Halloween is right around the corner, which means spooky tunes are in order. Instead of throwing on the same playlist of “Monster Mash,” “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” and “Ghostbusters,” consider blasting these creepy, not-at-all tacky songs from the past year—you might even discover one of your favorite new artists. From the horrorcore of Backxwash and Clipping to the punk spoken-word of Bambara and Sinead O’Brien, you’ll be able to set the mood and impress your music nerd friends. Scroll down to read about some of our favorite hair-raising songs of 2020.
To dive into all these recent tracks in one handy Spotify playlist, click here.
Sinister and calming sounds might seem mutually exclusive, but New York City’s Activity beg to differ. The experimental quartet’s debut album, Unmask Whoever, which came out earlier this year via Western Vinyl, delights with its warm psych-pop bluster, but sufficiently would deter me from graveyard listening due to its ominous undercurrents. Its dark, understated melodies and hushed vocals make it feel like a fever dream, but one where you’re weirdly comforted by the surreal, slow-moving confusion. The witchy lead single “Calls Your Name” led me to believe the album would contain 10 songs of nightmarish, sacrificial moods, but it’s actually an outlier in that regard. Unmask Whoever is a beautiful, detailed LP of wonder. —Lizzie Manno
Zambia-born, Canada-based artist Backxwash (and now Polaris Prize winner) dropped one of the creepiest rap albums of 2020 so far with God Has Nothing To Do With This Leave Him Out Of It. Ashanti Mutinta’s voice is threatening, both in her normal cadence and the contorted form used throughout her records. Her ferocity paired with off-kilter, spine-tingling beats is best experienced at night with eyes wide open, stored-up rage and a desire for bloodthirsty imagery. Unfortunately, you won’t find this specific album on Spotify due to the samples used, so we added an earlier Backxwash cut to our Spotify playlist, but rest assured, “Black Magic” and all her other 2020 songs still go hard. —Lizzie Manno
The villain of Bambara’s Stray is a rotund man who goes by the not-so-subtle nickname “Death,” and we’re clued in on his successful kills when he clutches mementos that belonged to his victims. Frontman Reid Bateh’s details place you right in the thick of things—almost so close that it’s chilling. You’re in the sleazy bar restroom where another character (and song) “Miracle” is admiring her inner lip tattoo as “spit crawls down her wrist” and in the car with Death as he sticks his hand out the window and rages at the first drop of rain (“Heat Lightning”). Images of a burning mill, a “yapping Shih Tzu riding shotgun,” lovers covered in ash and a machete “lodged in some young cop’s gut” all become easily palpable. —Lizzie Manno
Horrorcore trio clipping. (aka actor/rapper Daveed Diggs and producers Jonathan Snipes and William Hutson) bridge the gap between the bloodcurdling and socially conscious. The group released their latest album, the acclaimed There Existed an Addiction to Blood, last year, and they’re set to release another LP, Visions of Bodies Being Burned, this Friday (Oct. 23) via Sub Pop. “Say the Name,” the lead single from their forthcoming album, was inspired by the urban legend of the Candyman, a hook-handed former slave and now ghost who appears if his name is repeated in a mirror. Diggs contextualizes the original narrative with mentions of the war on drugs and the Great Migration, but preserves its chilling tale of love, lust and murder. It also centers on a looped lyric from Geto Boys’ 1991 track “Mind Playing Tricks on Me”: “Candlesticks in the dark, visions of bodies being burned,” which suits the song perfectly. —Lizzie Manno
Brighton trio CLT DRP recently released their debut album Without the Eyes, and it’s not for the faint of heart. Their freakish punk vocals ring out over aggressive electronic and industrial instrumentals, and it’s a satisfying expulsion of pent-up anger. Its lyrics encompass vigorous battles against self-hate and other dangerous, internalized messages from society—you’ll even find lines about stripping someone of their meat “like a T-bone steak.” Some might say that the most terrifying serial killers aren’t the ones who fulfill some kind of sick fantasy, it’s the ones whose kills are contemplated with as much thought as a whim to take the long way home—it’s the ones who kill for nothing. CLT DRP’s new song “I Kill for Nothing” has that same twisted aura—cool yet seething in the same breath. —Lizzie Manno
Baltimore noise rockers Dope Body recently reunited for a home-recorded mixtape called Home Body, and now they’re back with their first album since 2015, Crack A Light, out on Oct. 30 via Drag City. One of its promo singles “Mutant Being” simmers with post-hardcore squalls and murky vocals that turn to howls, and its maniacal haze will be perfect for your (hopefully virtual) Halloween celebrations. —Lizzie Manno
Savages’ Jehnny Beth opens her debut solo album To Love Is To Live with a grand half-spoken, half-sung piece titled “I Am.” “I’m a voice no one can hear / I am drifting through the years,” Beth declares in a muffled, monstrous tone. “I am the ocean / I am the moon / I’m dying far too soon,” she continues before the song takes off with dramatic urgency. Piano keys pound and strings swell as Beth battles an agonizing, introspective pain. Her debut album is full of these epic inner struggles, several of which she’d previously left to fester in the shadows, and there’s no better way to preface those than with the two dueling vocal tones and wailing echoes in this track. —Lizzie Manno
Joncro’s recent EP, The Joncro Mountains, melds doomy garage punk with hopped-up ska and transcendent Jamaican spoken-word—there’s really nothing like it. Plus, the cartoon plague doctor artwork adds even more spiritual mystique (I recently learned about an entire Tumblr aesthetic devoted to plague doctors called plaguecore, so this is welcome news). The feisty “Degenerates” takes on the dehumanization of Black people, and the whimsical “Amagideon 77” follows a robed doctor who falls into a time warp, learns how to connect with ancestral spirits and meets several mystical characters. —Lizzie Manno
For Inner Song’s “Corner of My Sky,” Kelly Lee Owens recruits an avant-garde all-timer whose work spans more than half a century: the one and only John Cale. As Cale—who, like Owens, is Welsh—narrates an unsettling tale about miners whose work destroys both the environment and their bodies, his incantations reinforce and magnify the song’s dreary drones, which recall many moments from Owens’ self-titled. —Max Freedman
Vancouver punk three-piece lié embrace forceful condemnations, unrelenting energy and gothic soundscapes on their latest album You Want It Real. Their sharp-edged guitars and vigorous rhythms are just as piercing as their lyrics of desire, dread and abuse. This band is decidedly venomous and dogged, and they’re all the better for it. —Lizzie Manno
The writing process for Sadie Dupuis’ new album Haunted Painting started after she witnessed an apparition at a Seattle art gallery, but she dives into ideas larger than her own haunting experiences. The album leans on a loose horror theme, between the vampiric video for early single “Oops….!” and Dupuis presenting as a self-proclaimed “frontdemon.” Opening with “Into The Catacombs,” the eerie droning feels like a proper welcome to a graveyard party, especially with the layered harmonies. —Lexi Lane
Irish poet Sinead O’Brien recently released her Dan Carey-produced debut EP Drowning in Blessings via Speedy Wunderground. O’Brien has released a number of stark, razor-sharp tunes over the years, but “Strangers in Danger” may be her best work yet. “I am not worried or certain / Because this is not my life / This is just the dust before the fall and the rise,” she sings with an assured, almost all-knowing aura. It’s a dark, tension-packed tune about cycles of time, history and philosophy, but more so our everyday relationship to those ideas which underlie even the most mundane interactions. O’Brien makes one question not just what things are meaningful and what aren’t, but what is “worth” itself. —Lizzie Manno
St. Soni, who’s previously recorded as Indigo Jade, is a somewhat enigmatic figure. He’s not on social media, but his cryptic art moniker, Vingadro, does have an internet presence—selling everything from condoms and incense to sweatshirts and jewelry, and its aesthetic is very bold and mysterious. Vingadro’s Twitter bio reads, “Me and My art exist just to spite you” and several of its Instagram posts about St. Soni’s most recent single, “Sequence 22,” were geotagged at Lake View Cemetery—it’s all a bit ominous, but very intriguing, and St. Soni’s music is much the same. His 2020 EP Kali is Burning, which a poster describes as “a story of the war between Kali and Shiva,” is full of chilling, experimental hip-hop about perseverance and accented by gothic realism—he’s “born next to coffins” on “Mortuary” and awoken by ravens on “Cinema Verite.” —Lizzie Manno
California rock trio Sweet Reaper have made a supremely tantalizing record in Closer Still. Its garage-pop and surf-punk has everything you’d want in a back-to-basics rock album: devilishly memorable melodies, driving rhythms and intuitive pop sensibilities. Try and resist its danceable, vibrating grooves, and you’ll likely fail within 10 seconds. —Lizzie Manno