Top 5: Songs for Driving

After I’ve depressed the clutch and turned the key, the next thing I do in my car is reach for the power button on the radio. When I’m driving—and I’ve been driving a lot the past two weeks—music must be going. Particularly on long drives where the highway stretches out in front of me, I turn up the volume to keep me awake and focused.

There’s a real art to the ultimate driving playlist. I have made many, but the fact is that each trip demands different music. A few things, though, are constant. This is the time for simple drumbeats that you can play on the steering wheel and bombastic guitars that push your right foot a little more firmly on the accelerator than you’d intended. Here’s five of my favorites right now.

 

1. Panama, Van Halen
I don’t consider myself much of a Van Halen fan, but I’ve always liked this one. Blame Superbad. The best driving songs have a discrete intro and then a drop (for lack of a better term) that shifts you into fifth gear. Van Halen’s guitar grabs you immediately with this cinematic thirty-second-long introduction, until David Lee Roth’s “uuuh” kicks things off properly. And although his vocals are at times shrill enough to appeal only to dogs, he has great timing. The spoken interlude right around 2:35 is the best example—“I reach down between my legs and…ease the seat back.”

2. Radar Love, Golden Earring

If your car stereo doesn’t have good bass, I would prefer it if you skipped this one. The bass line to this song is so legendary that you should be able to pick it out in two notes after hearing it once, and deserves nothing less than speakers that will do it justice. It’s a long song, too, clocking in at about 6:30. While that’s generally not great if you’re just running out to get cigarettes and pop tarts, it’s ideal on longer trips—those six minutes pass quickly. My plan is to one day found a radio station that beams this song to the most desolate, static-ridden stretches of America’s interstate system. You’re welcome.

3. Runnin’ Down a Dream, Tom Petty

Maybe the quintessential driving song. The well-written lyrics are particularly appropriate, and I’ve always like the last verse: “I rolled on as the sky grew dark/I put the pedal down to make some time/there’s something good waitin’ down this road/I’m pickin’ up whatever’s mine.” Funny that the most memorable part of the song for me musically is the palm-muted, percussive strums that come after the first line of the chorus—not so much a musical statement as the absence thereof. An anti-riff, if you will.

4. Losing Days, Frank Turner

This came on during a drive to Massachusetts last week, and I was surprised at how much it energized me. I think it’s the opening crack of the drums and that mandolin intro, along with the interval jumps in the vocal part. It runs a little against the big guitars rule I established above, but it has the drumbeat, and it’s another great one for sing-alongs, particularly if you’re working on your harmonies.

5. Stacy’s Mom, Fountains of Wayne

A road trip is the perfect time for indulging guilty pleasures. You have a lot of time ahead of you, you’re alone, and thanks to modern automotive engineering, no one is going to hear you when you mangle the lyrics at full volume. If, for some reason, you do have a passenger, this is also a great candidate for an impromptu duet. I know it might be wrong, but I love this song, and you’re a liar if you say otherwise.

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Top 5: Songs for Leaving

In the spirit of High Fidelity, I like to compile top 5 lists every now and again. Since I’ll be a college graduate in 48 hours, I figured now might be the time to put a top 5 list up on here. Leaving a place filled with people I’ve come to know and love over the past four years has provoked a slurry of emotions that I can’t separate out into neat categories. So these songs embrace the complexity and the contradictions of leaving a place and the people in it.

 

1. Langhorne Slim and the Law, Salvation

One of the very best concerts I’ve been to in my time at college was Langhorne Slim and the Law—an incredible amount of energy, spirit, and great music. This is one of their quieter tracks, and hits all the harder because of it. The quiet, subdued instrumentation, including a gentle banjo line, lets the lyrics breathe. The lyrics are plain but not inelegant, and Langhorne Slim’s voice emotes beautifully. Halfway between a bleat and a scream, it sounds raw and unguarded. When he sings “I hate to leave but I know/it’s time to go,” he manages to encompass both resignation and regret.

 

2. Tom Petty, Into the Great Wide Open

Ok, granted, Eddie’s just finishing high school in this song, but on the cusp of finishing college, I can certainly identify with “Into the Great Wide Open.” I think this song captures the really knotty feeling of moving on to something else—so much possibility, but also a real fear of getting swallowed up. Musically, this is Tom at his most Byrds-influenced—big, clean Rickenbacker guitars with plenty of shimmer. This man has got songwriting down, and I’m consistently amazed at this ability to work the same six chords as everyone else in new ways. I’ve linked to the actual music video, because it’s kind of 90s kitschy (featuring Tom doing his best Dickens impersonation) but actually has a pretty sophisticated narrative—and a very young Johnny Depp.

 

3. Frank Turner, Polaroid Picture

If I got to design a graduation ceremony, I’d play this song. Like Langhorne Slim, Frank Turner has a voice where you believe everything he says. Here, he sings about the importance of trying to keep a moment, to remove it from the flow of time in order to save it. The lyrics are simultaneously about being very present (“let go of the little distractions/hold close to the ones that you love”) and very forward looking (“cause we won’t be here this time next year/so while you can take a picture of us”), the strange paradox that leaving a place always provokes.

 

4. Nickel Creek, Rest of My Life

“The battle is over/Here we all lie/In a dry sea of Solo cups/With the sun in our eyes.” I love this whole album, of course, but the first verse of the first track, with lyrics by Chris Thile, cuts right to the heart of the moment. The lyrics start sardonic—definitely a glass-half-empty perspective on starting anew, but during the bridge at 2:00, with some orchestral chops that build tension, things begin to shift. As Thile stretches out the lines “I’m coming to, I’m turning myself into something a little less promising/A little more useful,” the harmonies move under him and resolve into a major tonality at 2:38, as Sean and Sara Watkins’ beautiful backing vocals kick in. Cynicism interspersed with brief moments of clarity and light.

 

5. The Rolling Stones, Shine a Light

This song, hidden in the depths of 1972’s Exile On Main Street, was written about deceased band member Brian Jones, who died in 1969. Musically, it has a lot in common with “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”—slow piano intro that kicks into a gospel strut after about 3 seconds of reggae organ (00:58-1:01). It’s an almost uncharacteristically layered sound for the Stones, and the choir backing at 2:00 right before Mick Taylor’s guitar solo gives the whole thing a luxurious sonic feel. Lyrically, it contains what I think is the best blessing you can give someone. I use it for anyone who I don’t think I’ll see for a while, no matter what the circumstance. “May the good Lord shine a light on you/make every song your favorite tune.”

 

Album of the Week: Tape Deck Heart, Frank Turner

Frank Turner used to be in a hardcore band and he has the tattoos to prove it. But after that band broke up in 2005, he went out and retooled himself as an “acoustic” singer-songwriter. It may sound like an abrupt transition to you, and you’d be right, if Turner was now doing a Simon and Garfunkel thing. Instead, on Tape Deck Heart, he’s more indebted to bands like Flogging Molly.

There’s acoustic instruments here, sure—guitars and mandolins and pianos—but most of it is distorted electric guitars, and Turner’s past is never really very far from the surface on this album. He sings about his tattoos on “Losing Days,” and the wildly energetic “Four Simple Words” makes no mistake about where Turner’s heart is: “Is anyone else sick of the music/Churned out by lackluster scenesters from Shoreditch?/…I want bands who had to work for their keep/Drove a thousand miles and played a show on no sleep.” “Four Simple Words” sounds like a direct sequel to the equally rousing “I Still Believe” from the 2010 EP “Rock & Roll.” Turner seems to be a naturally anthemic writer, perhaps because of his time in the punk scene, or perhaps because he’s commercially savvy—or maybe both.

It’s not surprising to find a song so informed by Turner’s past on this introspective album. Despite its aggressive tempos, most of the album is very melancholy—vignettes of a life that seems to be slipping away faster than Turner or his characters can run it down. He’s focused very much on mortality, which motivates both the bittersweet “Polaroid Picture” and “Oh Brother,” a meditation dedicated to a recently departed friend about how the bonds that young men form with each other evolve. There are luckily hints of humor: in “Anymore,” he delivers the line “I’m not drinking anymore…but I’m not drinking any less” with perfect timing, and his pastiche-y vocal quaver on a chorus line from “Four Simple Words” inject a wink or two into a record that could use a laugh every now and then.

There’s a lot of meat on the bone thematically, and it speaks well of Turner’s prowess as a writer that he’s able to explore his themes with a nuanced eye. The music is equally textured. It’s not a three-chord smash and go like some pop punk stuff, and Turner and his band work with sustained chords (on the lush “Good & Gone”), modal patterns (the intro to “Oh Brother”) and heavily reverb’d drums (“Broken Piano”). There’s a nice guitar tone on “Oh Brother,” and the mandolin on “The Way I Tend To Be” is another sonic standout.

I have to admit that this wasn’t what I expected to find when I bought the album after I was lured in by the criminally catchy single “Recovery.” It’s easily the record’s most memorable track, but I soon realized the song is actually something of an outlier, both lyrically and musically. It’s cathartic and forward looking in a way that the rest of the album isn’t, and it feels like a bit of a thematic disconnect. It would have maybe worked better as the album’s final track, giving a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel and a sense of closure.

But ultimately, I don’t think that’s what this album is about. Turner is trying to get across that closure doesn’t always come, or takes longer than you might think. “But these days I’m collecting scars that don’t seem to fade/cuts and bruises that won’t go away.” The only balm he seems to know is making rock & roll—and Tape Deck Heart is prescription-strength stuff.