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Opinion: Want the perfect travel soundtrack? All you need is an album and an open road

By Jo Cooke   16 July 2014 2:10pm Europe/London

Listening to the radio last week, I was transported to a mountain road in Andalucía. No, it wasn’t Narnia-esque magic – a song had come on that perfectly connected me with my June holiday, instantly making me nostalgic for jasmine-scented air and white villages perched on impossible hillsides.

The song was The Black Keys’ Bullet in the Brain from their album Turn Blue; its poppy blues-influenced beat was a perfect soundtrack to the winding road and spectacular views from Ronda to Tarifa. Hearing it again on the radio triggered those memories with absolute clarity.

A long dusty road snakes toward distant mountains in Argentina
A winding mountain pass in Argentina – road trips this epic demand a dramatic soundtrack.
Image by Jo Cooke / Lonely Planet


Music forms a backdrop to most of my life: it’s on when I’m working, when I’m commuting, when I’m running, when I’m cooking. But there’s something about travel and new experiences that requires a soundtrack. It doesn’t have to be my favourite song, but a piece of music heard on holiday becomes linked to that moment forever.

These musical associations arise purely out of circumstance. Imagine the excitement of my Springsteen fan husband when we picked up a rental car with one of The Boss’s compilations waiting in the CD player. The drive south from Málaga airport became forever associated with Radio Nowhere, played on rotation. Likewise a mishap with our iPod cable in Florida meant listening to John Fogerty, a CD we’d picked up mid-drive, over and over and over. Why didn’t we buy a new CD? Good question. Fogerty’s southern rock just seemed to work with a Florida road trip. I can’t hear that twangy ‘wayellll…’ without thinking of herons lifting off from roadside wetlands and acres of blue sky.

Some songs are just meant to be played on long drives. The wide open roads between Purmamarca and Salta in Argentina needed something epic, so we chose Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours; then when the road got really dramatic, Metallica. To me The Chain sounds like red earth dappled with cloud shadows, of salt flats shimmering with heat on the horizon.

Man in white T-shirt and black shorts drapes his arm over a road sign that reads 'Sepultura' on a dusty roadside bank
Music and road trips are inseparable. So for the author’s Sepultura fan husband, this Argentine road sign was an irresistible photo op. Image by Jo Cooke / Lonely Planet


We drove from Shark Bay to Perth in Western Australia earlier this year with no CDs, no iPod, and radio reception that was patchy at best. But the need for music was so great that we sang. It turns out we only know Guns N’ Roses songs from start to finish (largely because my Britpop repertoire was vetoed).

My best advice for a holiday playlist? Don’t force it. There’s no need to spend hours crafting the perfect mix. Sometimes you can’t beat a handful of random CDs and a long road. It will be the songs you least expect that stay with you the most, and every future encounter with that piece of music will transport you right back to that moment.

Jo Cooke is Destination Editor for Iberian Europe and Turkey and would like to emphasise that her music taste extends beyond 1970s and 1980s-inspired rock. But not that far.
Need some epic songs to power your next trip? Search “lonely_planet” on Spotify for an auditory treasure chest of playlists crafted to twinge your wanderlust, arranged by destinations and themes. Feast your ears here.