If you’re the type of person who leaves Christmas shopping until the very last minute, you’re probably also inclined to wait until just before Halloween to make a super-spooky playlist. In both cases, shame on you!
Fortunately for you, I’m willing to help out on at least one of those fronts. So here is a selection of 20 songs that will spice up any Halloween party, get-together, or evening spent sitting alone in the dark hoping all those scary teenagers won’t egg your house again. There’s even a handy Spotify playlist at the end.
As for Christmas, I can only tell you to stop buying gifts at Brookstone. That’s a bunch of overpriced junk.
#1. “Monster Mash” – Bobby (Boris) Pickett and the Crypt-Kickers
Sometimes the obvious choices are obvious for a reason. They just don’t do kitschy novelty tunes like they used to. And in case you were wondering, this hit #1 for two weeks in 1962.
#2. “I Put a Spell on You” – Screamin’ Jay Hawkins
Some days I actually prefer the more straight-laced CCR take, but it’s hard to beat Hawkins’ demonic screeching. This is a great mix of fun and macabre.
#3. “Thriller” – Michael Jackson
I still remember getting my mind blown when the full-length version of this video came out. It helps that the song is one of MJ’s very best as well. Oh yeah, and how can you go wrong with Vincent Price narration?
#4. “Blues for Dracula” – Philly Joe Jones Sextet
That’s Jones himself turning in his gamest Bela Lugosi impression. Truly, the children of the night do make such beautiful music.
#5. “Halloween Theme-Main Title” – John Carpenter
The greatness of John Carpenter’s all-time horror masterpiece is only enhanced by the fact that he wrote and performed its score. The entire soundtrack is a masterclass in how music can be minimally arranged and terrifying at the same time, but the main theme is the best example.
#6. “End of the Night” – The Doors
Hey, just because a song isn’t explicitly tied to Halloween doesn’t mean it can’t be spooky. The haunting atmosphere on this is great.
#7. “Great Pumpkin Waltz” – Vince Guaraldi Trio
If I can find a way to include my favorite jazz pianist ever in a mix, I always will. As a bonus, this is a delicate and every so slightly haunting song.
#8. “Skeleton in the Closet” – Louis Armstrong
There is never a holiday where it’s not a wise move to play some Satchmo.
#9. “Black Sabbath” – Black Sabbath
Man, these guys just had the whole vibe nailed right from the start didn’t they? The rain, the rumbling thunder, the pealing of the bell, and the FUCKING DOOM.
#10. “A Nightmare on My Street” – DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince
Scary this is not, but as an homage to my favorite horror icon ever it works.
#11. “Zombie Jamboree (Back to Back)” – Harry Belafonte
You’ve probably already seen lots of Halloween playlist articles that go with “Jump in the Line” solely because it was used in Beetlejuice. How lazy is that?
#12. “Li’l Red Riding Hood” – Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs
Creepy, yes, but also about a million times less obnoxious than “Wooly Bully.”
#13. “Prelude” – Bernard Herrmann
This song, which played over the opening credits of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, is not only one of Bernard Herrmann’s crowning achievements, it’s legitimately unnerving. You can also hear the genesis for about 75% of Danny Elfman’s work.
#14. “Frankenstein” – The Edgar Winter Group
OK, so other than the title of this song its connection to Halloween as tenuous at best. But what other excuse do you need?
#15. “Toccata” – Emerson, Lake & Palmer
Halloween is all about excess if nothing else, so what better group to include here than the most self-indulgent prog rock band ever? Fortunately they turn in a seven-plus minute instrumental — based on the Fourth Movement of Alberto Ginastera’s 1st Piano Concerto — that manages to feel tight. The eerie little bridge section is icing on the creepy cake.
#16. “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” – Blue Öyster Cult
Something about this song has gnawed at me for years, like a haunting dream. Just what the hell is the need for the parentheses in the title?
#17. “Diary of a Madman” – Ozzy Osbourne
What really puts this over the top for me as a great Halloween track is the effective use of orchestration and Randy Rhoads’ ne0-classical guitar playing.
#18. “The Boogie Monster” – Gnarls Barkley
You know, come to think of it, Cee Lo Green does have a bit of a goblin look about him. But seriously, this is a great little campy number.
#19. “Nature Trail to Hell” – “Weird Al” Yankovic
What makes this song brilliant — like so much of Al’s music — is that while it’s clearly played for laughs there’s a deadly earnestness about it. But yeah, crank this at any Halloween party and any child of the ’80s should love it.
#20. “Whistlin’ Past the Graveyard” – Tom Waits
When none other than Screamin’ Jay Hawkins covers one of your songs, you know you’re doing something right. This Waits cut perfectly embodies the old-time spirit of fun and dread that great Halloween songs of yesterday did.