Murder might be gruesome, but it’s inspired some killer songs over the years. Whether we’re talking true crime or the fictional kind, traditional folk ballads or synth rockers, there’s nothing like a bit of death and intrigue to give a song an edge. If you want to add some darkness to your playlist, check out these 10 awesome songs about murder.
10. Prince – Annie Christian
Not satisfied with focusing on just one crime, Prince went to town and referenced a whole bunch of them on this 1981 deep dive into the evil side of human nature. Child killer, president slayer, John Lennon murderer… that Annie Christian was one bad lady. Prince’s play on the word ‘antichrist’ to come up with the name of the titular character is clever, but the song is even better. Find it on his platinum-selling fourth album, Controversy.
9. Dixie Chicks – Goodbye Earl
Female killers are rare; female artists who sing about female killers with quite as much glee as the Dixies Chicks are even rarer. In a song that Rolling Stone says “shocked the country airwaves in 2000,” Natalie Maines and co sing about Wanda, whose husband Earl beat her up just two weeks before their wedding. Aided and abetted by Mary Ann, Wanda comes up with a dastardly plot involving poisoned black-eyed peas, a dead husband, and a new life where she “don’t lose any sleep at night.”
8. Sonic Youth – Death Valley ‘69
Singing about the Manson murders isn’t uncommon, but few bands have ever done it quite so well as Sonic Youth, whose duet with Lydia Lunch is the very definition of creepy. From the first note to the last, it’s utterly deranged, with Richard Kern’s insanely weird but utterly brilliant video adding the cherry to the top of the very unsettling icing.
7. The Killers – Jenny Was a Friend of Mine
According to The Killers‘ frontman Brandon Flowers, it was Morrissey’s song “Sister I’m a Poet” that inspired him to dig into the darkness and start writing about murders. The result was the “murder trilogy,” a three-parter comprising of Midnight Show, Leave the Bourbon on the Shelf, and Jenny Was a Friend of Mine. All three are great songs, but Jenny Was a Friend of Mine has the edge. A synth-infused rocker with a killer bassline, it draws its inspiration from the murder of 18-year-old Jennifer Levin in New York City in 1986 by Robert Chambers.
6. Eminem – Darkness
As mentalfloss.com says, Eminem could be denouncing gun violence on 2020’s Darkness or glorifying it, depending on your point of view (or maybe just whether you stick around long enough to catch the message at the end of the video that reads: “When will it end? When enough people care. Register to vote at vote.gov. Make your voice heard and help change the gun laws in America.”) It’s sung from the perspective of mass shooter Stephen Paddock, who killed 60 people at the 2017 Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas before killing himself.
5. The Smiths – Suffer Little Children
On Suffer Little Children, Morrissey and Johnny Marr use the Moors murders as their reference point. The song stirred up controversy on its release, partly for the gruesome subject matter, but mainly because it references three of the children killed by Myra Hindley and Ian Brady, something that some of the victim’s relatives took exception to. That combined with a sleeve photo that showed Viv Nicholson looking very much like Hindley led to many retail outlets withdrawing the single from sale.
4. The Boomtown Rats – I Don’t Like Mondays
When Brenda Ann Spencer was asked why she decided to open fire on Grover Cleveland Elementary School on the morning of Monday, January 29, 1979, she answered, “I don’t like Mondays. This livens up the day.” As a result of her aversion, two people were killed and nine were injured, including eight children. The only person to benefit from the tragedy was Bob Geldof, who’s been happily dining out on the Boomtown Rats’ chart-topping response to the event for over 40 years.
3. Mississippi John Hurt – Stack O’Lee Blues
During Christmas of 1895, Billy Lyons made the monumental mistake of taking “Stag” Lee Shelton’s hat during a booze-fueled dispute. Shelton reacted by shooting Lyons, taking back his hat, and leaving his victim to die of his injuries. Shelton, who was already well known to the law for his dodgy dealings and connections with the underworld, was charged, tried, and convicted of murder. He got out of prison in 1909, only to be rearrested two years later for assault. The following year, he died while still incarcerated. Stack O’Lee Blues, which takes its inspiration from the story, has been covered by dozens of artists, but rarely treated so well as by Mississippi John Hurt.
2. Neko Case – Deep Red Bells
Neko Case took her inspiration for Deep Red Bells from Gary Ridgway, aka the Green River Killer, who murdered 48 women in Washington State and California in the 1980s and 1990s. As Paste Magazine says, despite being as chilling as any classic murder ballad, Case balances out the horror with empathy, resulting in one of the most memorable songs in her catalog.
1. Bruce Springsteen – Nebraska
19-year-old Nebraskan teenager Charles Starkweather shocked the world in January 1958 when he and his 14-year-old girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate killed 11 people during an eight-day killing spree. After his conviction, he wrote a letter to his father that included the explanation “But dad I’m not really sorry for what I did cause for the first time me and Caril have (sic) more fun.” In 1981, Bruce Springsteen revisited the story on the starkly compelling Nebraska.