Critics of our postmodern age love to point out that the invention of the popular, portable, personal music systems in the late 1970s contributed to an increasingly fragmented and walled-off social formation. In a typical “get off my lawn” moment, they neglect the fact that the development of mass transit in the 1800s already underscored this urban fragmentation that had been in full effect for, oh, thousands of years. All the invention of the iPod and similar devices did was extend the variety that was available to each commuter. The question is how to put this variety to the service of full sensory effect. Hence the following Authoritative Running Downhill Guide to Early Morning Elevated or Subway or Surface Train Commute Music:
10. “Night Flight” – Led Zeppelin – When the first chord of a song hits like a train emerging from a subway tunnel, well, you got yourself a subway/elevated commute situation. Alternating D and A major chords chiming out, supported by propulsive bass lines and a railroad-shufflish cymbal pattern? Done and done. The way the plagal cadence of the verses suggests an alternating emergence from and return to home, coupled with lyrics about a journey (“I just jumped a train that never stops / So now somehow I know I never finished payin’ for my ride”) completes the picture. #10, though, because the rest of Physical Graffiti isn’t terribly suitable for early morning consumption.
9. Daydream Nation – Sonic Youth – The introduction to “Teen Age Riot” builds the tension; the lead-in to the first verse accelerates into drive. The production values, the slight reverb, the somewhat thin frequencies, establish a flat landscape. Combine the two, follow it up with the frantic drive of “Silver Rocket,” “The Sprawl”, and “Cross the Breeze”, and you’re all set.
8. Hex – Bark Psychosis – Hex’s somber overtones, open string arrangements, and dark-reverb production make it the ideal album for predawn to early morning commutes, particularly on overcast or rainy days. An almost total lack of an established modality and major chords rule out listening to this album in conjunction with bright sun, but the sounds of old records and industrial noises that begin to filter through about four minutes into “the loom” provide the urban impulse and rhythmic drive necessary for all varieties of grey city mornings.
7. New Morning – Bob Dylan – “New Morning”, the song, in particular, offers up the same plagal cadence workings of “Night Flight”. The album’s opener, “If Not For You”, does as well, but the title track’s spirit of renewal, reunion, and possibility provide the spiritual core of the whole LP. In my (controversial) opinion, Dylan has never sounded more sincere or, well, happy as he does on this album. “If Not For You”, “New Morning”, “Went to See the Gypsy” (which has drive and the closing line “So I watched that sun come rising from that little Minnesota town”), and “Day of the Locusts” provide all of the audio sun you could ask for, while “The Man In Me” serves as the opening credits for The Big Lebowski, which is a pleasant enough thing to have in mind as an opener to your day.
6. Loveless – My Bloody Valentine – If you’re spaced out because of hangovers, lack of sleep, lack of stimulants, or whatever, it is advisable to turn on Loveless as loud as is bearable, rest your head on the train window, and stare at a fixed point on the horizon so that the scenery will swirl around and past you. A versatile choice, this album pairs well with sun, overcast, rain, snow, drunkenness, or raw sobriety.
5. New Day Rising – Hüsker Dü – Selected primarily for the eponymous opening track, New Day Rising offers mostly melodic and fast songs thereafter. While perhaps not the most atmospheric of the Hüsker Dü catalogue, it does offer a lot to the morning commuter who is alert and smiling. “Books About UFOs”, “Celebrated Summer”, and “Girl Who Lives On Heaven Hill” make this an ideal elevated train ride for the early AM hours of the summer months. Complements a strong coffee or espresso well.
4. In a Silent Way – Miles Davis – Two tracks and 38:08 of running time; if that’s not railroad-commute-like, what is? “Shhh/Peaceful” features Tony Williams’ locomotive hi-hat work and a modal drone. “In a Silent Way” is a little more meditative at the start, but also features a more driving section. Joe Zawinul wrote the song while looking out a Vienna window at gently falling snow, so bear that in mind.
3. Cluster & Eno – Cluster & Eno – A collaborative effort between the German electronic music group Cluster and English master Brian Eno, C&E opens with a looping, repetitive electric piano, darkly echoed, and a bright conventional piano working above it. Varied use of reverb and delay somehow doesn’t take away from a simultaneous sense of presence, and this is the type of record you will want to turn up the volume on and submerge yourself into its cocoon. Electronic music is particularly suited to the urban commute, and this album works equally well as a morning train commute or an evening superhighway drive, provided there’s enough space. Not as driving as some of the other records on the list, this album works best when you are in a more pensive state.
2. Blade Runner Soundtrack – Vangelis – In a similar vein as C&E, this electronic gem previously featured on our list of industrial night driving music, so its versatility is not in doubt. The soundtrack to the singular urban sci-fi achievement of the last 50 years, this album’s ability to inspire and twin urban visual settings is unparalleled. Not much more needs to be said, although it may help if you imagine that your train is a flying police interceptor. NB: less effective underground; you need vistas for this album to really shine. Elevated trains encouraged. [Thanks to A. for the inspired choice – Ed.]
1. Lazer Guided Melodies – Spiritualized – the #1 pick for this list combines all of the best characteristics for urban commute morning music: electronics, reverb, heavy drug usage, delay, and all-weather adaptability. The “Shine A Light”/”Angel Sigh” one-two punch is ideal for those internally or externally foggy mornings where the sun sort of filters through the haze and you’re still half-asleep or hungover. Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, Spiritualized’s effort five years later, is a strong alternative to LGM, particularly if you own a space shuttle or private jet. If you can time the explosive moments of “Angel Sigh” with the emergence of huge urban skyline vistas, you will not achieve a better morning commute experience.