Last night, morbid curiosity compelled us to check out the debut episode of Platinum Hit, a song that has Jewel and Kara DioGuardi searching for America’s next top songwriter. Allow us to save you some time: it’s terrible. We’re not sure whether the problem is the hyper-styled yet uninspired contestants or the show’s tight time constraints, but we feel confident in saying that it’s no Top Chef. The first challenge had the musicians composing odes to Los Angeles — and, despite being New Yorkers, the songs were so nauseating that we couldn’t help but feel for our friends to the west. That has inspired us to help heal their pain by rounding up ten of our favorite songs about L.A. They aren’t all happy, but at least they’re listenable.
“Free Fallin'” — Tom Petty
There are a million epic ’70s soft-rock songs about Southern California, but one of our humble goals in life is never to sit through “Hotel California” ever again, so accept that as our bias going in. We much prefer “Free Fallin’,” the biggest hit of Tom Petty’s career and a track whose airy feel and jangly guitars reference but don’t rip off their decade-old forebears. It’s the classic tale of the “good girl” and the “bad boy,” with a video that oscillates between ’80s L.A. (malls, skate parks, goths) and the city’s ’50s golden age (big circle skirts, vinyl LPs, Sweet 16 parties). The lyrics reference everywhere from Mulholland Drive to suburban Reseda, but what really makes “Free Fallin'” an essential Los Angeles song is its sense of pioneer freedom — which Petty understands is about both exhilarating possibilities and terrifying isolation. That last verse (“Gonna free fall out into nothin’/ Gonna leave this world for a while”) gets us every time.
“California” — EMA
Los Angeles has always had its darker side, though. this single from her new album Past Life Martyred Saints sprawls like the metropolis itself and begins with the fighting words, “Fuck California, you made me boring.” What follows is an echo-torn indictment of the city’s never-ending sex-and-death trip that detours, early on, to apologize to old, land-locked friends for leaving them for this hell. But the ending to “California” almost sounds like a prayer, so maybe the song isn’t all vitriol.
“Los Angeles” — X
Speaking of sex and death, X named a song on their debut noir-punk album, Los Angeles, “Sex and Dying in High Society” — and it’s about exactly what you’d imagine. But the record’s title track remains their strongest and darkest (not to mention most often misinterpreted) characterization of the city, seen through the eyes of a paranoid, racist girl who “started to hate every nigger and Jew/ and the Mexicans who gave her lotta shit/ And the homosexuals and the idle rich.” It’s a little bit like L.A.’s version of that one speech from Taxi Driver.
“Straight Outta Compton” — N.W.A.
Of course, those pesky marginalized groups X’s anti-heroine calls out eventually had their say. The title track of the album that founded gangsta rap and brought us “Fuck tha Police” is an anthem for kids who grew up on the rough street of Compton. Yes, there’s plenty of posturing and shooting and misogyny — but the song, a touchstone for West Coast hip-hop for nearly 25 years, is most essentially about survival.
“Malibu”/”Pacific Coast Highway” — Hole
Two of the best tracks Courtney Love has written since Live Through This are both about the greater Los Angeles area. Oh, and they’re also based on the same riff, which would be worthy of a self-plagiarism complaint if we didn’t like them so much. “Malibu” is a slickly produced tale of escape to the beach, off of 1998’s Celebrity Skin. Twelve years later, on Nobody’s Daughter, it’s a raw, honest, and self-aware return based on Love’s car ride back from rehab — and its derivativeness is fitting, in that it also negates that famous lyric from “Violet.” Instead of getting what you want and never wanting it again, Love confesses that “What I want I will never have.” Together, the tracks reveal something about Southern California’s dual nature, as a place you both escape to and hit bottom in, all amid the glamor of Hollywood.
“Under the Bridge” — Red Hot Chili Peppers
RHCP’s smash hit power ballad came from a dark place: frontman Anthony Kiedis’s drug problems and the loneliness and alienation from his friends he felt when he finally kicked. “Under the Bridge” is ultimately an uplifting song, though, about the city’s powers of redemption. He calls Los Angeles “the place I love” and sings, “At least I have her, though/ The city she loves me/ Lonely as I am/ Together we cry.” Much of the Gus Van Sant-directed video features Kiedis walking around the vibrant, crowded streets.
“Life in L.A.” — Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti
If EMA’s “California” is a strung-out nightmare of Los Angeles, Ariel Pink’s “Life in L.A.” is its good-trip counterpart, a hot, dry afternoon in the sun (despite the insistence that “Life in L.A. is so lonely”). Retro revivalist Pink manages to reference just about every relevant musical genre in this somewhat tongue-in-cheek tribute, from hippie psychedelia to ’70s funk to the bouncy synths that recall a certain kind of classic TV theme song, before disintegrating into dissonant horn noise. (L.A. transplant Ornette Coleman pushed to the extreme?)
“Redondo Beach” — Patti Smith
From the legendary album Horses, “Redondo Beach” is another song whose upbeat arrangement belies a dark, lyrical core. Simon Reynolds, who interviewed Smith about the song, writes that she describes it as “a song about her sister Linda, a sort of morbid fantasy rooted in remorse: the pair, rooming together in the Chelsea Hotel, quarrelled, and Linda disappeared, causing Patti much anguish.” Since many of Smith’s songs are set in her home city of New York, the change of scenery must have compelled the vaguely tropical feel.
“California Love” — Tupac Shakur feat. Dr. Dre
You could argue that “To Live & Die in L.A.” is Tupac’s definitive take on Los Angeles — but hell, L.A. is a party city, and a lot of the songs on this list are kind of depressing. That’s why we chose this perennial club favorite, which declares, “California knows how to party.” As Dre puts it, “We in that Sunshine State with a bomb-ass hemp beat/The state where ya never find a dance floor empty.” Sure, San Francisco and Sacramento get their shout outs, but we know where Tupac’s true loyalty lies, when he laughs, “Hey, you know L.A. up in this.”
“Welcome to the Jungle” — Guns ‘N Roses
What, you didn’t think we’d forget Los Angeles’s unofficial hard-rock anthem, did you? We’ll give Axl the last word: “You’re in the jungle, baby/ You’re gonna dieeeee!”