Stephen Thompson, a music producer at NPR Digital Media and editor of NPR's Song of the Day, offers the following Midwestern musical recommendations:
Sufjan Stevens' "Casimir Pulaski Day"
About a month ago, I moved from Madison, Wis., to suburban Maryland, leaving behind a wife and two small children to shoulder the burden of selling our house and packing our (mostly my) earthly possessions. They'll follow me out here eventually, or so they say, but in the meantime, I spent Memorial Day weekend alternating between rushed moments of family bliss and a bleary-eyed slog of a 1,700-mile road trip.
Between the unimpeachable glory of Wisconsin and the lush Pennsylvania countryside, the scenery is mostly a dire hellscape of tollbooths, traffic jams, construction sites, interchangeable rest stops and the occasional belching smokestack. Those driving past Sandusky, Ohio, can occupy their time trying to identify the source of the mysterious stench — hog carcasses boiling in tar? — but it's a drive that demands a few sonic diversions. Fortunately, the industrial Midwest has inspired a handful of amazing companion CDs, which should be required listening for anyone passing through.
Sufjan Stevens' Illinois serves as a lovely travelogue, complete with the occasional history lesson, and in July, it doubles in length with the release of The Avalanche: Outtakes & Extras from the Illinois Album. The additional materials are as uneven as might be expected, but the extra 76 minutes sure come in handy during the 13-mile stretch of cars going 8 mph while waiting to pay a $1.60 toll outside Chicago. And, while listening to the first Illinois disc couldn't romanticize the experience of creeping through Stevens' titular muse, it did conjure images of watching a loved one die of bone cancer (audio), presumably while stuck in traffic.
Less conceptually ambitious (and less celebrated) than Illinois, but still immensely rewarding, is David Mead's 2004 album Indiana, a collection of sweetly winsome pop songs about distance and alienation. Though it hits several destinations along the way — song titles include "Nashville," "New Mexico" and "Queensboro Bridge" — it most notably evokes the grim chore of driving through Indiana (audio) as a metaphor for missing life at home. With Mead's swooning tenor as a guide, the miles, and the smokestacks therein, fly by.