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10 Best Road Trip Songs

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Life imitates art, which imitates life...

As a young drummer-dude I played in rock bands (still do, as a slightly older drummer-dude) and went on tours in ratty vans overly-packed with sweaty musicians (uh, not so much anymore, thank you). Besides being a wonderful life experience, the interesting group dynamics of young men and women living in each other's pockets for months on end is an absolute treasure trove for an author, and I put that experience to good use in writing my debut YA novel Road Rash, a "band-on-the-road" story about growing up--and growing into yourself.

So in conjunction with the book's release, my wife (Wendelin Van Draanen--a well-known children's author) and I are embarking on a two-month road trip of our very own this spring, on what we're calling the "He Said/She Said" author tour. We'll be visiting dozens of book stores, schools, and festivals as we drive across most of the U.S., talking about books and writing. (And about how we share an office and remain married. Our tag line for the tour is "Expect arguments!")

As anyone who's driven cross-country knows, good road tunes are as important as good road food. For chow we've got Guy Fieri's Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives to guide us to the greatest grease-buckets along the way. For road tunes, we're building a huge playlist, starting with songs referenced in Road Rash (which seems only fitting for this tour). There are probably 70 tunes referenced in one way or another in the book, but not all good songs are good road songs, fit for blasting out of the speakers as you sing along, cruising down the interstate. A proper road tune is defined by forward motion, either in the lyric, the groove, or the theme behind the music.

Here, then, are the top 10 road trip songs from Road Rash. Some are new, some are timeless, but all are about going somewhere...

  • 1. “Can’t Getcha Out Of My Mind” by Deep Dark Robot
    This entire song (from what is essentially a wonderful-yet-heart-rendingly-confessional solo effort by Linda Perry) takes place in a car, using vehicular references as metaphor for a life spinning out of control due to romantic desperation. Sample: "Well the white lines on the highway/ Headed straight for heartache/ All I see are caution signs/ I'm driving kinda crazy, coming for you baby, to make you mine"
  • 2. “Magic Bus” by The Who
    Perhaps the quintessential "going to see my baby" song, this tune is as well known for its infectious percussion breakdown as for its lyrics about a magic bus that takes the narrator to visit his girlfriend. (Using maracas, claves, and acoustic guitar to drive a rock hit was another in a long line of brilliant decisions by Pete Townshend.) Sample: "Every day I get in the queue/ To get on the bus that takes me to you/ I’m so nervous I just sit and smile/ Your house is only another mile"
  • 3. “Right Hand Man” by Joan Osborn
    Rather than specifics about travel, this song is propelled forward by Osborne’s nasty/sublime vocal delivery and the fact that the music drops a beat at the end of every other bar, giving it a cool "falling forward" vibe as it pummels you into submission. Sample: "I walk into the street/ The air's so cool/ I'm wired and I'm tired/ And I'm grinnin' like a fool"
  • 4. “Take Me to the River” by Al Green/Talking Heads
    Okay, this is a two-fer. Al Green wrote it (along with his guitarist, Teenie Hodges), and his yearning, soulful voice yielded the perfect blend of the profound and the profane, taking us to church via the river of redemption. And Talking Heads turned it on its head, slowing it down and using the minimalism of a stripped down four-on-the-floor groove as the perfect backing for David Byrne’s hypnotic, compelling vocal. But either way (and we love both), this song’s about making that trip to the river, to power-wash your soul. Sample: "I don't know why I love you like I do/ After all these changes that you put me through/ You stole my money and my cigarettes/ And I haven't seen hide nor hair of you yet"
  • 5. “Landlocked Blues” by Bright Eyes w/Emmylou Harris
    Somewhere in the middle of all those high-energy road songs you need a few heartfelt slow numbers, if for no other reason than to have something to ponder when it’s your turn at the wheel in the wee small hours, while everyone else sleeps in the back. This may be the archetypal “It’s 2:00 a.m. and I’ve got to move on but I don’t know where” song, and the raw recording of Conor Oberst and Emmylou Harris has all the perfect imperfection inherent in a rough first take of a great song. It’s lengthy for a ballad at almost six minutes, but trust me—at 2:00 a.m. on a lonely road, you won’t want it to end. Sample: "If you walk away, I’ll walk away/ First tell me which road you will take/ I don’t want to risk our paths crossing some day/ So you walk that way, I’ll walk this way"
  • 6. “Going to California” by Led Zeppelin
    Going from Bright Eyes to Zeppelin may seem like moving from the pondering to the ponderous, but this mandolin-fueled acoustic number ditches the distorted guitars and beefy drumming of typical Zep tunes and instead goes for a Cali-folk-influenced tale of a man leaving heartache behind and heading west to make a new start. Sample: "To find a queen without a king,/ They say she plays guitar and cries and sings.../ Ride a white mare in the footsteps of dawn/ Tryin' to find a woman who's never, never, never been born."
  • 7. “Something’s Wrong” by K’s Choice
    Okay, time for the real deal. Ask anyone who’s ever sung for their supper somewhere along the road and they’ll confirm that this one speaks the truth. (After all, who can argue with the sentiment of, ‘When your pubic hair’s on fire, something’s wrong.’…?) The brother/sister team heading up K’s Choice—Gert and Sarah Bettens—have made some wonderful music in the studio (“I’m Not an Addict”, anyone?) but this appropriately-recorded-live-in-concert sing-along wins the reality award for road trip songs. Sample: "When you like music more than life, something's wrong/ When you start sleeping as you drive, something's wrong/ When your favorite drink is thinner, something's wrong/ When you're proud to be a sinner, something's wrong…"
  • 8. “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” by The Clash
    All right, the three-song unplugged mini-set is officially over. Time to kick it back into high gear with this classic "get comfortable or get gone" missive from the Clash. Not that there’s anything groundbreaking here, at least lyrically (romantic indecision being a mainstay of rock), but this snotty, hard-driving song—with its double-time choruses and backing vocals sung in Spanish—turned heads when it became a post-punk breakout 30 years ago, and still works the same magic today. Sample: "If I go there will be trouble/ And if I stay it will be double/ So you got to let me know…/ Should I stay or should I go?"
  • 9. “The Letter” by Joe Cocker
    Originally written by Wayne Carson Thompson and recorded by The Box Tops in the 60s, this tune’s been covered a lot, including Joe Cocker’s studio version. But the best is Cocker’s live version, from the 1970 Mad Dogs and Englishmen live recording. (Slightly different from the take in the film of the same name, by the way.) It benefits from Cocker’s gravelly vocals, Leon Russell’s soulful arrangement for the sprawling, energetic band, sax and trumpet solos from what has become the Rolling Stones’ horn section, and--perhaps best of all--the heavenly vocal support supplied by the "Space Choir"… a huge backing ensemble featuring a young Rita Coolidge. If this doesn’t make you want to move, nothing will. Sample: "Give me a ticket for an airplane/ I ain't got time to take no fast train/ Oh, the lonely days are gone, I'm coming home/ Well, my baby she wrote me a letter"
  • 10. “Highway to Hell” by AC/DC
    Written by the band as a metaphor for the grueling life of a rock group on the road, this recording (helmed by uber-producer Mutt Lange) signaled a new sound for the band, which would eventually lead them to mega-stardom and tens of millions of records sold. Unfortunately for lead singer Bon Scott, he would never live to see the fruits of their labor, as he was found dead six months later (the official cause was categorized as "death by misadventure," aka alcohol poisoning). Regardless of (or perhaps because of) the untimely demise of one of rock’s greatest frontmen, “Highway to Hell”--with its twin-guitar attack and snarling, raspy vocals--is firmly in the lexicon of anyone who’s ever taken to the highway with guitars and drums in tow. Sample: "No stop signs, speed limit/ Nobody's gonna slow me down/ Like a wheel, gonna spin it/ Nobody's gonna mess me around/ I’m on the highway to hell…"

So there you have it. As we break a champagne bottle over the hood of our tour van and set sail on our next road trip adventure, we promise to faithfully keep the wheels turning, the windows down, and the tunes cranked...