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The Ultimate Road Trip Soundtrack

Here are all of the best songs used to create the ultimate road trip soundtrack.

Margot Robbie as Barbie in the 2023 film Barbie singing in her car as she leaves Barbieland.
Credit: Warner Bros.

You’re going on a road trip. Maybe you’re going to your Grandma’s house with your family. Maybe you’ve given into the temptation of “Hey, we’re not doing anything today, we might as well drive to Kansas.” Or maybe you’re traveling for spring break after long weeks of studying. Whatever your situation, you’ve packed the snacks, assembled your luggage, and assigned seats. What could be missing?

Oh, right! The music! Nothing has the unique power to make or break extended car travel like the music you play; therefore, you must create the perfect assortment of tunes to drive alongside. This sounds like a lot of pressure, but do not worry. As someone who was on aux for the entirety of a seventeen-day trek across the United States, I have experience in the matter. In this article, I will provide my list of essential songs to play on a road trip.

Now, I understand that music is quite a touchy, opinionated subject. Everyone’s taste is different, so take these as suggestions. However, trust and believe that I have spectacular taste in music, and you would not be wrong to take my word as law. Anyway, onto the list!

The image shows Muppets Kermit the Frog and Fozzie Bear singing and playing the banjo as they drive along a country road.
Kermit the Frog and Fozzie Bear. Credit: The Jim Henson Company/ ITC Entertainment.

1. “Going Up The Country”- Canned Heat

Perhaps the road trip song “Going Up The Country” has appeared in countless road trip sequences across film and television (i.e. Woodstock, Into the Wild, etc.) Its soft drum beat resembles the sound of car wheels on a highway, the subject matter is traveling around the country, and Canned Heat even went so far as to make a picture of a semi-truck the cover of their album. “Going Up The Country” is a staple in perfect background music for your trek from point A to point B.

Favorite Lyric: “‘Cause you’ve got a home as long as I’ve got mine.”

2. “Free Ride”- The Edgar Winter Group

In my opinion, it is important to listen to fast-paced and catchy tunes when driving, as it helps to keep you alert and ready for anything. “Free Ride” by The Edgar Winter Group serves this purpose with its jazzy bass line and earworm of a chorus. Enjoying the guitar solos and singing along to the high-pitched vocals will not only work to keep you awake but also remind you why being on a car ride is fun.

Favorite Lyric: “The mountain is high, the valley is low, and you’re confused on which way to go.”

3. “Acolyte”- Slaughter Beach, Dog

A more mellow choice, “Acolyte” by Slaughter Beach, Dog is a beautiful song about being young and impulsive. While the previous songs on this list have been tailored more toward driving across a busy interstate, “Acolyte” is the tune for traveling down tree-lined backroads or Small Town, USA. Something about the light melody and simple whistling in between verses always makes me see the beauty in the smallest things, and for that reason, Slaughter Beach, Dog’s track is amazing for ambling around in your car.

Favorite Lyric: “Man it cuts like a dull knife when you’re young and you’re told makes sense when you’re older, darling, let’s get old.”

4. “Ventura Highway”- America, George Martin

Have I ever driven down Ventura Highway? No. But, because of America’s song by the same title, I feel like I have. They describe the ideal drive, where a “free wind is blowing through your hair” and the sun is shining all around you. Now, let’s be honest, not every car trip feels this way. Sometimes you’re packed between a cooler and a suitcase in the backseat while the rain is beating on the sunroof. However, America’s “Ventura Highway” allows its listeners to imagine a world where everything can be this gorgeous and fun, improving any extended trip.

Favorite Lyric: “Alligator lizards in the air, in the air.” (What does that even mean?)

5. “Tangled up in Blue”- Bob Dylan

Widely recognized as one of the best songwriters of the last century, Bob Dylan excels in his ability to tell a story through music. “Tangled up in Blue” is one of his most popular tales, describing the travels of its narrator through many regions, jobs, and people. It makes for a great traveling companion as you drive alongside Dylan for five minutes, and makes for an even better folk ballad for drumming your fingers on the steering wheel.

Favorite Lyric: “I heard her say over my shoulder, ‘We’ll meet again someday on the avenue,’ tangled up in blue.”

6. “American Teenager”- Ethel Cain

Ethel Cain’s concept album “Preacher’s Daughter” could only be described in a completely separate article, but the standout hit “American Teenager” is a modern classic. The song has a very lively, electric beat that accentuates the feeling of driving with the windows down and wind in your hair, and the lyrics allow for acknowledging the problematic nature of the place through which you may be driving. Despite its darker themes, the catchy chorus will have you bopping your head and tapping your toe on the gas pedal.

Favorite Lyric: “It’s just not my year, but I’m all good out here.”

7. “Gypsy”- Fleetwood Mac

Fleetwood Mac is known for their catalog of many danceable, good-vibe-inducing songs. “Gypsy” is one of the many tunes that make you want to sway around in a field of wildflowers, as well as a tune that pairs well with the wide-open road. You may be wondering why I didn’t choose “Dreams.” If it were up to me, Stevie Nicks’ wide-ranging voice paired with the rising and falling melody make this song the ultimate Fleetwood Mac song for motoring along. Sorry, “Dreams.” You’re great too.

Favorite Lyric: “She was just a wish, and a memory is all that is left for you now.”

8. “Ripple”- Grateful Dead

The exact vibe of this song is that of being on a slow, bouncing drive down a picturesque highway. A perfect song for truckin’ along (but not to be confused with their other song “Truckin'”), “Ripple” has such an easygoing melody that you almost forget just how poetic the lyrics are. I’m no Deadhead, but I do love to travel with Ripple playing on my stereo.

Favorite Lyric: “If I knew the way, I would take you home.”

9. “I Know The End”- Phoebe Bridgers

I wouldn’t be doing myself justice if I did not include anything by Phoebe Bridgers. With this song, she creates an altogether terrifying, nostalgic, and invigorating track to close out her sophomore album “Punisher.” Though it may be a little sadder than the rest of this list, the shift of the song occurs with the line “Driving out into the sun.” What else could you expect from a road trip song than a lyric directly referencing a road trip? If you don’t mind a little guttural screaming, “I Know The End” makes a fantastic addition to any driving playlist.

Favorite Lyric: “Romanticize a quiet life, there’s no place like my room.”

10. “Amie”- Pure Prairie League

Pure Prairie League’s “Amie” is a masterpiece of a song, and I will die on that hill. This guitar-infused, country-dad-rock tune features gorgeous vocals, simple and repetitive lyrics, and an outro that completely switches up the song in all the right ways. “Amie” is a childhood favorite of mine, but despite its personal importance to me, it can be universally applicable to the soundtrack of any car trip. It’s just the best. Trust me.

Favorite Lyric: “Amie, what you wanna do?”

The "family" in the movie "We're The Millers" watching Kenny (Will Poulter) singing on their road trip.
The family in “We’re The Millers.” Credit: Warner Bros.

Limiting this list to ten of my favorites was challenging enough, and there are many classic songs missing from my choices (i.e. Willie Nelson’s hit “On the Road Again”). However, this music I pulled directly from my personal road trip playlist may just be as good as it gets. So get out there, get driving, get riding, and I hope you enjoy your trip while you listen to this essential playlist.

Written By

Sophomore studying English and Film Studies at Appalachian State University.

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