Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Special Report: NMT's Top Road Anthems

We're fast approaching the dog days of summer: time for not only baseball, cookouts and pool parties, but one of the classic summertime traditions – the road trip. As for myself, I'll be driving around the great state of Minnesota this week for my regular gig, so this seemed like the perfect opportunity to present a list I've had in mind to post here for quite a while: my favorite songs to compliment a road trip. While it would be easy to pick a couple Jackson Brown and Eagles classics, here are my top 15 in ascending order, prioritizing – when possible – bands and artists featured in this blog:

15) "Coeur d'Alene" – The Head & The Heart (NMT) – The Head & The Heart (2011)

Not specifically a road song per se, but the track's rolling piano and spunky rhythm adds depth to a good roadtrip playlist.

"Oh, the songs people will sing for home 
and for the ones that have been gone for too long..."

14) "On Her Own" – Ben Kweller (NMT) – Changing Horses (2009)

Again, not about driving or the open road, but Kweller's fictional narrative of "good 'ol Alexandria" who's life was torn asunder by Hurricane Katrina is among the best work of his solid catalog, and is a textbook example of the heartland rock style that produces the best music to accompany long drives.

"Always been a rambler, moving her whole life / 
Daddy was a gambler with a heavyhearted wife / 
The twilight wind blows her face and that Bronco's engine moans / 
She is gonna make it on her own..."

13) "Stuck Between Stations" – The Hold Steady (NMT) – Boys & Girls in America (2006)
So, surely this one will be about a highway or something, right? Well, not yet, but I defy you to not be pulled to adventure from the opening guitar riff to the hard-charging tune's accounts of summertime mischief. Plus former pianist/keyboardist Franz Nicolay delivers his most vital performance during his tenure with the band on this one, and a great piano or organ part can make a road anthem transcendent, as is the case here.

"Crushing one another with colossal expectations; dependent, undisciplined, sleeping late.."

12) "Down in the Valley" – The Broken WestI Can't Go On, I'll Go On (2007) 

The most alt-rock flavored selection on this list, something about the jangly guitars and hazy vocals from Ross Flournoy – before the four-piece outfit became known as Apex Manor – offers some welcome indie rock texture to a collection dominated by heartland rock.

"Sun down, blood horizon; now it feels alright / 
No one feels the darkness down in the valley tonight"

11) "The Country Life" – Crash Test DummiesThe Ghosts That Haunt Me (1991)

Folks, this blog would likely not exist were it not for my introduction to the Crash Test Dummies in the early 1990s. They were the first act I "discovered" on my own and led me to research (pre-Internet!) bands that influenced them, like XTC and The Replacements, and I'm forever grateful. While I really need to hash out my history with the group that most causal music observers know as a one-hit wonder – whose one hit contained a vowel-less chorus – the purpose of this post is road songs, and "Country Life" off their fantastic, alt-country-before-alt-country-was-a-thing debut, The Ghosts That Haunt Me, adds some needed, non-hokey country spark to a good travel compilation.

"So let's pack our bags up together, and we'll be in the clear forever..."

10) "Somewhere Down the Road" – Farewell Drifters (NMT, NMT) – Yellow Tag Mondays (2010)

Since we've already arrived at the country-flavored portion of this list, let's not drift too far afield, as the bluegrassy Farewell Drifters always deliver the sort of tight harmonies, honey-laced fiddles and nimble pickin' that provide a sunny, nostalgic character during treks across farms and fields.

"One day soon, I know the road will take us where we want to go /
 And everything you see will be along with me, 
somewhere down the road..."

9) "Drive" – The Gaslight Anthem (NMT, NMT, NMT) – Sink Or Swim (2007)

Abruptly shifting gears, the Springsteen-via-The-Clash power punk quartet aren't necessarily exploring wide open spaces on "Drive," but rather getting the boys back home after hitting the central Jersey bars. Still, sometimes on a multi-hour drive, you need a good jolt of pick-me-up; this will do it.

"And the only thing we know is it's getting dark and we better go / 
And the only thing we say are the despairs of the day"

8) "Down By the Water" – The Decemberists (NMT, NMT) – The King Is Dead (2011)

After serving as the most literate band in indie rock for the better part of a decade, Colin Meloy and the gang decided to shift to a more accessible brand of Americana for The King Is Dead. Turns out it was their best-selling record ever, and the leadoff single, "Down By the Water" exposed the Portland quintet to an expanded audience through its roots rock revival format. Guest contributions by now-former R.E.M. (NMT) guitarist Peter Buck (damn, isn't it a little sad to write that) and knockout supporting vocals from Gillian Welch embolden what is already a pretty catchy number from Meloy and company. 

"The season rubs me wrong, the summer swells anon / 
So knock me down, tear me up / 
But I would bear it all broken just to fill my cup / 
Down by the water and down by the old main drag"

7) "Thank You, Ringo Star" – Johnny Vegas – Super Cool American (1997)

This is such a hipster lede, but you probably haven't heard of Johnny Vegas (the band, not the comedian). That's probably for good season, since the Syracuse, N.Y.-quartet hasn't done much since 1999. And that's a shame, because the tandem of frontman Keith Calveric and guitarist Mike Shimshack wrote some very hooky, alt-rock-pop in the Gin Blossoms vein that never really found an audience outside upstate New York. Although the first verse of "Thank You, Ringo Star" is actually about a train – I know, way more awesome – the travel theme is recurrent throughout the 2:52 piano-rock confection.

"All packed up and ready to go; 
cigarette money and enough for the tolls..."

6) "Rain King" – Counting CrowsAugust and Everything After (1993)

Any search terms for "heartland rock" should immediately return this barnstorming classic from when the Crows were the Bay Area's favorite faux-midwestern rock band. The combination of crisp acoustic guitars, clean Fender riffs and keyboardist Charlie Gillingham's brilliant Hammond organ park is the definition of the sub-genre. A listen to this and "Omaha" off the band's excellent debut makes you remember why the group was so well-received, even during the heart of the 90s grunge movement. 

"Oh, it seems night endlessly begins and ends / 
After all the dreaming I come home again..."

5) "Let's Get Out of This Country" – Camera Obscura (NMT) – Let's Get Out of This Country (2006)

You perhaps read my thoughts last week on this Scottish act's uneven recent release, but the title track from their 2006 record is the group's high water mark. The rush of strings, organs and playful guitars propel frontwoman Tracyanne Campbell's tale of eloping into a more vast exercise in love and exploration.

"Let's hit the road, dear friend of mine / 
Wave goodbye to our thankless jobs / 
We'll drive for miles, maybe never turn off..."

4) "Electric Music" – Band of Horses (NMT) – Mirage Rock (2012)

Last year, Band of Horses released the album of their career, and "Electric Music" is the best thing on it. It seems like this song has been laying in wait since Jackson Browne's 1977 signature "Running On Empty," hoping for some plucky band to find it.
"Listen to the motor getting louder as we go / 
One way or another, gonna make it back home..."

3) "Across The Bridge" – Great Lakes Myth SocietyGreat Lakes Myth Society (2005)

The most lyrically complex and mysterious of any number on this list, this piece of "northern rock" – as defined by the Michigan-based quintet – includes all the trappings of great heartland rock road songs: mandolins, fiddles, organ and – most crucial – a hearty sing-along chorus led by frontman Timothy Monger (NMT).

"'Neath the radial of stars / And every band of idle cars / 
In the distance, old St. Ignace..."

2) "Keep the Car Running" – The Arcade Fire (NMT) – Neon Bible (2007)

It's hard to say the critically-acclaimed and chart-topping indie rock supergroup from Montreal has a single defining anthem – it is, after all, what they do. But this one might be the most accessible to the masses, so much so that co-leaders Win Butler and Regine Chassagne once performed it backed by Springsteen and the E Street Band and has been covered by the Foo Fighters. Although the protagonist's paranoia is a bit disconcerting if read too closely...

"Every night my dream’s the same
Same old city with a different name
Men are coming to take me away /  
I don’t know why but I know I can’t stay"

1) "Seeds" – Hey Rosetta! (NMT) – Seeds (2011)

From the welcoming, inviting mandolin that opens the title track from this St. John's, Newfoundland chamber-rock act, the number does everything that a great road song should do: translate the literal act of travel into a metaphor of self-discovery and enlightenment with vigor and enthusiasm. 

"The road bends long, like mother's arms / 
Reaching for these four black tires..."

P.S. – hopefully some of you spotted that the road in the photo at the top was a railroad. It was in northern Florida, south of Atmore, Ala.

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