The Top Ten Greatest Driving Albums

September 11, 2008

It would be difficult to exaggerate the significance of the automobile in the modern landscape. Beyond enabling people to travel long distances in a short amount of time, the automobile itself has always been a symbol of independence. Ever since the Model T started churning out of Ford’s factories in 1908, cars have represented a small slice of freedom in a world which, in many ways, has continuously sought to suppress individuality.

As technology progressed, one of the key additions to the automobile was the ability to listen to music, and eventually, to play music of your own choice. A proper soundtrack can accentuate the task of driving while also setting the tone for a particular journey. On rare occasions, this marriage of sound and propulsive force, of rolling syncopation and aural emotion, congeals to form a type of serendipitous moment which I think can only be justifiably described as existential. And for a fleeting moment, the chaos of life starts to make a little bit of sense.

Of course, I could easily just to point to specific songs that have been made for or about driving by design. But that’s not what I’m after here. This list captures what, in my opinion, are some great records that compliment the act of driving while also enhancing it in some way - more through tonality and rhythm rather than campy lyrics about highways or speed limits. With that in mind, I offer to you, my top ten driving albums.

10. Led Zeppelin – III


From right out of the gate, Jimmy Page’s fast and minimal guitar riff and Bonham’s lockstep beat on the album’s opener, "Immigrant Song", this record is immediately engaging and ready for the long stretches of asphalt between you and your destination. Zeppelin was really hitting their stride here, and the energy captured on this record manages to be relentless yet unobtrusive.

9. The Ramones – The Ramones


The Ramones were everything Led Zeppelin wasn’t. Taking an almost adversarial approach to over-thought musicianship and utterly devoid of pretense, the Ramones refined rock ‘n roll back to its most basic structure and infused it with manic tempos, deafening volume, and walls of distortion.

Equal parts joy and fury, this shrill battle cry will aid you in making short work of the pricks in the urban warfare that is city traffic.

8. Beastie Boys – Check Your Head


The Beastie Boys came back from the fringes in a way with Check Your Head, a record which somehow managed to encompass alt rock, jazz, funk and hip hop in one cohesive package.

The addition of organist Money Mark lent the band a healthy dose of funk groove that gives this record a unique feel. Where the Beasties’ previous two records held fast to a pretty rigid hip hop design, this record is far more organic, and the anthemic qualities of songs like "Gratitude" and "So Whatcha Want" completely demand attention, resulting in the perfect score to cruise nice and slow through the concrete jungle.


7. Dead Meadow – Howls from the Hills


If the heaviest elements of early Sabbath, the most occult-inspired elements of Led Zeppelin, and White Light/White Heat era Velvet Underground had a baby, it would be Dead Meadow.

Drenched in guitar fuzz and haunting, reverb-laden vocal melodies, Howls from the Hills maintains a cool-handed approach that is somehow alluring and unsettling simultaneously. Throw this one on while you’re driving through the middle of New Mexico desert at 3am and you’ll be subconsciously praying that roll of duct tape keeping your radiator together holds till dawn.

6. The Saints – (I’m) Stranded


While the Sex Pistols were going on about anarchy in the UK in 1976 and the Ramones were rupturing eardrums at CBGBs as far back as ’75, Australia’s The Saints were killin’ it way back in 1973. Perhaps because of their physical distance from the flourishing punk scenes in London and New York, or their refusal to adopt spiky haircuts and pre-torn clothes, The Saints never really caught on the way their aforementioned contemporaries did. Which is a shame, because this record destroys them all.

An almost relentless guitar assault from start to finish, tracks like "Erotic Neurotic", "Nights in Venice" and "Demolition Girl" just constantly propel forward like a tidal wave of angry chainsaws. This would be a good record to put on if you were in a hurry to go knock someone’s teeth out.

5. Black Sabbath – Paranoid


Are you kidding me? Because Black Sabbath fucking rules.

4. My Bloody Valentine – Loveless


Like a lot of records on this list, Loveless is dominated by huge guitars. But unlike alot of them, this album is not designed to pummel.

Instead, it washes over you like a warm saltwater bath as the sonic embodiment of an opiate-fueled ride. Employing constant, lulling rhythms and layers upon layers of guitar distortion, Loveless will cause the endless miles of a road trip to melt into a melodious, noisy soup of bliss.

3. Miles Davis – Bitches Brew


Throughout Miles Davis’ career, he explored nearly everything plausible within the context of the loosely-defined term “jazz.” Bitches Brew, released in 1969, is considered by many people to be the most revolutionary album in jazz history, and for good reason. These aren’t smooth, olde tyme cuts, my friend.

While helping to define the subgenre of avant-garde jazz, Bitches Brew is also totally accessible and utterly hypnotic, with only six tracks spanning this epic double LP. Brooding at times and tripped-out at others, this record will wind itself tightly together at one moment, only to recoil into funk and blues-derived jamminess the next. If you need a dose of David Lynch-style eccentricity in your drive, Bitches Brew will deliver.

2. James Brown – 20 All-time Greatest Hits


Trying to condense the 44 year career of the Godfather of Soul into one compilation is an impossible task, but this record does a pretty solid job of hitting many key tracks during some of the high points in his career from the late 50s through the early 70s.

It doesn’t matter who you are or what you drive, if you throw on a track like "The Payback" and hit the street, you are superbad. There’s been a lot of soulful, funky musicians over the years, but none of them really held a candle to JB. Slap this one on the stereo and you’re guaranteed to drive with significantly more style than usual.

1. The Stooges – Funhouse


First off, let’s get this out in the open – Funhouse is the greatest rock n roll record ever committed to wax. And from the first few seconds of Down of the Street, it becomes all too obvious that this is the greatest driving record as well.

When the chorus of "Down on the Street" sucker-punches you directly in the face, you can almost hear the bellowing roar of a vintage big block v8 as half a city block is consumed in the tire smoke of its wake, all while Iggy wails on the microphone and the rest of the Stooges crank out the archetype for what punk rock would become - once the rest of the world was ready for it. As you instinctively reach to turn up the volume as loud as it can go, the world around you is suddenly transformed into a vast canvas of gasoline-tinged lust and danger – a rolling playground of your own design.

A lot of important records get pinned with spiffy adjectives like “seminal” or “unprecedented” that really don’t mean anything in the long run. But there is something that needs to be said about this record, and The Stooges in general, and that is that this music is “potentially life-altering.” Which is to say, if you get this music, it has the potential to get under your skin and breed a certain brand of noble contempt that becomes part of the origin and purpose of every proudly-extended middle finger, and the impulse that triggers that extra drink, that extra girl, and that pair of skid marks across your neighbor’s lawn.

How’s that for a driving album?