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The Best Songs About Cars

Classic anthems for fast cars, dream wheels, jalopies, and more.

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    Ask a 16-year-old: A car is everything. From that euphoric moment walking out of the DMV with a freshly-printed license and the thought “These suckers say I can drive!” to soul-sucking rush hour bottlenecks, cars are a more significant presence in our lives than some family members. They’re an odd mix of utility and luxury, freedom and adherence to the rules. In many cities in this country, it’s impossible to function without one. That’s why even though it’s only been a hundred years or so since the Model T made maybe the most successfully invasive product debut that century, the songs that we sing about cars are every bit as culturally important as love songs, murder ballads, and other major topics that earn prominent spots in our lore.

    That said, we thought we’d take a look at exactly what we’re talking about when we sing about cars. Call it a taxonomy, an attempt to condense an entire subject matter into its smallest parts. When we sing about cars, we sing about the cars we race, the cars we want, the cars we have (which are seldom as awesome as the cars we want), the cars we cruise, and the cars we flaunt (frequently for wooing purposes). Whatever your speed, there’s probably a car song out there about you.

    –Erin Carson
    Staff Writer

    Fast Cars

    “Dead Man’s Curve”

    Jan and Dean

    Competitiveness and a lead foot prove to be a terrible combination in this cautionary tale from 1964. When the owner of a Jaguar XKE challenges the owner of a Corvette Stingray (the narrator) to a drag race headed toward a near 90-degree turn on Sunset Boulevard, the narrator learns that there’s a good reason you’re supposed to slow down on a curve. The song is a two and a half-minute version of a driver’s ed film (think Wheels of Tragedy), complete with screeching brakes. And in a creepy twist of fate, Jan Berry crashed his own Stingray near the fabled curve two years later, almost killing himself. –Erin Carson

    “The Distance”

    Cake

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    Cake’s discography is rife with some of the catchiest guitar riffs to hit the radio waves, and the guitar revving up “The Distance” serves best for thrusting the pedal down to the floor. The song’s narrator may be “hugging the turns” tighter than dozens of NASCAR drivers, but he never seems to let up and relax. As he continues around the course, he loses sight of everything else in order to go “the distance.” This ride clocks in at about three minutes, Cake providing the perfect jolt of energy to jump-start their next groovy adventure. — Sam Willett

    “Speed Demon”

    Michael Jackson

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    While reminiscing about Michael Jackson, the term “speed demon” is not one that would come to most people’s minds. But aside from fantastical ranches, zombies, and white gloves, the king of pop apparently also had a fascination with fast cars. Produced by Quincy Jones, the Bad single is all about going fast on the freeway, but it comes at a cost, as Jackson squeals, “Pull over boy and get your ticket right…” So, is this song really pro-speeding or anti-speeding? Who knows. But the nearly 10-minute-long video features a claymated Jackson wearing a rabbit mask and hightailing it on a motorcycle, and that’s all that really matters. –Katrina Nattress

    “455 Rocket”

    Kathy Mattea

    Written by Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, “455 Rocket” is basically a love song to a beat-up Oldsmobile (baby blue with wire wheels) whose best feature was its V8 engine. When Mattea finally gets to race the car, she crashes it into the safety rail with such force that even the cop is baffled by the car’s power. It might not have been much to look at, but “455 Rocket” reinforces the idea that it’s what’s under the hood that counts. –Erin Carson

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    Dream Cars

    “Drive My Car”

    The Beatles

    Let’s for a second pretend “drive my car” isn’t a euphemism (what isn’t a euphemism?). The whole song, as well as the future of the guy and girl in question, is based on a chain of “ifs.” If she becomes famous, she can buy a car. If she buys a car, he can drive it. And if he can drive it, well…You know. Dreams are made on rubber and steel. –Erin Carson

    “Low Rider”

    War

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    Referred to by George Lopez as the “Chicano national anthem,” War’s 1975 hit “Low Rider” took the trend of hydraulically modded cars, popular in more urban settings, and turned it into the guy that everyone wanted to be, or if they couldn’t pull off that high a level of cool, at least the guy they wanted to meet. The accompanying video is a gearhead’s delight, full of dope hot rods bouncing and cruising around town. Over the years, the song has become a pop culture staple, popping up in films like Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke, Friday, and The Odd Life of Timothy Green, as well as being covered by damn near everyone at one point or another. –Pat Levy

    “Mercedes Benz”

    Janis Joplin

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    Okay, so maybe a Mercedes Benz wasn’t really Janis Joplin’s dream car (though she did drive a Porsche), and maybe her asking the lord for it in this iconic song is meant as a stance against consumerism instead of a genuine want, but still. It’s Janis Joplin. It’s an iconic song. It deserves to be listed. Joplin’s raspy, whiskey-soaked vocals drive the a cappella track, and most chilling of all, the political blues song was recorded a mere three days before her untimely death. –Katrina Nattress

    “G.T.O.”

    Ronny & the Daytonas

    G.T.O.s are legitimately badass cars, deserving of a song that showcases their sleek style and rich history. Ronny & the Daytonas tackled that task with admirable results, their signature surf rock sound with a twang of their Nashville roots more than rising to the occasion. It’s classic hot rod rock that rivals some of the more well known tunes by The Beach Boys and other bands cut from a similar cloth, and it’s easy to see why it earned the band a certified gold record and several weeks at the top of the charts. –Pat Levy

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    Jalopies

    “Cars”

    Gary Numan

    For a song born out of road rage, “Cars” is surprisingly upbeat. The new wave classic came to Gary Numan after an incident in London where he had to lock his doors and drive on the sidewalk to get away from a few angry citizens trying to get him out of the vehicle. “It’s like your own little empire with four wheels on it,” Numan said of the song’s mantra. The memorable bass line alternates between bass and Minimoog, while the loud claps syncopate the beat, providing a lush background for Numan to sing over before going fully instrumental for the last two and a half minutes. –Pat Levy

    “Dashboard”

    Modest Mouse

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    Considering the frustrated intimidation seeping into Isaac Brock’s vocals, it’s easy to assume that he drives something less than brand new and sparkly. He’s probably taken out some of that aggression with his fist, which brings us the ode to his scarred vehicle, “Dashboard”, the catchy-as-hell single from We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank. Brock pulls it out of the garage to reveal its broken windshield, used best for a lick of fresh air, and severed wiring leaking from the dashboard. Brock is simple, though, and his journey to nowhere should be perfect as long as “he still [has] the radio.” –Sam Willett

    “$1000 Car”

    The Bottle Rockets

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    There aren’t many car songs that have downtrodden messages. Usually it’s bragging about how great your ride is or how cool you are for having such a sweet whip. The Bottle Rockets’ “$1000 Car” takes the opposite approach, encouraging anyone with a thousand dollars to avoid spending it on a car at all costs. It’s a song about letdowns and lemons, sung in the key of sadness, and the pain coming from Brian Henneman’s scraggly vocals feels real for anyone who’s ever been stranded on the side of the road. Some might call it pessimistic, but the advice rings true. If you spend $1,000 on a car, don’t expect it to last. –Pat Levy

    “Automobile”

    John Prine

    There are cars that we all yearn to own, or at least drive, one day. But realistically, we are stuck with our trusted scraps of metal, no matter how luxurious (or lack thereof) they are. Though “Automobile” finds itself on John Prine’s 1979 album, Pink Cadillac, the song’s namesake is actually a 1951 Ford Club Coupe. And no matter how many times that battery dies, the folk singer’s got nothing but love for his clunker. –Katrina Nattress

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