LA. Those two letters have become synonymous with an entire visual narrative. Wind swept palms, sun drenched beaches, and convertibles rolling down Sunset Boulevard. But if Los Angeles is Tinseltown and the city of dreams, it can also be a city of nightmares as well. Rejection and loneliness, isolation and alienation; these are also common themes and feelings expressed through LA’s music.
While it’s impossible to narrow down the scope of all of LA into a single playlist, these twenty songs attempt to cover the full range of feelings that come with visiting this sunny city by the sea.
1. Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show – Neil Diamond – 1969
Orignally from New York City, like thousands before him Neil Diamond made for LA to launch his career. His album Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show was one of the first that he promoted in LA and features the unique sound that would become an iconic feature of the late 60’s and 70’s.
2. Sweet Child O’ Mine – Guns N’ Roses – 1987
There are few bands that achieved greater fame or notoriety in the 80’s than Guns N’ Roses. The band’s rebelliousness and penchant for destruction earned them the nickname “the most dangerous band in the world”, and their songs led them to enduring fame among millions.
3. Straight Outta Compton – NWA – 1988
There aren’t many musical acts that draw attention from the FBI, there also are few acts like NWA. Active from 1987 to 1981, NWA drew instant notoriety for their explicit lyrics, glorification of drugs and crime, and inner feuds and violent behavior. At one point, one of the members threw a critical journalist down the stairs of a venue. And while they may have been the most banned musical act in the country, few hip-hop groups were as influential.
Generations of rappers have attributed their rise to NWA’s inspiration and critics have counted them among the greatest musical acts in American music.
4. Enter Sandman – Metallica – 1991
Metallica was formed in LA in 1981 by James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich and quickly grew to one of the biggest names in metal. Their music would come to define the genre and helped to bring metal into the musical mainstream. The band has won nine Grammy’s and has been nominated over twenty times.
5. Motion Sickness – Phoebe Bridgers – 2018
With soft-spoken vocals and sardonic wit, Bridgers tackles the isolation that can come with pursuing music in the center of the entertainment universe. Her debut album Stranger in the Alps explores the emotional alienation that comes with relentless touring, promoting and the mining of one’s brain for creative inspiration.
6. The Boys of Summer – Don Henley – 1984
An icon of the 80’s, Don Henley’s The Boys of Summer was an instant classic and is emblematic of the summer rock of Los Angeles. Nostalgia, summer love and the cynicism of middle age are all topics explored by Henley.
7. Say It Ain’t So – Weezer – 1994
No band captures the garage band spirit of the 90’s like Weezer. With goofy lyrics, thick glasses and ugly sweaters, Weezer achieved cult fame and came to define a musical generation. Over three different decades and eleven albums, Weezer sold over 35 million albums worldwide.
8. Swimming Pools (Drank) – Kendrick Lamar – 2012
Is Kendrick Lamar the greatest rapper of all time? After four albums, countless accolades and a genre-defying Pulitzer Prize win, it’s a legitimate question. The Compton-born rapper is lauded for his storytelling and political bite. In Swimming Pools (Drank) his ability to weave personal narratives through music is on full display.
9. Dark Days – Local Natives – 2016
One of the more popular indie bands to pour out of hipster mecca Silver Lake, Local Natives powered their way to four albums with a meld of bright guitar work, introspective lyrics and 21st century millennial charm.
10. California Dreamin’ – The Mamas & Papas – 1966
The 1960’s were a decade that changed American music forever. And nowhere was this more evident than in California. The Mamas & Papas were part of the evolution of rock that moved the genre from hippy protest albums to an iconic American sound.
11. Young, Wild & Free – Snoop Dogg, Wiz Khalifa, Bruno Mars – 2011
Another representative of Southern California hip-hop, Snoop Dogg built a multi-decade long career with albums that combined melodic rhyming with a smooth delivery and ironic verses.
12. A Better Son/Daughter – Rilo Kiley – 2002
Formed by Jenny Lewis in 1998, Rilo Kiley rose to indie stardom in the 2000’s. Their songs were featured on many of the top television shows of the decade, as well as being an indie staple at music festivals and talk show programs. In A Better Son/Daughter Lewis’s clever songwriting and vocal deliveries show the negativity that can come with building a musical career and pursuing your passion.
13. Hard to Concentrate – Red Hot Chili Peppers – 2006
There are too many bands to choose from to place on the throne as the king of California. But the Red Hot Chili Peppers would have a good case for belonging on the throne. Formed in 1983, the Red Hot Chili Peppers hold the record for the most number one singles in alternative rock history, as well as the most cumulative weeks at number one on the Billboard Alternative Songs chart. With one of the greatest guitarists in the world, as well as arguably the greatest bassist in history, the Red Hot Chili Peppers built out a four-decade long career spanning eleven albums.
14. Gangsta’s Paradise – Coolio – 1995
With the lyrics “As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” Coolio launches into his deepest and most resonant work. Gangsta’s Paradise draws on choral vocals, religious themes and poignant verses to create a timeless hip-hop masterpiece. The song spent twelve weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot 100.
15. For What It’s Worth – Buffalo Springfield – 1966
Written by Stephen Stills in 1966, For What It’s Worth attained instant fame as the preeminent protest song of the 1960’s. The song continues to live on as a relic of the era and is consistently featured in period pieces on the 60’s and the Vietnam War.
16. A Feast of Friends – Jim Morrison – 1978
Jim Morrison’s lyrical poetry, distinct voice and tragic death all contributed to his status as a romantic hero of American rock. His time as the lead singer of the Doors as well as a solo artist has cemented his place in the pantheon of LA music.
17. Grinding All My Life – Nipsey Hussle – 2018
Another LA artist cut tragically short, Nipsey Hussle was on his way to a critically acclaimed career in hip-hop before he was fatally shot in 2019. Honored by his community and luminaries ranging from Barack Obama to the mayor of Los Angeles, Nipsey Hussle’s music has become irrevocably intertwined with the city of LA.
18. Good Vibrations – The Beach Boys – 1967
The Beach Boys were one of the most popular bands of the 60’s and once a legitimate rival to The Beatles. Good Vibrations has all the hallmarks of a great Beach Boys song. Incredible vocal harmonies, dynamic shifts in melody and poetic emotional depth.
19. Changes – 2Pac – 1998
Covering racism, police brutality, drug and gang violence and poverty, Changes cemented 2Pac’s place as one of hip-hop’s greats. 2Pac took conscious hip-hop from a fringe movement to one of the most commercially and critically acclaimed musical genres in America.
20. Malibu Nights – LANY – 2018
With a mix of 90’s R&B, 80’s synths and indie pop, LANY has created a sound that combines the rejection of a city filled with artists and musicians with the saccharine atmosphere of LA.
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