Welcome to another installment of Ask A Music Critic! And thanks to everyone who has sent me questions. Please keep them coming at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Topics covered in this column include: The worst mistakes I’ve made as a critic, the inevitably suckiness of the long-delayed new Tool album, the difference between “favorite” and “best,” the time I begged Sturgill Simpson on Twitter to put out a live album, and my 15-track version of The White Album and why it’s inferior to the Beatles’ original magnum opus. But first, we tackle a subject near and dear to my heart.
Every year my friends and I share our lists of favorite movies, albums, etc., and one of the commonly discussed superlatives is “Best Album To Play In The Car.” It might not go to anyone’s very favorite album, but it is nonetheless viewed as an extremely high honor. As a midwesterner, I know you must have strong feelings about this. What are the best driving albums of the last decade? What is the greatest driving album of all time? Who is the greatest driving artist/band (and no, I don’t think saying Springsteen is cheating) –Stephen from New York City
Of course I have strong feelings about this! I wrote an in-depth piece about the science of driving songs a few years ago. Here’s an excerpt:
First, it depends on where you’re going — certain environments demand the right sonic accompaniment. Occasionally, you can stage-manage it. The last time I traveled to Los Angeles, I prepared for the trip by purchasing Kendrick Lamar’s good Kid, m.A.A.d. city on CD. (I similarly packed My Morning Jacket’s It Still Moves for my first road trip through Kentucky and Tennessee.) Was spending $13.99 for a disc to be played during a 30-minute nighttime drive from the airport to my hotel worth it? Absolutely. I would also pay top dollar to see 2001: A Space Odyssey in a movie theater situated on the lunar surface. Sometimes, experience must trump convenience.
I think I just partly answered your question about the best driving album of the decade: good Kid, m.A.A.d city is certainly the greatest car LP if you happen to be cruising around SoCal. But my favorite driving album of 2017 was also my favorite overall album of the year: A Deeper Understanding by the War On Drugs. The first time I played the promo of that record, I was driving at dusk, which was the perfect way to take in all those guitar solos and atmospheric synth riffs.
As to the greatest driving music artist ever, I’ll go back to my 2015 treatise on the subject. I delineated three attributes for driving songs. Songs I like to hear behind the wheel must adhere to at least one of these categories:
1. It must align philosophically with the possibilities of the road. (This applies to songs like Bruce Springsteen’s “Born To Run,” Dr. Dre’s “Let Me Ride,” and Willie Nelson’s “On The Road Again.”)
2. It helps if it’s music that nobody in the house can tolerate. (This only applies if you’re married, have kids, or live with roommates. Because you have to blast those black-metal jams somewhere.)
3. It must move in lockstep with your nervous system. (This relates to a 2013 study showing that the safest drivings songs are between 60 and 80 beats per minute, which replicates the pace of a healthy human heart.)