10 of Music’s Most Delightfully Dark Pop Songs

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The new Zambri record House of Baasa is out today, and if you’re as partial to dark pop music as we are, you’ll find plenty to like in its combination of ominous atmospherics and hugely catchy melodies. We’ve had the record on high rotation, and it’s gotten us thinking about some other dark pop classics from over the years. The art of writing a pop song that’s as catchy as it is ominous and/or disconcerting is a fine one, and it’s been responsible for some of our favorite music. Check out our selections after the jump, and let us know yours.

Depeche Mode — “Master and Servant”

Essex’s finest have constituted the definition of the term “dark pop music” over the years, their output growing steadily gloomier with each passing album without ever losing their gift for melody and general catchiness. There are plenty of gems to choose from, but it’s hard to go past this charming synthpop ditty about sadomasochism.

Zola Jesus — “In Your Nature”

The reigning queen of sounds dark and tenebrous, Nika Danilova basically owns this genre at the moment, with both her early records and last year’s triumphant Conatus jammed full of songs both catchy and disconcerting. Danilova’s songs have a way of lodging themselves in your head, and it’s because beneath the swirling synths and jarring beats and the general air of darkness, they’re fundamentally great pop songs.

Fever Ray — “If I Had a Heart”

Karin Dreijer Andersson’s solo debut was far and away our favorite record of 2009, and its visual aesthetic was almost as important to its impact as the actual music. This track, which opens the album, comes with a hugely spooky video (one of several fantastic videos made for the record’s single releases) and also serves as a fine introduction to the album’s sound — dark and sinister, yet also melodic and ingenuously beautiful.

New Order — “Blue Monday”

Although they eventually evolved into a more radio-friendly proposition, New Order basically started out as Joy Division with drum machines and Bernard Sumner on vocals. It’s remarkable that this 24-carat classic enjoyed such success considering how radical its sparse electronic sound was at the time of its release, not to mention its subject matter (“How does it feel/ To treat me like you do?”).

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins — “I Put a Spell on You”

True story: apparently this was meant to be a gentle, lovestruck ballad… until Screamin’ Jay got drunk. What was on the tape the next morning was a howling, grunting, shrieking nightmare — Hawkins sounds like he may well put some sort of genuine voodoo hex on you, and then have his way with you all night long. Yikes.

Portishead — “Sour Times”

There was a time during the 1990s when you couldn’t leave the house without hearing Dummy providing a brooding soundtrack at cafés, shops, dinner parties, etc etc etc. We can only imagine how strange the record’s ubiquity seemed to its creators, given how dark a piece of work it was. Even now, hearing Beth Gibbons sing, “Nobody loves me, it’s true…” just about breaks our little hearts.

The Cure — “Killing an Arab”

Robert Smith’s made a lengthy and respected career out of making music both dark and melodic. As with Depeche Mode, there’s plenty of material to choose from — but we’re going right back to the start of their career, before Smith went into full depressed goth mode, to a song that defines everything great about the band. After all, who else could write a consummate pop song about Albert Camus’ existentialist classic L’Étranger? Bless.

Grimes — “Oblivion”

2012 has been Grimes’ year (we told you so), and her success makes it easy to forget that hers is a rather unlikely success story — candy-coated K-pop-inspired weirdness with a heart of darkness isn’t a recipe that screams crossover success, after all. “Oblivion” is her best song by a country mile, in our opinion, and its lyrics also capture the whole idea of something lurking beneath the surface: “Someone could break your neck/ Coming up behind you/ Always coming up, you never have a clue.”

Björk — “Pagan Poetry”

We’re not sure if Grimes is a Björk fan, but we wouldn’t be surprised if she was. They certainly share a lot in common — superficially catchy pop songs with plenty of darkness and strangeness under the surface. This has always been our favorite Björk song, a portrait of love so intense it bleeds into obsession. And then, of course, there’s that video… (which is pretty NSFW, by the way.)

Michael Jackson — “Thriller”

No, we weren’t going to forget this.