We don’t know of any formula for it, but we know the visceral reaction you get when you hear a truly rocking song. It can’t be recreated in a lab or properly described on paper.
In that respect, hearing a great song is a lot like the feeling you get driving a great car. To nail down 10 tracks up to the task, we focused on the songs that sound amazing with the windows rolled down while referencing cars on some level. Guitar-heavy rock works best so our list skews in that direction.
Here are the 10 best car songs, ranked in no particular order.
1. ‘Panama’ by Van Halen
For sheer rock exuberance in a car-themed song, Van Halen’s “Panama” has no equals Released on the hit 1984 album from the same year, it features David Lee Roth in vintage form, describing his wild attraction to a lady in automotive terms. Her hot shoes are “burning down the avenue” and there “ain’t nothing like…her shiny machine.” Then the scene shifts to sex behind the wheel with “pistons popping” and related fireworks.
An especially cool thing here is the lack of any reference for the title. Why is it called “Panama” anyway? Some say Roth had a car he named Panama, but it’s irrelevant. It’s just 1980s rock made for the road with one of the wildest videos ever shot. If your computer crashes and you only got one car song out of this list, we’d be comfortable with “Panama” being that one.
2. ‘No Particular Place to Go’ by Chuck Berry
What would rock have been without the late Chuck Berry? Who knows, but the master is in peak form on this car classic from 1964. In “No Particular Place to Go,” Berry paints the portrait of a guy driving around with his girl somewhere early in their romance over music that’s identical to his early hit “School Days,” except with car lyrics.
The stop-start song structure gives that feeling of coming to a stoplight, checking the neighborhood, and continuing on your way. It all feels like a casual afternoon drive. At one point, the narrator find a nice spot for a stroll with his lady but they have a seat belt malfunction. So they just keep driving, “cruisin’ and playing the radio,” doing the things lovers do on sunny days in cars. Over 50 years later, “No Particular Place to Go” still sounds epic blaring out of car windows.
3. ‘Bang a Gong (Get it on)’ by T. Rex
T. Rex’s Electric Warrior is one of the great glam rock albums, and singer-songwriter-axeman Marc Bolan is in top form on “Bang a Gong (Get it on).” American radio audiences agreed and made it a No. 1 hit in 1971. He begins talking about a “dirty sweet” object of his desire all “clad in black…slim and weak.” Then she starts reminding him of a car, which gives us these lyrics:
You’re built like a car / You’ve got a hubcap diamond-star halo / You’re built like a car, oh yeah
This is a song made for the road (ideally, in the summertime). As a tribute to Chuck Berry, Bolan quotes “Little Queenie” at the close: “And meanwhile, I’m still thinking.”
4. ‘Medley: Jack and Neal/California Here I Come’ by Tom Waits
On the Road is the signature book of the Beat Generation, and Tom Waits celebrates Jack Kerouac’s epic road trips in this medley from Foreign Affairs (1977). Waits has Neal Cassady having sex with a nurse while driving, Jack trying to buy benzedrine from a passing Lincoln, and other adventures while speeding down 1950s American roads. Though not a guitar scorcher like other tracks on this list, Waits’s beatnik jazz groove is just as satisfying.
5. ‘Radar Love’ by Golden Earring
Dutch rockers Golden Earring dropped this classic car song in 1973, and it features about everything you want to hear with the volume up and the windows down. If you haven’t gotten the feel of the road yet, the lyrics handle the rest.
I’ve been driving all night my hands wet on the wheel / There’s a voice in my head that drives my heel / It’s my baby calling, saying ‘I need you here!’ / And it’s half past four and I’m shifting gear
We like the touch that they don’t communicate by phone or letter. This song makes any car you’re driving feel like a burner, unless you have one of those Mitsubishi electric cars.
6. ‘Something Else’ by Eddie Cochran
Eddie Cochran is a forgotten superstar of early rock, the “white Chuck Berry” who somehow got lost in the shuffle. Listening to the pounding “Something Else” from 1959, it’s hard to understand why. Cochran cuts a sharp guitar riff with heavy cymbals while describing a courtship that’s complicated because he’s got no wheels. Unfortunately, “a brand new convertible is out of [his] class.”
The narrator dreams about riding around with the top down and his arm around the girl, and you can’t blame him. However, he’s only got a ’41 Ford (“not a ’59″). In “Something Else,” Cochran depicts that 1950s young man yearning and delivers a tune still worthy of high volumes on a drive. Led Zeppelin covered this song but could never make it more explosive than the original.
7. ‘Mustang Sally’ by Wilson Pickett
Mack Rice wrote “Mustang Sally,” but Wilson Pickett immortalized it in 1966 with this soul classic. Few songs hit such a fine groove while name-dropping the original pony car released a few years earlier. You can imagine how many Mustangs had this pumping from their speakers when the song was released, and it hasn’t lost much luster 50 years later.
The Sally of the tune is a bad girl of sorts. “All she wants to do is ride around town,” and Pickett suggests she slow that muscle car down. We suggest you crank the volume.
8. ‘Rip It Up’ by Little Richard
This lightning bolt of a track appeared in 1956, and there is no containing Little Richard within its 2 minutes and 23 seconds. He just wants to rock it up, rip it up, shake it up, and bawl tonight. It’s Saturday night and he just got paid, and then everything starts in an Oldsmobile 88, the proto-muscle car in Richard’s day.
“Rip It Up” is essential on a car song list for the 88 reference and everything it represents. You get the feeling of total freedom and adventure a guy got from his car in those days, and nearly every early rock star had to cover this track at some point. It’s just as explosive 60 years later.
9. ‘Black Sunshine’ by White Zombie featuring Iggy Pop
With “Black Sunshine,” we acknowledge music released after 1990. White Zombie’s metal romp has a frantic tempo, blistering guitar lines, and a crazy intro by Iggy Pop. “The wheels of his Mustang exploding like a slug from a 45,” Iggy remarks, and you have to like where this is going. Iggy also suggests the car is “true death … 400 horsepower of maximum performance piercing the night.” So bad, it’s good.
Rob Zombie and the band take care of the rest. As a bonus, the video features a Mustang screaming down the highway, making “Black Sunshine” almost as fun to blast on your computer as on the open road.
10. ‘Trampled Under Foot’ by Led Zeppelin
Forget about their British origins. No band represented the wild excess of American culture better than Led Zeppelin. You can pick three tracks from any album as the ultimate road trip song, but we’ll head to 1974’s Physical Graffiti for one particular gem. This one gets pretty graphic in its suggestions of what the singer would like to do with his object of desire:
Greased and slicked-down body, groovy leather trim
Like the way you hold the road. Mama, it ain’t no sinTalkin’ ’bout loveTrouble-free transmission, helps your oils flow
Mama, let me pump your gas, mama, let me do it allTalkin’ ’bout love
As a tribute to other contenders, we offer a list of honorable mentions: “Brand New Cadillac” by The Clash; “Highway Star” by Deep Purple; “409″ by The Beach Boys; “Lowrider” by War; and “The Big 3 Killed My Baby” by The White Stripes.