Music notes: Halloween songs to enjoy even if your Halloween is canceled

Michael Jackson stands with a group of dancers dressed as zombies while filming his 1983 video 'Thriller.' The song and video remain a Halloween staple.
Michael Jackson stands with a group of dancers dressed as zombies while filming his 1983 video 'Thriller.' The song and video remain a Halloween staple.

Credit: Corbis/CORBIS SYGMA

Credit: Corbis/CORBIS SYGMA

Two years ago, my husband and I looked at a calendar and determined that, yep, 2020 was the perfect year to return to our old stomping grounds in Richmond, Virginia, for a blowout Halloween party.

One of my dearest friends lives in a neighborhood that attracts thousands of trick-or-treaters. That is not a typo. Crowd estimates run between 10,000-20,000 every year — obviously leaning higher when Halloween falls on a weekend.

We – and many in our communal circle – sit on her front porch and hand out candy for hours. In shifts. Because, yes, there really are thousands and thousands of kids and adults traipsing up her walkway in an endless herd. It’s a lot of work — and expense. But totally worth it.

It’s the one day a year that even I find children adorable, especially the littlest ones enveloped in Winnie-the-Pooh onesies or sporting some type of animal tail.

So yeah, as my colleague Bo Emerson pointed out in a recent story, this Saturday night contained the ingredients for the perfect Halloween.

And yeah, Halloween on Hanover Avenue in Richmond has been canceled, like so many gatherings around the country and in Atlanta.

So, what will we be doing instead? Sitting on our couch (we live in an apartment, so trick-or-treaters are nonexistent) and watching MTV Classic, hoping they’ll be sharp enough to program some airings of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”

Or maybe we’ll craft our own Halloween playlist. If we do, these are some definite inclusions:

Oingo Boingo, “Dead Man’s Party”: The band, formed by idiosyncratic composer/songwriter Danny Elfman in the late-'70s, always teetered between charmingly quirky and utterly bizarre, and this goofy concoction boasts their usual blend of ska and pop with supplementary dashes of punk and New Wave. Even if you don’t think you know it – you do.

AC/DC, “Hells Bells”: The 1980 screecher from the Australian hard rockers has become a popular theme at sporting events (usually for a baseball player taking the plate). But the slow-tolling bell, creeping guitar and lightly echoing cymbals that introduce the song set a deliciously menacing tone.

The Hooters, “All You Zombies”: While it’s always tempting to add The Cranberries' “Zombie” to a Halloween playlist, this early-'80s track from Philly band The Hooters (“And We Danced”) is a more interesting zombie option. (How many other pop songs reference Moses and the Pharaoh?) The reggae-influenced synth song flopped upon its initial release but made a dent on the charts when re-released on the band’s 1985 “Nervous Night” album.

The Rolling Stones, “Sympathy for the Devil”: No matter the age of Mick Jagger, hearing him sneer, “Please allow me to introduce myself…” over a blanket of tribal percussion and striking piano chords should still send a chill down your neck. That said, the song remains a dazzling, visceral portion of the band’s live shows.

Bow Wow Wow, “I Want Candy”: The band’s ’80s cover of the 1960s Strangeloves hit wasn’t a traditional radio staple, but it became their signature song, a New Wave classic and a not-so-subtle demand on a “holiday” that exists because of our obsession with sugar.

Ozzy Osbourne, “Bark at the Moon”: Younger generations know Osbourne as the mumbling, shuffling grandpa who ruled an MTV reality show with adorable antics such as screaming at his trash can. But in the early 1980s, Osbourne scared the heck out of parents whose kids flocked to his melodic heavy metal and the title of this song (and album) was enough to perpetuate the wild man stereotype. Well, that and the whole biting off the head of a bat thing.

Marilyn Manson, “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”: The breakthrough smash for the Eurythmics in 1983 was transformed from New Wave pop anthem into a gleefully menacing threat by Manson. His 1995 rendition spurred his band’s commercial success; in recent years, the video has topped many a “scariest video ever” list.

Janet Jackson, “Black Cat”: Maybe not a Halloween song in the traditional sense, the sixth single from Jackson’s 1989 opus, “Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814” remains, in our humble opinion, her most muscular musical endeavor. With her snarling delivery couched in heavy guitar riffs, Jackson demonstrates her warrior instincts yet again. Also, black cats rule.

Blue Oyster Cult, “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”: Its theme – the inevitability of death – isn’t exactly cheery fodder, but the ’70s rockers crafted the ideal backdrop to their sad story: stacked choruses, minor chord riffing, deceptively perky “la la la la la” insertions, a prog-rock mid-song breakdown, and of course, more cowbell, please.

Mike Oldfield, “Tubular Bells (The Exorcist Theme”): With an ominous bass line bouncing off the piano, this is the ideal marriage of beauty and terror. Crafted by British composer Mike Oldfield in 1973, the song won a best instrumental composition Grammy Award in 1975.

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