Bringing The World Home To You

© 2024 WUNC North Carolina Public Radio
120 Friday Center Dr
Chapel Hill, NC 27517
919.445.9150 | 800.962.9862
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Nine-Minute Road Trip

Road trips allow us to mope, celebrate, ponder and even spend a few hours not thinking about anything, save for a nondescript succession of signs and lines. But all of that takes time, and time on the road takes gas money. For those in search of catharsis on a budget, Stephen Thompson has compiled a playlist for your brutally efficient, environmentally sound, jarringly brief road trip — five songs in nine productive minutes. Here, Thompson talks to host Renee Montagne.

This "Nine-Minute Road Trip" mix is carefully crafted to function as a microcosm of longer road mixes: It opens and closes on a reflective note to mirror the ambivalence surrounding a trip's beginning and end, while going full-bore for those fleeting minutes when you've found a patch of open road. It's a vital soundtrack for when you want to leave your house, hurry to an on-ramp, roar down a short stretch of highway, and abruptly take the next exit to your extremely nearby destination.

For more entries in this summer's weekly Road Trip: Songs to Drive By series, click here.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit

Please Tell My Brother

It's best to ease into a road trip with something thematically rich and thought-provoking; to drift out of town on a lengthy song cycle about alienation and estrangement. But in a nine-minute road trip, you've got to dispense with the reflection in a hurry, and take the first on-ramp available to you. Golden Smog is a supergroup of sorts, but 1998's virtually forgotten "Please Tell My Brother" is really a solo turn for Wilco's Jeff Tweedy; here, he brilliantly compresses one man's uneasy and unbalanced relationship with his family into 2 minutes and 10 seconds of evocative exposition. The opening couplet -- "Please tell my brothers I love them still / Over the mountains on their phone bill" -- speaks volumes about its narrator, in roughly the time it takes to pull out of the driveway.

See America Right

Short of Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen, it's hard to imagine a songwriter better suited to every road-trip playlist than The Mountain Goats' John Darnielle, who's become an expert in romanticizing awful behavior. Equally gifted at soul-stirring anthems ("This Year") and soul-shredding confessionals ("No Children"), Darnielle seems to record his songs strictly for car-stereo speakers -- if the sound isn't great, then so much the better. "See America Right" distills a movie script's worth of character analysis into 1 minute and 54 seconds, and throws in vivid action and copious drunkenness to boot. "See America Right" is ideal for that moment when you merge onto a hectic highway: The song careens uneasily, a little recklessly, building on the emotions of "Please Tell My Brother" while adding a dollop of portent: "My love is like a cyclone in a swamp / and the weather's getting warmer."

Song 2

You're far enough from home to consider your soul-searching complete. It's time, instead, to stomp on the gas and stop reflecting for at least… let's say 2 minutes and 3 seconds. Like a wall-shaking stadium anthem without all the homoeroticism, Blur's "Song 2" provides all the inspiration you need to roll down the windows and weave around the slowpokes. If you must pause to parse the message that frontman Damon Albarn has in mind, consider this one: "Dun-nun dun-nun-nun dun-nun-nun-nun / Wooooo hoo!"

Nuclear War (On the Dance Floor)

Whoa! Less than three minutes left! Good thing the first exit is in 1 1/4 miles, because you'd hate to have to navigate or slow down during Electric Six's sublimely idiotic "Nuclear War (on the Dance Floor)." Those with 40 minutes to spend shouting along and spazzing out on the road will want to make room for the band's 2003 gem Fire in its entirety. Those with 1 minute and 16 seconds to spend shouting along and spazzing out on the road can do no better than "Nuclear War (on the Dance Floor)" and its signature moment of sweet talk: "You're a pretty pretty pretty pretty pretty pretty pretty pretty pretty pretty pretty pretty girl." It's like a nice, cleansing blow to the head.

Outro (With Bees)

Assuming you're feeling wistful about your destination -- perhaps you're leaving the comforts of home to visit a former love in an adjacent town -- it's best to radically shift gears and reflect on a lifetime of mistakes in the 1 minute and 37 seconds that remain. Fortunately, Neko Case's devastating "Outro (With Bees)" is powerful enough to send all of that heartbreak and humiliation flooding back. Listening to it is like getting shot in the chest at close range with a cannonball made of wistful melancholy: "There's no sure footing," she sings. "No love I believe." "Outro (With Bees)" is all weary resolution and resignation, giving your road trip the dose of self-pity it desperately needs. It's enough to make your journey, from driveway to nearby driveway, feel like you've really traveled.

Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)
More Stories