20 Essential Songs for Your Road-Trip Playlist

Music Lists
Share Tweet Submit Pin

Whether you’re driving across the country or just down the road, it’s always a brilliant plan to have some carefully-selected tunes to make the trip go down smoothly. But which songs would make that perfect playlist for your next expedition? Scrounging around in your parents’ CD collection, sifting through friends’ iTunes libraries and revisiting high school mixtapes can give you some great ideas, but the task can be daunting.

To ease your travel stress and make the trip just a little bit easier, here are a few suggestions of must-haves that will work wonders on your next road trip.

20. “The High Road” – Broken Bells

The Shins’ James Mercer and Danger Mouse’s Brian Burton have some slick beats on their hands with “The High Road.” The song isn’t so much about navigating the road, but life, which can sometimes feel strangely similar. The duo remind us that sometimes a lot of wrong turns have to be made to reach that high road.

19. “Another Travelin’ Song” – Bright Eyes

“Well I’m changing all my strings / I’m gonna write another traveling song / About all the billion highways and the cities at the break of dawn.” Conor Oberst’ jaunty track is a fine dose of indie rock for a playlist. It boasts a stellar upbeat tempo along with catchy string parts and, although we all love his sadder stuff, this is the Oberst you want to take along on your travels.

18. “Big Jet Plane” – Angus & Julia Stone

Sometimes when a car can’t get you where you want to go, you turn to the skies. And a song about flying should be as free as a song can get. The now defunct Angus & Julia Stone (both brother and sister have gone solo), pieced a beautiful song about running away on big jet planes. It’s a little sleepy, but the uplifting, no-attachments feeling is worth it.

17. “Cruise Night” – John K. Samson

This song is what your high-school years sounded like, driving around in your older sibling’s car when getting late-night ice cream with your friends was still your favorite thing to do on the weekend. It’s both nostalgic and exciting—like remembering your first couple of cruise nights and discovering just how awesome simply rolling along the road could be when you were doing it with friends.

16. “Daylight” – Matt & Kim

Matt & Kim’s dance-y, dreamy track is a bouncing summer jam that’s somewhat of a hitchhiker’s anthem. At Boston Calling, Matt said the song is “about a time I hitchhiked right past here on my way to Maine.” It’s a tune for the wide, sun-in-our-eyes wanderer in all of us and will give you a burst of adrenaline when your eyes are tiring.

15. “Passenger” – Iggy Pop

Everyone needs a little punk on their playlist, and Iggy Pop is here to deliver. “Passenger” is said to be about the spirit of the wandering punk outcast and the lyrics are clear-cut descriptions of a nomad passenger and the cityscapes he sees from the car window. It’s stark and moody and, after sitting in a car for a couple of hours, you just want a little gruff.

14. “West Coast” – Coconut Records

Jason Schwartzman hasn’t penned a particularly cheerful ditty, but “West Coast” is still catchy enough to keep you entertained on the road. The twinkling keys and fun little noises would lead you to believe that this sing-a-long wasn’t about heartache, but it is. Though, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be blared from your stereo.

13. “Home” – Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros

While firstly a love song—”Home / Let me come home / Home is wherever I’m with you”—it also serves as a great coming-home anthem. For Jade and Alexander, home is each other, but home is a subjective term with many meanings. So really, if you going home, missing home or anything in-between, “Home” is what you need.

12. “Fast Car” – Tracy Chapman

“Fast Car” isn’t literally about a speedy cruiser; it’s a song about a couple working to build a better life together somewhere else. It’s a song about wanting change, about escaping your situation. If a tune encapsulates that feeling of wanting to get out on the road and run, Chapman’s 1988 song is up there on the list.

11. “101” – Albert Hammond, Jr.

There’s something effortless, lazy and reminiscent of ‘90s lethargy in “101.” There’s nothing cooler than throwing on your sunglasses behind the wheel and thinking you can do it all. The Strokes’ Hammond, Jr. crafts a great tune with infectious riffs and a melody that will help pass the time.

10. “Ticket to Ride” – The Beatles

Any trip should involve a little Beatles and “Ticket to Ride” is some groovy early-Beatles that should satisfy your need for John, Paul, George and Ringo while en route. McCartney seems to back up the theory that is indeed about travel (a British Railways ticket out of Ryde), but of course, the other members have their own interpretations. Throw this on your list and conjure up your own!

9. “Carolina In My Mind” – James Taylor

I’ll be the first to admit I have a soft spot for Mr. Taylor, so maybe that’s why he’s crooned his way onto this list. Or maybe it’s because this song could calm even the ragiest of road-ragers and, whether on a sunny Sunday drive or an epic cross-country adventure, there always seems like a good time to play this song. It’s perfect for anyone with a hint of homesickness.

8. “Interstate 8” – Modest Mouse

At times, Modest Mouse possesses a desolate, lonely vibe, emulating those feelings of navigating your way down dusty, isolated roads, no cars in sight. “I spent the same 18 hours in the same damn place / I’m on a road shaped like a figure 8 / I’m going nowhere, but I’m guaranteed to be late.” Isaac Brock’s Interstate 8 appeals as both a figurative and literal highway, but regardless of interpretation, you could drive in circles to this one.

7. “Road to Nowhere” – Talking Heads

Even in the age of GPS systems, you’re bound to get lost. Sometimes you don’t update your maps, or your GPS is unaware of road blocks, detours, etc. And then there are those frustrating “Acquiring Satellite” moments where you just drive around hoping it’ll come back. Whether lost on the road, in life or both, it’s times like these where “Road to Nowhere” is appropriate.

6. “Midnight Rider” – Allman Brothers Band

Is there a driving montage that doesn’t use “Midnight Rider?” Maybe a few, but any car commercial or road trip film or television show scene could easily be dubbed over with this Allman Brothers Band’s Billboard Top 100 hit. It’s been covered by a multitude of artists, featured on a Geico insurance ad and has appeared on the soundtracks for films like Wild Hogs. Even if the original doesn’t make it onto your playlist—although why wouldn’t it—you should probably have at least a cover or two.

5. “California – Tchad Blake Mix” – Phantom Planet

While it’s hard to listen to Phantom Planet’s “California” without thinking of The OC, we won’t hold that against it. The tune predated Augustana’s similar-sounding relocation ballad “Boston,” but does so with more indie-rock oomph amidst those chillaxed vibes. Ideally, listen to it on your way to California, but it’ll work just as well anywhere.

4. “No Cars Go” – Arcade Fire

Arcade Fire, for all their calming indie tendencies, are totally and outstandingly capable of writing some wonderful driving anthems. From the pulsating beat to Win Butler and Régine Chassagne’s powerfully intertwined vocals, “No Cars Go” is equal parts heavy and soft, ideal for a night drive or one to simply clear your mind.

3. “Running on Empty” – Jackson Browne

According to Rolling Stone, Brown wrote this while he was commuting to the studio each day to create The Pretender. “I was always driving around with no gas in the car,” he said. “I just never bothered to fill up the tank because — how far was it anyway? Just a few blocks.” It’s a track written on the road, for the road.

2. “On the Road Again” – Willie Nelson

“On the Road Again” is about a performer’s life on the road and was used as the theme song to Honeysuckle Rose, a story about an aging musician who travels with his band/family across the U.S. It’s one of the country legend’s most popular tunes and an iconic travel theme.

1. “Born to Run” – Bruce Springsteen

The Boss’ 1975 rock jam is the definitive road trip song. With it’s fist-pumping melody and Springsteen’s rough, rebellious vocals, it’s an ideal tune to throw on before speeding down the highway with that I-don’t-care attitude. If anything is going to get you pumped up for your next trip, it’s this. (Just don’t blame me when you get pulled over.)