The obvious and frankly very limiting approach is to pick out a million songs about travel. But when I hit the road, I don't just want a list of near-identical bouncy twangy songs about "hitting the road." I need more than "On the Road Again" and "Movin' Right Along." No, if I'm going on a trip of any length, I have more than one mood to set; I have a series of moods to set. It has to do with what parts of the country I'm traveling through, what times of the day or night I'm passing through them, and what I'm going through emotionally. It's not a road trip if it doesn't take a long time, and it's not a good road trip if the tone doesn't change.
But there are some rules, tonally.
The music should have some sense of place. The lyrics don't have to be about moving on down the line, or even about how the singers accept that they can't change themselves or their lovers--though a little of that is nice--but if I'm driving through New England, I want some Modern Lovers; if I'm driving through Texas, I want some Doug Sahm. It honestly does improve one's experience of the music and of the place.
The music needs to cut through the sound of the road--that means a severe limit on slow jams and nothing too ambient. Most Joy Division is off-limits. At the same time, there can't be too many sudden atmospheric sounds that might freak me out as a driver--that means that most Joy Division is off-limits.
Bounce is good. Twang is good. But I need some peaks and valleys. I need uptempo and then I need midtempo. I need rage and then I need whist. Classic country is great but so is glam rock. Reggae for the morning, Springsteen for the sunset. There are as many possibilities as there are billboards for diners in America. Mostly though, just save Unknown Pleasures for when you're brooding in your hotel room.
With all of that in mind, here, in no particular order (though, I'll admit, beginning and ending with huge "duhs"), is my top ten list of albums to listen to on the road:
Darkness on the Edge of Town, Bruce Springsteen
The Modern Lovers, The Modern Lovers
Raw Power, The Stooges
Take Offs & Landings, Rilo Kiley
Wonderful World, Beautiful People, Jimmy Cliff
More Fun in the New World, X
The Otis Redding Dictionary of Soul, Otis Redding
So Much for the City, The Thrills
Sweet Revenge, John Prine
Blonde on Blonde, Bob Dylan
What am I leaving out?