My husband and I have gone a lot of drives since moving to New Jersey last year — to small seaside towns, to rolling farmlands, through the notorious Meadowlands and their belching sulfuric funk. Those drives have taken on new significance as more and more New Jersey citizens don masks to go shopping, and as everyone faces the hard truths of the COVID-19 era.
Through the windshield of our little red hatchback is the only way we can see the world these days. And, more often than not, these drives, even the short ones, are scored by road-trip songs — the likes of Jim Sullivan, Neil Young, Phoebe Bridgers and scores of others. Here are 10 songs to accompany you on your next aimless drive.
Jim Sullivan, “Roll Back the Time” (1969)
Jim Sullivan is a cult musician of the best kind: His story is a mystery. Obsessed with UFOs, Sullivan disappeared into the desert in 1975, leaving behind a handful of strange, lovely albums. Sounding like Nick Drake with a twang, Sullivan wrote the only song I can stand to listen to some days: “Roll Back the Time.” The song was originally released via 1969’s U.F.O., but my favorite, less fussy version comes by way of a 2019 Light in the Attic brush-up, If the Evening Were Dawn. “Oh, the clock on the wall is a fine clock,” Sullivan sings, the sing-song cadence of the lyric sounding immediately catchy. The almost-nursery-rhyme nature of the song belies its gentle tragedy: “Sweet Mary, I thought you’d been faithful and true/I guess not/You gave me the business while I sat there grinning/Thanks a lot!” Sullivan sings. “And you haven’t sold me a ticket of tears for a while/A trainload of anger that boils up to danger in a pile.” Simmer while you steer.
Neil Young, “Love Is a Rose” (1975/2020)
Neil Young has made many a great driving song. (Something about the harmonica just makes you want to roll on down the road.) “Love Is a Rose” comes off of his long-lost, recently released album Homegrown, and it’s a thoughtful reflection on the delicate nature of love. In fact, it offers up what might the single best piece of advice for lovers the world over: “Lose your love when you say the word ‘mine.'” Cue up this track as you cruise the endless highway, reflecting on past heartache.
Freedy Johnston, “Bad Reputation” (1994)
The lesser-known of the two songs by this title, Johnston’s track is a gorgeous piece of folky power-pop, certain to make you feel like a mournful outlaw — even if the only thing bad about your reputation is a few overdue library books.
Phoebe Bridgers, “Kyoto” (2020)
From the gentle flute that opens this track to the snappy snare, this song off Bridgers’ Punisher is a deceptively upbeat trip. It harks back to the days when we had the luxury to be bored in a faraway place: “I wanted to see the world/Then I flew over the ocean/And I changed my mind.”
Lucy Dacus, “Troublemaker Doppelgänger” (2016)
Never have lyrics been so apt: “I wanna live in a world where I can keep my doors wide open/But who knows what’d get in and what’d get out/One of these nights, I’ll sleep with the windows down.” At the very least, you can blast this track with your car windows down, as God intended. The cows on my weekly drive need to know about Dacus’ perfect voice.
Bill Callahan, “The Ballad of the Hulk” (2019)
I want to drive right into Callahan’s imagination, where he and Bruce Banner share a tailor. Like Young, Callahan writes music that’s perfect for a long drive on a rural road (preferably one where there’s no cell service). This one, from 2019’s Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest, has particularly killer imagery: “Traveling jackets and traveling bags/Future rags.”
Game Theory and Aimee Mann, “No Love” (2017)
This gorgeous duet came out in 2017 on Supercalifragile, an album completed after the death of Game Theory frontman Scott Miller. The record was a labor of love helmed by Miller’s wife, Kristine, and Posies frontman Ken Stringfellow, with many musicians coming aboard to help finish the album: Doug Gillard of Guided by Voices, Will Sheff from Okkervil River, Ted Leo, Peter Buck, and Aimee Mann all played their parts.
Big Star, “Thirteen” (1972)
You can’t have Game Theory without Big Star; Alex Chilton was basically Miller’s spiritual father. This song may have been done to death when it comes to sad strummed covers on Instagram, but there’s a reason why it’s entranced generations of emotional young folks since the Seventies. “Rock & roll is here to stay/Come inside where it’s okay.”
Cass McCombs, “The Wine of Lebanon” (2020)
A stunning one-off from a master songwriter. Note: Don’t drink and drive.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, “Dreamsicle” (2020)
Save this treat for last and grab one on your way home as the sky is turning pink.