The 30 Best Songs About California
There are few states in America as loved as California. The west coast is a dreamy landscape of Redwood forests, idyllic surf beaches, and scorching deserts. The Golden State has a rich history, incredible weather, and culturally vibrant cities where people from all over the world live together in relative peace and harmony. Recognized as the center of the entertainment world, many bands and artists have been inspired to write songs about California.
These tunes highlight famous cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, make mention of the surfer lifestyle, and celebrate all that is great about the best state in America’s west. The bands and artists paying tribute to Cali range from old school rockers and pop stars to 90s rappers and folk artists. While they may come from different genes, what they do have in common is a passion for the sun and surf lifestyle of California.
So without further ado, here are 30 of the best songs about California to add to your next playlist.
1. Californication – Red Hot Chili Peppers
There’s no better way to kick off a list containing songs about California than with this classic from Red Hot Chili Peppers. The track is taken from the album of the same name and finds the legendary LA band exploring the darker side of Hollywood. There are lots of pop culture references throughout, with the likes of Kurt Cobain, Star Wars, The Beach Boys, and murdered Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratten all mentioned.
Despite being one of the Chili’s biggest hits (it has over 950 million views on YouTube), the song almost didn’t make the record. The group was having a hard time putting it together until John Frusciante walked into the studio one day and said he had solved the problem. The result is one of the band’s best songs with a video clip to match.
2. California Dreamin’ – The Mamas and the Papas
There have been numerous versions of this song recorded over the years, but it’s hard to go past the Mamas and the Papas’ 1965 take. California Dreamin’ was originally written by John Phillips and Michelle Phillips (the founders of the Mamas and the Papas). A tranquil folk record, the song was written during a cold New York morning when Michelle ached for the summer weather of California.
The track was first released by Barry McGuire, with the Phillips’ singing backup vocals. Record producer Lou Adler was so impressed with their efforts that he got their band, the Mamas and the Papas, to re-record the song and release it as their own single.
While it took a while to chart, it eventually became a massive hit in 1966. Arguably their biggest hit, California Dreamin’ became an anthem for the counterculture movement and has found a new lease of life thanks to its inclusion in season four of Stranger Things.
3. Hotel California – The Eagles
Another cautionary tale about the dangers of LA, Hotel California is an epic 70s guitar rocker from the Eagles. Taking out the Grammy Award for Record of the Year in 1978, the song is meant to be like a cinematic nightmare that includes references to Don Henley’s breakup with girlfriend Loree Rodkin and dad rock outfit Steely Dan. There are many different interpretations of the lyrics contained within Hotel California, but the one thing most music fans can agree on is how fantastic this track is.
4. California Love – 2Pac (ft. Dr. Dre)
2Pac’s comeback single after a stint in jail shot him to the top of the charts and turned him into rap’s most talked about artist in 1995. Produced by fellow West Coast legend Dr. Dre, California Love is a g-funk-inspired slice of 90s hip-hop that remains Tupac Shakur’s most recognized hit.
There are actually several versions of the track floating around, with the original found on 2Pac’s Greatest Hits record and the more famous remix released on his smash album All Eyez on Me. The above film clip is for the remix version, while you can watch the Dr. Dre version here.
5. Going To California – Led Zeppelin
Inspired by the Joni Mitchell’s song California, hard rockers Led Zeppelin’s ode to the Golden State is a soulful guitar ballad that differs greatly from the hard rock they’re known for. More folk than rock, Going To California is regarded as one of Zeppelin’s best tracks, with the lyrics focusing on a heartbroken man heading to California to find the love of his life.
6. California – Joni Mitchell
Living in France but missing the Californian lifestyle, singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell felt inspired to write this ditty in 1971. The song talks about various trips she makes throughout Europe (visiting France, Spain, and the Greek Islands) and how at the end of each experience she feels a longing for California.
Fun fact: James Taylor, Mitchell’s former partner, plays guitar on the song.
7. California Waiting – Kings of Leon
Kings of Leon took old-time southern rock and gave it an alternate facelift in the early-00s. Their debut album, Youth & Young Manhood, is one of the best records of 2003, and the fourth single from it, California Waiting, is an absolute delight. A rough and rugged burst of guitar lays the foundation for Caleb Followill’s lyrics about wanting to get back to his lonely life. If you like this one, check out the original version that’s less frenetic here.
8. California Gurls – Katy Perry (ft. Snoop Dogg)
Apparently, California Gurls is Katy Perry’s answer to Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’ Empire State of Mind. While the two songs couldn’t be any more different, it’s a nice sentiment from Perry. What this song most certainly is is an uptempo pop tune with a catchy chorus and a silky verse from Snoop Dogg. It was a huge hit and helped Perry tighten her hold on the pop charts during the mid-oos.
9. California – Phantom Planet
Phantom Planet can thank the OC for their tune California becoming a monster hit. The chilled alternate rock number built around a delicate piano line was used as the theme song for the OC. The band hit pay dirt as the song became a top ten smash in Austria, Italy, Ireland, Scotland, and the UK, although surprisingly didn’t chart well in the States. The song was re-recorded in 2005 and re-released, giving it another lease of life.
10. LA Woman – The Doors
LA Woman is the first song on this list not to contain California in the title. But don’t let that fool you into thinking it has nothing to do with the west coast. Taken from the album of the same name, LA Woman is believed to be Jim Morrison’s final goodbye to Los Angeles. The poet would move to Paris, France, shortly after completing the album.
As with many songs by The Doors, LA Woman is inspired by literature ( John Rechy’s City of Night) and uses the metaphor of a woman to describe Morrison’s feelings about LA. Despite not being released as a single, thanks to radio play, it became a minor hit and one of The Doors’ most popular tunes.
Fun fact: the Mr. Mojo Risin referenced throughout the song is an anagram for Jim Morrison.
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11. California Girls – The Beach Boys
Don’t you just wish they all could be California girls? The Beach Boys sure did. The fun-loving surf act put California Girls out in 1965 as a tribute to women around the world. Conceived by Brian Wilson during an acid trip, it’s a harmonious pop song with orchestral flourishes that showcases Wilson’s incredible music brain. While it failed to take the top spot on the Billboard Charts, California Girls is generally considered the band’s best hit.
12. Los Angeles – X
One of the pioneering punk acts of the early 80s, X released an entire album influenced by their hometown Los Angeles. The self-titled track from the album is two and a half minutes of blistering punk rock based on the true story of the band’s friend Farrah Fawcett Minor.
Minor up and left LA for love, hoping to connect with The Damned’s bassist, Captain Sensible, in the UK. Things didn’t work out between the two, but we did get this great song about Cali so not all was lost.
13. I Left My Heart In San Francisco – Tony Bennett
Many different versions of this song have been released over the years. The most popular is by crooner Tony Bennett. One of the official anthems of San Francisco, the song only contains three verses but is universally loved. Bennett’s majestic voice sings about how other famous cities just don’t measure up to his beloved San Francisco.
14. When You Get To California – Hoodoo Gurus
Aussie act Hoodoo Gurus also love California. When You Get To California is taken from their 2004 album Mach Schau. It’s a breezy rocker with a brass section about moving to California and embracing the destination. While not one of the band’s most successful singles, it’s still a great little tune about the Golden State with a sweet groove.
15. California Sunset – Neil Young
Neil Young goes country for this feel-good tune about California. Singing about California sunsets and a land of beauty, Young makes his thoughts known about everybody’s favorite western state. There’s even a bit of violin in this one, with Young’s identifiable twang helping make it stand out.
16. Santa Monica – Everclear
Although not released as a single, Santa Monica is one of Everclear’s biggest hits. Lead singer Art Alexakis has said the song is about his hometown and how it always makes him feel safe when thinking about it. Music critics believe there is a deeper meaning, with the song written about the suicide of Alexakis’ girlfriend as a teenager and his own attempt at taking his own life by jumping off the Santa Monica pier. Either way, it’s one hell of a rock song with a catchy chorus to boot.
17. California – Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
Tom Petty and his band the Heartbreakers pay tribute to the Golden State on this 1996 release. It’s a rather simple composition with a splash of harmonica. Petty sings about the California sun and how much he loves the party town, while also hoping “it don’t fall into the sea.”
18. California Stars – Wilco & Billy Bragg
This is an interesting song that contains lyrics written by the great Woody Guthrie. It is unknown exactly when he wrote them, but he never put them to music. Upon finding them, his estate reached out to Wilco and Billy Bragg and asked if they would like to turn them into a song. The result is California Stars, a sullen track about a man living in Oklahoma during the dust bowl era who dreams of moving his family to California for a new life.
There were so many lyrics found by Guthrie’s estate that Wilco and Billy Bragg released an entire album of songs featuring lyrics from Guthrie and music from them.
19. Going Back To Cali – LL Cool J
New York rapper LL Cool J contemplates moving to Los Angeles in this classic 80s hip-hop track from producer Rick Rubin. While he enjoys his time there, LL is turned off by the sexually promiscuous women, which you think would make him want to move there.
The track is built around a sample of Afrika Bambaataa’s Planet Rock, with the black and white film clip featuring LL driving around LA and appearing by famous landmarks.
20. It Never Rains In Southern California – Albert Hammond
Younger readers might not be aware of Albert Hammond but have probably heard of his son, Albert Hammond Jr., who is a guitarist with the Strokes. Hammond senior is a well-respected singer, songwriter, and producer who wrote some of the biggest hits of the past 60 years. He also had his own solo success, particularly during the 70s, with the song It Never Rains In Southern California his biggest hit.
The song peaked at #5 on the Billboard Charts and while uplifting, is actually a sad tale about a man chasing his dreams and failing. The man in question picks up and moves to California to follow his dreams of becoming a successful musician. Things don’t turn out the way he planned and he finds himself struggling to survive, but doesn’t want his friends and family to know, so soldiers on with the charade of being successful.
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21. Dani California – Red Hot Chili Peppers
The second entry from the Chili Peppers is taken from their double album Stadium Arcadia. Dani Califonia explores the life of the character Dani (a California girl), who has appeared in several other songs by the LA band. She represents all the women lead singer Anthony Keidis has met throughout his life.
A typically funky Chili’s song with some great guitar work from John Frusciante, the song is most memorable thanks to its music video. The film clip features the band paying homage to different eras of music by dressing similar to famous bands and artists. There are nods to the likes of Elvis Presley, the Beatles, David Bowie, Motley Crue, and Nirvana.
22. Meet Me In California – Plain White T’s
While not as massive as their hit Hey There Delihia, this is still a pretty nice song. Meet Me In California is about a man who’s done his lover wrong and is moving to California. He hopes that his lady will come and meet him there, as he’ll be waiting. It’s a little cheesy and straight out of the pop-punk handbook of the mid-00s, but there’s enough charm here to make this an enjoyable listen.
23. Queen of California – John Mayer
While not actually written about anyone, Queen of California is a tribute to the music that came before. It’s John Mayer’s tribute to his influences in music, with the singer referencing the likes of Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. As far as the song goes, it’s standard Mayer, with nice guitar work and a gentle melody you can groove along with.
24. I Love LA – Randy Newman
Randy Newman really loves Los Angeles. So much so that he wrote this song, I Love LA. Inspired by a conversation he had with the Eagles’ Don Henley during a plane ride together, I Love LA depicts Newman cruising down “Imperial Highway with a big nasty redhead” at his side. He mentions several regions of LA, including the Bay area, along with the famous Santa Monica Boulevard. Initially, a flop, the song became a massive hit after being used during promotional videos for the 1984 Summer Olympics in LA.
25. South California Purples – Chicago
Written and sung by Chicago’s drummer Robert William Lamm, South California Purples is a six-and-a-half-minute jazz freakout. The song can be found on the band’s debut album, Chicago Transit Authority. It’s a song about LA’s weather patterns, which is a little strange, but then it is a Chicago song.
26. Malibu – Hole
Malibu is some of the best work Courtney Love has ever done. No doubt the addition of Hole guitarist Eric Erlandson and The Smashing Pumpkin’s Billy Corgan, who co-wrote the tune, helped it turn out so well.
Rumored to be about Love’s husband Kurt Cobain, who spent time in a rehabilitation treatment center in Malibu, Love confirmed Malibu is about her former boyfriend Jeff Mann.
27. Welcome To The Jungle – Guns N’ Roses
The “jungle” referenced in this classic Gunners tune is the one and only LA. Welcome To The Jungle is about the streets of Hollywood and how the city often eats up newcomers and spits them out like garbage. It’s everything you want from a Guns N’ Roses tune, with Slash’s dynamic guitar work gelling with Axel Rose’s aggressive delivery.
28. California Soul – Marlena Shaw
California Soul was written by Ashford & Simpson and covered by a slew of artists. The pick of the bunch was Marlena Shaw’s groovy interpretation. It’s the type of song you want to get up and dance to, with Shaw’s magnetic vocals singing about the Californian sound that draws people to Hollywood.
29. Straight Outta Compton – N.W.A.
Gangster rap was born on the West Coast and no group personified it better than N.W.A. Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, MC Ren, and DJ Yella turned rap on its head with their single Straight Outta Compton.
A thumping Dre beat lays the groundwork for Cube, Eazy, and Ren to spit lyrical darts about life on the street for black men in the 80s. It’s hard-hitting, controversial, and hits like a punch to the guts.
30. Los Angeles, I’m Yours – The Decemberists
When he first toured LA, The Decemberists Colin Meloy hated the place. So like any good muso, he wrote a song about it. Los Angeles, I’m Yours highlights all the things Meloy hated about the city, including its “burnt cocaine smell” and how it left him “retching on all fours.” Despite his initial dislike of the city, Meloy’s stance has mellowed, now regarding the city as his “mentor and enemy.”
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