There’s that song – the one you heard while travelling that became inseparable from the memory of your trip. Anytime you put it on, you’re right back there again, riding the train, standing on the beach, breathing the foreign air. Maybe one of these songs is that song for you – we chose them because we love the way they can take you away, and because most of them have the name of a place in the title (with a few exceptions – rules don’t apply to Céline). All these tunes took us somewhere else, and we hope this playlist can do the same for you: a quick trip around the world using only your ears.
A Playlist to Take You Around the World at Home
Alone in Kyoto
Some songs just seem made for people in transit. Air’s atmospheric instrumental appears in Sofia Coppola’s 2003 film Lost in Translation, soundtracking Scarlett Johansson’s train journey to Kyoto. Its mixture of electronic chimes, acoustic fingerpicking, gentle vocals and sounds of nature makes for a soothing beginning of a (housebound) journey around the world. Headphones on, please.
“Chicago” is a semi-autobiographical tune that acted as the centrepiece of Sufjan Stevens’ 2005 album Illinois. It’s a gloriously orchestral anthem of raw emotion that feels a little like a great road trip and a little like those dreams where you suddenly realize you know how to fly. Driving or flying, close your eyes and let the song transport you to the stunning architecture of downtown Chicago.
David Paich, Toto’s chief songwriter and keyboardist, says he wrote the melody and lyrics for “Africa” in about 10 minutes. In the decades since, it’s become an inescapable (and somewhat hilarious) anthem for a continent, even though, as Rob Sheffield wrote in Rolling Stone, “Toto’s Africa is a place that doesn’t exist and never did.” The tune is about one man’s love for the continent and in January 2019, a solar-powered art installation somewhere in the Namib Desert began playing the song on repeat, and is expected to do so indefinitely.
Bird in Hand
Lee “Scratch” Perry, The Upsetters
One magnificent thing about travelling without leaving home is that you can be in two places at once, which makes this the perfect tune: it somehow manages to combine Jamaican dub with a classic Indian song.
This somewhat mysterious Perry track is believed to feature vocals by Sam Carty, and definitely features lyrics in Hindi. The song is a cover of an Indian love song called "Milte Hi Aankhen,” which was featured in the 1950 film Babul.
It’s good to be patient. This b-side – which Joel told Stephen Colbert he considers one of his top five songs – begins by exhorting the listener to “slow down, you crazy child.” There’s an upside to not moving too fast: “Vienna waits for you.” You’ll get there in the end.
Camila Cabello feat. Young Thug
Camila Cabello grew up between Havana, in her native Cuba, and Mexico City. This particular tune is set between the Havana of the title, and East Atlanta, the home of her guest vocalist Young Thug. The salsa-inspired rhythms offer an ideal opportunity to bust out some dance moves in your living room. Singing along with the Young Thug verse is harder, but not impossible with practice.
Nobody does brooding self-destruction quite like the Weeknd. Officially released as part of his Trilogy album back in 2012, the tune interpolates “Laisse Tomber Les Filles” by France’s Eurovision-winning pop singer France Gall, but the song’s dark pulse is like a photo negative of that song’s upbeat yé-yé sound. It sounds, in fact, a little bit like Montreal in the middle of winter – beautiful and bleak in equal measure.
Georgia on My Mind
Ray Charles, Willie Nelson
Some songs end up so intimately connected with a place that the two become inseparable. Case in point: Ray Charles’ version of “Georgia on my Mind” (originally written in 1930 by Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell) was a huge hit – it made it to number one on the Hot 100 in November, 1960. In 1978, Willie Nelson’s version hit number one on the Hot Country charts (this duet is basically the best of both worlds). But the connection between place and song was truly sealed in 1979, when Georgia’s National Assembly adopted the tune as the state song.
Zach Condon, Beirut’s lead singer, grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and like many of us, he had mixed feelings about his hometown. But he told Mojo magazine, “being there as an adult... I'm finding a real warmth and charm to Santa Fe.” Warm and charming are two solid adjectives to apply to the song itself – if you’re looking for a dose of Southwestern sunshine, you could do a lot worse than this.
A song about England – titled “England” – which is mainly about how bad the weather is in England, performed by a band from Cincinnati, Ohio. It doesn’t sound promising on paper, but The National’s gorgeous, piano-led piece from their 2010 album High Violet is delightful and, in typical fashion, both rich with longing and gently self-aware (the song’s protagonist is in a Los Angeles cathedral, so his comments on the weather across the pond are inherently suspect).
Arcade Fire is most associated with Montreal, but this song – penned by Régine Chassagne, Arcade Fire co-vocalist and multi-instrumentalist – is focused on the country her parents fled in 1960 before she was born. The melody is fairly upbeat, but the lyrics are pitch-black, angrily memorializing those who died (or were never born) under the brutal rule of Francois Duvalier. Since the 2004 release of the song, the band has become increasingly involved in promoting Haitian culture, launching many charitable initiatives and concerts in support of the Haitian people. Chassagne and her partner and co-vocalist Win Butler also opened Agrikol in 2016, a Montreal restaurant serving Haitian cuisine.
N.Y. State of Mind
The annals of music include hundreds of great New York anthems, but Nas’ classic Illmatic track is iconic for good reason. It mixes indelible poetry – it’s one of the few rap songs whose lyrics are included in the Norton Anthology of African-American Poetry – with a quintessentially New York beat courtesy of DJ Premier. The track’s Rakim sample draws a clear throughline from one golden age of New York hip-hop to another.
It’s not one of Frank Ocean’s best-known songs, but this lush deep cut from Channel Orange beautifully evokes the sense of being young and lost. Is the Sierra Leone he sings about a metaphor for youthful naivete? Is it a fantastical destination he hopes to see someday? In the end, the song’s melodies and narrative, packed into a tight 2:28, don’t require an answer – it’s enough to drift along with it and imagine a Sierra Leone of your own.
Sous le ciel de Paris
With its dancing accordion figures and Yves Montand’s commanding vocals interpreting lyrics that are an ode to the City of Lights, this song is perfect for imagining oneself at an outdoor café near the Arc de Triomphe or wandering along the Seine in springtime. Originally written for the 1951 film Sous le ciel de Paris, the titular song ended up becoming something of an anthem of the city in France and around the world.
The title track of Outkast’s second album sees Andre 3000 and Big Boi simultaneously repping their city (the ATL stands for Atlanta, Georgia, obviously) and flying their flags as hip-hop outsiders – which they absolutely were back in 1996 when the track and the album dropped. In the decades since, they’ve become elder statesmen of the art form, and the southern sound they helped pioneer is all over the radio; if you want to feel the essence of Atlanta, Georgia, crank this one up.
This tune started out as a country blues song called “Corrine, Corrina,” first recorded by Bo Carter in 1928. In Clapton’s version, it’s about a woman named Alberta – it almost certainly has nothing to do with the province of the same name, but it is fun to imagine Clapton being romantically betrayed by a geographic area of Western Canada.
Crosby, Stills & Nash
In 1966, Graham Nash rode the train from Casablanca to Marrakesh, and was inspired to write this song after wandering through the vehicle’s compartments. “It’s literally the song as it is – what happened to me,” he told Rolling Stone. And there is a very literal feel to the whole thing: the instrumentation was designed to mimic the feel of being on a train, and the psychedelia-tinged song is an uplifting, light pop confection.
Are you excessively wealthy thanks to a highly successful music career? Have you been waiting to celebrate your rise to fame and fortune? Then you have something in common with Post Malone. In “Saint-Tropez,” the New York-born musician takes (another) victory lap, enumerating his riches and lavish lifestyle, this time in a tropical locale. Even if you aren’t quite as wealthy as he is, just lean back and enjoy the wish fulfillment.
Montreal-born musician and model Charlotte Cardin wrote this ode to California while she was on tour in the Golden State and “couldn’t get a certain someone” off her mind. Good thing for us she couldn’t: it’s a glorious slice of poppy sunshine, with a melancholy underpinning. Great for closing your eyes and remembering the last time you were running through the sand with someone who tends to stick in your memory.
De Camino a La Vereda
Buena Vista Social Club
With their self-titled debut album, Buena Vista Social Club brought back two classic styles of Cuban music – trova and filin. Between the album and the much-loved Wim Wenders documentary of the same name, they also brought Cuban music more generally into the international spotlight. Even if you don’t know the title of this song offhand, you will almost certainly recognize the melody. And it will almost certainly transport you directly to a Havana of the mind. Enjoy.
J’Irai Où Tu Iras
Céline Dion with Jean-Jacques Goldman
What’s a playlist of songs to inspire and uplift without any Céline? A deficient playlist, that’s what. “J’Irai Où Tu Iras” (“I’ll Go Where You Go” in English) is a fast-paced rock duet that’s all about exploring the planet with your person. The song was written and produced by Goldman, a hugely popular musician in France, and has been performed by Dion live many times, including at Quebec City’s 400th birthday celebrations in 2008.
Carnaval de São Vicente
You don’t necessarily need a giant costume or a crowd of people to have a Carnival celebration. It does help, obviously. But in a pinch, you can just throw on this ode to the Carnival de São Vicente (in Cape Verde, Africa) and dance around your bedroom. If you have anything with feathers or sequins on it, throw it on. And if you’re feeling daring, take it to TikTok.
When he was working on “Warszawa,” David Bowie said “I wanted to express the feelings of people who yearn to be free, they can smell the scent of freedom.” Which makes it an appropriate closing track in our list of songs for travelling in place: whether you yearn for Warsaw, Buenos Aires or anywhere else, music is one way to travel there in your mind until you can go in person.
These songs were the starting point for our playlist, but it continues to grow. Listen to the full list, feel free to add your own travel jams and come back from time to time – our audio travels never really end.