If you’re anything like me, you’ve already spent way too much of this summer in airports.* Flight delays are up, and the recent spate of severe weather hasn’t exactly helped. This means you’re going to need something to listen to while killing time in the terminal.
Brian Eno understood. In the mid-1970s, he got the idea for one of his most enduring works during a long, stressful flight delay at an airport in Cologne, Germany. Wouldn’t the whole experience be a bit more tolerable, he wondered, if the airport piped serene, unobtrusive sounds throughout the terminals? He began experimenting with this concept, and it eventually led to the gorgeous and indefatigably useful “Music for Airports” (1978), his first declared work of what he called “ambient” music. The album and his subsequent installments in the ambient series spawned a fruitful, still thriving genre, and in a 2016 list of the 50 Best Ambient Albums of All Time, Pitchfork ranked “Music for Airports” at No. 1.
I’m not saying your flight delay needs to be as productive as Eno’s; I won’t judge if you fail to conceive an entirely new genre of music before boarding ends. All I’m saying is that you could use some music to soothe your nerves and put your plight into a larger context. That’s where today’s playlist comes in. A few of its songs — from Liz Phair, John Denver and the Byrds — are explicitly about flight, inspired by the fresh perspective that changes in scenery and altitude can bring. Others aren’t quite as direct but still have a kind of weightless expansiveness. One of them is, at least ostensibly, about a hot-air balloon, but I think that still counts.
Hopefully this playlist is longer than your flight delay. But if you still need something to listen to when it’s done, there’s always “Music for Airports.” (And Jon Pareles’s playlist of Eno’s 15 best ambient tracks.)
1. Caroline Polachek: “The Gate”
Hopefully you won’t spend too much time “standing at the gate,” to quote this ethereal, tone-setting opener from Caroline Polachek’s 2019 album, “Pang.” (Listen on YouTube)
2. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: “Learning to Fly”
As on many of the songs here, flight serves as a kind of emotional metaphor on “Learning to Fly,” the 1991 hit from Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Jeff-Lynne-produced album “Into the Great Wide Open.” (In October 2017, shortly after Petty’s death, Bob Dylan played a beautiful cover of this song live, as a tribute to his fellow Wilbury.) (Listen on YouTube)
3. Neko Case: “Lady Pilot”
“We’ve got a lady pilot, she’s not afraid to die,” Neko Case sings on this impressionistic adventure from her great 2002 album, “Blacklisted.” (According to the International Society of Women Airline Pilots, only 5.8 percent of the world’s airline pilots are female. Not even close to enough!) (Listen on YouTube)
4. The Byrds: “Eight Miles High”
Commercial planes don’t actually fly eight miles high, but the Byrds apparently thought “Six Miles High” didn’t sound as cool. What does sound unequivocally cool, still, is Roger McGuinn’s 12-string guitar; his playing on this pioneering psych-rock song was influenced by both Ravi Shankar and John Coltrane. (Listen on YouTube)
5. Liz Phair: “Stratford-on-Guy”
The perspective-shifting experience of flight makes poets of us all — especially when you have a window seat. Liz Phair perfectly captures the view from 27D on this track from “Exile in Guyville”: “As we moved out of the farmlands and into the grid, the plan of a city was all that you saw.” (Listen on YouTube)
6. Howlin’ Wolf: “Mr. Airplane Man”
On this song from the compilation “Change My Way,” the blues great Howlin’ Wolf implores Mr. Airplane Man to fly down to Jackson and deliver an urgent message to his baby: “Aahhhheeeeeee, ahhhehehehe!” (Listen on YouTube)
7. John Denver: “Leaving on a Jet Plane”
Next time you’re not sure what to do with yourself while waiting for a connecting flight, remember that John Denver wrote this song during a layover. Pretty good use of his time, I’d say. (Listen on YouTube)
8. The 5th Dimension: “Up, Up and Away”
Hopefully by the end of this playlist, you’ll be taking flight, like this exuberant, comfortingly retro 1967 tune by the Fifth Dimension. Preferably in an airplane and not a hot-air balloon, but at this point I don’t blame you for looking into alternate forms of transportation. (Listen on YouTube)
*Remember Friday’s Amplifier, when I told you about my experience seeing the North American opening date of Beyoncé’s Renaissance World Tour? I almost didn’t make it to the show at all because my flight to Toronto was canceled — and then my flight out of Toronto was canceled as well. I was stranded there for two extra days, which I mostly spent on hold with various airlines. Now I know how Drake felt when he was runnin’ through the 6 with his woes.
The Amplifier Playlist
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“Music for (Waiting in) Airports” track list
Track 1: Caroline Polachek, “The Gate”
Track 2: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, “Learning to Fly”
Track 3: Neko Case, “Lady Pilot”
Track 4: The Byrds, “Eight Miles High”
Track 5: Liz Phair, “Stratford-on-Guy”
Track 6: Howlin’ Wolf, “Mr. Airplane Man”
Track 7: John Denver, “Leaving on a Jet Plane”
Track 8: The 5th Dimension, “Up, Up and Away”
For more practical air travel advice, some of my colleagues at the Travel desk put together this handy guide that I really should have read before my trip to Toronto.
And, RIP Jane Birkin, so much more than the namesake of a bag! Among many other things, Birkin was also a catalyzing collaborator with both the incomparable Serge Gainsbourg and the great filmmaker Agnès Varda, and of course a singular vocalist and songwriter in her own right. Spin “Jane B.” and “Di Doo Dah” today in her honor.