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I’m taking off on a 35-hour Seattle-to-Nashville road trip in a couple weeks, and am compiling a couple mix-tapes for the drive. What song is essential for any road-trip mix, and when in the drive would you want to hear it? —Kevin Mueller
If we have to pare it down to just one song, for me it’d be “Dance Of The Bad Angels” by Booth & The Bad Angel, a one-off collaboration between Tim Booth and frequent David Lynch musical partner Angelo Badalamenti. It’s a purring, loping, insinuating track that I associate closely with driving late at night; it has the heavy-lidded, mellow, nodding feel of welcome road hypnosis, with a bunch of dreamy, surreal vocalization in the background as if to imply a brain half-asleep and wandering. It’s an excellent groove to catch around 2 a.m., when you’re starting to nod but you’re still alert enough to want to cover a little more ground. The self-titled album is a good road-trip mix as a whole, but that one track stands out, and it’s what I’d put behind any late-night cruising scene if I ever directed a film.
My suggestion isn’t really about any road trip, even though I’ve listened to this song on more multi-hour overnight drives than I want to remember. It’s for your road trip. I want to hear Wilson Pickett’s version of “Hey Jude,” and I want it to start right when I get to West Memphis. Then the long screaming “Na na na nanananaaa” chorus would kick in as I crossed the Mississippi. It’s a song that builds from the cool jukeboxes of the countryside to the electric energy of the city. Duane Allman’s guitar spans the rural/urban divide, and that Muscle Shoals sound evokes the Southern contrast between industry and agricultural, white and black, to perfection. In short, it’s a song about connections and eclecticism, about taking existing history and making it your own. That’s the way I feel about travel, too. Plus, when the Pyramid comes into view and you top that I-40 bridge, you’re going to want to be pounding the steering wheel and shouting to wake up Beale Street..
First of all, Kevin, please refer back to our AVQ&A about summer songs, and note my suggestion of the Embarrassment’s “Two Week Vacation.” This is the only acceptable way to begin a long road trip; it must be played as you start out, a secular version of the Invocation to Ganesha. Second, every road trip requires some Van Halen, but I can’t recommend a specific song until I know what kind of car you’re driving. But if I must avoid both repeating myself and getting overtly personal, I’d say you want to have a copy of “Take Me To The Speedway” from the Dexateens’ Red Dust Rising album. Here’s where you’re going to want to trigger this one: Assuming you’re taking the most direct route from Seattle to Nashville, you’ll find yourself at some point on the I-24, passing through Kentucky. You’ll also find yourself a mite peckish, and you’ll stop somewhere—maybe a grocery store, maybe a truck stop or a gas station—to get some quick focus via a Coke and some jerky. Walk back to your car. Feel that little frisson on your skin and at the base of your brain that tells you that you’re really in the South now, and that means you’re in another country. Get in the car, give your navigator a little wink, and put on “Take Me To The Speedway.” Then you’ll know.
Just because I’m kind of a sick fuck—not to mention someone who’s been in a couple major car wrecks in his life—I can’t think of a better addition to a road-trip mix-tape than The Avengers’ “Car Crash.” A classic of early California punk, the song details Penelope Houston’s distress at getting a phone call telling her that someone near and dear had just been decapitated in an auto accident. As a bonus, the final strangled guitar chord sounds like crumpled steel and shattered glass. If you aren’t into tempting fate as much as I am, you might pass on “Car Crash” and go with a tried-and-true road-trip staple: something off Metallica’s Ride The Lightning, preferably the piston-firing title track or the relentless yet melodic “Escape.” As for exactly when in your road trip you’d want to hear Metallica—definitely when you’re passing through my hometown of Denver. Just make sure the windows are rolled down and the stereo is cranked.
I was gonna try to get all esoteric on this thing, but really what the beginning of every road trip probably needs is something more obvious and straightforward: all of Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever. “Free Fallin’” will get you in the mood to wander and start you off slow. “I Won’t Back Down” will provide that sense of purpose that you’ll make it to your destination intact. And by the time you get to track five, “Runnin’ Down A Dream,” you’ll probably have invented an entire fictional backstory for your cross-country trip that involves winning back your true love and taking control of your life. I hope you aren’t just going to Ashland to pick up an old couch from Craigslist.
As you’re backing out of the driveway, you’ll want to hear Jonathan Richman singing “One two three four five six,” and then the rest of The Modern Lovers jumping in to provide the telltale chug of “Roadrunner,” perhaps the greatest “driving = rocking = living” song of all time. The beat alone—so relentless, so chugging—should be enough to pump anyone up about the road ahead. Then when Richman starts rambling about rock ’n’ roll radio, shopping malls, and streetlights, it’s as though he’s inside your head, behind the wheel, describing what you and he are seeing and feeling. There are two essential versions of “Roadrunner”: The one that kicks off the album The Modern Lovers is the one to start with, because it’s zippier, and will get you on the road with a little gas in the tank. But somewhere toward the end of your trip, you should crank the alternate version—recorded for a single—which is a little slower and a little longer. It’ll reflect your mood after a long day of driving, and lift your spirits with a reminder that you “don’t feel so alone with the radio on.”
The best part of the road trip, I think, is when you’re leaving town. The car isn’t full of trash and doesn’t smell weird, the cooler is full, your ass and legs aren’t tired/cramped, you haven’t gotten bored yet by the drive or the stuff you brought, and you aren’t yet annoyed by fellow passengers. It’s all giddy excitement. For some reason, the first song that popped into my head when I thought of that was “Hey Suburbia” by Screeching Weasel, a giddy pop-punk gem with one of the best sing-along choruses in history: “Hey suburbia / hey suburbia / hey suburbia / we’re in love with you.” (I recommend the version on 1994’s Kill The Musicians, which is superior to the original that appeared on 1988’s Boogadaboogadaboogada!) Actually, I’d recommend all of 1991’s My Brain Hurts, for that matter. It’s wall-to-wall catchy, energetic pop-punk that well suits the excitement of a road trip. Unfortunately, it’s only about half an hour long, so it won’t get you too far—but that initial giddiness wears off soon anyway.
That “when in the drive you want to hear it” part is crucial to these suggestions: I was rereading Chuck Klosterman’s Killing Yourself To Live the first time I made the 20-hours-plus drive from southeastern Michigan to Austin, and under the influence of the “Radiohead predicted 9/11” passage, I threw in Hail To The Thief about seven hours in. Big mistake. In the book, Klosterman tries to put Hail To The Thief on while pulled over to the side of the road, whereas I was in motion—rumbling through rural Missouri in the wee small hours when I decided I wanted to hear the second-most languorous record in the Radiohead catalog. I began nodding off shortly thereafter, and ceded the driver’s seat to my friend before Thom Yorke could explicitly tell me to “Go To Sleep.” So don’t set up any early ’00s Radiohead for your nighttime drive.
However, do go for one of the more hyper moments of the last two Girl Talk records if you anticipate being stuck in rush-hour traffic around a major metropolis, because the attention-deficit stylings of a track like “Play Your Part (Pt. 1)” ought to momentarily distract you from the immobile monotony. (Those easily agitated by Greg Gillis can achieve the same affect with something like Steinski’s “Lesson 2 (James Brown Mix)” or The Books’ “An Animated Description Of Mr. Maps.”)
I do not know how to drive, so I’m a bit underqualified to answer this question, but I am going to nevertheless suggest the ridiculously awesome Ghostface Killah/Mark Ronson/Nate Dogg song “Ooh Wee.” It’s an upbeat, horn-powered, disco-flavored anthem that accompanied establishing shots of the New York city skyline glistening in Hitch and Honey. It’s a wonderfully propulsive, infectious piece of rap-pop that would be the perfect road-trip mix-tape soundtrack to entering any sizable metropolis, and it’s cinematic as fuck. In a perfect world, it would be featured in every film with a hitting-the-big-city montage.
No road-trip mix is complete without Tom Waits’ “Hang On St. Christopher,” especially since it’s actually about a road trip. Waits grabs a martini, slides into the passenger seat with the devil at the wheel, and warns the patron saint of travelers that it’s gonna be a wild ride. (Also good: “Goin’ Out West.”)
Sadly, I don’t listen to mix-tapes anymore on road trips. I like listening to long programs so for me, the ideal audio experience while driving is a baseball game, followed by an episode of Jordan, Jesse Go! (I started listening because I was sick of my husband laughing to himself and then telling me something funny he heard on the show) or This American Life. But I did recently make a driving mix for a friend of mine, and here it is. (I took out the personal, inside-joke songs that I wouldn’t put on an objective mix-tape.)
- “Happiness,” Goldfrapp
- “Ruby Blue,” Roison Murphy
- “Two Weeks,” Grizzly Bear
- “Kids with Guns,” Gorillaz
- “Show Me,” Mint Royale
- “Pieholden Suite,” Wilco
- “Superstar,” Lupe Fiasco
- “Blue Angel,” Roy Orbison
- “You Got Yr Cherry Bomb,” Spoon
- “Touch the Sky” Kanye West
- “Happy Up Here,” Röyksopp
- “Tonite,” Jarvis Cocker
- “You Don’t Know Me,” Ben Folds