Road trips can be, well, a trip. Especially when you’re coaxing an ailing, teenage Suburban (a “lead-sled,” as one of my friends called hers recently on Facebook) up I-95 to the New Jersey shore with six passengers whose ages ranged from seven to 70.
Oftentimes, music is the key to smooth sailing on such an adventure. Good tunes can mask the road noise, enhance conversation, and fill in the gaps of empty silence. Picking the right mix that will appeal to, appease, and otherwise entertain such a crew can be a little tricky, though.
The radio is helpful at times, but there’s never enough continuity when you’re on the go, and the need to keep switching stations can be annoying. Full-length CDs or cassettes work, too, but only if everyone really likes your favorite band; otherwise tedium sets in after a few songs. And you want to avoid tedium as much as the public restrooms on the Turnpike.
No, what you need is variety. A good playlist of songs that everyone will like (within the limits of the Lincoln principle), that will keep their moods merry (and their minds off being “there yet”) and, depending on the length of the car ride, that will stand up to several repetitions. Another important aspect about picking music for a beach vacation is that, in addition to playing steady, driving songs for the car ride — mellow but with locomotion — you may want to include some more upbeat and raucous cuts to play once you reach your destination. Waves crashing on the shore shouldn’t be the only noisemakers.
Also, a self-inflicted restriction I impose when creating a catalog is to limit my picks to only current releases — in this case, late spring and early summer 2009. This can be risky, since most of the songs will be fairly unfamiliar to the crowd. However, the pay-off — the “oh, wow, I like this!” factor — can be huge.
Following is a sampling of some of the songs I’ve bought or downloaded (and tested) recently that I think are a “shore” bet for starting a beach-bound playlist or enhancing an existing one. Be sure to click on each of the links below to hear the songs (open as a new tab or window), and follow the threads to find out where you can download them. You can also hear the playlist in its entirety, though in random order, at the 8tracks site here. Enjoy!
“The Calculation,” Regina Spektor, Far. This, the first cut off this Russian-born singer/songwriter’s new record, is piano-bouncy and fun, upbeat and offbeat, twee, and a little weird — in other words, classic Spektor. I also really like the swirling, driving, sweet “Eet.”
“Autumn Beds,” Modest Mouse, Autumn Beds Single. Hands down, this is the best banjo-based indie rock song I’ve heard in ages. Seriously, and I’m not being immodest.
“Slowly (Oh So Slowly),” Conor Oberst and The Mystic Valley Band, Outer South. The versatile Oberst (of Bright Eyes) is back fronting his favorite side act, delivering his brand of good old Americana — or roots-rock, or alt-country, or folk rock, etc., depending on your perspective. Whatever you call it, though, it’s definitely worth the $0.99.
“I’ll Fight,” Wilco, The Album. And speaking of alt-country whatchamacallits, ever-evolving Wilco’s latest is jam-packed with plenty of mid-tempo groovers, like this one, as well as slightly folksier (like “You and I,” which features a duet with Canadian gadabout Feist) and slightly grittier tracks, like “Bull Black Nova.” My album of the moment, for sure.
“Dixie Cups in the Dead Grass,” The Skygreen Leopards, Gorgeous Johnny. The members of this new-to-me four-piece must have old souls — their bare-bones, guitar-and-tambourine sound hearkens back to the Brit folk-pop of the 1960s. It feels groovy and somehow fresh at the same time.
“Beesting,” Buildings Breeding, In the Key of Calloused Fingers. With its brushed-drum rhythm and he-she duet vocals, this song comes across as breezy, beachy, and slimly psychedelic. Yet the heavy, Feelies-like fuzz-guitar line that cuts through it, straight as a bumblebee, is the key to keeping it grounded.
“Red Lights,” Vib Gyor, We Are Not an Island. This song follows a familiar pattern formed by the likes of U2, Coldplay, Travis, and others — syncopated drums, soaring guitars, piano crescendos, and breathy, anthemic vocals. But it’s this intimacy that makes it seem so right.
“Action/Reaction,” Choir of Young Believers, Action/Reaction (Single). The name of this Danish band says alot about what you can expect from their song — lush, layered, impassioned harmonies, buoyed by a likable, languid club-mix beat. Download it and see how you react.
“So So Happy Making,” Hatcham Social, Postcard in Colours. If Buddy Holly ever had the chance to record with The Talking Heads (and he didn’t), this is what I imagine the outcome would have sounded like: a driving backbeat, lots of reverb guitar, heavy bass lines, and staccato psycho-killer vocals. Happy-making, indeed.
“Next in Line,” Meese, Broadcast. With its catchy melody, grinding guitars, and pulsing, dance-pop beat, this song, the first standout from this Denver-based band’s debut, sounds like a sunnier outtake from the Smashing Pumpkins (think “1979″) — behind whom they are standing in succession.
“Fireflies,” Owl City, Ocean Eyes. Fans of The Postal Service (or Death Cab for Cutie, for that matter) will be drawn to this single, not only because it features the same kinds of sparkly synth sounds found on hits like “Such Great Heights” and “We Will Be Silhouettes,” but also because the Owl City singer sounds exactly like Ben Gibbard. Even more appealing is the fact that it deals with one of my favorite subjects.
“Moth’s Wings,” Passion Pit, Manners. These guys made music critics buzz last the year with the release of their accolade-winning EP and its dreamy, ELO-like single “Sleepyhead.” Their first full-length offers the same masterful electronipop formula, but with a bit more maturity and complexity. I like this fluttery, dancefloor number the best.
“1901,” Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. After listening to the first few bars of this song, I immediately thought of Supertramp (along the lines of “The Logical Song”). But an even greater impishness and energy abounds on this French rocker, with lots of shimmery keyboards, ear-catching guitar hooks — and no cloying sax solos.
“Sun Children,” Nickodemus, Sun People. This song has all the right ingredients — an uptempo Afro-Cuban beat, bouncy Bob Marley bass lines, an infectious little horn riff, clever, singable raps — to rouse you from your car and get the funk onto the beach.
“Rose City,” Vive Voce, Rose City. What better choice for a sunny-day soundtrack than a song featuring dreamy female vocals, a garage-band fuzz guitar or two, some rat-a-tat drumming, and swelling Hammond chords? (Think of a mellower Sonic Youth or a more rocked-out Mamas & Papas.) It inspires California dreaming every time I play it.
“Chosen Armies,” Children Collide, The Long Now. Have you been waiting for a Black Sabbath tribute, with covers by the likes of Fugazi or Bloc Party? Then this tune — which even includes a wicked-cool Dick Dale-like guitar riff (ripped-off from “Miserlou”) — is for you. It’s perfect for a midday beach-blanket thrash party.
“It’s Thunder and It’s Lightning,” We Were Promised Jetpacks, These Four Walls. The indignation implicit in the name of this band might provide a clue as to what you’re in for here. The vast amount of raw energy produced by this Scottish four-piece could fuel a whisky distillery. But it is often tempered by restraint, quiescence, and a melodic fragility that, like a passing squall at the ocean, can leave me breathless.
So, there you have it, a mix of songs to help you reach — and then rock — the beach. I’m willing to bet that, if you download these tracks onto a disk or an iPod and start driving, you’ll be “there yet” before you and your trip-takers realize it.
As always, let us know what you think. Do your passengers influence the type of music you play on long trips? Are there songs that you think are better for reaching the beach? Let us know by leaving a comment below.
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