There’s something about a song that can take you right back to a moment. Compared to photographs, which are often a disappointing record of a holiday, music can bring your holiday back to life years later.

This is why one should spend at least as much time in selecting which music to take along as you spend packing. It’s not something to be grabbed on your way out. If you are doing a road trip, or enjoy doing holidays where your journey is part of your destination, you will be rewarded in selecting a good playlist for the scenery to unfold in.

In the age of random iPod playlists, the art form of selecting a playlist for yourself is dying out. In the old days, cars only had radio/cassette players, which meant that if you had a music collection on vinyl, you had to tape it first. This wasn’t such a bad thing, as it meant that one often ended up with a certain combination of songs compiled for a specific holiday.

Many families, including mine, would have a special holiday tape that would endure long after the holiday was over. Many years later, the old tape evokes the mood of our family traveling through the Drakensberg much more vividly than the faded photographs of donkeys on foot trails.

In compiling the mix, here’s a formula that has worked for me. Chose faster numbers for the beginning, something with a festive or cheesy feel, and work towards slower tracks, perhaps instrumentals, as you near your destination. The choices you will come up with will be unique to your musical tastes. Don’t forget to include in your planning the listening to of entire albums.

Here are some that have worked for me.

  • Midnight Oil – Diesel and Dust
  • Led Zeppelin – Remasters
    Hard rock is great for the car when it is raining or when you have acres of desert to traverse, such as the Karoo. It juices things up, adds character and attitude to the outing. There’s something fun about cranking up the volume on a long and monotonous stretch of road. Tapping your steering wheel along to the music will satisfy air guitar instincts.

    Although they are a bit of an urban cliché, any decent house or Trance DJ mix tends to sound good on the road.

  • The Best of the Doors
    The double CD is the one to go for. Riders on the Storm is a classic open road song.

  • Paul Simon – Graceland
    Played at the beginning, this classic can set the tone for the trip, lift the spirits, get that “holiday feeling” officially under way. For some or other reason, hearing this album on the road (and I always play it near the beginning) makes me feel like Chevy Chase in National Lampoon’s Vacation.

  • REM – Automatic for the People, and Out of Time
    Both these albums are great car albums. Automatic for the People is the perfect long-road-ahead album. Sombre and lyrical, it seems to work well in any scenery. It is better suited for late afternoon.

  • Afro Celt Sound System – Volumes one to three.
    The second album is their best, but you can select highlights from the first three albums for music that has plenty of colour and mood. A good choice for a long mountain pass. Avoid their later albums, which sounds like shopping mall World Music.

  • Geoffrey Oreyema – Beat the Border
    This album by the Ugandan artist is the perfect hills-of Africa experience, with a real lyrical feel. It has slower “labourer-song” numbers, as well as energetic xylophone work-outs that bring a journey to life. Early Juluka has a similar result.

  • Philip Glass – Powaqqatsi
    This soundtrack by minimalist composer Philip Glass has many slowly evolving musical textures that flow with the pace of a quietly changing landscape. A great late afternoon choice. Just don’t try it on the Lainsburg-Beaufort West Death Stretch.

    Enya – Shepherd Moons
    This is a good sunset choice. There is something about the orange glow of a day passing away in a slow and gentle flow of colour that always makes sunset driving, particularly heading west, very special. All too often in life one is in a hurry to get somewhere, but on a few days on your trip, even if it is just the very last day, do yourself a favour and get in some sunset time on the road.

    This is when you need ethereal music that soars and gently wades into the panorama of fading light around you. For this purpose, despite her rather bland late-career output, Enya has never let me down, with evocative tones that always compliment the sunset mood.

    You might also try a great Scottish album by Capercaille called The Blood is Strong which is a perfect late-afternoon-landscape soundtrack.

    Strangely, classical music is generally not a very good car stereo experience. The quiet bits seem to disappear or get swallowed, leading to an ill-advised turning up of the volume. This makes the moment when the full orchestra re-joins the solo flute all the more violent to the ears and you’re never quite sure where to keep the volume for the rest of the CD.

    A solo piano concerto probably works the best on the road.

    For coastal trips, surfers used to swear by reggae, and this is fine, particularly early Bob Marley, but don’t overlook some trip hop for a similar “trippy” and laidback feel.

  • Kruder and Dorfmeister – DJ Kicks
    This 90’s compilation is a DJ mix classic, with solid and steady dub fading into atmospheric drum and bass and back.
  • Thievery Corporation – Songs from the Thievery Hi-fi
    A word on etiquette wouldn’t be out of order. Do remember to turn the volume down as you pass through small towns like Calitzdorp. The reason you are on holiday is to escape the sound of the rat race. Bass woofers sound louder outside a car than inside, as anyone who’s been next to a car disregardingly blasting out gangster rap will testify. You have no right to disturb the peace (or hearing) of others, even through ignorance. Don’t bring the circus to town.

    Also, a word on choices for the “family” road trip. When I was young, our family arrived at a diplomatic solution to cater for our diverse tastes. My poor mom and dad had to endure my musical awakening in the eighties, which meant music like Nik Kershaw in my younger years, and stuff like Half Man Half Biscuit in my “alternative” adolescent years. To be fair, courtesy of my mother, I was subjected to dangerous music like Roger Whittaker and Peter Starstedt at a young age, and it has left scars that I’m only starting to discover now.

    So, the solution in our family’s playlist squabbles was to give each member half an hour of the music of their choice. For my mom, this became a golden opportunity to listen to that Richard Clayderman cassette again.

    But for my dad, whenever his turn would come, he would always choose the same thing: 30 minutes of silence.

    Finally, add albums and songs that mean a lot to you. Traveling is a time for reflection. Memories are sure to come up through the songs you listen to, whether on the road, or afterwards. Chose some special songs for your journey, and you will be amply rewarded.

    Don’t forget to turn down the windows and simply appreciate the silence too, as it is something you only appreciate once you have left it behind.

  • Author

    • Derek Daly is a freelance journalist, semi-retired DJ, former cinema owner and part-time double-glazed window-seller. In 1990 he won the Cape Argus Award for Best Writer in a School Newspaper. He was invited to do record reviews, but his articles all were banned, possibly due to the supplement's close proximity to the Jellybean Journal. He has the dubious honour of accidentally deleting a semi-completed travel novel.


    Derek Daly

    Derek Daly is a freelance journalist, semi-retired DJ, former cinema owner and part-time double-glazed window-seller. In 1990 he won the Cape Argus Award for Best Writer in a School Newspaper. He was invited...

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