Even before the advent of popular music, California wasn’t just a place. It was an idea, an ethos, something worth risking everything to glimpse with your own eyes. It’s still like that, only now, there’s smog, gangs, paparazzi, and the constant fear of earthquakes. From L.A. up to San Francisco, Cali is a land of contradictions, and everyone knows it. That’s reflected here in the 15 greatest songs about the Golden State. There are tunes for hippies, gangstas, addicts, wannabees, and folks rotting in jail. Not that any of those things are mutually exclusive.
Under the Bridge, Red Hot Chili Peppers
The Chili Peppers write a lot about their hometown of L.A., and on this 1991 smash, singer Anthony Kiedis opens up about his loneliness and struggles with drug addiction. At the time, the group was still known for super-hard-rocking funk tunes, so this moody ballad was something of a surprise. Also surprising: People go for walks in L.A. Who knew?
Chart Peak: No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, June 6, 1992
It Never Rains In Southern California, Albert Hammond
On this 1971 soft-rock gem by the father of Strokes guitarist Albert Hammond Jr., an out-of-work actor realizes that Hollywood isn’t always the land of milk and honey. Sometimes, it’s downright salty and sour. “I’m under loved, I’m underfed,” sings Hammond’s narrator, who’s way more desperate than the chilled-out music suggests. “I wanna go home.”
Chart Peak: No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100, Dec. 16, 1972
I Love LA, Randy Newman
“It looks like another perfect day,” Newman muses, even though his leisurely drive through the City of Angels takes him past a “bum” who’s “down on his knees.” The song is sarcastic yet also not—a celebration of a place too ridiculous to really hate on. Listen to Newman’s smirking piano. He’s not kicking sand on anyone’s blanket.
California, Phantom Planet
Behold, a piano-powered indie jam so sunny and catchy that Fox had to base an entire TV show around it. OK, so the The O.C. wasn’t actually inspired by “California,” which served as its theme song, but it benefits from the same global fascination with SoCal living that made the teen drama such a phenomenon.
Chart Peak: No. 35 on the Alternative Songs chart, April 6, 2002
California Love, 2Pac ft. Dr. Dre and Roger Troutman
Dre and Pac didn’t have much love for the police, but they were bursting with state pride in 1995. While the California Office of Tourism might quibble with the lines about weed and pimps, this Hot 100 chart-topper paints a pretty intoxicating picture of the modern-day “wild, wild west.”
Chart Peak: No. 1 (two weeks) on the Billboard Hot 100, July 13, 1996
Into the California Sun, The Rivieras
Recorded in Chicago by an Indiana band, “California Sun” is 1961 a surf-rock fantasy about life on the West Coast. It was subsequently covered by NYC punks The Dictators and The Ramones, who reaffirmed the idea that some of the choicest Cali jams come from artists trapped in colder, darker places.
Chart Peak: No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100, Feb. 29, 1964
Into the Great Wide Open, Tom Petty
What Petty opens up here is the humongous gap between the promises and realities of Hollywood. The story centers on “Eddie,” a starry-eyed kid who moves to L.A. with dreams of rock stardom. The song ends with Ed’s label telling him they “don’t hear a single,” and in the iconic video (starring Johnny Depp and Faye Dunaway), Petty stretches the narrative further, following our hero all the way to rock bottom.
Chart Peak: No. 4 on Mainstream Rock Songs, Nov. 2, 1991
California Girls, Beach Boys
A list of the 15 best California songs could easily feature 15 Beach Boys songs. These guys are Southern California, warts and all, and they never summed up their stomping grounds better than they did on “California Girls.” After comparing various regional subspecies of American females, expert of hottie taxonomy Mike Love declares the ladies in his home state the cutest in the world. (Note: Southern California tends to attract the foxiest 1 percent of people from all over the planet, so his findings may be skewed.)
Chart Peak: No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, Aug. 26, 1965
Beverly Hills, Weezer
According to Weezer leader Rivers Cuomo, there’s nothing sarcastic about this shout-out to money, power, and celebrity. He may have been less serious about the music, which recalls the Steve Miller Band’s 1973 hit “The Joker.” It all adds up to a frothy novelty that ends with Cuomo realizing he’s a “no-class beat-down fool” who’ll never have a housekeepers or a swimming pool. His lack of anger suggests maybe he knows he’s better off.
Chart Peak: No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100, Oct. 8, 2005
California Dreaming, Mamas and the Papas
The haunting harmonies create a dreamlike feel as this New York-born folk foursome fantasizes about the groovy weather 3,000 miles west of Gotham. The tune landed in 1965, two years before the Summer of Love made the Left Coast seem like a valhalla for freaky young people looking to buck convention. The revolution was just beginning, and already, there was a hint of darkness creeping in.
Chart Peak: No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100, March 12, 1966
Going Back to Cali, LL Cool J
What would it take for a quintessential New York rapper to considering moving to L.A.? “Her bikini: small,” LL raps. “Heels: tall.” Right—the girlies out west have our man sprung, but they might be a little too fast for his liking. On this jazzy old-school classic, he lets doubt creep into the hook, ending every other line with “I don’t think so.”
Get Back, The Beatles
This one’s not a full-on California song, as the state only gets a quick mention in the first verse. But “Get Back” speaks to the state’s unique ability to lure dreamers away from their homes. Case in point: Jojo, who hightails it out of Tucson with high hopes for his new life. That “grass” he’s seeking isn’t the type you mow, so try as the Beatles might to coax him back, it’s a safe bet Jo’s staying put.
Chart Peak: No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, May 24, 1969
Circa 2003, thanks to reality TV and the growth of the Internet, America’s celeb obsession was off the heezy. Since fame is something Madonna knows a thing or two about, she took it upon herself to hold a mirror up to society with this cutting dance-folk hit. “How could it hurt you when it looks so good?” she asks, referencing money, drugs, sex, jewelry, cars, real estate, and other golden rings you’ll kill yourself reaching for.
Chart Peak: No. 3 on Hot Singles Sales, July 26, 2003
San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers In Your Hair), Scott McKenzie
Released in May 1967, on the eve of the Summer of Love, this hippie-dippie ode to the City by the Bay became a generational anthem. The lyrics about all the “gentle” people you’ll find in Frisco seem a bit naive in light of the carnage at Altamont, but McKenzie sings it like a true believer. As for songwriter John Phillips of The Mamas & The Papas, he reportedly wrote it in 20 minutes. How you feel about that depends on your level of cynicism.
Chart Peak: No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100, July 1, 1967
Folsom Prison Blues, Johnny Cash
In his most iconic song, Cash caps a guy, goes to jail, and drives himself nuts listening to passenger trains off in the distance. “I know I can’t be free,” the narrator says, well aware of the danger he poses to himself and society. “But those people keep a-movin’, and that’s what tortures me.” Even the lively rockabilly beat seems to taunt this guy. He’s found in California not the glorious culmination of westward expansion, or manifest destiny realized, but rather a miserable dead end.
Chart Peak: No. 1 (four weeks) on Hot Country Songs, July 20, 1968