my ultimate commute playlist (or, your guide to one way of special-in-the-ordinary)

This summer has been a summer of driving. I was an oddly reluctant teenage driver and didn’t get my license until about a month before I left for college, and so driving for me was until now really more of an occasional thing. It reminds me of nights that I would borrow my mom’s minivan for summer-after-graduation bonfires and of that disconcerting sensation you get during your first college breaks, the feeling of coming “home” but not really. Driving reminds me of sunsets over Lake Erie and the strawberry milkshake that a stranger bought for me at Sara’s the night before I left for Wheaton when I realized I had left my wallet at home. It brings back the wonderful clarity of a hot July evening last summer when I drove home from coffee with friends and realized the road I was on didn’t remind me of anything that hurt.

Driving reminds me of transitions, of the spaces between here and there and letting go and moving on, of (to name-drop myself) the life between breaths. And so it has never really been ordinary. Even though I am commuting an hour round trip every day to downtown Pittsburgh and back, and driving the 96 miles back to Erie every other weekend, driving still doesn’t feel ordinary, and one of the ways I keep it from being ordinary is the use of my ultimate commute playlist (titled, rather sardonically, on my Spotify as “will u ever need another commute playlist again? no.” Feel free to find it and listen!) My playlist is one of those little bits of special-in-the-ordinary, a way of making the everyday just a little bit more exciting (and maybe sometimes just a little bit more sacred.)

This blog post is sponsored by my boyfriend Aaron, who voted for an ultimate commute playlist post out of the list of ideas I ran by him (although his first suggestion was “Why not all of the above?”). But this blog post is ALSO sponsored by Aaron because while we were driving together the weekend he visited me in Erie, he commented that literally all of my playlists are strictly organized (we’re talking double, triple folders) except my ultimate commute playlist, which is a huge 7 hour and 54 minute jumble of numerous genres and categories. But there is a method to my madness–and for the rest of this post, I will be giving you a tour, so to speak, of that method, as well as a peek at some of my favorite driving tunes and some suggestions for your own ultimate commute playlist.


Ultimate commute playlist is, as mentioned, 7 hours and 54 minutes long. Why so long? Well, that’s about how long it ended up once I added everything I wanted, and it’s about 8 times the length of how much I drive each day which works out well. Basically, with this music I can put the same playlist on shuffle for weeks and hear different mixes every day. Sometimes these mixes are serendipitously perfect, as if they were handcrafted for my specific mood on one day (once “Pennies from Heaven” by Louis Prima came on JUST AS IT STARTED TO RAIN) and sometimes I end up skipping through the first eleven songs because none of them feel right. But the beauty of ultimate commute playlist is that I can skip through the first eleven songs if I want to. There are so many more where that came from (specifically, 125 more).

Ultimate commute playlist also features a huge variety of genres and styles. We have Owl City and Carole King and Walk the Moon and the Beatles and Hamilton and instrumentals from the “Titanic” soundtrack and Regina Spektor and Rend Collective and the Killers and Grease (I know Grease is problematic but it’s just !! so !! catchy !!) There are lots of showtunes, and a nice handful of gems–really special songs that always brighten my day when they make their way onto the daily mix. I like having a really big variety because it gives me the option of the sometimes-serendipitously shuffled mixes OR just skipping until I get all showtunes, or all chill singer-songwriter–whatever I’m in the mood for that morning (or evening).

So if you want to make an ultimate commute playlist, my suggestions are: keep it really long, at least two or three times as long as your daily commute, and throw in as many random genres and styles as you like.

If commute playlists were a delicious fruit salad or casserole (or other food with lots of variety of flavors, is this comparison working?) then here are what would be my key ingredients:

–pump up songs

These are your basic, upbeat, get-going jams. For mornings when you didn’t have time to finish your cup of tea or when getting out of bed was just way, way harder than it should have been. These are songs that can (and really, should) make you want to take your hands off the wheel and start dancing when you’re at a stoplight or get stuck at dreaded summer roadwork traffic. Probably some of them were/are overplayed on the radio. Probably some of them haven’t been cool for a really long time. All of them are just upbeat songs that make me happy in the morning. In my opinion, “I Wanna Be (500 Miles)” by the Proclaimers is pretty much essential to this category, but to each their own.

Some of my other favorites are: Screen Shot 2016-07-12 at 8.18.31 PM.png

–chill songs

Opposite of the previous category. These are songs that are a nice relaxing juxtaposition to insane Pittsburgh driving patterns and that make me feel like I’m in a road trip movie when I sing along to them while driving through Pennsylvania hill country. Think Regina Spektor, think Sufjan Stevens, think things you stole off of your Discover Weekly and your friends’ “calm” playlists and all of Spotify’s themed acoustic playlists. At least, that’s what I think. This category (and the upbeat category) are also really good ones to use for filler songs, if you just need to make a longer playlist. Keep them balanced, but in my playlist-making opinion you can’t really have too many of either.

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–personal throwbacks

These are “this is where I came from” songs–music that you loved in high school or middle school and still love now, even if it is the sort of half-embarassed love that you have for your childhood stuffed animals or pictures from eighth grade. For me the ultimate throwback artists are Relient K and Owl City–the artists I had on my very first iPod (it was lime green) and played incessantly while doing algebra homework and when I had friends over for the first time in high school and wanted to seem like a cool person who played music all the time.

Screen Shot 2016-07-12 at 8.34.52 PM

–actual throwbacks

Oldies! I have a separate playlist just of my favorite oldies that I use sometimes when I’m driving at night, but all of them are also included in ultimate commute playlist to add some swing dance and record player vibes to my Pittsburgh intern mornings. My favorite artist of this variety is Carole King (does she even count as old?)–but I’ve also got some Beatles, Gershwin, Sinatra, and Louis Prima (thanks, acting professor).

Screen Shot 2016-07-12 at 8.41.49 PM

–absolute favorite songs

Regardless of genre or the amount of times you’ve listened to them–they belong on here. It feels like showing you a little piece of my heart, but here are mine. “Firewood” is quite possibly my all-time favorite.

Screen Shot 2016-07-12 at 8.47.14 PM.png

(Double dipping on “Beautiful” but I love the song that much so it’s worth it. Also, my high school pal and music queen Christina introduced me to the last two songs on this list when we were fifteen or so, so shoutout to her.)

–special songs 

I have a lot of these and I really hope you do too. I am going to keep these secret, because they are not entirely mine to share and I want to honor that.These are songs that made the rounds of my college friend group throughout the February-March slump, or that played in the background of important theater work, or that remind me of could-never-be-photographed it-felt-remembered-even-then times. I really hope you have songs like this. Keep them on hand.

–honorable mention to

Other kinds of songs you’ll find on my playlist: worship songs (Gungor and Rend Collective, mostly), a few girl power jams (Beyonce and Little Mix), and new music that I want to make into my music. All important, but not enough of each of them to necessitate devoting individual paragraphs.


These are essential!!!!! Unless you are not a showtune person (in which case my question is–why are you not a showtune person?) I guess you could also go with movie soundtracks, or classical music, or Disney songs, or whatever your slightly-next-to-normal music preference is. But I am a full-fledged 100% showtune person, and sometimes when I am listening to ultimate commute playlist I skip through everything that’s not a showtune because I’m just in that kind of mood.

I list showtunes last because my ultimate commute showtune selections covers ALL PREVIOUS CATEGORIES OF COMMUTE PLAYLIST JAMS. I know. Incredible. But there are upbeat showtunes and chill showtunes and personal throwback showtunes and actual throwback showtunes! Favorite showtunes and special showtunes! Girl power showtunes and new showtunes–although, no worship showtunes yet (maybe some Godspell is in order?).

Screen Shot 2016-07-12 at 9.01.14 PM.png

Showtunes are great. And if you are person who likes the descriptor “artist” and doesn’t mind some swear words, please listen to “Die, Vampire, Die!” from [title of show].

–in conclusion

There is, in fact, method to the madness, see? Am I too specific for my own good? Yes. Am I taking Spotify playlist-making too seriously? Probably. But letting myself care about the little things–the music I listen to in the car–has been a really good way for me to take care of myself and love the moments I am living in this summer. It’s a good way for me to cultivate the sort of specificity that is so important to the art that I make (theater! writing! embroidery!) and a good way for me to keep driving as something special, or at least special-in-ordinary. And it’s a good way for me to honor where I have come from and where I am now, and the people who have accompanied me.

And thus ends the official tour of my life-between-breaths ultimate commute playlist. If you made it this far, thanks for reading–and if you have suggestions to lengthen the 7 hours and 54 minutes of driving tunes, let me know in the comments!



One thought on “my ultimate commute playlist (or, your guide to one way of special-in-the-ordinary)

  1. You CAN’T take playlist making too seriously! Arranging your music for an emotional journey is an art in and of itself. I think this piece will have me spending my day exploring old mixes :). It’s difficult to put into words why certain musical moments move us, but you’ve done a wonderful job of expressing the intimate connection we have with our music. I just loved this piece! And I love that Carole King is on here too. Buuuuut…no Bruce Springsteen?? You can’t take long road trips without the Boss! I’d say “Born to Run” is mandatory. But my personal favorite Springsteen song is the live version of “Thunder Road” he does at the Hammersmith Odeon in London in 1975. Now THAT is a song. Thanks for making me think so musically today!!


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