There are few truths in this world that I know beyond a shadow of a doubt. One of the most prominent is that the right music can make or break your road trip. In my short decade of driving, I’ve taken countless road trips across this country. From those lonely nights blasting up north alone to party at some nameless college, to the aforementioned rental car trip from hell in Colorado; music has always set the tone (no pun intended) for how quickly the miles tick by.
I will have to shamelessly plug steaming music here. Before God’s gift to drivers, I was stuck with a myriad of CDs, MP3s, Sirius, or (gasp) terrestrial radio. The choice was bland, and you never seem to hear what you want. Hell, even Pandora is horrible anymore. I don’t know how I could get anywhere without Spotify these days. I have the 20GB/month data bills to prove it.
That being said, continuously hunting for the “right” music with millions of songs at your disposal can be a headache. Unless you have a good copilot to dig for music, maintaining the soundtrack for your trip can be tiresome at best, let alone distracting.
On a recent trip, I queued three albums in succession and didn’t touch the phone during my entire trip (except for flagging on Waze when it was safe). For those three hours, it was pure driving nirvana. Open freeways, windows down, and a perfect Michigan sunset. There’s something to be said about the therapeutic qualities of driving in solitude. Granted, piloting a car you enjoy surely helps. However, even the best roads in your dream car can be spoiled by shitty music. I’ve had to suffer through that too.
I can wax rhapsodically about my love for road trips for another 300 words, but that is not why you’re reading this article. I’ve included my top 5 favorite driving albums below. If you are able to stick it through my (what some might classify as poor) music preferences, there’s some bonus material at the end that you might enjoy. Please note that I’ve focused on more modern music. I realize that many here will not be listening to Rush or Billy Cobham.
Coheed and Cambria – Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV, Volume One: From Fear Through the Eyes of Madness (2005)
Best Setting: Introspective Road Trips, whipping through flyover country.
Best Song: “Willing Well II: From Fear Through the Eyes of Madness” (Track 13)
Yes, Coheed. I realize they’re not the most popular band in the world. Most people I introduce to them cannot get past Claudio Sanchez’s voice. However, as a die-hard Rush fan, they definitely have my vote. Hell, I’d go as far as to say that undoubtedly my favorite band.
Their third studio album, “GA1” is a concept work that takes place within the “Armory Wars” narrative that spans their first 7 albums. (Side note – their 8th album, The Color Before the Sun drops October 16). While I will not get into the intricacies of the Armory Wars, the storyline is one of love, lust, betrayal, life, and death. The emotionally-charged lyrics and melodies will either hit you like a freight train, as heard in their hit “Welcome Home” (Track 3) or lull you to sleep as in “Wake Up” (Track 8). A bit of trivia, an acoustic rendition of “Wake Up” was featured in the soundtrack for “Snakes on a Plane.”
I was tempted to place “Welcome Home” as the best song, as it literally saved my life a time or two. Notable examples is when it blew the Nakamichi speakers out of Ffej’s 87 Scirocco 16v as we trekked up US 131 north of Grand Rapids in the dead of winter (with no brakes, I might add), or a horrible severe storm outside of Altoona, PA where I was nursing one of the worst hangovers of my life and tried to bring Ffej and I home in the Z06 without driving off of a mountain.
The Gaslight Anthem – Get Hurt (2014)
Best Setting: Cruising through the mountainous terrain of Appalachia, trying to figure out your place in life.
Best Song: “Dark Places” (Track 12)
The Gaslight Anthem is said by some to be your typical New Jersey punk band. Front man Brian Fallon has cited Springsteen as his main influence in many interviews. This definitely shows through in a lot of the work. It is undoubtedly very “rock and roll” in a way not many bands are these days. As the child of my early “Gen-X” father, I was raised on bands like The Ramones, The Romantics, The Doors, Springsteen, and Bowie. I have yet to come across many modern bands that seem to capture the essence of 60s-70s rock like The Gaslight Anthem. Not to mention, their lyrics are full of allusions to great literature, which always seems to put a smile on my face. To top it all off, their live shows are amazing to say the least.
Get Hurt is their most recent release. There is no overarching theme in this release, outside of the almost clichés of love, lust, and loss. I’ve probably fallen asleep listening to Get Hurt more than any other album. It has carried me through a very scenic trip through Kentucky, a very hungover redeye flight back from Ft. Lauderdale, and a blustery winter trip to a close friend’s funeral. The Tracks range from the strong “Helter Skeleton” (Track 5), to the sincere “Mama’s Boys” (Track 14), and the sad “Dark Places” (Track 12). If you ever needed something to put on as you drive around to “figure shit out,” this is it.
Muse – Black Holes and Revelations (2006)
Best Setting: Lost in suburbia hell.
Best Song: Knights of Cydonia (Track 11)
I could end this blurb with Knights of Cydonia. In my eyes, it’s probably the best driving song of all time. Nothing fills my head with felonious thoughts like this song. For those who have been living under a rock, Muse is a British Alternative Rock band who also relies quite frequently on concept albums (experimental, rock operas, etc.) to carry a deeper message than what the casual listener might extrapolate. Black Holes is said to carry a political message. I am not one to be overly-political, and by that I mean care about the political beliefs of others. Therefore, I will give them a free pass on this one. The most popular Track on this album is by far Starlight (Track 2), which peaked at number 2 on Billboard’s modern rock chart. I was tempted to select 2009’s The Resistance, as it’s concept is a little more prevalent in a similar vein to Coheed, but it simply does not spark that chord with me as a whole.
Nirvana – MTV Unplugged in New York (1994)
Best Setting: Late night drives.
Best Song: The Man Who Sold the World
Insert “stereotypical gunge album” comment. Truth be told, I am not a huge Nirvana fan. Something about the purity of Unplugged seems to do it for me. Perhaps it is because it features the late Kurt Cobain in his most “raw” form. Regardless, this is one that I’ve been able to listen to on repeat during many long nights.
I would go as far as to say that there truly isn’t a bad song on this album. If you have ever have had the pleasure of accompanying me at the bar, and I decided to take over their jukebox (thanks Touchtunes mobile!), you would know my affinity for The Man Who Sold the World. As a shameless Bowie fan, I’m here to say Cobain truly owned that song, much in the way that Johnny Cash owned Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt.”
Metallica – Death Magnetic (2008)
Best Setting: Traveling at the Posted Speed Limit
Best Song: All Nightmare Long (Track 5)
Metallica killed Napster. They are sellouts. They suck. St. Anger is the worst album ever released. Death Magnetic sounds like shit because it was mastered to be played at 11. All of these statements are true. However, I still love Metallica. I could go with the masses and list Kill ‘em All, or The Black Album. However, Death Magnetic has a certain nostalgic value for me. It was blasted during some of the most idiotic things that I have ever done behind the wheel of an automobile, most of which was spent wheeling my Jeep with my now-deceased oldest friend (RIP Nick) in an abandoned construction site. It woke me up on my hellish commute to downtown Detroit after one too many all-nighters during my brief stint in the College of Engineering. If you want to drive like an asshole, or drink copious amounts of Jägermeister and break shit, this is that album.
Bonus Round: Podcasts
If you drive as much as I do, music eventually gets pretty damn boring. I also hate 99% of the talk radio you find on your AM/FM dial. If I want to educate myself about current events, I’ll read an article online. If I cared about sports, I would watch them. However, there are 1000s of podcasts covering nearly every topic imaginable.
It is no surprise that I tend to sway toward automobile-related ones. My favorite by far is The Smoking Tire. It reminds me of my group of friends, sitting around a table, drinking, and bullshitting about cars. Hooniverse is a close second and has a very similar tone. However, if you’re looking for something more in-depth, Car Stories is pretty interesting. It is produced by The Peterson Automotive Museum and features a new guest each week from inside the industry. If you have the time, I recommend you give all three a listen.
Flipping over to the “B-Side” of this post is the WORST music for driving. The truth here is that there is no one album that can kill your trip; it is whatever music you hate. I hate hardcore music more than anything, even autonomous vehicles. When I am forced to listen to it, I daydream about being as deaf as Anne Frank. A Day to Remember, Blessthefall, Falling in Reverse, etc. They should drive their tour buses into a bridge abutment.
Hate the music I suggest? Want to suggest something better? Sound off in the comments. I’m always looking for something new to help the miles click by…