The weather is heating up, and that means my desire for gritty, electrified straight forward rock n roll is ramping up as well.
I have loved the desert like Hank Williams Jr. has loved Jim Beam. The desert is desolate and peaceful, wild and sacred. It’s prone to extremes and dangerously beautiful. It is the aesthetic I most identify with, and the climate for which I long the most.
So with our first 90-degree day of the year, I am on the hunt for music that captures the wildness, the energy, the sweeping vistas of the desert. I did pretty well when we drove through New Mexico and Arizona en route to LA in the summer of 2012. My mix for that trip included The Doors’ Riders on the Storm, and listening to the Eagles while driving through the Sonoran Desert in the middle of the night with the headlights off and no one around and about a zillion stars overhead was probably the highlight of the trip for me. (Although discovering Johnny Cash’s Grand Canyon album at the Hopi Watchtower gift shop was equally awesome, as was eating lunch in a park on historic Route 66 in Tucumcari, NM.) Basically the whole trip felt like The Thing I Had Been Waiting To Do For My Whole Life and the desert inspired me endlessly. I should write an essay about only that.
My favorite station on Songza right now is “Sand Dunes, Guitars, and Armadillos: Desert Rock.” Here are some artists and a playlist that pulls from that list as well as my own collection for songs that bring the wonder and intensity of the desert front and center.
The Black Angels – “Black Grease” from The Black Angels (2005)
OK, first, just look at the album art. Amazing. Then listen to the song. Its mood is dark and dirty, its guitars are energetic, and it does indeed sound kind of greasy, like a Harley in a hot climate. The song overall reminds me a lot of “Spoonful” from Cream’s Wheels of Fire Live in its scratchiness and other-worldly feeling.
Jonathan Wilson – “Desert Raven” from Gentle Spirit (2011)
Very different song, still very appropriate. I love the album art again, and the lyrics are epic. I do not know how he creates the sounds he does, but you feel and see the landscapes of the desert throughout the song. Also check out “Canyon in the Rain” and “Valley of the Silver Moon” from the same record.
Nick Waterhouse – “It No. 3” from Holly (2014)
His style is kind of like Bobby Darin meets Lou Reed – a simple jazz structure but edgy sound. In this song the low, heavy punctuation of the barry sax and plinking up tempo guitar/keys line make it perfect for a desert drive. It gets into surf-rock a little but retains the requisite groundedness for good, solid desert rock.
Eagles of Death Metal – “Flames Go Higher” from Peace Love Death Metal (2004)
First note that this is not death metal. And it’s not the Eagles either. It’s straightforward Josh Homme early 2000s rock that sounds like it was born in the 70s. “I’m gonna set my soul on fire / my heart beats slow while flames go higher” is straight out of desert spirituality, and the warm, earthy sound is perfect for hot days and crystal clear nights.