Chicago Sun-Times
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Traveling Music: The best songs about planes, trains & automobiles (and boats, too)

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In case you missed it, on Monday, my transportation reporter colleague Mary Wiz asked if I'd help come up with some lists of "the best songs ever" about the various modes of transit that she covers. It was both an easy task to fulfill -- and an impossible one. But because everybody loves a list, I'll post it again here.

Rattling off great tunes about trains, planes, boats and cars? No problem! Trying not to forget some immortal classic or to limit those lists to just a couple of entries each? Major headache!

Anyway, at this particular time on this particular summer morning, as I'm yearning to head out on vacation myself (but having to wait 'til after summer concert season to do it), here are some of my in-transit picks.

Songs about cars and driving

Let's face it, even with the price of gas creeping toward $5 a gallon, cars are still America's favorite way to get from here to there, so I've given you 10 of these (and could easily have done 1,000).

1. Chuck Berry, Maybelline

Because nothing conveys the feel of driving fast better than Chuck's guitar, because he name-checks a bunch of the coolest cars ever and because of the unforgettable pun in the line, "As I was motor-vatin' over the hill."

2. The Beach Boys, Fun, Fun, Fun

Because we can all identify with the girl whose daddy took the T-bird away.

3. Kraftwerk, Autobahn

On the Autobahn, there is no speed limit, and these German synth rockers drive fast and furious while giving us a space-age version of "Fun, Fun, Fun."

4. The Beatles, Drive My Car

5. Ministry, Jesus Built My Hotrod

6. Gary Numan, Cars

7. War, Low Rider

8. Golden Earring, Radar Love

9. The Clash, Brand New Cadillac

10. Prince, Little Red Corvette

Not technically about driving. But that's never been all that cars are good for; they're a great metaphor, too.

Songs about planes and flying

1. The Byrds, Eight Miles High

Inspired by Roger McGuinn's first flight, as well as other kinds of tripping.

2. The Beatles, Flying

3. Neil Young, Flying on the Ground (Is Wrong)

4. Tom Petty, Learning to Fly

5. The Kinks, Wish I Could Fly Like Superman

Songs about boats and sailing

1. The Beach Boys, Sloop John B

OK, so the narrator may be a little seasick ("This is the worst trip/I've ever been on"). It's still an immortal tale of the high seas.

2. Frankie Ford, Sea Cruise

3. Crosby, Stills & Nash, Wooden Ships

4. Lyle Lovett, If I Had a Boat

5. Gordon Lightfoot, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

A haunting tale; just remember your boating safety so you don't wind up on the bottom of "the big lake they call Gitche Gumee."

Songs about trains

1. Johnny Cash, Folsom Prison Blues

As Chuck Berry's rhythm is the groove of the road, Johnny's is the sound of the rails; he's happiest when he's ridin' 'em, and miserable while otherwise occupied. "I hear the train a comin'/It's rollin' 'round the bend/And I ain't seen the sunshine since/I don't know when."

2. Robyn Hitchcock, I Often Dream of Trains

3. The Grateful Dead, Casey Jones

4. R.E.M., Driver 8

5. Kraftwerk, Trans Europe Express

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3 Comments

A few other suggestions...

Songs about planes and flying
1. "Burning Airlines Give You So Much More," Brian Eno
Jim, how did you miss this one? Probably the best song about flying ever. Especially with Eno's trademark wit on full display: "The painted sage sits just as though he's flying / Regina's jet disturbs his wispy beard."

2. "Airplane," the Beach Boys
This is, admittedly, an oddball pick, not one that many will like (or even know -- it's off 1977's "Love You"). But it closes with an even weirder riff, as Brian Wilson (who's all over these lists, by the way) plunks around on a tinkly piano, his brother Carl backing him up on vocals, as they trade lines: "I can't wait (can't wait) / To see (her face)."

Cars and Driving
1. "No Particular Place to Go," Chuck Berry
In my opinion, every bit as good as "Maybelline." But really, when Chuck was in his prime, there was nobody better. AND it contains one of his best double-entendres, "Can you imagine the way I felt? / I couldn't unfasten her safety belt."

2. "I Get Around," The Beach Boys
Another obvious choice, but damn, that heavenly falsetto of Brian Wilson's is unbelievable.

3. "Dead Man's Curve," Jan & Dean
Heard this one on the radio the other day (the superior single version, with the horns and tire scratching), and Brian Wilson's stunning production (one of the earliest evidences of his genius) puts it over the top.

Songs about boats and sailing
First off, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald?" Really??? Yeesh. Well, to each his own... Like mine, the only one I could think of that you didn't mention:

"River Song," Dennis Wilson
The youngest Wilson brother's only completed solo record was just reissued. It's a strong, though by no means brilliant, effort (not like his unfinished follow-up, "Bambu"). This one's a keeper, though. It sounds like what the Beach Boys wanted to be in the '70s, and it's as tuneful as anything Brian wrote after 1966.

Songs about trains
1. "Baby Got Goin'," Liz Phair
Sure, the slick production on her third record nears the glitziness that would make her follow-up sound like a second-rate Avril Lavigne, but you gotta love when Scott Litt comes in with the pseudo-tawdry, "Mah baby got-a goin' / And th' train kept a-rollin'."

2. "Last Train to Clarksville," the Monkees
I'm amazed this one didn't make your list. It's one of the Prefab Four's best singles! Plus, it's a protest song. You gotta love that!

3. "Ticket to Ride," the Beatles
I never liked this song much until a couple of years ago, when I noticed that Ringo's drums do a really interesting stutter-hit on a low-pitched tom. Now, I'm no drummer, but even I knew that was a stroke of brilliance by the most egregiously underrated drummer in rock history. And yes, it made me love the song.

Where is "Roadrunner" by The Modern Lovers? Is it because it references Boston? I understand, but it's still much better than "Low Rider"...

i hate brian eno for what he did to coldplay

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This page contains a single entry by Jim DeRogatis published on July 17, 2008 9:17 AM.

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