26 Of The Best Songs About California: Golden State Playlist

Written by Laura Macmillan
Last updated

California has always represented prosperity and glamor. From the gold rush of the 1800s to the golden age of cinema in the mid-20th century, the allure of the West Coast has been America’s siren song for centuries. So it’s no surprise that California is the subject of countless hit songs.

The imagination of songwriters often finds a home in the Golden State. Whether they’re singing about surfing the Pacific Ocean or trying to make it big in Hollywood, there is no shortage of characters or places to explore.

In this post, we’ve put together a playlist of the best songs about California for you to jam out to. Let’s get started.

Related: Read this post for more songs about the USA.

1. “California Love” By Tupac Ft. Dr. Dre

“California Love” is one of Tupac’s signature songs, spending two weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot 100. The single was another example of Tupac firmly planting his flag in the soil of California during the heated East Coast–West Coast hip-hop rivalry of the ’90s.

The track’s production comes courtesy of fellow hip-hop icon Dr. Dre and is an imaginative slice of boastful G-Funk. Its infectious hook and shout-outs to various regions of California make this throwback jam one of the most iconic tracks about the state and will turn up a party regardless of the area code.

Related: Our list of great songs about Hollywood.

2. “California Girls” By The Beach Boys

The Beach Boys were pioneers of a type of prototypical California band, with light surf-rock flourishes dotting their tight vocal harmonies. 

Their familiar lyrical tropes of girls and cars were always tempered by a glossy California glow, often due to the genius of member Brian Wilson.

“California Girls” is the band’s iconic anthem to warm weather and women. The song may sound quaint by today’s standards.

However, its release was a pivotal moment in rock and roll that saw the parameters of a pop song pushed by layers of vocals and orchestral song movements.

3. “California Dreamin’” By The Mamas & The Papas

The psychedelic sounds of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district played an outsized role in exporting hippie culture to the masses.

One of the first successful singles that signaled this shifting culture was The Mamas & The Papas’ “California Dreamin’.”

The band’s tale of longing for the warmth of an L.A. winter shimmers with layers of harmonies and guitars.

The lightly psychedelic tinge of the track became a roadmap for other bands to follow, and soon psychedelic music was exploding across the country.

Whether you found it revolutionary or ordinary, “California Dreamin’” opened the door for a wave of hippies.

Related: Read our list of the best songs about San Francisco here.

4. “Hotel California” By The Eagles

The Eagles’ brand of light, country-speckled rock and roll has become synonymous with the post-hippie sound of the ’70s.

But one of their biggest hits, ”Hotel California,” took a spooky detour from easy living into the darker corners of their creativity.

The genius of the single, aside from Joe Walsh’s extraordinary guitar solo, is the opaque lyrics. Yes, the song is about a hotel in California, but the moody tale is open to all types of interpretation.

 Like California itself, the track provides uniquely different experiences for anyone willing to listen.

5. “California Gurls” By Katy Perry

Katy Perry flexes her electropop muscles while repping her favorite state in her global chart-topping single “California Gurls.”

The song is a clever nod to all things West Coast, with a title alluding to The Beach Boys’ classic single and rap verses provided by legendary Californian rapper Snoop Dogg. The single is a delightful homage to the state.

But most importantly, it’s fun. Katy Perry’s ode to the Golden State topped the charts internationally thanks to its requisite references to beach culture and provincial bragging set to an infectious melody and dance beat.

6. “Santa Monica” By Everclear

Everclear made a career out of lead singer Art Alexakis’ pain. The band’s reign at the top of the alternative charts in the late ’90s was due to his vulnerability and confessional songwriting.

Their surprise 1995 hit, “Santa Monica,” was the first of these songs to hit the mainstream. Alexakis wrote the track as an existential love song and an homage to his hometown.

While his relationship is crumbling, Alexakis dreams of escaping to the comfort of the Pacific Ocean and streets lined with palm trees. It’s another entry in the lineage of songs about escaping reality through California.

7. “Going to California” By Led Zeppelin

Led Zeppelin was inspired to write their acoustic ballad “Going to California” by singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell and her song “California.” It’s a response song to Mitchell’s in a sense, as Zeppelin’s protagonist is actively searching for the type of woman that Mitchell sings about in her track.

While Zeppelin often explored Tolkien-esque themes in their quieter work, this detour into the sights and sounds of California suited them well. Though the song lacks the high-sounding language of some of the band’s most memorable tunes, it’s one of their signature songs. 

8. “Malibu” By Miley Cyrus

Miley Cyrus spent the first part of the 2010s separating herself from the teen idol image she cultivated on the Disney Channel show Hannah Montana. By 2017, Cyrus had become a star on her own terms, shedding her teeny-bop image for an adventurous, adult-themed pop career.

“Malibu,” the first single from her album Younger Now, finds the singer in a confessional and mellow mood, crediting her lover for showing her the beauty of the world. 

Cyrus’ acoustic roots find a new texture with the single’s light electronic beat, and its underlying themes of the beauty of California are enough to make the Pacific Ocean blush.

9. “Folsom Prison Blues” By Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash wrote “Folsom Prison Blues” while stationed in Germany with the U.S. Air Force. His 1955 recording of the song would crack the top ten of the country charts and become a staple of the country legend’s live shows.

The song gained mythic rock and roll status as part of At Folsom Prison, the live album Cash recorded at Folsom Prison in California in 1968.

Cash’s legend as a country music outsider takes root in the nihilistic narration of the single. Performing it in the actual prison was the cherry on top of the outlaw image of the Man in Black.

10. “California” By Childish Gambino

Childish Gambino, the musical alter ego of actor-musician Donald Glover, takes the classic tropes of songs dedicated to the Golden State and injects them with funk and psychedelic soul on his track “California.” 

Glover’s tale of chasing fame is as bright and fun as California itself, and the lyrics bolster the funky blasts of sunshine that sound as brilliant as an afternoon at the beach.

The infectious groove of “California” is hammered home by its reference to Los Angeles’ world-famous Koreatown. Boasting the densest population in the city, K-Town is a vibrant and diverse example of the state.

Related: Read our list of songs about Los Angeles here.

11. “California” By Delta Spirit

California indie rock band Delta Spirit’s single “California” is a lively, guitar-centric plunge into the depths of interpersonal hopes and dreams. Using an impending move to California as a catalyst, the song’s siren-sounding distortion underpins the vulnerability of two people finding themselves separately while moving closer in proximity.

The Delta Spirit wrote the single after a member’s painful breakup. The band managed to turn their heartbreak into gold, as “California” became one of the first songs to earn the band radio airplay. 

12. “California” By Joni Mitchell

Joni Mitchell became one of the leading sing-songwriters of California’s late ’60s and early ’70s music scene.

Her unique instrumentation, rich chord progressions, and poetic lyrics gave an aspirational shape to many songwriters that followed in her wake.

“California,” a single from her classic album Blue, encapsulates the era’s enchantment with the Golden State. Singing from the vantage point of an American traveling in Europe, Mitchell finds herself missing her home state and extolling its virtues.

It’s a song brimming with pride for the golden shores of the Pacific Ocean through its hippie-hued snapshot.

13. “Californication” By Red Hot Chili Peppers

The Red Hot Chili Peppers‘ blend of rap, rock, and funk is uniquely Californian. The band is synonymous with the state, a point their 1999 single “Californication” hammers home. 

In a career littered with hits, it’s telling that this single has become one of the band’s signature tracks. Its moody verses and infectious chorus are prototypically West Coast, and the mellowness subdues its intense subject matter.

By celebrating California, the Chili Peppers also acknowledge its dangerous allure. It’s something the band knows first-hand, as substance abuse and in-fighting nearly derailed their career before it took off.

14. “I Love LA” By Randy Newman

Randy Newman took inspiration from a conversation with Eagles drummer Don Henley about the excesses of fame for his ode to La La Land, “I Love L.A.” While Newman is a California native, his career largely avoided the trappings of fame.

Newman’s single is anthemic in tone, but a deeper reading reveals an ironic detachment and disillusionment with the city. It’s all par for the course for a songwriter known for wry character studies.

Newman’s song is ironic, but the emphatic group sing-along of the chorus is infectious and sounds like a cheering squad for the city.

15. “Going Back to Cali” By The Notorious B.I.G.

At the height of the East Coast–West Coast hip-hop rivalry, New York rap legend The Notorious B.I.G. recorded a loving nod to the West with the single “Going Back to Cali.” In the track, Biggie squashes any perceived beef between the coasts and instead celebrates the trappings of California’s excesses.

Sadly, Biggie’s next visit to California would be his last. The rapper was shot and killed shortly before the release of “Going Back to Cali.” His death came just six months after his rival Tupac Shakur was gunned down, causing both sides to re-examine the dangerous tone of the feud.

16. “California Kids” By Weezer

While the obvious choice for a Weezer song about California would be their 2005 top ten single “Beverly Hills,” it would be a shame not to choose a track off the band’s excellent White Album

The album is a sunny blast of crunchy electric guitars and California nostalgia. The single “California Kids” is nearly hymn-like in its reverence for the state. Singer Rivers Cuomo’s tale of the West sets California as a shelter from the storm, positioning it as a beacon of light for anyone looking for a new life.

17. “Los Angeles” By X

While punk rock is often associated with New York or London, Los Angeles’ vibrant punk scene paved the way for the genre’s evolution in the late ’70s and ’80s. X was one of the pioneers of the L.A. scene, and their high-octane blend of power chords and rockabilly became a hallmark of West Coast alternative rock.

X’s signature song, “Los Angeles,” examines the grittier side of the City of Angels with the hard-scrambled voice of Raymond Chandler sitting atop buzzing guitars. The effect is a song so dangerous it’s alluring, much like the city itself.

18. “It Never Rains in Southern California” By Albert Hammond

While it’s true that Southern California doesn’t experience much rain, Albert Hammond‘s classic ’70s single “It Never Rains in Southern California” isn’t about precipitation. It is about the allure and improbability of fame. The rain in question is a metaphor for broken dreams.

Hammond’s single cracked the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100 in 1972. Despite its melancholy tone, the track’s California references, universal themes of failure, and sing-along soft rock chorus have become an anthem for SoCal residents.

19. “Coming Into Los Angeles” By Arlo Guthrie

The son of legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie, Arlo Guthrie, followed into the family business by forging his own successful songwriting career. 

While the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, times do change. Though Woody sang the hopeful “This Land is Your Land,” Arlo paints a depraved character study of an airplane landing in L.A. full of illicit drugs in his song.

Though many radio stations refused to play the song due to its subject matter, Guthrie’s performance was a highlight of the legendary Woodstock festival.

20. “Malibu” By Hole

Courtney Love is a rock and roll survivor. From the death of her husband Kurt Cobain to the various controversies that have undermined her career, the grunge rocker has taken every punch that fame had to give and come out the other side stronger.

Love’s band Hole released “Malibu” several years after Cobain’s death. The song is a poetic interpretation of the Nirvana singer’s stint in a Malibu area rehab facility. The single showcases Hole’s melodic sensibilities, and despite its bleak subject matter, it became an alternative radio staple. 

21. “California” By Blink-182

American rock band Blink-182 brought their irreverent and laid-back SoCal attitude to ’90s pop-punk. Their classic singles like “Dammit,” “What’s My Age Again?” and “All the Small Things” redefined punk for the new millennium.

After three and a half decades of success, the band finally recorded their inevitable concept record about California. The eponymous final track on California is an arena rock ballad dedicated to their home state. 

The song’s emotional swirl of synthesizers, drum machines, and slinky guitars sounds like the sun setting over the Pacific Ocean. As the distorted guitars kick in for the final chorus, you’ll feel like diving headfirst into the water.

22. “California” By Wax

While Blink-182 represents the glossier side of California pop-punk, the ragged style of Wax serves as a contrast that reaches back into L.A.’s punk history.

Wax’s single “California” is a bratty blast of attitude that eschews the sophomoric jokes popular with their punk peers. Instead of joking, the song cuts to the bone: a gritty L.A. that bands like X explored over a decade earlier.

The song’s music video, one slow-motion shot of a man on fire, was directed by Spike Jonze and garnered the band airtime on MTV.

23. “California Nights” By Sweet

Just because ’70s glam-rock band Sweet is from the U.K. doesn’t mean they’re immune to the charms of California. The band’s acoustic soft rock single “California Nights” is a joyful celebration of the state, with glam sensibilities tempered by California-inspired instrumentation.

Their swinging folk-rock praise of the Golden State is a fitting homage to the typical rock song tropes of girls and cars that many have used to reference California. But any high-minded examination of the single’s lyrics will fade away as the groovy chorus beckons you to dance.

24. “California Stars” By Billy Bragg And Wilco

Billy Bragg and Wilco imagine a rustic, sparkling sky in the single “California Stars.” Originally a set of lyrics by Woody Guthrie, the never before heard poetry is as dazzling in its simplicity as the music is in its complex interwoven fiddle, slide guitar, and upright piano melodies.

The blend of Bragg, a folk singer from the U.K., and Wilco, an alt-country band from Chicago, results in one of the most vital interpretations of the Golden State in decades and endures to this day.

25. “San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair)” By Scott McKenzie

Scott McKenzie’s hippie anthem “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” was written by The Mamas & The Papas’ guitarist John Phillips to help promote the Monterey International Pop Festival. Both the festival and the song became wildly successful.

While the music festival would create a blueprint for future large-scale events to follow, the single became one of the best-selling of the ’60s and synonymous with the counterculture of San Francisco. Ironically, concert-goers now wear flowers in their hair a few hours south at Coachella.

26. “California” By Phantom Planet

American rock band Phantom Planet‘s classic 2000s single “California” is a classic road trip song that finds the band taking the strip of highway along the Pacific Ocean all the way to their next show. 

The single sounds like a car ride with the windows down, with its plaintive piano melody punctuating a loud-soft dynamic and keyboards that melt perfectly into the mix. 

Further cementing the song in the canon of Californian songs is its use as the theme song of the hit teen drama The O.C., which became a cultural phenomenon in the vein of Beverly Hills, 90210.

Summing Up Our List Of California Songs

There is no shortage of songs that pay homage to California. From hip-hop to punk, the sound of the Golden State is vast. It’s no surprise that artists find inspiration at the foot of the Pacific Ocean—America has a grand tradition of romanticizing and idolizing the state.

While we no longer move West in covered wagons, we continue to flock to California in droves to follow our dreams or chase the biggest waves. Even those landlocked miles away from the shimmering coast can listen to this wealth of pop music gold and be transported West.

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Laura has over 12 years experience teaching both classical and jazz saxophone and clarinet. She now resides in California where she works as a session and live performer.