The Most Disturbing Songs Ever

For my sixth birthday, my parents gave me a copy of The Beatles’ White Album, a record that, with its slapdash songs about raccoons and piggies and honey pies of varying persuasions, initially struck me as a little more goofy than the classic singles I had come to love through their red and blue compilations. But deep into side four, the snickers turned to shock as I was confronted with the first piece of music that legitimately disturbed me—and it felt all the more upsetting coming from the guys who, not too long ago, were singing me “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da.”

“Revolution 9” was, in hindsight, my first exposure to the concept of chaos. It was the sound of everything I had known and believed up to that point—about The Beatles, about pop music, about life itself—being violently overturned. Not yet schooled on the finer points of Stockahausean tape-splicing, I felt like I was trapped in a haunted house, a mirrored labyrinthine of sound that aggressively confused and disoriented me to the point of nausea. (It also didn’t help my nerves that the piece sounded even more sinister when my brother played it for me backwards.) For years thereafter, I actively avoided listening to “Revolution 9,” so as not to unleash its fury. I’d rush to the turntable to switch it off once “Cry Baby Cry” drifted off into McCartney’s mysterious “can you take me back?” outro; when it came time to make myself a cassette copy of The White Album for my Walkman, I hit “record” when side four began and immediately left the room and shut the door.

At that age, I was—thanks to my brother and cousin’s early indoctrination efforts—already a card-carrying member of the KISS Army, and thus well accustomed to Gene Simmons’ airborne spew of blood and fire. But even back then, KISS’ shock tactics always struck me as cartoonish fantasy—like Star Wars with guitars. “Revolution 9” elicited a very different, more deeply felt form of terror, because it turned the mundane into something menacing. The voices threaded throughout the piece weren’t speaking in spooky tones; they were prosaic conversations among old British men that sounded like they were being transmitted from the afterlife. And while there was nothing inherently creepy about the discrete sounds and snippets The Beatles used, like random debris in a tornado, they acquire a fearsome force. An EMI engineer’s mic check (“number nine, number nine…”) becomes a countdown to war; John Lennon’s asinine banter (“take this brother, may it serve you well”) sounds like a suicide-cult directive; soccer chants resemble the bloodlusty cries at a public stoning.

Ultimately, “Revolution 9” taught me that music need not be self-consciously “scary” to be unsettling. Likewise, the songs collected on this playlist have, at some point in my life, haunted me and, in many cases, continue to do so—but they exist outside the typical shock-rock canon or the corpse-painted confines of death metal, which always struck me as too fantastical and over-the-top to truly tap into any genuine, deep-seated fears. I’ve always been drawn more to vivid, visceral portraits of ordinary people pushed to unthinkable, unconscionable extremes, like Suicide’s terrifyingly grim “Frankie Teardrop,” Slint’s white-knuckled “Good Morning Captain,” and Public Image’s unrelenting “Annalisa” (based on the true story of an exorcism that ended in death). Then there’s Nick Cave’s creepily voyeuristic “From Her to Eternity,” which sounds likes a Hitchcockian chiller in goth-rock form, its piano stabs traipsing through the song like a tip-toeing home intruder. Some of these songs were actually introduced to me in a cinematic context and rattled my bones long after the closing credits, like The Fall’s stalking “Hip Priest” (the perfect sonic analogue to descending into Buffalo Bill’s pit of despair in Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs) and Iron Butterfly’s eerie acid-rock prowler “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” (whose chilling church-organ tones summon the climactic showdown with a serial killer in Michael Mann’s Manhunter).

But more than anything, this playlist captures moments of brutal, sudden disruption, of artists losing control—of their songs, and their sanity—in real time, crossing the point-of-no-return separating order from anarchy and audibly marveling at the horrible havoc they’ve wrought. It’s Iggy Pop repeatedly screaming “I feel alright!” on The Stooges’ “1970” even as Steve Mackay’s flame-throwing sax solo burns him alive. It’s Pink Floyd drifting into the nightmarish netherworld of “Careful With That Axe Eugene” and proving that, in space, we can in fact hear screams. It’s the early, unhinged Mercury Rev entering maniacal meltdown mode on “Trickle Down.” It’s PJ Harvey’s voice rising into a spine-tingling, supernatural shriek on “The Mountain.” It’s Thurston Moore and Lydia Lunch flirting with Mansonian mythology on Sonic Youth’s “Death Valley ‘69” and winding up locked in a trunk of a car with sand in their mouths. Or sometimes, it’s something as simple as the children crying out for their mommy on Lou Reed’s “The Kids” (no doubt because, according to urban legend, producer Bob Ezrin captured the audio by telling his own little ones that their mother had been killed in an accident). Other tracks here, meanwhile, just ooze with a suffocating indefinable dread, like The Flaming Lips’ cooly foreboding “Powerless” or Psychic TV’s devious dub phantasmagoria “Thee Dweeler,” or Tim Hecker’s scorched-earth chorale “Black Phase.” And then there’s The Knife’s oppressively inert “Fracking Fluid Injection,” a song that feels exactly like what its title advertises.

Of course, scariness in music is as subjective any quality—it’s as much a function of the listener’s own personal experiences, neuroses, and phobias as the artist’s intent. But even if you always thought “Revolution 9” sounded more like avant-garde amateur-hour than harbinger of the apocalypse, can we at least agree that the surprise sludge-metal ambush of Mogwai’s “Like Herod” still provides the greatest shit-yer-pants jolt since the last scene of Carrie?