Remember the freedom you felt when you first learned to drive or first got your own car? When you turned the radio on, or put in a cassette or CD, and turned it up? Whether you were cruising around town or setting out on a road trip for the first time, there’s just something about these early driving memories.
And nothing brings them back like music. These 20 rock songs (with a bit of country, soul and other genres thrown in) are all about cars, driving or traveling. Given their popularity, they’re all practically guaranteed to take you back to your best road trip memories. Or, they’ll inspire you to make new ones.
“Born to Run,” Bruce Springsteen. This is not the only Springsteen song to rank high as a road trip favorite. But it’s almost synonymous with high speeds and teenage dreams. It sounds as fresh today as it did when it came out in 1975.
“Mustang Sally,” Wilson Pickett. This instantly recognizable tune was released by Sir Mack Rice in 1965. It became a huge hit when Pickett covered it the following year. Sally wasn’t a real woman, but almost every woman (every human, for that matter) can relate to that feeling of just wanting to drive around in a new car.
“King of the Road,” Roger Miller. Though it’s about a hobo’s life on the rails, this song is the perfect background music for the ups and downs of a long road trip. First recorded in 1964, it’s since been covered by dozens of artists and used in several popular films.
“On the Road Again,” Willie Nelson. This quintessential traveling song, written about life on tour, was released in 1980, yet it sounds like it’s been around forever—in a good way. There’s simply a timeless quality to Nelson’s voice and his desire to take to the road, “Goin’ places that I’ve never been/Seein’ things that I may never see again.”
“Me and Bobby McGee,” Janis Joplin. Not all cross-country drives are carefree. Joplin’s emotional version of this Kris Kristofferson song, released in 1971 after her death, evokes memories of sadness, loss and uncertainty on the road.
“Running on Empty,” Jackson Browne. Another one for the more thoughtful road trip moments, Browne’s poignant lyrics over a driving beat (no pun intended) make this song—and the whole of the 1977 album of the same name—a favorite nostalgic listen for many. (Including many who only know it from the movie Forrest Gump.)
“Roam,” B-52s. From its first notes, and the opening line, “I hear a wind/Whistling air/Whispering in my ear….” this upbeat 1990 song totally captures the excitement that builds as you set out on a road trip, and the joy of roaming wherever the day takes you.
“Life Is a Highway,” Tom Cochrane. Everyone who’s spent all day driving has probably stopped at some point and said to themselves, “That guy was right: Life really is a highway.” The feeling is apparently so universal that when this 1991 release was covered by the band Rascal Flatts for the animated movie Cars in 2006, it shot to the top of the charts again.
“Proud Mary,” Creedence Clearwater Revival. It’s about a riverboat, but its infectious rhythm and daydream-inducing lyrics (“Left a good job in the city….”) evoke the possibilities of setting out to places unknown by any mode of travel. Tina Turner’s later versions of the song are just as iconic, if not more so, than CCR’s 1969 original.
“Road to Nowhere,” Talking Heads. If you didn’t know that David Byrne wrote this 1985 song as “a resigned, even joyful look at doom,” you’d assume it was a happy-go-lucky celebration of an aimless journey or the unexpected fun of getting lost. Either way, it’s a catchy tune for your road trip play list.
“I Get Around,” Beach Boys. Most road trips start with a sentiment akin to “I’m gettin’ bugged driving up and down the same old strip/I gotta find a new place where the kids are hip,” and this 1964 song, like other Beach Boys hits about cars and driving, recalls that youthful desire to simply get in the car and discover somewhere new.
“Freeway of Love,” Aretha Franklin. You can’t hear this irresistible 1985 song without turning up the volume. You can’t hear the lyrics (“Oh, we got some places to see/I brought all the maps with me”) without wanting to get in the car and drive somewhere as soon as possible.
“Take Me Home, Country Roads,” John Denver. You don’t have to be from the country to relate to this 1971 classic. It’s easy to sing along to and it’s also a reminder that part of the beauty of traveling is the journey home, back to the place you know best.
“Ramblin’ Man,” The Allman Brothers Band. This 1973 hit has a way of making you feel like you’re a lifelong rambler too, even if you’re just on a short vacation—or sitting at your desk reminiscing about one: “Tryin’ to make a livin’ and doin’ the best I can.”
“Drive My Car,” The Beatles. This 1965 song tells a boy-meets-girl story with a twist, but the plot hardly matters. It’s the tempo, the chorus and that little “Beep beep ‘m beep beep yeah” that make this a necessary addition to any road trip playlist.
“Pink Cadillac,” Natalie Cole. Originally released in 1994 by Bruce Springsteen, who wrote the song, it gained widespread popularity when Cole’s version hit the airwaves four years later. Like other great euphemistic car songs, this one also can be interpreted as a simple road trip anthem.
“Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car,” Billy Ocean. Released in 1988, this catchy song about the allure of driving with an attractive passenger is also fairly likely to tempt you into dancing in the driver’s seat—even if you’re all alone.
“Born to Be Wild,” Steppenwolf. This 1968 release is ubiquitous, for good reason. Both the music and the lyrics (“Get your motor runnin’/Head out on the highway/Lookin’ for adventure/And whatever comes our way”) perfectly encapsulate the feeling of freedom on the open road.
“Kyrie,” Mr. Mister. With lyrics about praying for good fortune on a long journey, and music that takes you right back to 1985, the year it was released, this hit song conjures up the image—and the feeling—of driving down a lonely highway with the windows down and the wind in your hair.
“I’ve Been Everywhere,” Johnny Cash. Released in 1996, at the tail end of Generation X’s early driving years, this road atlas of a song feels like it comes from an earlier era—because it does. Originally written about traveling Australian roads in 1959, it became a U.S. hit in 1962 when Hank Snow recorded a version with North American locations. It’s also been adapted and sung by other artists across the world. But Cash’s version, recorded with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, is more likely to be found on a car radio today and therefore more likely to make you want to get out a map and a highlighter—or turn to your trusty GPS.
This is, of course, only a small sample of the many songs—both driving-themed and not—that can instantly take us back to those first years of driving around town or that special long trip on the open road. Everyone who’s ever sat behind the wheel of a car will have their own memories.
What’s the first song that you remember playing in your car? What’s your favorite song (or album, or genre) to play on a long road trip? Let us know about your musical memories in the comments.