John Denver’s ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’ is a legendary song about enjoying the beauty of your homeland. It’s so good at tugging the heartstrings that it became one of West Virginia’s four official state songs. Many are surprised to learn, though, that Denver wasn’t from the area (he was a Colorado lover, as evident in his surname). Neither had his co-writers ever visited the state.
Grumbles aside, we’re not here to continue dropping truth bombs that could ruin the warm embrace of your favourite tunes. Instead, consider this a compilation of lesser-known songs about places and cultures that are worth a listen. It’s been divided into three categories in terms of mood—think of it as a stepping stone for your next Spotify playlist:
One - Thaikkudam Bridge (2015)
The 15-member band busts out one energetic number after another; their multi-genre debut album Navarasam was no different. ‘One’ touches on issues of equality, gender and regionalism aside emotional visuals of the people and beauty of Kerala. Though serious in terms of content, you can’t help but tap your feet along to the insane violin solos and the raw opening call.
Loco in Acapulco - The Four Tops (1988)
Composed for the Buster soundtrack, this is a feelgood Motown classic that pays tribute to the jet set habits of the 50s and 60s. Acapulco’s an energetic beach city on Mexico’s Pacific Coast, and the song perfectly captures its electric summery vibe.
Paris Holds the Key to your Heart - Anastasia (1997)
Anastasia was the youngest child of Tsar Nicholas II, the last ruler of Imperial Russia. Her possible escape and survival from the Bolsheviks was a hotly-debated topic in the 20th century that triggered several books and films, one of which is this Fox production. Here, Anastasia visits Paris with two con men who plan to present her to her grandmother, the Dowager Empress Maria, in exchange for a reward. The Empress’ cousin and assistant Sophie gives the trio a magical tour of the city before the meeting, complete with musicians, street performers, can-can dancers and the spirit of romance. Nobody’s aware that this is the actual, long-believed-to-be-dead Anastasia with the royal heritage, but we won’t spoil things any further.
Ripples of Emotion
Namami Brahmaputra - Papon (2017)
This is the theme song for the Namami Brahmaputra international river festival organised by the Assam government. Helmed by Papon, it features local artists such as Jitul Sonowal, Archana Mahanta and Joi Barua crooning against the backdrop of the mighty Brahmaputra river. The festival itself drew flak from certain sections of the Assamese public for inadequate inclusion of local customs, but this tranquil song seems to be a sentimental winner.
The Fields of Athenry - The Dubliners (2003)
Set during the Great Famine of the 1840s, the Irish folk ballad tells the story of a man sentenced to penal relocation to Australia for stealing food for his family. Athenry’s a small town in County Galway but it’s received considerable fame now, especially after The Dubliners’ famous recording. Adopted by Irish football fans as a game chant, as well as fellow countrymen living in foreign lands, it’s become an unofficial anthem to lift spirits and immortalise the spirit of survival.
Chamba Kitni Door - Various Artists
You may recognise this from Mohit Chauhan’s soulful rendition in Fitoor, but it’s originally a Himachali folk ballad. Written from the perspective of a lovesick woman in Shimla who pines for her partner in a distant land, the song is layered with hope and longing. It’s also the saddest member on this list. Chamba isn’t very far from Shimla, though—we checked. At approx. 341 kilometres, a separated couple in modern times could reunite in 11 hours!
Ye Calcutta Hai - Mohammed Rafi (1958)
The oldest entrant on this list, this sweet composition about the Kolkata of yore is from Howrah Bridge, starring Ashok Kumar and Madhubala. Though Bollywood remembers the more saucier songs from this movie, ‘Ye Calcutta Hai’ effectively uses a single horse-carriage ride to give a cheerful tour of the city, covering social hubs like Esplanade, Ballygunge and Chowringhee Square.
Colombo - K Mac ft. Iraj and Jay (2013)
This hip hop number is a breezy introduction to the streets of Colombo. Not only can you brush up your Sinhala with the song’s simple yet irreverent lyrics about city life in Sri Lanka, but also expand your gully rap arsenal. Kya bolta, bantai?
Seoul - Lee Hyori ft. Killagramz (2017)
‘We drop our eloquence in order to live’, sings Hyori, of the restlessness that plagued her while living in the South Korean capital. The video cuts between dusty shots of Seoul and the more peaceful Jeju Island in the south. Hyori is direct about her dislike for the city’s fast pace, but the video, with its beautiful colours and melancholic vocals, is surprisingly pleasant, striking a chord for those who’ve shifted from small towns to bigger cities in search of opportunity.
Love-hate relationships with Seoul seem to abound in Korean music; for a lo-fi number, try ‘Seoul’ by Korean rapper-songwriter RM.