Last night I was on my way home from work and thumbed my way to 808s and Heartbreak on my iPod. For the uninitiated, 808s and Heartbreak is the fourth studio album by Kanye West. Released in 2008, its prominent musical element was Kanye's extensive use of Auto-Tune added to a minimalist production style centered around the Roland TR-808 drum machine.
Skipping through the playlist, I landed on the eighth track on the album called "Street Lights". And as I listened, it was almost as if the song became the soundtrack of my ride home. The lyrics, the production, the atmosphere, everything about the song seemed specifically arranged for a midnight ride through the cold and quiet Philadelphia streets. It was so perfect in fact, that I set my iPod to single-song repeat and took the long(er) way home. I almost didn't want it to end.
This got me thinking. What makes a song good for riding through the city at night?
So I went through my catalog on iTunes and made a playlist with every song I could remember playing in my car to enhance my nighttime excursions. Here's what I came up with. I'm sure I'm missing something, so don't scold me:
Kanye West - Street Lights
Digable Planets - Pacifics
k-os - Heaven Only Knows
Mariah Carey - Fourth Of July
Common - A Filim Called (Pimp)
Lauryn Hill - Tell Him
Ladysmith Black Mambazo - Iyahlonipha Lengane
Lee Moses - California Dreaming
Gnarls Barkley - Who's Gonna Save My Soul
Little Brother - Nighttime Maneuvers
Outkast - Slum Beautiful
Common - The Game
Cee-Lo - Bass Head Jazz
Sade - Love is Stronger Than Pride
Buckshot LeFonque - Phoenix
Amel Larrieux - Infinite Possibilities
Phil Collins - In The Air Tonight
Daft Punk - Something About Us
Jeff Buckley - Lover, You Should've Come Over
Erykah Badu - Drama
Mos Def - Sex, Love And Money
Jamiroquai - Didjital Vibrations
Black Star - Respiration
There are a few common themes that I imagined would be prevalent; references to the night, dreams, the passage of time, and emerging or fading lights are abundant. There is also a general sense of introspection and reflecting upon past times or encounters. However, there were some aspects of the list that varied greatly. Tracks like Sade's "Love is Stronger Than Pride" and the aforementioned "Street Lights" by Kanye West feel very vaporous, very ethereal. Others, such as Cee-lo's "Bass Head Jazz" or Lee Moses' "California Dreaming" seem to carry considerably more weight and, at least to me, feel very dense and viscous. There's also quite a range of tempos here, from the soulful jazz ballad "Phoenix" by Buckshot LeFonque to the dark and penetrating Common cut "The Game".
So I offer these to you. If you get a chance, give them a try on your next evening automotive venture. What songs work best at stoplights? On highways and interstates? Surface streets? Do some feel better under a starry night? How about in rain? Or even snow? You may have limitless discoveries, or you may not dig any of them at all. Either way, it's all good! If you have some others you've found inspire you, feel free to share them in the comments of this post. I'm all about new music!