7 ALBUMS I CAN’T TRAVEL WITHOUT
Not all the music I love is appropriate to pair with travel. For instance, I can recite any song by The Smiths, but I can’t admit that “I Know its Over” is a great soundtrack as my train pulls into Beijing. There is some music that has always seemed like it was made for exploring landscapes or cityscapes. I keep coming back to these when I’m traveling down the road, rails or sidewalks.
7. Pavement, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994)
With their second album, Pavement explored the Delta conduit of their world-famous home state of California.
This is not the familiar image that the Beach Boys or 2Pac may have introduced you to. Pavement explore the changing farm towns and “manmade deltas and concrete rivers” of rural and suburban California. He reminisces about evenings roaming a subdivision on his skateboard in “Range Life”. It’s music that every cheerful, smart American stuck in some place they don’t want to be can relate to. This is music that inspires you to get out, explore and be critical.
6. The 50 Guitars of Tommy Garrett; 50 Guitars go South of the Border
I’ve always assumed that the only reason Wes Anderson has not yet scored one of his films using only songs from Tommy Garrett has to be that Wes Anderson has not yet heard The 50 Guitars of Tommy Garrett. It’s the only explanation. The moment he does (perhaps he’s reading this…), I’d expect that I would be hearing more Garrett at the movies. And that’s a good thing.
In addition to having the most baller album covers ever, Tommy Garrett has a romantic, nimble guitar style that gets me every time. Those 50 guitars of his play quirky, vintage and technically perfect traditional songs from countries around the world. His most perfect renditions are the traditional songs of his home country of Mexico. I have visited Mexico countless times. The nights before I fly or drive down, I will leave my passport above my bag, right below my CD of The 50 Guitars of Tommy Garrett go South of the Border. Essential.
(Actually, Tommy Garrett was the producer of these 50 Guitars albums, not the actual performer. However, recognizing this makes me sad; and so, I don’t)
5. Cam’ron, Purple Haze (2003)
Travelers spend a lot of time walking alone down dark, unfamiliar sidewalks. Sometimes you need music that makes you feel nine feet tall.
Cam’ron delivers smart, confident and strutworthy urban fantasies on Purple Haze. Though the world-view of his lyrics may come across as dark and harrowing, the inventive production of this album (the majestic “Killa Cam” sounds like it could have come from The Lion King) creates a juxtaposition that gives this album a complexity, irony and humor missing in many hip-hop albums. He’s astute enough to rap about drugs and murder over the theme song to Hill Street Blues in “Harlem Streets”. File this under “heading out on a Saturday night” headphone music.
4. Madvillain, Madvillainy
If Purple Haze is my favorite album to head out with, then Madvilliany is my favorite album to walk home with.
The rhymes and beats of MF DOOM and Madlib explore the nooks and crannies of urban life. Like the city itself, each listen reveals new contours; giving the album a new life each time I hear it. I often get the same great feeling from revisiting cities I love.
3. Peter Gabriel, So (1986)
An expansive landscape with peaks and valleys, this is deceptively subversive pop music.
Peter Gabriel is an expert at making bright, colorful albums that explore dark, and often disturbing, subjects. I consider him the David Lynch of pop music. So is his best-known album and has sold over 12 million copies worldwide, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a toss away pop effort. Its eight singular, landmark tracks all still hold up individually as well as cohesively. “That Voice Again” comes on like standard 80s adult pop, with its Steve Winwood keyboards, then dives into a primal rhythm that sounds like prototypical Tool, all with 80s pop sheen. The simple, oceanic opening keyboard chords of “In Your Eyes” still sound powerful enough to move mountains, even after 25 years of play.
Lyrically, he’s not afraid to jump from exploring the poetry of Anne Sexton (“Mercy Street”) to comparing his dick to a sledgehammer (“Sledgehammer”, duh). As much as he creates songs, Peter Gabriel also creates textural landscapes in his albums. So is a journey in itself and is a great companion to any bus or train ride.
2. Aphex Twin, Selected Ambient Works Vol. II (1994)
Unlike his first masterful Ambient Works, these tracks have little tempo.
The meditative and relaxing soundscapes insinuate some kind of icy landscape in black and white. The warmth of this album has kept me going on many long wintery Chinese train rides watching endless stark landscapes on a hard seat. Tracks like “Stone in Focus” and “Rhubarb” cut a topography of their own.
1. Hayden, Skyscraper National Park (2001)
“Open your eyes / put it in drive / get on the road, lets go / city lights / turn to tree lines / and national park signs”.
Hayden’s third album begins its narrative in “Dynamite Walls” as a story of leaving the city and ascending into the mountains for a weekend of shitting in the woods. I’ve put this on during countless road trips just after dusk, when the sun is down and the shadows and stars begin to come out and I begin watching for deer in the headlights. Skyscraper National Park is quiet, meditative, delicate and introverted, yet expansive: the perfect soundtrack to any woody getaway.