Everyone knows that superheroes have swooped and blasted their way off the comics page and conquered the world’s cinema and television screens. They’ve also, though, made a two-fisted assault on music. Nerdy cool rappers, nerdy cool punk rockers, J-pop icons and doomy metallers alike have swung with Spider-Man and smashed with Hulk. Behold, true believers! A list of the superest songs that have ever supered, from undefeatable to even more undefeatable than that.
Joe Satriani, “Surfing With the Alien”
California guitar hero Joe Satriani taught everyone from Steve Vai to Metallica’s Kirk Hammett before harnessing the power cosmic for his 1987 sophomore hit record, Surfing With the Alien. Satriani had supposedly never heard of the superhero when he named the album; he just liked surfing and outer space. But a Relativity Records manager clued him in, and they got permission to show Jack Kirby’s gleaming creation catching a stellar wave on the album cover. The title track features Satriani’s full panoply of wah-wah whammy and fretboard fire, while the production of high gloss 80s chrome and stiff New Age drums heralds a giant Galactus future of kerosene and crackle.
Roy Clark Method, “Sector 2814”
The Macon, GA band recorded many songs about superheroes, including “Bizarro Me” (about the Superman villain) and “Big Red Cheese” (about DC’s Captain Marvel.) This 2004 not-remotely-a-hit is their masterpiece though. Over a mournful jangle, Vocalist Jay Jones tells the sad story of Hal Jordan, whose green magic ring asks him hard questions.
“Hal, what have you done with your life?
People around you keep dying.
Use your will to right the wrongs
And don’t make us wait for too long.”
Green Lantern’s ring does speak to him in the comics, which would in fact be creepy, if you think about it. And the Roy Clark Method clearly has. (For the second greatest song about the sad inner life of a green superhero, check out The Traits’ “Nobody Loves the Hulk.”)
Chelsea Wolfe, “Diana”
DC comics released a soundtrack to go along with their Dark Nights 2021 event comic. Though the disc is labeled as “death metal,” the highlight is this track, which is very much not death metal. It’s still pretty great though. Wolfe’s doomy goth ode to Diana Prince transforms the usual aspirational Amazon into a figure of twilit angst. Drums trudge as Wolfe moans “Flowers of light/Behind my eyes/Evil in the night/To keep me high/Powers, I’m so tired.” You can just about feel those bracelets dragging her down and the weight of the tiara. But you don’t want to be in the way of a Wonder Woman who screeches like that.
Ghostface Killah, “Slept on Tony”
The Wu-Tang’s Ghostface Killah, aka Dennis Coles, named his 1996 solo debut after Iron Man. He doubled down on the love with this 2008 song about how no one appreciates Tony Stark enough.
“Extraordinary, hiding my duel identities
Anthony Stark, call me Ton', the top pedigree
Multi-billionaire, military contractor
Crushing my opponents, with the strength of a compactor.”
The hip-hop appeal of playboy Tony with the money, the girls, the quick wit, and the superpowers, is clear enough. Cole’s song, complete with its horn samples like repulsor blasts, appeared in the 2008 Iron Man movie. That film was so successful that even Ghostface would have to admit that no one is sleeping on Tony anymore.
Namie Amuro, “Wonder Woman”
There are an awful lot of songs titled “Wonder Woman. There’s Kacey Musgraves wistful country folk admission that she “doesn’t know how to lasso the love out of you.” And there’s Lion Babe’s less demure slinky threat, “You don’t wanna see what happens when I get provoked…See me spin around, see me swing my golden rope.”
Wondrous as those are, I think Namie Amuro’s 2011 J-pop girl-power confection maybe even wondrouser. With a boost from rapper Ai and rocker Anna Tsuchiya, the song takes hip-hop, electropop, and anthemic guitars and ties them all up in a big crass gold thread for the gigantic “I’ll be your Wonder Woman!” chorus. That hook will get lodged in your brain like the truth.
All Natural, “MC Avenger”
Why settle for one superhero per song when you can get them allll in? On All Natural’s “MC Avenger” the churning “swinging through your town like your neighborhood Spider-Man” hook is lifted by DJ Tony B. Nimble from the Wu-Tang Clan, while rapper Cap D flexes his nerd tongue powers from Wonder Twins to Submariners. “I appear in a Flash to stop a man/I gots more flow than Aquaman,” he boasts, and adds “I thunder like Thor and Thundaar!” All Natural never hit it big, but this track from their 1998 debut No Additives, No Preservatives shows why Chicagoans of a certain age still speak of them with super love.
Shonen Knife, “Buttercup (I’m a Supergirl)”
The Ramones’ Spider-Man theme is no match for Japanese guitar sugar crunch trio Shonen Knife’s contribution to the punk cartoon tradition. The trio created this bounce-to-battle anthem for the 2000 Rhino Power Puff girls tribute compilation, and rarely has a superhero been serenaded with such simpatico whoosh. You’d just about think that Shonen Knife were the Power Puff girls in their secret identities, or possibly vice versa. I dare you not to rush out to clunk that monster when you listen to Shonen Puff Knife Girls belt out:
“Getting over crisis
I'll rescue the people
You know, I'm a supergirl
Yes, I'm a punky girl
I never say die
No one can stop me
'cause I like to fight!”
Sadevillain, “Gazzillion Grand”
What if Doom was smoooooth?
That is the question asked and answered by British producer Seanh on a couple of mash-up eps from 2016-17 which slide Sade grooves across MF Doom raps and layer MF Doom beats under Sade’s sighs. “Gazillion Grand” loops the preternaturally smoky hook from Sade’s “Flow” (“Ooh baby mm/when you hold me”) beneath a Fantastic Four sample in which the evil Doctor Doom kidnaps Sue Storm, aka The Invisible Girl. “I have removed the heart of the Fantastic Four!” he boasts.
Rapper MF Doom’s twisted but chilled out verse from “Gazzillion Ear” comes in next: “Villain here, have em shrill in fear/And won't stop top illin' til he a gazillionaire.” Villain and heroine bob and sway around each other in a languidly perfect supervillain love story dance. Team-up crossovers are rarely this sensuously perfect.
LaVern Baker, “Batman to the Rescue”
The Adam West Batman has mostly been memory-holed as superhero fandom has become a more serious affair. It’s easy to forget that during its three-year run in the late 60s, the show was a massive cultural phenomenon. Which meant that lots of musicians tried to grab onto the zeitgeist and the attendant cash.
Lots of artists covered Neal Hefti’s indelible “nah-nah-nah” theme, from avant-garde jazz organist Sun Ra to rockers The Ventures. LaVern Baker’s effort knocks out all of those with a big “Biff! Bam! Sock! Wow!” “Batman to the Rescue,” from 1966, combines elements of the Hefti theme with Baker’s 1956 hit “Jim Dandy.” The super-hip funky baseline will get your bat-butt dancing, but it’s Baker’s singing—a wonder of propulsive hog-calling power—that really chases those villains to their lair.
Suicide, “Ghost Rider”
Pioneering synth oddballs Suicide was inspired by the flaming-skull-headed Marvel superhero for this throbbing vamp from their debut. Singer Alan Vega sounds like a pilled-up Lou Reed as he stutters lyrics about Ghost Rider’s blue jumpsuit and a motorcycle before riffing into darker territory. “Hey, baby, baby, baby he’s screamin’ the truth/America America’s killin’ its youth.”
Ghost Rider is not a first-string Marvel hero, but nonetheless, this is without question the most influential song on this list. It’s been covered or sampled by tons of musicians, and it paved the way for New Wave and generations of cool dork electronic art-pop experimenters. Ghost Rider may be a skull, but he lives.
Donovan, “Sunshine Superman”
Donovan’s 1966 summer anthem retains its psychedelic supercharge some 55 years on. Producer Mickie Most’s production shimmers and glows and John Paul Jones’ electric bass slinks through the day-glo fields.
And then there’s Donovan’s adult-child “mmm-hmm-hmm-hmm-hmm” as he declares, with convincing cheer, that “Superman or Green Lantern ain’t got nothin’ on me.” Then he proves it with the next nonsense entendre line, “I can make like a turtle and dive for your pearls in the sea.” Has there ever been a single of such sublime silliness? Superheroes fight for right with might. Donovan grooves for good feeling with that guitar power, you dig?
Open Mike Eagle, “Very Much Money” (Ice King Dream)
“My friends are superheroes/None of us have very much money though,” Open Mike Eagle sings on “Very Much Money” from 2014’s Dark Comedy. Then he lists all his friends’ often underwhelming super abilities; they “fly, run fast, read Portuguese,” write, make jokes, fly into space, and also “wear the same underwear as billionaires.”
The gently ambient production is melancholy (“None of it mattered”) but it’s not just melancholy. Mike doesn’t name-drop Superman or Batman or Thor from comics or movies, instead, he reimagines superheroism as getting through the day, in part by appreciating the un-cosmic abilities of folks you care about. His superpower is making you giggle, and hope.
I’d probably include Shakespear’s Sister’s “Catwoman” if I had one more slot. Or maybe Prince’s “Batdance”? And what about the awesome Electric Company Spider-Man theme? No one list can bind the superheroes. Their power (and their songs!) cannot be contained! As every supervillain knows, though, it’s fun to try.