10 fresh driving songs
Image by Salma Akter from Pixabay

Hit the Road: 10 Fresh Driving Songs

Does your cruising playlist sound a bit hoary these days? Here are ten fresh driving songs, rocking highway anthems to get your motor running.

Let’s face it: car playlists are a dime a dozen. But if you’re like most people, your cruising list probably sounds a bit hoary these days. Few artists write highway-worthy anthems anymore, so it’s the same old, same old—a couple of dozen overplayed classics from the golden age of convertibles, and that’s that.

How does one even define a modern ‘driving song’? To paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart’s famed dictum on pornography, “We know it when we hear it.” Wide-open chords, big, muscular riffs, and perhaps a freewheeling sense of longing thrown in as we ache for youth, freedom, and lost love. Most road songs rock pretty hard, too. But this exercise is about hope and the pure joy of music. So, if a song’s atmosphere is just right, then the topic of cars or highways need not even come up. Imagine your favorite movie characters hitting the road or a dog with its head out the window, and you’re home free.

Several acknowledged classics about wheels or cruising won’t turn up here (“Little Deuce Coupe”, “Born to Be Wild”, or the Muppets’ “Movin’ Right Along”). We aim to dig deeper, freshening up that grizzled playlist with some energizing road tunes you haven’t heard in a while, or perhaps ever. So, before the Fun Police get around to outlawing cars altogether (looking at you, “Red Barchetta”), here are ten sweet highway anthems to get your motor running.

10. Human Television – “In Front of the House” (Look at Who You’re Talking To – 2006)

We begin with a nifty, subliminal earworm that probably wasn’t intended as a ‘road song’ at all. Lifted from Human Television’s second (and so far final) album, “In Front of the House” nonetheless catches street-lightning in a bottle, with an innocuous post-punk motif surging into glorious post-choral riffs that epitomize ‘freedom’ and the open road. Then out it fades, like a carnal sigh. Blast this one loud, and you’ll be the coolest music snob on the highway.

9. An Emotional Fish – “Celebrate” (An Emotional Fish – 1990)

Smile if you remember this obscure Dublin band, who wound up touring with fellow Irishers U2 in 1994. “Celebrate” actually cracked the US Modern Rock top five, prompting a (very) few of us to purchase An Emotional Fish’s painfully uneven debut. But this obsessive, insistent mood enhancer has outlasted many of its college-rock contemporaries and still brings a three-decade thrill whenever it crops up on our playlist. “Celebrate” builds inexorably higher and higher, without limit, and sounds better the louder it’s played. One day, some smart producer will lay this grinding, soundtrack-worthy pearl over a Super Bowl advertisement and make a mint.

8. Strawberry Alarm Clock – “California Day” (Bonus track, Good Morning Starshine – 1969)

Show of hands: Did anybody else indulge in a Strawberry Alarm Clock phase in their youth? Strawberry Alarm Clock could be maddeningly inconsistent, but this old-school, “Route 66”-style anthem remains one of our undying road favorites. “California Day” employs a tried-and-true 1960s youth formula: take an open-top cruiser, pretty girls, endless sunshine, and ten parts irrepressible optimism; mix well; and you cannot go wrong. As the lyrics suggest, we can even leave 1960s California and start a new life. But we’ll always be back.

7. Too Much Joy – “Song for a Girl Who Has One” (Son of Sam I Am – 1988)

Too Much Joy were a fun, subversive band whose moment in the sun was far too short. “That’s a Lie” was Son of Sam I Am’s snide college hit, but “Song for a Girl Who Has One” still packs a truckful of inebriated nostalgia and American road adventure into its breathless three minutes. Wonderful jailhouse harmonica soars over the verses while gleefully descriptive travel lyrics speed the listener from landmark to landmark across an entire wide-open country. “The girl at Stuckey’s, her face was a mess!” What an immortal line.

6. The Soundtrack of Our Lives – “Sister Surround” (Behind the Music – 2002)

This roller-coaster blast of rock joy grabbed us from the very first listen. Soundtrack of Our Lives were an evasive Swedish animal, featuring some excellent riffs marred by schizophrenic songwriting and Def Leppard junior-high lyrics. Album-wise, stick with 2008’s double-LP Communion for best results. But the psychedelia-tinged “Sister Surround” is far and away their most concise and hard-hitting effort, plus a fabulous highway song to boot. If those first thirty seconds of Pete Townsend whorls don’t convince you, just wait for that pounding middle bridge and keep on truckin’.

5. Diesel – “Sausalito Summernight” (Watts in a Tank – 1980)

Now, we vault from Scandinavia to the Netherlands. “Sausalito Summernight” is an unabashed car lover’s homage inspired by guitarist Mark Boon’s teenage sojourn in California. Though the track reached #25 in the United States and topped the Canadian charts in September 1981, we’ll wager no American radio station has dared touch it since the mid-1980s. Diesel deftly chronicle a bumpy, stop-and-go 1960s pilgrimage from Los Angeles to San Francisco, with catchy verses like “Cashin’ all my checks / Straightening out my bank / Spend it on a Rambler with a whirlpool in the tank”. They even chant ALL ABOARD! a scant few months before Ozzy Osbourne on “Crazy Train”. No lie – at 19, cars were everything. Who among us hasn’t scraped our wallet dry in service of the Mighty Wheel? Throw in a bouncy, metal-infused guitar solo, and you’ve got one of the early 1980s most delectable lost singles.

4. Saga – “On the Loose” (Worlds Apart – 1981)

Speak of underrated 1980s singles! Everyone, and we mean everyone, loved this song. How could you not? Perhaps the most uncompromising and deadly-earnest track on this list, “On the Loose”, sounds like a furious therapy session with Charles Manson. Amid gobs of early New Wave/MTV dreck, when long wigs and bad makeup seemed the new keys to success, “On the Loose” was a bracing reminder that wide-open pop hymns could still exist. Top it off with one of rock’s all-time great bridges – a swirling, kaleidoscopic whirlwind of keyboards and guitar that whisks the listener away to a different galaxy. We know a few hardcore Saga fans, but sad to say, the band never matched this near-masterpiece. Who could?

3. Aerosmith – “Sweet Emotion” (Toys in the Attic – 1975)

Adding this overplayed rock staple to our tightly curated list pains my inner music snob to no end. But cue up “Sweet Emotion” at 70 mph, and we’re 18 all over again, racing to rock concerts or pizza joints or wherever the hell we raced back then. Hard to believe, but this was Aerosmith’s first US Top 40 hit, peaking at #36. The woozy opening is magical, and the riffs are unforgettable. The lyrics remain juvenile and profane yet utterly irresistible in our sanitized and conformist age. Steven Tyler describes a ‘catch-me-if-you-can’ lifestyle most of us could never dream of, let alone experience, and he weaves a hell of a driving song to boot. Consider this a re-introduction to a timeless road classic that really needs none.

2. Creeper Lagoon – “Hey Sister” (Take Back the Universe and Give Me Yesterday – 2001)

This criminally under-heard album, one of 2001’s most complex and satisfying releases, reconquers our playlist every couple of years or so. It’s chock full of fantastic guitar-rock gems, none better than the indomitable “Hey Sister”, a carefree romp perfectly suited for highway abandon. The entire song reeks of roaring adventure, describing a wild visit to a strange town that its unsuspecting inhabitants won’t soon forget. One can easily imagine airborne cameras trailing cruising teens in an automobile out west, howling from the top of their lungs without a care in the desert world.

1. My Favorite – “17 Berlin” (Love at Absolute Zero – 1999)

Tough choice. But in the end, My Favorite’s adolescent driving masterpiece had to come out on top. Nestled inside their somewhat disappointing 1999 debut Love at Absolute Zero, “17 Berlin” represents what a thousand post-punk bands try to sound like but fail miserably. Andrea Vaughn’s twee, high-pitched vocal serves as both a nostalgic guide and an incongruous time warp, melding rough-edged distortion with an aquarium’s worth of cascading, chiming guitar. Her spidery, freeze-frame lyrics capture a deathless stage of youth we should never forget: “My boyfriend’s in the driver’s seat / He drives just like James Dean / And nothing else matters when you’re 17.”

“17 Berlin” comes across as less brawny and more sophisticated than your typical highway song, bordering on delicate. But its unyielding wistfulness hits as hard now as it did 25 years ago, revving engines be damned.