Do you know why you can sing the chorus of “No Scrubs” and have an entire room of people from all over the world join in? Music is the universal language.
I’ve read the articles, I’ve seen the science that says smell is the most powerful sense when it comes to memory, but I’ve never gotten a whiff of a cow pasture and been transported back in time to anywhere but the last time I smelled a cow pasture. But play two chords of a favorite song, and I’m right back to the first time I heard it. Right back to the moment that song reminds me of most.
Maybe, just maybe, you’ll be able to hear through my ears and get a sense for what a gap year can mean through the music that soundtracked it.
This is going to happen to you a lot on your gap year. A song will play in the background the first time you kiss that beautiful French girl, while you drive lazily through the desert night, when you have a moment to relax in that jungle village. It happened to me.
It’d be remiss to assume these songs will have the same impact. But maybe, just maybe, you’ll be able to hear through my ears and get a sense for what a gap year can mean through the music that soundtracked it. After all, music is the universal language.. Listen on, Go Overseas Gappers, for our ultimate gap year playlist.
1. Bipolar Sunshine -- Where Did the Love Go? (A-Minor Remix)
Perfect for: that drive through the starry desert night, your arm hanging out the window
The best songs don’t become indicative of a moment through something as cheap as lyrical subject. They don’t share a few words in common with a theme, they don’t tell you to put your hands in the air. The best songs go deeper than that. The notes and the chords fire at the same frequency as your synapses, embody your mood.
You don’t need to wonder where the love went to enjoy this remix of a song by Bipolar Sunshine, the new project by Manchester singer Adio Marchant. And while the lyrics do help to embody that notion of aimless wandering, it’s the music that caught me one evening, driving through the Mojave desert with the top down, letting the warm night air blow me down the road.
The lyrics help to embody that notion of aimless wandering.
The melancholy plucks of a guitar catching all the same emotion of an Ennio Morricone western soundtrack, and the upbeat remixed tempo keeping me just awake enough to push the gas pedal up to 65.
That night, with all the stars above me, I could have driven through to morning. At some point in your gap year, you’ll be alone with nothing but the constellations, and in that time, this song will take you home.
2. Bright Eyes -- Old Soul Song (For the New World Order)
Perfect for: that warm day she ran her fingers through your hair at sunset
Most people wouldn’t call Conor Oberst a conventionally gifted singer. But then again, people say the same thing about Bob Dylan, and like him, Oberst is perhaps the best lyricist of his generation, touching subjects like revolution and politics through a melodic folk that often touches the rock n’ roll genre. Catching the similarities yet?
At some point in your gap year, after months and months of watching life exist in forms you never thought possible, you’ll wonder about the possibilities of change, of bringing to that side of the world what you always had. You’ll wonder what you can do.
At some point in your gap year... you’ll wonder about the possibilities of change.
But the idea will be nascent -- you won’t get up to start the revolution right that second. It’ll be a warm afternoon, and the sun will be setting, pinks fading into indigo night. You’ll be lying on your back, your head in the lap of the girl you just met, the girl you could have something with, and she’ll be running her fingers through your hair.
And Old Soul Song will come on, it’s opening horns somehow becoming the scenery around you. And Oberst’s crackling voice will carry, softly at first, but building in intensity, until he screams out that “they go wild.” And as the song comes to a crescendo, you’ll be ready to stand up.
3. Tom Odell -- Another Love
Perfect for: that time your heart was broken on the road.
And one day, that girl that you thought you had something with will leave. Maybe it’ll be fate, two roads that simply parted in a wood. Maybe it’ll be a decision. And maybe it won’t be yours.
No matter how you lose her, it’s going to take some time for those roads to diverge far enough that you can no longer see her through the trees. And in that time, when you can still look to your left and see her specter standing there, it will hurt. But when you’re abroad, it won’t hurt for very long.
It’s not the exact point of Odell’s poetry, but it stands in the moment. There will be another love.
There are too many other people coming and going in your life. And when that moment hits you, that realization, Tom Odell’s “Another Love” is the perfect soundtrack.
It starts off quietly, a piano melody grown out of your sadness. But there’s an eponymous line in there, “I want to cry and I want to love / but all my tears have been used up / on another love.” And then it builds, and builds, and builds into this righteous anger with drum beats and pounded keys. And sure, it’s not the exact point of Odell’s poetry, but it stands in the moment. There will be another love.
4. Marvin Gaye -- Sexual Healing (Kygo Remix)
Perfect for: that time all was right with the world.
Sometimes, when you’re walking down the street, you start to strut. The sun is shining, there’s not a cloud in the sky, and you’ve got money in your pocket. You’re walking down to a beachside barbecue with your friends and work colleagues. Everybody’s there. And even if they don’t actually do it, you can just imagine everybody shouting your name as you walk around the corner, Cheers style.
It’s the kind of thing you listen to on a beach with a fruity drink in your hand, sipping out of a krazy straw.
Kygo is a 22-year-old Norwegian producer who, despite living in Scandinavia, managed to create an entire new genre of EDM people are calling Tropical House. It works. The beats are light and fluffy, like something coming out of a glockenspiel or steel drum, and they really can’t help but make you happy. It’s the kind of thing you listen to on a beach with a fruity drink in your hand, sipping out of a krazy straw.
Putting those stylings over Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing is just overkill. Pack it up, everybody, there’s no reason to make another Summer Song. With any luck, you’re traveling somewhere you can actually partake in the image the song conjures. But if not, I’ll drink one for you.
5. Buraka Som Systema -- Hangover (BaBaBa)
Perfect for: that time you partied in a strange midnight amphitheater.
Frank Ocean said that, “when you’re happy, you enjoy the music. But when you’re sad, you understand the lyrics.” Which is a good thing to keep in mind while listening to Buraka Som Systema, because the lyrics to this song make no freakin’ sense at all. Ba ba ba ba ba ba! Nha nha nha nha nha! But hey, it’s a hell of a gas to dance to.
Buraka is a Portuguese/Angolan Major Lazer analogue (though predating the better known group by at least a few years), blending electronic dance music with tribal and worldly beats from their home countries. And like Major Lazer, it adds a hype man to the band’s lineup just to make sure everybody’s having a great time, dancing and jumping like a school of fish led by a dolphin.
EDM is reaching a saturation point, and it’s got its fair share of detractors, but in the moment, when you’re dancing like there’s no tomorrow with a bunch of strangers you’ll never remember, it doesn’t really matter what you’re listening to. You’re not listening to the lyrics anyway.
6. Galantis -- Smile
Perfect for: remembering to smile when nothing’s going your way.
When you’re traveling, it’s a constant journey of hills and mountains. Highs and lows. Sometimes, with little warning, you’ll go from that Kygo strut to something more about the lyrics. And yeah, sure, you need those down times to really appreciate the highs. But when you want to make that transition back, you can turn to music again.
Galantis is the new project by Kristian Carlsson -- also known as Bloodshy, the producer behind Brittany Spears’ and Sky Ferreira’s latest hits, as well as being 1/3 of electropop band Miike Snow -- and Linus Eklow of Style of Eye, the producer behind Icona Pop’s smash I Love It.
“Smile” is one of those songs that recognizes the mood you’re in and, like “Another Love” pulls you out of it.
In other words, Galantis is packing some serious power behind the turntables. And while it’s a heavily electronic act, it keeps the pop sensibilities of its pedigree.
“Smile” is one of those songs that recognizes the mood you’re in and, like “Another Love” pulls you out of it. It’s slow a capella start makes sure you’re paying attention to the words.
“Smile, show me where it hurts ‘cause you ain’t got nothing to worry about.” And then the beats come in and drop. And by the time the song ends, you realize that whatever was bothering you before didn’t really matter. You’re on a gap year, you’re surrounded by great new things, and all you want to do is smile.
7. Grouplove -- Shark Attack
Perfect for: that time you danced at that music festival on your gap year.
I’ve tried to avoid turning this list into a collection of songs based on having titles that could vaguely pertain to travel (with the obvious exception of a few, but even those are merited more on emotion than anything). But “Shark Attack” by Grouplove is a different animal. It’s not about tapping a song because of a happy turn of words, it’s about tapping into the groups own travel playlist given form.
I’ve seen Grouplove a few times now, and they somehow seem to be more excited at each successive performance. The latest, at the Australian festival Splendour in the Grass, gave them a sunset performance.
It’s the beauty of being in a band, getting to see the world, but you have that same opportunity on a gap year -- seize it all the same.
When announcing a song, lead singer Christian Zucconi shouted out, “last time we were here was two years ago playing a noon slot, and look at us now!” -- the amphitheatre was packed as the sun dropped behind the trees -- “thank you so much!” His voice cracked with enthusiasm.
“Shark Attack” was written about their time at Coachella -- “break it down, break it down in the hot hot desert, this is where I wanna be,” and it encapsulates everything about Grouplove that I group love: their pure and unadulterated excitement to be where they are. It’s the beauty of being in a band, getting to see the world, but you have that same opportunity on a gap year -- seize it all the same.
8. Gorillaz -- 19-2000 (Soulchild Remix)
Perfect for: waking up happy, excited for the next destination.
Gorillaz is a fake band. Or, maybe it isn’t? It’s hard to say. What Gorillaz is is a mystery. Started as an art and music project between Damon Albarn of Blur and Jamie Hewlett, the artist of Tank Girl, the “band” is actually a group of 4 monkey-ish cartoon humans. 2D on vocals, Murdoch on bass, Noodle on guitar, and Russell on drums.
Their story is told through the music videos, and they involve a whole hell of a lot of crazy adventures, demonic deals, death, and resurrection.
That story isn’t finished. Neither is yours.
“19-2000,” from their first album, is from a simpler time in that story, involving a simple (well, not that simple) road trip. And sure, there are missiles, and killer moose, and twisting roller coaster roads, but the important part is the trip.
Albarn and Hewlett have since fallen out, putting an end to Gorillaz for now, but they’ve made it known that making up is just something friends do. There will probably be more Gorillaz in the future. That story isn’t finished.
Neither is yours. No matter where you’re at. The Soulchild remix puts an awesome summer spin on the song, and listening to it on a road trip in the morning is the best way to start the day, knowing that there’s just so much in front of you down that road.
9. Bishop Allen -- Rain
Perfect for: waking up happy during that tropical rainstorm.
If you want some inspiration for doing more, cramming more experience into your gap year, look no further for inspiration than this indie pop band from Brooklyn, Bishop Allen.
Bishop Allen is a team of Justin Rice and Christian Rudder, and before their three (great) albums, they embarked on a project to release twelve EPs over twelve months. And they succeeded. Each EP reflected a different atmosphere according to the month it corresponded to, and with the exception of a live album for August, they never double dipped or borrowed from themselves.
If Bishop Allen can pump out that much content in a year, then you can fit in that extra weekend riding camels through the desert.
If they can pump out that much content in a year, then you can fit in that extra weekend riding camels through the desert. You were just going to sit on your ass saving money otherwise, anyway.
Rain, previously called The Flood off that August EP, is just a happy song to listen to, especially when you don’t particularly feel like doing anything that day. Maybe it’s raining. But that shouldn’t stop you from accomplishing something, and listening toe-tapping to Bishop Allen will only make you want to get it done.
10. Jungle -- Time
Perfect for: when you need to buckle down and work because your friends back home are succeeding.
Jungle is a pretty new name on the scene, but they’ve been working on their music for years. The two founding members, who like to go by simply J and T, have been friends since they were nine years old.
When you need to get a little work done to make that gap year happen, there’s not a better song to soundtrack it.
It’s all paying off for them -- their first album is skyrocketing and earning them spots at festivals like the aforementioned Splendour in the Grass and Glastonbury. You wouldn’t think “tropical percussion, wildlife noises, falsetto yelps, psychedelic washes and badoinking bass” would be the key to success, but hey, maybe it’s just an Egg of Columbus type thing.
Time is an anthem for the work put in. “Just hold on tight, time and time again.” The lyrics are simple and the song itself is downright catchy, so when you’re working hard on that internship abroad, or you simply need to put your shoulder down and get a little work done to make that gap year happen, there’s not a better song to soundtrack it.
11. Benjamin Francis Leftwich -- Is That You On That Plane
Perfect for: when your new gap year friends leave.
The best playlists build to the middle and then descend into a calmer state, letting the listener relax their tired legs -- you can only bounce your knees so many times an hour, you see -- before ending on a high note.
And sorry to say, dear reader, but we’ve reached that descent. Just like your gap year will eventually come to end. It’s not a quick thing. It's steps. First, you start to get a little homesick, but with a little luck and a little patience, that can pass. But when your gap year friends start leaving, the ones you’ve bled with, that’s when you’ve past the point of no return.
It ties perfectly into the emotion of laying awake at night, knowing there won’t be friendly conversation again the morning.
You won’t know what to say. No matter how many times you do it. There will be the standard platitudes, the hugs, the “we’ll see each other again”s of varying levels of sincerity, but when you find yourself alone again, for what could be the last time, you won’t have any real words.
You’ll watch them walk away, around the corner. If you’re lucky you’ll watch their plane take off. And then all you’ll think about is your own impending touchdown.
Benjamin Francis Leftwich has built a career on that soft, crooning sound, the gentle voice that seems to take your heart in his hands. It ties perfectly into the emotion of laying awake at night, knowing there won’t be friendly conversation again the morning. The kind of music that makes the writing melodramatic. It’s not a great feeling, but Leftwich’s music lets you know it will be okay.
12. Ásgeir -- Going Home
Perfect for: that time you watched out the window as the plane took off before you were ready.
And now, it’s time for you to go home too. The gap year is over. The writing remains melodramatic. And yes, through the tears in my eyes, I did choose a song based almost entirely on the title for this playlist. But it fits. Ásgeir is Iceland’s equivalent of Bon Iver, blending low-fi melodic electronic purrs with the soft and crooning folk that fits his voice so well.
Finally going home from a gap year is not a fun experience. It’s not some elegant affair, with fireworks and choreography sending you on your way. It’s a slow march to the gate, and when you finally sit down in your seat with an old and dusty stranger adjusting his bag next to you, you’re not going to want to leave.
Finally going home from a gap year is not... some elegant affair.
But you've got to go home and all you can do is lean your head against the window, put on “Going Home,” by Ásgeir, and try to close your eyes and prepare for the next adventure in a much more familiar place.
13. José González -- Step Out
Perfect for: every time you thought about what your gap year meant for you.
Always end on a high note. That goes for your gap year and the playlist you listen to during it. Because when all is said and done, and you’re sitting back at home, back at work, back at a desk with a bent back, you’ll be able to look through your vault of memories and smile. Each one of those experiences will stick with you for the rest of your life.
José González is a Swedish (didn’t expect that nationality, did you?) singer-songwriter, and much of his work involves the notion of homeland and place. He, along with his band Junip, was tapped to provide the soundtrack for the film “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” which I previously called one of the best films about travel out there.
As the guitars build... you’ll be transported back to the feeling you had the first time you stepped off the plane.
“Step Out,” one of the first songs on the album, is a triumphant anthem to leaving the world behind. As the guitars build and the chorus of guttural emotive shouting comes in, you’ll be transported back to the feeling you had the first time you stepped off the plane, when you had the world in front of you, in the palm of your hands.
That guttural shouting is what does it, sending frisson goosebumps down your arms and begging you to join in. There are no words, and anybody can join in with their own emotion until the entire planet is screaming at the top of their lungs, caught in the moment they first Stepped Out themselves.
After all, music is the universal language.
Still preparing for your gap year? Browse gap year abroad programs!
Photo Credits: Jessie Beck.