So You’re Picking Up J.R.R. Tolkien From the Airport
By Alison Balaskovits
So, you’re picking up one of your favorite literary figures (poetry or prose, living or dead) from the airport before taking them to dinner and conducting an interview. You’re a huge fan and you’re super excited about the assignment, but also a bit nervous. Relax. The main thing you need to be concerned with is having a kickass playlist going on the tape deck when you roll up to the terminal and I’m here to help. I offer no guarantees, but with some deductive reasoning, digital crate digging, and intuition I think we can manage something that leaves everyone comfortable, happy, and bobbing their heads.
Below is a 12 track set that I think should get you from the airport and back again with some stops in between. You can play it in sequence, but it will work on mix-mode as well (this might even be better). The important thing is to have it already playing when you pick them up and to not discuss it at all unless they bring it up first. Basically, play it cool and act like you’ve been there before. I can in no way guarantee that they’ll actually dig this, but I have my hopes. Worst case scenario, just have NPR locked in as station preset 1 in case things get desperate. Best of luck!
Your passenger this week is none other than J.R.R. Tolkien author of The Hobbit & The Lord of The Rings. A novelist & father of modern high-fantasy Tolkien was also a noted philologist, language-creator, poet, and scholar. Buckle up and pull out your 20-sided dice, you’ve got a legend in the car.
1. Mariah Carey – Fantasy Oh, you don’t grin like an idiot when this song comes on??? Really? You’re the lone person on the planet completely unaffected by Mariah in her prime laid on top of a Tom Tom Club classic…sure. If you say you feel nothing at hearing this song you’re a goddamned liar. Sauron himself lacks the willpower necessary to resist turning the volume dial to the right when this comes on, especially if you’ve got some open road in front of you. Tolkien elevated high fantasy in the 20th century, now he gets to live it. (Feel free to go with the remix featuring ODB based on personal preference)
2. Blackalicious – Cliff Hanger Guy and girl meet, they get to talking, they decide to go questing for a lost scroll, guy wakes up drugged and has to do battle with a “herd of wild barracudas” before entering a lost city of gold. You know, classic story, we’ve heard it a million times. Definitely among the most singular narrative tracks ever recorded in hip-hop. Listening to it is like having a Saturday afternoon grindhouse picture projected in your head that you can only hope will actually be filmed one day. Epic high-fantasy storytelling and a poetic attention to rhythm & cadence? This is totally Tolkien’s jam. I’d also love to get his take on the coda featuring a sampled Stokely Carmichael speech in light of his depiction of the Haradrim people of the Southlands…
3. Animal Collective – #1 If I’m being honest I need to admit that I have no real experience of what it’s like to have Satan croon lullabies to you after you’ve downed a bottle of vintage absinthe…but I don’t imagine it’s too far from this. Do I show my age in saying the opening bit reminds me of that Wayne’s World dream sequence cutaway? Anyway, the production, the backing vocals, that voice. Things just got weird between you & John Ronald Reuel…
4. Blue Sky Black Death – Away With Me This one reminds me of Frodo’s second and final departure from the Shire at the end of the LOTR, which is really pretty sad even though it’s the best thing for him. It really brings home the fact that after everyone spends a thousand pages vanquishing an evil that threatens the known world and forging some of the most important relationships of their lives they all break up and go their separate ways. Said another way, this song is like a musical representation of the end of Time Bandits.
5. Don McLean – Babylon The arrangement and instrumentation on this one definitely puts me in mind of at least the idea of medieval/Shire folk tunes. Interesting then that McLean is more or less singing the 1st part of Psalm 137. Whatever the case it’s beautiful & sad & would have a made a worthy accompaniment to to the death of Boromir. Maybe not a first-pick driving song, but given your company, I have confidence.
6. Led Zeppelin – Ramble On This one’s almost too easy. Aside from being probably the second best song off of what’s probably Zeppelin’s second best album and having a title & theme perfect for a driving playlist, it also makes direct reference to Tolkien’s work and hey, I think he’d appreciate that. (And let’s be real, John Paul Jones probably sleeps with a copy of the The Silmarillion under his pillow). Gollum never gave up the search for hisprecious. Follow the song’s injunction and never give up on yours.
7. Cocteau Twins – Alice If the title alone doesn’t put the possibility of some Carroll-esque fantasy shenanigans in your mind then Elizabeth Fraser’s airy high soprano will. True, it’s not Enya, but I can definitely feel some Elvish vibes flowing through this tune. Who knows what can happen if you throw this on the tape deck? I’m only saying this because it will be so powerful, but you need to resist the urge to make a singalong attempt, it’ll just embarrass all parties.
8. Joanna Newsom – Sawdust and Diamonds Look at this album cover for one second and tell me you don’t think Tolkien would be into this. I mean, if you’ve ever plucked a harp, munched a turkey leg at a ren fair, or recited Gandalf’s You Shall Not Pass! speech into a mirror the chances are that you’re way into what Newsom was doing on this release. Here, in my fav cut from the album, she lays down a 10 minute epic of cascading strings and poetry-notebook/free-association lyrics that would be straight-up laughable if she were a less talented artist. As is, it’s…sublime.
9. Terry Riley – Eastern Man First thing, you might want to set Tolkien at ease by mentioning that this is not a tune about the warriors of Khand and their service in Sauron’s legions. Instead we’ve got meditative chant from a dope composer & a pillar of the minimalist school. Get in the right lane, toggle the cruise control, and abandon conversation…you won’t need it. P.S. Check out Terry Riley. There’s no way this dude wasn’t in the rolodex as a last minute replacement in case something (God forbid) happened to Ian McKellen and they needed someone to step up and play Gandalf on no notice.
10. Kid Cudi – Solo Dolo (Nightmare) This is Frodo’s anthem. Weighed by the burden of the ring-bearer he must leave the Shire and everything he’s ever known to head to the fires of Mount Doom in order to prevent the forces of darkness from devouring Middle Earth. He has the Fellowship with him, but like all good mythic heroes he must fight the final battle alone, grappling invisible with Gollum inside the sulfurous Crack of Doom. I don’t have nobody. When Frodo arrives above the lava pit he knows he must destroy the ring…but he can’t, he’s seduced by its power. Why must it feel so wrong when I try to do right. He finally makes it back home, but after dealing with even more drama realizes his quest has left him too broken to stay back in his old life, forcing him to board an Elvish ship to the Undying Lands, never to go home again. Cold cold world wasn’t fit for me…
11. Grouper – Heavy Water /I’d Rather Be Sleeping – I’ll be real with you and admit that the album cover forDragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, on which this song appears, scares the hell out of me. Like, I legitimately find it hard to look at. That said, I still get hyped when it pops up in iTunes or Spotify because, hey, I get to listen to this gem. The yearning, the beauty of Liz Harris’ voice, the fact that you can barely make out the lyrics and how that manages not to matter…yeah, this one makes the list.
12. Dan Davis – Neodammerung OK, true, most of your disdain for the Matrix Reloaded is totally justified. It was bloated, drunk on special effects, and featured that human rights violation of a scene that crosscut between a rave in Zion and Keanu Reeves getting busy. But I have to argue that all of its failures were redeemed by its followup The Matrix Revolutions which might be the closest thing we’ve had to a relevant American opera in the last 20 years. The incarnation of Smith, the journey to the machine city, the inevitable final battle, it all comes together to end epically with this.