California in music is a symbol, an idea of sunshine, nostalgia, and most importantly, Hollywood. It’s more just a state, but a pristine, picturesque idea that’s brandished and shown off endlessly.
This polished image leads to artists getting creative around the topic, some embracing the idea, while others look on with a bit more cynicism.
Whatever the angle, these are some of the best songs about California.
1. California Dreamin’ by The Mamas & The Papas
“California Dreamin'” by the Mamas and Papas is probably one of the smoothest and most melodic songs ever written about California. And its meaning is super deep yet super simple all at the same time. The lyrics were written by John Phillips and Michelle Phillips in 1963 while they were living in New York City during a cold winter.
As the title suggests, on a cold day, the narrator fantasizes about being in California (LA) where it’s warm and safe. And where the “leaves are brown and the sky is gray“.
Despite the straightforwardness of the lyrics, the song became an instant classic and has been covered by everyone from the British-American band “America” to “Beach Boys” and “Jose Feliciano”.
2. Back From Cali (feat. Myles Kennedy) by Slash
A marked departure from the last song, “Back From Cali” depicts Slash, tired and run down from living the California lifestyle, wanting to be taken home to where he belongs.
It’s a stunning display of Slash’s guitar ability, Myles Kennedy’s vocal range, and also an interesting look at the darker side of California.
3. Californication by Red Hot Chili Peppers
If not the greatest but one of the most popular and iconic songs about California has to be “Californication” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Featuring catchy and slappy basslines and Anthony Kiedis’s signature vocal delivery, Californication tackles the polished, plastic image of Hollywood, and California as a whole. A place where “movie stars and millionaires” do their best to keep up appearances.
This wouldn’t be the first time the Red Hot Chilli Peppers touch on this topic, but more on that later.
4. Hotel California by The Eagles
No list of songs about California would be complete without this mysterious classic by the Eagles.
Layered heavily under its warm guitar chords, the song is a commentary on how Hollywood culture can be quite superficial and how people can get lost in materialism and greed. The line “you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave” is a perfect summary of the message.
Fun fact: There is no real Hotel California but the Beverly Hills Hotel is often cited as an inspiration for the song. The hotel was and still is a popular hideaway for celebrities and the wealthy.
5. California Gurls ft. Snoop Dogg by Katy Perry
Representing the true image of California is Katy Perry with her hit single, “California Gurls,” an enthusiastic and unapologetic song about having a good time in the California sun.
With a guest verse from Snoop Dogg, the song isn’t trying to have a grand statement and instead focuses on having a good time.
6. Going Back to Cali by The Notorious B.I.G.
“Going Back To Cali” is an ode to the West Coast from one of the most successful East Coast rappers, and for that reason, it’s very important.
B.I.G puts on his signature swagger and bravado, singing praises of California while diffusing the ideas of West vs. East that permeated the early hip hop scene.
Despite its positive message, the song is bittersweet as it was one of the last songs B.I.G recorded before he was murdered in a drive-by shooting in 1997.
7. California Love – Tupac
I’m “California Love,” Tupac lays down his love for the state, breaking down the many facets of living there, with its many quirks and benefits.
He does this to the tune of classic West Coast style rap, describing every detail with the loving passion that you’d expect from a rapper of Tupac’s caliber.
8. Going to California by Led Zeppelin
This ballad by Led Zeppelin is a more introspective and personal take where the narrator wants to start a fresh life in California, away from his unhappy life.
It’s an idealistic song, one that shines a light on the hopeful side of California, as opposed to some of the more critical ones on this list.
9. California by James Blunt
James Blunt’s “California” touches on the shallow image of the state, based around how it’s a beautiful place, but one that’s fleeting and impermanent.
It’s always moving, and for some, it can be overwhelming. With James’ soft voice, it makes for a compelling musical experience.
10. Peaches ft. Daniel Caesar, Giveon by Justin Bieber
A more recent song, “Peaches” by Justin Bieber isn’t directly about California but instead references it as a place he gets his mari**ana from.
California is the first place to fully decriminalize mari**ana, so it makes sense that Bieber would make this connection. Otherwise, “Peaches” is a sweet, catchy pop song about the joys of love. And a must-listen.
11. Shadow of California by Blue Öyster Cult
“Shadow of California” is a collection of nocturnal rides along the roads of California, all described through beautiful prose. There’s a certain sense of speed and gravitas to the whole song, and with California as a backdrop, it makes for strong and compelling imagery.
12. California Here I Come by Sophie B. Hawkins
Sophie B. Hawkins pours her heart out in “California Here I Come,” a song about longing for a better life. It puts shine on the idea of California being a land of opportunity and change, representing that dream of something greater in life.
13. Dani California by Red Hot Chili Peppers
The Red Hot Chilli Peppers make their return to the list with “Dani California,” another one of their big singles.
Dani California is a recurring character in the Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ music, serving as a culmination of every woman lyricist Anthony Kiedis has ever met.
Her fast and hectic lifestyle mirrors that of the dark underbelly of California, and it’s also just an uproariously catchy song on top of that.
14. California – Phantom Planet
Another great song simply titled “California” comes from the rock band Phantom Planet.
Here the band claims that they are compelled to compose songs about the state and that they have no choice in the matter.
The band adds that once you arrive in California, it’s difficult not to write about it since there are so many fantastic things!
15. California Girls – Beach Boys
Co-written by Brian Wilson and Mike Love, “California Girls” is one of the Beach Boys’ signature tracks. It’s an ode to the beauty of Californian women, with a special focus on girls from different regions of the state.
It also talks about all the exciting things you can do in California like surfing and skateboarding with the top down, making it the perfect summertime anthem.
The Beach Boys were based in California, so it’s no surprise that they would make a song like this!
16. Beverly Hills by Weezer
Another song named after a specific California city is Weezer’s “Beverly Hills.” In this song, the narrator is depicted as an average guy who was born in a small town and desires to succeed in Beverly Hills.
But on the other hand, he knows he can never make it in a place like that because he feels he doesn’t belong there.
Even though the song is critical of the city, it still manages to be catchy and fun.
17. Paradise City by Guns and Roses
Though the majority of “Paradise City” by Guns and Roses is not about California, the chorus does reference the state. In it, lead singer Axl Rose talks about how he wants to go back to Los Angeles where the grass is green and girls are pretty.
It’s a brief moment, but it adds to the overall picture of “Paradise City” as a song about escapism and longing for a better place.
18. California (There Is No End to Love) by U2
Based on U2’s first trip to California, the song is a love letter to the sunny state. It paints an extremely picturesque image of California, combining allusions to eternal love and companionship. It’s a beautiful sentiment and one that makes for a great closer to the list.
So, there you have it folks! These are some of the best songs about California that we could think of.
There’s such a rich history and culture to explore in California, and these songs only scratch the surface. What are some of your favorite songs about California? Let us know in the comments below!