If you’re like me and you (1. generally loathe Christmas music and (2. love cities and transit and (3. love a good Spotify playlist, here are 50 songs for your (hopefully lazy) Christmas weekend. Drawn from my personal tastes, and graciously including only one insufferable yet spot on Arcade Fire song, this loosely topical urbanist playlist ranges from Europop to Bluegrass to Hip Hop to Musical Theatre. All songs have at least something to do with reflections on land, home, movement, or urban culture. A few tidbits from each song are below.
1. Downtown Train – Tom Waits : “Will I see you tonight on a downtown train?”
2. Wings – Josh Ritter: From my favorite artist, a haunting tribute to the lands of Eastern Washington and North Idaho before the coming of the railroads, name dropping Wallace, Harrison, Coeur d’Alene, Cataldo, and Hanford. “They were blasting out the tunnels, making way for the light of learning. When Jesus comes a ‘callin, she said, he’s coming’ round the mountain on a train.”
3. Folsom Prison Blues – Johnny Cash: Because Johnny Cash.
4. Trains and Boats and Planes – cover by Dwight Yoakam: For some reason I prefer this version, but if you can’t abide country twang, the Dionne Warwick original is great too. “Oh trains and boats and planes took you away, but every time I see them I pray. And if my prayer can cross the sea, the trains and the boats and planes will bring back you back, back home to me.”
5. Midnight Train to Georgia – Gladys Knight and the Pips: a classic.
6. Driver 8 – REM: too good to pass up. “”Take a break, Driver 8, Driver 8, take a break. We’ve been on this shift too long. We can reach our destination, but we’re still a ways away.”
7. Trans Europe Express – Kraftwerk: just in case your Christmas plans include psychedelics.
8. Harrisburg – Josh Ritter: “Some say that man is the root of all evil . Others say God’s a drunkard for pain. Me I believe that the Garden of Eden was burned to make way for a train.”
9. Lillian, Egypt – Josh Ritter: A tongue in cheek tribute to Lillian Gish and the silent film era, where the damsel always seemed to be tied to train tracks.
10. 500 Miles – Peter, Paul, and Mary.: Another classic, and a sleepy palate cleanser after the mania of Lillian, Egypt
11. Backseat of a Greyhound Bus – Sara Evans: Because the ‘Hound gets no respect, here’s a fairly ridiculous country song about a woman giving birth on Greyhound.
12. The Train – The Roches: “I am trying not to have a bad day, everybody knows the way that is, even though my baggage and I are using up a two person seat.”
13. On the Subway (지하철에서) – Akdong Musician: The lone bubblegum K-Pop track on this list. “In the subway, people are holding a smartphone, shaking and swaying. Guys are playing games, girls are on their homepages. Young people have their earphones in and dancing. Lovers, students, workers, everyone meets here.”
14. Subway – Yeah Yeah Yeahs: “I lost you on the subway car. Got caught without my metro card. I waited and I waited for the express train. Wanna catch up to you wherever you are.”
15. Light Rail Coyote – Sleater-Kinney: I couldn’t fail to include a song about the incident that led to the most-viewed post in STB history. “The grid that divides us all, the river makes final call. Out at the edge of town, where airfield runs water down, coyote crosses the tracks and hops on the Light-Rail Max.”
16. This is a Light That Never Goes Out – The Smiths: cities are magical places, even if in a pre-Vision-Zero world you’re likelier to die. ;)
17. Southern Pacific – Josh Ritter: “Southern Pacific, red, white and blue. Where are we running to? Over the wide plains, take me to someplace new.”
18. The Metro – Berlin: this song couldn’t be more 1981.
19. Magic Bus – The Who: “Every day I get in the queue , to get on the bus that takes me to you.”
20. Bus Stop – The Hollies: In which being creepy is sung in the cheeriest possible way. Thanks 1960s!
21. Kiss Me on the Bus – The Replacements: Another transity male gaze, this time from the 1980s.
22. I Will Never See the Sun – Great Lake Swimmers: To put in mildly, an unflattering song about Toronto. The song frequently references four stops on Toronto’s Line 2, “Spadina, St George, Bay, and Yonge.”
23. Depreston – Courtney Barnett: a completely un-subtle anti-suburban rant that I can’t help but love, one in a long list of trancelike songs that successfully use only I and IVmaj7 chords. The song mourns the sterility of the Melbourne suburb of Preston, but could just as easily be set in Crown Hill or Lynnwood. “If you’ve got a spare half a million, you could knock it down and start rebuilding.”
24. Our House – Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young: Suburban tranquility distilled.
25. Buddha of Suburbia – David Bowie: RIP to the great one.
26. The Sound of the Suburbs – The Members: “Same old boring Sunday morning, old man’s out washing the car. Mum’s in the kitchen cooking Sunday dinner, her best meal, moaning while it lasts.Johnny’s upstairs in his bedroom sitting in the dark, Annoying the neighbours with his punk rock electric guitar. This is the sound of the suburbs.”
27. Suburbia – The Pet Shop Boys: “Stood by the bus stop with a felt pen in this suburban hell”
28. Thrice All American – Neko Case: The first of three by Neko Case, a pretty unflattering if nostalgic assessment of Tacoma.
29. South Tacoma Way – Neko Case: Yep, the song’s title refers to that tiny stretch of urban in the middle of Auto Row.
30. The Needle Has Landed – Neko Case: JBLM traffic is so bad that Neko Case sings about it.
31. Elevate Me Later – Pavement: a brief and relatively cryptic song about urban economic inequality.
32. The Ave – Blue Scholars: a classic hip-hop song about The Ave, with references to the 70 bus, Campus Parkway, and NE 42nd Street.
33. 50 Thousand Deep – Blue Scholars: same group, with a song about the WTO protests in Seattle 17(!) years ago.
34. Comfort Eagle – Cake: “We are building a religion, we are building it bigger, we are widening the corridors, and adding more lanes.”
35. Long Line of Cars – Cake: “We’ve got to keep this traffic flowing and accept a little spin. So this long line of cars will never have an end.”
36. Traffic Jam – James Taylor: The only thing that can wake up James Taylor is traffic.
37. Subdivisions – Rush: “Sprawling on the fringes of the city, in geometric order, an insulated border. In between the bright lights and the far unlit unknown.”
38. City of Immigrants – Steve Earle: A sentiment in short supply these days. “Livin’ in a city of immigrants. I don’t need to go travelin’. Open my door and the world walks in.”
39. Take Back the City – Snow Patrol:
It’s a mess
It’s a start
It’s a flawed work of art
Your city, your call
Every crack, every wall
Pick a side, pick a fight
Get your epitaph right
You can sing ‘til you drop
Cause the fun just never stops
I love this city tonight
I love this city always
It bears it’s teeth like a light
And spits me out after days
But we’re all gluttons for it
We know what’s wrong and it’s right
For every time it’s been hit
Take back the city tonight
40. The Big Country – Talking Heads: perhaps the single snobbiest send up of “Flyover Country” to be found anywhere.
41. My City Was Gone – Pretenders: Released in 1982, a classic reflection on the utter destructiveness of ‘urban renewal’ and freeway culture in the 1960s and 1970s. The song refers to Akron, which last had train service in 2005.
42. Hello City Limits – Hugh Moore: The best urbanist banjo piece? “I need a change of scenery, I need it real bad. To help me forget all the hard times I’ve had. I’ve got a feeling I’ll find a love that’s true. Well, hello city limits, I’m starting out brand new.”
43. Estacion de Metro Balderas – Rodrigo Gonzalez: known as Mexico’s Bob Dylan, Gonzalez takes us through to story of a man who hijacks the Mexico City Metro and loses his girlfriend in the crowd at Balderas Station.
44. Empire State of Mind – Jay Z, Alicia Keys: IMO one of the best songs about New York, in a very crowded field.
45. We Almost Lost Detroit – Gil Scott-Heron: Though about the near nuclear meltdown of the Fermi 1 plant outside Detroit, it’s a pretty good proxy for Detroit’s urban abandonment and white flight.
46. Wasted Hours – Arcade Fire: “First they built the road then they built the town. That’s why we’re still driving around and around.”
47. Heartbeats – Hey Marseilles: The best (only?) song to prominently feature Link, and also the Washington State Ferries.
48. My Gal, My Guy – Darlingside: one of my absolute faves.
Oh, the places we could take some time.
All the places we could spend some quality time.
Let’s go overseas, let’s go to the movies.
Everything looks better in old cities.
I wake up alone
Am I in Amsterdam or Tokyo?
I put on my feet
Walk out the door into a busy street
49. The Schuyler Sisters – Hamilton (Lin Manuel-Miranda): One of my favorite tunes from Hamilton, simultaneously doing major expositional work introducing two characters while also managing to be a love letter to New York. “Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now. History is happening in Manhattan and we just happen to be in the greatest city in the world.”
50. Vltava – Biedrich Smetana from Má Vlast: the famous 2nd movement from Smetana’s 6 symphonic poems (Má Vlast (My Country)), centered around the the Vltava River that anchors one of the loveliest cities anywhere, Prague.