I have driven all over this country, from New York to Los Angeles, so I think I can speak with some authority when I say that good road music can either make or break your trip: overdo it on the emo and you’ll end up crying over a cup of complimentary coffee and a stack of tourist pamphlets at the Oregon visitors’ center, bemoaning your rootless existence; but jack yourself up on too many 80s rock hits and you’ll end up knee-deep in empty Dairy Queen Blizzard cups, telling yourself that Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo really WAS a good movie, and that you should totally bring back leopard print sweatbands. That is why a good, well-rounded playlist for such trips is vital.

The list below is meant to provide mood music to the incredible freedom and sense of possibility one experiences when escaping one place and driving towards a new horizon. If you are anything like me, you know that road trips are the perfect time to imagine your life as a kick-ass movie montage.  And everyone knows that a good montage requires an even better musical score to compliment it.

So with that, I present to you your new road trip playlist*.

*These songs are ordered as a playlist, not as a ranking system.

1. “Keep the Car Running” by Arcade Fire

Arcade Fire lyrics

This song has such an amazing driving force and beautiful lyrics that it seems destined to be played while cruising down the highway. Do it.

Notable Lyrics

There’s this fear I keep so deep
Knew it’s name since before I could speak, yeah, oh
They know my name ‘cause I told it to them
But they don’t know where
They don’t know when it’s coming
Oh when it’s coming, keep the car running

2. “Blitzkrieg Bop” by the Ramones

Ramones lyrics

Awesome song from the punk rockers everyone knows and loves. Especially for poseurs who love to wear their t-shirts.

Notable Lyrics

They’re piling in the backseat
They’re generating steam heat
Pulsating to the back beat
The blitzkrieg bop

3. “Only the Good Die Young” by Billy Joel

Billy Joel lyrics

Sing along and enjoy your youth (or at least reminisce about it).

Notable Lyrics

You didn’t count on me
When you were counting on your Rosary
And they say there’s a heaven for those who will wait
Some say it’s better but I say it ain’t
I’d rather laugh with the sinners
Than cry with the saints
The sinners are much more fun
You know that only the good die young

4. “This Land Is Your Land” by Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings

Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings lyrics

Damn straight. This funky cover, originally penned by Woody Guthrie, was used in the opening credits of the 2009 film, Up in the Air. Plus, it’s topical.

Notable Lyrics

In the squares of the city by the shadow of hte steeple
Near the relief office I saw my people
And some were stumbling and some were wondering if
This land was made for you and me
This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the redwood forest to the gulfstream waters
This land was made for you and me.

5. “Thunder Road” by Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen lyrics

Springsteen has said that this song was his, “big invitation to [his] audience, to [himself], to anybody that was interested. [His] invitation to a long and earthly, very earthly, journey hopefully in the company of someone you love, people you love, and in search of a home you can feel a part of.”

To me, this is an invitation not to be saved by a hero, but to be your own. Its lack of naivety kills me every time.

Notable Lyrics

You can hide ‘neath your covers
And study your pain
Make crosses from your lovers
Throw roses in the rain
Waste your summer praying in vain
For a savior to rise from these streets

6. “Start a War” by The National

The National lyrics

A gorgeously layered song with an incredible backbone to support it. The song’s lyrics imply both a threat and a resignation to loss; it is propelled forward by the smart juxtaposition of the piece’s strong musical undercurrent. Beautiful tension is created, making it excellent driving music.

Notable Lyrics

We expected something, something better than before.
We expected something more
Do you really think you can just put it in a safe behind a painting, lock it up and leave
Do you really think you can just put it in a safe behind a painting, lock it up and leave
Walk away now and you’re gonna start a war

7. “Sweet Disposition” by The Temper Trap

Temper Trap lyrics

The musical composition of this song is almost cinematic. It manages to feel both straightforward and dream-like. Many know it from its use in the movie, (500) Days of Summer or that Diet Coke commercial.

Notable Lyrics

A moment, a love, a dream, aloud
A kiss, a cry, our rights, our wrongs
So stay there
Cause i’ll be coming over
And while our bloods still young

8. “Different Drum” by Me First and The Gimme Gimmes

The Gimme Gimmes lyrics

Awesome cover of the original song by Linda Ronstadt. Listen to this version and feel nonconformist.

Notable Lyrics

Yes, and I ain’t saying you ain’t pretty
All I’m saying is I’m not ready
For any person place or thing
To try and pull the reins in on me

9. “Teenage Dream” by Katy Perry

Katy Perry lyrics

Ah, youth. And something from a current pop diva is crucial in any road trip mix. Consider it the musical equivalent of a sugar rush; kind of like the one you get after eating too many Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups to keep you awake while driving.

Notable Lyrics

You make me feel like I’m living a teenage dream
The way you turn me on, I can’t sleep
Let’s runaway and don’t ever look back
Don’t ever look back

10. “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” by The Proclaimers

The Proclaimers lyrics

This song brings the warm and fluffy stuff: it’s hard to listen to this and not smile.

Notable Lyrics

But I would walk 500 miles
And I would walk 500 more
Just to be the man who walked 1,000 miles
To fall down at your door

11. “California Dreamin’ ” by The Mamas & The Papas

The Mamas and the Papas lyrics

Hey! It’s a classic! Got to have one of these in here for balance.

Notable Lyrics

All the leaves are brown
And the sky is grey
I’ve been for a walk
On a winter’s day
If I didn’t tell her
I could leave today
California dreamin’ on such a winter’s day

12. “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” by Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan lyrics

True before. True now. And it will be true again in the future.

Also, this affecting song fits well with the “inspirational movie-montage” angle I’ve got going.

Notable Lyrics

Come gather round people wherever you roam
And admit that the waters around you have grown
And accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth saving
Then you’d better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times, they are a-changin’

13. “If I Ever Leave This World Alive” by Flogging Molly

Flogging Molly lyrics

I love this song for its meta hook alone. It has a great build and a wild energy that will grab you. This is another good song to accompany your imaginary montage.

Notable Lyrics

If I ever leave this world alive
I`ll take on all the sadness
That I left behind
If I ever leave this world alive
The madness that you feel will soon subside
So in a word don`t shed a tear
I`ll be here when it all gets weird
If I ever leave this world alive

14. Any song from Newsies

Newsies lyrics

If you missed this Disney gem as a kid (starring Batman!)—and soon-to-be Broadway musical—you may not understand this cult obsession. It’s silly, but every road trip playlist needs a bit of silly—especially when you start losing your mind as you try to pass through Austin at rush hour on a Friday. “Seize The Day” or “Carrying the Banner” would be my choice here. Newsies ain’t your thing? Insert a musical soundtrack of your choice.

Notable Lyrics from “Seize the Day

Open the gates and seize the day
Don’t be afraid, and don’t delay
Nothing can break us
No one can make us
Give our rights away
Arise and seize the day

15. “Living on a Prayer” by Bon Jovi

Bon Jovi lyrics

I would be remiss if I didn’t include this tune. It is always requested and I haven’t met a person who didn’t like singing it at the top of their lungs. Especially in a car.

Notable Lyrics

She says, “We’ve got to hold on to what we’ve got
‘Cause it doesn’t make a difference
If we make it or not
We’ve got each other and that’s a lot
For love – we’ll give it a shot”
We’re half way there
Livin’ on a prayer
Take my hand and we’ll make it – I swear
Livin’ on a prayer

16. “Empire State of Mind” by Jay-Z , featuring Alicia Keys

Jay Z lyrics

A new theme song for the city of New York (or at least, it joins the top tier ranks of pre-existing theme songs). It has an amazing hook and once it gets you, it doesn’t let go. Yeah, there is a lot of ego to swallow here (“I Made the Yankee hat more famous than a Yankee can”…seriously?), but the song’s energy is infectious.

Notable Lyrics

In New York, concrete jungle where dreams are made of
There’s nothing you can’t do
Now you’re in New York
These streets will make you feel brand new
Big lights will inspire you
Let’s hear it for New York, New York, New York

17. “Diamonds on my Windshield” by Tom Waits

Tom Waits lyrics

Real beatnik sounding-type stuff. Great for late-night drives under the stars. Play it as you drive and you will instantly feel cooler.

Notable Lyrics

You hear the rumble
As you fumble for a cigarette
Blazing through this midnight jungle
Remember someone that you met
One more block; the engine talks
And whispers ‘home at last’
It whispers,
 ‘home at last’

18. “Bittersweet Symphony” by The Verve

The verve lyrics

The journey down the road of life! This song will make your trip feel ultimately more important and deep than it really is.

Notable Lyrics

Cause it’s a bittersweet symphony this life
Trying to make ends meet, you’re a slave to the money then you die
I’ll take you down the only road I’ve ever been down
You know the one that takes you to the places where all the veins meet
No change, I can’t change, I can’t change, I can’t change
But I’m here in my mold.
I am here in my mold.
But I’m a million different people from one day to the next
I can’t change my mold, no no no no

19. “Midnight Train to Georgia” by Gladys Knight and the Pips

Gladys Knight and the Pips lyrics

A love song at its core, “Midnight Train to Georgia” is about changing life paths. This also gives me an excuse to reference the great “30 Rock” and the cast’s awesome version of this song. Kenneth Parcell, we were all so glad you missed it!

Notable Lyrics

He’s leaving,
On that midnight train to Georgia,
And he’s goin’ back
To a simpler place and time.
And I’ll be with him
On that midnight train to Georgia,
I’d rather live in his world
Than live without him in mine.

20. “The Wind” by Cat Stevens

Cat Stevens lyrics

Simple and sincere. This is a great song to start bringing us home. Listen, breathe it in, and feel like what you are doing is utterly profound—even if it’s not.

Notable Lyrics

I listen to my words
But they fall far below
I let my music take me where
My heart wants to go

21. “Where the Streets Have No Name” by U2

U2 lyrics

Did you really think I would forget this one? Not a chance.

Notable Lyrics

I wanna run, I want to hide
I wanna tear down the walls
That hold me inside
I wanna reach out
And touch the flame
Where the streets have no name

22. “Are We There Yet” by Ingrid Michaelson

Ingrid Michaelson lyrics

This song isn’t literally about road trips, but I like the clever word play. Plus, this is a question someone in your car (it may even be you) is bound to ask at some point.

Notable Lyrics

They say that home is where the heart is
And I guess I haven’t found my home
And we keep driving round in circles
Afraid to call this place our home
And are we there yet?

23. “Miles Davis & The Cool” by the Gaslight Anthem

Gaslight Anthem lyrics

Great song from even better punk-influenced rockers, The Gaslight Anthem. The song’s full-throttle energy drives it forward, but it’s the lyrics and Brian Fallon’s voice that make it all feel surprisingly internalized. This isn’t a necessarily get-up-and-dance-song (or awkward-car-seat-dance), but it will affect you and capture your attention.

Notable Lyrics

And don’t wait too long to come home
My how the years and our youth pass on
Don’t wait too long to come home
I will leave the front light on
If the night is all wrong, don’t wait too long.
As we go down, down, down
From our youth to the ground

24. “Remember Me As A Time of Day” by Explosions in the Sky

Explosions in the Sky lyrics

This song makes a beautiful desert landscape even more breathtaking. The emotional current will pull you in and drop you even deeper into the physical world you are travelling through.

There are no lyrics, but the music tells a story all its own.


25. “Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen lyrics

The penultimate road trip song. No explanation necessary.

I’ll let the lyrics bring us home

Someday girl I don’t know when
We’re gonna get to that place where we really want to go
And we’ll walk in the sun
But ‘til then tramps like us
Baby we were born to run