Our 10 Best Road Albums list looks at 10 best albums for the road when you’re traveling either near or far while in your car. With summer fast approaching, families and individual motorists hit the highways for various reasons, and we discussed 10 great single tunes to jam to on your vacation or even business trip on your CD or streaming device. It would be a bit redundant to list the same albums as the songs that are part of them, so suffice to say a great tune for the road probably is part of an album that does the same.
It amuses me to think of how traveling was decades ago before automobiles had anything besides AM radio. I’m part of that age group and I recall the first cars coming out with FM radio, but still only having that one tinny speaker under the glove compartment or on the dashboard. This would have done nothing to dissuade my Dad, who was my hero and still is, but he did not like music or anything on in whatever car he was in. Of course our teen years changed that, and he was out voted. But after moving to Arkansas way way back in 1973 from a tiny burg in northern Iowa, after a couple of years we took a “vacation” to go back to Iowa and visit our surviving grandmothers and family friends.
This was in an AMC Hornet.Remember those? Not a bad looking little car actually, but ever the spendthrift, Dad decided we could do without AC, power brakes and didn’t care that the AM radio was about as loud as a drinking fountain. And the seats were harder than cement. Six of us were piled in. My older sister took it upon herself to be the third adult nobody needed. My younger siblings were complaining “Aren’t we there YET?” before we’d barely left Arkansas, and got increasingly crabbier by the minute. Being July it was going to be a very very hot week. Windows down didn’t do much besides blow and blast furnace air and dirt around the car. No radio. Dad claimed he would get nervous. Uh, in that car load, he was beyond nervous anyway. Not even farm news. But we survived, and had fun. Nothing like a motel with a swimming pool at the end of a hot day and all the soda you could drink to make it fun.
And we can’t forget, although we’d like to, the infamous eight track tapes. How these monstrosities ever made it into the marketplace is a mystery. But we’ve all seen things for sale that drop our jaws, like live baby alligators in cheap drug stores. The 8 tracks though were cheap. Who can forget listening to a song that fades away about half way through the guitar solo, hearing the capstan click and then hearing the lead fade back in but with only one or two notes left? I recall getting Led Zeppelin’s IV on eight track, and while the songs weren’t interrupted, in order to even the program time (in four program increments) the geniuses at the factory or studios decided it would be okay to edit out Jimmy Page’s guitar solo on “Stairway To Heaven.” So musical technological historians can’t claim every medium to listen to music was necessarily a good one.
But today, it’s a high tech adventure. DVD’s, Satellite radio, CD’s still in some cars. You can always get portables and use the USB port like I do in one of our cars. AC. Won’t leave home without it. Very comfortable. And I’m in charge of entertainment unless my wife wants a break to listen to one of her favorite classic old radio shows on satellite, which sometimes are pretty cool – The Green Hornet, The Green Lantern, The Whistler, Johnny Dollar, etc.
But what about the music? The list below could perhaps be for the first day. I’d have a new line-up every day myself but these are always with us and never let us down.
10) Ragged Glory – Neil Young
This mercurial legend has covered just about every style you can imagine in his long career. While nobody can argue with the great acoustic material like Harvest and part of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, it’s the electric stuff that I like the best. Garages were built for houses? No, they were built for Neil Young, who can do that wonderfully sloppy and rocking style that in its deliberate simplicity reminds us of our own garageband days, with the joy and volume we dug. Of course, Neil Young is no slouch, but he demonstrates here that he hasn’t forgotten those days, and when “White Line” comes on, you feel like you’ve been driving an 18 wheeler for 18 hours between truck stops. But in a good way. This song and album really hit the rhythm of the road.
9) LA Woman – The Doors
Actually, given the brevity of most albums of the time, it would have been really cool to have Morrison Hotel on her as a great double album, but this is fine. Jim Morrison may have been on his way down and sadly, out, but he managed for one glorious album to muster the lyrics and vocals to make what one could truly call The Doors’ true blues album. It was more piano driven, and even had “Riders On The Storm”, a jazzy dreamy song that couldn’t have been a better choice as Morrison’s last song on record. For the pounding road, you can’t beat the title track, which makes a person almost feel like they’re on the freeway cruising around LA and ending up in some cheap motel on Sunset Strip.
LA’s best song about itself still holds up today. Plus, “Been Down So Long” and “Cars Hiss By My Window” are as blues as blues get. Many people may be unaware however that this was not the last studio album from The Doors. After Morrison’s alleged death (still debated today) the surviving Doors decided they were capable of carrying on, and released two albums Other Voices and Full Circle. They are available today.
8) Hologram of Baal – The Church
A few albums after their great breakthrough album Starfish the band released an album of stunning textures, where the listener could almost feel the individual tracks floating around by themselves and yet staying within the mix. Like other Church albums, this one features the dreamy and ethereal vocals of Steve Kilbey, who is also a first rate poet/lyricist who is well versed in mythology and paints pictures with his voice one can almost see, and the band matches the vision perfectly, especially on “The Great Machine” and “Tranquility”.
7) At Budokan I and II Cheap Trick
One of America’s greatest and longest lived bands, Cheap Trick had made three superb albums before recording a few shows in Japan, where they had intended to release a Japan only album for their fans, as Japan was enamored with this fellows from Rockford, Ill. However, the tapes managed to make it to the U.S. market, and the first part was released as At Budokan. What propelled the band to stardom was a much much more powerful live sound and the re-issue of “I Want You To Want Me” as a live version that took off in a huge way. The world found out that Robin Zander, vocalist, guitarist and founder of the band (he found Rick Neilson) was and is one of the mightiest, most powerful and versatile singers in all of rock and roll.
Seeing him live twice was incredible. He hit every note, and his power was almost frightening. Later, Epic wisely released Budokan II, another album’s worth of tunes from the same tour. For a time, the two albums were released together. These albums are some of the greatest live albums in rock and roll history. And great to rock to on the road.
6) Tres Hombres – ZZ Top
If your travel plans include little ‘ol Texas, and you don’t take ZZ Top, you are missing out on just what makes them so unique, and so utterly Texan, but in a great way they want to share with the world. Billy Gibbons is a musical genius, so well schooled in blues and Texas music as well as rock he deserves a statue in his beloved Houston. But ZZ Top IS a band, and what a band! Tres Hombres is the perfect mix of Hendrix worthy lead work, down ‘n dirty blues, and even a bit of country swing that is mixed into a stew no band has ever remotely touched. The entire album is a must, and to not listen to “La Grange”, the greatest John Lee Hooker song not actually played by John Lee Hooker is a mortal Texas sin.
5) Six Views Of The Blues – Jimmy Smith
The odd album here, jazz fans nonetheless are well schooled in the great Hammond B-3 organist Jimmy Smith, probably the greatest to ever play the instrument. Smith could play any style, and when he turned up the heat, it was as hot as many rock and roll jams that would start appearing in just a few years to a decade later. This album like many of Smith’s ’50’s albums featured his friend and phenomenal jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell, who taught Duke Ellington courses at UCLA, plays beautifully understated jazz, and mixes blues and jazz like no other guitar player. This is, as the title indicates, six loose jam sessions recorded live, and sounds great after dark before you want to get more mellow stuff going if you’re going to be out very long. But any time of day is great for these two titans. Pretty darn close to rock and roll.
4) Aja – Steely Dan
One of those ultra rare bands and albums that sound fantastic no matter when you decide to listen to the greatest jazz/rock band ever. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker of Steely Dan were blues and jazz fanatics and from the start had their inimitable sound down, mixing the music they loved with rock and roll and creating not just some of the smartest and coolest music ever, but opened the doors for millions to the world of jazz music through their stellar playing and example. If the one definitive album must be chosen, then Aja is it. Timeless, beautiful and smart, the world itself got a bit of a boost in the “cool” factor, much like fans of Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue did almost 20 years earlier. The title track and “Deacon Blues” are just stunning, and never get old.
3) Guitar Shop – Jeff Beck
Jeff Beck is the guitar player’s guitar player, and over the years has played everything and excelled at whatever his golden touch fancied. While many fans are more familiar with his ’70’s jazz fusion work, in 1987 he recorded a come back album of sorts after a couple years off. Guitar Shop was like nothing the master had done before. With drumming thunderstorm Terry Bozzio and keyboardist Tony Hymas, Beck went to town. He massively upgraded his sound, used some samples here and there, and made instrumental music non-musicians liked as well as the musical community. It rocks like crazy, but the highlight is a hauntingly beautiful “Where Were You”, basically cascading notes with the most delicate touch of his whammy bar that has to be heard to be believed. Nobody has the touch Jeff Beck has.
2) Sounds of Summer – The Beach Boys
Sometimes you just want to hear the great tunes you know and love. Greatest hits albums are neither here nor there, but this collection of 30 of the Beach Boys’ best songs is what summer, the beach, the surf, and just a good vibration is all about. Some may argue a bit at this inclusion or that exclusion, but it’s basically a pretty fail safe collection.
1) Exile On Main Street – The Rolling Stones
This album is perfect for the road. While some debate whether this or Sticky Fingers is their crowning achievement, there are more steady rockers on this double album, and some fine blues in addition to rockers like “Rip This Joint” and Keith Richards’ “Happy”. Picking a single album from The Rolling Stones is tough because their basic down and gritty sound that makes them who they are means that even recent albums are jewels.
10 Best Albums For The Road article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2021
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