October is here, and for anyone with a bit of a penchant for the macabre, that means it’s time to celebrate Halloween.
This global celebration that honors the dead has its roots in other seasonal festivals like Samhain (pronounced sah-win) and Día de Los Muertos, which mark the end (or “death”) of the warm harvest season and welcome the colder, darker days ahead. These holidays are often marked by feasts, bonfires, and costuming that all acknowledge the thinning boundaries between our world and the world of spirits.
If you’re hosting a Halloween party this season, odds are you want some great music to enjoy with your crew. Well, me too, my friends. And while there is a time and a place for the classics like “The Monster Mash,” “Ghostbusters,” or Marilyn Manson’s cover of “This Is Halloween,” I needed something with a little more stomp this year.
In crafting the playlist below, I focused on electronic dance (EDM) tracks with a spooky tone and a little bit of an edge. This is a party after all, and I like to jump around like a wild creature when I’m celebrating the harvest. You’ll find lots of driving bass, glitchy synths, haunting melodies, and occasional lyrical nods to the darker side of life.
Enjoy the next mix!
Press play to listen on Spotify while you read along (or just dance).
1. “The Girl and the Robot” (2009) is one of a number of collaborations between Röyksopp & Robyn. It follows the woes of a woman who is trapped in a relationship with an emotionally distant partner (or a literal robot, depending on your interpretation 🤖). The choral backup weaves a layer of apocalyptic ambience, and the chord progression (Dm-F-Ab-Am-G-F-Dm-Am-Dm) takes unexpected turns that pull the listener deeper into the song’s expansive cocoon.
2. “Ghosts ’n’ Stuff” (2009) by deadmau5 feat. Rob Swire was written in a creepy hotel in London. It describes an out-of-body experience, which can be interpreted either as a transcendent sensual encounter or as the literal transition into spirit form, as the song’s title suggests. The song’s rhythmic drive definitely takes you to a different plane.
3. “Insomnia” (2019) shows the more anxious side of Daya. Best known for her songs “Hide Away” and “Sit Still, Look Pretty,” Daya has added greatly to the catalogue of incredible feminist dance music. In “Insomnia,” she struggles with an all-too-common affliction, unable to sleep at night without her lover nearby.
4. “Giga Dance” (2004) is a song by Deerhoof off their concept album, “Milk Man,” which follows a disturbing cartoon character who kidnaps children and hides them in the clouds. The rolling thunder of tom-toms resonates deeply throughout the recording, while guitars clang out rhythmic discord. Satomi Matsuzaki’s sweet melodic singing, though, is more haunting than any of the chaos coming from the organ or guitars.
5. “Poison” (2014) by Dance With The Dead comes off the group’s 4th album Send the Signal, which hooks the listener into a sonic journey with a driving pulse. This independent synthwave duo creates instrumental worlds that evoke the soundtrack to a John Carpenter horror movie that you can dance your ass off to. There’s an almost chiptune quality to their music, and they trace melodies through genuinely spooky textures that raise the 80’s from the dead in a whole new instantiation.
6. “REDLIGHT” (2019) is a gloomy hip hop track from NGHTMRE and A$AP Ferg. A horn section and choir introduce the song’s tone with a vibe like “O Fortuna.” A$AP Ferg mostly spits self-aggrandizing braggadocio verses, hyping himself and demanding, “No debatin’, crown me king, I’m tired of waitin’.” He also references A$AP Rocky’s track “Pretty Flacko,” lifting a nearly identical hook from his fellow A$AP Mob member.
7. “Becoming Harmonious” (2014) is the perfect way to reach enlightenment via electronica. I’ve been following The Glitch Mob since my friend Kennon shared their killer instrumental track “Drive It Like You Stole It.” A few years into my obsession, I had the opportunity to use their music in the sound design for Sean Graney’s These Seven Sicknesses, an updated interpretation of Sophocles’ plays. Their music is truly epic in scale, which is enhanced by the unique timbre that they can achieve with The Blade—a digital instrument that merges a taiko drum with the bass rumble of 21st century EDM. If you get the chance, check out their live shows for a vibration in your chest that you can’t quite get anywhere else.
8. “Dark Horse” (2013) by Katy Perry feat. Juicy J is inspired by the movie The Craft (1996) and is written from the perspective of a witch trying to warn a man not to fall in love with her, because she would be his last lover. Juicy’s verse basically validates Perry’s supernatural sexual power, complete with a reference to serial killer cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer. This August, Katy Perry actually lost a copyright lawsuit to a Christian rap group over “Dark Horse” that many in the music industry worry goes too far in letting an artist own the basic building blocks of music (in this instance, a descending minor scale with a very basic rhythm behind it). Scary indeed.
9. “Diabolical” (1999) comes at you from the twisted thoughts of Mindless Self Indulgence frontman Jimmy Urine. The few lyrics that appear are essentially a series of quotes from classic hip hop tracks like Just-Ice’s “Cold Gettin’ Dumb” (1986) and BeatNuts’ “Reign of the Tec” (1993). MSI has a number of controversial songs, but this is one of the more lyrically wholesome ones, with a driving beat and haunting string section that is truly diabolical.
10. “Turbo Killer” (2017) is a track released by French musician Carpenter Brut, in the same synth wave family as Dance With the Dead. Here the John Carpenter reference is explicit, the melodic arpeggios are reminiscent of Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” (the theme from The Exorcist (1973)), and the organ conjures up textures of some of the most classic horror movie soundtracks, such as the use of Bach’s “Tocatta and Fugue in D minor” in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931).
11. “Get Down” (2012) by P.O.S. (feat. Mike Mictlan) is the best nihilist hip hop anthem you’ll find out there. Its gloriously glitchy beat lays the foundation for some seriously cerebral lyrics that deserve their own reading with commentary on Genius. With the political climate being what it is the past few years, it’s hard not to feel that, as Mictlan says, “It’s all bad.” We rage against the machine, we fight the power, we work on a slow revolution for the rights of all people. But when we walk home from battle at the end of the day, what else is there to do but dance—“I don’t wanna think about it, I just wanna get down.” Though there’s a glimmer of hope with impeachment. There’s a glimmer of hope with Greta.
12. “Tigerlily” (2009) is a song by the duo that brought you “Bulletproof”—La Roux. The song is about stalking a lover, and its chaotic minor-key synth arpeggios definitely create an atmosphere of dark obsession. Front-person Elly Jackson’s father actually delivers the spoken word section in the middle, which hearkens back to Vincent Price’s monologue on Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”
13. “Human Behavior” (1993) remains one of Björk’s most danceable tracks. Björk wrote the melody for this track when she was a kid and set it aside while she sang in a punk band called The Sugarcubes, reviving it once she struck out on her own experimental path. The song itself is written from the perspective of a child or animal observing how humans interact. Many of us can relate to that sense of being an outsider, watching other humans from an external, somewhat alienated vantage point.
14. “This Is The New Shit” (2003) screams Marilyn Manson in a raging and ironic declaration. The lyrics of this song (including “babble babble” and “bla bla bla”) have a placeholder nature akin to Blues Traveler’s “Hook” or “Do It Again” by Röyksopp & Robyn, both of which essentially just describe the mechanics of the song being performed. The most sincere message in “New Shit” comes through in the lines, “Everything has been said before,” and “Tomorrow’s never coming,” which voice the sardonic pessimism in which the song deeply indulges. No dance track is ever going to fully satisfy your search for meaning, and pop music is ultimately a capitalist grab for attention, but hey, “Let us entertain you.” With industrial beats by Tim Sköld and glitchy distorted guitar riffs engineered by Manson, the track—while no longer actually “new shit”—is nothing if not entertaining.
15. “Heavy Metal and Reflective” (2014) has Azealia Banks playing the braggadocio game, hyping herself as a new fresh rapper on the scene. This track came out at the peak of the feud between Azealia Banks and Iggy Azalea. Both named after a delicate pink flower, their fierce rivalry centers on Banks’ contention that Iggy, as a white woman from Australia, is appropriating a primarily black music. Indeed, Iggy has a history of making racist and homophobic comments on Twitter, so Banks’ criticisms are pretty valid. While “Heavy Metal and Reflective” is not directly pointed at Iggy Azalea, she’s positioning herself as “V.I.P.” with other rappers like Iggy on the “guest list.” She also features a dramatic reading of the misquoted version of “On the Other Side of the Eye” by William Blake, as featured in Blade Runner (1982).
16. “BOOM” (2017) by Tiësto and Sevenn feat. Gucci Mane has a vocal bass line that approaches Tuvan throat singing or the bass-heavy beatboxing of Rahzel. The track was originally an instrumental sensation on the club scene, and this remix marked Gucci’s first foray into EDM. His lyrics expound on the perks of his hedonistic lifestyle, exemplified by his stated motto, “You can’t take it with you.”
17. “Firestarter” (1996) by The Prodigy is a veritable symphony of samples, layering Art of Noise on top of The Breeders and The Chemical Brothers (check out this video if you want to go down the rabbit hole on a reconstruction). The song’s title will remind horror fans of the 1984 movie, Firestarter, based on the Stephen King novel. The song marked the moment when Keith Flint transitioned from being a dancer in The Prodigy to being the group’s frontman. Following Flint’s death earlier this year, “Firestarter” climbed back up to number 13 on Billboard’s EDM digital charts, partly due to fans on social media working to promote suicide prevention. On that note, if someone you know exhibits warning signs of suicide, call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or use their online chat.
18. “Teleport Massive” (2009) by Bassnectar feat. Zumbi truly lives up to the “Bassnectar” moniker, with a glitchy bass line that will shake your bones with the right subwoofer. The lyrics are mostly an expression of style and aesthetics, but perfectly compliment the instrumentals in creating a wicked vibe.
19. “Heads Will Roll – A-Trak Radio Edit” (2009) by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs is a remix of their hit based on the classic story Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Specifically, the song is from the perspective of the villainous Red Queen, as sung by front-woman Karen O. The line, “Dance ‘tll you’re dead,” also seems to be a reference to the ballets Giselle and The Rite of Spring, or else to the actual historical Dancing Plague of 1518 in which people literally danced themselves to death. To anyone who has heard this song drop at a party after 2am, the possibility of dancing ‘til you’re dead seems very real.
20. “you should see me in a crown” (2018) was the moment that Billie Eilish claimed her royalty at age 16. The song was inspired by a line from the BBC series Sherlock, spoken by Moriarty (i.e. “Hot Priest” actor Andrew Scott)—“Honey, you should see me in a crown.” Released almost a year before her debut studio album, the song exemplifies the deeply dark, trap-influenced sound for which Eilish is now globally famous.
21. “Please” (1999) comes off of my favorite Nine Inch Nails album, The Fragile. NIN frontman Trent Reznor helped make the industrial genre mainstream. Notably, the NSFW music video for the song “Closer” (directed by Mark Romance) was one of the most controversial videos ever to air on MTV (albeit in a censored version) and is also considered one of the best music videos of all time. In recent years, Reznor has partnered with Atticus Ross on the soundtracks for films like The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. “Please” follows a protagonist who feels that something outside of himself is driving his compulsions. He struggles with whether these desires are truly a part of him or something external, and laments that they will “never be enough to fill me up.” Reznor went into recovery for drug addiction following the release of The Fragile, and this song seems to reflect the struggles of addiction among other things. If you know anyone struggling with drug addiction or other mental health issues, they can call SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-622-HELP (4357) or explore the resources on the SAMHSA website.
22. “Die Young” (2017) by Sylvan Esso has probably the most romantic narrative in this mix. Nick Sanborn’s bass-heavy synths undergird the song with a heartbeat rhythm as Amelia Meath sings about how she must give up her reckless thrill-seeking behavior in order to stay alive for the one that she loves. Immediately following the bridge, we get a compressed drum beat that is almost a carbon copy of the dramatic climax of Phil Collins’ historic “In The Air Tonight,” which essentially single-handedly determined the sound of the 1980’s—an era that has seen a major resurgence in recent years (see The Nostalgia Pendulum).
23. “Bring the Madness – Noisestorm Remix” (2015) is a track by Pegboard Nerds & Excision (feat. Mayor Apeshit). Mayor Apeshit lays down some serious flow, echoing the style of Mos Def in tracks like “I Against I.” Enjoy the rhymes and T-Rex imagery.
24. “I Feel Cream” (2009) by Peaches takes us through the early stages of a flirtatious physical encounter. I was first introduced to Peaches’ music through the movie Lost In Translation (2003), which uses her song “Fuck the Pain Away” in the strip club scene. I remember thinking this was a sound like nothing I’d ever heard before—raw, abrasive, and unabashedly explicit. In “I Feel Cream,” we follow Peaches through a more low-key seduction across a crowded room. Elements of control and domination play a role in the verses as the intensity of the music builds in parallel with the foreplay.
25. “Help I’m Alive” (2009) by Metric describes a familiar sensation for anyone who has dealt with anxiety or imposter syndrome or panic attacks. Singer-songwriter Emily Haines wrote the song in Buenos Aires while contemplating her next album and struggling with the pressure that came from fans’ and critics’ expectations of who she ought to be. “I’m really scared,” Haines said during the songwriting process, “And I don’t know where my life is going and I don’t know what I’m doing.” Preach.
26. “The Hills” (2015) by The Weeknd takes us back into the territory of drug use and obsession. Here, the narrator plays the role of agitator, trying to woo a woman who is already in a relationship, using tactics like late-night phone calls and creeptastic remarks about having sex with other women before arriving (“women” is not the word used). Sources debate whether the woman who is the focus of the song is Ariana Grande, Bella Hadid, or neither. Also, for horror fans, it will be hard not to think of the movie The Hills Have Eyes (1977 for the original, 2006 for the remake), though it’s unclear whether the reference is intentional, since the song is focused on the Hollywood Hills and the phrase predates the movie.
27. “I’m Afraid of Americans” (1997) is a song that David Bowie co-wrote with Brian Eno that professes the fear that many of us feel—even Americans. Bowie recalls being in Java when the first McDonald’s was built, remarking, “For fuck’s sake…It strangles the indigenous culture and narrows expression of life.” The fierce power that the dominant American culture holds over the world is frightening indeed. “Johnny wants to suck on a Coke,” perhaps unaware of the rise in diabetes that Coca Cola has contributed to worldwide, or the environmental impacts of water extraction that equally intensifies health crises and profits for Coca Cola, or the 3 million tons of plastic packaging that Coca Cola produces every year that ends up in the digestive system of whales and other marine life. “I’m Afraid of Americans” delivers, in succinct verbiage, a villain in the form of the capitalist exploitation of America.
28. “Dangerous – Oliver Remix” (2013) by Big Data kicks up the beat to a song from their EP 1.0. “Dangerous” was also included on their masterpiece concept album 2.0, which included collaborations with the likes of Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo and M83’s Morgan Kibby. Big Data’s music centers around privacy, surveillance, and the rise of artificial intelligence. Big Data frontman Alan Wilkis has discussed being influenced by the Snowden revelations, details from his friend who worked at Facebook, and the mood experiments that Facebook ran in 2014. “Dangerous” centers around a man afraid of government surveillance, feeling as though his every move is being watched. And in these times of rampant mass surveillance, who hasn’t felt that way?
Listen to the whole playlist on Spotify here: