Category Archives: Top 5s

#MondayMixtape – The Promise of the Open Road

photo by Mark Swick
the road to endless possibility (photo by Mark Swick)

This is the 2nd installment of our ever-so-often series on Songs About Travel and Far-off Places.

Healthy, free, the world before me
The long brown path before me, leading wherever I choose.
– Walt Whitman

The thrill of exploration, the promise of something new. When everyday is filled with this sort of perspective, it gives us reasons to wake up in the morning and make every day count. Perhaps that’s why there are so many songs about the promise of the open road and the shining potential of what lies just beyond the horizon. There’s so much out there to be discovered. You just have to get moving and be open to whatever comes. Even the most distant milestones and goals can be made all the more attainable by the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other and taking your first steps in their direction.

All that potential, all that promise– all that traveling– can also take its toll on even the most hardy of explorers.  We may get too comfortable with a routine, lose track of the spark that set us out on the path to begin with, or maybe we’re blown off course by forces out of our control. But the potential for adventure and discovery is always there. It just might require a different approach– a different route– to find it.

These songs speak to the promise of new discovery that open roads– and open minds– inspire us to believe in.

1. Bruce Springsteen – Thunder Road

No song rivals this one in terms of brilliance and gusto– the sound of joy uninhibited. Such promise… such potential… It’s a “do you remember when we were wild and free” moment that’s running on a super-charged, turbo engine of love and burning, yearning desire. “These two lanes will take us anywhere.” All that power– all that potential– encapsulated in the long, emphatic delivery of that final word: “Anywhere.” Springsteen’s signature vibrato practically shivers with nervous excitement and anticipation of a man ready to take on whatever comes his way.

It’s the soundtrack starter to any James-Dean-esque drag racing scene. A start your engines moment, and feel those lions purr underfoot. Look out at the road as far as the eye can see and start dreaming.

2. Elton John – Tiny Dancer

Dial back the pulse pounding, sweat inducing pace and a massage in a little more dreamy, misty remembrance of those bygone days and you get this Elton John classic. A tender ode to a love that once was and frenzied, frantic setting that made that made it all possible– out there on the wide open road. It’s a mad world out there, filled with some crazy, zany characters, John sings. People trying to sell you everything including those things that can’t be measured like businessmen selling love or “Jesus freaks” selling God and salvation. They promise quick fixes and cure-alls but are then gone as quickly as they’ve arrived and the problems still remain.

The only sure refuge, John sings, is to put your trust in the ones who really love you– the ones who will always be there. “Count the headlights on the highway / You’ve had a busy day today…” Let me take the lead for now, and lay back in the comfort of this trusty, rusty, and warm old jalopy. It’s heading on to somewhere fresh and new, on a course for somewhere, moving south by south-wherever. The chance for a new start is there just over the horizon so long as we’re together.

3. James Taylor – Riding on a Railroad

For all the positivity and promise that time on the open road affords, some days are just tough no matter where you are. Those days where time seems to fly by even as you feel it’s slogging along and that you’ve just been sitting in place for hours on end; those days you think about how much time you spend promoting other people’s visions and wish you had more time to spend on the things you care about; those days you aspire to your pinnacle best but simply end up chipping at the weeds below. This is the song for those days.

It’s the soliloquy of a man reflecting on his lot and wondering how it got this way. What happens when you’ve worked hard all your life only to realize that you’ve just been playing a supporting role to someone else’s succes “singing someone else’s song” (and that the higher power you always believed in might just be another with “chains upon his hands”– a mere mortal passenger in this life just like you)?

That’s what this song’s all about, and it says it all in just over two and a half minutes.

Some days are like that. But even as your beliefs may feel shaken or rattled to the core– that life’s no simple dichotomy of black and white, fair and unfair, or right or wrong– the best thing you can do is hold on tight, “sing along,” and believe in yourself to get through. You’ll get there. One trip at a time.

4. U2 – Angel of Harlem

Other times there’s a certain comfort derived from those tried and true melodies. Songs like the one remembered that’s exulted and celebrated here. These weary travelers could just as easily have been on another routine trip to New York, but it wasn’t. Because of this song. It’s a jubilant exhalation of finding security and contentment that can shine its way through any gloom and withstand all earthly elements and the test of time weather it’s a “cold and wet December day” or an ability to “see the truth behind the lies.” And as the song builds towards its zenith, it’s clear that like finding “salvation in the blues,” hope and joy can be found anywhere. Anywhere.

5. Paul Simon – Under African Skies

When the situations aren’t so rosy and bright, when we are compelled to get up and go by those aforementioned outside factors, this song reminds us that we never need feel alone in our situations. Our story– our song– is inextricably linked to the ones who have come before, connecting us all as part of that great wide, wandering world. “This is the story of how we begin to remember” and this is an appreciation to the power of music as both constant companion to us as we are now as well as the link to our history and place in time.

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#MondayMixtape: Making a Break for It

pressing on. making a break and getting out on the road
photo by Nigeno

This weekend I listened to Gregory Alan Isakov’s latest album The Weatherman about five or six times. It’s a stellar piece of low-fi, melodic folk-americana that can fit just about any occasion, and I highly recommend it.

Each time the first track “Amsterdam” came on I found myself thinking of the sorts of trips I’d taken, and it occurred to me how much of the folk-rock contemporary musical canon centers not just on the basic idea of traveling and the locations at either end of the journey, but also the complex, often conflicted reasons for wanting to go in the first place.

Then I started putting together a playlist of all the songs I could think of that had travel or escape as a central motif, and I noticed that many of the songs that I’d been listening to most often lately also centered on these themes. Breaking the list down by sub themes, I noticed that these were the three most oft discussed:

  1. Making a break and craving escape.
  2. Heartbreak as a catalyst for change.
  3. Nostalgia. Pure and simple.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be looking at some of the other themes that songs of this sort evoke, what places and cities in particular seem to be most popular with different generations of songwriters, and how different people connect to these songs differently (another question to ponder: why are so many wistful, dreamy songs of travel and escape told in 3/4 time? Three of the tunes selected below do and it was all I could do not to use the word “waltzy” to describe each of them).

For now, we start with travel as a means of escape. As a way to make a new start. The most basic tales of being out on the road sound like this.

1. Leif Vollebekk – Southern United States

This is the other song that got me thinking about how travel and songcraft go hand in hand. Its breezy, dreamy tempo and freewheeling guitars and drums have that sound that’s reminiscent of revving engines and the joyful first miles on the highway while also hinting at certain nostalgic sadness and longing for what’s been left behind. And it has a rambling storyline that’s ripe with beautiful contradictions that portray the inherent complexities of life. Being on the road affords an escape from prior worry and freedom from previous troubles, but you’re only as free as you allow yourself to be. “I was following my heart / Like I hadn’t for years…”Just make sure to keep alive, awake, and alert wherever your travels may lead.

2. The Doobie Brothers – Black Water

Maybe you’re looking less for an escape from the complex contradictions of life and more for just a good reason to play hooky one day. That’s what this one’s all about. This one says life’s fine, but a trip on a lazy river would make it that much finer. There’s no harsh realities to be found here. Leave your negativity at the door– er, at the banks of the river– and hop on board. Nothing can touch you. Not poor weather, mosquitos, or the possibility of rising floodwaters. None of it. This song invites you to get back on the bare necessities boat for an afternoon and remember that life can be genuinely good.

3. Cake – Mexico

There is no stronger inspiration for hitting the open road than fresh heartbreak and heartache, and nowhere is this more apparent than in this deceivingly simple little tune. It’s part mariachi waltz and part achingly forlorn cowboy ballad and the lyrics are as corny and as clichéd as they come, but perhaps that’s the most honest way to tell the tale. When once fond relations turn weathered and gray from years of human error, it’s time to go out, put your hands on the wheel, and leave the destination up to fate. And O what dazzling, gleaming potential that crossing that southern most border brings… Just over yonder where the air is lighter, the spaces are wider, and the adventure is fresh and limitless.

4. Sufjan Stevens – Chicago

This one strikes a similar story to the song preceding it with one striking difference: this is the song of a man in control of his destiny. Certainly this narrator feels regret and remorse for past misdeeds and misconduct, but now “all things go, all things go.” Time to get back to living and get back to life. Also, do yourself a favor and reacquaint yourself with this song. The album on which it appears, Come On Feel the Illinoise, is itself an excellent testament to all sorts of travel-related themes, and it’ll remind you of all the times you yourself ever wanted to get up and go and do the same.

5. Gregory Alan Isakov – Amsterdam

The song that started it all. A haunting, affectionate remembrance of time spent in a distant town. Not just any town either. A town that treated him well, that felt like a knowing friend. A town that gave him the sort of warm, familiar feeling he knew he’d forever be hoping to return to if only he could figure out how. It’s hard to trust the historical authenticity of fond memories, or any sort of memories for that matter, since they’re so often accompanied by the disarming scent of rosy nostalgia. Of course nostalgia offers its own sort of escape, retreat, and release from the pressures of life, and it’s easier to take a trip down memory lane than it is a flight on an airplane.

Still, as the singer declares over the swell of voices and soft melodic distortion, “Churches and trains / They all look the same to me now / They shoot you someplace / While we ache to come home somehow.” Escape in any form, whether through spiritual elevation or mechanical locomotion, can only provide temporary relief. At some point we have to face those less than ideal circumstances head on. Pressing on with strength derived from the fond remembrance of theses times instead of as the shelter with which we shield ourselves.

#MondayMixtape – Showing the Signs of Spring

deviant art, oo-rein-oo, top 5s, music, rock, jazz, americana, poor old shine, chicago, grace kelly, steve miller band, tallest man on earth, spring, seasons, warm, rain, downpour, optimism, deep thoughts
image by oO-rein-Oo

For New Englanders, the anticipation of warmer temperatures and more agreeable climes around this time of year rivals that of the Christmas season. After a long, cold, hard winter fraught with swirling snow, arctic air, and some of the most woefully wicked, bone-chilling winds seen yet this century, it’s really starting to look like spring is on its way.

You know its coming the way birds and buds are returning to the trees; the way the maple sap has begun to flow in the hills of New Hampshire and Vermont; the way runners have taken to the street in droves after their long winter’s exile to the recesses of their local gym. The great thaw is on and soon local restaurants and watering holes will be putting out their patio furniture, local schools will be planning their end-of-year pool parties and field day gatherings, and back lawns across the state will be filled with the smells of seared and grilled American pride.

It’s a wonderful time of year, though it all happens too fast up here. No sooner do temperatures reach that coveted, agreeable 65 – 72 degree sweet-spot than some sadistic sprite in the boiler room decides to crank it full throttle sending temps into the hot, humid, and heavy upper 80s – 90s and sending us racing to retrieve our AC units from dark, dusty basements across the land. And as we fan ourselves for relief as we wait for artificial electric relief we wearily wonder how on earth it ever could have been as cold as it was just a few months ago.

But for now all is good. All is pleasant. All is just beginning. The gradual warming trend, the longer days and more agreeable nights, the long walks in the great outdoors, evenings spent dining on verandas, and lighter, more liberating feelings all around. So let’s thank our lucky stars and rich, beaming new blades of grass for the return of these blissful moments, and rejoice in the coming of the season with a bouquet of perennial spring-appropriate tracks.

1. Poor Old Shine – Weeds Or Wildflowers

You know that moment when you realize that warmer weather is here to stay? That’s what this song sounds like. It’s the feeling of being reinvigorated and rejuvenated. Everything seems to have been given new life, the gray of winter fades further from your memory, and you start to remember what colors look like. You’re ready to take on the world again. It’s the perfect tune for putting the, ehm, spring back in your step.

2. Chicago – Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is

This song is as pleasant and as familiar as a late spring walk in the park and carries an easy-going attitude to match. You can’t help but listen to this track and think, ah to be the narrator of this delightful piece of sonic euphoria… Well, stop imagining it and walk a few miles in his shoes. Try it. One beautiful day in the near future, turn it on, listen good, and then take the afternoon off for a long, leisurely stroll in the park. Thank me (and the band) later.

3. Steve Miller Band – Swingtown

This band seemed to know the secret to crafting relaxed chill and good cheer in 3-minute increments, and this track is a wonderful example of that. It’s the perfect kick off song for long car rides and trips up to the high country with family or friends. You spend the day hiking, biking, and swimming, and then– since “we’ve been working so hard” all day– you retire to an old, unassuming country pub with a dynamite buffet. It’s the perfect reward for many hours of cold winter toil.

4. Grace Kelly – I’ll Remember April

What’s spring without a few good rain showers? The rhythm and tempo alone paint the picture of the first mid-afternoon downpour of the season in the big city. It’s coming down steady and strong as the human parade darts to and fro under umbrellas, raincoats, and makeshift newspaper rain guards hoping to avoid the puddles on cracked sidewalks, the waves of water drummed up by the wheels of passing traffic, and other umbrella-blind pedestrians coming their way. It’s a sea of black, gray, and wet, soggy newsprint, but even with the wet, wild weather, it still feels good and refreshing.

5. The Tallest Man On Earth – Pistol Dreams

And then, gradually, the storm moves on.  The last residual drops make their descent onto the freshly washed streets, and the clouds begin to lighten and part revealing skies of awesome composure and color. Buildings shine anew in the late afternoon sunlight that leaps out from behind the gray, and people slowly shed their heavy waterlogged layers as they head on home, looking forward to a relaxing evening at home and another lovely day tomorrow.

Monday Mixtape – Songs I Was Caught Singing (and Dancing to) at Work

working 9 to 5
workin’ 9 to 5.

By Cynthia Almansi

Like so many people, music is what gets me through the day at work. It helps me set the tone and pace for my workflow, and it is crucial for drowning out the sounds of a busy office when high levels of concentration are required. There’s just one thing (I don’t want to call it a problem since it really isn’t): I often can’t help dancing along. Truly, I am infamous for instinctually finding a dance move to match just about any rhythmic sound. Let me remind you, this is happening at my desk. I also lip-sync and, occasionally, even sing out loud by mistake. (That’s okay if you do too, Buzzfeed says it’s good for you!)

This is only a selection of songs that frequently populate my playlist and have the added appeal of triggering my happy feet syndrome.

1. Dirty Projectors – Stillness in the Move

Although this list really isn’t in any particular order, this is the unbeatable No. 1 of the bunch. A while back I caught myself merrily swinging on my chair and silently singing along to this song, making passionate facial expressions every time the lead singer would raise her voice and totally making up the words because I never paid enough attention to the lyrics— all while still managing to pump out eloquent, thoughtful emails. At one point I swung far to the left and found my company’s CEO standing over me. On any given day this man would be stoic and pensive like a wise, old sage. Yet there he was, actually chuckling at the sight of me being utterly ridiculous. This will forever be one of my fondest office memories.

2. Wild Belle – Keep You

I cannot explain what it is about this song that makes me involuntarily howl like a Chihuahua singing the blues but it just does. My voice comes out in a grave bass at first, “Same song, again and again, you wrong me twice and I keep coming back.” Then my neck begins to twist to one side and then the other like a swan’s. By the time the chorus hits— “why can’t I keep you, keep you…”— I’ve managed to produce a high-pitched tone that I am normally absolutely incapable of producing. There is something in the lyrical longing and stylistic weave of this song that I find intensely overpowering.

3. Devendra Banhart – Quédate Luna

This one starts out in an ultra mellow atmosphere. The mild vibrato, yes, instantly makes me sing and I recline as the anticipation builds up in my upper back. Then the heartbeat— or as some might call it, percussion— picks up and my shoulders begin to make waves in the air. Devendra implores the Moon to stay and provide him with answers. By the time the Moon is done enumerating the reasons why she is too old to stick around, I’m completely ensnared by the languid flow of the tune.

4. Foals – Olympic Airways

This one strikes a stark contrast to all the sinuosity experienced within the last three songs. The strong, persistent beat makes me bounce and bob my head like any stereotypical concert goer, I suppose. Oh well. I quite like the escapist yet non-definitive aspiration of this song. The metaphor of an aviary in particular, a place where winged creatures can pretend to be free while remaining within the boundaries of the human construct we call civilization. Back in high school, Sylvia Plath taught me everything I needed to know about communicating in riddles and this is a bad habit I have so far failed to kick.

5. Stromae – Alors On Danse

Last but not least, “Alors On Danse” is incredibly literal and I absolutely love it for this very reason. Dancing and singing might not fix your troubles but it certainly will help you get by. Becoming completely entranced by a club song is an exceptionally common occurrence for me, and anyone who frequents my workspace has at least caught me moving and grooving a few times to Stromae. Can’t say I sing much with this one but, hey, I’ll always take an invitation to dance—“so let’s dance!”

Photo by asndra

Cynthia Almansi is a communications professional with a passion for all of the arts. She is an avid and eclectic consumer of music who enjoys discovering new and old sounds and attending live shows. Look her up on Twitter (@timesofpeace) to say hi!

Monday Mixtape: Digging Out of the Post-Valentine’s Day Blues

josh feldman: arts writer, photographer, dreamy dreamboat

By Josh Feldman

Seeing as February is wrapping up this week I started feeling nostalgic about this year’s V-day. Hopefully by now you’ve binged out on all the food and drowned your sorrows away. To help all y’all who are still down in the dumps I have made a little mixtape for your broken souls and shattered hearts. Enjoy! And remember: if you eat a whole box of candy’s yourself while listening to this I’ll give you some of my extra Weight Watcher Points.

Josh is a writer/photographer based in the nation’s capital. He is an arts professional both day and night, but you may also see him with a camera in hand as a professional event photographer (he just happens to be the handsome young devil in the photo above as well). In his spare time he enjoys collecting records, making semi-vegan food, and playing guitar in his band project, THE UNNOTICED TRUTH. Feel free to follow him via twitter or instagram @jazzyfeldzle.