Posted by: coloradokiwi | July 12, 2008

The art of road trip mixing

Gas prices being what they are, most people are driving much less these days, and therefore the Great American Summer Road Trip is severely diminished.  That said, such traditions, even in their diminished forms, are part of the foundation of who we are—it would be like cutting back on fireworks July 4th merely because of a blown off appendage.  Cowboy up or go back to Russia!

Absolutely vital to any road trip, however, is good road trip music.  Now, there is a real art to putting together proper road trip music, particularly if, like all good road trips taken by anyone under forty, you’re doing it with friends or at the very least your spouse/partner.  Although the easy thing to do is simply load up the car full of a bunch of “great” albums, stuff that you like to listen to, it’s not actually as simple as that.  For starters, frankly it’s kind of hard to sit through an entire album while you’re on the road—at least during crucial parts of the trip (more of which below).  Between the road noise and people’s differing tastes in music, even stuff that’s amenable to nearly everyone can eventually wear you down.  And the one thing you can’t afford to be on a road trip is worn down:  the point is to get out there, have some fun, see some sights, and exhaust yourself only near the end.  

The best solution to keep spirits up therefore is to compile a mix, which in this era of iPods are what people are probably used to as part of their music listening practices anyway.  But you can’t just throw a bunch of shit together—like any mix tape/CD/playlist, there are a number of crucial factors to consider.  So without further adieu, some guidelines to putting together a good road trip compilation.

First of all, you have to consider the overarching aesthetic, the purpose of a road trip:  it’s about freedom, comraderie, speed, and the expanses of the American landscape.  You also want to consider what time of day you’re leaving, what the weather is likely to be, and what sort of musical tastes your fellow riders have.  So for example, let’s say you’re leaving in the morning:  not too early, but not late, either.  You’ll want something that sets the mood—optimistic, a driving beat, probably rock-ish (let’s face it, standard rock is quintessential road music, and while other genres are perfectly suitable, rock’s the way to kick things off).  You’ll probably want to start with a tune or set of tunes that most people either know or will find acceptable; somewhat mainstream but not over-played; something classic but also verging on timeless; and if possible, something that might even mention riding/driving/being free.  Examples here might include a bit of The Traveling Wilburys, some AC/DC, or hell, even Lindsay Buckingham (it doesn’t hurt to be slightly cheesy/cheeky on that last one:  it’s the first track!  Any complainers should not be allowed to continue on the trip, because they will be HELL later).  

From here, you want to consider keeping a good pace for the next half hour-ish, choosing songs that not only fall in line in terms of tempo and/or subject matter, but in style, and the transition from one to the other should work well.  At the same time, you don’t want a bunch of songs together that are too similar in these respects, because that sort of defeats the purpose of making a mix.  My preference here is to go from the mainstream/classic to stuff that sounds a bit like it, but is more obscure and much newer, like Goldenhorse or Goodshirt (mid-range in terms of era is also acceptable).  Even better, find a lesser-known but great driving track from a well-known artist. At some point you’ll want to move back into classic territory.  Most importantly, somewhere within the first five songs, you’ll want to include at least one track that nearly everyone knows really well and can even sing along to, but they probably haven’t actually listened to in years—basically, something which causes a brief moment of surprise and amusement, before they give in, say “fuck yes!” and start singing/grooving.  To my mind, some old George Michael, fuckin’ G n’ R, the Boss, or even select Beatles tunes will do nicely.  (Here’s the thing about The Beatles, though:  to be used very sparingly, not only because a lot of people know the songs probably overly well, but frankly much of their best stuff isn’t particularly suited to road trip music; when in doubt use a deep cut from their later stuff, probably the White Album). Basically keep it moving and keep it interesting, but nothing terribly challenging just yet.  

Somewhere in the middle you can reach out and experiment a bit more.  This would be a good place to throw in something from a wholly different genre that nonetheless doesn’t seem terribly out of place, like a bit of techno, rap or funk.  Personally this is where I like to drop in Cibo Matto (probably something like “Spoon,” probably not “Sugar Water,” alas) or Dengue Fever, stuff like that.  You’ll have something in your collection of music that you think could be slotted in that other people probably won’t have heard, but they might like.  

Right after the experimental section, you’ll want to throw in a track or two that is guaranteed to lift the mood and be something everyone will appreciate, not only because you’re part way through the mix, but also in case your obscure tracks didn’t really go over well.  To my mind the best thing to throw in here is either funk-based awesomeness like classic MJ, Stevie Wonder or even Kool and the Gang, or perhaps some driving hard rock that will get the pulse pounding; be sure to tailor this to your audience (split the difference with Lenny Kravitz).  

Now, at some point in the road trip, you’ll need at least two more mixes for two crucial stages:  night time/atmospherics, and the “It’s hot and I’m losing my shit” stage.  

For the former, you’ll want stuff that sets a different kind of mood, which can be melancholy, dark, or just a little weird.  And possibly the most important aspect of this is what the landscape looks like that you’re driving through (in terms of playing full albums of non-compilation music, this might be a good time to break out instrumental soundtracks, like Jurassic Park for redwoods or The Good, The Bad and the Ugly for badlands).  Austere, dramatic vistas in the West are great for stuff like Slim Cessna’s Auto Club and gothic country precursors, the South evokes melancholy bluegrass…etc.  Night driving is best for lower tempo stuff that is usually a bit sparser and invites contemplation in the relative silence.  I prefer stuff that sets a particular scene and/or tells a story.

The “losing my shit” stage will be inevitable: when you’re tired, lost, or just really bored.  For this you want to provide a variety of music that keeps people sane (possibly by driving them even further over the edge).  This would include things like songs that evoke nostalgia, particularly if they were really popular but have not aged very well.  You might also want to include a handful of songs that nobody would ever admit to liking, but in fact they actually really do (this would be especially true of anything by the Spice Girls).  A classic sing along somewhere in there is also a good idea.  If you can get good quality copies of them, theme songs from old TV shows are also fantastic, although don’t go too obscure or slightly too horrible with them—it’s not just about the show, the song itself must be tolerable (or even slightly awesome).  To this end, be wary of using themes from cartoons or wholly instrumental themes—just a little TV stuff goes a long way.  Kids’ songs can be great, but you have to be careful here, too, or you may go from cheerfulness to manslaughter in a hurry.  Basically the idea is to keep it lighthearted, slightly ironic, upbeat, and completely surprising.

Once you become a master road trip compilationeer, this will all seem like second nature, and you can start making multiple mixes in each area.  But don’t go too far out from shore, and for God’s sake don’t insist on playing your stuff—this adds unnecessary expectations to what you’ve compiled.

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