aspects of their lives other than transforming into animals at the full moon. Another werewolf triumph.
2. “Spooky, Scary Skeletons,” by Andrew Gold: I cannot overstate how satisfied I have felt over the last decade watching this song creep into the canon of Actually Listened-To Adult Halloween Songs because of its irresistible bone noises and catchy vibe. You simply cannot beat the opening xylophone riff, and it only gets better from there.
1. “The Monster Mash,” by Bobby Pickett: This song contains clanking and bubbling, which more songs ought to contain. I once had to drive people to a writing retreat and I put on a playlist of what I thought would be numerous, varied Halloween songs, and instead it was mostly “The Monster Mash,” and everyone in the car still had a good time! Well, I had a good time, and no one else physically ejected themselves from the car, which is about all you can hope for with a Halloween playlist. Maybe by next year, someone will have made the breakthrough we deserve.