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3 Playlists to Get You Through Now and Take with You Later

I cannot read music, play an instrument, or sing. But I am never far from music; from the time of mixtapes through the era of iPods and on to today’s playlists, carefully chosen songs have been my constant companion. And music has always been a non-negotiable part of my packing list, along with water purification tablets for climbing Mt. Whitney, adapters for a six-month trip around South America, and a bathing suit for the Croatian coast.

Of all playlist preparation, creating travel playlists is the most delicate. The ideal travel playlist balances the comforts of home against the unknown. The travel playlist must be able to adapt to a range of experiences. It’s for interstitial moments in airports, train stations, and taxis; for walks down unfamiliar streets; and for falling asleep in new countries. It’s for trains and subways, for hikes and car rides. It’s deeply comforting to experience something new while listening to something familiar, to score the present with the past, or at least with the known. 

There is a certain irony in writing this from my kitchen table during a shelter-in-place order. The COVID-19 pandemic has made travel, for the time being, a memory of better times and greater freedom. Last week, my wife and I were scheduled to leave our daughter at home with friends so that we could go to a small music festival outside of Austin. Since canceling that trip, I have been making playlists between trying to work from home and keeping our daughter from becoming completely feral. Rather than anticipation, these playlists offer sounds from the past, echoes of where I’ve been.

To recognize both our current shared experience and the anticipation of future travels, I offer you these three playlists. (Note that some songs contain profanity.)

A Quarantine Playlist

Quarantine, of course, requires its own soundtrack. Days and months are being strung out without distinction. Weekdays and weekends don’t matter when there is nowhere to be, and the constant, low hum of anxiety and worry undermines the notion of free time. Plans made even a few weeks ago seem like a joke, and the fear of others seems inhumane. The only stillness I can find is making more playlists, seeking comfort in controlling the mood, the order, and the music. Here is my playlist for shelter. 

The Pre-Takeoff Flight Playlist

I made a specific playlist for the time between buckling my seatbelt on a plane and reaching 10,000 feet, when the reassuring voice of the captain says it’s safe to open your laptop and the drink cart is imminent. After packing, a morning rush to the airport, a trip through security, and wandering the terminal for snacks, sitting down on the plane is a shift—an unsettling surrender of control. I spend the entire time waiting for the engines to wind up on the runway so that the sound and the feeling under my feet drown out the anxiety of waiting. Every song on this list is meant to replicate the beginning of a trip, the jittery moment that precedes the moment of taking flight. 

A City Walk Playlist

When I think back to the trips I’ve taken and what I want to do again, I keep coming back to walking through cities—especially quiet, ancient cities—at night. I remember walking the streets of Paraty, Brazil, late in the evening listening to the waves, and I recall walking through the alleys of Dubrovnik, Croatia after the city gates closed. I’ve been walking around my own neighborhood every night during the quarantine, and I do the same here as I would anywhere in the world, waiting for the streets to clear and the sun to go down. My suburb is a poor substitute, but the cooling air and the empty streets are enough to remind me of what I’m missing. This playlist is a reminder of haunting unfamiliar silent streets when everyone else is asleep.  

More from SmarterTravel:

A.J. Hart has a lifelong love of music. Follow him on Spotify for more playlists.

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