Let’s face it: flying isn’t probably something that’s on your bucket-list—at best it’s a relatively quick (compared to pre-flight days) way to travel. It’s easier than sailing or driving, but it comes with its own army of annoyances, from the ever-popular crying baby to the sleeping guy next to you who has a snore like a foghorn to that one person who has to bring and eat food that smells like it comes from Satan’s armpit.
At the same time, though, flying can be a great time to sort of get away from yourself. I personally like to get a lot of reading done. But as much as I’d like to talk about what I’ve been reading, this is a music list on a music blog. Listening to music in a place like a plane is honestly something special. Most of us—and I’m generalizing here—don’t usually experience music as actively as we could; it’s usually played while we’re driving or exercising or doing any miscellaneous activities that distract our minds. But while we’re stuck with legions of annoying children and some less-than-stellar people in a metal tube in the sky, we also have the rare opportunity to enjoy music with more cognizance than normal.
As a result, I’m going to pick some albums that I think are good “thinking” music on the plane (i.e. while you can enjoy them on a more simplistic level, you will enjoy this music more when you are focused on it), and albums that I have personally been listening to while I’ve had to travel around the country as of late.
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds—Skeleton Tree
First up is the latest album by ex-The Birthday Party member and all-around Australian badass Nick Cave and his band the Bad Seeds. I’m actually not all too familiar with Cave’s past work, though I’ve been very interested in trying it out. What I have listened to—parts of Let Love In, and The Firstborn Is Dead—have required a special set of ears to listen to. While Nick Cave’s music does fall within the general genre of alternative rock (with his earlier career having a distinct post-punk vibe), he attacks it with an aplomb and individuality that I, frankly, have never heard before in rock music like this. It’s almost like this group is the second half of an aural exquisite corpse—they have the same basic setup as any other rock band, but the places they go with their songwriting is so damn far out that you have to really zone in on what they’re playing, or you’ll be frustrated.
And Skeleton Tree is no different in those regards. Probably the biggest thing I came away with from this album aside from depression (more on that later) was the use of percussion and the way the whole album was mixed. Basically, you have Nick Cave’s sun-baked baritone on top, while everything else gets pushed underneath in the mix. Considering that Cave has been an active musician since the early 70s, this mixing seems purposeful, and basically makes it as if Cave’s vocals are directing the show, as if he’s riding on a wave of the sound he creates, sort of like his own take on ambient music. The percussion in Skeleton Tree doesn’t keep time—or, if it does, it does a horrible job at it, instead acting more as a texture to the overall feel of this album.
But the raw emotion of this album can take your breath away. Inspired at least partly by the death of Cave’s fifteen-year-old son who passed during the album’s recording, the album is about death, loss, and the ensuing depression and grief that follows. Take the lyrics how you will, as you can hear the heart of the matter in Cave’s voice, giving a performance that, at times, surpasses the emotion transmitted by Johnny Cash in his cover of Nine Inch Nails’s “Hurt”.
Basically, this album got to me a lot. I turned it on while I was flying out of LAX towards the East Coast, and while it was playing I stared out the window and saw the light touch and reflect along the wing by my seat, and for a few moments I realized that no matter how many people there are in the world, and no matter how close I get to some of them, I’ll always end up alone.
Pink Floyd—The Dark Side of the Moon
I probably wouldn’t be completely inaccurate in saying that most people have heard at least parts of this album. Pink Floyd, after all, are a mainstay in rock, creating some of the most iconic music and imagery in the genre’s history, with this album, The Wall, and Wish You Were Here still being considered among the greatest rock albums ever.
Dark Side marks the beginning of the band’s legendary status when Roger Waters and David Gilmour began to take a firmer grip in the band’s artistic direction.
On a surface level, Dark Side is a great prog rock album, breaking through new musical and sonic barriers as the band experimented with new recording techniques. And believe me, I enjoy that surface level immensely. But there’s nothing quite like just sitting down and diving into it without any major distractions. David Gilmour’s guitar playing gains an emotional depth that is, arguably, unprecedented in modern music, what with his controlled use of note bending and guitar tone, and the lyricism of the album is deep, from themes of nostalgia (“Time”), greed (“Money”, as if that wasn’t fucking obvious already), ennui (“Speak to Me” and “Breathe”), and, of course, psychosis (“Brain Damage”).
You can get all of this by listening to Dark Side normally, but spending some time alone with it makes those themes hit harder. You’ll tend to notice that Pink Floyd takes the idea of a concept album to new heights; instead of the lyrics telling a story, they are quite literally playing these ideas with their music.
Granted, this isn’t the only time a concept album has been made with the music coinciding with the lyrics—Rush’s 2112 is a great example of that as well—but this album stands as one of the best examples. It’s an album that is quite literally a legend in rock music, and one that deserves more than surface speculation.
Masada—Live At Tonic 2001
I’m unashamedly a fan of saxophonist/avant-garde composer John Zorn. His work has added new definition on how I view not only music, but art as a whole, what with his unorthodox approach to music and his incredibly inclusive aesthetic philosophy. Masada is perhaps the best known of the groups he’s spearheaded in his time; formed in the early 90s, they’ve been playing Ornette Coleman-esque free jazz crossed with Klezmer (Ashkenazi folk music). To date the band has released ten studio albums, one rarities collection, seven live albums, and a smorgasbord of other material that falls under the Masada moniker (e.g. Electric Masada, Masada String Trio, Bar Kokbha, the Masada Anniversary Series, and, as of this time, the 29-volume Masada Book 2: The Book of Angels), and are one of the essential avant-garde jazz group for the modern era.
This live album was the first live recording I bought from the band, and it features some of the most wild live jazz I’ve ever heard, as the band plays at the legendary (and now sadly, closed) Tonic in New York’s Lower East Side. The first major composition, “Karaim”, is infectious with its groove, as drummer Joey Baron actually forgoes drum sticks in favor of his own hands and Zorn and trumpeter Dave Douglas fiercely fight a battle of mystical proportions with their instruments.
What makes this a must-listen to on the plane, though? Well, it’s the structure of the tracks. Masada’s “songs” (if they can be called that) are composed so loosely that there is a large amount of room for improvisation. That can mean anything from extended solos running up and down the Klezmer scale to techniques frequently used in free jazz and free improvisation like squeals, overblowing, and much more. Being in a closed environment like a plane allows for the nuances of Masada’s performance to be studied under a brighter microscope, and for even the softest of the album’s tracks to be palatable. Indeed, this is a release that doesn’t play in your ears—it instead grabs them and refuses to let go for its over-two-hour runtime.
(Note: Masada’s discography is not readily available online and as a result is not included in the playlist above.)
What do you guys listen to on the plane? Is it anything similar to this? Share your response in the comments if you feel like it.