COLUMN: On The Road Again: Picking Music For A Long Drive
The Critical Curmudgeon
Published: Wednesday, January 15, 2014
Updated: Wednesday, January 15, 2014 22:01
Welcome back! I hope everyone had a relaxing Winter Break with minimal life-threatening brushes with the Polar Vortex. Thus far, 2014 has presented itself as a year full of promise and peril for the music industry, so be sure to stick with The Scene to guide you through the tumultuous days ahead. For instance, we’ll be hearing from U2 again with an album release set tentatively for this June. At the Golden Globes, Bono announced a fast-approaching single, and I frankly can’t bear the suspense. Will Invisible reflect the mediocrity and shrill preachiness of the band’s more recent LPs—or stick with the mediocrity and shrill preachiness of its earlier work? As always, stay tuned with me, the Critical Curmudgeon, for your Thursday dose of pseudo-relevant music news.
Today I want to talk about a subject that is always pertinent to music aficionados. On my return trip to Boston College from home in New Jersey this past weekend, I undertook the challenge of selecting music from my own iPod that both my mom and I could enjoy. As I was deliberating between artists, I realized that hundreds of other passenger-seat DJs were probably doing the same exact thing—not necessarily frantically looking for songs without explicit sexual innuendos in them, as I was, but rather, more broadly trying to find the right road music.
Road music is the crux of every car ride over an hour long. What can we listen to and enjoy that won’t (a) become infuriating halfway through the trip, (b) create a fatal distraction, or (c) make one passenger’s country sing-a-long concert another’s endless torment? Road music inhabits a listening genre of its own: people make driving playlists, keep CDs in their cars, and pre-set their radios to specific stations, all because the wrong music can turn a tubular road trip into a mind-numbing exercise in counting “99 Bottles of Beer.”
On that subject, are the bottles in that song supposed to be on a shelf, or are they somehow suspended in the air perpendicular to the wall? “Shelf” and “wall” are both one syllable and there’s no rhyme, so why not just say “99 Bottles of Beer on the SHELF?” Wouldn’t that be more accurate? As a child, this question haunted me.
I digress. My point is, since road music is such a universal phenomenon, is there a formula for what makes road music good? I’d argue that, while there’s a practically infinite spectrum involving personal preference within them, there are two types of road music of which all music-listening drivers are inherently aware.
I’m calling the first type “windows-down music”—that’s the full-blast soundtrack everyone has that really isn’t any good unless it’s audible from halfway down the block. It’s the song with that really sick double bass-pedal part that sounds like the Tazmanian Devil trying to escape a footlocker, the one with the brain-frying drop that you essentially wait 3:14 for, the heavy-metal and hard-rap that makes people look at you when you pull up to a stoplight and think, “He can’t be comfortable in there with the volume that high.” And they’re right: it’s not comfortable. It’s rockin’ out. “Windows-down music” is for the shorter end of car rides, particularly during the 2 a.m. drive when you really just need to stay awake. As for specific kinds, there’s a wide variety. Some people use Rage Against the Machine, others prefer Beastie Boys; some people blare Childish Gambino or Macklemore or Metallica or dubstep remixes of other dubstep. Heck, it could be Mozart’s “Symphony No. 40” if you wanted, so long as you crank it up for the turnaround. It’s just gotta be loud.
The other kind is for the longer rides, the true road trips: it’s called “rambling music.” Rambling music is more structured: truck-drivers in the Midwest have been perfecting the art ever since the first vagabond with a bindle full of dreams tooted the first harmonica. Rambling music is definitely folksier, more organic, more jam-band-related. The best of it all came out in the ’50s and ’60s (Grateful Dead, the Band, Woody Guthrie, etc.), but that’s not to say no advancements have been made. Beck’s Sea Change, Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and the Mountain Goats’ Sunset Tree are three of the best albums to drive to I’ve ever heard. Still, you haven’t lived until you’ve listened to all of American Beauty while you’re out on the open highway. It’s why the album was freaking made.