There isn’t a better marriage than the one shared by the music and auto industry. Cars personify individual wealth, power, and mobility, both of the social and physical kind, while music captures the thrill, love, and even the consequence of owning and operating a gas-guzzling, four-wheeled beast. Like singers and songwriters, cars have a story to tell — and not just about the person behind the wheel, but stories drivers make themselves. I doubt very few reading this have gone through life without forging some memorable tale involving a car (I know I have, but most can’t be repeated here).
Not all the songs on this list are obvious choices, although many are. The tracks are chosen not only because of their lyrical fidelity, but because of the emotional response they illicit. It’s a myriad of music meant for all types of tastes. So, in no particular order, here are our picks for the 35 most memorable songs about cars and driving.
Songs #1 – #10
Gary Numan may have had a string of hits in the United Kingdom, but “Cars” was his only Top 40 track in the United States. It’s become a new wave staple more than 40 years later, anchored by analog synthesizers, tambourine breakdowns, and Numan’s nearly-emotionless delivery. Why exactly does Gary Numan feel so safe in his car? Does wearing massive amounts of guyliner makes you impervious to bodily harm? Nonetheless, the infamous bass line is unforgettable.
You know War’s “Low Rider,” or you’ve at least heard the cover by George Clinton, Widespread Panic, or others. Written with the help of War saxophonist Charles Miller, the song isn’t necessarily about the practice of souping up classic cars with hydraulics, but moreso the entire lifestyle that goes with it. The track is jazz fusion at its finest, featuring a steady Latin beat and Miller taking the lead vocals. The low rider is a lot of things, but economical isn’t one of them.
The ’80s have a good deal to answer for — male ponytails, acid-wash jeans, anything Howard the Duck-related — but Billy Ocean’s classic isn’t one of them. Though popular song is based on a mere line from Ringo Starr’s “Sixteen,” it’s surely more famous for its cutting-edge music video, one that spliced cartoon animation with live-action sequences. It starts with a revving engine, before cascading into a frenzy of harmonies, synthesizers, and the most direct chorus of all time.
Though country singer originally wrote “One Piece at a Time,” it was the great Johnny Cash that brought the song to the limelight. It tells the tale of a General Motors employee who works on the Cadillac assembly line who, over the course of 24 years, smuggles enough parts to assemble a Cadillac of his own (albeit not the most attractive one). The song noted for being Cash’s last chart-toppers, along with first recorded usage of “psychobilly” as a music genre.
Many bands covered Vince Taylor and his Playboys’ 12-bar blues song, but it was the recording that found its way onto the Clash’s landmark album, London Calling, two decades later that truly set the bar. Featuring frontman Joe Strummer’s punk-ish wails and quickhanded electric guitar, the song revolves around a girl who decides to flaunt her new vehicle in front of her man — that is, just prior to leaving him to his own graveling and despair. And they say women can’t be heartless.
Rising from the ashes of what was once Uncle Tupelo, Jeff Tweedy’s “Passenger Side” is a song encapsulating the better parts about losing your driver’s license (specifically having others drive you around while you get intoxicated). The song is more country-leaning than the band’s later work, smeared with twanged electric guitar and soaring fiddle. “You’re gonna make me spill my beer,” nonchalantly sings Tweedy in the first verse, “if you don’t learn how to steer.” Touché.
Sure, you could ask The Car’s bassist Benjamin Orr — who supplied lead vocals on the band’s 1984 hit, “Drive” — for a ride, but prepare yourself for an electro-pop filled, melodic onslaught of passive aggressive judgment. The gorgeous, heartfelt ballad known as “Drive” was The Cars’ highest ranking single in the United States and even exhibited a brief comeback two years later when it was featured as background music set to Ethiopian famine images during Live Aid ’85.
Featuring a drum machine and slow synthesizer buildup, Prince’s classic “Little Red Covette” is more about making love than an actual automobile. The song encompasses a one-night stand with promiscuous woman, one Prince urges to slow down before she destroys herself. Despite it’s sexual metaphors and content, the music video was also one of the first two video by a black artist to play in heavy roation on MTV. After all, who wouldn’t drive fast in a red Corvette?
Much like the former Prince hit, “Drive My Car” is really a euphemism for sex. It came out of what Paul McCartney and the late John Lennon called one of the “stickiest” writing sessions in their young career. It follows a woman who recruits the male narrator for a chauffeur position — even though she doesn’t have a car of her own. The upbeat track, the opener to the British version of Rubber Soul, is also one of the most bass-heavy Beatles songs given the double bass.