Rock ‘n’ Roads

Free Press writers compile road-trip playlists


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If smell is the strongest trigger of human memory, music is a close second.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/07/2015 (2622 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

If smell is the strongest trigger of human memory, music is a close second.

Hear It All

Want to listen to all our writers’ picks on an upcoming road trip?

A playlist of all the tunes can be found below– or see it on Spotify.

Update: We’ve also added a playlist of songs suggested by readers in the comments — you can also find that down below.

Like what you hear?  Follow the Free Press on Spotify to hear other great playlists.

Don’t have Spotify? Find a list of everyone’s songs at the bottom of this page.

Crappy classic rock songs can take you back you back to your first social. Holiday tunes may evoke old family memories. Even old TV-show themes and jingles have the power to transport you to another place and time.

Road music, however, exists in a category of its own. The songs imbedded in your brain during road trips – particularly but not always during the summer – are imbued with a sort of magic.

Road songs facilitate a form of time travel, as they serve as a direct and highly personal pathway to important events in your life.

These are not just earworms you can’t expunge from your cerebral cortex due to repeated aural exposure.

Road songs become part of your soul.

Midway through the summer, at the height of Manitoba road-trip season, we asked seven Free Press writers and editors to compile a 10-song road-music playlist.

Here’s what they came up with, along with a road-trip tale.

Erin Lebar

Free Press multimedia producer and music writer

Winnipeg Free Press photo

John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press

It may be a cliché to say, but I spent the best five months of my life living in Europe — Koper, Slovenia, to be exact — for a semester abroad in 2010. During that time we drank a lot, danced a lot and went on road trips a lot.

One of the benefits of our location was that many major European cities are within an easy driving distance, and we took advantage of this almost weekly.

There was just one vehicle with an automatic transmission at the Hertz rent-a-car location in town (none of us could drive manual), a little blue-grey Opel Corsa, which my Canadian roommates and I named Corsita, that accompanied us on every journey. There was also just one CD we had to take with us – a burned disc that had maybe 17 songs on it.

Seventeen songs sounds like a lot, except when you think about the dozens of hours spent on the road. Do you know how many times you can listen to 17 songs on the way from Koper to Vienna? I’m not sure, but it’s a lot.

Corsita went through many trying times with us: she was hit by a wild turkey, towed in Vienna, driven near fields in Bosnia that likely still had active land mines and took us on an unnecessary eight-hour journey through the rural countryside of Slovenia on our way to Budapest.

All the while, that one CD played over and over again — Miike Snow’s Silvia, Lady by Modjo, One Love by David Guetta and a slew of other dance songs guided us up, down, around and back safely every time.

There were moments, of course, when we loathed those songs; so repetitive with thumping, annoying bass beats and stupid dance-track lyrics. “If I hear that one more time…” we’d say, never finishing our threats. But then, minutes later, something would click and those bass beats were no longer annoying, but enticing, and the lyrics were no longer stupid, but anthemic.

To this day I’m not sure why we didn’t burn or buy another CD, or turn on the radio for that matter; maybe we were stubborn, or became too attached to those songs, which were such a huge part of that magical time in our lives.

Usually it’s a retrospective thing — to know when something is the best it’s gonna get — but for us, we knew it while we were in it. That’s why I don’t really make a point of listening to those songs much anymore; they make me nostalgic on an almost gross level.

When they do come up by chance, though, I take a minute to think about rolling down a highway at 150 km/h, getting passed by everyone, the build-up of those 17 songs matching the anticipation of our next adventure.

My playlist is not from our lone driving CD, but songs I’ve more recently been keen on while taking long drives.

Rob Williams

Free Press copy editor, UMFM DJ and former music writer

Winnipeg Free Press photo

Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press

In 2013, as a 40th birthday present to myself, I bought a pair of tickets to see one of three reunion shows by Minneapolis rock band the Replacements at a music festival called Riot Fest, which was being held on a piece of farmland in Byers, Colo., about 75 kilometres west of Denver.

The September festival was a two-day affair that promised camping, circus-type amusements and more than 30 punk and indie-rock bands, including the Stooges, Guided by Voices, Rancid, Against Me, Superchunk, Rocket from the Crypt, Flag, Best Coast, Naked Raygun, Yo La Tengo, Bad Religion and Public Enemy.

I had recently purchased a used 2010 Mazda 3 hatchback to replace my once dependable 1998 Honda Civic, which had taken me all over North America on many road trips. I thought a trip to a music festival would be a nice way to break in the new car.

My friend Kenny and I decided we would turn the event into a week-long affair with a route that took us down to Omaha, Neb., three nights at the festival, a night in Denver (where we would get to see an NFL Monday night football game), north into the Black Hills and east across the Badlands on our way home. For the trip, I loaded my iPod with bands playing the festival.

We had a riot at Riot Fest, made some new friends, saw a bunch of great bands and had a lot of laughs. There were even a few other Winnipeggers who made the trip.

On the second (and last) night of the festival, in the middle of the set by Flag (featuring various ex-members of ’80s punk pioneers Black Flag), a storm suddenly hit. There were tornado warnings, forcing everyone back to the campsite or onto school buses set up outside the festival gates. The storm eventually passed and the festival resumed.

In the middle of the night, another storm rolled through and people fled the site.

Kenny and I, however, stuck it out. We huddled in the car to try to get a few more hours of sleep and possibly dry out.

Unfortunately, when the sun rose, we realized we were parked in the middle of a muddy field and none of the remaining cars could get out of the thick sludge. We were stuck. Tow trucks weren’t coming for fear they wouldn’t be able to get out, either.

We waited more than eight hours until some guys in a giant four-by-four truck offered to hook up a chain and pull us out of the mud onto a road. Even with the chain, it was slippery going and there were moments I feared we might never get out of that parking lot. But we did and the guys who helped us refused any offers of money or beer for their much-appreciated assistance.

Once we got a few minutes away from the festival site we pulled over to scrape some of the crud off the windows and plan our next move (we were going to have to miss the Denver Broncos game live that night and watch it in a bar instead).

When we were finally ready to hit the road, I plugged in my iPod and the song that came on was one of my favourite road songs of all time: Superchunk’s Precision Auto, with its anthemic chorus: “Do not pass me, just to slow down,” to which many a driver can relate.

The song title turned out to be something of a sign: the car got us through the rest of our trip and we blasted many more songs from my 160-gig iPod (which held about 29,000 songs at the time), but the increasingly loud and constant rattling we heard coming from the front end when we turned the music down wasn’t just some caked on mud, but a worn wheel hub bearing.

I (obviously) got it fixed and it was good to go when almost exactly one year later, three different friends and I packed into that car and drove down to St. Paul, Minn., to see the Replacements again at a hometown show at Midway Stadium with the Hold Steady and Lucero.

That time, it was strictly concrete parking lots for me.

Melissa Martin

Free Press reporter and former music writer

Winnipeg Free Press photo

Greg Gallinger / Winnipeg Free Press

So we’re howling down this dirt road, right, on a First Nation set in the bush somewhere north of Prince Albert, Sask., late for a concert we’d driven all day to see.

Our ride, for that weekend, was a taupe Rent-A-Wreck sedan charitably described as “rugged,” but it only cost $15 a day. Besides, it was the only rental place that would hand over keys to me. My friend John, who didn’t have a driver’s licence, and I were both just 16.

Anyway, there we were, two kids alone in the world for the first time. My father, in his gooey psychologist’s patter, had tried to talk me out of the plan to drive 12 hours to see the Watchmen play live. “I can’t tell you what to do,” he agreed. “But I can offer my advice, and my advice is that this is a bad idea.”

Undeterred, we bought five bags of chips and burned a CD of favourite tunes, rolled down the windows and started to roll. For 10 hours up the Yellowhead we bopped along to Green Day and Rancid, the car swaying gently as my head bounced and hands jerked the wheel in time.

We were late, right. The concert’s start time was looming, and we still weren’t at the outdoor field where they were playing, as the headlining act at an aboriginal youth sport competition. So after turning down that dirt road into the reserve — you see where this is going — I pressed the accelerator.

Our speed crept up: 70, 80, 100 kilometres an hour, and you know what’s coming, but I’d never driven on dirt before, never even seen a dirt road before.

What happened next lingers in flashes of gut-sucking feelings: we are spinning. Terror. The car reels around on its axis, dirt sprays up from the wheels, until there is no more dirt and no more road, and we are just falling. Scratching. Ditch grasses grasp at our windows and suck us down, we are ending…

As this is happening — and this is true, no word be a lie — the music on the speakers was blaring: “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”

Later (much later) we’d laugh that this R.E.M. classic was nearly the soundtrack of our dying. It was still jangling as we sat frozen, realizing that breath was still in us and we were somehow unhurt. When we heard the first truck growl to a halt, I fumbled to turn the stereo off, but somehow it kept playing (“Left of west and coming in a hurry with the Furies breathing down… your… neck…”)

People spilled from the trucks, and surrounded us. They reached in, unhooked my seatbelt. They pushed their shoulders under our arms and raised us from the ditch, then hitched our car to their truck and lifted that to the road, too. They stayed there while I was sobbing, children and elders and all in between.

A man with a wide wind-burned face stood in front of me, brown eyes staring straight into mine. I was shaking. I opened my wallet, shoved a handful of $20 bills at him, begged him to take them. Because money is the only way that white kids from the city understand how to show thanks.

He just laughed, and instead held my shoulders in weathered palms. “Remember,” he said, in parting. “You can’t drive like that down the dirt road, OK?”

We made the concert that night. And in time, I would make many other long drives. I would cultivate a travellin’ playlist that I keep to this day. It rings with the stringy rhythms of prairie vistas, lots of Blue Rodeo and Corb Lund and Tragically Hip: music for life between cities and for roads that don’t end.

Sometimes, when I’m in the seventh hour of a drive and prairie stars spackle the sky, I still smile to think of the moment we stopped falling, still smile to think of that firm Cree man who tempered my shaking and laughed off my money, and I start to hum the melody thus seared into my mind.
“…and I feel fine.”

Jill Wilson

Free Press copy editor, Uptown editor and former music writer

Winnipeg Free Press photo

Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press

In 1991, Toronto band Rheostatics released their destined-to-be-cultishly-loved sophomore album, Melville. In 1992, when the always unpredictable prog-pop-folk quartet decided to commemorate the occasion with a one-night stand at the Waverly Hotel in Melville, Sask., my friend Barb and I immediately heard the call of a road trip.

We packed up her Buick Skylark with the necessities (probably army boots and plaid shirts; this was the grungy ’90s, after all) to make the five-hour drive — so much more manageable than our usual seven-hour trek to Minneapolis.

Melville is known for being the smallest city in Saskatchewan, the gateway to Canada’s largest potash deposit and the birthplace of Sid Abel, who played centre for the Detroit Red Wings. None of these were facts we cared about very much, but the latter was no doubt interesting to the Rheos’ rhythm guitarist Dave Bidini, a huge fan of the game and the author of The Tropic of Hockey.

Some memories that stand out:

  • After hours of horizon fatigue, rounding a corner and coming upon the gorgeous, rolling hills of the Qu’Appelle Valley, something this Prairie-reared perennial Trans-Canada traverser had not encountered before.
  • Paying $22 (!) for a night at the Waverly — “I can’t give you a room with two beds,” said hotel owner Brian Hicke. “I’ve got this band from Toronto staying here.”
  • Sitting in the Waverly’s beverage room — named Slo-Helen’s after proprietor Helen Hicke — nursing cheap Club (or maybe it was OV) while singer-rhythm guitarist Dave Bidini wrote in his journal, scribblings that would go on to become part of his non-fiction book On a Cold Road, an ode to the touring life of a Canadian band.
  • Wandering the streets of Melville and marvelling at the whimsically painted fire hydrants with singer-lead guitarist Martin Tielli, who lamented Canada’s architectural heritage. “In civilized countries, like Italy, they don’t have aluminum siding,” he said.
  • Going along for the ride when a CBC Radio Regina crew turned up to do a story on the band’s stint in town.
  • Watching a Melville Millionaires Junior A hockey team practice.
  • Enjoying a stellar, intimate Rheostatics show, at which Melville mayor Jim Walters presented the band members with Millionaires jerseys.

Although the album is not named for the city of Melville, but for the band’s sometime pedal-steel player Lewis Melville, it made perfect sense (in a way) for the Rheos to spend a weekend on a tiny stage in what might be called the middle of nowhere. The band members (which included drummer Dave Clark and bassist Tim Vesely) were champions of Canada, both musically and personally; they can be credited with opening my eyes to some of the far-flung beauty of the country beyond the big cities.

On the drive home, we tuned into CBC to listen to the segment, the signal fading in and out as we neared the Manitoba border. Finally, we pulled over, into a farmer’s field off the highway. I hauled out my boom box (no iPod docks in those days), put it on the car roof, extended the antenna and cranked the volume just as the music began, a tune from Melville.

“The moon hung high, in a canopy of sky / Home, Caroline, home,” Tielli crooned over reverb-laden guitars.

It was a quintessential Prairie music moment: standing in a sea of golden grain under an impossibly big blue sky, listening to a song called Saskatchewan.

Alan Small

Free Press life and arts editor

Winnipeg Free Press photo

Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press

It’s easy for travellers to gnash their teeth and wring their hands while cooling their heels in a long line of cars waiting to cross the 49th parallel.

It’s a fact of life for Winnipeg music fans who drive to places like Grand Forks, Fargo or the Twin Cities for a concert. Everyone in the car is all amped up with anticipation; on this hot September morning in 2006, Bob Dylan was playing the baseball park in Fargo, and guitar wizards Junior Brown and Jimmie Vaughan were also on the bill.

Dylan’s latest album, Modern Times, had been out for about a week and the disc’s opening song, Thunder on the Mountain, his 21st-century take on rockabilly, was pouring out of the car speakers.

No matter how good a driving tune is on the stereo, and Thunder on the Mountain is right up there with CCR’s Ramble Tamble, Joe Cocker’s The Letter and Radar Love by Golden Earring in the driving song hall of fame, about an hour into the trip all the excitement comes to a screeching halt.

It’s lineup time at the Canada-U.S. border, and if everyone wants to sail past this visible portion of this invisible dividing line between two friendly countries, it’s time to get serious. Thunder on the Mountain is turned off, and it’s time to turn on Friendly Manitoba.

First, a decision to make: Which line is quicker? “Don’t pull in behind an RV, they take forever,” is often good advice to follow, until everyone in the slow lane watches the other lane in dismay when the Winnebago driver gets his passport back quickly and is on his way.

Never take the border for granted. Most Manitobans cross at the Emerson-Pembina complex a few times a year, tops. The border guards work there every day and they’re on the lookout for all sorts of potential trouble. There’s no doubt they’ve heard and seen it all from giddy Canadian tourists.

At the front of the line, it’s time to hand over the passports and answer the prying questions.

“Whose car is this?” "What do you do in Winnipeg?” “Have you ever been arrested?”

What takes only a couple of minutes feels like forever. But the guard eventually runs out of questions, the passports check out and he hands them back.

There was one last question this morning though.

“What are you guys gonna do in Fargo?”

The question got us all excited again. We’re going to a concert, we told the guard.

“Who’s playing?” he asked.

“Bob Dylan,” we both said in unison.

“Never heard of him.”

Talk about a simple twist of fate.

Drivers and passengers quickly forget all the nervous moments after the guard hands the passports back and the road trip begins anew. “Never heard of him,” when referring to one of the most famous of all Americans, is one statement that is impossible to forget.

We went on our way, cranked up the Modern Times again, and wondered if Dylan would play Workingman’s Blues #2 or Someday Baby, which he performed on a commercial for Apple’s iTunes.

It turned out to be a fantastic concert. Taking that extra step, getting in the car, braving the lineup and the odd questions at the border just makes seeing your favourite artist live and up close that much more rewarding.

Still, the show wasn’t everything we thought it would be. While Dylan played 1960s classics like Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right and Like a Rolling Stone, he decided it wasn’t the right time for Modern Times.

Like American border guards, no one should ever take Bob Dylan for granted.

Bartley Kives

Free Press reporter-at-large and former music critic

Winnipeg Free Press photo

John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press

It’s New Year’s Day, 1992. I’m in the passenger seat of a beat-up Nissan station wagon barrelling up the east side of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

On my left, jagged mountains rise up from the Sinai Desert like primordial pyramids, lit up in brilliant hues of yellow and coral by the Egyptian sun. To the right sits the Gulf of Aqaba, stretching out toward Saudi Arabia in equally stunning shades of blue and green.

It was a relatively peaceful time for this corner of the Middle East. It was after the first Gulf War, before the Second Intifada and well before the paroxysms of political instability that plague Egypt today.

The Sinai coast was a neo-hippie destination, with the predominantly Bedouin town of Dahab — and the coral reef offshore — serving as the main attraction for European backpackers, South Asian divers and Israeli beach bums. The pacifying effects of sun, sea and hashish allowed everyone to get along.

I was down in Dahab for a couple of days following the marriage of my oldest sister in Tel Aviv. The trip involved a bus ride to the Egyptian border, a sketchy currency exchange in no-man’s land and a ride in an overpriced taxi down the coast with an assortment of scruffy travellers who looked like extras from a Mad Max movie.

There was a dreadlocked British alcohol smuggler with a scar-faced girlfriend who stood only three feet high. There was a pair of U.S. sorority sisters who looked like L.L. Bean catalogue models but happened to be packing knives.

I spent two bewildering days in Dahab, generally unable to process the normless culture in a town that had gone from being a Bedouin village to an Israeli resort to a worldwide magnet for societal dropouts within the space of a decade.

I was 22. I knew less than nothing about anything. So I got wasted.

On New Year’s Eve, I bought a $3 bottle of what was purported to be Russian vodka. I paid for it in full on New Year’s Day.

As the meninges of my brain pulsed against the back of my eyeballs, I negotiated an Israel-bound taxi with some Belgians. The Bedouin driver wore a Pink Floyd T-shirt.

Somewhere between Nuweiba and Taba, he leaned over and offered me a rock-hard glob of candy. I accepted it wordlessly, unable to speak above the jackhammer in my head.

The driver turned on the radio. Unforgettable, sang Nat King Cole.

I looked at the mountains on my left and the sea to my right. I didn’t understand what I had experienced. But I wouldn’t forget a detail.

Jen Zoratti

Free Press columnist and former entertainment writer

Winnipeg Free Press photo

Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press

Like most former and current music scribes, I find making a list of music — any list of music — a completely agonizing process. Whether it’s coming up with a year-end Top 10 list or making a mix CD for someone, I’m always racked with doubt. After all, it’s never just a willy-nilly list of songs or albums I particularly enjoy.

It’s a carefully curated collection of songs that have great personal meaning and/or are a reflection of my personal taste and therefore, by music fan logic, a reflection of who I am as a human being. (Yes, I might be overthinking it.)

This is no exception. It should be easy. After all, road trips and music are inextricably bound because nearly every major road trip I’ve ever taken has been because of music.

The first show I hit the road for was a KISS/Aerosmith double-headlining bill at the Alerus Centre in Grand Forks. I was probably 16 or so, and my best friend got her parents to drive us. Since then, I’ve lost count of the kilometres I’ve clocked on the I-29 through North Dakota and the I-94 through Minnesota, travelling for concerts.

My fiancé and I drive to Minneapolis several times a year for shows, usually at the incomparable First Avenue. We’ve already gone twice this year, for Sleater-Kinney and Tweedy, the side project of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy with his son, Spencer. We’ve driven to see many bands we love — Eels, Nada Surf, Spoon, Pavement. It’s kind of our thing. So when he proposed to me right before a Dandy Warhols gig at First Avenue last September, it was a confirmation of what I already knew: this was my forever concert buddy. I like to think that we’ll still make that drive decades from now, even when we can’t hear much of anything anymore. And so long as the bands stay together.

It’s roughly seven hours from Winnipeg to Minneapolis, which means we put together roughly seven hours worth of playlists for every trip. It’s essentially two straight lines — first I-29 before hanging a left onto I-94 in Fargo — but it always feels different, depending on the soundtrack and the season.

Of course, it’s always better in summer. Humid, mustard-scented air and Wilco. Billowing prairie storm clouds and Pixies. Heat haze and surf-rock anything.

Feet on the dash, something good on the stereo, en route to see something great.


The Complete List


Erin Lebar

Stolen Earrings — Two Hours Traffic
27 Is the new 17 — Zeus
Sweet Emotion — The Kooks
Phantom Punch — Sondre Lerche
Step on My Old Size Nines — Stereophonics
Of Montreal — the Stills
If I Ever Feel Better — Phoenix
The Band vs. the World — Sam Roberts
Seasons (Waiting on you) — Future Islands
We Are the People — Empire of the Sun

Rob Williams

Constructive Summer — Hold Steady
Precision Auto — Superchunk
Chartered Trips — Hüsker Dü
Rockaway Beach — Ramones
Quality of Armor — Guided by Voices
Running Free — Iron Maiden
Weekend — The Dictators
Young Livers — Rocket From the Crypt
Johnny & Dee Dee — Teengenerate
Favorite Thing — The Replacements

Melissa Martin

It’s the End of the World As We Know It — R.E.M.
Hasn’t Hit Me Yet — Blue Rodeo
Five Days in May — Blue Rodeo
Wheat Kings — The Tragically Hip
Back to the Motor League — Propagandhi
Short Native Grasses — Corb Lund
Greyhound — The Fugitives
Bohemian Like You — The Dandy Warhols
Common People — Pulp
Transgender Dysphoria Blues — Against Me!

Jill Wilson

Saskatchewan — Rheostatics
The Hurting Business — Chuck Prophet
Harnessed in Slums — Archers of Loaf
If I Can’t Change Your Mind — Sugar
Safe and Sound — Hawksley Workman
Home — Stephen Fearing
Roll to Me — Del Amitri
1952 Vincent Black Lightning (live) — Richard Thompson
Pavement Tune (live) — The Frames
It’s Only Natural — Crowded House

Alan Small

Thunder on the Mountain — Bob Dylan
Ramble Tamble — CCR
The Letter — Joe Cocker
Radar Love — Golden Earring
Simple Twist of Fate — Bob Dylan
Workingman’s Blues #2 — Bob Dylan
Someday Baby — Bob Dylan
Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right — Bob Dylan
Like a Rolling Stone — Bob Dylan

Bartley Kives

Where Do I Begin — Chemical Brothers
At the Edge — Stiff Little Fingers
Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill — Hüsker Dü
Days That Used To Be — Neil Young
Unforgettable — Nat King Cole
Shitloads of Money — Liz Phair
Pressure Drop — The Specials
That’s When I Reach for My Revolver — Mission of Burma
Wawshishijay — Obo Addy and Kronos Quartet
Acceptance — Tim DeLaughter and the Polyphonic Spree

Jen Zoratti

Always Love — Nada Surf
Silver Lining — Rilo Kiley
Cannonball — The Breeders
Bohemian Like You — Dandy Warhols
Fall in Place — La Sera
Handshake Drugs — Wilco
When I’m With You — Best Coast
Archie, Marry Me — Alvvays
Coming Down — Dum Dum Girls
Heavy Metal Drummer — Wilco

Update: Reader Suggestions Playlist

So many readers provided suggestions for great songs they’d put on their road-trip playlist that we thought we’d make one more Spotify playlist so we could all hear each others’ selections. Thanks for sharing… Enjoy!



Updated on Friday, July 24, 2015 1:20 AM CDT: fixes copy in Kives section

Updated on Friday, July 24, 2015 5:24 PM CDT: Adds playlist of reader suggestions.

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