best murder ballads
I’m not sure what it says about our society as a whole, but the murder ballad has been, and still remains, a well-loved subgenre of music, even though it’s exactly what the moniker implies: a ballad about killing someone (usually in the throes of passion). There’s a whole Wikipedia page about it, with a long list of songs you probably know and love. Assuming the artists who sing these songs are mostly trying to convey cautionary tales, the best of these ballads, as you’ll see below, are soulful, often rocking numbers which inevitably make you want to sing along. Have you ever caught yourself singing along to a song about murdering someone? It’s uncomfortable. It doesn’t make you feel all that great about yourself. Unless, of course, you really nail the high notes.

“Ten Cent Pistol” by The Black Keys
best murder ballads, the black keys ten cent pistol
I listened to this song for awhile before I realized what it is The Black Keys are talking about (murder, of course). But after I figured that out, it took me even longer to realize that a ten-cent pistol isn’t a pistol at all. “A ‘ten-cent pistol’ is this low-rent, heinous substance that disfigures you, like homemade napalm,” Black Key Dan Auerbach told Rolling Stone magazine. So let this serve as a warning to you players out there: A jealous girl will science the shit out of murdering you.

Most F-ed Up Line: “There’s nothing worse / In this world / Than payback from / A jealous girl / The laws of man / They don’t apply / When blood gets in / A woman’s eye”

“Delilah” by Tom Jones

Tom Jones gifted us one of the foremost karaoke songs ever with this ballad. You get extra points if you can get the whole room to sing along, which shouldn’t be too hard since the plucky flamenco rhythm is simply infectious. If you can, you’ll soon find that there are few things more frightening than getting a room full of drunks to sing exuberantly about stabbing an unfaithful girl to death. One of those things is definitely hearing an entire stadium of Welsh rugby fans singing it, which happens frequently; the national team adopted “Delilah” as their unofficial anthem for years.

Most F-ed Up Line: “At break of day when that man drove away / I was waiting / I cross the street to her house and she opened the door / She stood there laughing / I felt the knife in my hand and she laughed no more”

“L.A. County” by Lyle Lovett
best murder ballads, la county lyle lovett
Lyle Lovett definitely gives off a creepy vibe, and maybe a murderous one, too. Any good lawyer could likely use this disturbing murder ballad as evidence of such evil ways, if a case arose where such a connection were deemed necessary. That’s how depraved this ballad (and consequently, Lyle) is, as it details the escapades of a man and his good friend, a “beauty” of a “coal black .45,” driving across state lines to murder his ex while she’s walking down the aisle with another man. That is not what they mean by forever holding your piece.

Most F-ed Up Line: “And they kissed each other / And they turned around /And they saw me standing in the aisle / Well I did not say much / I just stood there watching / As that .45 told them goodbye”

“Mack the Knife” by Bobby Darin

Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Bobby Darin, Eartha Kitt, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Michael Bublé and many more have all conspired to make this a catchy, danceable lounge standard. But it’s more than that; it’s actually a song about a character whose attributes include raping, murdering, robbing and arson. If you thought the murder ballad was strictly an American folk pastime, guess again; the song was made popular by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht in their Berlin benchmark musical drama, “The Threepenny Opera” (or “Die Dreigroschenoper” if you’re of the Aryan persuasion). The Mack character is based on a Captain Macheath, who originated in John Gay’s “The Beggar’s Opera” in 1728. But the song’s form and content has even deeper roots, as it’s seeped in the medieval version of the murder ballad, the moritat. Crazy right? People have been glorifying grizzly deeds since medieval times when they used coconut shells to keep the beat.

Most F-ed Up Line: “On the sidewalk, Sunday mornin’, baby / Lies a body, oozin’ life / Someone sneakin’ around the corner / Is the someone, Mack the Knife?”

“Pumped Up Kicks” by Foster the People
best murder ballads, foster the people pumped up kicks
Foster the People’s candy-pop number breaks murder ballad form a bit by not focusing on a scorned lover, but a deranged student who’s played a few too many video games instead. Yet it’s still a murder ballad because it describes the act of murder (or at least attempted murder). This particular murder is arguably on a more ambitious scale than just your run of the mill wife-slaying. The song’s chorus is kind of annoying and band leader Mark Foster even admitted as much, but the hooky chorus is why it’s so genius. It disguises the grizzly nature of the lyrical content. The song, therefore, offers us ample opportunity to make fun of people who don’t know what it’s actually about and instead get lost in the catchiness of the tune, bopping along joyously like a damn Dionysian idolater. You certainly wouldn’t know “Pumped Up Kicks” is about a school shooting from the music video, though; it features three good looking white dudes on tour, living the life, drinking beers, surfing pipes and bagging chicks who just happen to be singing a pop tune about gunning down your classmates who wear dope Reebok Pumps.

Most F-ed Up Line: “All the other kids with the pumped up kicks / You better run, better run, outrun my gun / All the other kids with the pumped up kicks /You better run, better run, faster than my bullet”

“Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” (aka “Black Girl,” aka “In the Pines”) by Nirvana
best murder ballads, nirvana where did you sleep last night
Though any good murder ballad worth its blood has to be haunting on some level, Nirvana’s version of this Lead Belly original is chock-full of ghosts. Even if it’s never really clear from the lyrics if the decapitation is actually murder, Kurt Cobain’s screams of “My girl! My girl!” at the end of the song, which ended the band’s legendary “MTV Unplugged” show, sound like someone is actually getting beheaded on stage. And then, five months later, Cobain went and committed suicide with a gun to really put an exclamation point on the harrowing performance.

Most F-ed Up Line: “Her husband, was a hardworking man / Just about a mile from here / His head was found in a driving wheel / But his body never was found”

“Stan” by Eminem

I had a hard time deciding between Eminem’s two murder ballad raps about insignificant other killing, as they’re both really unique takes on the ever popular genre that is a murder rap. Ultimately, “Stan” wins out over “’97 Bonnie & Clyde” because the first part of the video is sung by a pregnant Dido as she’s peeing, presumably, on the toilet. And you’d have to be a real sicko to like watching girls go to the bathroom. Or write about killing them, for that matter.

Most F-ed Up Line: “See, Slim, shut up bitch, I’m tryna talk / Hey, Slim, that’s my girlfriend screamin’ in the trunk / But I didn’t slit her throat, I just tied her up, see I ain’t like you / Cause if she suffocates she’ll suffer more and then she’ll die too”

“Where the Wild Roses Go” by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and Kylie Minogue
best murder ballads, nick cave and the bad seeds murder ballads
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds like songs about murder so much that they made an entire album filled with them. This seems pretty apropos for a band led by a guy who may or may not be a vampire. Somehow presumably because Australians aren’t allowed to turn down favors asked of them by fellow Australians frightening-looking Nick even convinced wonder Aussie Kylie Minogue to sing along on one of these bloody numbers, and the two recorded this macabre hit. Ugly rockers always get the hot chick. And in this case, they sing about bashing her head in with a rock, too.

Most F-ed Up Line: “On the last day I took her where the wild roses grow / And she lay on the bank, the wind light as a thief / And I kissed her goodbye, said, ‘All beauty must die’ / And lent down and planted a rose between her teeth”

“Country Death Song” by Violent Femmes
best murder ballads, violent femmes country death song, violent femmes hallowed ground
The Violent Femmes’ first album, Violent Femmes, for me, was one of the best of the ’80s. And a big reason for that was the way they rocked the taboo. So what do you do to follow up that line-crossing masterpiece? You kick off your second album with a song about a father who throws his own daughter down a well and then hangs himself. Unfortunately, the Femmes’ plan backfired. People probably heard this first song kick off Hallowed Ground, realized the Femmes were a lot more twisted than they originally thought and got scared off. The band never rebounded commercially or artistically, which is a shame. So technically, this song about killing symbolically killed the band literally. That’s one powerful filicide/suicide ballad.

Most F-ed Up Line: “I gave her a push, I gave her a shove / I pushed with all my might, I pushed with all my love / I threw my child into a bottomless pit / She was screaming as she fell, but I never heard her hit”

“Cocaine Blues”, “Delia’s Gone”, “Frankie and Johnny”, “I Hung My Head”, “Banks of the Ohio”,“Folsom Prison Blues”, “The Long Black Veil” by Johnny Cash
best murder ballads, johnny cash, delia's gone, frankie and johnnie, i hung my head, banks of the ohio, folsom prison blues, the long black veil
Despite Reece Witherspoon trying to convince us otherwise, June Carter must have been a giant pain in the ass, because Johnny Cash was obsessed with murder ballads. Considering how well he embodies the characters who do the dirty burying deeds in these songs, it’s pretty much impossible to pick a best one; so Johnny gets a best six. If you don’t like it, feel free to take it up with this photo.

Most F-ed Up Line: “Early one morning while making the rounds / I took a shot of cocaine and I shot my woman down / I went right home and I went to bed / I stuck that loving .44 beneath my head”

Honorable Mention:
“Lily of the West” by Bob Dylan
“Stagger Lee” by Grateful Dead (among many others)
“Hey Joe” by Jimi Hendrix
“Wrong ‘Em Boyo” by The Clash
“The Body Electric” by Hurray for the Riff Raff
“Caleb Meyer” by Gillian Welch (with the great David Rawlings)
“Carolina Drama” by The Raconteurs
“Nebraska” by Bruce Springsteen
“The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” by Vicki Lawrence (aka Mama from “Mama’s Family”)
“Jenny Was a Friend of Mine” by The Killers




Pretty much all of Nick Cave’s career has been about killing women

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