Grounded: Great road-trip songs — and not

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Since a whole lot of travel through the rest of this year is going to be domestic and on the road, I’ve decided to share my list of the “best road-trip songs” in pop culture. Here it is:

“It’s Not Unusual” by Tom Jones; “I Wish,” by Stevie Wonder; “Mars,” from The Planets by Gustav Holst; “Need You Tonight,” by INXS; “Potato Head Blues,” by Louis Armstrong’s Hot Seven; “Say Something,” by Justin Timberlake; “The Coffee Song,” by Frank Sinatra; And “Don’t Stop the Beat,” by Junior Senior.

What do these songs have to do with road trips, you ask? Absolutely nothing. Which makes this list just as valid as about 90 percent of the “best road-trip song” lists currently on travel and non-travel media sites right now, from blog posts to Facebook share to travel “news” sites (emphasis on the air quotes).

A recent online article by editors at Time Out New York, for instance, offers 50 song titles with the ballsy headline “The best road trip songs of all time.” The only problem, and it’s not a minor one, is that 30 to 40 percent of the songs aren’t even remotely related to road-trips.

A few examples from Time Out’s list:

“Jack & Diane” by John Cougar Mellencamp talks about growing up in the Heartland and not taking youth for granted; “Keep the Car Running” by Arcade Fire is about a boyhood nightmare; U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name” is about erasing economic and religious divisions; Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” doesn’t make a single reference to driving or even cars; the Proclaimers “I’m Gonna Be” is about walking 500 miles so, technically, it’s a hiking song; and “Little Red Corvette” by Prince is a bouncy love ballad about having unplanned sex with a stranger. 

Similarly, Spotify’s recent playlist titled “Classic Road Trip Songs” offers 100 titles (predominantly ‘80s hits and a lot of Yacht Rock), although only 11 songs can be even loosely interpreted as road-trip anthems. The playlist should have been more accurately called “Classic Songs for Road Trips.”

And those are just two of the bigger examples from the hundreds of lists out there. 

Why is it important? If you’re going to compile a list of something, especially if you say it’s the BEST of that something (which we all know is good SEO), it really should actually BE that something. Otherwise, you might as well randomly name songs you like and call them “road-trip songs.”

Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl”? Road-trip song.

“Start Me Up,” by the Rolling Stones? Yup, road-trip song.

Beethoven’s 9th Symphony? Total road-trip song.

In general, the formula is simple: road, vehicle, driver, music. But clearly there’s more to it than just describing the romance or loneliness of the road, the need to get somewhere or get away, and the adventures that pop up along the way, so here are some guidelines to consider:

First, there is a big difference between “road-trip songs” and “songs that are fun to play on a road-trip.” One is a genre of music, the other is whatever the hell you happen to like.

Second, it isn’t a road-trip song just because it has the word “road” in the title or includes the make and model of a car. Ray Charles’ “Hit the Road, Jack” isn’t about a trip. “On the Road Again,” by Willie Nelson, however, is solidly about a road-trip, albeit one that is necessitated by his wife and best friend doing the “Little Red Corvette,” if you know what I mean.

Third, songs about a place are only road-trip songs if the singer is headed to or from that place on a long drive, or even just thinking about the drive. “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd? Nice place, but there’s no trip. “Graceland” by Paul Simon? That’s a road-trip.

Songs that offer long journeys or road-trips as a metaphor for life, such as the Beatles “Long and Winding Road” and “Everyday is a Winding Road” by Sheryl Crow, can go either way. It’s up to you.

Again, you ask, why is it important?

First, for many travelers, road trips have been the life-preserver of the pandemic, offering the ability to venture beyond our apartments and homes long enough and safely enough to feel free and somewhat normal for a little while. The sanctity of road trips and their value in American culture cannot be overstated. The songs that celebrate that — “Radar Love” by Golden Earring, “The Road’s My Middle Name,” by Bonnie Raitt, Keith Urban’s “Who Wouldn’t Wanna Be Me?,” “Road Trippin'” by Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Born to Be Wild” by Steppenwolf, “Take Me Home, Country Roads” by John Denver (although I prefer Jason and the Scorchers version) and almost any recording of “Route 66” — can make the miles fly by.

Also, in this age when “importance” is measured by the clicks and likes and online traffic that SEO fabricates, it’s handy to have ways of measuring the actual quality of content. Answer this: Did the writer put a lot of thought into a new-ish idea and make sure that the logic tracks, or did he or she just Google “road trip songs” and cut and paste the results into a post?

Most of the time, you don’t have to drive AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” to figure that one out.