Travel Soundtracks: Self-Reflection in Perpetual Motion


Last year I found myself on, I believe, 12 long-haul flights and 16 shorter flights. That’s pretty standard for me. There are those who do more and plenty who do less. One of the things I hear from the latter is “damn, that’s a lot.” I guess, but when you get used to it it’s not quite as daunting as it sounds.

There is a flow to it. A rhythm. Dealing with airports, planes, trains, hotels, even packing, there is a method to go about experiencing the journey or preparing for the journey which, when finally discovered, makes travel much easier. Routines, pastimes, and activities, are woven into a coping strategy. Listening to music, as for many others, is part of my strategy but it’s not just any music that will do. As I have discovered in conversation with other frequent travelers, there is a soundtrack that is better suited to given travel circumstances matching the personality listening to it. Playlists are carefully curated and artists sometimes agonizingly debated regarding appropriateness for situational harmony. I am one of the many frequent travelers who have learned that just hitting play on anything I may like is not conducive to improving the conditions. It’s not about distraction. It’s not about blunt entertainment. It’s about fitting the scenario. It’s about being useful. What keeps my pace? What calms my nerves?  What sharpens focus? What allows for patience?

As an ethnomusicologist, I could easily be charged with overthinking it. I tend to hate that comment as it usually just betrays another person’s tendency to underthink something. But in coming in contact with so many other travelers who are thoughtful with their music, and seeing so many who bumble about an airport—clueless and headphone happy—there is something to it. We have all seen these people. Distracted, confused, oblivious…in the way. And come on, it doesn’t take an academically inclined former musician who ‘overthinks’ things like me to see it.

I’m typing away about this because I realized on a recent trip to the United States that every time I travel I am asked about my choices. Interesting to dissect!

It changes over time of course as I discover new music (and sometimes it depends on where I am going or even why I am going somewhere) so my selections are not static, but they are certainly consistent. With that said, here are my top music choices for travel and the circumstances where I feel they are most useful.

Destiny Potato – LUN

A complex album of smooth technical, progressive heavy metal with a calming atmospheric balance. The pace of the album, song to song, is perfectly laid out and can provide energy and stride, particularly on the way to connections on longer trips between terminals, complete with stops to grab drinks, snacks, and the quest for functioning power outlets. What’s particularly interesting is the calmness of atmosphere and singer-songwriter emotional accessibility of the vocals helps me maintain a steadiness while the progressive riffs and rhythmic play keep me focused and forces me into staying detail and task oriented. Perfect for keeping even-tempered forward momentum while having to pay attention to signs, timetables, directories, and the clock.

Standout track: Blue Sun. It sometimes feels as if it was written just for weaving in and out of foot traffic post-security or between terminals.


Rush – Vapor Trails

No, not that sterile remastered version that drained all the heart and passion out of it. The original. That frantic emotional labyrinth Neil Peart was navigating and the uncertain status of the band and its future during that time is laid bare. I like the reflection of my frayed edges of patience countered by perseverance to get where the fuck I’m going. It is a perfect traveling record best for when that feeling sets in of “I just need to get there!” Just one more train, one more bus, one more whatever. I find this album particularly useful when coming back to Japan and my mixed emotions start getting the better of me or when I have those moments I feel like I have taken on too much. Love listening to this album looking out the window of the N’EX or Skyliner on my way into Tokyo. And there is no album I love more to just let play when I get behind the wheel of a rental car in the US after not having driven for a while. When I got to LAX last August and found the LA freeways actually *gasp* empty on my way to Anaheim, I rolled the window down, turned the volume way too high, and hit play.

Standout track: Secret Touch. Self-reflection in perpetual motion.


Massive Attack – Mezzanine

Deservedly on most lists of greatest albums of all time. At first, I thought I might be disappointed listening on a plane but it is strangely capable of “mixing” whatever background noise may get through my non-noise cancelling choice of headphones. It’s almost as if the album uses the sonic annoyances on the periphery of awareness to highlight itself as an oasis. No album helps me relax on a plane and clear my head in hopes of a nap more than Mezzanine. Some fans of the album may bemoan the inability to relish in the detailed production and masterful mixing with any airplane white noise going on, but audio detail isn’t the point when my upgrade didn’t come through and I’m stuck in economy. And I swear the pushing back of that noise helps this album be appreciated in a whole new way.

Standout track: Dissolved Girl. Sexy as hell, and if I’m too much in my own head about something and can’t relax, this is the track that quiets the voices.


Dance with the Dead – B-sides vol 1

I first heard this album in a tattoo parlor in Portland, Oregon. The crew loved hearing it when the place was full and everyone was in a zone. I have a major love for all things 80s (growing up in the decade helped) and that synth-driven rock and pop which permeated everything from the first generation of MTV’s video rotations to television and film soundtracks just puts me in a good mood. If I am feeling particularly pissy about a delayed flight or long wait for a shuttle, train, or any other stressful circumstance, this serving of 80s-inspired brilliance brings me out of any travel induced negativity. Instant mood changer. Great for security lines, waiting to deplane, or a quest for a restroom that is not disgusting. Additionally, if I am meeting someone in Tokyo right away for a lunch or dinner, the album works wonders for navigating Shibuya or Shinjuku station while shaking off jetlag.

Standout track: Banshee. Just because.


Mary’s Blood – Bloody Palace

A friend and I had gone to Japan for an extended trip in late 2015 and came back with more music than I could keep up with. By the time I got to the M’s, I was in the United States maybe a month or two after the trip and was driving north on McLoughlin Blvd coming out of Milwaukie, Oregon on my way to downtown Portland. I’ll never forget it. I had to pull the car over as I just could not believe what I was hearing and it instantly became one of my favorite metal albums ever. In 2016, one of my trips to Japan was made specifically to see Mary’s Blood live for the first time and from then the album became a “going to the airport” mainstay as a means to hype me up. There are times I have a car fetch me at my London flat at around 3:30 or 4am to get to Heathrow for my leg to Amsterdam or Paris and then on to Tokyo. When I sit in that car and assess what’s ahead, this album snaps me to attention and gets me in gear for the long day. It’s also one of the better albums for packing before my trip and I have no idea why. Pace, aggression, a sense of ownership over a given situation perhaps. Or maybe it’s just Saki (my favorite musician of all time) because she’s just damn incredible.

Standout track: Bite the Bullet. When the driver pulls away and I need to forget it’s 4am, Saki’s riff and Eye’s yell at the intro kick my ass into gear every time.


A brand new addition:

Arkadiusz Adamski/Apollon Musagete Quartett – Brahms: Clarinet Trio in A minor, Op. 114 , Clarinet Quintet in B minor Op. 115

My traditional musical training via study of theory and composition, and knowledge of the history of Western art music, has not left me without classical, orchestral, and chamber music appreciation. Yet I am not an aficionado. Brahms, however, is very important to someone who is important to me and with whom I have no choice but to associate travel. I have searched for recordings which allowed me a connection to this person—something that produced emotional resonance beyond my academic acquiescence to recognition of talent. In the last year or so, before I would leave Japan to return to London, I would use Spotify or YouTube to listen to a Brahms collection while packing in order to come to terms with, converse with, whatever ghost is hovering nearby. I was usually disappointed. But I recently had a weird dream in which I was near Brahms’ gravesite (so random, so strange), so I did another search. A brand new release has finally brought my quest to a close. It will be my soundtrack as I pack to return to London after my next session in Japan. Suitcase open in my tatami room, surrounded by pizza boxes and stacks of metal t-shirts, I think I have something for what has been my mood these many months in the final hours of my latest sojourn “home.” A theme of departure. Unapologetically romantic, melancholic, complex in texture, and achingly beautiful. I knew it from the very first note. There is something about this particular performance and recording that achieves something very allusive and very much appreciated. Thank you Arkadiusz Adamski.



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