A Road-Trip Playlist
La la la la wait til I get my money right
I drove five hundred miles today. Memorial Day weekend being the official-unnofficial beginning of summer and all, it made a lot of sense to get out of town for the weekend, so I've spent the past three days in a cabin an hour north of Albany with my fiancee and my brother and some friends, drinking beer and playing wiffleball and shit. But that weekend out of town meant that my brother and I had to spend pretty much the entire day in a car today so that we could make it down to Maryland for my sister's high school graduation tomorrow. Fortunately, today turned out to be one of those insane and unpredictable great-for-driving days; there were points where we were driving over middle-of-nowhere valleys, coming to the peaks of hills and seeing miles of road sprawled out before us. Even better: I kept my iPod on shuffle the entire time (114 songs by the time we showed up in my parents' driveway), and most of the time it did a really good job finding songs that fit with everything going on around us. So I picked the best of those songs and put together a playlist, since it's been a while since I've done one of those. For those of you who live in New York, where the entire city will start to smell like complete ass sometime in the next couple of weeks, I encourage you strongly to rent cars, to track down those things that let you plug your iPods into cassette decks, to avail yourselves of this playlist, and to get the fuck out of town.
1. Willie Hutch: "Brother's Gonna Work It Out"
About as good of a beginning-of-the-drive song as your iPod is likely to belch out. I first heard this song in 1998, when the Chemical Brothers used it to kick off their obvious-title Brothers Gonna Work It Out mix CD, and for a couple of years I thought that the itchily foreboding fuzz-bass was an after-the-fact Chemicals addition, given that it sounds way more like a sonic hallmark of circa-1998 big beat than circa-1973 soul. But no: it was all Willie Hutch, and that bassline adds a sort of nervous twitch to what's already a great song, a swooping and triumphant call for hope that brings with it a serious undercurrent of ground-down melancholy. And so the song is a pretty perfect reflection of the stew of feelings that come with the return to reality: the exhilaration of starting a long drive, the twinge of sadness that the weekend is ending, the creeping dread that maybe you left your cell phone charger plugged into the wall.
2. Chemical Brothers feat. Hope Sandoval: "Asleep From Day"
Speaking of the Chemical Brothers: This doesn't seem to happen much with people who were born and raised in New York, but those of us who moved there from less hectic environs can often feel a certain dizzy rush when we're taken away and dropped into those weird places where trees actually outnumber residencies, where we're seeing sunlight shining through leaves for the first time again. "Asleep From Day" is basically that feeling in song form. The Chemical Brothers always used to make sure to include at least one song like this one near the end of all their albums: languid, narcotic, meaningless hymns of wide-eyed regret. This one has the Mazzy Star chick half-whispering sweet nothings over flanged-out acoustic guitars, and it stays beatless right up until a vaguely-Boredoms drum-ripple dips through the end.
3. Sleater-Kinney: "The Swimmer"
Extending that feeling of soft, sighing prettiness from "Asleep From Day," Sleater-Kinney gets all gummy and soft and vulnerable. Their guitars shimmer and their voices crack, and the whole thing reminds me of every moment from Me and You and Everyone We Know where someone finally finds happiness but still sort of stays sad. These first three songs all work really well during that part of the drive before you get on the highway, when you're still slowly ambling through backroads and the branches outside your window are still close enough to grab.
4. Avail: "Tuning."
Enough with the quiet: you're on the road now, getting to enjoy your car's speed for the first time, and you need a song that'll roar along with your engine. Avail makes some of the best road-trip music imaginable: fast and wooly and charged-up and unpretentious. Every song has huge singalong potential, even (especially) the songs about inner turmoil. "Tuning" is about feeling out-of-place in your home, but the line I always hear the most clearly is the first one: "Walking by myself, I took a look around / I think I misunderstood the magic of this town." That's a powerful sentiment for anyone who ever grew up conflicted about the place where they once called home. So: you're going home! Enjoy it!
5. Cam'ron: "Get Down"
That first rush of open-road adrenaline fades after a couple of minutes, but the huge, triumphant satisfaction that comes with it doesn't have to. "Get Down" has a slow and pretty and sunny track, and it's got just enough bass to keep the sense of lift from the last song. Cam's rapping about coming from nothing, and he sounds bewildered and vaguely amused, like the novelty of not being broke still hasn't worn off. When you hear it at the right moment, it just sounds perfect.
6. Marvin Gaye: "Trouble Man"
The eerie glide here has the same lushness as the self-assured lurch of "Get Down," but that's where the similarities end. Instead of riding the groove, Marvin slips in and out of its eddies, peeking around corners and darting through open spaces. "Trouble Man" is one of those songs that doesn't really end; it just sort of fades out, and so it feels like it could've started or ended at any time, that we're just hearing a random window of an eternally-recurring groove. Marvin sounds like he's singing in his sleep, and so that element of sleepy self-possession makes it perfect for that part of the trip where driving starts to feel boring, where the exhilaration wears off but the comforting intuitiveness of the act of driving remains.
7. Band of Horses: "The Funeral"
This song is, in its way, a lot like the Avail song, but with the burly wallop replaced by a fragile grace; it's a drawn-out whoosh rather than a furious gallop. Like "Tuning," "The Funeral" is a sad song that sounds at peace with its sadness, and it makes the flying-by scenery feel grander and more welcoming than it otherwise might. Band of Horses is the rare indie-rock band wwho still realizes that their music should have some practical use: in this case, as a soundtrack to daytime driving. Sometimes that's all I ask.
8. 8Ball [feat. Psycho Drama]: "Drama in My Life"
Like the Band of Horses song, it's a slow, pretty, contented lament, and like the Band of Horses song it exists for cars. 8Ball and Psycho Drama think about all the people who hate them, all the turbulence in their lives, and wonder what it might mean, finally deciding to accept the meaninglessness of it. "Drama in My Life" is one of maybe three great songs on 8Ball's triple-album opus Lost, and so it's perfect for iPods; it's one of those great moments that can now be rescued from the mediocrity that once surrounded it.
9. Compton's Most Wanted: "Growin' Up in the Hood"
I'm not a rap-is-dead naysayer, but I really do miss the slow, greasy sample-based melodicism that started out in early-90s West Coast rap and found its place in every American region by the mid-90s, a production style that gave rap a sort of cinematic scope. A lot of my favorite rap albums from the past few years (Return of the Mac, Tha Carter 2, I'm Still Livin', The B.Coming, King) at least nod to it, but somewhere along the line, Casio-preset club-rap became the sonic norm; the TrackMasters have a lot to answer for. "Growin' Up in the Hood" is an early example of that warm melodic whump. Even though Eiht and Chill are talking about blood and concrete, it still sounds perfect when you're driving through the mountains. I love Hell Hath No Fury, but I can't say the same thing for it.
10. Chemical Brothers: "The Boxer (DFA Remix)"
Quiet as it's kept, the Chemical Brothers always made great road-trip music; I still have fond memories of driving over some huge suspension bridge with "The Sunshine Underground" playing. But this track is a DFA remix, and so it really doesn't have a whole lot to do with the Chemical Brothers. Instead, it follows the usual DFA-remix blueprint, starting off with a slow thump, which here works beautifully right after the "Growin' Up in the Hood" beat, and then piling stuff on until it becomes a dizzy dancefloor symphony. Except here everything sounds light and fizzy for the track's entire running time, and since that running time is nearly ten minutes, you can eat up a whole lot of road while this one is playing. I also like that the DFA guys kept intact the guest-vocal from Charlatans UK frontman Tim Burgess, who reaches for a Curtis Mayfield falsetto swagger and, at least in this remix, almost sort of achieves it.
11. White Stripes: "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground"
Jack White has never sounded better than he did on this song, where he makes a piece of pounding feedback-drenched garage-rock minimalism into something bigger than life by adding his own deranged sort of Curtis Mayfield falsetto swagger.
12. Curtis Mayfield: "Move On Up"
Speaking of Curtis Mayfield: another long song, one packed with all sorts of unpredictable little compositional turns. Mayfield's songs were always more cluttered than those of, say, Willie Hutch or Isaac Hayes, and so they usually make better music for driving through cities than for mountains. But the "Move On Up" horn-riff inevitably calls up memories of Kanye West's "Touch the Sky" and of its flying-through-clouds video, which makes it a pretty great thing to hear when you're actually driving through clouds.
13: Bun B: "The Story"
Yet another long song. I have friends who only listen to stand-up comedy tapes or talk radio when they're on road trips; they say that the time will fly by if you can get lost in someone else's narrative. I need actual music, but I sort of understand what they mean when "The Story" is on. This is one of the three or four great track's from Trill, Bun's solo album. For six minutes, Bun candidly tells us about all the triumphs and trials his career has faced, never breaking for chorus or getting lost in details, keeping everything building with a master storyteller's ease. And ultimately, it's a song about self-reliance, just like "Move On Up."
14. Devin the Dude: "Go Somewhere"
Every Devin album is a great argument for the rap melodicism I talked about a few paragraphs ago, and "Go Somewhere" is a better case-in-point than most. It's about getting away from your everyday life, and it's practically a country song; it couldn't possibly be any more perfect for the purposes of this mix.
15. Rolling Stones: "Wild Horses"
There might be a few better midday road-trip songs than this one, but I sure can't think of them right now.