California is a huge state. It has the largest population of any state in the United States and is the third largest in area. If California were its own country, it would have the 5th largest economy out of all the countries in the world. So, it’s no surprise that there are numerous songs about California and some of the iconic towns and cities in the state. The various landscapes, cultures, and events have inspired countless musicians to create art about California.
These are some of the best songs about California, but this is not an exhaustive list. Additionally, this list is not in order of best to worst. Whether you’re planning a California road trip or just want some new songs to add to your playlist, these are all great options.
1. “Californication” — Red Hot Chili Peppers
“Californication” is the name of both a song and an album by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It was released in 1999. The song is about the more difficult aspects of the Hollywood lifestyle and the dreams and myths that Hollywood sells to people all around the world through the movie industry. While the theme of the song might be somewhat of a downer to some people, the song is one of the most popular singles by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It is also one of the most performed and listened-to songs about California.
Don’t confuse this song with the show of the same name. There was a legal dispute between Showtime, the company that produced the TV show called Californication, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, about the usage of the name, which was settled out of court.
2. “Beverly Hills” — Weezer
The song “Beverly Hills” by the rock band Weezer came out in 2005. Rivers Cuomo, the singer of the band, wrote the song after having a daydream about marrying a celebrity and moving to Beverly Hills. Some people think the song is a sarcastic critique of the posh neighborhood of Los Angeles. However, Cuomo claims his original intentions with the song and lyrics were authentic. In the song, he talks about how where he’s from “isn’t that great.” He imagines an amazing life living around celebrities, with maids and beautiful people. However, at the end of the song, he concludes that he just doesn’t belong there as a “no-class-beat-down-fool.”
3. “California” — Phantom Planet
Released in 2002, the song “California” by Phantom Planet reached high levels of popularity at least partially because it was the main theme of the popular show The O.C. starting in 2003 and in the movie Orange County in 2002. The band’s members are all from California so they wrote the song as a tribute to their home state. It’s about driving down the well-known Highway 101 which traverses California from north to south.
4. “California” — Childish Gambino
Childish Gambino, the musician/rapper alter ego of actor Donald Glover, released this song in 2016. The song, like a few others that touch on California culture, is about people who come to Los Angeles seeking fame, but instead, find rejection and hard times. The song also touches on the ways that social media can affect people. It mentions the now-defunct social media platform Vine a few times and people making videos and posting them “in a minute.” The catchy song has a Caribbean-style feel to it.
5. “California Love” — 2Pac
This song is all about what makes California great according to 2Pac, aka Tupac Shakur, along with Dr. Dre and Roger Troutman. This was the first song that Tupac released after getting out of prison in 1995. The song’s themes of love and freedom may reflect how appreciative he was to be out and back to his life as usual. Some songs about California focus on one city, but 2Pac made sure to include many locations throughout The Golden State including the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles, Compton, San Diego, Oakland, and Sacramento.
6. “Hotel California” — The Eagles
The rock band The Eagles released the album and song, both called “Hotel California,” in 1977. The song became one of the band’s greatest hits. “Hotel California” was inspired by a 1965 novel called The Magus. The novel follows a young traveler on a journey where he meets temptation from the allure of a lavish lifestyle, and ultimately experiences darkness and loss. Like a few other songs about California, some believe this song is also an analogy for the fast and sometimes tragic Hollywood lifestyle that some can fall into after coming to California seeking fame.
7. “California Dreamin'” — The Mamas & The Papas
While The Mamas and The Papas released what is possibly the best-known recording of the song “California Dreamin'” in 1965, it was first released by the American singer Barry McGuire. However, the iconic rock group popularized the song and it became one of the band’s top hits. Band members John and Michelle Phillips wrote this song in 1963. The married couple was living in New York City and went for a walk on a particularly cold winter day. Michelle, being from California, wasn’t accustomed to the cold weather. So they started writing this song about how they dreamed of being warmer in California.
8. “Going Back to Cali” — Notorious B.I.G.
Notorious B.I.G. aka Biggie’s “Going Back to Cali” was released in November of 1997. Biggie recorded the song in 1996 with Diddy, who was uncredited on the track. At the beginning of the song, Biggie calls Diddy on the phone to tell him he is getting on a flight from New York to visit L.A. Throughout the song, he talks about what he loves about the California lifestyle—good weather, beautiful women, and other pleasures. He mentions that he lives on the east coast, so that is what he would overall choose, but he likes to “rest in the west.” At the time there was a huge rivalry between east and west coast rappers. Biggie speaks to this, saying that he will never stop “giving L.A. props” and that the only people he has a problem with are those who have harmed him first.
9. “California Girls” — NoMBE
NoMBe is a German-American musician and producer. He released the song California Girls in 2015. NoMBE wrote the song when he was new to Los Angeles and feeling lonely. He was feeling frustrated with the L.A. dating scene. In fact, he encountered women who were trying to be the ideal “California girl” but that came along with darker elements like drug use. The song is about a California girl who tans to hide marks from drug use and is surrounded by “yes men” who enable her bad habits. The girl in question keeps the singer up all night wondering if she is OK and what she is doing. It might not be the most positive song about California, but it is a great listen with a chill indie electronic and soulful vibe.
10. “California One / Youth and Beauty Brigade” — The Decemberists
Part of this song is about California, and the other part seeks to gather all the “castaways and cutouts” of the world for a “Youth and Beauty Brigade.” The first part of the song is a dreamy, folksy account of a drive on the well-known route, California 1. It snakes down the Pacific coast with impressive ocean vistas at nearly every turn. This part of the song talks about driving over the Golden Gate Bridge, through Big Sur, and through wine-growing regions of the state. The song is a must-have for any road trip where you plan to hit this route that is one of the famous All-American Roads.
11. “The Recipe” — Kendrick Lamar & Dr. Dre
“The Recipe” is a song by Kendrick Lamar, featuring Dr. Dre that was released in 2012. In the song, Kendrick says that he might visit other places. However, California, particularly his hometown of Los Angeles, is the place that he will always return to because of the beautiful women, amazing weather, and plentiful marijuana. His reasons for loving Los Angeles are similar to those in Biggie’s song, Going Back to Cali.
12. “California Soul” — The Messengers
This well-known Motown song was written by Ashford & Simpson, a legendary songwriting duo that created other hits like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “I’m Every Woman.” The funk-soul song was released by The Messengers in 1967. Afterward, it was recorded by The 5th Dimension and Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrel. The song is about soul music from California. The lyrics mention that it’s so powerful that you can’t forget it, and “it’s gonna grab a hold on you.” The song also says that you might be “groovin’ all day long” after hearing some California soul.
13. “Los Angeles is Burning” — Bad Religion
While Los Angeles and California as a whole experience plenty of wildfires, at least one member of the band Bad Religion says this song is more metaphoric than literal. Some people believe the song is more about the media coverage of wildfires in California than the fires themselves. The song was released in 2004 close to the time that the Cedar Fire burned over 250,000 acres of land in southern California. The song talks about catastrophic messaging from the media with lyrics like “a placard reads ‘the end of days'” and “I cannot believe the media Mecca.” The lyrics of the song seem to ask which is worse —the fires, or the hyperbolic media coverage—by saying “The flames are startin’/The camera’s runnin’/so take warnin’.”
14. “Tell Me When to Go” — E-40 & Keak Da Sneak
No list of California music would be complete without an entry from the hyphy (short for hyperactive) category. This energetic style of rap music developed in the SF Bay Area, mostly in Oakland, in the late 1990s and early 2000s. This song was released in 2005 and is one of the most popular examples of hyphy music.
The song is about E-40’s life in Oakland and includes Bay Area-specific slang and elements of hyphy culture. For example, it talks about sitting in a “scraper.” This is a specific type of car that has large rims and luxury features like a nice sound system or even TVs. The cars are called “scrapers” because the rims are so large they almost scrape the ground. The song also talks about watching Oakland Gone Wild, a series of videos that feature “sideshows.” Sideshows are an Oakland phenomenon where people gather in the street and watch cars do stunts such as ghostriding or donuts. This upbeat song is a great option for working out or any time you need a boost of energy.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © Virrage Images/Shutterstock.com
Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.