20 of the best ’80s and ’90s songs for period-correct drivers

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Unsplash | Nicolas Olivares

Cars and music, music and cars. No commute, road trip, or jaunt to the beach is quite complete without your favorite tunes on the stereo. And if your passion for vehicles happens to focus on a particular decade, chances are you’re fond of the music from that period too—played, naturally, on the dominant medium of each period.

RADwood is just around the corner, for U.S. and U.K. alike. (Check out the full schedule here!) In the spirit of an event dedicated to 1980s and 1990s cars and the pop-culture of the “rad” era, we’ve undertaken the near-impossible task of whittling down two spectacular decades of music into just twenty top-tier driving songs—ten from each decade.

There are no right or wrong answers when it comes to the best ’80s and ’90s songs, but if you’ve got the car and the look for RADwood but are struggling for musical inspiration, consider this list of twenty to be the perfect jumping-off point.

“Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” The Police (1980)

By the time “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” hit the airwaves, The Police were on a roll, taking their third #1 spot in the U.K. chart, following “Message In A Bottle” and “Walking On The Moon.” The song calls on lead singer Sting’s experience as a teacher, but he has always denied that the lyrics are autobiographical. Whatever the inspiration, this was a clean little number that was perfect for tapping the steering wheel of your new Lotus Esprit Turbo.

“Don’t You Want Me,” The Human League (1981)

Were you working as a waitress in a cocktail bar, in 1981? Then you could have been forgiven for rushing out to buy the 12-inch extended version of The Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me.” Considering it was only released at the end of November that year, it was an instant success, going on to become the biggest single that year.

“Tainted Love,” Soft Cell (1981)

This ’60s classic was spun into an ’80s revival when Soft Cell, which had been playing covers of “Tainted Love” during live shows, released it in the summer of ’81. Its mashup of synthesizers and rhythm machines produced one of the most distinctive sounds of the decade, and propelled Soft Cell to a huge hit—so big, in fact, that it was listed as the best-selling single of 1981 until the Official Charts Company recalculated the data in 2021, when The Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” (above) reclaimed top spot.

“Town Called Malice,” The Jam (1982)

Forty years after it went to #2, there are recurring themes in The Jam’s “Town Called Malice,” a song that Paul Weller wrote about growing up in Woking at a time when people had to make ends meet and “either cut down on beer or the kid’s new gear.” Awarded Best Single by NME, it remains a high point from a band that rarely put a foot wrong.

“Eye of the Tiger,” Survivor (1982)

Guitars, symbols, and a slow build to one of the punchiest hits of the ’80s … If Rocky III took the big screen by storm, “Eye of the Tiger” won the battle to be cranked up to full volume in the car with all the family aboard, as parents and kids alike slugged it out to do the best rendition of the chorus. Some kids of that generation may even shudder as they think back to how their stone-washed denim jacket at the time had a tiger motif sewn onto its back …

“Billie Jean,” Michael Jackson (1983)

This was the second single from Jackson’s monster Thriller album, and it went on to achieve sales of more than 10 million copies around the world. If you think that’s a big deal, Thriller now leads all-time album sales, racking up an estimated 70 million copies (oh, and 1.2 billion views and counting, on YouTube, while we’re on the subject of popularity). Drivers around the world were singing to this one, and some were known to get so into it they moonwalked away after parking their car.

“Relax,” Frankie Goes To Hollywood (1983)

“Relax” was as stern a test for a hefty subwoofer and upgraded set of tweeters as any song of the ’80s. It was released in November 1983 and was, well, a little relaxed to take the charts by storm, but by the end of January it reached #1 and launched Frankie Goes to Hollywood into the big time—ranking as the second biggest-selling single of the ’80s—a sensational debut for a band that would go on to be voted Best British Newcomer in the Brit Awards that same year.

“Let’s Dance,” David Bowie (1983)

This is the only single Bowie released that topped the charts in both the U.K. and the U.S. Summing up the appeal of the single that was taken from the same-titled Let’s Dance album produced by Nile Rogers, of Chic, Rolling Stone magazine described it as “all beat, brains and breathiness” and opined that the album’s “most intelligent strategy is its utter simplicity.” Sure enough, it is simple yet strong and all the more enduring for it.

“19,” Paul Hardcastle (1985)

Was the average age of a combat soldier during the Vietnam conflict really 19? Validating such claims wasn’t as straightforward in 1985 as it is now, and, let’s be frank, when you’re under the spell of one of the most surprising hits of the ’80s, you probably didn’t give it much thought. Hardcastle’s “19” spent five weeks at number one in the U.K., after its debut in April that year.

“Ride on Time,” Black Box (1989)

How many drivers must have tapped their toes, nodded their head, and done their level best to hit the same notes as singer Heather Small, who belted out “Ride on Time”a song that was written by Daniele Davioli as an attempt to create a dance track that combined the power of a rock song? Big-name DJs across the U.K., including Paul Oakenfold and Danny Rampling, helped popularize this track.

“(We Want) The Same Thing,” Belinda Carlisle (1990)

Technically this pop classic arrived on Carlisle’s 1989 album Runaway Horses, but as the single burst onto the airwaves in October 1990, hitting the charts at number six, it’s going in our ’90s collection. Not strictly a driving tune, but with a strong chorus and an optimistic refrain we reckon it’s well-matched to the similar optimism of the early-’90s automotive market.

“Driven by You,” Brian May (1992)

“Driven” is right there in the title of this early-’90s rock number by Queen guitarist Brian May, but its place as a solid driving tune was cemented by its use in Ford’s advertising in the early 1990s. The track was undoubtedly better than the mainstream cars Ford was producing at the time, though if you’re bringing an Escort Cosworth or an RS2000 to RADwood, this would be a fine tune to get you in the mood.

“Rhythm is a Dancer,” Snap! (1992)

A taste of the 1980s leeching well into the early ’90s, “Rhythm is a Dancer” has no direct link to anything automotive other than the sense of period-perfection gleaned from pumping it through the speakers of say, an Astra GTE. A chart-topper for a full six weeks in 1992, this track was everywhere back in the day and, at 124 bpm, an obvious choice for testing out boot-filling bass installs at the dawn of the Max Power era.

“Bat Out Of Hell,” Meat Loaf (1993)

A theme shared among many of the ’90s tracks here is a beat that’ll make you step just a little harder on the accelerator pedal. Meat Loaf’s signature track may cause you to push said pedal almost through the floor. Ideally, you’d want something like a Harley-Davidson to enjoy this Jim Steinman masterpiece to the fullest, but it sounds great pumping through a low-end car stereo from a slightly hissy cassette, too.

“Roll to Me,” Del Amitri (1995)

Short and sweet, this one, at little more than two minutes. The video’s closest link to four wheels are the prams in which the band’s members are being pushed (it’s … an odd video, that’s for sure), though we do glimpse a rather fine Karmann-Ghia. But summer tracks of the ’90s don’t get much better—this is a real “driving to the beach” hit, ideally played in a brightly colored supermini, windows down and ever so slightly too warm with no standard-fit air conditioning …

“Roll With It,” Oasis (1995)

Our second track with “roll” in the title also has that intangible quality of motion that makes the phrasing quite appropriate (also exercised by Limp Bizkit’s “Rollin’,” released a little too late for this list in September 2000). It ticks several other boxes for a driving song too, including appropriate lyrics (“I know the roads down which your life will drive”), and it sounds just right on less than perfect audio equipment (like, for example, the factory stereo in a ’90s car).

“The Riverboat Song,” Ocean Colour Scene (1996)

Wrong mode of transport perhaps, but the sharp opening riff of “The Riverboat Song” feels much better suited to driving than a gentle cruise along our nation’s waterways. The video’s nothing special, but you’ll not care about that when it’s crackling through your car stereo—though maybe crackling is the wrong word, with CDs taking over as the dominant playback medium by 1996. The band clearly had a thing for transportation, though, releasing “The Day We Caught The Train” a few months later.

“Just A Girl,” No Doubt (1997)

The Spice Girls promised Girl Power in the ’90s, but the real Girl Power came from No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani. “Just A Girl” is a song about independence (or lack of it) with lyrics that’ll make you appreciate the freedom of driving, while a driving guitar riff and top-of-your-voice chorus will keep you energized for the full three and a half minutes of airtime. Stefani’s released a number of belters, both in No Doubt and as a solo artist, and this is among her best.

“My Favourite Game,” The Cardigans (1998)

Of all the 1990s tracks on this list, “My Favourite Game” pretty much picked itself. Let’s look at the facts: The Jonas Åkerlund–directed video is basically a 1970s road movie, singer Nina Persson thrashing through the desert in a 1974 Caddy Eldorado convertible. The song featured on The Cardigans’ album, Gran Turismo. It was the title track to the video game Gran Turismo 2. And even if you ignore all that, the energetic beat, rolling bass line, and catchy riff make it pretty much the perfect driving tune as it is. A ’90s rock classic.

“We Like To Party,” Vengaboys (1999)

If you’re not in the mood for it, 1999 hit “We Like To Party” (also known as The Vengabus) by Eurodance group Vengaboys is like sandpaper for the ears. But it’s also undeniably a road trip song (they are, after all, all on a road trip in the video) and dance music did play a big part in late-1990s car culture—close your eyes and you can imagine this one pumping out of some 6x9s at a slightly dodgy cruise night. Just try and keep the volume down at RADwood, please.

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