California, the Golden State, is the state of sun, surf, glamor, and opportunity. Not only that, but when it comes to musicians singing about their state, it potentially has the best ones made about it.
Here are the best songs about California of all time.
“Hotel California” by The Eagles
Song year: 1976
“Hotel California” by The Eagles exemplifies the dangers of a life full of excess and chasing highs.
We follow as the song’s speaker is lured and pulled into California.
What’s clear is that a life focused on fleeting pleasures is irresistible and disorienting. It captures you and never really lets you go.
“California Gurls” by Katy Perry
Song year: 2010
The lyrics of Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” starts like an ad for California tourism, beckoning listeners to the state.
This one off of Teenage Dream is an ode to the hot women of L.A. Full of beachy images and sexual innuendo, this is a fun summertime song that appeals to people’s desire to let loose and party. There are worse reasons to visit a place!
“California Dreamin’” by The Mamas & The Papas
Song year: 1966
Next up, with “California Dreamin’,” The Mamas & The Papas aren’t praising California but pining for it.
This song follows the speaker through a cold, bleak winter walk. Finding warmth in a church, he daydreams about being in California, where he knows it will be sunny, bright, warm, and promising.
This song is about believing that the physical place you’re stuck in is why you’re stuck, and everything would be better if you were only somewhere else.
“Californication” by The Red Hot Chili Peppers
Song year: 1999
Off the album of the same name, “Californication” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers is a funky frenzy of a song.
This track is about the depravity and fakeness of Southern California. The focus on beauty, youth, and the appearance of wealth, at any cost, is an L.A. image desired and marketed worldwide.
A portmanteau of the words “California” and “fornication,” this is about an empty pursuit of pleasure rather than a quest for an honest and substantial life.
“California Girls” by The Beach Boys
Song year: 1965
Off the album Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!), “California Girls” is an ode to the women of California. The singer has traveled extensively, so he has some experience when he says the tanned and scantily clad girls there are his favorite.
This song is about knowing who you’re attracted to and celebrating it.
“L.A. Woman” by The Doors
Song year: 1971
The Doors’ “L.A. Woman” is a feverish rocker grounded in a fast, free, intoxicated lifestyle.
The woman could be seen as a particular person or as an archetype. She is cute, sexy, free, dangerous, sad, and crazy. The song is about the type of people you might find in L.A., those who know what they’re doing and those that are alone and floundering.
“San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” by Scott McKenzie
Song year: 1967
Written by John Phillips of The Mamas & The Papas, Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in You Hair)” was the unofficial anthem for the Monterey Pop Festival. It became a recognized anthem for the hippie, free-love movement.
The song is full of the San Francisco Summer of Love vibe. It lets people who might be coming to be a part of it know what to expect and how to fit in.
“California” by Joni Mitchell
Song year: 1971
Canadian-born Joni Mitchell is a famous long-term resident of Laurel Canyon. From her album, Blue, “California” is a song about coming home in pieces and hoping to be restored.
The lyrics describe an exhausting, demoralizing, and heartbreaking journey around the world. The song’s speaker should be happy with everything she’s seen, all the people she’s met, but she’s been broken by it.
“Queen of California” by John Mayer
Song year: 2012
Speaking of Joni Mitchell, John Mayer’s “Queen of California” from the album, Born and Raised, pays tribute to folk-rock and Laurel Canyon by referencing Mitchell herself and Neil Young and Bob Dylan.
The lyrics here speak about being haunted. But being haunted isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There is a woman who has left the song’s speaker, but he’s heading out to the haunted places anyway to see what else he can find there and what lessons from the past he can use to move on.
“Beverly Hills” by Weezer
Song year: 2005
Weezer’s “Beverly Hills” is another of the many songs about California that draw from the glitz and glamour of wealth and the chase for fame.
In this song, the singer desires the extravagant “Beverly Hills” life, and while he might have the means for it, it is not who he is.
At its core, the song is about being honest with yourself. The singer doesn’t pretend he doesn’t want that indulgent life. He also doesn’t lie to himself.
“She’s So California” by Gary Allan
Song year: 2007
Gary Allan’s “She’s So California” is a country song that uses the state as a metaphor for a particular woman.
These lyrics compare this woman to some of the things California is best known for, including its beaches, earthquakes, wildfires, and wine. This song is about someone who is “so California.” She is exciting, irresistible, complicated, and untameable, just like the state.
“I Left My Heart in San Francisco” by Tony Bennett
Song year: 1962
Tony Bennett first performed the iconic “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco in 1962.
This tune compares San Francisco to other great world cities, and while they all have something to offer, it is San Francisco the speaker has fallen in love with.
“Lodi” by Creedence Clearwater Revival
Song year: 1969
John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival wrote “Lodi,” taking inspiration from Central California road trips with his father. It appeared on their groundbreaking album, Green River.
“Lodi” is about an aging musician who can’t seem to make it no matter how hard he tries,
While California conjures images of surfers, glamour, and riches, much of the state is rural and agricultural, and there are plenty of depressing little towns people find themselves stuck in.
“Ventura Highway” by America
Song year: 1972
“Ventura Highway” from Homecoming was written by Dewey Bunnell, inspired by a road sign Bunnell saw as a child when his family’s car had a flat tire. There isn’t a Ventura Highway in California, but Highway 101 runs through Ventura Country.
The somewhat cryptic lyrics of this song tell the story of someone who feels unsettled where they are and are on the verge of taking off somewhere else.
“California Love” by Tupac Shakur
Song year: 1996
From All Eyez on Me, this one celebrates the allure of California rap culture, sex, marijuana, and partying, while also touching on some of the darker elements of it, like addiction and violence. “California Love” shows all sides of California and affection for the state despite its darker side.
While centered around Southern California culture, this song also shouts out to San Francisco, Oakland, and Sacramento.
“Malibu” by Hole
Song year: 1998
Hole’s album, Celebrity Skin, as a whole, is critical of celebrity culture. However, “Malibu” carries a different sentiment. The song tells the story of the singer’s relationship with a troubled, depressed addict. She is trying to send him to Malibu for help and healing.
At its heart, this one is about the fact that it’s hard to recover and heal yourself while in a relationship, and it’s hard to be in a relationship with someone who is falling apart.
“California Nights” by Lesley Gore
Song year: 1966
“California Nights” was written by Marvin Hamlisch and Howard Liebling and appeared on Lesley Gore’s album of the same name.
The star-gazer love song depicts a peaceful California night, walking at the beach and swimming in the ocean. The singer decides she doesn’t want to leave. She wants to stay close to her lover and this wonderful feeling in this perfect place.
“California Sun” by The Ramones
Song year: 1977
“California Sun” is The Ramones’ high-energy, punked-up cover of the nostalgic surf rock hit made famous by The Rivieras.
The song’s speaker isn’t from California, but he’s excited and on his way. It’s a simple song about being warm in the sun in California, partying, dancing, and just enjoying life.
“Going Back to Cali” by LL Cool J
Song year: 1987
L.L. Cool J’s “Going Back to Cali” pays tribute to the state’s nickname.
The lyrics call on classic Southern California images like wine, fast cars, and the ocean to conjure up the exciting state and a reckless woman.
The song’s speaker is unsure about returning to “Cali.” Despite everything he loves about it or her, it’s also a lot of trouble waiting to happen.
“Meet Me in California” by The Plain White T’s
Song year: 2008
A recurring theme in many of these songs about California is the idea that California is just a better, happier, and healthier place. It’s like the promised land. The Plain White T’s buy into that myth one hundred percent in “Meet Me in California.”
This song is about a guy who has messed up big time. He’s leaving his lover, telling her everything is better in California, so he’s going off there, sure that it will turn him into a better man.
“California” by Phantom Planet
Song year: 2002
Phantom Planet’s “California” appeared on their album, The Guest. It was also the theme song to the television show The O.C. All band members are from California, and this is their story and tribute to the state.
The song tells the story of a group of people, or a band, who left California to build their career and fortune, and now they’re roaring back home, excited, accomplished, and ready to feel the love from their home state.
“Going to California” by Led Zeppelin
Song year: 1971
Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California” from Led Zeppelin 4 is another song about The Sunshine State inspired by Joni Mitchell’s California.
The beautifully poetic lyrics tell the story of a man who wants to leave his mean girlfriend and start over in California, where he hopes to find a new, creative woman. It is a song about pining for a fresh life and new love.
“It Never Rains in Southern California” by Albert Hammond
Song year: 1972
The lyrics of this Albert Hammond song follow the speaker’s journey to try to make it big in California. He hears that “It Never Rains in Southern California,” and despite the meteorological truth, he learns it’s not all sun and opportunity.
This song is about promises that are too good to be true. It also speaks to the reality of the competitiveness of “making it” and how even though it is so common to fail, it is nevertheless demoralizing and embarrassing.
“I Love L.A.” by Randy Newman
Song year: 1983
L.A. officials approached Randy Newman to write a song celebrating the city for the 1984 Olympics. Instead, he wrote “I Love L.A.,” which wasn’t what L.A. had in mind.
The song is not a romantic ode to the city, but it captures the real experience of L.A., including the unsavory bits. It’s about loving a place for all it is, the good and the not-so-good.
“California (There is No End to Love)” by U2
Song year: 2014
From U2’s Songs of Innocence comes “California (There is No End to Love), a song inspired by the band’s first trip to California.
The lyrics here speak about love and grief. No matter where you go, even if you go to beautiful California, those feelings of loss and pain stay with you.
“Los Angeles, I’m Yours” by The Decemberists
Song year: 2003
The Decemberists are well known for their old-fashioned sensibilities and epic storytelling in song. “Los Angeles, I’m Yours” from Her Majesty The Decemberists is a fun romp through a romanticized depravity of Los Angeles.
This song is about how even if you hate a place, it can still have an irresistible hold on you. Whether that hold is love or possession, who knows? Either way, you belong to the city!
“Garden Grove” by Sublime
Song year: 1992
Sublime’s “Garden Grove,” from their album 40 OZ. to Freedom, is a funky, reggae rock tune about the Orange County, California town.
Here is the drug-addled youth of California. The singer is living in filth and depression. No one respects him. He has no prospects. But he does have passions and love.
This song is about finding what gets you through even the bleakest days and being honest about your situation.
“Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” by Dionne Warwick
Song year: 1968
Dionne Warwick’s catchy “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” was written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David.
In this song, the singer left home to make it big in L.A. After a long time struggling, losing hope, and barely scraping by, it’s clear she’s never going to be a star, and she can’t keep living like this.
It’s about what happens when your dreams don’t come true, and you have to figure out when and how to give it up and go back home.
“Big Sur” by Jack Johnson
Song year: 2017
Jack Johnson’s “Big Sur” refers to a stretch of Central California Coast off the famous Pacific Coast Highway.
Big Sure is a popular hiking and camping destination, and this song is full of images such as trees, rocks, birds, and guitars.
This song is about connecting with life and nature and using that connection to fuel you and keep you going in this crazy life.
“I Remember California” by REM
Song year: 1988
“I Remember California,” from REM’s Green, features lyrics full of bright, striking images and unexpected rhymes.
The song relies on the ocean, nature, citrus, and sun, to create a summery beach feel that sets the stage for the story of a relationship that has fallen off the end of the earth.
This song is about the things you remember about a place, the emotional scars that linger.
“The Little Old Lady from Pasadena” by Jan and Dean
Song year: 1964
Jan and Dean’s “The Little Old Lady from Pasadena” was inspired by a Dodge ad campaign featuring, you got it, a little old lady from Pasadena who was something of a mean, car-racing speed demon, which captured the cultural imagination of the time.
Besides being fun, it’s also a reminder not to judge a book by its cover.
“Lullaby” by Shawn Mullins
Song year: 1998
From his album, Soul’s Core, Shawn Mullins wrote “Lullaby” after a conversation with a girl after one of his shows.
The lyrics describe a woman born to wealth and connection in L.A. but still at odds with that lifestyle. The singer doesn’t make fun of her or discount her feelings. He’s just trying to soothe her. Life is hard for everyone.
“Santa Monica” by Everclear
Song year: 1996
Everclear singer Art Alexakis was raised in Santa Monica, California, and wrote this song in tribute to the city.
This song about ending a bad relationship evokes “Santa Monica” through beaches, palm trees, and warm weather. The singer is conjuring up this happy, safe place in his mind to ease his pain.
“Surfin’ USA” by The Beach Boys
Song year: 1963
The Beach Boys are back with “Surfin’ USA” from their album of the same title because you can’t get much more quintessentially and stereotypically California than The Beach Boys.
This song is part celebration of surf culture and a guidebook to the hottest surf spots in and out of California.
The song’s concept is that the ocean and surf culture influences the larger culture of a place.
“Ukiah” by The Doobie Brothers
Song year: 1973
Ukiah is the largest city in Mendocino, California, noted for its pears and Victorian architecture. It’s this laid-back, quiet place The Doobie Brothers celebrate in “Ukiah.”
This funky rocker of a track is about living on and with the land. It contrasts a life spent working with your hands, surrounded by nature, with the lifestyle of people so busy rushing around that they never really build or appreciate anything.
“California Soul” by Marlena Shaw
Song year: 1969
Marlena Shaw’s “California Soul” is an Ashford & Simpson composition first recorded by The Fifth Dimension.
This song is about California soul music and the state’s fresh, carefree vibe and soul.
“Straight Outta Compton” by NWA
Song year: 1988
“Straight Outta Compton” by NWA is all about gangsta life on the streets of South-Central L.A.
Ice Cube wasn’t glorifying this way of life. He was just being honest and telling it like it was, neither condoning nor condemning it. He was telling the uncomfortable truths.
“Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash
Song year: 1956
California isn’t all sun and dreams. Folsom Prison is a maximum security prison about 20 miles from Sacramento. With his song “Folsom Prison Blues,” as well as his concerts there and in San Quentin, Johnny Cash was among the few celebrities who spoke up for prisoners’ rights.
The song’s speaker is a prisoner who hears a train passing by. He imagines the people on the train, wondering where they’re going. If he’s jealous of anything is that they are free and moving forward, constantly moving forward, and he is not.
“Free Fallin’” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Song year: 1989
The iconic “Free Fallin’” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers takes the listener on a Southern California tour.
The lyrics capture the culture of L.A., the hopes, dreams, and selfishness. It’s a place where people are desperately seeking connection. It’s also where people will take advantage of you just because they can.
“California Stars” by Billy Bragg & Wilco
Song year: 1998
The Billy Bragg & Wilco collaboration album Mermaid Avenue came about when Woody Guthrie’s estate contacted Billy Bragg with a folder of song lyrics Guthrie never wrote music for or recorded.
The dreamy “California Stars” is a kind of lullaby for adults. Simply put, it is a song about finding a place of comfort and never wanting to leave it, whether that place is a physical location.
“Streets of Bakersfield” by Dwight Yokum and Buck Owens
Song year: 1988
The last one on this list is the country song “Streets of Bakersfield,” which takes inspiration from the agricultural city known as the “armpit” and California.
This song tells the story of a man who’s had a rough life. He hitchhikes to Bakersfield, trying to find a place where he can be himself.
This song is about not judging people without being in their shoes.
Top Songs About California, Final Thoughts
California is a coastal state. There’s sun and surf, glamor and beauty. With its gold, fame, and Silicon Valley money, California is a land of opportunity and freedom. Or is it?
These best songs about California capture so many different experiences of the state. Whether you’re feeling homesick, ready to chase a dream or set one aside, these are great to listen to whenever you’re feeling a California vibe.