From toe-tapping tunes about murder to haunting harmonies of history’s darkest deeds, listen to these songs when you feel a little bloodthirsty.
As long as there’s been music, there have been death songs and murder ballads. These grave-bound tunes run the gamut between sweet and sentimental songs mourning the loss of a loved one, to snarling tales of death and slaughter. If there’s a way to get killed, there’s probably a song about it.
Every genre has their songs of death — from traditional ballads collected from as early as the 19th century to the teenage tragedy tracks of the 1950s — but it’s the murder songs that have captured my interest. So, in no particular order, here’s my personal top ten murder songs.
Note: This list is not ordered by number, all songs are equal, and it’s based on my opinions and mine alone. In the words of Groucho Marx, “These are my principles and if you don’t like them….well, I have others.”
1. “Country Death Song” by Violent Femmes, Hallowed Ground (1984)
While this is a country song on a country album, the Violent Femmes are not a country band — they’re folk punk, and there’s a difference. That being said, this song is one of the best murder ballads I’ve heard, and it’s close enough to country without being it to earn a place as an honorable mention. The instrumentation is, before and after an explosive bridge, an almost jaunty work of acoustic guitars, drums (and, in some modern performances, grill), and banjo. These frame Gordon Gano’s matter-of-fact narration, as a father spurred by poverty and insanity to throw his youngest daughter into the family well and then hang himself in the barn out of shame, perfectly. Even as he tells others of how what he did is ‘guaranteed to get you your own place in hell’, the background instrumentation remains cheery — almost like Gano is telling his story in Hell itself, with background music performed by the demons that haunt and mock him.
2. “Knoxville Girl” by The Louvin Brothers, Tragic Songs of Life (1956)
An Appalachian folk ballad, the first recording of this song was in 1924 by Riley Puckett and Gid Tanner. While the song has been performed by others both before this version’s release (most notably by the Carter Family) and after (by the Handsome Family, the Osborne Brothers, and Nick Cave), this is the most popular version. Performed by country duo Charlie and Ira Louvin on an album full of murder and tragedy tunes, this song tells the story of a young man’s murder of a girl he’d been going steady with and his subsequent arrest. Performed entirely with guitar and mandolin, the Louvins’ performance is melodic in its gruesomeness, as the song’s focus drags his blood-strewn ex in circles before throwing her to a chilly – and chilling – grave in the Knoxville river. Slightly simplistic, yes, but nonetheless creepy.
3. “Henry Lee” by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds featuring PJ Harvey, Murder Ballads (1996)
This album wears its heart on its record sleeve, tells you exactly what to expect, and delivers on it in spades. Any track from this album could have made the list, including the profanity-laden version of the traditional ballad “Stagger Lee” and the surprise MTV hit “Where the Wild Roses Grow” (featuring Kylie Minogue), but this is my personal favorite. The song is slow and mournful, all acoustics and the low and warm vocals of Cave and Harvey, and swirls into a beautiful, almost waltz-worthy tune of a jealous lover stabbing her ex and tossing him into a pit to rot. As the piano rises high in the final chorus, you can almost feel the gaze of the little bird on your back as the duo sing him to his final rest.
4. “The Homecoming Queen’s Got a Gun” by Julie Brown, Trapped In The Body of A White Girl (1987)
Probably the funniest song on this list, Julie Brown’s ode to a homecoming queen turned school shooter is one of those songs that you can’t consume in polite company but is still absolutely a blast. It’s so 80s you can practically hear the crunch of hairspray, from Julie Brown’s bordering-on-valley-girl lyric delivery to a shout-out to Instamatics. There’s even a Citizen Kane reference for all you film buffs out there. There’s no true place for it on modern radio, even on Dr. Demento, but the song itself and the music video come with my highest recommendations. Personal suggestion: watch the music video muted and layer the original version on top of it. The edited lines in the music video version pale in comparison.
5. “Sniper” by Harry Chapin, Sniper and Other Love Songs (1972)
This is the first of the songs on this list to actually be based completely in an actual murder, and also the longest track on this list. This almost ten minute long song’s subject is Charles Whitman, who killed seventeen and injured thirty-one in a mass shooting from atop the University of Texas tower. Meant as a gaze into Whitman’s psyche, the song details the mass shooting from beginning to bloody end. Chapin’s voice is steeped in pain and power, bellowing desperately over a rock song score. His use of echo and reverb in this track only adds to the power behind it. It’s a brutal tune, but one that needs to be heard to be completely understood.
6. “John Wayne Gacy Jr” by Sufjan Stevens, Illinois (2005)
While this song has the murder as a past subject, like ‘Sniper’ it’s a look into a killer’s psychology and past. In this case it’s about John Wayne Gacy Jr, the clown killer who tortured and slaughtered thirty-three boys and young men before he was captured. Despite the brutality of the subject’s actions, the song itself is stripped down piano and guitar beneath Stevens’s characteristic gentle vocals. He goes over all of the central pieces of Gacy’s life: his traumatic head injury as a child, the killings, his work as a child’s party clown. In the end, he summarizes that ‘in his best behavior’, he’s just like Gacy was. It’s up to listener interpretation what that means, so give it a spin and draw your own conclusions.
7. “In the Land” by Nicole Dollanganger, Natural Born Losers (2015)
Bundled in gunshot drums and Dollanganger’s Baby Jane vocals, this song talks about two all-American murderers: David Parker Ray, the Toy-Box Killer, and Theresa Knorr, who killed two of her six abused children. This is far from Dollanganger’s only foray into the world of true crime songs, and murder ballads in general, but it’s the most brutal. Her lyrics are straightforward and, unlike Chapin and Stevens, show no sympathy for their subjects. She portrays them as the monsters they are, brutal and smiling as their victims suffer and burn. The end will stick with you, the drums ringing in your head as you think of smoldering remains and rolling torture chambers.
8. “Yeah, Oh Yeah!” by The Magnetic Fields, 69 Love Songs (1996)
One of the more psychedelic-sounding tracks on this list, this duet is one that ends in affirmation. Stephin Merritt and Shirley Simms’s back-and-forth as husband and wife is one of a miserable, unhealthy marriage. There’s love, yes, but a poisoned and bitter one — a typical love presented by most of the songs on this album. The distortion in the track adds to the ambiance as the wife pleads for first her marriage’s survival — then her own as Merritt’s sociopathic husband character affirms to his wife that her whole life was nothing but a lie. It’s not the most layered or most dramatic track on this list, but it’s certainly worth a listen.
9. “Getting Naked, Playing With Guns” by AJJ, Christmas Island (2014)
After being introduced to this band through Welcome To Night Vale, this was the first album of theirs I listened to and the first one I truly fell in love with. Instrumentally, it’s not one of the usual tracks they perform: their style is more electric-based nowadays than acoustic. But the lyrics are right up their usual alley, dictating the killing of a child in town by his neighbors. Bonnette’s singing is gentle and low, even as he talks about gerbils in microwaves and using a rifle to blow someone to bits. Some people perceive this as an actual murder, others see it as an extended metaphor for the struggle between the well-off and the poor. Whichever it is, it’s a very good song and surprisingly soothing. If you’re going to dip your toe into the folk punk stylings of this band, this is a great place to start.
10. “The Irish Ballad” by Tom Lerher, Songs by Tom Lehrer (1953)
Tom Lerher was a master of the dark comedy. From a jazzy theme song to the story of Oedipus Rex to a tribute to the most bloody parts of small town America, his comedic work is small but mighty. Lerher’s parody of the Irish ballad details a young serial killer slaughtering her whole family in progressively more brutal ways, and comes off chilling. Like the earlier Magnetic Fields track, it’s not the most ornate track on the list. But it doesn’t need to be ornate when it has Lerher’s well-practiced piano work, low vocals, and terrifically spooky story. From poisoning her mother’s food to weighing her brother down with stones so he’ll drown, the subject of the story slaughters her whole family before confessing to her crimes because ‘lying, she knew, was a sin’. A morbid but lovely little ditty, and one that’s earned a space on this list in spades.