Songs About Places - 2018

The 2018 edition of an annual playlist of songs about places by critically acclaimed and popular bands.

3 minute read

December 13, 2018, 5:00 AM PST

By James Brasuell


Paris Metro

Thanakrit Sathavornmanee / Shutterstock

There are plenty of popular movies grounded in themes of place—celebrating or critiquing the built and natural environments, setting the environment or a geographically specific community as a kind of character in the film, or providing the sweeping cinematic beauty that's just as emotive as any moment of dialogue or plot development. I'm talking about some of the best movies of all time, Casablanca, Psycho, Apocalypse Now, Singin' in the Rain, and Brokeback Mountain.

By my estimation, however, for every one of those great, environmentally sensitive movies, there are two movies that, willfully or not, treat the world like a zero sum game. Streets merely provide the scene for gun battles and high speed chases. Quirky but lovable characters drive poorly, and sexy, assertive characters drive fast. I'm talking about Heat, Clueless, Drive, Baby Driver, and the entire Mission Impossible and The Fast and the Furious franchises. The public realm is portrayed as contested space, won by the most aggressive and violent individuals, and the private realm is a signifier of luxury, and an ideal life.

I'm probably biased, but I believe music to be the more consistently compelling source of literal and metaphorical lessons about space and environments among contemporary art forms.

In songs, cars are for escaping, and for long, thoughtful drives. Homes are for families and love, and for hiding in to recover from heartbreak. Streets are for play and for perspective. In songs, rivers flow and people dream.

To use a movie metaphor: Music is Ratso in Midnight Cowboy, slamming his hands on the hood of a car and yelling, "Hey, I'm walking here." Movies are the driver of the car.

As I've done in previous years, and on the subjects of rivers, water, and rain, I spent 2018 collecting the best songs I encountered over the course of the year on the subject of place. I am fairly inclusive in these assessments—place can mean a specific city or location, a metaphor, or a myth. It's not hard to find songs about places, once you've trained your ear to hear them.

I found 93 songs to include on this six-hour playlist. I cut more than a few songs I considered arbitrarily or superficially about place, with references that don't conjure the core meaning or feeling of the song. On the other hand, I included a couple of multi-song suites about place in the playlist. I also included a few songs with potentially offensive language or themes. It would be a disservice to the historic record of how these artists are dealing with subjects of place to leave them off. Spotify includes an "explicit" tag on songs with language considered inappropriate for younger audiences. Not all vulgarities are created equal.

I relied on The Bay Bridged, Terminal Boredom, and Spotify's Discover Weekly to find music throughout the year. I reviewed "best of" lists by DJ Booth, Gorilla vs. Bear, Stereogum and Pitchfork to populate this list. I aimed to represent an more expansive cross section of genres and sounds.

Along the way, I read roughly a thousand sentences (that's a ballpark guess) about how music helped people cope with the traumas of 2018. There are plenty of songs dealing with difficult political themes on this playlist—the first four songs, for instance.

The placed-based references and themes of the "This Is America" song and video, by Childish Gambino, created a whole genre of Internet coverage devoted to deciphering its meanings.

My reading of these songs, taken together, is far more transcendent than any one political cause or any of the fresh outrages of the day. As this collection shows, there's defiance in beauty, and beauty in defiance. There are also guitars and drums and melody. These all grow in the places we live, love, and hurt.

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