Growing up is just about the most traumatic thing a kid can go through. No sooner are you entering middle school than you’re already nostalgic for the carefree days of naptime and milk & cookie breaks, and it only gets worse from there. The never-ending stress of getting older (and older) can often make us long for the blissful innocence of days gone by in a seemingly unobtainable way.

If there are two things, though, that can easily evoke days gone by, it’s music and music in the car. One of my earliest (and fondest) memories is of my sisters and me piling into the back of my dad’s old green Chevy Nova, rolling down the windows (you had to roll them back then), and cruising country roads, singing “American Pie” along with the radio at the top of our lungs. Another great memory is from a few years later, riding in the back of my sister’s boyfriend’s car, hanging out with older kids for the first time, bellowing along to Night Ranger on what must have been the loudest car stereo system Radio Shack had to offer in 1984.

Some of my best memories from High School are of cruising with friends, listening to 103.3 KHTR, and catching other kids in their cars singing along to the same song. Some of my best college memories are of loading the cooler, grabbing my favorite mix CD and hitting the highway for some spur of the moment road trip.

And as an adult, no matter how hard life gets, one of my saving graces is that I can always leave that stress behind, at least for a little while, and relive one fond childhood indulgence by hitting the DQ, cranking up the Spotify, and heading for the country, proving that the songs (& the technology) may change, but some things always stay the same.

In celebration of this always age appropriate indulgence, here are…

(in no particular order)
(plus a few bonus tracks)

1. American Girl-Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers

Tom Petty was born to be our musical driving companion and has spent a career cranking out one great radio song after another. His finest car tune, though, is the one that started it all. “American Girl” celebrates everything that is good and great about the U.S. of A. and its native young ladies, struggling as they do with life, love, and the pursuit of liberty, and there are few feelings more liberating than lead-footing the gas just as Mike Campbell’s joyous guitar solo kicks in, representing all the American Girls who’ve broken free and started making, and fulfilling, their own promises.

GREAT FOR: driving down Route 66, racing past its living museum of mid-century Americana.

2. Breakaway / Since U Been Gone-Kelly Clarkson

Nearly every song by the Clarkster makes for great escapist driving (no one does emotional release quite like Kelly), but these two odes to…well, breaking away…are the perfect soundtracks to turning tumult into triumph and leaving your woes at the driveway.

GREAT FOR: cruising the hilliest hilly roads you can find and letting your stomach drop just as the mighty KC breaks into one of those cathartic roller coaster choruses.

3. Summer of ’69-Bryan Adams

If you were of radio-loving age when “Summer of ‘69” was released (in the far different summer of ’84), you had an intense love/hate relationship with what is clearly a catchy as hell and supremely well-crafted pop rock tune that, unfortunately, got heavy rotation to the point that its instantly recognizable opening guitar riff made you want to go running from the radio into the nearest blanket fort impenetrable to any and all Canadian singer-songwriters (that means you too, Corey Hart!) Alas, enough time has finally passed that Gen X-ers & Baby Boomers alike have rekindled their love affair with Brian Adams’ raspy worldwide hit, and it has reclaimed its ability to capture perfectly the warm yet painful pangs of nostalgia that make us all long for the past while sinking in, calm and cozy, into our catchy present.

GREAT FOR: a fun yet semi-tearful drive through the streets of your old home town on a golden, late summer afternoon.

4. Roar-Katy Perry

Katy Perry’s struggles to find her happiness speak to us all, so it should be no surprise that an anthem of strength to herself should also serve to empower each one of us (and our inner children). Only the latest in a long line of power ballads aimed at young women who are similarly searching for their place in the world, there’s something particularly emboldening about Katy’s paean to standing up, speaking out, and becoming your true lioness self.

GREAT FOR: a drive alone with you, your thoughts, and your will to be ferocious.

5. Let’s Go Crazy-Prince & the Revolution

Never mind that putting this on in the car will lead to an awkward minute where everyone is trying to talk along with Prince’s testifying spoken intro or that it will conclude with an even more awkward group air guitar to the tasty solo at the song’s incredible climax; like a good rock & roll sandwich, it’s what’s in the middle that counts, and what’s in the middle is custom made for a car full of friends looking to get a little nuts.

GREAT FOR: a car stuffed trip to a Friday Night 80’s Party!

6 – 8. Semi-Charmed Kind of Life-Third Eye Blind / All the Small Things-Blink-182 / My Own Worst Enemy-Lit

There was that moment in the 90’s when Grunge died and the rock scene became dominated by the pop punk of Green Day, Weezer, and many bands like the three who share this slot on our list. Though the end of the more serious-minded Seattle Sound was a blow to those of us who like our music and lyrics heavy, the emergence of a more populous power pop was a godsend for those of us who needed a lift from the doom-addled rock that had so far dominated the decade. As the new bands began to take the charts, the lyrics changed from wry commentary on social issues to even wryer looks at everyday life for young people in America. As such, these songs make excellent choices for blasting loud and caterwauling along to as you’re careening through the world, windows down, making your way through a universe of entry level jobs, college chaos, and romantic misadventures.

GREAT FOR: driving (hopefully sober, maybe not) you and your friends to the next party.

9. Wide Open Spaces-Dixie Chicks

Before being banned from…Earth, apparently…for daring to dabble in political commentary, the Chicks were our go-to source for empowering female anthems, and the greatest of them all was “Wide Open Spaces.” Sung from the POV of an omnipotent narrator about a young woman about to embark on her own life, Susan Gibson’s encouraging ode to striking out on your own told a million little girls that there was a whole world out there beyond their small towns and suburbs and that whatever lie beyond those familiar fences and county lines, the adventure on the other side was worth the weight of getting there.

GREAT FOR: loading your car with all your worldly possessions and hitting the open road for life’s next act.

10. Learn To Fly-Foo Fighters

From the first jingle of Taylor Hawkins’ snare to the last jangle of Dave Grohl’s guitar, “Learn to Fly,” as its name suggests, is more than just a great song to drive to; it’s a song that practically begs you to take flight. Since we don’t have our flying cars in this world just yet (you lied to me, 60’s science fiction, you lied to me!), the best we can do is hang our arms out the windows and feel the fast breeze transforming us into healed people. The song’s forceful search for hope in a hopeless world and subsequent surrender to reckless, wild abandon makes a most appropriate car party theme when you’re driving both towards and away.

GREAT FOR: speeding a hundred miles an hour across the Bonneville Salt Flats.

11. Gin & Juice-Snoop Doggy Dogg

Some drives are slower (and bouncier) than others. While I don’t recommend combing actual gin and juice with the operation of a motor vehicle, I do recommend blasting the hell out of the combo’s namesake song for a laid back spin with the whole damn top down as you say “hey” to your homies and homegirls alike.

GREAT FOR: cranking up the hydraulics and bouncing through your ‘hood as you get your mind off your money and your money off your mind.

12. F*#! You-CeeLo Green

When you need to get out and just do a little anger driving, CeeLo & Bruno’s love letter to open hostility is a cathartically angry yet catchy and fun sing along that makes the titular curse sound about as menacing as a nursery rhyme. Still, CeeLo’s pain is palpable and his reaction is where we all sometimes need to go. So f*#! him, & f*#! her too, indeed!

GREAT FOR: driving ‘round town without the girl (or guy) you love…or for just staying home and playing Pole Position on your old Atari.

13. Panama-Van Halen

The ultimate summer song, Van Halen’s red hot salute to doing drugs, driving fast, and getting intimate with a big ol’ 80s hair dryer is a supreme way to spend three and a half minutes on the highway with the wind running through whatever’s left of your glorious blonde mane of rock star hair.

GREAT FOR: pedal to the metal highway driving, ideally while wearing lots of spandex.

14. Do You Wanna Come Over?-Britney Spears

Say what you want about her (everybody has), but Brit’s got style, and her music has only sunken deeper and more surefooted into her singular aesthetic as she and her artistry have matured. “Do You Wanna Come Over,” one of her most recent hits, is as slinky smooth as anything she’s ever done but also benefits from her long professional relationship with Pharrell and has all the hallmarks of their increasingly adventurous, near Avant-Garde, joint productions. Aside from all that, though, it’s a bumping, pumping, pulsing gel that demands being jammed at excessive volume while being chauffeured around at low, languid speed.

GREAT FOR: jumping in your ride after a bad day and heading to your man, woman, or FWB’s place for a needed bit of late night booty bouncing.

15. Photograph-Def Leppard

The opening guitar riff alone is worth blasting so loud the people in the lane next to you call the cops, but Def Leppard’s yearning tribute to Marilyn Monroe is loaded with about a hundred more hooks, each worthy of a car stereo who’s volume knob goes to eleven. Beyond the brilliance, though, of “Photograph’s” mix of 80s sheen and hard rock punch lies an emotionally honest and tear jerkingly tangible ache for a woman the narrator can never have. Mostly because she’s world famous, ridiculously out of his league, and dead, but we’ve all been there in a perhaps far less epic (but no less painful) way. It’s sad, plaintive, howling core is what truly makes “Photograph” a great drive around & sing-along song. But that guitar riff…

GREAT FOR: driving past their house just to let them know you’re still obsessing thinking about them (even if they’re not thinking about you).

16. Independence Day-Martina McBride

This song has the unfortunate (and outlandishly ironic) distinction of being an anthem for strong women breaking free from the shackles of abuse that has been co-opted and appropriated by right wing conservative talk show hosts. We, however, can take it back by blasting its fierce message from our pickup trucks, mom vans, and third hand station wagons as we roll our way to a better life. No musical moment feels quite as invigorating as Martina hitting that chorus and telling all the world “I will not be beaten, I will not be broken, I will not be yours!” And no statement demands to be blasted as loudly and for all to hear.

GREAT FOR: driving away from his bullshit.

17 – 18. Take It Easy-The Eagles / Running On Empty-Jackson Browne

Both written (or co-written) by Browne and both songs about driving, only not really. When you’re looking for a long drive as a metaphor for your life, you’ll find no better soundtrack than these two angsty country rockers, and you’ll have a hell of a good time singing along to their relentlessly bittersweet melodies as you go. Whether you’re taking a drive to sort out your romantic woes or to deal with the feeling that life is somehow passing you by like a left lane sports car, these are the tunes you want loaded on your playlist.

GREAT FOR: cruising country roads with the GPS disconnected.

19. I Left My Wallet in El Segundo-A Tribe Called Quest

There’s no better song for a long road trip than…a song about a long road trip. Never mind that the narrator eventually experiences the titular bit of misfortune or that he spends most of the song just kind of describing his usual, boring day; focus on the shuffling beat, the superb sampling of the Chambers Brothers’ “Funky,” and the sweet, soulful, psychedelic lilt of Q-Tip’s voice pulling us along, hypnotized, as he lays out his sprawling misadventure. Sometimes, it’s not the destination or wherever the hell you left your wallet that matters but the journey and the cool songs you groove to along the way.

GREAT FOR: a spur of the moment road trip with your favorite tribe members…or a trip through the desert to do Peyote with your band. Speaking of which…

20. L.A. Woman-The Doors

L.A.’s a driver’s town, so it’s no wonder that, years before the Red Hot Chili Peppers wrote ten album’s worth of songs about the city of angels, its first musical sons would pen and pipe the city’s greatest unofficial theme song and that it should sound and feel like actual driving. Jim Morrison’s poetic tribute to his adopted hometown is just as passionate about its vehicular preoccupation as it is its penchant for “motel money murder madness,” and for that reason it is an excellent song to cruise to when you’re feeling a little mad yourself. In short, “L.A. Woman” was made to be driven to. So get out of your crummy apartment, stuff the Doors into that vintage 8-Track player and head off to wherever the freeway takes you.

GREAT FOR: random freeway driving when you just don’t want to be at home.

21. Rock & Roll-Led Zeppelin

This is the song I will die to. I know this because anytime I hear those drums kick in and that guitar riff unwind, my hand goes to the volume knob, my foot presses the gas, and my fingers drum against the steering wheel in a five digit frenzy that is sure to one day set off the driver side airbag. It’s also the song most likely to pump me full of the impetuosity to hang out the window, drive on the sidewalk, and try to outrun the cops. So yeah, this one’s good for cranking up and is definitely the song I’m gonna die in a ball of fire and flaming wreckage to. And I’d have it no other goddamn way.

GREAT FOR: driving down the sidewalk or anywhere you’re not supposed to be.

22. Stars-Grace Potter

For a long, wistful night drive, Grace Potter’s sad poem to lost love and lingering longing is a comforting companion. That the sadness grows deeper as the song gets louder (and you invariably turn the volume right) is a testament to her as a queen of emoting and to the human spirit’s ability to find catharsis in even the darkest of moments. For even in those moments, where we’re actively trying to deny the stars themselves, there they are, shining down, reminding us that our hearts are still alive and beating enough to hurt so much.

GREAT FOR: a long night drive in the country with someone you love or the ghost of someone you’re still missing.

23. Everybody Talks-Neon Trees

Some songs, like some drives, are just for the fun of it.

GREAT FOR: jumping in the car for no good reason other than rolling the windows down, turning the volume up, and enjoying your life.

So, that’s our list! What do you think? Did we leave any out that should have been on? Do you have a particular song that evokes family drives or good times in the car from your childhood? Let us know in the comments! And until next time, happy driving!

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