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The Essential Songs Every Road Trip Playlist Needs

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Keep these songs blasting on your next U.S. road trip.
Photo by Paul Trienekens/Unsplash

Keep these songs blasting on your next U.S. road trip.

Download these classic tunes before you hit the open road—because all long drives are best enjoyed with good music at top volume.

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Windows down, music blasting, scenic landscapes all around—these elements are all crucial for a road trip. Long drives are just one of the many ways that travelers can move from one destination to another, but they’re particularly special because they allow for uninterrupted soundtracks. And the real magic of these road adventures takes place on the journey, in moments that are enhanced by a spectacular playlist. 

We polled AFAR staffers about the timeless tunes they love to play during their road trip travels. Even if you don’t have a long drive planned, these 20 classic songs might inspire you to go on a cr0ss-country adventure.

During the early stretch . . .

“Road to Nowhere” by Talking Heads



Every road trip involves a little bit of getting lost, and it’s during those moments that this Talking Heads hit is most uplifting. Written by David Byrne for the 1985 album Little Creatures, Road to Nowhere” is intended to present a “resigned, even joyful look at doom," according to album liner notes from Byrne. With lyrics like, “Taking that ride to nowhere / We’ll take that ride . . .” this song is all about enjoying the ebb and flow of adventure.

“Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman

Opening with the lyrics, “You got a fast car / I want a ticket to anywhere,” this tune tells the story of a person imagining life in a different place. Escape and the desire to get out on the road are central themes of the song, which is why Chapman’s 1988 record is a great addition to any cross-country playlist.

“Send Me on My Way” by Rusted Root

Simply put, “Send Me on My Way” is a joyous-sounding tune worth blasting (loudly) on any type of escapade. The song doesn’t detail a particular narrative, but sonically, it exudes an extremely carefree sentiment. Plus, lyrics like: “I would like to reach out my hand / I may see you, I may tell you to run / You know what they say about the young” add to the encouragement of adventure.

“Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” by McFadden & Whitehead

On long road trips, it’s necessary to up the in-car energy level for both the driver and passengers every now and then. McFadden & Whitehead’s soulful 1970s hit always does the trick, with lyrics like “Ain’t no stoppin’ us now / We’re on the move (yeah) / Ain’t no stoppin’ us now” set against the backdrop of an undeniable disco groove.

“Wild Horses” by The Flying Burrito Brothers

“Wild Horses” was originally written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards for the Rolling Stones’s 1971 album Sticky Fingers. But Gram Parsons, a member of The Flying Burrito Brothers (and a longtime friend of Richards’s) asked the musicians for permission to release a version of the song by his band. The Flying Burrito Brothers’s recording of “Wild Horses” was released before the Stones’s version. Both tracks serve as an ode to life on the road: In the liner notes of a 1993 Rolling Stones compilation album, Richards explained that the song is about “being a million miles from where you want to be.” 

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For some musical inspiration . . .

“America” by Simon & Garfunkel

This classic song about two lovers’ cross-country journey on a Greyhound bus is an epic anthem for starry-eyed wanderers. It describes the in-between moments of travel—looking out the window, stopping for a cigarette, “counting the cars on the New Jersey turnpike,” and searching for the meaning of life on the open road.

“Ramblin’ Man” by The Allman Brothers Band

The Allman Brothers Band’s guitarist, Dickey Betts, wrote this loosely autobiographical song about a man who lives in a constant state of travel. The lyrics, “Lord, I was born a ramblin’ man / Tryin’ to make a livin’ and doin’ the best I can” are a meditation on what it’s like to move continuously from one place to another—a feeling road-trippers are familiar with, whether the lifestyle is temporary or ongoing.

“Truckin’” by The Grateful Dead

This Grateful Dead tune, penned by Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, and Robert Hunter, turns the band’s experiences on the road into a metaphor for navigating life’s changes. The bluesy song, which was recognized by the U.S. Library of Congress as a national treasure in 1997, ponders existential thoughts, among them: “What a long, strange trip it’s been . . . ”

“Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen

The 1975 jam that propelled Bruce Springsteen (“The Boss”) to rock-and-roll stardom has essentially been solidified as an enduring all-American escape anthem. Throw on the rebellious ballad—which is included in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s “500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll”—before cruising down the highway on a sweet joyride.

“Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd

This classic sing-along is dedicated to Alabama, but the lyrics were actually dreamed up by Lynyrd Skynyrd’s band members Ed King, Gary Rossington, and Ronnie Van Zant—none of whom were from the southern state. Despite the song’s complicated back story, it’s hard to resist belting out the catchy chorus at least once on a U.S. road trip.

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When it’s time for a loud sing-along . . .

“Tiny Dancer” by Elton John

The lyrics to this 1970s hit were inspired by Elton John’s first trip to the United States with cowriter Bernie Taupin. The song was popularized as a road-trip classic after being featured in the 2000 movie Almost Famous. During the scene, disgruntled members of a rock-and-roll band remember why they love each other after singing “Tiny Dancer” in unison on their tour bus.

“I Want to Break Free” by Queen

Queen’s “I Want to Break Free” encapsulates the basic need for independence and exploration. The lyrics tell the story of a restrictive romantic relationship, but when you’re driving on the open road blasting, “When I walk out that door / Oh, how I want to be free, baby . . . ,” those words can stand for so much more.

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

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This catchy tune by Scottish duo The Proclaimers has the ability to unite an entire car full of people in the act of foot-thumping and over-the-top singing. It’s technically a love song about wanting to be closer to a special someone, but the lyrics focus on the journey itself—and the song’s marching beat is hard to refuse.

“Little Red Corvette” by Prince

“Little Red Corvette” isn’t literally about a speedy vehicle (its lyrics are a metaphor for something slightly more racy). Still, Prince got the idea for the extremely catchy song when he fell asleep in his band member’s 1964 Mercury Montclair Marauder. That car connection has to count for something.

“Total Eclipse of the Heart” by Bonnie Tyler

This 1983 hit by Welsh singer Bonnie Tyler is more of a love song than a road trip–themed track. But the booming pop ballad is almost irresistible to sing along to—perfect for those extra-long stretches of highway when group morale could use a boost.

“Free Fallin’” by Tom Petty

Tom Petty and cowriter Jeff Lynne recorded this hit song in just two days, though you’d never guess it from the song’s success (it was the highest-charting Hot 100 solo single of Petty’s career). In a 2016 interview with Billboard magazine, Petty explained that the song was inspired by the scenes he observed on his frequent drives throughout Los Angeles. The tune sounds like what it feels like to wander aimlessly—and it’s a pleasure to belt, too.

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As the trip comes to a close . . .

“Good Times Roll” by The Cars

When a band named The Cars records a track with the lyrics, “Let the good times roll / Won’t you let the good times roll,” it’s hard not to consider that a perfect road trip song. Slightly cheesy to play on the last leg of a long trip? Maybe. But worth it? Absolutely.

“Moonlight Mile” by The Rolling Stones

According to the songwriter himself, Mick Jagger wrote “Moonlight Mile” about missing home while on the road. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, the Rolling Stones front man explained that the song was inspired by “looking forward to returning from a foreign place” while staring out the window of a train and “[watching] the images of the railway line going by in the moonlight.”

“Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd

The title track on Pink Floyd's 1975 album is thought to be dedicated to former frontman Syd Barrett, who left the band due to an ongoing struggle with addiction. With its airy instrumentals and pensive lyrics, the song conjures feelings of nostalgia and retrospection—the same feelings that often arise at the close of a meaningful adventure.

“Take Me Home, Country Roads” by John Denver

Although this classic hit mentions the state of West Virginia directly, its homecoming-oriented lyrics can apply to any significant journey nearing its end. Fun fact: John Denver had never been to West Virginia before creating the song—and neither had his cowriters (and close friends) Bill and Taffy Danoff.

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