The 50 best road trip songs of all time
Hit the road, Jack, and crank up the dial with our definitive list of the best road trip songs ever made
Mon Jun 2 2014
Don’t get us wrong—we love the city. The hustle and bustle, the colorful characters, the endless list of things to do… There isn’t anything quite like it. But sometimes you get that itch to escape for a while, and the lazy, hazy days of summer are the perfect time to embark on that classic American tradition: the road trip. Of course, you can’t drive in complete silence—well, you can, but the very thought of that is giving us a flat tire—so we’ve compiled our list of the best road trip songs to get your motors running and kick your highway journey into high gear.
Whether you’re venturing on a weekend getaway, driving through the night to get to your sweetie or ambitiously tackling a cross-country trip across all 50 states, we have the tunes to keep your engines purring. Classics from the Boss, the Purple One, the Man in Black, the Cougar, the Fab Four and the Dead. Blasts from your ’90s past, courtesy of Tom Cochrane, Sheryl Crow and the Proclaimers. Ditties about Chicago and L.A., and the famous route that winds between them. Songs that will have visions of Tawny Kitaen doing the splits on the hood of a Jaguar XJ (great for lonely, late-night drives) dancing in your head. So grab your keys, call up a few of your favorite travel buddies, roll down the windows, and crank up the dial. Road trip!
Written by Michael Chen, Brent DiCrescenzo, Adam Feldman, Sophie Harris, Nick Leftley, Tim Lowery, Marley Lynch, Hank Shteamer, Carla Sosenko and Kate Wertheimer.
“Have Love, Will Travel” by the Sonics
At some stage in your life—at any point between getting your driver's license and getting married, really—you’ll drive from “Maine to Mexico” for a piece of ass, as Gerry Roslie does in this proto-punk classic. The high-tension twang of the guitar sounds like the strings are about to snap, the perfect sonic emulation of sexual frustration. A recent ad for Mexican beer claims you need an “encyclopedic knowledge of garage rock” to pull up this song, as if from some lost, dusty volume. Nah, this is Rock & Roll 101.—Brent DiCrescenzo
“Roadrunner” by the Modern Lovers
Talk about a brilliant juxtaposition: Jonathan Richman’s 1972 cut, written when he was 19, beautifully contrasts the Velvet Underground's bare-bones, dirty-as-hell chugalug sound with a subject matter so suburban that Richman's heroes Lou Reed & Co. wouldn’t dare touch it: The thrill of being young, driving in a car and blasting the radio. The song’s repetitive two-chord propulsion is a perfect late-night road-trip pick-me-up.—Tim Lowery
“The Distance” by Cake
With the band’s signature horns and a self-serious melody that practically requires head-bobbing and Speed Racer–esque intensity (you may even want to invest in racing gloves), this single off of 1996’s Fashion Nugget is irresistible. The album is filled with more on-the-nose driving songs than this one (“Race Car Ya-Yas,” “Stickshifts and Safetybelts”), but this is the money single—and got the album platinum status. Throw it on repeat and hit the open road. Just take an occasional break for track No. 7, the band’s excellent cover of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.”—Carla Sosenko
“Shut Up and Drive” by Rihanna
Is this a silly song? Yes. Is it musically a little boring? Mos def. But is it a fun track to crank up when you hit the highway? You bet your ass it is. Rihanna’s made better music than this 2007 bit of fluff (“Umbrella,” “We Found Love”), but her songs are a little like sex and a lot like pizza: Even when they’re bad, they’re still pretty good. And with lyrics tailor-made for the pavement, this one’s a no-brainer. Channel RiRi’s shade-throwing swagger, turn up the dial, and, well, shut up and drive. Then go post a revealing selfie on Instagram. (No, don’t do that.) You’ll feel like you’re driving a Lambo even if you’re actually behind the wheel of a Pinto. —Carla Sosenko
“Going Back to Cali” by LL Cool J
From Al Jolson to Led Zeppelin and Phantom Planet, dozens of artists have tapped into the westward dream of the Golden State. Heck, the tradition stretches back to Gold Rush ditties of the mid 19th century, Smithsonian Folkways fodder like “Life in California.” But only one man made the trip wrapped in precious metals, not seeking them. Cool J cruises to the coast, as he proclaims in verse, in a Corvette with a Laurents chrome chain steering wheel, Dayton wire rims and a gold-leaf convertible top. Rick Rubin’s stark 808 beats thunder under the extremely relaxed rhymes of Mr. Ladies Love. “I’m going back to Cali,” he nearly whispers before shrugging it off. “Hmm, I don't think so.” He might go, he might not. With his riches, he is a walking California. That’s cool. Cool enough to pull off one of the few sax solos in hip-hop history.—Brent DiCrescenzo
“Let Me Ride” by Dr. Dre
The Chronic arrived on the heels of the 1992 South Central riots. Folks in Compton were looking to escape and could not—and not just because of the traffic on the 110 and 405. This was a cry for cruising with the bucket seats dropped back, slow rolling on a resting-heart-rate rhythm and those G-funk dog-whistle keyboards. “Swing down, sweet chariot, stop, let me ride,” goes the chorus lifted from Parliament’s “Mothership Connection,” itself based on a slave spiritual. But just because the song hides a deeper political meaning the way lowriders hide a subwoofer in the trunk, there’s no reason Dre can’t roll in style. Specifically, in a 1964 Chevy Impala shoed with Dayton rims (a.k.a. “Ds,” as in “Throw some Ds on that bitch”).—Brent DiCrescenzo
“Mustang Sally” by Wilson Pickett
You can probably blame censorship for our automobile sex fetishes. Early rock & rollers couldn’t sing about sex, so they sang about their cars…with not-so-subtle undertones. “Mustang Sally,” the grandmother of “Little Red Corvette,” only wants to “ride around,” and Pickett howls with his thumb out, looking to hitch. Seven years later, J.G. Ballard would publish Crash. Would he have written it if, instead of “She’s my little deuce coupe,” the Beach Boys had just been allowed to shout, “Girl, you looks good, won't you back that azz up?”—Brent DiCrescenzo
“Hit the Road Jack” by Ray Charles
Fiendishly simple with its descending piano chords, “Hit the Road Jack” is sung from the perspective of a philanderer being ejected by his lady. By all rights this 1961 R&B classic should win a prize for being impossible not to sing along to: “What you say?????” screams soul hero Charles to his velvet-voiced Raelettes. Later he complains, “You can’t mean that,” about as convincingly as a cat picking bird feathers from between its teeth. The track's most memorable use in a road trip appears in the 1989 comedy movie The Dream Team.—Sophie Harris
“Green Onions” by Booker T. & the M.G.’s
This R&B instrumental, recorded in 1962, is the perfect soundtrack for an unhurried drive, when you’re sick of singing along and ready to just cruise. It’s repetitive, much like the open road, but with a steady beat and some soulful Hammond organ to keep things interesting. Widely considered to be one of the greatest songs of all time, it’s received accolades from Rolling Stone, Acclaimed Music, the Grammy Hall of Fame and the Library of Congress. If AAA had a greatest songs list, we’re sure “Green Onions” would be on that, too.—Kate Wertheimer
“King of the Road” by Roger Miller
Did our dads play this 1964 ditty on long car rides when we were little? You betcha. Do we think they contemplated the potential consequences of making penniless vagabonds sound super cool? Doubtful. Regardless, it’s a timeless everyman’s anthem, and darn if it isn’t catchy. We really like listening to it in our van down by the river.—Kate Wertheimer
Watch the videos: 50–41
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