Breaking Down the Road Trip Mix Tape

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T he headlights caught the moose around midnight, just as we sped around a turn on the highway. All we saw were massive, yawning antlers and its shining hide before it strolled casually off the road in front of us, sparing us by only a couple of feet.

“We almost died,” we both agreed later, but neither of us could speak then. We could only hear Weezer’s Pinkerton from the minivan speakers, “Please baby say it’s not too late/To getchoo, uh huh/Getchoo, uh huh.” It seemed very inappropriate.

Making a mix tape is delicate at the best of times, but the road trip compilation is a whole different animal. You’re not in an elevator; you’re on an odyssey to Saskatoon, and the accompanying music will matter. Literature and film’s most ardent song compiler – High Fidelity’s Rob Gordon – has this to say about it:

“The making of a great compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do and takes ages longer than it might seem. You gotta kick off with a killer, to grab attention. Then you got to take it up a notch, but you don’t wanna blow your wad, so then you got to cool it off a notch. There are a lot of rules.”

While he’s right, this character also compares liking both Marvin Gaye and Art Garfunkel to supporting both the Israelis and Palestinians, so let’s leave the rules to the militant audiophiles and use a few guidelines instead.

1) It’s not about genre.
While there are good songs, bad songs, and cliché songs for road trips, it does not matter if you’re into dancehall or Krautrock. Pacing and tone are much more important for keeping the fun happening than one killer “road trip song.” A successful compilation will cross genres. You think you don’t like country? You will probably still like our Comment Editor Sheldon’s road trip song, “Drinkin’ and Dreamin’” by Waylon Jennings.

2) Road trips are necessarily cinematic.
The windows of the car function like multiple movie screens. The trip is a story with a beginning, middle and an end. Whenever you embark in a car down a road, you’re writing yourself a narrative with multiple scenic and not-so-scenic locations. In this way, the songs you choose are more than a playlist, they’re a soundtrack to the kind of trip you’re taking. Features Editor Noreen’s road trip pick is perfect if you’re on a bouncy summer trip to the cabin, “Hey Now Now” by Michael Franti. In that vein, Online Coordinator Mikhail recommends “a good selection of Beach Boys.” On the other hand, if you happen to be on the saddest trip ever, my suggestion is “Demon Host” by Timber Timbre.

3) The beat, man. The beat.
You are sitting in one place for hours, even days on end. The beat to your soundtrack can be your friend by chilling you out while you fall asleep on the passenger side, or make you dance to the best of your ability within the constraints of your seatbelt.

“Land Ho” by The Doors, Culture Editor Morgan’s pick, has a driving beat that chugs along like the wheels of a vintage car. It’s a song that moves you forward. Our News Editor Sarah chose Cake’s “Short Skirt, Long Jacket” and “Phenomenon” by LL Cool J, each beautifully bass-heavy. Woe be to the road-tripper who neglects major bass on their long journey, as nothing makes one “shake it” like it’s thumping.

4) The theme
Call it “exposition.” There is a time and place to get literal and to let the lyrics reinforce why you’re on the road. Since every road trip is individual, this is the opportunity to pick something you can sing along to and think, “It’s like they’re talking about me.”

Mikhail, our online coordinator, chose “Rockin’ Down The Highway” by The Doobie Brothers. Editor-in-Chief Leif Larsen’s song choice “I Quit My Job” by Old Man Luedecke is hopefully not completely literal. Sometimes it’s just about the metaphor.