After I’ve depressed the clutch and turned the key, the next thing I do in my car is reach for the power button on the radio. When I’m driving—and I’ve been driving a lot the past two weeks—music must be going. Particularly on long drives where the highway stretches out in front of me, I turn up the volume to keep me awake and focused.
There’s a real art to the ultimate driving playlist. I have made many, but the fact is that each trip demands different music. A few things, though, are constant. This is the time for simple drumbeats that you can play on the steering wheel and bombastic guitars that push your right foot a little more firmly on the accelerator than you’d intended. Here’s five of my favorites right now.
1. Panama, Van Halen
I don’t consider myself much of a Van Halen fan, but I’ve always liked this one. Blame Superbad. The best driving songs have a discrete intro and then a drop (for lack of a better term) that shifts you into fifth gear. Van Halen’s guitar grabs you immediately with this cinematic thirty-second-long introduction, until David Lee Roth’s “uuuh” kicks things off properly. And although his vocals are at times shrill enough to appeal only to dogs, he has great timing. The spoken interlude right around 2:35 is the best example—“I reach down between my legs and…ease the seat back.”
If your car stereo doesn’t have good bass, I would prefer it if you skipped this one. The bass line to this song is so legendary that you should be able to pick it out in two notes after hearing it once, and deserves nothing less than speakers that will do it justice. It’s a long song, too, clocking in at about 6:30. While that’s generally not great if you’re just running out to get cigarettes and pop tarts, it’s ideal on longer trips—those six minutes pass quickly. My plan is to one day found a radio station that beams this song to the most desolate, static-ridden stretches of America’s interstate system. You’re welcome.
Maybe the quintessential driving song. The well-written lyrics are particularly appropriate, and I’ve always like the last verse: “I rolled on as the sky grew dark/I put the pedal down to make some time/there’s something good waitin’ down this road/I’m pickin’ up whatever’s mine.” Funny that the most memorable part of the song for me musically is the palm-muted, percussive strums that come after the first line of the chorus—not so much a musical statement as the absence thereof. An anti-riff, if you will.
This came on during a drive to Massachusetts last week, and I was surprised at how much it energized me. I think it’s the opening crack of the drums and that mandolin intro, along with the interval jumps in the vocal part. It runs a little against the big guitars rule I established above, but it has the drumbeat, and it’s another great one for sing-alongs, particularly if you’re working on your harmonies.
A road trip is the perfect time for indulging guilty pleasures. You have a lot of time ahead of you, you’re alone, and thanks to modern automotive engineering, no one is going to hear you when you mangle the lyrics at full volume. If, for some reason, you do have a passenger, this is also a great candidate for an impromptu duet. I know it might be wrong, but I love this song, and you’re a liar if you say otherwise.