People in Southern California drive. A lot. Whether it’s hurrying to work, dropping the kids off or running errands, the frustration boils over when you inevitably hit traffic. Which, being here, you probably do a lot.

When you’re on a summer road trip without a care in the world, rolling through the sun-drenched SoCal landscape, the drive is infinitely more pleasurable. The following playlist is this summer’s soundtrack for that quintessential West Coast experience. 

The sonic backdrop to the summer drive calls for tunes that overlap two sensibilities: some skew more road trip, others more midsummer. Some meet right in that sweet spot in the middle.

In compiling this collection of songs, members of the UCLA Magazine staff sought to strike a delicate balance between the obvious and the obscure, the old and the new, the familiar and the foreign. This eclectic list runs the gamut from country road tunes to smooth bossa jazz, California classics to Japanese pop.

But no matter the genre or era, if you can’t picture yourself driving leisurely down PCH in July with it pumping from your speakers, you definitely won’t find it on this playlist. Sit back, relax, tap your steering wheel to the rhythm and ride off to wherever you want to be — or to no place in particular. As Jack Kerouac once wrote, “The road must eventually lead to the whole world. Ain't nowhere else it can go — right?” Enjoy.


On the Road Again

Willie Nelson

This 1980 crossover country classic is probably the only one that could cause Snoop Dogg and Matthew McConaughey to break out singing in unison on a car ride. (Yes, that really happened.) That odd coupling only reinforces the fact that no true road trip is complete without playing Outlaw Willie’s ode to the open road. The song, from the soundtrack for Honeysuckle Rose (in which Nelson starred), earned Nelson a Grammy and garnered a spot on the Rolling Stone list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”


A Summer Song

Chad & Jeremy 

Part of what makes summer so sweet also gives it a hint of sadness — the knowledge that fall is just around the corner. Float along to this warm, wistful Chad & Jeremy jam from 1964 and embrace the beautiful melancholy that makes those summer moments matter more. This tune ended up being the British Invasion folk rockers’ biggest hit.


You Can't Catch Me

Chuck Berry 

“An incredible narrative of a car race (and subsequent police chase), this mini-movie is indeed one of Chuck Berry's greatest lyric accomplishments,” wrote AllMusic’s Matthew Greenwald. John Lennon and the Beatles’ “Come Together” famously cribbed the lyric “Here come old flat-top” and the melody from Berry’s masterpiece, so much so that the Fab Four’s release prompted a lawsuit from the publisher of the father of rock and roll’s song.


Queen of Hearts

Juice Newton 

The New Jersey–born Newton delighted the country world with this, the most famous version of a 1979 tune originally written by Hank DeVito. A great sing-along song well suited to road trips, the memorable melody and bounce-inducing guitar play propel this tune forward as you book it down the highway.

Best lines: “Baby, I know it makes you sad / But when they're handin' out the heartaches / You know you got to have you some.”



Alan Jackson 

If you’ve never waterskied in a cowboy hat, boots and jeans, you’ll desperately want to try it after singing along to Alan Jackson’s 1992 classic. As refreshing as the grape snow cone it references, this uptempo country tribute to a Georgia river extols the virtues of lazy summer living.

WARNING: Shouting the opening lyrical couplet too enthusiastically may cause an uncontrollable desire to rock a mullet and a mustache.

Best lines: “Talking 'bout cars and dreaming 'bout women / Never had a plan, just a-livin' for the minute.”


I Get Around

The Beach Boys

How could we not include the Beach Boys, the quintessential Southern California surf band (even if most of the band members were never catching waves themselves)? In any event, this smash hit is about driving, not surfing. Released on May 11, 1964 (with the B-side “Don’t Worry Baby”), it was the Boys’ first chart-topper, setting off their unofficial rivalry with the Beatles.

Trivia: “I Get Around” was penned by genius bandleader Brian Wilson and Mike Love, uncle of one-time Bruin basketball star Kevin Love.



Dean Martin and Line Renaud 

You’ll feel as cool as a member of the Rat Pack when you roll through town and country to the sounds of this jazzy Francophile 1955 number from Dino and French songstress Line Renaud. For all its funny faux Frenchisms, the lyrics entreat the American listener to take a much more European attitude to the balance between work and play, productivity and rest.
Best line: “The more you earn, the less you learn to relax-ay-voo.”


De Jour en Jour

Sophia Loren 

In the ’60s, bossa nova was all the rage, so much so that Italian film star Loren decided to get in on the act with “De Jour En Jour.” The track is one of the songs on her seven-inch for French label Barclay, entitled Je Ne T'aime Plus (which translates to “I Don’t Love You Anymore”). Italian film composer Armando Trovajoli crafted the 1963 song’s sublime, laidback guitar and woodwind elements to provide the perfect accompaniment for Loren to coo convincingly over in world-weary French.


Mishaps Happening


The first heavily instrumental piece on this list is the title track of the 2004 album from Quantic (Will Holland). Holland told Future Music he had been expanding his record collection at the time to encompass “Afro-Latin, Caribbean, spiritual jazz and Afrobeat” music. Those rhythms hugely influenced the album’s sound, evidenced by this track’s bossa nova loop, while Alice Russell’s wordless “do-duh-do-do” vocals serve as a tribute to Brazilian icons Baden Powell and Flora Purim.


Summer Baby

Jonas Brothers 

For this sugary upbeat pop jam, Joe, Nick and Kevin caught inspiration from Shania Twain’s countless country-pop hits. (Variety called it 2023’s 16th best song.) The lyrics are mostly cheesy, non sequitur compliments (“Supernatural sugarcane / Overdrive all the way, hypersonic ricochet / In my head every day like a melody, baby”) to the singer’s object of affection, but the talented trio manages to pull it all off with earnest excitement.




It’s hard to not sing along to this angsty, reggae-flavored anthem from the SoCal band that started a ska-punk mini-revolution in the ’90s. “Santeria” is widely considered the band’s signature song (even though some might argue that title belongs to “What I Got”), venerated by a generation of hacky sack bros. The tune, characterized by a bright, lilting melody and violent lyrics, was released in 1997, eight months after the tragic overdose death of lead singer Bradley Nowell.


Players Holiday


Oakland rap supergroup T.W.D.Y. (The Whole Damn Yay) elaborates on the theme of the song whose melody it interpolates (see the next song on the playlist), for what day could be lovelier than a players holiday? Released in July of 1999, the song was a fixture on Bay Area hip-hop radio station KMEL, as well as on the popular Music Video Countdown Show on CMC (California Music Channel). Rappin’ 4-Tay steals the show with his contribution to this all-star posse cut, opening his verse with “None of the homies got popped, none of the spots got batterrammed / And I'll be damned, it's crackin' like a Summer Jam.”


Lovely Day

Bill Withers 

This timeless feel-good tune was the first single from Withers’ sixth album, Menagerie. Released four days before Christmas in 1977, it must have felt like quite a gift to listeners at the time. In 2021, Rolling Stone ranked it No. 402 on its “Top 500 Best Songs of All Time” list. Toward the end of this remarkable musical achievement, Withers gives us one of the longest sustained notes in recorded pop music history (18 seconds!).

Trivia: Bill met his future wife, Marcia Withers M.B.A. ’76, while she was a graduate student attending UCLA. Of his partner, Bill once said, “Marcia is an optimist.” How fitting for a Bruin!


Upside Down

Jack Johnson 

In the words of billionaire Virgin Records founder Richard Branson, “Any fool can make something complicated. It is hard to keep things simple.” In the case of “Upside Down,” Johnson manages to make simplicity seem easy — and sound delightful. The sing-along ditty dropped in 2006 as the first single from Johnson’s Curious George soundtrack. It’s the kind of sweet acoustic guitar pop that appeals widely across age groups — and absolutely thrives in summer. Dripping with positivity, honesty and a steadfast belief in the endless possibilities life can offer, it’s enough to melt the heart of the staunchest cynic.


Summer Breeze

The Isley Brothers 

While there was a staff nomination of the Seals and Croft soft rock original from 1972 (which is very good in its own right), it’s hard to overlook the irrepressible Isleys’ rock soul version of “Summer Breeze” from two years later. The song evokes the feeling of arriving home after a hard day’s work to enjoy a home-cooked meal on one of those jasmine-scented evenings at the height of summer. Ernie Isley’s raucous, outrageous rock god guitar solo to close out the song is the delectable cherry on top.




It’s hard to believe — or maybe nearly impossible to remember, after the endless string of hits that followed — but “Holiday” was actually Madonna’s first entry on the Billboard Hot 100. The glowing reviews of the hit from 1983 described it as “infectious” and “bubbly.” Thanks to its happy-go-lucky message and funky guitar lick, “Holiday” has rightfully gained a reputation as one of the best summer songs. And in a country that doesn’t guarantee any paid time off on the federal level, Madonna was advocating for vacation in every nation. One rarely hears such bold, universalist claims in pop music today. This was the escapist ’80s; the troubles of the Reaganism and Thatcherism era could be ignored for at least three-plus minutes of pure pop-music bliss in favor of the cry to forget all one’s worries and just party. Here, Madonna magically manages to be fun-loving without coming off as vapid.


Love Shack

The B-52s

This upbeat, rowdy romp of a song from 1989 met its perfect match with the zany, colorful video that played seemingly nonstop on MTV, evidenced by the band’s win in the best group video category at the 1990 MTV Video Music Awards. The Athens, Georgia, band’s travel-themed “Roam” from the same period could have easily been on this list, but “Love Shack” is just as fitting because it’s about anticipation — what any worthy road trip should be about.

Trivia: RuPaul’s big mainstream break came about with the aforementioned music video, in which the drag star was tasked with getting a Soul Train line going. The rest, as they say, is herstory.


In the Summertime

Mungo Jerry 

British rock band Mungo Jerry scored a huge hit with this jaunty, banjo-infused composition, written by lead singer Ray Dorset in just 10 minutes during a break from his day job in a Timex lab. The song supplied the soundtrack for the summer of 1970 across the world, and it endures (despite the bawdiness of the lyrics — and the length of Dorset’s sideburns, which one might look upon charitably as a relic of the time).


Ventura Highway


America, shockingly, was not formed in America. The members of the trio, all children of U.S. Air Force personnel, met in 1970 at London Central High School in the U.K.

“Ventura Highway” was conjured by the group’s singer and songwriter Dewey Bunnell from his memories of the States, specifically, a family drive along Pacific Coast Highway. The vocal harmonies and the interplay of the three guitars give the tune a fresh, effervescent feel that captures an idealized Americana of one’s imagining.

Best lines: “‘Cause the free wind is blowin’ through your hair / And the days surround your daylight there / Seasons crying, no despair / Alligator lizards in the air.”


These Are Days

10,000 Maniacs

The lead single of 10,000 Maniacs’ 1992 album Our Time in Eden, “These Are Days” is the kind of graceful indie folk-rock composition that gently pushes you a few minutes farther down the road. Natalie Merchant’s enchanting alto vocals and her poetry are the most appealing aspects of this inviting tune. Around the time of the song’s release, she said, “I write about things that touch me emotionally or intellectually, things that enrage me, things that bring me pleasure, things that make me wonder why.”


I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For


The endless search. Yearning. Desire. It’s all there. Witness the Irish megastars in their Joshua Tree heyday. This 1987 jam encourages you to belt out every word as you hurtle down the highway. It’s all about the road and the journey that never ends. Rolling Stone ranked the song at No. 93 on its chart of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”


The Boys of Summer”

Don Henley 

The Eagles’ drummer had been going it solo for four years by the time he released this masterpiece, with its fond look back at the summer days of youth. Together, the iconic Wayfarers, Mike Campbell’s guitar, and Henley’s vocals and introspective songwriting together evoke a measure of nostalgia. “The Boys of Summer” won a Grammy in 1986 and came in at No. 209 in 2021 on Rolling Stone’s list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” 


The Girl From Ipanema

Stan Getz / João Gilberto, featuring Astrud Gilberto and Antônio Carlos Jobim

Quintessential Brazilian cool just oozes from this jazz and bossa nova classic, about a particular young lady who graces one of Rio de Janeiro’s most famous beaches. American sax player Getz and João Gilberto, known as the father of bossa nova, released the tune in 1964 and won a Grammy for record of the year in 1965. Astrud Gilberto, João’s wife at the time of recording, supplies the song with her airy, untrained vocals in English. The song looms large in Brazilian culture, so much so that the 2016 Rio Olympics acknowledged its legacy. 



Sabrina Carpenter 

Is this 2024’s song of the summer? Possibly. “Is it that sweet?” I guess so! “Espresso” has climbed to No. 5 on the Billboard charts at the time of this writing. The 25-year-old Carpenter became well known as early as 2013, when she began appearing on the Disney Channel. Her catchy, cool and cheerful “Espresso” slips into the mind (and body) insidiously, like the caffeine addiction it describes. The sultry instrumental calls to mind sunrays and beach days, vacations and relaxation. 

Trivia: Carpenter’s aunt is Nancy Cartwright, the Bruin actress who famously voices Bart Simpson. 



Rvssian, Rauw Alejandro, Ayra Starr

This recently released banger fuses sounds from Reggaeton and Afrobeats, with Jamaican, Dominican, Puerto Rican and Nigerian musicians combining their talents for an unlikely and very danceable 2024 Spanglish hit. The song, perhaps predictably, treads the well-worn path to hitsville: lusty lyrics about dancing and desire, inebriation and ecstasy, atop a beat that makes you move. Thanks to “Santa,” Starr — whose sophomore album The Year I Turned 21 came out May 31 — has made history as the first Nigerian female artist to garner 20 million monthly Spotify listeners. 


Murder on the Dancefloor

Sophie Ellis-Bextor 

Some more dance energy, this time from the early 2000s. You might recognize “Murder” from Amazon Prime Video’s psychological thriller Saltburn — but it also peaked at No. 2 on the U.K. Singles Chart as Ellis-Bextor’s biggest tune from her debut solo album Read My Lips, and it was one of the most played songs in Europe in 2002. Due to its renewed popularity, the disco-adjacent dance anthem racked up 1.5 million streams on Spotify this past New Year’s Eve alone. 


The Night Is Still Young (Tokyo wa Yoru no Shichiji)

Pizzicato Five 

“The Night Is Still Young” is a slightly odd translation, IMO, but from the opening beats of this 1994 single from Japanese pop band Pizzicato Five, you’ll be bopping your head as you cruise along. It’s easy to see why P5, with its signature sound — a blend of 1960s pop, jazz, soul and techno-pop — was one of the defining bands of Japan’s Shibuya-kei music movement in the mid-to-late ’90s.

Never mind that the literal translation of the original title is “7 p.m. in Tokyo” and that the lyrics are in Japanese. Model-turned-singer Maki Nomiya’s mellifluous voice and joyful, energetic delivery will have you humming the rest of the day. 



Clean Bandit, featuring Marina and Luis Fonsi

An English electronic pop trio, a sultry Welsh singer, and a Puerto Rican crooner come together to create some impossibly catchy, Latin-infused pop perfection about love, longing and loss, backed by an infectious melody you can’t help but sing along with. Clean Bandit, launched in 2008 in Cambridge, U.K., provides the "seductive, Latin-tinged house beats” for Marina to “coo over,” a review in Idolator points out. Fonsi, of “Despacito” fame, delivers his trademark smooth, impassioned voice to bring it all the way home. 


Fast Car

Tracy Chapman 

Tracy Chapman’s haunting ballad about escape may seem an odd choice among bouncier tunes, but its timeless message about the shimmering allure of a path out to somewhere better reminds us of the potential promise behind each approaching bend in the road. In 1989, the song won a Grammy, while Chapman personally took home two more. American country music singer Luke Combs revived Chapman’s late ’80s radio hit with his cover that last year topped the Billboard charts. 

Trivia: Since Chapman is the sole songwriter and owner of the publishing rights of “Fast Car,” Combs’ success with the song also means that Chapman became the first Black woman with a sole songwriting credit on a No. 1 country hit. 


Home at Last

Steely Dan 

It’s not every day you get a bluesy jazz pop song based on a Homeric epic, but if anyone can pull it off, it would be the legendary rock songwriting duo of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, better known as Steely Dan. Of the song from the 1977 classic Aja album, Fagen said, “The central metaphor was taken from Ulysses' big problem: trying to get back home.”

Fagen and Becker penned many hits about being homesick for New York while stuck on the West Coast. “Home at Last,” which references Homer’s Odyssey, catches them as they return to New York — at which point, ironically, they began immediately writing songs about California.

So, as you conclude your road trip and look forward to finally pulling back into your driveway, think about where you’ve been and contemplate what it means to come home. Sort of like Ulysses did.


Listen to, save and share our Spotify playlist with all these great summer songs. Keep it in rotation for as long as the weather is warm and the days are long!