I probably should not admit this, but in my own mind I have a special category of music so immediately captivating that if you hear it when you’re driving, either you have to suddenly force yourself to fixate on all the mechanical aspects of driving (to mentally slam yourself into manual function, so to speak), or those around you will be endangered: wreck-your-car great. Such-and-such a song isn’t just great, it’s wreck-your-car great, which means it is so great it’s quite literally dangerous. For me, in most cases, these are popular songs, but there is no rule; the only requirement is the sudden electricity in the air, as when lightning is about to strike. The music simply grabs you by the throat and won’t let go. I don’t mean “this is really lovely,” I mean just short of gasping for breath.
This is on my mind because we had to drive down to Denver for an early soccer game this morning, and NPR’s Morning Edition did a feature on the Los Angeles band Ozomatli, a percussion-driven ethnic stew of a band that draws on, as they put it, all the different musical styles you’d hear blaring out of cars on Sunset Boulevard: conjunto, merengué, mariachi, rock, hip hop, etc. I am not a native Angeleno, and I was raised in a suburb, not the city itself, but I knew instinctively exactly what they were talking about. Then they played some examples of their music, for their fourth CD, Don’t Mess With the Dragon. My God. I have no shame about rocking out like a lunatic when something I like comes on—my Dad did it before me, and I even remember the embarrassment of seeing him three cars over… “Jon, is that your Dad?” That’s the patrimony, and when the Almighty sends some divine music in over the airwaves one needs must respond appropriately.
Anyway, we’d bought the CD before we came back up to Greeley. These guys are wonderful.
Here is a short list of other things, in no particular order, that have popped on the car radio in the last couple of decades and instantly transformed my world:
—Ella Fitzgerald doing “Son of a Preacher Man.”
Jackie deShannon Dusty Springfield’s is nice, but no comparison. This peels paint off the wall. No children should be in the room.
—Krystian Zimmerman’s recording of Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto (can’t recall the orchestra, or conductor). His grasp of it is so utterly profound—and his technique enables him to project that profundity with no sense of struggle—that I literally had to pull over.
—Mark Knopfler, “Way Aye Man.” British sea chantey meets post-1980s economic rage; deep folk musical and social protest roots meet more modern concerns and musical style. Wreck narrowly avoided.
—John Hiatt, “Howling Down the Cumberland.” An American parallel, where understated Civil War-era Americana meets modern folk-rock in a lover’s lament.
—Indigo Girls, “Shame on You.” I’m a sucker for superbly produced, rhythmically infectious simplicity, particularly when the line between interesting cool combinations of instruments and utter pandemonium is so delicately walked. I remember being stuck at a light, and almost exploding.
I well remember, as a music student, encountering pieces that would instantly become fixations for me, and I would wonder how I had previously survived without knowing them: Brahms’s song “Sonntag” and Scarlatti’s F Major Pastorale sonata come to mind. Talk about an addiction…except you never know when the next “hit” is going to happen, so to speak. It the sudden sense of being much more alive than you were the moment before that makes such things unforgettable.
Summer’s here, the time is right!