We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and amid the eight billion SXSW solicitations is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, a request for tips on assembling the perfect travel playlist.
Janna Sanford writes: "I'd love advice and suggestions on constructing the perfect travel/plane-ride playlist. For instance, on a trip to London, would you suggest listening to some of the current hits on the British charts during the flight there? When you are traveling to Austin for SXSW, do you create a playlist of featured artists to listen to during your trip?"
I recommend viewing your travel playlist — especially when we're talking about straight-up vacations rather than business trips and more mundane travel — as purely aspirational. Envision the music you pick as a soundtrack for the experience you'd like to have: If you can imagine your life as an unfolding series of movie scenes, what songs would you want to hear swelling underneath your experiences? Choose wisely, and you can sear some of your happiest travel moments into your memory banks, with music cues to help you relive them while stuck in traffic later.
Some music lends itself perfectly to specific locations, from the British pop hits you mention to David Mead's wonderful 2004 album Indiana, which I try to break out every time I drive across that state's godforsaken turnpike. One of my dream vacations would take me to coastal Scotland in large part because I'm so in love with King Creosote & Jon Hopkins' album Diamond Mine, which is full of songs about life there. Even if you're not into the best-known music of a given destination — let's say you tend not to like Hawaiian music but are en route to Maui, or are visiting Jamaica without an ingrained love of reggae — I recommend seizing on a piece of music you already love that evokes the vibe you want to experience there.
The most important thing, I think, is that vacation music should be about settling your nerves and making memories. There'll be time to immerse yourself in music discoveries when you're at your destination, so while you're wedged into a middle seat in coach and dreaming of a beach chair, don't beat yourself up if the music you crave is stuff you already love.
Finally, my pre-SXSW playlist is often contingent on how prepared I feel for the thousands of choices that will face me from the moment my plane touches down. Some years, the flight to Austin is a hasty survey of bands I'd meant to hear sooner; this year, I'll probably just take another breezy stroll through The Austin 100, the 100-song playlist I just finished assembling. (And which, if you'll pardon the plug, can be downloaded in its 813 MB entirety right here at the NPR Music website.)
Which is, of course, saying nothing of journeys home. There, comfort music reigns, plain and simple.
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