If you're ever wondering about America or where you fit in it, then it’s time for a road trip. Liberty is a full tank of gas and an open highway; your pursuit of happiness will include piles of snacks. And, per tradition, you will also jam out to a road-trip mix of proper driving songs. There’s a reason, after all, we call them “tracks.”
If you want to go all new-school on this soundtrack, you can listen to it on Spotify. Or you can go early-2000s retro: burn it to disc and scribble “Forever Road Mixtape” on it in Sharpie. These 50 sweet songs bring a swirl of styles, sounds, tempos, and genres, unscientifically devised for maximum sing-alongs, high-fives, window-wings, and introspective epiphanies. Over three hours of awesome music, you’ll cover some serious ground, physically and otherwise.
Anyone who spends enough time driving around this beautiful, bewildering country learns that interstate travel is low-key a path to enlightenment. The more we see of each one another -- wherever we're from, wherever we're going -- the more we realize we're all out here together, looking for the same thing.
Jim Morrison said that all Doors songs are about love, death, and travel. "LA Woman" ventures into all three, symbolically and literally, as it pulls off the freeway into the mysterious City of Night. Simply put, this is the best driving song ever recorded.
"It's true that I stole your lighter / And it's also true that I lost the map." A road trip is nothing if not a crucible for any relationship, and if you've ever endured a long car ride amid a fizzling romance, you can relate to this perfectly cynical story-song.
With a single 1999 commercial -- one of the first to premiere on the Internet rather than TV -- Volkswagen sealed this achingly pretty song in the mind of a generation that will forever associate Nick Drake with meaningful night driving in a carload of friends.
Kurt Vile and the Violators are millennial indie-rock's version of a '90s jam band, and this six-minute meander unspools with smoldering drama. The song is about introspection -- Vile very well might be behind the wheel as he ponders the fate of his long-ago friend Alex -- but the solo that comes at 2:30 explodes into the stratosphere.
Poet, children's author and Playboy cartoonist Shel Silverstein penned this song and later gave it to his pal Johnny Cash, who made it famous. But Silverstein's voice -- part gravel, part rubber, part cowboy, part New York Jew -- revels in the song's inherent ridiculousness. And if you want a genuine shock, find his sequel, "Father of a Boy Named Sue."
Though Cash's commanding baritone sells this tall tale of a tune that ricochets across the surprisingly rhymable American landscape, it was actually written by an Australian singer and originally oriented around the geography Down Under.
September, 1998: James Brown storms an insurance agency in Augusta, Georgia with a shotgun, claiming he's being followed by invisible enemies. When the police arrive, Brown splits the scene and leads them on a high-speed car chase through two states before being pulled over and arrested in South Carolina. This song -- released the following year by the UK band who was one of the first to pair electric guitars and turntable scratching (imagine the minds --> blown at the time!) -- is about that episode.
Recorded by pre-Grammy-fame Sia, "Breathe Me" soundtracked the closing scene of Six Feet Under, one of HBO's early prestige series, circa 2005. In it a young woman gets in her Prius and drives away from her family home to begin the rest of her life. As she travels, time outside the car speeds up, and we see her family members die off one by one as she's left weeping behind the wheel, captive to her own fate and the inescapable onset of the future. It's one of the most moving and memorable sequences in television history.
Words to drive by, written by Woody Guthrie and sung by Sharon Jones. God bless you, America!
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Jonathan Zwickel lives and writes in Seattle. He's senior editor at City Arts magazine and contributes to Pitchfork, Stereogum, The Believer, and SPIN and is the author of Beastie Boys: A Musical Biography, published in 2012 by Greenwood Press. Holler@zwickelicious.