For many years, California has held a mystique. In some areas, it is where some very rich people live. In others, the home of the Beach Boys and the whole surfing thing that gave rise to a whole new culture.
I have to say my first visit there was unspectacular and very disappointing. We went to Redondo Beach, Oceanside, Santa Monica, and a few other places. And, it just wasn’t like it had been portrayed. Perhaps I was just unlucky.
But, my trip did have its moments…
Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo were nice, but they are a long way away from Los Angeles. However, the Ventura Highway was just how I imagined it from the song, and the sun was shining. Perfect.
The best songs about California were written a long time ago, sixty years in some cases. Places and times change. Perhaps I should have borrowed Marty’s DeLorean and gone back to see what it was like in the 60s.
Let’s Conjure Up The Images
So, let’s take that journey back. There is going to be plenty of the Beach Boys and the surf thing. There will also be plenty of sunshine songs and one or two surprises along the way.
Ok, let’s load up the ‘Woody’ cuz “Surfs up.”
Top 50 Best Songs About California
It Never Rains In Southern California by Albert Hammond
But, we aren’t going to start with the surfers; we are going to get underway with this song from Albert Hammond.
Hammond was a British singer-songwriter who wrote this great song with another Brit, Mike Hazlewood. It was released in 1972 and had the benefits of the ‘Wrecking Crew’ as session musicians.
One Hit Wonder, But What A Hit
That is how he is often described, but if you are going to have just one, this would be a good choice. It reached #5 in America but, despite plenty of airplay, didn’t make it into the top 100 in the UK.
It tells the story of someone going to LA to become a ‘star’ but failing. The lyrics indicate that he might have ended up homeless and penniless. However, he doesn’t want to let his family and friends at home know. I should imagine there have been quite a few of those over the years.
Albert Hammond was better known, though, as a songwriter rather than a performer and wrote for Heart and Whitney Houston, amongst others.
California Girls by The Beach Boys
Okay, we can’t resist the urge any longer. Let’s get the sunshine out with this classic from the Beach Boys. It started life as an album track on the 1965 release Summer Days (And Summer Nights).
It was written by Brian Wilson and Mike Love and was the first song involving the not yet a member of the band Bruce Johnson.
Liking those ladies…
The song might be viewed today in our ‘modern’ world as being rather sexist. And, I suppose you could interpret the lyrics that way if you wanted. But, it is a celebration of women from all over the world. I presume we can still show our appreciation.
It does have a slight tongue-in-cheek line that wishes they could all live in California. But, that’s just young men who were recently just boys, isn‘t it?
It reached #3 in America and entered the top thirty in the UK. It was a fixture in their concerts for decades, usually as the opening song. You cannot over-emphasize its impact on music or the quality of this song.
And to continue talking about the musical aspect of the song. The intro was something very special, and more especially for the time. You can almost feel the first seeds of musical creativity starting to grow in Brian Wilson’s mind.
Those seeds would take him and them down the road eventually to “God Only Knows” and “Good Vibrations.” A California anthem? How else could you describe it? Other than one of the best songs about California.
Surfin’ USA by The Beach Boys
Let’s stay with them for this track from the album Surfin’ USA. This came out before “California Girls” and was probably the song that announced the group to the world. It reached #3 in the American chart and #34 in the UK.
It had its share of controversy. The song was a mirror image of Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen,” which had been released in 1958. The music was identical, but Brian Wilson changed the words.
A lawsuit occurred, and the song was given to Berry’s publisher. The writing credits were amended to show Brian Wilson and Chuck Berry. Another song that became a fixture of the Beach Boys stage shows over the years.
Surf City by Jan and Dean
You might think of the Beach Boys as the originators of the “surf sound.” Brian Wilson himself may well have been. But, this track from Jan and Dean was the first #1 “surfing song” in America.
An Interesting Backstory
Jan Berry and Dean Torrence were both California kids. But, in their early days singing together, they focused on the east coast “New York sound.” Meeting Brian Wilson changed that, and they ended up with “Surf City,” which Wilson had mostly written already.
They wanted to do “Surfin’ USA,” but Wilson wanted to keep that for a group he was involved with. I wonder who that was?
This song was a huge success and reached #1 in 1963. It was undoubtedly one of the most popular songs of that early ‘surfing’ craze. As a result, the song and Jan and Dean’s association with Southern California were defined.
Furthermore, it was so big in the psyche of Southern California that Huntington Beach was nicknamed ‘Surf City.’ A notable session player on this track was Glen Campbell.
Jan and Dean continued the Southern California theme with songs like “The Little Old Lady (From Pasadena)” and “Dead Man’s Curve.” The latter had an ironic twist as it told the story of a street race and crash.
The Sting In The Tail
Jan Berry crashed his Corvette in 1966, just two miles from Dead Man’s Curve in Los Angeles. He suffered severe brain damage and part paralysis. He recovered to an extent, and they still managed to work together. Sadly, he died in 2004, effectively ending a historic partnership.
Going To California by Led Zeppelin
This is a song by Led Zeppelin that always seems to slip under the radar. It was a track on Led Zeppelin IV, which included probably the best-known song from their catalog. But also, John Bonham’s drum intro which attempted to move the earth off its axis.
This was the time when Zep was starting to include more acoustic-based songs in their repertoire. This is one of those. It featured Jimmy Page on guitar and multi-instrumentalist John Paul Jones on Mandolin, and, of course, Plant singing.
Jimmy Page uses a double-drop D tuning which always produces a melodic and wistful effect. For those that might not be familiar, he turned his guitar to D, A, D, G, B, and D.
A Song Of Hope In Change
This tells the story of leaving your home, a bad relationship, and everything to start a new life in California. There are plenty who have done that. The hope is that things will be different, and maybe he will meet a girl with “flowers in her hair.”
Plenty of imagery in the lyrics, while that drop D tuning creates a silent sadness and longing. In my view, this is a clever song, and it is a shame it sits in the shadow of others on the album.
It has been a featured song on some acoustic Led Zeppelin performances, and I am not surprised. A good song from a band you might be surprised could produce something like this.
California by Joni Mitchell
Some artists can produce an album that is just great from start to finish. We had Dire Straits Brothers In Arms, Carole King’s Tapestry, Bookends by Simon and Garfunkel, and others as well. Blue by Joni Mitchell was another.
Opening the second side of the album, this has always been a song about California that has been highly regarded. It was her second single from the album.
I suppose it could be described as that. She was living in Paris at the time but also traveled to Spain and a Greek Island. But, in each place, she knew she just wanted to come home. That is essentially what the song is about.
One Of The Counterculture
She has expressed on several occasions that she was just a member of California’s ‘counterculture.’ Those that were at odds with the hedonistic lifestyles and behavior of some of those that lived there. There is an inevitability in the song about her having to return to her roots one day.
Hollywood Nights by Bob Seger
It is true that The Beach Boys early material immediately made you think of sun, sea, and surf. But, if there is a song that exemplifies the more unseemly side of California life, then this could be it.
It was released in 1978 from his album Band Stranger in Town and immediately had a powerful impact. Bob’s gruff voice over a driving rhythm created by David Teegarden on drums and a great lyric. But that wasn’t all.
Oh, Those Backing Vocals
Sometimes in a song, there is something that you wish just wouldn’t end. It could be just a part that is being repeated. “Hey Jude” by The Beatles was a bit like that. This song also has a bit of that.
The backing vocals are on the chorus, but it’s when we get to the end, and they are left on their own. If there is a rock song with better, more dynamic backing vocals than that, I haven’t heard it.
A Sad Story So Often Repeated
It is a story about a young boy from the Midwest who is drawn by the bright neon lights and lifestyle and wants it for himself. Of course, it doesn’t exist. He was lured into a world where he hadn’t a clue what was going on. Needless to say, it all ended badly.
If Seger wrote this song as a warning to others, it probably worked. The message is very clear. And even with the darker content, it’s one of the best songs about California.
Ventura Highway by America
I know a little about these guys because they lived not far away from me in West London when they formed the group. Their fathers were all on the Military Base in Ruislip. They got their break and recorded their first album in Trident studios in London.
This song was earmarked for the album but was ditched. It came out later in 1972 on an album called Homecoming. Their first album called America included “A Horse With No Name” and was also recorded at Trident.
They had a Crosby, Stills, and Nash feel about their music but without the egos. The music was pure, simple, and well-written. And this song always reminds me of driving up Highway One. A great song with an excellent production that brings up images of ‘that’ road.
The Little Old Lady From Pasadena by The Beach Boys
We return to the link-up between The Beach Boys and Jan and Dean. This song was part-written by Jan Berry, and they had a hit with it in the 1960s. The Beach Boys recorded it on stage in 1964 for inclusion on a future ‘live’ album.
The song was inspired by an advert seen on TV for Dodge cars which showed a little old white-haired lady driving a Dodge car. It also became a salesman’s expression when trying to sell a used car.
He would say the car has had just one owner, “a little Old Lady from Pasadena,” who only drove it to church on Sundays. Evidently, people were more gullible then. Whatever its origins, it is a song evocative of a time and place. And it immediately brings the images in your mind to life.
Do You Know the Way to San Jose by Dionne Warwick
When I do these lists and appraisals, I always like to include Dionne Warwick if possible. In my opinion, ‘the’ female voice of the 60s and 70s.
Dionne Warwick had a long working relationship with Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Their songs just seemed to suit that velvety voice.
A Big Success
This California song took her career to another level. It became her biggest selling record up to that time, racking up over 3.5 million in sales worldwide. It reached #10 in America and #8 in the UK and was a big hit in a dozen other countries.
A Familiar Tale
Another story of someone who went off to Los Angeles to try to achieve stardom. It didn’t work out, and they are on their way home to San Jose. Not wanting to be known in the city as just another failed statistic, she sings;
“And all the stars that never were, Are parking cars and pumping gas.”
Those two lines say an awful lot. She can’t wait to get home. She didn’t have that far to go; San Jose is up the road in Northern California.
Promised Land by Chuck Berry
Here is a song about a young boy on his way to California from Norfolk, Virginia, on a greyhound bus. He refers to himself as the ‘poor boy.’ After several breakdowns and some mishaps and getting some help in Houston, he makes it to his ‘Promised Land.’
There is an interesting play on words and meanings in the lyrics. When talking about the plane landing in LA, he sings, “Swing low sweet chariot, come down easy.”
Some of those words are from the gospel standard “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” In the gospel meaning, it refers to being taken to the Promised Land. In the song, he is also traveling to his ‘Promised land.’
It was his first release after leaving prison in 1964, which he wrote using a borrowed atlas in his cell. As a song, it might be better known by Elvis Presley, who performed it with his usual enthusiasm.
Chuck’s version didn’t exactly set the charts alight. It reached #26 in the UK but only #41 in America. That might be because he had some credibility problems following his prison sentence.
I Left My Heart In San Francisco by Tony Bennett
Let’s have a complete change of mood and go to this masterpiece from possibly one of the greatest ‘crooners’ ever. It was released in 1962, believe it or not, as a B-side. But, it soon took hold and became a big record in its own right.
The song was written by George Cory and Douglas Cross. It tells the story of two young men working in New York but missing San Francisco. As a song, it wasn’t offered to Bennett first, but others turned it down. Bit of a mistake there.
An Iconic Song
It is not only an instantly recognizable song about California, but it is seen as ‘the’ song about San Francisco. Lyrics referring to cable cars climbing to the stars and the fog is a memorable piece of work.
Add on a great melody and a great vocal performance, and you have got a piece of history, musically. In 1984, the city of San Francisco adopted the song as one of its two official anthems.
San Francisco by Scott McKenzie
Then there were the hippies. Remember them? Every time you see anything on TV about them, even now, this song seems to be providing the background music. Just like the last song by Tony Bennett, this song became an iconic piece of music.
It is what you could call a “counterculture rallying cry.” Encouraging all like-minded young people to make the pilgrimage to Northern California. All this would help make it one of the most popular songs about California.
Original Planned As Music For a TV Advert
I can remember this time very clearly, even though I was quite young. The “flowers in your hair” and “all across the nation, such a strange vibration.” And it was. Much of it was fueled by the opposition to the Vietnam War. Oddly, the song was an advert for the Monterey festival.
It was written by John Phillips of the Mamas and Papas and released in 1967. If ever there was what might be called a ‘generational anthem,’ this was probably it. And once again, California was the focal point.
(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay by Otis Redding
Let’s stay with San Francisco one last time and give a brief mention of this song. Not as obviously about California as it might seem, it talks about a man worn down by life. He is leaving his home in Georgia and heading for the ‘Frisco’ bay.
For a lot of people, going to California was a form of escapism. And so it is with this epic song from the great man. He talks about leaving Georgia, where his life is not so good, to go out to San Francisco.
All he wanted to do was to sit back and watch the ships and the tide rolling in. I suspect that it would be a lot of people’s choice if they could make it. And that’s why it’s one of the best songs about California.
Hotel California by The Eagles
A band forever associated with California because of this song. Interestingly, only one of the original members came from the state. However, that didn’t stop them from making one of the most famous songs about California.
Nevertheless, one of the biggest records The Eagles made, it was taken from the album of the same name that was released in 1977. It is famous not just for the song or the album. It was voted the best guitar solo ever in 1998 by readers of Guitarist magazine.
The long playout Coda from Joe Walsh and Don Felder swapping solos and then playing together is still staggering.
Well, if you were to believe everything that those associated with the band have said over the years, it could be anything. But, lately, Don Henley has said it’s a “symbolic piece about America in general and its loss of moral values and innocence.”
He said there is “too much money, too much corruption, too many drugs, and total arrogance.” But then that could also be applied just to the music business in the 70s and 80s, of which they were so much a part.
Whatever the meaning, it is still a great track. If you happen to be driving along on a warm summer’s night, wherever you are, crank down the window. Put this on and let it rip. It’ll take you to an Eagles concert somewhere in California.
California Dreaming by the Mamas and Papas
And so we come to the end. I sat down and thought of all the songs which I have included and even some I haven’t. Which one screams ‘California’ to me, I asked myself? There could only be one answer. This one does.
Released in 1965, it was written by John and Michelle Phillips from the group, and Barry McGuire of “Eve of Destruction” fame. The lyrics are very simple but also something people could associate with. He is in New York in winter, and is freezing cold. He wishes for the warmth of a California ‘winter’.
Jan and Dean and the Beach Boys may have heralded the start of the surfing craze. But, that was relatively quite short-lived. This heralded the start of the ‘counterculture’ I have mentioned a few times. And, in many ways, that is still with us nearly 65 years later.
Some Great Covers
Noticeably by the Beach Boys themselves, which was excellent. But, there is just something about the original. Something that calls out to you. A wonderful song and production that just says California.
Going Back to Cali by LL Cool J,
California Love by 2Pac featuring Dr. Dre,
Californication by Red Hot Chili Peppers,
California Soul by Marlena Shaw,
Malibu by Hole,
Beverly Hills by Weezer,
California Here I Come by Al Jolson,
Lodi by Creedence Clearwater Revival,
California One / Youth and Beauty Brigade by The Decemberists,
Los Angeles by X,
California Love Pt. 2 by Ronnie Hudson and the Street People,
California Sun by The Rivieras,
California Saga (On My Way to Sunny Californ-i-a) by The Beach Boys,
California Blue by Roy Orbison,
San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair) by Scott McKenzie,
California Girls by Gretchen Wilson,
Californian Soil by London Grammar,
California (Cast Iron Soul) by Jamestown Revival,
Goodbye, California by Jolie Holland,
The State I’m In by Train,
Califia (Stone Rider) by Jesse Colin Young,
West Coast Poplock by Ronnie Hudson,
Going to California by The Mountain Goats,
California’s Dark by AFI,
California Bloodlines by John Stewart,
Alone in California by Tom Petty,
California Bound by Black Joe Lewis,
California Stars by Wilco and Billy Bragg,
Santa Cruz by The Thrills,
California Dreamin’ by Eddie Hazel,
California Gurls by Katy Perry,
The Road to Escondido by JJ Cale and Eric Clapton,
Golden State by John Doe,
California Roll by Snoop Dogg,
Looking for Some Awesome Songs?
If so, take a look at our detailed articles on the Best Songs About the Sun and Sunshine, the Best Songs about Fighting, the Best Songs About Walking, the Best Songs About Change, the Best Songs About Dreams, and the Best Songs About Magic for more great song selections.
You’ll need to hear those songs. So, check out our in-depth reviews of the Best True Wireless Earbuds, the Best iPhone Earbuds, the Best Bass Earbuds, the Best Sound Quality Earbuds, the Most Comfortable Earbuds, and the Best Noise Isolating Earbuds you can buy in 2023.
Best Songs About California – Conclusion
So, here we are. Some great songs about California. The good, the bad, but no ugly. But it’s just my choice. Others would choose differently.
Whatever you choose, it is an area with a special place in music. Let’s hope that special feeling has been captured just a little bit here.
Until next time, let the music play and don’t forget some flowers in your hair.