From L.A. punk to Yay Area hyphy, Disney pop to Bakersfield country, California has been home to – and inspired – some of the most moving, provocative and energetic music of the past 100 years. Here, check our playlist of some of the state’s most memorable tunes.
Big Jay McNeely, “Welcome to California”
Blowing gale winds outta his tenor sax while scooting around the stage like a bespoke b-boy, Big Jay McNeely was one of early R&B’s most scintillating performers. Perhaps even more remarkably, he recorded for seven decades, and this was one of his late classics. In a high-spirited, honky-tonkish eff-you to Cali-come-latelies, McNeely offers, “Welcome to California/Now go home.”
Thee Midniters, “Whittier Blvd.”
These sophisticated East L.A. party-starters were one of the first Mexican-American or “Chicano” bands to score chart hits (goofy scratch-off “Whittier Blvd.,” “Land of a Thousand Dances”), but they were far more than that. Led by singer Willie “Little Willie G” Garcia, trombonist Romeo Prado and guitarist Paul Saenz, they built a soulful, kinetic, ever-evolving base from which they explored themes of identity, community unity and politics in songs like the classic “Chicano Power.”
The Queers, “Goodbye California”
Frontman Joe King, a.k.a. Joe Queer, was a fisherman from New Hampshire who worshipped the Ramones, and this was his own dyspeptic version of “California Sun.” He opines, “I don’t know why I’m living this way/Must have Coppertone on my brain,” subsequently advises the state that it’s time to “wake up or die,” then pisses off entirely to go and see, yes, the Ramones.
The Neighborhood Brats, “Lust for Love”
A ferocious young hardcore band currently residing in Long Beach, the Brats are led by unfadeable singer Jenny Angelillo, who sums up her philosophy like this: “I just want to play punk rock, drink coffee, get a tan, do push-ups and get rad … You can fucking quote me on that.”
The Go-Go’s, “This Town”
California’s greatest pop band of the past 30-plus years with guitarist Charlotte Caffey’s toughest sneer and singer Belinda Carlisle’s most glorious hair-flip, taunting us jadedly and making us like it: “This town is our town/It is so glamorous/Bet you’d live here if you could and be one of us.”
Blunt, theatrical, bitterly bemused, Erika Anderson delivers a spoken-word manifesto that possesses more apocalyptic power than any death-metal rant. The cavernously echoing backdrop is just as crucial to the song’s visceral impact, but Anderson keeps coming, chanting, spitting, begging, carrying a gun, etc.
MC Eiht, “Streiht Up Menace”
One of the most original, riveting rappers ever, Compton’s Aaron “MC Eiht” Tyler has a simmering, seen-it-all, existential flow that’s the flipside of Tupac‘s overheated myth-making spew. On this lynchpin of the Menace II Society soundtrack, Eiht sinks into a comfy bed of genial piano, dinky guitar and somber strings, then snaps you into his coming-of-age. Typical line: “Niggas puttin’ brew in my fuckin’ baby bottle.”
Rage Against the Machine, “Down Rodeo”
Like a camo Hummer blasting a subwoofer-obliterating, hornet’s-nest groove, this track is an unstoppable invading force, with frontman Zack De La Rocha dropping perhaps his most incendiary lyrical couplet: “Yeeeah, rollin’ down Rodeo [Drive] with a shotgun/You people ain’t seen a brown-skinned man since your grandparents bought one.” Cue Tom Morello’s siren squall.
Volume 10, “Pistol Grip Pump”
A product of Los Angeles’ Nineties Good Life Café scene that sought to counterbalance the G-Funk cavalcade, Volume 10’s signature track packs an Impala-realigning wallop that challenges anything on The Chronic. 10’s booming delivery, always on the verge of paranoid delirium, found a kindred spirit in Rage Against the Machine, who played the song on the sound system at their shows and eventually recorded their own cover.
DJ Quik, “Born and Raised in Compton”
A producer-rapper whose vital contribution to G-Funk has been receiving more and more acknowledgement over the years, Quik never had huge hits, but his around-the-way tracks wear very well. Here, the snares snap, the bass undertow lurches you forward, the synth-whorl riff embeds in your head, and the man’s shit-talkin’ tour of his hometown is at once fanciful and plainspoken.
E-40, “Yay Area”
Unexpectedly for a tribute to the Bay, where Vallejo legend E-40 reigns, producer Rick Rock opens by sampling Digable Planets’ pillowy mantra “We be to rap what key be to lock.” But it’s just a set-up. A stunna-dumb hyphy bomb drops, plus waves and waves of shifty noises, and 40 Water chatters his shit, talkin’ ’bout pushing “pies like Marie Callender.” That’s not kilos of lemon meringue, FYI.
Grip Grand feat. Darondo, “Remember the Time”
Bay Area rapper Grip Grand poignantly reflects on the “Broakland” family and friends (often by name) who have shaped his life, offering one memorable touchstone after another – like the necklace his wife keeps in a white box to remember her father – so you end up feeling you’re sitting on a living-room sofa next to him, listening to the O’Jays and sharing a wry chuckle.
Marlena Shaw, “California Soul”
Actually a jazz singer from New York, Marlena Shaw took this Ashford & Simpson album track (also recorded by the Fifth Dimension) and transformed it into one of the most undeniably moving evocations of majestic late-Sixties grooviness. Produced by masters of lush arrangement Richard Evans (Sun Ra, Ramsey Lewis, Ahmad Jamal) and Charles Stepney (Rotary Connection, Terry Callier, Earth Wind & Fire), “California Soul” became Shaw’s iconic moment, finally earning her legendary status after it was adopted by the U.K.-driven acid jazz and rare-groove scenes of the Nineties, sampled by numerous hip-hop artists, and featured in television commercials.
Charlie Rich, “San Francisco Is a Lonely Town”
From his indelible 1969 country-soul album The Fabulous Charlie Rich, this subdued yet heartbreaking meditation on a man adrift from a broken relationship showcases Rich as one of the most affecting vocalists in 1960s-1970s pop. The patience with which he pours out his despair and flickering hope is staggering.
Lesley Gore, “California Nights”
Mostly known as the New Jersey teenager who had a Number One hit in 1963 with “It’s My Party,” Gore had hits for a few years afterwards, and this beautifully moody swoon along the shore, written by Marvin Hamlisch and produced by Bob Crewe/Quincy Jones, was her last chart success. She even sang it on the Batman TV show, while playing “Pussycat,” Catwoman’s evil aide-de-camp.
Beach Boys, “Disney Girls (1957)”
Written and sung by Bruce Johnston – who also plays Moog bass, keyboards, and mandolin here – this strolling, conversational, openly-dreaming 1971 ballad expresses the wistful side of the band’s aesthetic as well as anything by Brian Wilson. When Johnston croons, “Oh reality, it’s not for me/And it makes me laugh,” before he details his fantasy romance, it’s unforgettable.
Aislers Set, “Mission Bells”
One of Amy Linton’s masterpieces of advanced-degree songwriting: Fitting knotty, meandering, anxious emotions into a rolling swirl of dreamy indie-pop, the lyrics never quite matching up with the melody, as if you’re furiously pacing the streets of San Francisco’s Mission District in a drunken haze, thoughts taking on sharp focus as your body careens dizzily. Then you fall asleep under the Dolores bells.
Dave Alvin, “King of California”
If a song is advertised as a short story it usually fails on both counts – the narrative is literal or overwritten, the song is flat or overblown – but Alvin’s 1994 stunner “King of California” is tenderly, masterfully balanced and complete. Acoustic guitar, mandolin, dobro flow like a brisk river as his ageless voice takes you deep inside the age-old tale of a poor man who is rejected by his lover’s father but vows to do whatever it takes to fulfill his passion, whispering her name, boasting he’ll return with riches like a conquering king. Of course, his plans get derailed, but the song never lets his dream die.