040: The Tone Glow Road Trip
Our writers share stories about songs and albums they like to hear on the road
|Nov 16, 2020||7|
There’s something about the open road: the sense of possibility, the chance for reprieve, the opportunity to connect with those around us, with us, awaiting us. It’s this transitory state of travel that enlivens, granting anticipation for what’s to come without being confronted with disenchanting realities upon arrival. And regardless of how you’re traveling—by car or bus, train or plane—there’s a comfort in knowing that all you need to do is be present. It’s something that all of us could use right now: an extended moment to simply be.
For today’s issue, we’ve come together to share songs and albums we cherish. They soundtracked our road trips, defined our commutes, accompanied us on lonely drives. They connected us with family and friends, and told us about who we are and who we could be. Just like any stretch of road, a piece of music can have infinite meanings and memories attached to it. And hearing such stories is nourishing—a gentle reminder of music as a means for connection and understanding.
As with any good road trip, this issue features familiar faces and strangers alike. I’ve brought on friends I haven’t talked with in years, others have brought on their partners, and some are people that none of us know. Regardless, we’re all here to share with you our lives and our loves. You may never see us again, but something’ll stick. Let’s ride. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
Japanese Breakfast - Psychopomp (Yellow K Records, 2016)
In the summer of 2016, I lived on a mountain in one of the smallest towns in Connecticut—Falls Village, population, 538—in a crumbling house with three roommates. At that time, I was an about-to-be-21-year-old intern who had no idea what to do with her life after graduation. What I remember most from that summer is the heartbreaking voicemail track on Psychopomp and the way that the moon hung still while I listened to it in the car.
Japanese Breakfast released Psychopomp earlier that year and my college radio friends and I were all obsessed. As I raced down the backroads with the windows down, I began to really understand the heart of that album in a way that I couldn’t before. Summer makes me feel like there is no end; so does listening to the daydream beats and grief of Psychopomp, an album that tackles the ultimate ending and the beginnings that stem from it.
I shared a black 2007 Subaru Outback with my mom that summer, driving it between my home on the CT shoreline and the rural hills multiple times a week. Every Sunday, I worked in a box office, doling out tickets to customers and trying not to get yelled at. When the concert would end, I would scarf down a chocolate chip cookie from the concession stand, go back to my house, and pack my things for an evening drive, usually blaring Psychopomp at an ungodly volume, the flickering wash of dream pop gently caressing me as “In Heaven” effortlessly becomes the twinkling, rhythmic “The Woman That Loves You.”
All you can really do in a town of 538 people that’s hidden in the hills of the Appalachian Trail is drive, or hike. I didn’t own hiking boots, so I drove, and drove, and drove. I remember a gas station at the foot of a dry, open field where I’d fill up my tank. Only a couple of dim lights shone at night, enough for you to see the pump and the faint outline of your car. The moon hung low in the field, so big you could almost get swallowed by it. I’d never seen the moon loom so large, nor how the stars light up the entire sky when there’s no light pollution.
One steamy July day, I drove to New Haven’s Union Station, listening to Psychopomp’s fast-paced, chugging melodies, got on a train to Madison Square Garden and saw Radiohead for the first time. It was on the drive home from that concert, Michelle Zauner crooning “I’m the rugged one” in the background as I zipped over the blue-lit Quinnipiac Bridge where I knew my life meant nothing to me without music in it. It was 4 in the morning. The moon was a crescent, shining brighter than I had ever seen it before. That was the beginning of the rest of my life. —Vanessa Ague
The Walker Brothers - “Nite Flights” (GTO, 1978)
Every time I take a flight, I perform the same ritual: immediately upon takeoff I put on my headphones and listen to “Nite Flights.” It’s a great song—between the burbling, newer-than-New Wave synths, Scott’s characteristically amazing vocals, and the melancholy tension that underpins it all, it’s as though synthpop were invented, perfected, and abandoned all in one go. But as catchy as “Nite Flights” is, there’s more to the so-called ritual than a really good song. I chose this because of how it musically embodies flight and movement without concerning itself with where it’s going to land.
“Nite Flights” is a soaring masterwork, to be sure, but you get the sense through the odder instrumental choices and the inconclusive lyrics that the song doesn’t quite know where it’s soaring to. When travelling, moving forward into the unknowable future, I don’t want a song that has all the answers. One of the main things I’ve learned throughout the past year or two has been the futility of trying to guess what’s coming up next, as soon as the next day. The rhythms of life, I’ve been feeling, are inscrutable, so why pretend otherwise? Just fasten your seatbelt, close your eyes, and find what joy you can along the trip. “Nite Flights,” I’ve found, is a song that can travel into the unknown with me. —Chloe Liebenthal
Led Zeppelin - “Whole Lotta Love” (Atlantic, 1969)
I was halfway through the Fort Pitt tunnel on my way into Pittsburgh when I realized what was about to happen.
I’d been driving all day at that point, having finally left the West Virginia horse farm where I’d been hiding from COVID for four months with no plans to return to Brooklyn until a sunny day in early July when I woke up and realized there was nothing left for me in the mountains. Though I’m not one to believe in spirit guides or guardian angels or whatever, I swear this is God’s honest truth: the moment I opened my eyes to another day on the farm, same as the last day on the farm, feeling myself beginning to sink into solipsistic misery at the shrinking contours of my life, a little voice inside my head whispered: “You don’t have to stay here, you know. You can leave whenever you want. You’re free.” And so I was. West Virginia is just like heaven, but hell is any place you can’t leave, so rather than allowing creeping resentment to transform what had been a safe shelter into a cage of suffocating isolation, I booked a rental car and made plans to re-enter a changed world.
Rather than going straight back to New York, I decided to first go to Pittsburgh, which was only a four hour drive away. I’d fallen in love with the city when I visited in 2019 to write an article about a band with whom I subsequently became, and have been fortunate enough to remain, great friends. It would be good to see familiar faces on my first days in this new world. And all I wanted to listen to on the drive up through the Appalachians was Led Zeppelin, who are also like old friends.
Having grown up in Southern California, the act of driving a car while listening to classic rock is inextricable in my mind. I came to punk and indie as a teenager, but before the onset of terminal hipness, I would go crazy for the classic rock I would hear on 95.5 KLOS, which then billed itself as “Southern California’s ONLY classic rock radio station.” Zeppelin were a special favorite and so many of my happiest memories involve being behind the wheel of a car listening to “Immigrant Song” or “Trampled Under Foot” on a perfect sunny day, all blue sky and white clouds above and a six-lane freeway below taking me somewhere good. I felt a similar high the day I drove to Pittsburgh. It was mid-summer and the Appalachians were green and beautiful all around me. I marveled at the beauty of the landscape and felt lucky to feel so free in a world gone small as Zeppelin blasted non-stop through the car speakers. Every Zeppelin song is the best Zeppelin song, until the next one comes on. How many other bands can say the same?
Which brings us back to the Fort Pitt tunnel. Though I’d never driven into Pittsburgh before, I knew that this tunnel was the one that would lead me into the city and I was looking forward to seeing the skyline as my first image of the world I had abandoned in a tangle of panic and fear. “Whole Lotta Love” had been playing for the past few minutes, a song I know in my bones. Suddenly, as the tunnel exit loomed ahead, it dawned on me that the moment I emerged would be the moment the outro would hit on the song, Bonham’s drum fill leading into that final burst of orgasmic riffage and wailing from the only band who could ever do it properly. And like the day I decided to leave West Virginia, I heard that little voice in my head whispering: “It’s gonna hit.”
I braced myself for impact and the song cracked open just as the world did. There it was: downtown Pittsburgh, wrapped in highways and tied by bridges, the buildings tall and golden in the late afternoon sun, Zeppelin bursting into their full glory as “Whole Lotta Love” charged into its unforgettable finale. And something cracked open inside of me, as well. I felt in my entire body a holy blast of divine timing, every thread in my life up to that point braiding together like Allegheny and the Monongahela Rivers that meet in the center of Pittsburgh to form the Ohio. Perhaps we can never know if we are ever exactly where we’re supposed to be, if there is a greater plan to the course of our lives or if it’s all aimless wandering in the end. But in that instant, I saw the blueprint illuminated and nearly cried for the wonder of it all, letting out a yelp of joy and gratitude for the good fortune that had brought me to this moment, and for the music that had never left my side throughout everything that had led up to it. What a whole lotta love. —Mariana Timony
Jeff Eubank - “Feels Like Me” (Dorothea, 1983)
For about three months in 2013, I worked for a test administration company. Five days a week, I and a few dozen other temps graded essays from various states’ year-end assessments. Study the prompt, comprehend the rubric, read the essay, assign the score. Each essay got two graders—supervisors had to resolve severe score discrepancies—so my goal was to blow through my batch accurately, but leaving enough time to peruse a month-old New Yorker at my computer station.
I liked the job. But I needed it more: it was the first full-time gig I’d landed in ages. The Sonata I bought off my college ex was sitting in the driveway, utterly crapped out. Even before it went, though, I’d spent months rooted to the couch, earning beer money from the odd copywriting job. The testing company was in an office park in North Austin, and we lived in the deep South. Fortunately, I could catch the 3 bus and ride it all the way.
Unfortunately, that meant a pre-dawn walk to the bus station to make a 5:59 departure, arriving at 7:20 to trek the final half-mile to the office park. Sometimes I brought a book or a magazine, but mostly I leaned my temple against the cool window and put on headphones. I kept returning to one song: the opener from a 1983 private-press AOR deal that Drag City had reissued a couple years earlier. Like my commute, it was simultaneously brisk and lethargic: the drummer strings up a line of funky sixteenths only for Eubank to drape his coat on it. The song shimmers, but dimly; comfort is drawn into the shape of a leer. “Don’t sound the alarm / There is no harm,” he croons on the bridge, “There’s nothing to fear, it’s clear”—cutting immediately into Allen DeCamp’s lonesome yowl of a solo, an existential scorcher worthy of Hugh Burns, knocked out on the cheap in Kansas City.
Against instructions, I’d actually been using “Feels Like Me” as an actual alarm—every morning at 5:15, my phone woke me with his chiming synth ostinato. I came across the record at my last job. I was the copywriter for a daily-deal coupon company. We had too much office space: I spent two weeks alone in a corner office, downloading every private-press record I could learn about. Compositionally, Eubank’s A Street Called Straight was a sight ahead of the drippy-hippie fuzzfests typically associated with private pressings. It was similarly inscrutable but impeccably tracked, the sound of a talented punter scaling CSNY’s arena vibes to the size of a darkened studio waiting room.
The confidence had been stomped out of me. On our breaks we’d all stand along a concrete wall—forming the parking lot’s natural eastern border—and make calls, or talk about local shows. I’d sit outside the grading room during lunch with a magazine, witnessing feats of incision and concision. Then I’d throw numbers at Pennsylvanian 10th graders. Towards the end of my contract, I started treating myself: after work I’d splurge for the train to downtown. I’d still have to make the 3 connection for the final leg home, but before that I got to kick the legs out and see different graffiti. Never played Eubank on the train. I had Jimmy “Bo” Horne instead.
The job ended when summer did. The prospect of permanent work was dangled, but my stints at Dell manufacturing facilities had taught me better. Within a few years, the scoring center closed, though the corporation remains. A friend put in a word for me at a local software company. I’m back to shuffling from bedroom to living room five days a week, but now I’m on the clock. On my last day as a grader I stuffed a couple New Yorkers in my backpack. I walked past the racing car parts shop and through the ragged field that’s condos now and crossed the street to walk past the flooring warehouse. I waited for the train and thought about dinner. I didn’t know what the next job would be but I knew it couldn’t be anything I could ever become good at. Feels like me. —Brad Shoup
Peter Gabriel - “Moribund the Burgermeister” (Atco, 1977)
My mother liked Peter Gabriel because she had liked Genesis. In fact, she went to see Peter Gabriel at his first live solo concert in Central Park. She was near the stage, and when he dove off the stage into the audience, he passed over her head. She reached up to pinch his butt, but he was flipped over and she instead grabbed his dick. I was in the closet but I fantasized about being my mother and grabbing Peter Gabriel’s dick for years after she told me this story. I liked Peter Gabriel because “Sledgehammer” had a fun music video (which I learned only while writing this story that it was directed by the Brothers Quay). I was also fascinated by the fact that he had several albums without titles—how would I ever be able to tell them apart? It was so intriguing to me. Like a mystery. I put one on that I thought I liked. The first song started playing: Moribund the Burgermeister. I had never heard this music before. I had in fact never heard something this weird before. I loved it. I was inspired to make a mixtape. It was the first song on the tape. I have no memory of what other songs I put on the tape.
I gave the tape to my friend Lisa, who was old enough to drive. We both had difficult relationships with our families, so we spent a lot of time in her car that year, driving around on surface streets in the northeast of Phoenix, which had only surface streets—no freeways—instead dirt chasms cut through neighborhoods, which one day became freeways. We drove through rich neighborhoods and blasted music. She liked to play Billy Idol, the Misfits, the weird Love Spit Love cover of How Soon is Now? from the Craft soundtrack. She liked to play this Korn song called “Faget” and shout along into my face “You can suck my dick and fucking like it!” I hated Korn.
So anyway, I made this tape and gave it to her. She too became obsessed with this schizophrenic Peter Gabriel song that starts an album with a promise of something spectacular, which sadly it doesn’t deliver. It sounds both futuristic and archaic somehow like the guitar part sounds like what I think Genesis sounds like and he’s singing about a castle maybe and I mean Genesis sounds so old they could have been medieval as far as I was concerned (honestly though I still don’t really know what Genesis sounds like). It sounds like a parody of… something with which I am not familiar.
Lisa was—let’s face it—a drama queen. To ride in her car was a bit like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. Holding a Camel Wide in one hand, the other gliding up my thigh uncomfortably close to my dick, leaning full over into my face, not looking at the road, she croaks along with Peter Gabriel “I… will… find… out” and then mimics the sound of the synthesizer, cackling with laughter while steering the car 30 miles over the speed limit with a knee covered in torn black fishnets. “I… will… find… out” she repeats and takes a drag off the cigarette, turning back to the road in time to screech to a halt for a red light. We’re both laughing. I turn and look outside the window to confirm that once again we have not died. “I… will… find… out.”
I’ve never owned this album myself, I just listened to my mama’s copy, but every few years I seek out a way to listen to “Moribund the Burgermeister.” I always doubt somehow that it sounds how I remember; but it continues to sound utterly bizarre. It calls forth inside of me the agonizing excitement of being young and aimless, driving around with friends... anxious… depressed… horny… our only goal to avoid going home. —Dicky Bahto
Hank Williams - “Hey Good Looking” (MGM, 1951)
When my dad was growing up, family vacations were a once-a-year event that existed for one reason: to visit other family members for the holidays. This always entailed a road trip from where they lived—in the small oil towns south of Houston—up to North Texas, the extended family split between Longview and Mineral Wells. My dad never described his childhood as being particularly happy or full of warm feelings, but the most tender memory he’s ever shared with me is of his parents on these trips, hearing them sing to each other to pass the time. My grandpa would sing “Hey, Good Lookin’” to my grandma to make her blush and then “Jambalaya” to make her laugh. My grandma would allow herself to sing something from “The Weavers” or “Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys” before switching over to hymns and Christmas carols. My dad didn’t always like his extended family, and I don’t know if he even liked the music at the time; I just know that whenever I’ve listened to Hank Williams around my father—him in the front seat, me in passenger—his face would light up a little. He’d lean over with a smile on his face and tell me the story of his parents singing to each other. —Samuel McLemore
Marianne Faithfull - “It's All Over Now, Baby Blue” (Castle, 1971)
My dad and I haven’t had the best relationship. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve never once doubted that he loves me unconditionally… but that love, informed as it is by his 1950s upbringing by two stiff, strict Britons, hasn’t always been the gentlest. I think he struggled to relate to me as I got older and my interests departed from any common ground.
One thing we do have in common is a love of this song, which my dad had on a tape in his Mitsubishi for most of my childhood. I don’t think either of us knew the singer, or even that it was a Dylan cover. I think every song from that tape is burned into my memory as a road trip song, but this one is particularly special to me because I’ve never heard it anywhere else. Bob Dylan fans likely prefer his original, and Marianne Faithfull fans likely prefer her numerous great albums of original material. To me, however, nothing will ever top this rendition. Years later, when the tape and car were both long gone, I sifted through countless other covers to find it again. When I found the right one, I knew straight away. It took me right back to the trips of my childhood, when he and I could still sing together, when things were still okay. —Mark Cutler
Hiroshi Yoshimura - Soundscape 1: Surround (Misawa Home, 1986)
I’ve always reveled in being the youngest child. My sister is eight years my senior, and my twin brother bests me by a minute. And while those 60 seconds may seem negligible, they allotted my brother the privileges that come with being the eldest son in a Korean household (even more, the eldest son on my father’s entire side). But I had something better: the back seat of my family’s Chrylser minivan. Whenever we went somewhere, appa would drive and umma would sit next to him, the two holding hands above the center console. My siblings, being older than me, gladly stationed themselves in the middle row. It only had two seats, so I sat in the back. More often than not, I’d lie down and take a nap, my head resting on a pillow my mom had sewn for me. I’d put my headphones in, my Sony Discman in hand, and press play.
My brother got his license two years before me. My parents didn’t see why I’d need one at 16—we were always together, why would I need to drive? More discouraging was how my brother gained a reputation for being a safe driver long before I did. As a teenager, I scratched my dad’s car against our mailbox as I was pulling it into our driveway. When I eventually got my own car, I got a speeding ticket on my very first drive. A few years ago, I fell asleep on the road and rear-ended a Jeep Wrangler—their car was fine, mine was totaled. I don’t blame my parents for clutching the handle above the car door anytime I drive them.
I was in California in 2018. My cousin was getting married, but the only people who could attend were my father and me. We landed in LAX and went to the nearby Enterprise to pick up our rental car: a white Toyota Corolla. He drove to his mother’s home and we stayed the night, but next morning we were headed to central California, and the hours-long drive was bestowed upon me. If my mother had come, she wouldn’t have let me drive. But my father was tired, and he always trusted me behind the wheel more than he let on.
There was something special about driving on the 1. I had been in California a dozen times before, but it was my first time driving in it. And thus, I had never taken in all its scenery until that day. I’d marvel at the Pacific on my left, the mountains on my right, and my dad would share memories of when he’d drive down this road during his early 20s. He knew how great it felt—he wanted me to experience it too.
While driving, I played music that captured the mood: Teddy Pendergrass and Sam Cooke, Makoto Matsushita and Ayumi Ishida, Kim Hyun Chul and Jang Pil-Soon. My father and I never really talk much, so I kept the volume low to show how much I enjoyed his reminiscing. Two hours into the drive, my father reclined his seat all the way back, rested his hands on top of one another, and closed his eyes. For his sake, I put on the only ambient LP I’d kept on my phone throughout the past six years: Hiroshi Yoshimura’s Soundscape 1: Surround. I heard light snoring amidst the rippling synths of “Something Blue.”
I often think about the inevitable change that’s to come with our relationship, how one day, I’ll be taking care of him. I thought about that while he slept. I thought about all the trips he’d taken the family on, perfectly fine with driving as the rest of us dozed off to music. I thought about how rare those moments are once you become an adult. Thanks for letting me return the favor. —Joshua Minsoo Kim
MPA Shitro - “No Games” (feat. Young Thug)
It was a bad time for both of us. I was living back home on a forced leave of absence from college, the kind of thing where my return to campus was contingent on a letter from a psychologist. My mom had divorced my dad a few years prior and was still dealing with the residual emotional and social fallout. I think we both felt like failures. We were living parallel and private lives, avoiding each other as best we could, feeling like the most considerate thing we could do for each other was to give each other space. It was like we were both grieving the lives we could have enjoyed had things shaken out a little differently, if only we weren’t so weak and bad.
At some point my mom said she’d like to go for a drive. There’s an extensive network of little two-lane roads carving eastwards through the California desert. People would commute on them until they built freeways. Now these roads aren’t quite so used, but they’re well maintained, and something of a destination for weekend drivers. My mom plotted routes for us to take, she riding shotgun with printed out directions from MapQuest, myself in the driver’s seat, irritated at her obstinate reliance on outdated services. We do have smartphones you know, I might say. And she’d reply: just let me be an old lady, ok?
We always listened to Young Thug on those drives. I was obsessed, and because my mom loves me, she learned to love Thugger too. She describes his voice as “froggy,” and her favorite songs are the ones where Thug’s voice bursts with a joy for the sound. She likes “#TwitterSong” because it’s sweet, and she likes “Nigeria” because it’s wild. She likes when Thugger croons because it reminds her of love, and she likes when he sounds melancholic because that’s how she feels too. She likes booming rap beats because they sound good with the windows down, like when you’re driving through backroads with your eldest son at the wheel, who you’ve seen suffer so terribly in ways you feel powerless to address, and who, for all his troubles, still had the kindness in his heart to take his mother out on drives when she wanted to.
One day she told me she listened to a CD I left in the car. Her favorite song on it is “No Games.” I can see why it resonated with her. The beat is gorgeous and wistful, and somewhat atypical for Thug. She says it reminds her of a silver lining, of our drives together where she got to remeet her son as an equal and a friend, of a great thing during bad times. And now that’s what it makes me think of, too. —Jon Song
Boyz II Men - “A Song for Mama” (Motown, 1997)
Up until the point I moved out on my own, my mom was my best friend. We lived under the same roof as an abusive stepfather and husband, and the only support we had to get through it, was each other. She felt she had to put up a façade of deference to anything my stepfather said or did to me, but when we were alone she assured me that she didn’t stand for it. I used to resent her for not doing more, but I don’t blame her; she was scared too. It was a terrifying living arrangement. My mother and I could really only be ourselves when our stepfather wasn’t around. We used the time we could spend with just the two of us to unwind, complain, laugh, cry, and anything else we weren’t allowed to do with the boot of an oppressive maniac on our necks. Car rides were the most frequent occurrence for us to have a breather—rides to and from school, to the grocery store, to visit my grandmother, and whatever else. My stepfather didn’t like going places with us—or being around us at all, really—so car rides were our thing. I only have one memory of all three of us in a car, and it’s not a good one.
I have lasting associations with my mom and stepfather’s cars that will stay with me for the rest of my life. My stepfather’s seafoam green Acura was poison; my heart would sink when I saw it pull into the driveway. I knew it meant I’d get shouted at in about five minutes. My mom’s forest green 2000 Nissan Maxima, however, was a comforting presence; cozy, safe, the place where I could relax and have no reason to worry. Whenever she asked me to go with her to the store, I knew it was code for “I’ve got to get out of here for a while.” The moment the doors were closed she could drop the quiet act and become the kind, loving mother I always knew she was. Her sense of humor came out. She’d talk about her interests, desires, and how badly she wanted to get out of there and take me with her. It gave me hope that we’d reach the promised land together.
My mom loved music, and she’s the reason that I love music. There were six programmable buttons on her car’s console, each tuned to one of her favorite radio stations. She’d talk to me about the music she listened to at my age, sing along to songs that were made a decade before I was born, and generally just have the time of her life whenever music was playing—but there was one song that never failed to get her in a bit of a sullen mood, Boyz II Men’s “A Song for Mama.” I know she was insecure about what I thought of her; I was clearly not a happy child, and she wanted to do more for me than she felt she was able. I had no friends, I kept to myself, and although my grades were good and I did well in school she knew my motivation was slipping because my stepfather would still tell me that it all amounted to nothing and I’d fail. We had fun and we laughed together sometimes, but my ability to express affection was stunted. I only knew how to be quiet and stay out of sight, and during some of those car rides I was a bit too sad to look her in the eyes. A sweet ballad about love for a mother that was always there for you probably hurt her, because she wanted to hear those words from me.
Our relationship would improve as time went on, but the times I can recall telling her I love her back then are far and few between. I’m better about it now that I’ve had therapy and we’ve talked through all the resentment, but I wish I had given her the encouragement that she was still doing something right. Things weren’t perfect, but I owe a lot to her. She’d probably be surprised to learn I still know all the words to this song by heart.
There was never any question, mom; I loved you then, and I love you now. —Shy Thompson
Giorgio Moroder - From Here To Eternity (Casablanca Records, 1977)
There are countless albums that I find impossible to separate from the experience of listening while driving. Turiya Sings first thing in the morning on a trip between cities on tour in Europe. Trout Mask Replica for the very first time while puttering across the Canadian prairies. Dear Catastrophe Waitress on a Discman in the backseat while my family’s rental van zipped around the streets of Rome. Yet the one that looms largest in my memory is Giorgio Moroder’s 1977 robo-disco masterpiece From Here To Eternity while hugging the curves of the Ontario highways.
The older cars me and my friends can afford to own are typically equipped with CD players, providing a perfect opportunity to pull nostalgic faves off the shelf or even buy some cheap used discs when you know you’ll have a few hours behind the wheel. On CD, the songs of From Here To Eternity flow from one to the next like the best kind of DJ set, and they’re tailor-made for safely speeding just a few kilometers over the limit. The beats pump relentlessly but never feel oppressive with their steady tempos, cutesy sing-song melodies, and the soft electronic sounds in Moroder’s toolbox. It’s closer to medium than hi-NRG, and his cover of “I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone” (originally performed by Elvis Presley) could even be confused for an ABBA deep cut.
In 2020, Moroder’s walrus moustache, gleaming shades, and goofy vocoder come across like a quaint vision of the future, but it’s hard to imagine just how advanced this music must have sounded when it was released the same year as his revolutionary production for Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love.” Throw this album on next time you’ve got some highway miles ahead of you and you’ll feel yourself gliding into a time that feels optimistic and endless. —Jesse Locke
Toro y Moi - Causers of This (Company Studio, 2010)
I remember the first time I heard Toro y Moi’s Causers of This. I was in my freshman dorm room stoned for about the 16th time in my life, pining for the nothingness of being, or something else that a 19-year-old would think is poignant. It’s background music, largely. That’s not a knock on the album; it’s surprisingly difficult to execute on something that sounds like nothing but feels like it should be everything. It’s the perfect soundtrack for drives where it feels like time is either suspended or accelerated—just for you.
This era of chillwave always felt emblematic of its time. A post-Bush calmness that made people happy with the mere existence of perceived normalcy—vibes, if you will—before the stark reality of economic mortality continued to rear its head even after a supposed recovery. We were attuned to an absence of anger, choosing instead to ignore it for the jittery baseline of “Freak Love” or the piano lick on “Low Shoulder.” In hindsight, it wasn’t easier, but we were certainly made to believe it was. There’s something addictive and calming about the absence of critical thinking. What’s the point other than to hurt your own feelings?
From Ann Arbor, Michigan to Fort Wayne, Indiana, there’s almost nothing of interest. It’s a straight road. Causers of This is certainly packed with moments of interest, otherwise I wouldn’t listen to it all the time. But the tracks meld together like a long drive until you get one like “Fax Shadow,” the J Dilla homage centered on forgetting and not knowing: the ideal state of being.
I spin this album during almost every drive longer than 45 minutes. I’ve memorized the synth hitches and hiccups the same way you memorize the bumps and curves on the road. I listen to it and feel the warmth that comes with not thinking of anything. When I’m driving, that’s me time. When I’m driving, that’s smooth brain time. Being confined in my glorified box with wheels is home. —Adrian Rojas
Neu! – “Hallogallo” (Brain Records, 1972)
From the opening notes of this song, it creeps up on you. Whether it’s the skronky guitar strumming or the propulsive drumming that served as the eventual heartbeat for an entire genre of music, this song is undeniable. I’m not sure what Michael Rother, Klaus Dinger and their producer, Conny Plank, were up to that day, but the result is simultaneously calming, expansive and, well, free. There’s no other way of describing it once you hear it, and it’s almost impossible to separate the sound from the physical feelings it makes the listener feel.
Dinger and Rother were early members of Kraftwerk; when it became clear that the musicians were all headed toward different territory, the pair amicably split from the group to form Neu! All were an essential part of forming a new musical genre centered around classical principles, but with a heavy dose of experimentation. The international music press couldn’t find any other unifying element beyond these groups emerging from post-WWII Germany, and began referring to the resultant music as Krautrock, much to the chagrin of the musicians involved.
I recently moved back to my hometown after having spent 17 years in Chicago. During this time, my musical experiences had been largely confined to my headphones in train cars. I often found myself doing my best to keep my enthusiasm to myself while among strangers. When I made the decision to move, I knew that I was going to have to get a car. I could not have been more excited about the prospect.
Every driver knows: there is very little that beats great speakers, a perfect 74 degree day, open windows, a sunroof and no traffic. The minute I returned to my hometown and climbed into the driver’s seat, there wasn’t any question about which song I needed to hear first. Having lived for so long without a car, I was excited to have long country roads that I could speed down, whip around, and drive down for a good bit with very little traffic or interference. “Hallogallo” only served to amplify my feelings of gratitude and a kind of freedom on that first drive; it’s how I felt the first time I heard it, and on every listen since.
The press often referred to the percussive beat present in Neu’s works as “motorik,” indicative of the steady, rhythmic way Klaus Dinger played. Dinger himself preferred to refer to his style of drumming as “lange gerade,” or “the long straight.” Where their former bandmates found their rhythm out on the Autobahn, Neu! found theirs by locking into a groove. That locking rhythm is hypnotic on many levels, and conducive to any daydreams your average person harbors relative to stunt driving. I haven’t tried it, but you better believe that I’ve thought about it, particularly toward the end of the track when those initially benign guitars start wilding out, spiraling deliriously toward no final resolution. Those tones just ring on and on, like some endless stretch of highway. —Jocelyn Brown
Pizzicato Five - The International Playboy & Playgirl Record (Readymade Records, 1998)
I spent half a year studying abroad and the experience was mostly a letdown: at the time, I did not know who I was or what I wanted and thus ended up having a lot of unrealistic expectations that I couldn’t fulfill. At the end of my trip, I felt dull and emotionless and was just waiting for it all to end so I could fly back home.
Due to a mix-up at the airplane company, the flight had been overbooked. The gods of aviation decided to smile upon me and my seat was upgraded to one in business class, free of charge. A stewardess on the plane clearly saw that I wasn’t used to flying outside of economy and gave me a little tour of everything that was included in a business class ticket. And it was a lot: unlimited food and drinks, comfortable slippers, ’60s designer glassware, reclining seats.
After takeoff I listened to Pizzicato Five’s Playboy & Playgirl and barely managed to finish it before passing out from exhaustion and all the free drinks. Pizzicato Five and a lot of the shibuya-kei scene in general worshipped the idealized jet-set life of the ’60s, something that probably only existed in airline commercials and old films. The songs on the album are about dates, dreaming about old lovers, and leisurely sitting in cafes all day. The flight was probably the closest I’ll ever get to living that kind of luxurious fantasy life.
Flying this way was romantic and nostalgic: endless champagne, pleasure and relaxation, the roar of the engines and the inevitability of jet lag. But the strongest feeling was the relief of finally just being able to go back home—a secret feeling that I only shared with the clouds that day. —Oskari Tuure
DJ Sprinkles - “Grand Central, Pt. I (Deep Into The Bowel of House)” (Mule Musiq, 2009)
I’ve lived in New York City, at a distance from Manhattan, for more or less all my adult life, and for most of that partnered in one way or another with men who would leave. So when I’m alone, I tend to go out; and because of my geographical remove and my economic class, this required long night-trips underground to and fro, underground and deep into tunnels and into the mornings. In this way, my urban lifestyle was largely on the road.
Anyway, in the days (at least personally) between pandemics, at the end of a night in a multilevel leather bar—sadly, the house was as boringly hard as my luck at working out a hookup—I gathered my belongings and embarked on the mid-length walk before the long train home. I put my music on shuffle in the hopes of changing fortunes: pools of Harold Budd rippled through Manhattan’s crisp murk. A moist wait in a station and then the transporting glare of the powder-blue subway car, the sinking into a seat. DJ Sprinkles came on. I was altered.
“Grand Central” hubs various rails, including Latin and tribal and deep and bitch house, melodies like cheap boas that glisten with expense and rumble with regret, and a languorous arrangement that flirts with longueur over its twelve minutes without reaching it. It’s a tease that satisfies. It has more referents than inside the Beaux-Arts public library and cathedrals of reverence for its own lineage of queens. That exhausted but unbruised night on the train, the track settled next to me, into me, like a buddy. I thought of all the other queers on trains that night, some kind of modern Harry Partch network. I don’t know how else to say it: Terre Thaemlitz’s ode to a place created in part by that place, and for that place, in that place, tore a small hole in the veil around me and I saw and felt a constellation of faggots swirling around me in that shuddering car, soft spinning puffs of them outside of time. The ride went on forever. I travelled. And I learned—no matter how and even when I felt—I would never travel alone. —Jesse Dorris
Sonic Youth - “Shadow of a Doubt” (SST, 1986)
I no longer start out my days thinking anything could happen. I’m lucky to believe something could happen. Getting behind the wheel offers the illusion of possibility. I balked at years of public transportation and got a driver’s license when desperation kicked in. Now I’m more in control of where I go, even if viable destinations are few. It may not be completely freeing, but there’s nothing like cruising aimlessly. There’s nothing like falling under the spell of your own physical momentum.
Night is the best time to just go for it. A few times a month, I drift down the highway to “Shadow of a Doubt.” Better than any song I know, it evokes the thrill of meeting someone new. Two strangers on a train have an uncanny understanding of how to satisfy each other’s needs—they tease sexual release, even murderous comeuppance. Sonic Youth zeroes in on this pulp fantasy with ferocious conviction, blazing a trail of icy guitar harmonics that is simply electrifying.
The center doesn’t hold for long, and Kim Gordon sears that it was all “just a dream.” Her anguish passes through me like a chill. Or another ship in the night. —Zachariah Cook
Sonic Youth - Sister (SST, 1987)
Actually, all music is about one of two things: coffee or trains. All love songs are actually about coffee, don’t ya know. Except the ones about trains, of course. And music written by New Yorkers are explicitly about the New York subway. Except when it’s about coffee, naturally. What about music written pre-1904, which is the year the subway opened for the city, you ask? That was music that longed for transportation, I’d say.
Steve Shelley ranks among the best drummers ever. Not because he never missed a beat (which is not to say he did, because he never missed one). Not because he wasted any notes (not a single one). But because his music had that subway chug-chug that Sonic Youth needed for their love-letters to the New York subway, even with its dirt and grime and total trash.
It doesn’t matter where I am or what I’m doing, but with the drum drop that opens “Schizophrenia”—and Sonic Youth’s Sister—I am immediately transported to the New York subway. Sturdy, precise, industrial, methodical. The oddly tuned guitar chords chug along. In 2013, Thurston Moore performed the song on the Station to Station train—replete with ridiculous, gratuitous images of him looking outside—and even though it was weird hearing him to sing Kim Gordon’s part (especially in light of everything). At least Moore understood the song wasn’t about a schizophrenic relative. It’s about trains.
Sections where Sister gets faster—the red-eyed riff of “Catholic Block,” the end of “Beauty Lies in the Eye” where the churn of the industrial machine gets louder and louder, the intro to Lee Ranaldo’s “Pipeline/Kill Time”—feels like those moments when the subway enters the tunnel. Depending on where you are standing in relation to the subway, such transitions actually feel like the subway is getting faster. “Stereo Sanctity” is about glimpsing someone on the subway who has “analog soul waving in her hair," a one-line poem that's as romantic as these nihilists have gotten to-date. Ah, you’ve got it. Ya ride the silver rocket.
Some of the songs on the second side are about the highway. And so my metaphor falls apart a little; perhaps there are more than just two topics in music. Notably, Kim Gordon demanding you “come on, get in the car” on a song titled “Pacific Coast Highway,” a murder-ballad in the form of a manic art-rock song. And with jumpy Crimes cover “Hot Wire My Heart,” you’re still on the highway: erratic heartbeat, running from someone and driving towards something. “Cotton Crown” is the end. End of the subway line. End of love. End of the world. Except not the end of the album, which is “White Cross,” a song about being keyed-up on coffee. —Marshall Gu
Devo - Live At Max’s Kansas City, November 15, 1977 (Jackpot, 2014)
It’s a remarkable thing to be able to look back at your life and pinpoint exactly where a change happened, where the path you were on, unbeknownst to you then, turns to become the path you’re on now. I can pick one in particular in my youth, when I took a Boy Scout horseback riding trip to New Mexico the summer before high school started that made me miss summer band camp. Though I’ll never really know for sure, I believe that small decision shaped my musical environment and upbringing enough to drive me to go to college for music. That led me to what I believe was the most formative summer of my life, where my first steps into the weirdo world I love touched down—my summer road trip of 2015.
I was halfway into 21, having just finished a year of being a music performance major after struggling and feigning interest through music education curriculum. I felt like I was beginning to see a purpose for myself, and had successfully applied to my first summer music workshop—the Sō Percussion Summer Institute. Everything I had heard about it made it feel like the perfect place for someone like me, who was the “weird music guy” on campus and never really had anyone to share my interests with.
Nature decided to throw me a twist two weeks out from my trip, and sent a deer running towards my car while driving home from work on the southwest Ohio backroads, dealing just enough damage to render it inoperable for a long road trip. My trusty Toyota Camry was exchanged for a shitty, beat-up Ford Ranger truck, lent to me by a man my mom was dating at the time. I was never a fan of driving trucks, but it was much cheaper than renting a car for weeks. So off I went, heading east into the July sun, with my little car FM transmitter in hand. Two albums spun heavily on my journey: I’ll pass an honorable mention to Tame Impala’s Currents for keeping the groove going, but the album I remember most was a live Devo album passed to me by a friend early in my trip, from a performance at New York’s Max’s Kansas City in November of ’77.
Devo was hot in the fall of 1977, with growing interest from fans and industry figures with pens in hand. Leading up to this performance, they had secured a deal with Warner Bros. Records, who tempted them in with an offer of producer David Bowie behind the boards for their debut album. This show at the NYC hotbed punk club was their last hurrah before a sit-down with Bowie to hammer out all the details. Material-wise, there’s nothing revelatory here—like most bands at this stage, their set is more or less the tracklist for their first album, with a substitution here or there. The energy is what makes this particular snapshot of the band really shine. The quintet, introduced on stage by Bowie, blazed through skronky, rollicking takes on their early material, each song bookended with the sounds of an audience completely zoned in. This album features maybe my favorite performance of “Smart Patrol/Mr. DNA” on record—that noisy synth part scratches an itch little else can. As far as documenting the live experience goes, this enthralling recording takes the cake for me.
The significance of me running this album back over and over during that time never really clicked until much later, when I considered the history and timing of both musical events together. With our own unique circumstances and placements on our paths, we mirrored each other in that we were all just young guys from Ohio, on the cusp of something big happening, heading east to play the best we could play. I may not have played my way into a record deal, but I did take my first steps into the world I’ve set up permanent residence in now. I’ll take that. —Evan Miller
Kero Kero Bonito - Time ‘n’ Place (Polyvinyl, 2018)
I first became aware of Kero Kero Bonito when my college sophomore suitemate Jake, who possessed a third eye for catching viral hits while their YouTube view counts were still in the early thousands, brought “Flamingo” to our friend group’s attention. The song remains KKB’s only true internet-breaker to date, despite never getting the accompanying video it seemed to be begging for. The track’s caricaturishly upbeat energy was a revelation for me. On paper, it was not the kind of song I felt I should be listening to at the time. It was the opposite of the Pitchfork-core indie rock I’d committed to after a suburban high school career spent largely in the blissful throes of Sublime, blink-182, RHCP and ’90s hip-hop. Which is probably exactly why I found its sincere sweetness so refreshing.
KKB followed Flamingo’s success with two albums in its vein and carved a healthy, sustained internet niche and cult fandom. But their third full-length took an almost 180-degree turn. Time ‘n’ Place, which combines the bubbly enthusiasm of their previous work with all the trappings of a noise-gesturing art-rock record, should have been a heroic disaster. It slipped under the radar of most experimental music enthusiasts (who would have scoffed at it anyway) and seemed designed to turn off the group’s teenage, ARMY-adjacent fanbase. Whom the album was made for was a mystery, and not something I was able to drag out of the group when I interviewed them while they were touring the record. But somehow, instead of making everyone and their mother vomit, it was received well by almost all outspoken parties. Of course, it didn’t do nearly the numbers of Bonito Generation, their wildly poppy sophomore effort. But it still struck a chord, especially with the legion of KKB devotees, myself included, who were itching for a gateway drug to legitimately weird sounds.
Time ‘n’ Place dropped in early October 2018, a time when things were starting to go well for me, after a long stretch of things going badly. Naturally, I was listening to happier music as my mood improved, but I probably wouldn’t have spent much time with another album as bubblegum as KKB’s last two. The record hit a sweet spot I hadn’t known existed, and I couldn’t get enough of it. My run of good luck and non-depression ended about two months later, when two of my closest friends abruptly moved out of New Orleans, one due to a mental health crisis that was devastating to witness. The other friend was Jake, who’d reached his decision to leave after a bad bike accident. It put the cherry on top of a post-college period spent languishing in an extremely New Orleans zone of semi-employment and diversified self-destruction. Now, he was making the always-tricky move back into his parents’ home on the other side of the country. Wanting to get away from my problems for a while, and not thinking it through very well, I loaded his admirably few earthly belongings into the back of my Champagne 2005 Subaru Outback and hit the road with him.
The chunk of I-10 that stretches from New Orleans to Los Angeles is about 2,000 miles long, and a significant portion of it runs through West Texas, where you can drive for hundreds of miles and see literally nothing. To pass the time, we consumed all types of audible media—every music publication’s year-end list, multiple spins of the woefully underrated Father album Awful Swim, hours of nominally leftist podcasts—but Time ‘n’ Place still managed to garner double-digit rotations. Our mood was forcedly positive the whole way there, so we quickly learned all the lyrics to the album’s few signature KKB goofy-smile head-bobbers—“Only Acting,” “Swimming,” “Make Believe,” “If I’d Known.”
The way back was a different story. I’d spent more time in LA than I’d intended to, not having any serious job or relationship obligations back in New Orleans, and dreaded the 30-hour solo trip. I’d experienced an oddly alienating Christmas—everyone was extremely nice, and Jake’s parents were generous and accommodating, but I felt unconscionably Jewish in the company of the WASPiest family I’ve ever encountered (for reference, Jake’s full name includes an XIV suffix)—and a crushingly lonely New Year’s Eve. Jake and I fed off each other’s depression. He was coming to terms with the reality of living with his family for the foreseeable future and the realization that almost all his friends had left LA. I, in turn, was dealing with the departure of two of my closest friends, and reckoning with the fact that I’d be returning to the same semi-employed, self-destructive status quo Jake had just escaped.
I left LA in early January, embarking on what I knew would be a nightmarish journey. For three straight days, I woke up, drove ten hours, pulled over at a Red Roof Inn or its equivalent, spent eight hours working on the journalism school applications that I’d been too sad to start for months and were now due in days, and got six hours of shallow, sweaty sleep. I listened to a white guy read three quarters of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle on tape before abandoning it when I couldn’t stand listening to him do anime girl voice for all the female characters anymore. I dared myself to go down an Alex Jones rabbit hole. I stared directly into the abyss and came very close to jumping.
Time ‘n’ Place may have been what stopped me. On the way back, I focused on the weirder, more emotionally nuanced tracks. There’s “Dump,” about the plot of land in Otaru that Sarah Midori Perry called home for the first 13 years of her life, now a landfill. There’s “Visiting Hours,” which details a time when Gus Lobban’s father was in critical condition in the ICU. Finally, there’s “Rest Stop,” the album closer and the perfect soundtrack for a potentially suicidal road trip through America’s most desolate landscape.
The song starts off as pretty as any I’ve ever encountered, describing an empty yet perfectly preserved roadside relief at the end of the world. But 82 seconds in, it descends into madness. There’s a minute of pure staticky chaos, after which Sarah’s voice quietly enters at the back of the mix. In the track’s final 15 seconds, she begins her final stanza: “So as you walk among”—here, the vortex of background noise cuts out abruptly—“the clouds / Hold your neighbor close / As the trumpets echo ’round / You don’t wanna be—”
The album ends there, without any temporal runoff. The song’s Genius page puts the syllable “a” before that final em-dash, and its annotator wagers a guess that the cut-off last word could be “alone.” This would make perfect sense in context, but I’m not so sure it’s true. First off, I don’t hear the “a” when I listen. But more importantly, I think the band was going for something a bit more ambiguous. Here’s what Gus had to say about the song’s final seconds in our interview:
It was tempting to end it with a poignant statement. When you’re growing up, you try to attach some kind of narrative to your life and all the things going on around you. But really, there is no narrative. You make up your own narrative. Other than that, it’s just noise. There’s no other way you could end this record besides a mess, because that’s all it really is. It’s all anything is, essentially.
The The - Soul Mining (Some Bizarre/Epic, 1983)
I’ve never liked driving. In college, I saw my car as a necessary evil: it got me from place to place, but the trips took out little pieces of me each time. I drove a 1995 Toyota T100 pickup truck that a family friend sold to my father for $1,000. It had dim headlights, soft brakes, faded plastic seatbelt mechanisms that were slowly disintegrating, and a blaring radar detector whose power cord snaked from the left well all the way up to the visor. It felt like a wrestling match to commandeer it down even the straightest stretches of highways.
The one thing I did like about that car, though, was its cassette player. At first, it was a fun novelty, something to show off to my friends along with the coiled metal cigarette lighter that could get hot enough to glow like embers in a dying fire. I’d listened to cassettes a lot growing up, usually books on tape and children’s songs from the library, but left them behind for CDs and MP3s as I entered adolescence; most of my old tapes were left bundled up in a double-bagged Walmart shopping bag at the bottom of my dresser drawer. After a year of driving in silence with nothing but Top 40 radio and NPR to keep me company, I started to dive back into that collection, and into my father’s tapes, too.
The first tape of his I grabbed was Soul Mining. I picked it out because I recognized the cover, some weird, orange-skinned woman with purple hair smoking a cigarette: it was one of the many albums he had on constant rotation when I was younger. As I played it for the first time on a long drive back to my college campus from my parents’ house, memories came flooding back. Each and every song was ingrained in my deep subconscious; I sang along to lyrics I thought I never knew, rending my throat ragged imitating Matt Johnson’s delirious, guttural cries of lust and heartbreak on “I’ve Been Waitin’ For Tomorrow (All of My Life).”
Each track on Soul Mining is a cavalcade, a tempestuous sprawl of emotions, the kind so big they feel like they’re splitting your chest apart; Johnson’s fantastically eerie voice anchors everything as it yelps and sputters across the instrumentals. Music had never felt like this to me before: something that had been plucked directly from my state of mind, self-consciousness and trepidation and doubt all fused into an anxious, lilting amalgam of beautiful noise: it screamed, and I understood. All this was made even more potent by the fact that I was going through the worst period of my life thus far. I buried myself in each track as deep down as I could go, memorizing every word and inflection. Soon I barely even needed to play the tape itself: I could audiate Soul Mining whenever I wanted, pantomiming along to lyrics without a source.
We find the music we need without intending to; the songs that light our way through the dark aren’t often ones we seek out. When I think of Soul Mining, I’m reminded of this, the degree to which simple chance and coincidence weave themselves in and out of our daily lives; and I think of a car, a figure lying down across the backseat, staring up at the ceiling, and the tape in the player that became their world. —Maxie Younger
One Direction - Midnight Memories (Syco Music, 2013)
First of all, if you’re a current #directioner and you have somehow found this blurb, please do not tweet at me unless you were born before the year 2000. Thanks! When I myself was a #directioner, being obsessed with One Direction didn’t feel like a testament to their talent, nor was I the type of fan to claim that the band saved my life, or that they somehow assisted me with my depression. Although my depression at that age was indeed deep and dark and required assistance, I simply liked One Direction because I thought they were hot. They were only hot in a Gap campaign sort of way, but it was enough for me. Also, I’m in therapy now so don’t worry about that other stuff.
The band was charming and sweet to girls and the fandom had enough in-jokes where I always felt funny and like I was a part of something, which is a nice feeling when you’re 14. In high school, I wrote more than one poem about Harry Styles’s enchanting green eyes, and spent probably too much time crying to their music. Naturally, I have repressed the absolute shit out of those years, but recently I’ve been trying to embrace being my history as a wildly embarrassing, boy-crazy-to-the-point-where-I-wish-someone-threw-me-in-a-cold-shower-to-teach-me-a-lesson, earnest little teenager. Last week, on a lark, I popped in my CD of their 2013 album Midnight Memories while driving down Merrick Road, which is perhaps my least favorite road on Long Island. As the sterile cock rock sound of “Best Song Ever” filled my car and melted away the treachery of the black and white Beemers surrounding me, I thought to myself, “this is the greatest moment of my life.” Then Harry Styles said “and we danced all night to the best song ever,” and I said, “true.”
Hearing that song reminded me of this YouTube channel I really liked at the time. It had videos of giant gummy candy rats with voiceover audio of a man speaking song lyrics and pronouncing all the letters in each word. Like, “and we danced all night to the best song ever” would become “and we dankied all neeght to thee beast song eeveer.”
As I continued driving and made my way through the tracks, “Midnight Memories” turning to “You & I” turning to “Don’t Forget Where You Belong,” and so on, I realized that all these songs are limp lettuce versions of “Baba O’Riley,” but I don't CARE. To truly understand One Direction’s appeal, one must understand ENERGY. Midnight Memories is Kidz Bop+, it’s alt fan drawings of the characters from The Goofy Movie. It is pure, hot, corporate-sanctioned horny juice, which is certainly one of the most powerful substances on the planet. I mean, just look at what Justin Bieber’s “One Time” did for the bowl cut. It is absolutely astounding.
I'm not driving currently, but I just listened to so much of Midnight Memories again and now I have to eat the spicy duck I ordered for dinner because I’m so fucking pumped from hearing “Little White Lies,” which is EDM for field mice hired as background actors on AwesomenessTV. “Better Than Words” makes me feel like I could lift a 52,500 pound dump truck with my fucking tongue. I would happily give birth to the Eraserhead baby if “Diana” played on repeat from the moment my water broke. It’s amazing what hot boys contribute to this world. —Ashley Bardhan
Namie Amuro - “Body Feels Exit” (Avex Trax, 1996)
I went back to visit my family in Japan the same year Namie Amuro was set to retire. I hadn’t seen them in 10 years before that, and a large portion of those years of my life was spent trying not to associate myself with my Japanese heritage. This sounds especially ironic now that I’ve spent the past few years writing about Japanese music, but until relatively recently, I didn’t want anything to do with Japanese culture. Had I not had a change of heart, thanks to J-pop and its great icons, I probably wouldn’t have been motivated to travel to Japan and visit my family. It’s still an experience I treasure the most from my adult life.
The morning after I landed, my aunt and uncle picked me and my brother up to take us out shopping. Until sundown, all I heard inside the car was Namie Amuro songs from her classic Tetsuya Komuro hits to the then-latest single, “Hero”—maybe my aunt had just bought the J-pop star’s farewell greatest-hits collection, Finally, I don’t know. Just a year or so before that very week, I spent nights re-discovering the Oricon hits of my childhood as though I was picking back up pieces of my long forgotten past, and Amuro’s ’90s run brought me some of the biggest flashbacks. Now I was driving through the streets in the town I grew up in, listening to the hits sung by one of the biggest icons of my childhood. Hearing the Eurobeat rush of “Body Feels Exit” in the car with my extended family made it feel official that I was indeed hanging out in Japan, but it also reminded me how far I had come since opening up again and embracing Japanese culture. —Ryo Miyauchi
Uppalapu Srinivas - “Sarasa Samaja (Raga: Kapi Narayani; Tala: Adi)” (Kosmik, 2008)
My family didn’t own a car with an aux until years after I left home. Most of the CDs in our house were selections my mother had brought over from her father’s collection of Carnatic music back in Chennai, and I kept a rotating selection of these piled in the glove compartment well into the 2010s. Why did a Warp Records-obsessed teenager, speaking not a word of Hindi nor of Tamil, put these old bootlegs in constant rotation?
I think good driving music should make time disappear. The regularities of a pop song’s verse-chorus structure can make you acutely aware of its passage on a minute-to-minute basis, not least because of how Western music loves its powers of two at all metrical scales: sixteen bars of one thing, eight bars of another thing, all in 4/4 under a four-chord loop with the snare on the two and the four. Both major traditions of Indian classical music use the tala as their metrical organizing principle, a concept analogous in function to the Western time signature but much more flexible in its descriptive ability and much less beholden to the dichotomy of “strong beat” / “weak beat.” In improvisations, patterns of self-reference recall previous instants as much as they recall previous minutes, and repetitions rarely happen in perfectly regular intervals.
At age seventeen I didn’t know any of this stuff, but with that CD collection all trips through my north Texan exurb became instantaneous. I wanted to understand why, but I could only filter it through what I knew, and what I knew was Aphex Twin and LCD Soundsystem and hyper-repetitive krautrock. The novel sense of time, where all notion of melodic resolution or harmonic motion is suspended in favor of metamorphosis-in-place, was something I was able to identify and latch onto, even if half of my experience was dictated by total ignorance of the rhythmic structures at work. I thought I could all knot it together somehow; I imagined Hindustani and Carnatic music, filtered through the world music boom of the ’60s, filtered through a bunch of stoned Germans in the ’70s, filtered through a bunch of bedroom IDM geeks in the ’90s, washing up in my Last.fm recommendations. I was a weird, lonely, half-Indian kid who knew zilch about India, and I found this tenuous connection comforting. No idea if there’s a grain of truth to it.
I now live in a city with decent buses, so I don’t drive anymore. Whenever someone does pass me the aux, though, I usually put on mandolin prodigy U. Srinivas. First, because he’s just my favorite artist in the Carnatic tradition; second, because the cheery pluck of the electric mandolin is immediately friendly on Western ears, and has a disarming effect on the white Canadians I’m usually trying to convince. The reception is near-universally positive, and the reactions are truly fascinating (“Whoa, this is a bop!” exclaimed one subject, in genuine shock). I catch them staring in concentration at whatever snow-blasted expanse we’re traveling through, wondering why they like it even though they can’t find the downbeat, and I think: Ha! Got you too. —Tim de Reuse
Joni Mitchell - Hejira (Asylum, 1976)
I’ve always been too restless to read or sleep on Greyhound buses; during those multi-hour trips, I mostly just stare out the window and watch the white lines on the road as New Jersey turns into Delaware and day turns into night, with only my own thoughts and a handful of albums to accompany the mundane turnpike scenery. I’ll usually start with a current obsession and perhaps continue with something entirely new, yet somehow, I always find myself returning to a few cherished staples.
There’s one album in particular that I associate with long bus rides, and is maybe even a little too on-the-nose. Hejira is a transliteration of an Arabic word for migration, usually used in reference to the prophet Muhammad’s journey from Mecca to Medina; it’s also the title Joni Mitchell chose for her 1976 album, on which she sings of “traveling in some vehicle” and “taking refuge in the roads.” Mitchell wrote the album over the span of three different road trips, and it encapsulates the contradictory nature of what it can feel like to be alone on the road: in constant motion, but not accelerating. There’s an underlying restlessness to this music, but not in the sense of agitation or unease. Rather, it reflects the hours of rumination that are only possible on long, solitary, nocturnal journeys, when thoughts float through your mind as fluorescent road signs float past your window in the dark.
There’s something so unique about the feeling of being both stationary in your seat and in motion on the expanse of the highway, moving forward yet completely still. Hejira perfectly captures that feeling, the repetitive, hypnotic rhythms of Mitchell’s guitar tracing her trajectory as she sings with a sense of grounded wisdom. Mitchell’s storytelling is both descriptive and reflective, weaving together past and present while looking ambiguously toward the future. Hejira also marked Mitchell’s first sojourn into jazz, and you can feel her stretching out in the comfort of a style that suits her expansive song structures so well, allowing her to cover more ground than ever before. Adding to the atmosphere are Jaco Pastorius’s distinctive fretless basslines, which decorate some of the album’s finest songs with a warm, transitory ambience.
Hejira is a lovely soundtrack for my own meditative journeys as I try to find a way to fill the space between one place and another. To be alone on the road—whether driving cross-country or on an endlessly long bus ride—is to be at once adrift and en route with yourself for a few precious hours as the world rolls by. —Emma Bauchner
The Appleseed Cast - Low Level Owl, Vol. 1 + 2 (Deep Elm, 2001)
I hate driving. I’m never not aware I’m controlling a hunk of metal that can cause serious harm to myself and anyone with me if I’m even a little bit careless. I suppose this abundance of caution might make me a better driver, though I suspect the friends I have ferried around town would likely say I’m “slow,” “nervous,” and maybe even “erratic.” But I have found some joy behind the wheel under strict circumstances. It’s almost always happened when I visit my parents in Bethesda, Maryland. Late at night, after my folks have gone to sleep, I’ve careened through the deserted suburban thoroughfares at speeds that would make me sweat during the daytime. In my fondest memories, I’m listening to both volumes of The Appleseed Cast’s Low Level Owl.
I’ve found driving through suburban D.C. rather fatiguing under normal circumstances. I’m not sure how many days I’ve accumulated sitting in traffic somewhere along the highway-like stretch of Rockville Pike that’s flanked by chain restaurants and big box stores that are separated from the road by large, indistinguishable parking lots. (Yes, I have gotten lost and mistakenly pulled off the street into the wrong lot while running an errand.) That stretch of road still feels endless to me now that it no longer factors into my daily life; it doesn’t so much haunt me as much as it bores me.
Low Level Owl transformed this otherwise dull experience. I didn’t know driving could be fun till the glacial thrum of “View of a Burning City” enhanced the meditative qualities of the unexceptional, drab stretch of land. In those moments, the streetlights and road markers blinked in and out of my vision as if they were in tune with The Appleseed Cast. When I couldn’t see another car on the horizon, it felt like all my surroundings operated in response to the music, as if the sky and road gently enveloped me in an amniotic bubble. For those brief moments, sitting in the driver’s seat brought me a sense of peace. —Leor Galil
Gretchen Parlato - The Lost and Found (ObliqSound, 2011)
The last time I was behind the wheel in a car accident it was fall of 2014 and I was 20. It occurred less than five miles from my destination (the Che Café where I would be playing a show with my punk band) at the end of a 141-mile Southern California commute. I was gliding along to Gretchen Parlato’s sultry voice and smooth accompaniment when it hit me. With a low thud and jerk, stale coffee poured over the center console and drenched my stashed-away cassettes. I had been caressed to sleep and had rear-ended a white Toyota Prius on the 5 heading southbound.
Disoriented, afraid, and full of shame, I moved to the shoulder, parked my car and hopped out. I spoke to the driver and exchanged information. We were fine, damage was minimal. A cop came and asked me how fast I was going. I told him I was keeping up with traffic but I didn’t really know because I had frankly dozed off. He told me I shouldn’t drive if I’m tired.
There’s a uniquely devilish flavor to the allure of sleep when it is most forbidden. Often, the more I struggle against it, the heavier its draw becomes and the sweeter its solution: relief is only a breath away, the path to relaxation is oh so short. This horrible temptation is all the more frightening for the witless concessions the drowsy brain makes. In those moments, the will to fight sleep and continue driving seems not only rational, but necessary. But in those moments, sleep doesn’t give, it takes.
I can’t help but find a witchy spell with Parlato’s recitation and vamp in her cover of the Lauryn Hill-penned Mary J. Blige classic “All That I Can Say”:
Living and forgiving him
I would do it all again
Sweeter than cinnamon
Synonyms for loving him
The Sandman is suave, his methods daring, his allure full of charm, and Parlato wishes to draw him out. Her voice is quiet and steady as it drifts atop Kendrick Scott’s skittering, dusty cymbal work and Robert Glasper’s hypnotically shifting piano voicings.
Living as a teen boy surrounded by the jazz frat as well as by punks, I knew The Lost and Found felt both uniquely mine and decidedly uncool (although its cast wasn’t dissimilar to many eventual jazz frat favs). Parlato’s easy delivery was closer to the Norah Jones records I grew up on—courtesy of my parents—than the cool Erykah Badu feature that helped launch Glasper’s later Black Radio. Her voice was underspoken, crystal clear, and hyperfeminine in a delicate way. Her application of the super-technical star collaborators at her disposal was unflashy and subdued, all their expertise put into subtle flourishes rather than grandiose solos. Because of this, it’s no surprise that when she sings, “Close your eyes and fall into / The blue of me and you” on the Akinmusire and Parlato-penned “Henya,” I was tempted to take her advice.
But I can’t in good conscience pin the event solely on Parlato’s Siren-like knack for luring her listener into other realms. As it turns out, Parlato’s rich melodic whispers were one of many stimuli that would allow my hyperactive brain to give over to rest. Like many of my generation, I trained myself to live an overly committed life, working myself to near-constant exhaustion for fear of the existential abyss that lay at the other end of sitting still. As an undergrad student studying jazz bass performance, I not only maintained my studies but regularly performed with several noise and punk bands, worked part time as a city employee, developed a creative writing practice, and acted as a musician-for-hire for many of my peers. This was an extracurricular life that seemed a natural extension from the resume-padding teen years that were all too typical of a white middle-class millennial upbringing.
There’s a reason my generation was the audience to warmly receive The Hunger Games book and film series; as Malcolm Harris lays out in Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, our daily lives were prefigured as a battle royale death match to get accepted into a dream school and build a future that would provide valuable returns. Because of this lingering compulsion, I managed to completely neglect my own physical and psychological needs, leaving me with the near-pathological ability to give over to rest in any given situation, whether in class, on a gig, watching a movie on a date, or, most alarmingly, driving on the freeway.
Revisiting The Lost and Found, it’s as sweet as ever although somewhat dated. Nonetheless, I don’t think it will ever find its way to my car speakers again. If not because of the looming bad memory, then because I fear the allure of “the perfect ending” Parlato summons on “Circling”:
I’m just pretending
Close my eyes
For today's the perfect ending
Twenty One Pilots - “Bandito” (Fueled By Ramen, 2019)
I was never much of a headphone listener. When the pandemic began, I realized that maybe it was because I could always drive—my car stereo was my giant pair of headphones. I’ve always felt the car was the safest place to enjoy music: I could crank up the volume without feeling judged, singing songs out loud without embarrassment. I could even cry and nobody would know. But all that ended this year, and for months I didn’t drive. I missed that isolation, so I finally turned to actual headphones, listening in my bedroom. Trench by Twenty One Pilots has been on repeat all year—it sounds amazing on headphones because of its detailed production.
A couple of weeks ago, I said goodbye to a friend after spending some time together at the park. It was getting dark and I always felt that Trench had a very nocturne feeling, so I decided to play it on my way back home. I enjoy driving from the city of Buenos Aires to my house in the suburbs at sunset on weekends; I’m not stressed out by traffic, there aren’t people running buses, and the lights don’t have the heat and anger of weekdays. On the highway, fast but also monotonous, my head can wander in the songs, and the city starts leaving my body.
When I was arriving home, “Bandito” started with its beautiful combination of calm piano, ambient noises, and delicate keyboards that sound like tilting lights. Then, loops begin to build neat layers, giving the song an airy vibe. Tyler Joseph repeats the same line several times: “I can take the high road but I know that I’m going low, I’m a bandito.” The deep muffled backing vocals tie the song to fatigue, especially if you take into account the album’s overarching story.
The lyrics of Trench are complex because fiction and autobiography are woven together. Dema—a walled city with oppressive governors—represents depression, anxiety, and maybe even a faith crisis and the pressure of the music industry. Joseph’s alter ego, Clancy, wants to escape from Dema and to do so he joins the Bandito, which represents Twenty One Pilots’ fanbase. “The softest echo could be enough for me to make it through,” he says, and I can feel that these days. After months of quarantine, hearing my friend’s voice and seeing her move so close to me felt refreshing. The vicious cycle of my mind broke and I felt less alone when I could share a part of myself with someone else.
In the bridge, the music quiets down and Josh Dun starts building tension with the drums. “I created this world to feel some control, destroy it if you want it,” Joseph sings, distancing himself from fiction and speaking to us as a songwriter. He recognizes that Dema, Trench, Clancy, Nico, the nine Bishops, and the Banditos are an excuse to talk about himself. He could have that control while the world was only his, but now he can never gain it back. Right after he sings this line, the song continues to grow in tension until it can’t take it anymore. It suddenly cracks, bursting open, transforming into a vast landscape. It sounds like a universe—his universe—unwrapping itself in our ears thanks to the synth-pop keyboards, his echoing voice, and drums that lose tension to become spacey. It’s upbeat but also nostalgic; it’s the moment he takes a risk to show himself in all his vulnerability.
Like Tyler, I like having things under my control. That’s why I listen to music alone in the car or with headphones. I find it hard to show how much something means to me. When I do and the other person listens and tries to understand me, I feel so much comfort I can’t even explain it. Tyler said we could destroy his world, but I want to keep it safe just like I want other people to keep me safe too. As I got out of the car and entered my house again, I felt that Twenty One Pilots and I did that car trip together, that we were each other’s company and that nobody else knew how we left the city lights behind. —Juana Giaimo
Jang Pil-Soon - Jang Pil-Soon (Donga, 1989)
Korean rock music was born on a US military base. American soldiers—the very same ones who massacred countless Koreans from 1950-1953, and far beyond, in the name of ‘freedom’—formed the first audiences for aspiring Korean rock stars like Shin Jung-hyun, who built his own radio so he could hear the alien music played by the American Forces Korea Network: rock, jazz, standards. The Americans never left, and neither did their music; like the countless active mines, shrapnel, toxic waste, bodies and bones left in the wake of the Korean War, rock music had struck permanent roots in Korean soil.
Korean rock would soon become a symbol of youth counterculture, becoming the target of suppression by the South Korean military dictatorship from the 1960s onwards—an American import turned sound of (hippie-ish) resistance. In 1972, Shin Jung-hyun was arrested by Park Chung-hee’s police, who cut his (illegal) long hair; in 1975, he was arrested once again for possession of marijuana, and was imprisoned, tortured, and ultimately blacklisted. After Park Chung-hee was assassinated in 1979 by his right-hand man, the head of the Korean CIA, Shin’s fortunes finally began to look up again. But while Shin was imprisoned, Koreans’ music taste had begun to change; in Shin’s words, “It was all, ‘Let’s work hard,’ and ‘Let’s be happy’ kind of stuff. It was completely physical, with no spirit, no mentality, no humanity.”
A decade later, in 1989, Jang Pil-Soon would release her self-titled debut album: a set of gorgeous sophisti-pop tracks ranging from jazzy mid-tempo numbers propelled by lilting George Harrison-esque guitar lines to full-on torch songs, sunlit duets fit for the most uninhibited karaoke nights. On the surface, like much ‘adult contemporary,’ this music is sappy, cheesy, clichéd, plastic, stilted—basically, it’s hard to imagine Park Chung-hee sending his cops after Jang Pil-Soon. Far from being Music for Angry Students to Throw Bricks at Police To, Jang Pil-Soon initially sounds more like the sound of ‘decency’ and ‘civility,’ of a nascent ‘middle class’ rising from the ashes of military dictatorship into a new era of banal horror, bourgeois ‘democracy’ and neoliberal ‘adjustment.’ Though it may be trite to point this out, the album was fittingly released right as the USSR was dissolving and the ‘end of history’ proclaimed. So it seems maybe Shin was right: “no spirit, no mentality, no humanity.”
But a closer listen to Jang Pil-Soon proves Shin wrong, and makes him seem like a dinosaur in comparison, a true ‘rockist.’ Jang’s songs are imbued with a deep spirit, sensitivity, and melancholy—this is comfort music, not because it’s empty or vacuous, but precisely because it’s full of feeling, shot through with force and vitality. It is this—an endless stream of life hidden beneath a placid and commonplace surface—that makes Jang Pil-Soon a perfect ‘road trip’ album: on the one hand, it’s indistinguishable from all the bottom-shelf, anonymous, schmaltzy ballads played on late night radio; on the other hand, if you pause and take a closer listen, you hear something else entirely, a sound that bursts through its narrow genre-boundaries, a sound that propels you on and on.
One can trace a figurative ‘historical’ road trip of Korean rock and pop music here, beginning with Shin Jung-hyun belting American standards in the bombed-out Korean wasteland of the 1950s and ending with Jang Pil-Soon releasing her magical debut in the almost-1990s. Every later development contains the former developments; Jang’s smooth, twanging, synthesized basslines have a history—one of imperialism, police brutality, violence.
Korean megacorporation and auto manufacturer Hyundai was founded in 1947 and quickly became a driving force of capitalist development on the peninsula, striking lucrative infrastructure development deals with the occupying US forces and becoming a notorious union buster in the process; in 1986, Hyundai began selling cars in the US; in 1987, the Great Worker Struggle began in Korea, led by militant Hyundai workers who battled to the death with the police and occupied shipyards and factories, ending the era of military dictatorship and ushering in a new era of ‘democracy.’ Two years later, Jang Pil-Soon would release her debut album. Rarely have such light, airy tunes moved with such hidden, colossal weight. —Sunik Kim
Sarah Meow - Safe. (Cloudlight, 2019)
Lo-fi has an immediate muting effect on my anxieties. I often listen to it on public transit, allowing my headphones to put up glass between me and the other commuters as we wait quietly for our stops. Its scratchy warmth intermingles with the rhythm of buses and trains: the routine of boarding, staring out the window, and, if you’re anything like me, searching for some marker outside to signal when to pull the lever.
Sarah Meow’s 2019 EP Safe. provides exactly what its title purports: an aural space of comfort to entertain your most protected, precious thoughts—to have your feelings returned, to escape. The album operates with simplistic lyrics, all sampled from various singing originally uploaded on Shiloh Dynasty’s Instagram, repeated throughout the song to capture the most basically intimate desires. Resonant chords linger a little too long on the beat, echoing traces of worry that underline fleeting thoughts. Sarah Meow builds on the scrappiness of each audio clip by lightly distorting the vocals and overlaying every song with a thin layer of crackly white noise: a call to the nostalgia of dusty radios and cassette tapes. The result is shy, revealing, and hesitantly romantic. Safe. is an idealistic cycle through understated melancholy, capturing pleasurably bittersweet tones of desire and longing as much as it does hurt and ache.
The EP starts off sensuously with “I Don’t Want,” a track whose melody desirously bounces off acoustic chords, only to fade into more vulnerable expressions of longing, occasionally punctuated by self-disparaging twangs of strings. On “I’ll Keep You Safe,” the listener is put in the position of safe-keeper; the chords feel precarious, signifying a task born simply of a love that, for the moment, feels like just barely enough. As the vocals become increasingly compressed, the lyrics float further and further off into the distance, like a memory. The last few notes are deliberately misplayed, the discordance puncturing an otherwise sincere message with a slight hint of doubt. Listening to Safe. amidst the hustle and bustle of a commute smooths over anxiety’s edges, but not enough to let you forget them altogether. —Louise Liu
Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass - Whipped Cream & Other Delights (A&M, 1965)
Stylish and sleazy, chock full of hooks and tunes, Whipped Cream & Other Delights is a perfect record for the road, the musical choice that the whole family agrees upon. Songs without a singer, no lyrics, no room for disagreement over the message. The critical distance, in conjunction with the aesthetic of the record, highlights a tone that’s both goofy and cynical. It has a sweet shallowness that’s contagious, easing up the tensions that can accumulate between travelers over long periods of time. There’s also a sense of accomplishment to the music that’s appealing to a wide array of audiences, regardless of age. Simply put, it’s fun to listen to. Not a wild ride, more like a slightly drunken stroll in a classic sports car, but it’s the family van instead. The rhythmic drive relies on groove, walking bass lines and syncopated beats. Each element has plenty of air around it, coming and going in arrangements that avoid padding and excess. It feels breezy, a bit lazy, without responsibilities.
Personally, if I’m picking music for a road trip, I tend to avoid preachy and self righteous music and go for songs that won’t start an argument in a secluded space. This has more often than not happened with the cantabile (“hummable,” perhaps) element, the thing that gives a song memorable qualities. Whipped Cream offers the chance to enjoy a very unlikely idea of adulthood in a happy-go-lucky way. As dated as the music is, there’s a sense of undying cool to it. Kids like it, and it also reminds you of your sleazy uncle and makes him seem funny for a brief moment. —Gil Sansón
The Jam - Setting Sons (Polydor, 1979)
I don’t think I’ve struggled with a Tone Glow assignment as much as I’ve struggled with finding a topic for this “Road Trip” issue. The paradox of choice. So much of my lifetime listening to music has been in motion. On the subway with an MP3 player or my phone, reveling in the internal space amongst the cramped physical world. In the Q3 issue, I briefly mentioned the road trips my family would take. I spent days thinking about the CDs that soundtracked those journeys, trying to close in on what sounds had left an impression on me as we sat for hours. I remember one of the last trips back to Salt Lake from Pahrump, Nevada (my dad used to ride motorcycles at a track out there—it’s not a town I’d recommend), we listened almost exclusively to either Viva La Vida by Coldplay because it had just come out and my dad, much to the chagrin of my mother, was a fan of the group, or a Cirque du Soleil soundtrack (probably Kà or O) which was to the liking of the both of them. But that memory feels insubstantial, and does it feel that way because of the setting or because of the sound? I feel like with the level of writers and music lovers at Tone Glow, a one off story about hearing the “woah oh oh oh”’s of Chris Martin or the Joycean Circquespeak for 6 hours didn’t feel like enough.
I felt as though I needed to find imagery or significance more singular, one great story of before and after. Unfortunately, no distinct “big bang” moments presented themselves, which is perhaps more of an indictment of my mental health chipping away at my memory than a revelation of any kind. But what were my foundations? What led me to drunk driving around the Salt Lake Valley as a teenager to Songs: Ohia or Jay Reatard or Silver Mt. Zion? (Yes, it is as sad and embarrassing as it sounds.) What led to long streaks of Scott Walker or Matana Roberts or Dreamcrusher on the subway?
A couple of albums came to mind as maybe the first I ever confidently knew because of their constant rotation in our metallic blue/green Volvo wagon: Setting Sons by The Jam and Flood by They Might Be Giants. The over-the-top strings on “Smither-Jones” affect me to this day. X96, the alternative rock station that was tuned to our car radios my entire life, provided a rotation of mid-nineties to mid-aughts rock hits that surely became a starter-kit of then-contemporary rock hits that my taste would grow from.
This rambling seems non-committal. I’ve taken a few perspective shifting drives and train rides in my life, all of which were accompanied by different music. I thought and became overwhelmed by the immense weight of this unimportant decision. As I was picking through my various music libraries (digital, physical, mental) and considering the questions above, I became frustrated to realize that I had been framing my idea of music in cars or trains or buses as a route itself: what I listened to from A to B and how what I listened to changed and traveled over that time. And it is that, a map of my own musical discovery and interests literally travelling along as I do. The constant in all of these stories as points along the map is that the music, whatever it was, elevated the moment enough to make it stand out as an option I was invariably too paralyzed to write about in this blurb—that ever shifting playlist of invaluable car songs, just by their being there, made something as simple and ultimately meaningless as bodies moving through space feel remarkable. —Evan Welsh
When I first saw the prompt for this issue my mind drew a blank—I do listen to music while in cars but I don’t really associate any music in particular with driving. I do, however, have strong memories attached to sleeping in the car as a child, listening to the sounds of the road. The hum of the family car’s engine intermingled with the constant sound of the tires against the road were a drone lullaby to me, and still are. I spent a lot of time sleeping in buses on the way to school, so this effect is strong whenever I’m in a car but not driving.
Nowadays, I don’t sleep in cars as often, but I still keep an ear to the acoustics of the road, the indeterminate sounds of the other cars washing in with the louder sounds of my vehicle. It feels silly to admit, but sometimes I wear my headphones in the car with nothing playing to trick my brain into listening to the ambient sounds in a musical way; the result is similar to listening to any of the lowercase greats. Occasionally you hear the tires bump along the ground, linked directly with a physical bounce.
The sounds of a car, when you’re in it, are spatially all around you. They’re a comfort blanket for a weary mind, and a sound art that imperceptibly changes depending on how your head is oriented. It’s a relationship between the acoustics of the car and the that space you inhabit. They’re one and the same. How could any music captured on a disc compare to such nostalgia-filled drones? —Alex Mayle
The Blue Nile - Hats (Warner, 1989)
When the amphetamines took hold and kept him from sleep, he would take out the Cherokee that sat dilapidated and dormant in the garage and roam the backroads through the small hours. This ritual was becoming regular: windows down in forty-degree New England weather, sentimental soundtracks blasting, no sight but the chiaroscuro of hazard lights over dirt roads and dead leaves; the blown-out left-channel speaker on the dash faltering on cue to every crescendo, shaping haze from high fidelity. Unless libido became liability (as it often did), destinations were imaginary, chimerical. He had been out of transit for months though inner flux stayed static; by now he had lived on a diet of frozen food and single-serving trysts; money running out; conversations rarely occurring outside the context of cruising; all other walls remained barred up but the work. He would never admit that he was far too young to stay holed up here alone for months at a time though that sense of drain was written on his face; try as he might to convince himself otherwise, he would not get ahead this way.
To hear Hats alone in your car with no one else on the highway, at the precipice of rock bottom, is to inhabit a home for houseless souls in stasis, for those who can’t go on and can’t go back; where weary heartland hunger and artificial light merge in patience, somnambulated rather than sung. When Paul Buchanan lets his lungs give out and tells you he’s tired of crying on the stairs through the striding pulse that precedes the fadeout of “The Downtown Lights,” he is a lovelorn lone wolf howling at a Cinemascope moon, cultivating iridescent dreams from defeat. What remains is a means of salvation for all that remains unsaid, a hand to help you out of the ditch. —Nick Zanca
Lion - “You've Got a Woman” (Eccentric Soul, 1975)
Road trips with others are usually a great way to discover new music, chase after iconic foods, and spend time with friends. As I have yet to try a cross country, perspective-shifting road trip, like the ones movies promise to people who did not grow up in the US, I am opting to talk about a road trip made for donuts I took earlier this year with my friend Nate Scheible.
Nate and I were brought together by the DC music scene, in which we both participated solo or in different bands throughout the last couple of years. We share photos of weird potato chip flavors, exchange records, and write emails that only include YouTube links or MP3 files (my favorite is one where the subject line reads: “This fucking song…”). It is a good friendship, aided by creativity and, maybe, both of us being mutable signs. So when he suggested driving an hour and a half to Krumpe’s in Hagerstown, MD, to sit in the car and eat a dozen donuts, I accepted immediately. Once we got to Donut Alley, where the bakery is, we stood in line next to a bunch of kids and families, got a mix of filled, glazed, peanut butter twists and cake, and proceeded to merrily eat the entire box. I believe the official count was 7-5. As decadent as it might sound, I recommend it.
On the way back, Nate played a 6-minute 21-second Bobby Womack medley, following our predilection for songs with long spoken verses. But the real hit of the trip was “You’ve Got a Woman,” a rare track from 1975 by the Dutch soul-funk duo, Lion. This track, released in Numero Group’s Eccentric Soul series, explodes with hand-claps and layered, shimmering vocals that burst through just the right amount of reverb. It is an upbeat, syncopated melody in which the words shine through, somewhat laboriously, as if the singer is reflecting over an evolving relationship every time the chorus kicks in. I played the song another 5 or 7 times later that week, cherishing its odd guitar, vibraslap intro and feel-good, tender atmosphere. Re-listening to Lion’s “You’ve Got a Woman” reminded me of how much I miss sharing music with friends this way. Moments like these are a real personal treasure. —Nenet
Arthur Russell - “That's Us / Wild Combination” (Audika, 2004)
In January 2013, when my parents were moving from Cleveland to Florida, my friends Sara & Dennis came to help me drive the family dogs down south. For most of the drive, Dennis laid in the backseat watching X-Files on his phone, while Sara and I handled the driving. I’d had a crush on Sara for our entire friendship, so it was great to hang out together, but it was also bittersweet—I was certain she didn’t feel the same way.
As we drove through the mountains of West Virginia, we played Arthur Russell’s “That’s Us/Wild Combination.” To me, his music perfectly captures life’s intimate joys and quiet disappointments, so right then, surrounded by the romance of the landscape, everything came together—the warm glow of feeling beautifully in sync with a friend, the stinging sadness of unreciprocated feelings and the burn of saying goodbye to my childhood home.
Arthur singing “I just wanna be / wherever you are” felt like so much more than just a sweet lyric. It rang true then, it rang true a year later when we began dating, and it rings true now, as we wake up next to one another every morning, nearly seven years into our relationship 🙂 —Max Mellman
It was a cool January afternoon. The sun was beginning to set as Arthur Russell’s “That’s Us/A Wild Combination” played on the car stereo. As Arthur’s soft voice and gentle chords played, we drove down Route 77 through the mountains of West Virginia. Small white crosses dotted the mountain side, gleaming in the golden light. There were two dogs and our friend, Dennis, in the back of the car, but looking at Max in the driver’s seat with a warm pink and blue sky behind him, I savored the moment as something just for us. I took in the moment as the propulsive drum machine took us further into the evening—everything was extremely light and delicate in a way that felt so perfect and cinematic. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before—I was in love. —Sara Intrator
Lorde - “Supercut” (Republic/Lava, 2017)
Remembering only pieces of the plot, is both painful and kind. It’s a gift to not remember it in its entirety.
But as Sara Bareilles said, “What kind of heart doesn’t look back?”
Lorde’s “Supercut” is the kind of song that sharply reminds you what you remember is not entirely real, less it is a photograph of a photograph of a photograph. Revisiting the site of the wound, interrogating it, poring over it for some kind of explanation. All you receive is a reminder that no matter how separated you are from the memories, what you feel is being actively created in the moment you are now. What you feel is reflection, nothing more. The euphoria, the emotion, it’s all created after the fact.
“In my head / I do everything right” is a line I never get over. The passenger seat, the train platform, the bus seat—I reflect on the past in transit, Lorde’s scraped alto wailing in my earbuds, car speaker. Yes when we want love we are all convinced we are doing the right thing and I am convinced I am convinced I am still doing the right thing here I am doing what I can. Glancing at the past while literally moving forward.
“We were wild and fluorescent / come home to my heart.” Where are you going, where have you gone? Where am I going, and how can it become where you are? Is this the consequence of not knowing?
“Because ours are the moments I play in the dark.”
It’s the knowledge, the self-awareness, the denial, but incessant indulgence. Almost religious in its veneration. A promise to someone who doesn’t exist. As long as we are able. —Erin Kong
Japandroids - “Sovereignty” (Polyvinyl, 2009)
The first time I heard the Japandroids song “Sovereignty” wasn’t in a car or a bus. I was running alone on a winter night, sometime in 2011, desperately trying to outpace the feeling of leaving my teenage years behind. The sands of time had slipped through my fingertips, and I found myself depressed and aimless, thinking that my days of being young and free were over. At that moment, hearing “Sovereignty” was deeply comforting. It’s a song about unburdening yourself from the past and putting faith in the future. It’s deeply sincere, barreling forward into romance with reckless abandon. As Brian King sings in its second verse: “We’ll leave tonight, and we’ll leave together / I’ll say, ‘What airline?’ and you’ll say, ‘Whatever’ / Leave all our friends back home.”
The song opens with the inscrutable buzz of a down-tuned electric guitar, so drowned in distortion and reverb that it’s difficult to make out its articulation. It is a moment of musical uncertainty, but there’s warmth in its timbre. Then the drums and chord progression pierce through, like sunlight after a storm. Through confusion, comes clarity.
Like most Japandroids songs, “Sovereignty” exists in a liminal space, where the narrator of the song is always in transit from one place to another. They’re leaving town, getting out of dodge, tearing up the streets. Their world is constantly in motion. Things are never here, instead they either were or will be. “Sovereignty” is written by someone dreaming of a better future for themselves, where they find love and comfort.
There’s a sense of momentum that carries through, even to the song’s structure. Instead of alternating verses and choruses, Japandroids opt to play four verses, followed by two choruses, before ending on vocalist Brian King’s cathartic screams into the void. It’s a structure that completely abandons inertia. There's no repeating any previous section of the song. They only move forward.
“Sovereignty” embodies the anxiety and restlessness of staying in one place for too long; the need to break free. It’s a feeling I, and so many others, know all too well, eight months into a pandemic. When I listen to it, I feel a longing to get into my car and drive as fast as I can, screaming down a highway, belting, “It’s raining / In Vancouver / But I don’t give a fuck / ’Cause I’m far from home tonight.” Things won't be this way forever. I’m not as young as I used to be, but I believe now, more than ever, that a brighter future is possible. —Clayton Wong
Lisa Germano - Happiness (Capitol Records, 1993)
Two and a half years ago, I bought the CD for Lisa Germano’s Happiness at Amoeba Records. I had found the original, unremixed version of the album, the one not on streaming services, so the whole thing felt rare. Since I could only play CDs in my car, it was on regular rotation whenever I drove alone anywhere that spring. Driving with the windows down on sunny days, I was soundtracking my life to an approximation of country rock. Where I lived, it was still cold outside, and the sharp wind seemed to honor the music’s punishing lyrics.
The album uses fuzzy guitar, piano, and her classical violin to pass off her confessions of deep insecurity as songs. “Sycophant” reveals the fundamental void at the core of her personality, an absence of strong opinions or principles: “Who do you like? I like them too, who do you want me to be for you?” Listening to her music felt like taking a personality test online and closing out the tab because the results were too accurate. The rocking “Puppet” finds catharsis—she turns the chorus “When I am your puppet, we get along just fine” into a perverse mantra. Later on the album, the words “How can you sleep through this, what are your thoughts?” are sung so intimately that you feel bad for being unable to answer her.
Another day that same spring, I picked up a new friend to drive to a music festival. He got in the car as the song “Energy” was playing, and he said “this is cute,” offhandedly, with no condescension or derision. I became self-conscious; you forget how the music you know so well sounds to other people who are hearing it for the first time. Remembering he loved classical music, I pointed out that her parents happened to be classical musicians, as some sort of fun fact, as if to distance myself from the music’s content and emphasize its form. He responded politely, but soon after I switched out the CD for something else. —Faizan Khan
Codeine - “Loss Leader” (Sub Pop, 1994)
My most painful breakup was my most memorable one: a toxic and tumultuous bond forever severed. I remember it as one of the best and worst times of my life, asking him very pathetically to tell me if he loved me anymore to my face. He said he didn’t and I know he didn’t mean it but we both knew it had to be said. I left.
As I walked to the train stop and walked by his window, I heard him sobbing. It was hard. I never loved anybody like I loved him. There are many memories between us that are filled with songs I still think of fondly today but this one is one I won’t forget. I took the train home.
I had a long way to go, all the while thinking about how stupid I was to have made a two hour commute just to get dumped by someone who I thought I would be with forever. Usually when upset I’d listen to something ambient or maybe something angry. This time, as I cried in public in front of all these strangers, all I wanted was to listen to something to hold me like my favorite blanket, to cry with me like a best friend. It was “Loss Leader” by Codeine, from The White Birch. A song, band and album we both loved a lot and talked about when we had just met. It played on my MP3 player on repeat until I felt less like I was suffocating. By that time, I was almost home. Even now I listen to this and think about what we had. Everything I could’ve done better, things I should’ve said instead of what I actually did. The song says, “Can’t take this loss loop anymore” and that’s exactly what relationships are: loss loops over and over again until maybe we get something right. —Angela A.
Jimmy Eat World - “Goodbye Sky Harbor” (Capitol, 1999)
2018 was a wild ride. The highs of that year were some of the best moments I had ever experienced, but the lows took me to dark places that made me heavily consider the point I was at in my life. I took a gamble on someone I loved: I wanted to be with them every day, so I packed my bags and moved away from my hometown for the first time. One by one, it seemed like the universe was telling me the move hadn’t been the best decision. I kept on fighting, though, hoping things would turn around.
Money became tight. I was terminated from a position I had accepted before the move, so I took up being a substitute teacher again in my hometown to make ends meet. Every morning I would be up before the sun, preparing for the day, commuting to whatever school I had an assignment at; part of my preparation involved making a playlist for the hour-long drive to work. Being at a crossroads in life (and as a 24-year-old, I thought I knew more than I actually did), I resorted to music that had helped me in my last year of high school, feeling as if an escape to that time period—even if it just for an hour—would bring some solitude.
One of my go-to albums during this time was Jimmy Eat World’s Clarity, the 1999 release that saw Jim Adkins become the band’s main vocalist. This was them at their messiest in terms of laying their emotions bare; throughout Clarity, they sing their hearts out and aren’t afraid to showcase the vulnerability of being a twenty-something. That was something I’d been afraid to do to those closest to me. I didn’t know it at the time, but I needed to hear them to get over the humps in my own life—they gave me the courage to believe that, one day, I might be able to show those emotions to my loved ones.
“Goodbye Sky Harbor” is the sixteen-minute track that closes out the album. It’s inspired by John Irvin’s A Prayer For Owen Meany, and some of the lyrics were pulled from the novel itself. But right before the instrumental passage are lyrics by Jim Adkins himself, written on a plane as he watched his girlfriend from afar. They always kill me: “So here I am above palm trees so straight and tall, you are smaller, getting smaller, but I still see you.” The song breaks off into an ambience that goes on for over ten minutes as Adkins repeats, “La, la, la la la.” It all feels sorrowful yet optimistic.
Driving over the Talmadge Memorial Bridge every morning, I would turn my eyes to the side of the road for a few seconds and catch a quick glimpse of the city, imagining that I could see my loved one, knowing that things weren’t perfect. But the euphoria from those few seconds every morning made it all feel worth it. The relationship didn’t pan out, but it was formative and I’m thankful. I’ll never forget my partner telling me, “You’re still the same person you were when you were fourteen, but with more experience.” I’ll never forget the time I had to myself during those mornings, finding peace through the music I had adored when younger. Whenever I’m down and driving somewhere, I’ll throw this track on and get the same emotions I did from driving over that bridge every morning. While the present isn’t in my favor, the future is bright. —Jay Cheatham
FKA twigs - “Pendulum” (Young Turks, 2014)
It’s easy to see someone you love in every song you hear. I had always known this, but I learned the poignancy of it in the fall of 2015. My relationship with my partner was ending, I was graduating college, and I felt like I was drowning in how much of my future was unknown now that these constants were disappearing.
I started delivering pizza to give myself something to do every day, which in turn led to a lot of time spent in my car. It became a safe haven, a place where it could just be me, the road, and an artist, as cliche as that all sounds. I found myself frequently revisiting 2014’s LP1 by FKA twigs. On an album that could be described as sonically horny, I was most drawn to “Pendulum,” a song that fed into my grueling heartache. I found myself clinging to twigs’ words as she softly whispered, “You forgot how we fell in love.” Had my partner also forgotten that he loved me once?
In the winter of 2016, newly single and still desperately trying to justify in my mind that this wasn’t the end for us, I would drive on the interstate between Denton and Fort Worth and play “Pendulum” again and again. “How does it feel to have me thinking about you / wishing the words were enough to consume you.” Every time I heard this verse I felt a twist in my chest. I could only associate it with the yearning of wanting to force someone to give in to your love, to be allowed to swallow someone up, trapping them selfishly in your heart of hearts for only you to see. I wanted to consume, and was consumed by my heartbreak.
“Pendulum” swells into a feverish medley of breathless sounds, the cooing of twigs repeating the phrase “so lonely trying to be yours,” and the peak of her vocal range that twists with the strings and glitch-noise that is a staple of her sound. It was in this moment of the song I found myself wanting to burrow in: a soft space of pleasure derived from pain, of love from rejection, of desire borne from something out of reach.
When I hear “Pendulum” now, I’m reminded of this kind of love. Seductive, heady, brewing up a storm of self-destruction. I hurt for the 23-year-old me who thought that harboring infatuation for someone endlessly would make them love me. I no longer spend time feeling like I should be lonely, or trying to be the thing that someone else wants. —Finn Roberts
Davichi - “8282” (Core Contents Media/Maroo Entertainment, 2008)
My sister told me this past summer:
“You’ve been so mean to me recently.”
We were on our way to the nearest grocery store.
The only place I could drive with music.
I knew the roads. Plus there was no lane switching.
I wanted to disagree.
But she was right.
I had been yelling a lot.
At her especially.
And I knew I owed her an apology.
I remember around this time a year ago.
My sister told me I shouldn’t come out to my parents.
She said that would break the family apart.
I agreed with her.
But I remember I cried afterwards.
Quietly in the shower.
She was only 16.
And as much as I wanted to let her words go.
I think there was a lot of resentment there.
Not at her specifically.
But rather at the situation.
And the fact that she had confirmed my biggest fear.
But I’m leaving out the part when she told me that if I did choose to come out.
And I broke the family.
She would call me everyday.
Check on me daily.
I’m sorry, Irene.
I’m really sorry, Irene.
(지금 바로 전화줘.)
And thank you.
The Killers - “Deadlines and Commitments” (Vertigo Records, 2012)
Driving from Midtown Sacramento to Bodega Bay, June 2015.
The CD sat in the hard pocket on the passenger side door in my first car. “Battle Born” was sharpied on it in shaky handwriting. My younger brother Dylan gave it to me during what I kept hoping would be a phase in Evangelical fanaticism. At some point I removed its thin jewel case and gave it to mixes from angry local skaters and country boys who would never be cowboys. Dylan’s CD was often bare, exposed to losing scratcher tickets and burrito wrappers shoved into the pocket.
It came along on countless long drives, untouched, unexamined. Other albums with which I’d worn grooves into my brain were the backdrop to the lightning and horizontal rain storm in Weed rounding Mount Shasta on the way to Portland (This Will Destroy You, S/T) or sprinting from Tempe to Santa Cruz in one night (Crass, The Feeding of the 5,000). Because of the words on the CD I assumed it was worship music. He didn’t tell me anything about it and I didn’t ask.
Dylan shot himself right before Valentine’s Day 2015 and his last text message to me (“Just saw Wee Man from Jackass getting tacos at this food truck”) went unanswered. Our relationship was always strained. Whenever he got into the same music as me, like he did with The Mars Volta, I was weird and possessive about it. I deny the idea that he liked me at all but it’s because that eases the guilt more. It makes me feel less bad about the fact that probably he loved me a lot, definitely he looked up to me, and I didn’t let him in or reach out.
Once in Papi’s kitchen Dylan said, “Your singing voice is so much like Brandon Flowers’ and the way he sings. He’s like how you’d sing if you were a man.” I found a way to be disgruntled by that, my only experience with The Killers being listening to Hot Fuss in my teenage bedroom while I painted a cemetery on the wall inside my closet, and an older boyfriend who probably thought the Lou Reed-Killers collab would be a bridge for us.
Everything was hard, and the death was harder. I’d just ended a relationship and had to leave the apartment and the dog. It was my last semester of undergrad after years of getting distracted and fucking up. I wrote the obituary, which is what you’ll probably do too if you’re the writer in your family, and left off the facts about his death as my parents asked. I delivered the news to his friends, which you might do if you’re the oldest child. Everyone said he “passed away” but I said “died” or “killed himself.” I kept my head down, drank, fucked, ate pills without asking what they were, and graduated that May.
Not much family was around so Aunt Heather invited me to stay with her, Uncle Matt and their boys, who I babysat and who kept asking what I wanted to be when I grew up even though I was 25, in Bodega Bay. My transmission was shot and I’d recently totaled Papi’s car (music sounded better, more enveloping, in his) after a speeding truck crumpled it in dead-stop traffic, on a stretch of highway I’d driven while asleep or too drunk to keep my eyes open, many times, and lived. I borrowed my stepmom’s car which only played CDs. I collected strays from mine and started driving.
For two years I’ve lived in Southern California, close to where Dylan died, but cold, gray NorCal beaches are still where it’s at, for me. I’d been to Bodega Bay as a kid, with family, with Dylan. Again I saw the familiar tree with a trunk like a broken back and the bridge, named for someone whose nickname was “Fresh Air,” that shot you into the sky over the Napa River.
The CD with Dylan’s handwriting was among those I’d blindly grabbed. I inserted it expecting and knowing nothing. I can’t remember the last time I listened to music like that, carving through it headfirst. I figured out it was The Killers quickly. Shame pumped into my stomach because I’d left the CD exposed for three years, because I hadn’t been curious.
The disk was scratched from years of neglect and kept skipping. “Deadlines and Commitments” was clean, though. Musically it’s a little sparse and dramatic, a tempered kind of goofy. It sounds like what I imagine playing in a white Caribbean resort hotel in the ’80s, or a training video about phone systems in the early ’90s. But it’s fucking sad. Flowers sings simple lines like “That place we all go to / it can come down on you / the expectation can be great” like he just finished crying.
In the song Flowers sings “If you should fall / upon hard times / if you should lose your way / there is a place / here in this house / that you can stay.” The lyrics rotisseried in my gut, in my chest, and herons snaked their heads over tall grasses and the low shoulder of the single-lane highway. There was no note when Dylan died but when it happened I thought, “He beat me to it.” I wasn’t as warm to him as I should have been. Never offered him a place to stay or promised not to “ride on horses that discourage” him (whatever the fuck that line means. It’s one of my favorites).
I’ve tried to play it with my guitar but the first chorus always breaks my voice. Occasionally when I sing through the cracks, I hear the resemblance Dylan said he’d heard. The scarred CD that bears his permanent handwriting is somewhere. I should know where but I don’t. You inject and saturate the object with meaning and what it is hangs in the air after the drive is over. —Lauren Lavín
Thank you for reading the fortieth issue of Tone Glow. See you on the road.
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