Michael Jackson was a shrewd career strategist, but I doubt even he knew he was creating a Halloween perennial when he recorded the song "Thriller" in 1982. But every year at this time, that song returns to the airwaves and to the digital sales chart, along with such other fright-night perennials as Bobby Boris Pickett & the Crypt Kickers' "Monster Mash," Ray Parker Jr.'s "Ghostbusters" and Warren Zevon's "Werewolves Of London."
These songs are to Halloween what Brenda Lee's "Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree" and Bobby Helms' "Jingle Bell Rock" are to Christmas—an unmistakable sign that a holiday is at hand.
Here are Halloween's biggest hits. In the words of a memorable TV theme song, "They're creepy and they're kooky/Mysterious and spooky..."
The first 10 songs were the most-played hits which fit the Halloween theme from Oct. 25-31, 2012. The ranking is based on total plays on all U.S. terrestrial and network stations and channels as monitored by Nielsen BDS. I took that top 10 list from Billboard.com.
I follow the top 10 with 20 other songs that have a link to the season. That part of this column isn't a formal ranking. But I think these 20 other songs give you a fuller picture of the range and scope of Halloween music. (I'll bet you didn't realize you knew so many Halloween songs.)
1. Michael Jackson, "Thriller." Rod Temperton, who wrote two of Jackson's earlier top 10 hits, "Rock With You" and "Off The Wall," also wrote this smash, which climbed to #4 in March 1984. Veteran character actor Vincent Price provided the spoken rap—a day job that became his most famous and enduring work. In 1997, Jackson teamed with Teddy Riley to write another Halloween-themed song, "Ghosts."
2. Bobby Boris Pickett & the Crypt Kickers, "Monster Mash." This novelty hit was #1 for two weeks in October 1962. It returned to the chart in 1970 and 1973—when it climbed all the way to the top 10. Pickett co-wrote the song, which was featured on his top 20 album, The Original Monster Mash. Hard rock band Misfits later covered it.
3. Ray Parker Jr., "Ghostbusters." This song was a perfect fit for the Bill Murray/Dan Aykroyd comedy, which was the second highest grossing movie of 1984. Parker wrote the song, which was #1 for three weeks in August 1984. It brought him an Oscar nomination for Best Song. The video features quick cameos from such hot stars of the day as John Candy, Chevy Chase and Irene Cara. The movie soundtrack went top 10.
4. Warren Zevon, "Werewolves Of London." Zevon co-wrote the song, which reached #21 in May 1978. It appeared on his top 10 album, Excitable Boy. Such varied acts as The Grateful Dead and Adam Sandler have covered the song. (Note: The artists who gave us three of the top four Halloween hits are, sadly, no longer with us. Jackson died in 2009, Pickett in 2007 and Zevon in 2003. Ray Parker, you take care.)
5. AC/DC, "Highway To Hell." The band's core members, Angus Young, Malcolm Young and Ronald "Bon" Scott, wrote this irresistible slab of hard rock, which reached #47 in December 1979. It was the title track to their last album with Scott as lead singer. He died of asphyxiation in February 1980.
6. Blue Oyster Cult, "(Don't Fear) The Reaper." This Byrds-influenced rock song reached #12 in November 1976. The group's guitarist Donald Roeser wrote the song, which was featured on Angels Of Fortune. Punk band Pierce The Veil and Goth-rock band HIM later covered it.
7. Van Halen, "Runnin' With The Devil." The founding members of Van Halen wrote this song, which reached #84 in May 1978. It was from the band's mega-selling eponymous debut album.
8. Rockwell, "Somebody's Watching Me." Rockwell wrote this song under his real name, Kennedy Gordy. Gordy is the son of Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. Motown's most famous alumnus, Michael Jackson, sang a prominent (but unbilled) backup vocal. This well-crafted hit was #2 for three weeks in March and April 1984. (It was still in the top five on April 15, making the lyric about the IRS timely.) Rapper Yo Gotti later covered it.
9. D.J. Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, "A Nightmare On My Street." This good-natured hip-hop hit played off the title of the 1984 movie A Nightmare On Elm Street. The duo co-wrote the song, which reached #15 in September 1988. It was from their top 10 album, He's The D.J., I'm The Rapper.
10. Rob Zombie's "Dragula." It stands to reason that Zombie would have a Halloween hit: his old group, White Zombie, was named after a 1932 Bela Lugosi movie. This hard rock entry, which Zombie co-wrote, was from his first solo album, Hellbilly Deluxe. The song "bubbled under" the Hot 100 at #116 in December 1998.
And don't forget about:
Danny Elfman, "This Is Halloween." Elfman wrote this song for Tim Burton's animated 1993 movie The Nightmare Before Christmas. Marilyn Manson and Panic! At the Disco later covered it, with Manson giving it an extra measure of menace.
Gene Simmons, "Haunted House." This novelty song about a really bad home purchase reached #11 in September 1964. This is from Simmons' album jumpin' Gene Simmons. Note: Simmons is not the same person who later co-founded KISS.
Screamin' Jay Hawkins, "I Put A Spell On You." Hawkins released this classic blues song, which he wrote, in 1956. It didn't chart, but several cover versions have made noise. Alan Price Set and Creedence Clearwater Revival both put the song on the Hot 100 in the 1960s. Nina Simone and Arthur Brown both "bubbled under" with it, also in the '60s. Bette Midler sang it in the 1993 movie Hocus Pocus. Other artists to cover it include Marilyn Manson, Joe Cocker and Jeff Beck & Joss Stone.
Vic Mizzy, "The Addams Family." Mizzy composed this memorable theme to the TV show which ran from 1964-1966. The song was sampled in Tag Team's 1994 chart hit "Addams Family (Whoomp!)."
Donovan, "Season Of The Witch." Donovan wrote this song, which he included on his 1966 album Sunshine Superman. Vanilla Fudge took a cover version to #65 in December 1968. It was also recorded by the high-powered collabo of Mike Bloomfield/Al Kooper/Steve Stills. Donovan's version was featured in the 2012 movie Dark Shadows.
Bauhaus, "Bela Lugosi's Dead." The English Goth-rock group recorded this song in 1979—23 years after the legendary actor's death. It has been honored by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It has been covered by Nouvelle Vague and Trent Reznor with Peter Murphy and TV On The Radio.
Meat Loaf, "Bat Out Of Hell." This nearly 10 minute epic was the title track to Meat Loaf's 1977 debut album, which is one of the best-selling debut albums in music history. Jim Steinman, who wrote the hits "Two Out Of Three Ain't Bad" and "Paradise By The Dashboard Light," also wrote this song.
John Carpenter, "Halloween Theme (Main Title)." Movie director Carpenter composed this theme for his 1978 slasher movie which starred Jamie Lee Curtis.
Sheb Wooley, "The Purple People Eater." Wooley wrote this novelty song, which raced to #1 in just two weeks in June 1958. It remained on top for six weeks. The song blends goofy sound effects with a light rock and roll beat.
David Seville, "Witch Doctor." Seville (real name: Ross Bagdasarian) wrote this novelty song, which was #1 for three weeks in April and May 1958. A new recording was featured in the 2007 movie Alvin & The Chipmunks. It reached #62 in January 2008.
Rihanna, "Disturbia." This thumper was #1 for two weeks in August 2008. Rihanna's then-boyfriend Chris Brown co-wrote the song, which isn't explicitly a Halloween song, but would be a welcome addition to any Halloween party tape. It was featured on the expanded edition of Rihanna's album Good Girl Gone Bad.
Shakira, "She Wolf." Shakira co-wrote this frisky song, which hit #11 in September 2009. It's from her album of the same name. (I think it's the only pop song ever to contain to word "lycanthropy.")
The Munchkins, "Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead." Everybody knows this song from the immortal 1939 movie The Wizard Of Oz. Bandleader Glenn Miller had a successful recording of it that year. The Fifth Estate took it to #11 in July 1967. Ella Fitzgerald and Barbra Streisand also recorded stylish versions. The original version hit #2 on the U.K.'s Official Singles Chart in April in the wake of Margaret Thatcher's death, as critics sought (rather unkindly) to make a point about her politics.
Skrillex, "Scary Monsters And Nice Sprites." Skrillex wrote this song, which reached #69 in 2012. It won a Grammy as Best Dance Recording. It was the title track of his hit EP, which won a Grammy as Best Dance/Electronica Album.
Oingo Boingo, "Dead Man's Party." The group's lead singer, Danny Elfman, wrote this song, which was the title track of its 1985 album. The following year, the band performed it in the Rodney Dangerfield movie Back To School.
Ministry, "(Every Day Is) Halloween." The industrial metal band recorded this song in 1984. The title and lyrics reference Goth subculture. Electro-pop duo Dangerous Muse covered the song in 2007.
Misfits, "Halloween." The hard rock group from New Jersey recorded this song in 1981. It was written by Glenn Danzig, who was then a member of the group. It has been covered by AFI and Alkaline Trio.
Dead Kennedys, "Halloween." The group wrote this song, which appeared on its 1982 album, Plastic Surgery Disasters.
Thurl Ravenscroft and Disney Villains, "Grim Grinning Ghosts (The Screaming Song)." This is the theme song for the Haunted Mansion attraction at Disney theme parks. Barenaked Ladies and "Weird" Al Yankovic have performed it.
North American Hallowe'en Prevention Initiative, "Do They Know It's Hallowe'en?" The title of this 2005 single was a send-up of Band Aid's earnest 1984 hit "Do They Know It's Christmas?" Both records featured all-star choirs (this one featured such stars as Beck and Win Butler and Regine Chassagne of Arcade Fire). Both aided charities (here the proceeds went to UNICEF). So I guess you could say this is both a trick and a treat.