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10 Favorite CDs To Take On The Road


Ken Nail

Ken Nail has written about car audio for Crutchfield since 2003, after four years as Crutchfield Sales Advisor, and 10 years as a music teacher. He's an avid music listener, whose favorites are classical and film music. When not chained to a desk, Ken spends most of his time training for triathlons and marathons, and likes getting outside for backpacking, downhill skiing, and bicycle touring. He attended West Virginia University, where he received a Master's Degree in Music Performance and a Bachelor's Degree in History.

More from Ken Nail

Just like your car, your music is an individual expression of yourself. These recordings have proven to be some of my favorites, not just for testing what your system can do, but as musical statements that have stood up well over the years. Plus, they're fun to listen to — give them a try!

Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run (1975)
CBS CK 33795
If "The Boss" had made no other recordings after this one, he would still have left an indelible mark on rock and roll with Born to Run. It's a hemi-powered muscle car of an album — a high-octane explosion of gritty nighttimes, lonely roads and broken dreams — rolling over us, unsubtle, powerful, and thickly layered. The album, produced by Springsteen, Jim Landau, and Mike Appel, contains music of undeniable, physical force that swoops between the plaintive, lightly accompanied vocals of "Meeting Across the River," to the exhilarating, densely-instrumented rock anthem "Born to Run." To fully experience its dynamic range, your system will need amplification with enough headroom to bring out the details in the grand, concluding coda of "Thunder Road" and to reproduce the edgy sound and intensity of David Sanborn and Randy and Michael Brecker's horn work in "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out." The dense low end is a solid test of your subwoofer's ability to not only play loud, but with control. Turn it up and hit the road!

Lush Life — The Billy Strayhorn Songbook
Various Artists

Verve 314 529 908-2
Jazz composer, arranger, and musician Billy Strayhorn was a long-time collaborator of Duke Ellington, known for the classic tunes "Take the 'A' Train" and "Satin Doll." As important as his work with Ellington was, however, he shouldn't be remembered only for that. Jazz music is much richer for the many sophisticated and oft-covered tunes he contributed. This Verve collection does justice to Strayhorn's legacy with a well-chosen selection of recordings and artists. The sonic quality of the CD is excellent — intimate on Sarah Vaughan's fatalistic rendition of "Lush Life," expansive and deep on Art Farmer's energetic proto-bop recording of "Rain Check." If your speaker output is well-aimed, you'll hear Dizzy Gillespie's trumpet at dead center in "Upper Manhattan Medical Group," while Ella Fitzgerald's soulful vocals on "Something to Live For" will radiate sultry warmth from somewhere beyond your windshield. It's a compilation that not only shows off the capabilities of your system, but also highlights one of the most underestimated of jazz composers.

Bonnie Raitt, Luck of the Draw (1991)
After years as a favorite of musicians and critics, Bonnie Raitt found commercial success with Nick of Time in 1989. Her 1991 follow-up album, Luck of the Draw, is a smoothly recorded and musically satisfying vehicle for her soulful, blues-rimmed mezzo-soprano. Raitt teamed with her long-time producer Don Was in Luck of the Draw, and their collaboration produced an impressive range of material, from the slyly upbeat "Something to Talk About," to the smooth ballad "One Part Be My Lover," to the Caribbean-influenced "Come To Me." The album features well-balanced and recorded instrumentals throughout — you should have a clean and deep soundstage in front of your listening position, complemented by tight, muscular lows from the bass and kick drum. There are plenty of effective musical contrasts — the opening bars of "I Can't Make You Love Me" have an impressive expansiveness that should surround you, while the solid drums and rhythm section on "Slow Ride" are a sure test of your system's ability to project a tight bass line. In the end, however, it's Raitt's husky but agile voice that's the real star, ranging from soft, understated gentleness on "No Business" to searing emotional depth on "All at Once." Luck of the Draw is a mature and convincing work that plumbs the emotions and stretches the capabilities of your audio system.
Howard Shore, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
Reprise 9 48110-2
Symphonic film scores have achieved a new-found respect among music lovers in recent years. The best of them are a joy to listen to — vividly evoking the images of their films yet standing on their own as exhilarating musical scores. Veteran film composer Howard Shore teamed with the London Philharmonic to create just that in The Fellowship of the Ring. This is a work of wide range and scope, a fiery, full-throttle blend of the resources of chorus, batteries of percussion and a large symphony orchestra. Shore's Wagnerian-scaled score to The Fellowship of the Ring doesn't sound as though it was composed — it's a living force, emerging fully-formed from the roots of the soaring mountains that provide the stunning visual backdrop to the film. Veteran recording engineer John Kurlander ensures that the intricate blend of winds, strings, percussion and chorus achieves its full effect in tracks ranging from the pastoral simplicity of "Concerning Hobbits," through the soaring mysticism of "The Prophecy" and "The Great River," to the full scale sonic assaults of "The Bridge of Khazad Dum" and "Amon Hen." It's goose-bump material from start to finish. Your system will be tested in every respect, from its ability to play quiet, detailed passages, through its capability to project pounding drums that could derail many home systems. It's almost as good as watching the movie!

John Coltrane, Blue Train (1957, remastered 1996)
Blue Note CDP 553428
The word "jazz" means different things to different people, anything from New Orleans Dixieland to Kenny G. To me the essence of jazz is what we hear on Blue Train — creative musicians working together, improvising, organizing, and creating a masterful musical statement from simple melodies and chord changes. The original Blue Note recording of this 1957 session is widely regarded as a historic jazz document and an essential resource for aspiring jazz musicians and music lovers alike. This 1996 re-mastering adds two alternate takes of the original set and does a great job of capturing the dry acoustic signature of the original. Listen to this on a good system and all the instruments of the sextet will come through with precise clarity, from Paul Chambers articulate bass lines, to Philly Joe Jones' driving ride cymbal, to Coltrane's intense but controlled tenor sax. From the cool blues of "Blue Train" to the up-tempo "Moment's Notice," "Lazy Bird," and "Locomotion," you'll hear tight ensemble work, inspired solos, and music that reflects the essence of what jazz is really all about.

Steely Dan, Aja (1977)
MCA MCAD-37214
The seven tracks of Steely Dan's classic Aja are a densely-layered soundscape, presented with effortless grace by some of the 1970s most gifted jazz and session performers, including Larry Carlton (guitar), Tom Scott (sax), Wayne Shorter (sax), and Lee Ritenour (guitar). From Steve Gadd's memorable drum work in the title track, to the tight horn work scored by Tom Scott in "Black Cow," the music hangs spaciously across the soundstage, in no small part due to the high production values demanded by Fagen, Becker and their producer, Gary Katz. The music in Aja has aged well — the laid back shuffle rhythm and bluesy horns of "Home at Last" evokes a moody sense of maturing loneliness, contrasted by the youthful exuberance of "Josie." You don't need a great system to enjoy the fine interplay of words and music, but the more capable your audio components the better you can pick out the details, like the quiet interplay of electric guitar and electric piano in "Deacon Blues," that really make it enjoyable. Over 25 years after first listening to this album, it's still one of my favorites.

Pat Metheny Group, Pat Metheny Group (1978)
ECM 1114
Pat Metheny Group is the first of the numerous collaborations between jazz fusion guitarist Pat Metheny and keyboardist Lyle Mays recorded on the ECM label (known for their catalog of progressive jazz and jazz fusion titles). Teamed up with Mark Egan (Bass) and Dan Gottlieb (Drums), this album grooves — the result of a fine collection of skilled musicians combining their talents into a smooth, impeccably balanced ensemble. Recorded at Talent Studio, Oslo, Norway, Pat Metheny Group has an icy sense of space and openness that's contrasted by a subtle warmth and intimacy in the quiet passages. Mays' percussive keyboard style and Metheny's soaring guitar work in close concert with Egan's looping, interwoven bass lines and the counterpoint of Dan Gottlieb's exciting, tight drum work. To truly experience the nuance of tracks like "San Lorenzo" and "Aprilwind" and the upbeat energy of "Lone Jack," your system will need bass that's agile and quick and speakers capable of reproducing the mids and highs with warmth and accuracy.
Paul Simon, Graceland (1986)
Warner W2-25447
Graceland created a sensation, musically and politically, for its use of South African mbaquanga musicians when it was released during South Africa's apartheid regime in 1986. The politics of South Africa have changed a lot since then, but the music has lost none of its ability to dazzle and delight. Simon's long-time collaborator, Roy Halee, served as engineer for the album, and his talents can be heard in the "live" ambience that's present throughout the album. Simon's gentle, supple voice fuses easily into infectious grooves that range from the bubbling "You Can Call Me Al" to the softly insistent, driving rhythms of "Graceland." In between are numerous memorable cuts, most notably Ladysmith Black Mambazo's emotionally-charged contribution on "Homeless." The contrasts of the album not only make it fun to listen to, but provide a wide palette of audio colors to let you test and refine your system.

Frank Sinatra, Sinatra at the Sands
Reprise 9 46947-2
You really get a great feeling for what it was like to see Sinatra in his prime with this recording. Teamed up with the Count Basie Orchestra, at his favorite stomping grounds in Las Vegas, Sinatra is at the top of his game. The live recording has an excellent sense of enveloping ambience — full of clinking glasses, murmured conversation and brief asides by the performers. Sinatra's voice, backed by muscular energy of Count Basie's horns and drums, rises above it all, scaling climactic peaks and descending to intimate familiarity. And the music! The first rate arrangements of American vocal standards and show tunes were expertly and creatively scored by the talented Quincy Jones. Your system will need good speakers and power reserves to capture both the range of Sinatra's voice and the wide dynamic swings of the backing instrumentals. It's a recording that stands up well to repeated listenings: "Luck be a Lady" sizzles, "One More for the Road," is sung with a quiet, resigned pathos, and "Come Fly With Me" swings from beat one to the end. I wish I could have been there!

St. Saens, Symphony #3 in C minor "Organ"
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Christian Badea
If you've got a sub, and want to see what it can do, get this recording. Many classical music fans were only dimly aware of this fine work until the late 1950s, when recordings began to appear to show off improving stereo hi-fi equipment and speakers. And it certainly can do that! It's a sonic showpiece that combines a full symphony orchestra with pipe organ to amazing effect, particularly in the powerful conclusion of the second movement. In particular, the brass playing of the Royal Philharmonic is some of best I've heard in a long time — brilliant and intense, but always under control. Beyond the fireworks of the pipe organ, it's also a very satisfying symphonic work that offers music fans a fine blend of well-tuned structure, melodies and exciting orchestration. This is a recording notable not only for quality of the audio presentation, something Telarc is well-known for, but also for the vision, drive, and control of conductor Michael Murray's interpretation. Beyond that, this is simply a rush to listen to. Put it in, strap yourself down and settle in for the ride. Hold on tight!

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