Since what feels like the beginning of time, artists of all genres have historically made their own version of a pilgrimage to sunny California. So, it’s no surprise that the state has been the source of inspiration for some of the most iconic songs over decades passed. Which answers the question, “why are there so many songs about California?”
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Plain and simple, whether you’re from the Sunshine state or not, California songs just seem to recreate the feeling of summer. Even in the dead of January winters, a California-inspired song is all it takes to bring on those beachy waves, sun-kissed tans, and good vibes.
How Many Songs About California Are There?
If you’ve ever been to California, you know that it’s a pretty inspiring place. Not only because of all the famous people that reside there but also because of the free-thinking nature of its inhabitants.
So, what kind of music is California known for? You can bet it’s pretty much all your favorite songs of the last 50 years that didn’t come out of New York, Nashville, or Atlanta.
What Song Best Represents California?
To kick off our rundown of favorite songs on California, we’ll get right to it with possibly the most iconic songs that best represent the state.
“Hotel California” by The Eagles
‘Hotel California’ is one of those songs that, when it comes on at a bar or courageously selected at karaoke, the whole room can’t help but belt out the chorus. Released in 1977, it’s the Eagles’ most famous song to date. The song garnered major success, including a Grammy win for Record of the Year in 1978.
Eagles members Don Felder, Glenn Frey, and Don Henley said they thought of the lyrics during a night drive to Los Angeles from San Francisco. And we have to say the setting is quite fitting. Just crank up ‘Hotel California’ during any night drive, and you’ll see what we mean.
Pop Songs About California
“California Girls” by The Beach Boys
One of the greatest hits by The Beach Boys, ‘California Girls’ embodies the energy of sun in the fun at the beach. And appropriately so, it comes from the band’s 1965 album, ‘Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!)’. The song celebrates the women of California and all over the rest of the world, making it the perfect summer anthem.
The song is said to have been conceptualized by Beach Boy Brian Wilson during his first acid trip, prompting his meticulous production and distinguishable orchestral prelude. The song peaked at #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was named one of the “500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll” by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“California Dreamin’” by The Mamas & the Papas
‘California Dreamin” is one of those songs that just feel like warm summer nights right before sunset. Performed by the folk-rock group, The Mamas & the Papas in 1965, the song is a staple from the flower power era. If frolicking among the flowers had a soundtrack, ‘California Dreamin’’ would be it.
The song tells the story of someone in a cold city longing to be back in the California sun. It was initially written and performed by a lesser-known artist named Barry McGuire, with The Mamas & the Papas originally singing back up. But the depth of their vocal harmonies is what really brought the song to life, creating a true feeling of what it means to long for California love.
“California Gurls” by Katy Perry
From the 1960s to the late 2000s, California indeed continues to have its effect on people. And by the California girl herself, what else would you expect? Katy Perry’s ‘California Gurls’ was the debut single from her acclaimed sophomore album, Teenage Dream, back in 2009.
The song features the California legend Snoop Dogg and is said to have been a West Coast response to the song, ‘Empire State of Mind,’ the then-popular New York anthem by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys.
Featuring lyrics that portray sunny imagery of palm trees, sun-kissed skin, and “sippin’ gin and juice,” ‘California Gurls’ is the ultimate Golden Coast anthem that’s guaranteed to elevate your mood – no matter how embarrassed you might be to sing along!
R&B Songs About California
“California Soul” by Marlena Shaw
The song that was once recorded by Marvin Gaye in the 1970s is also what put Marlene Shaw on everyone’s radar back in 1969. “California Soul” is that funky, soulful tune you listen to while the California sun hits your dark sunglasses as you drive through the L.A. cityscape.
The song is not only iconic for its dreamy, California vibe but also because of how transferable the vibe is. The song has been sampled on a number of hip-hop and R&B songs showing just how timeless it is.
Rap Songs About California
“California Love” by 2Pac
With what’s still his most successful single to date, Tupac Shakur’s “California Love” might be one of the greatest hip-hop love letters to any city. Not only is the song synonymous with summer on the West Coast, but it’s also one of the most classic rap songs of the 1990s, topping the Billboard Top 100 for two weeks.
Simply put, the song is all about repping your west coast city and having a good time doing it. Tupac’s aim with this song is to make anyone not from California green with envy.
Produced by the Compton legend, Dr. Dre, the hit song garnered critical acclaim as well as two of Tupac’s posthumous Grammy nominations the year after his death in 1996.
Rock Songs About California
“Californication” by Red Hot Chili Peppers
When it comes to rock songs about California, this Red Hot Chili Peppers classic is the first that comes to mind. While it came from the band’s seventh studio album of the same name, “Californication” remains one of their most popular songs to date.
Covering the less glamorous and flowery aspects of the Sunshine State, “Californication” talks about the dark side of Hollywood culture and its negative impact on society at the time, and arguably still today. Still, its iconic mellow guitar and bass riffs embody that signature California sound that undoubtedly reminds you of lazy Saturdays at Venice Beach.
“Good Vibrations” by The Beach Boys
As one of the most famous Beach Boys songs about California imagery, this masterpiece was considered the first multi-track recording of its time compared to most hits, which were usually live performances mixed with a few other tracks. Due to the amount of time spent in the studio on the track, it was the most expensive recording in history when it was released in 1966, which was between $25,000 and $50,000.
“Surf City” by Jan & Dean
“Surf City” was a number one hit in 1963 and was one of the most popular songs of the “surf craze” era. The song is so monumental in Southern California music history, it became the official nickname of Huntington Beach, California in 1991. Jan & Dean were noted for songs specifically about Southern California, such as “Deadman’s Curve” and “Little Old Lady From Pasadena.”
“Hot Fun In The Summertime” by Sly & The Family Stone
One of the most popular summer anthems is “Hot Fun In The Summertime,” a top three 1969 smash by a Northern California band whose singer who was also a radio DJ. Sly Stone, whose real name is Sylvester Stewart, worked at San Francisco radio station KSOL in the mid-sixties before becoming a nationally-known musician. Sly had previously toured as a musician for Dionne Warwick, the Righteous Brothers, Jan & Dean, the Ronettes and several other name acts.
“Surfin’ USA” by The Beach Boys
“Surfin’ USA” is no doubt one of the most familiar surf songs of all time. The melody mirrors an earlier Chuck Berry hit called “Sweet Little Sixteen,” which led to a famous copyright lawsuit. Lyrically, while Berry listed cities in his song, Beach Boys songwriter Brian Wilson listed things that were “fun in the sun.” The result was the band’s management gave the song to Berry’s publisher. Berry’s name has appeared on the credits as a songwriter since 1966.
“Beverly Hills” by Weezer
As one of Weezer’s biggest hits, “Beverly Hills” paints the fantasy of falling in love with a Hollywood celebrity. The song was top ten nationally and number one on the alternative charts. While some fans might think the song is a sarcastic take on movie stars, songwriter Rivers Cuomo says it was meant to be sincere. It’s about someone who doesn’t have much money and drives a beat up car imagining they could be hanging out with stars by the pool.
“California Sun” by Rivieras
From the splash of beach party songs about California was this top five hit in early 1964. The Rivieras were from Chicago and were lucky to have notable WLS DJ Art Roberts as a fan of the B-side of their single “Played On.” Back then B-sides sometimes became surprise hits if radio stations preferred them to the A-sides. “California Sun” was then released as the A-side and it caught on nationally. The song was originally released by R&B singer Joe Jones in 1960 but missed the top 40.
“Heart of Gold” by Neil Young
As the “Golden State,” California is closely linked to gold. It was the gold rush of 1849 that attracted people from all over the world to California, which was how it became a populous and diverse state. This song mentions Hollywood, redwood and how the storyteller “crossed the ocean for a heart of gold.”
“Catch a Wave” by The Beach Boys
Songs about the surf craze were numerous in 1963, which some historians pinpoint as the height of surf music. “Catch a Wave” appeared on The Beach Boys’ third album Surfer Girl that year. The song was not released as a single, so it didn’t make the charts, but it’s still remembered at one of the band’s classic hits. The song celebrates surfing as “the greatest sport around.”
“L.A. Woman” by The Doors
“L.A. Woman” is one of the most adventurous songs about California ever recorded. It captures the spirit of fun exploration into the L.A. scene. The pulsating rocker goes through artsy phases such as the “Mr. Mojo Risin’” breakdown section. The version covered by Billy Idol serves as a credible tribute. “L.A. Woman” was never a single by The Doors, but became a widely played album track on rock stations in 1971.
“It Never Rains in Southern California” by Albert Hammond
One of the most interesting points about this recording is that it was made by top music industry players. The instrumentation was performed by The Wrecking Crew, the legendary background band for countless hits of the sixties. It was a top five hit in December 1972 written by singer Albert Hammond, who is often regarded as a one-hit-wonder. He wrote many other songs for major artists including Whitney Houston, Heart and Ace of Base.