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?”
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” – 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” – 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’” – 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” – 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!
“San Francisco” – Scott McKenzie
Used in nearly every film about the hippies of the 60s, this song was somewhat of a rallying cry for the countercultural youth of the time to make the pilgrimage out West.
With lyrics about going to San Francisco, wearing flowers in your hair, and how everyone across the nation is in motion making the journey--it is easy to see how anyone could get caught up in the excitement of the time.
“I Left My Heart In San Francisco” – Tony Bennett
Tony Bennett is on a shortlist of the most loved crooners of all time and this is his signature song. Not only is the song tied to his legacy but it is so iconic that it is seen by many as the ultimate San Francisco song (sorry, Journey).
With vivid lines about cable cars that climb halfway to the stars and the city’s signature fog, the lyrics are as engaging as the song’s unforgettable melody.
R&B Songs About California
“California Soul” – 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.
“(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay” – Otis Redding
For many, making the way out to California represents the freedom to do whatever it is you want to do. Few songs capture this sentiment better than Otis Redding’s immortal ‘(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay’.
In the song, the narrator talks about leaving their less-than-ideal work-life in Georgia to head out to San Francisco, just to sit on the dock and watch the ships and the tide. The ultimate song for all of us who “can’t do what ten people tell me to do”.
“California” – Phantom Planet
Few remember now that famed actor Jason Schwartzman (of all those Wes Anderson films that you love) had a successful side career as a drummer for the indie-rock band Phantom Planet.
Their biggest hit was this nod to California and was used as the theme song for the hit massively popular TV show ‘The O.C.’.
Rap Songs About California
“California Love” – 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.
“Going Back To Cali” – The Notorious B.I.G.
If we are putting Dr. Dre and Tupac Shakur’s 90s hip-hop classic ‘California Love’ on this list, then we have to include the era’s best-known East Coaster and his ode to the Golden State.
Written during the unfortunate and blown-out-of-proportion East Coast vs. West Coast rap fued, Biggie made a point of including lyrics (Thinkin’ I’m gon’ stop, givin’ L.A. props?/All I got is beef with those that violate me) that showed whatever issues he had had nothing to do with California, just a few individuals.
The verses of this tune have arguably some of the best flows that Biggie ever dropped and When that chorus kicks in, you have one of the all-time love-to-California bangers.
“The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air Theme Song” – DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince
If you are of a certain age, you are likely able to recite the lyrics to this one word-for-word.
As the ridiculously catchy theme song for the TV sitcom that took Will Smith from rapper to the living rooms of families all over the world, there are few California songs that bring a smile to everyone’s face like this one does.
Rock Songs About California
“Californication” – 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” – 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” – 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” – 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” – 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” – 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” – 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” – 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” – 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” – 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” – 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.
“Going To California” – Led Zeppelin
Released on Led Zeppelin’s most well-known album that is untitled but known by most as Led Zeppelin IV, ‘Going To California is often overshadowed by the album’s most famous song ‘Stairway To Heaven’.
This lilting ballad should not be overlooked though as it perfectly encapsulates the feeling of leaving it all behind to start fresh in California. The lyrics contain imagery of hopefully finding love with a California girl with flowers in her hair while the music perfectly conveys that longing.
“Los Angeles” – X
For the darker side of the California dream, look no further than this classic by one of the finest punk bands of all time.
From an album of the same name that was produced by Ray Manzarek of ultimate-LA-band The Doors, this song chronicles a woman’s mental breakdown in the City of Light and her deteriorating grasp on reality.
The song’s lyrics have had some controversy thrown their way over the years, due to the fact that some did not understand that the lyrics are from the perspective of someone not in their right mind and not the actual band.
Hopefully, the inspirer for the song did make it out of Los Angeles and went on to have a happy life.
Folk Songs About California
“California Stars” – Billy Bragg & Wilco
While this song is credited to Billy Bragg & Wilco due to it being part of their collaborative album ‘Mermaid Avenue’, it is Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy that is doing the bulk of the heavy lifting on this particular track.
The lyrics date back to at least the 1930s and were penned by Woody Guthrie but never put to music in his lifetime.
With the blessing of his estate, this piece and others were turned into full-fledged songs. Thank goodness because we now have a beautiful song about California and the stars in its nighttime sky with poetic lyrics like “they hang like grapes/on vines that shine/and warm a lover’s glass/like a friendly wine”.
“California” – Joni Mitchell
This song was the first song on Side 2 of Joni Mitchell’s most beloved album ‘Blue’ ‘Blue’ is considered to be one of the greatest albums of all time and this song is one of the most well-regarded from it.
Written while Joni was living in Paris, the song is all about her inevitable return to the state and country that she loved.