30 of the Most Californian Albums Ever Made

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The defining musical style of the state of California largely depends on who you ask and what their ideologies are. Is it the West Coast hip-hop that came out of South Central L.A. in the late ’80s and early ’90s, which blended racial conscious and gangsta rap in a way never quite duplicated since? Is it the mostly SoCal punk scene through the ages, from X and Germs, to the West Coast hardcore of Black Flag, to the pop- and ska-tinged punk that dominated the ’90s? How about the Laurel Canyon sound that blended folk and rock and spawned some of the greatest albums of the early ’70s? Or the sound of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury in the mid to late ’60s, as led by the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, with their collective peace, love, harmony, etc.? Or the dripping-with-excess hard rock and hair metal scene that took shape on the Sunset Strip throughout the 1980s? And what about The Beach Boys and the generations of surf-pop imitators they spawned?!

When we heard that Best Coast — one of L.A.’s most outspokenly L.A. bands — was releasing an album called California Nights this week, we got to thinking, “What’s the quintessential California sound?” This is the place where many go to pursue the American dream, or to opt of it completely, at least during the hippie movement. When we talk about “the sound of California,” the sound itself is important, but it’s the lifestyles behind these scenes that come to define the music. You’ll see all of these varying personal ideologies on display throughout our list of quintessential California albums. — Jillian Mapes

Queens of the Stone Age — Songs for the Deaf

As Queens of the Stone Age’s third album and mainstream breakthrough gets under way, the voice of a fictional radio DJ voiced by QOTSA frontman Josh Homme — Kip Casper of Clone Radio — can be heard. In Los Angeles, a city where people spend more time commuting by car than anywhere else in America, radio takes on a heightened role. Songs for the Deaf embraces this fact in its concept: the 2002 album is loosely structured as a drive from L.A. out to the California desert near Joshua Tree. Though you’d need to play the hour-long LP three times to make that journey, that doesn’t stop Homme and co. from parodying the radio stations you’ll find along the way, from alt-rock staple KROQ to Spanish-language stations. California’s open roads are often fetishized; Songs for the Deaf innately understands this, and offers up some of QOTSA’s most blistering songs along the way. — JM

Guns N’ Roses — Appetite for Destruction

Appetite for Destruction has been called “the greatest album ever made about how you can’t run away from yourself” (SPIN), but even more than that, Guns N’ Roses’ 1987 debut is the greatest album ever made about the meeting of lofty dreams and over-the-top vice on the Sunset Strip. GNR hit it big late in the ‘80s hard rock game that had its epicenter in Los Angeles, and they made some of the era’s greatest odes to big trouble. “For young, impressionable musicians who aspired to rock stardom, Hollywood could be as intoxicating and dangerous as it was for hot eighteen-year-old actress wannabes just off the bus from the Midwest,” Slash noted in Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal. Even without the context of the scene, songs like “Paradise City” and “Welcome to the Jungle” lent a real (and real seedy) sense of place to the record, which also tackled such topics as Axl Rose’s run-ins with the law back home in Indiana, heroin addiction, major label bidding, and of course, the ladies. — JM

Kendrick Lamar — good kid, mA.A.d city

With his 2012 sophomore album, Kendrick Lamar was officially passed the West Coast hip-hop torch. His L.A. hometown of Compton had long been a gangsta rap trope, but under Lamar and executive producer Dr. Dre’s watchful eyes, the crime- and drug-ridden city is not fetishized further, but rather, considered with much heart from the perspective of a kid trying to escape its trappings in pursuit of “money and power.” Like Compton itself, good kid, m.A.A.d. city is not exclusively grit; Lamar embraces his vices (albeit in a pretty ambivalent manner) and celebrates his neighborhood haunts through the LP. — JM

Jefferson Airplane — Surrealistic Pillow

“No other studio record summed up the San Francisco rock aesthetic of the late Sixties better than the Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow,” begins Rolling Stone ’s review of JA’s second album and first with singer Grace Slick. In a way, Surrealistic Pillow is the quintessential California album of the late 1960s, encompassing both the folk-rock whimsy and pop songwriting chops of proto-Laurel Canyon bands like The Byrds and the psychedelia of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, led by Surrealistic Pillow‘s “musical and spiritual advisor” Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead. Better yet, the album spawned “Somebody to Love,” a big hit that — like the hippie counterculture it represented — was misunderstood in its message of peace, and ultimately, aimlessness. — JM

Dead Kennedys — Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables

Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables seals its case for inclusion on this list with one song: the immortal “California Über Alles,” a blistering punk sing-along that nails the parallels between Jerry Brown-era hippie liberalism and fascism, and one that has only become more relevant in our Whole Foods- and yoga-afflicted present. But just about every other track on Dead Kennedys’ 1980 debut is equally incisive, skewering American militarism, the War on Poverty, and hypocritical do-gooderism with the bubbly zeal that became frontman Jello Biafra’s signature. San Francisco never sounded so pissed. — Judy Berman

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young — Déjà Vu

With The Byrds, David Crosby would help to establish the folk-rock sound that became synonymous with Los Angeles’ Laurel Canyon in the late 1960s. By the early 1970s, though, he was onto something a little different — alongside several other key players in the scene. On their sophomore album (and first with Neil Young, along with Stephen Stills a former member of Buffalo Springfield), Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young presented a perfect storm of pop, folk, blues, and rock songwriting. Though little of the record directly references California (CSNY were always more into hippie counterculture imagery), the sound of Déjà Vu signals where Laurel Canyon would be headed in the years that followed. — JM

X — Los Angeles

Before the dudebro violence of ’80s hardcore and the skate-brattiness of ’90s pop-punk, Southern California had a punk scene as diverse and artistically ambitious as anything happening at CBGB. The best album to come out of that period was X’s Los Angeles. Each song is a short story, with seedy LA characters from starfuckers to psycho killers rendered in an aesthetic somewhere between noir and Southern Gothic. A sense of creeping dread permeates every moment of the album’s 28 minutes, from the psychosexual snuff film “Johnny Hit and Run Paulene” and the title track’s paranoiac freakout to the high-rent sleaze of “Sex and Dying in High Society” and “The World’s a Mess; It’s in My Kiss” — Los Angeles‘ own Book of Revelation. And, though their own sound owes much to American roots music, John Doe and Exene Cervenka made their connection to LA’s musical tradition clear by not only covering The Doors’ “Soul Kitchen” on their debut album, but also hiring Ray Manzarek to produce it. — JB

Tupac Shakur — All Eyez on Me

Though Tupac didn’t spend his formative years in SoCal, the Harlem native and Bay Area teenage transplant name-checked the Compton-area lifestyle with (and alongside) the best of them (namely, Dre and Snoop), particularly after he signed to West Coast hip-hop staple Death Row Records for the impeccably produced All Eyez on Me. While Tupac’s three previous albums are considered more political calls to action for the black man caught up in gang dynamics, All Eyez on Me treated thug life with a laidback party vibe, for better and for worse. The crowning jewel of that direction, “California Love,” remains one of the greatest odes to the West Coast, even if Tupac mistakes California for the “sunshine state” (that would be Florida). — JM

Sly & the Family Stone — Stand!

Sly Stone and his funk brothers and sisters released their fourth album, Stand!, shortly before playing a career-altering Woodstock set. They represented the convergence of several of the era’s cultural movements: the peace-and-love psychedelic rock of their hometown (San Francisco), Motown soul, and the Civil Rights movement, as seen most pointedly in “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey” and “Everyday People.” The latter direction would become Sly & the Family Stone’s most prominent direction on the albums directly following Stand!, but it’s here that they best balanced liberal politics and commercialism in a way that feels distinctly Californian. — JM

The Doors — L.A. Woman

By the time The Doors graduated to famed Sunset Strip club the Whisky a Go Go in 1966, they were well acquainted with the 1960s Los Angeles rock’n’roll lifestyle. Their first and last albums with Jim Morrison — 1967’s self-titled debut and 1971’s L.A. Woman — capture this best, but amidst talk of “freeway traffic that hisses like the waves of the Pacific,” there’s an eerie sense of jadedness that punctuates the latter. “Motel, money, murder, madness,” Morrison surmises of L.A. on the title track; you start to see why he moved to Paris before L.A. Woman was even done being mixed. — JM

Motley Crüe — Too Fast for Love

Even in 2015, if you ask someone to think of a genre that’s uniquely and entirely Californian, ’80s hair metal will probably come to mind. And who better embodied that era of Sunset Strip-centric silliness than Mötley Crüe? By the end of the decade, the band had become poster boys for the dangers (and pleasures) of excess, but before they were the bloated zombie-dust-hoofing Led Zeppelin of the ’80s, they were a bunch of scruffy up-and-comers living in a legendarily filthy house near the Whisky a Go Go. It’s that era that informs this record, which was their first and remains their best. Too Fast for Love is first and foremost a really good rock ‘n’ roll record, but even more than that, it’s a document of a time — full of the feeling of being twitchily, teeth-grindingly high on really good cocaine, prowling the warm L.A. night, looking for trouble and action. — Tom Hawking

No Doubt — Tragic Kingdom

In a nod to their hometown of Anaheim, where Disneyland is located, No Doubt named their third album Tragic Kingdom (and, in a further nod to Orange County, the band posed among rotting orange groves for the cover art). Lyrically, the sense of place remains subtle, but the SoCal context is crucial to understanding and appreciating No Doubt’s third record and big commercial breakthrough — even now, 20 years later. While ska, punk, and new wave were first combined in the 2-Tone scene that coalesced in late 1970s England around bands like the Specials and Madness, Southern California would become a hotbed for ska punk — in addition to other kinds of punk, be it hardcore or pop-punk — in the following decades, thanks to bands like Fishbone and Operation Ivy. No Doubt represented the most commercial incarnation of SoCal’s ska punk trend. — JM

The Eagles — Hotel California

In America’s bicentennial year, the quintessential American band — the Eagles — recorded a masterwork that used California, the geographical embodiment of the American dream, as a microcosm for the country as a whole. However, to look for deep societal meaning in Hotel California is a mostly fruitless mission, even on closing track “The Last Resort,” which the band still claims is about our culture’s decline. Hotel California is, however, one of the most successful albums ever; considering this is an album full of earnest tales of sin, redemption, broken hearts, and wasted time, that in itself says something about America. — JM

Germs — (GI)

“The people going to CB’s were much older people, but we were all really young,” LA punk fixture Trudie Arguelles recalled in Marc Spitz and Brendan Mullen’s oral history, We Got the Neutron Bomb. “We were just teenagers. It was a new thing for us. We felt like everybody else was kind of jaded.” No band captured the youthfulness — and, specifically, that youthful rage — of that scene like hardcore progenitors Germs. Fueled by then-21-year-old frontman Darby Crash’s delusions of grandeur and obsession with the aesthetics of fascism, their 1979 debut (and sole studio album) GI is 38 minutes of unremitting aggression. Just a year after the album’s release, Crash would be dead by suicide, leaving a legacy whose influence on the next decade of Southern California punk is immeasurable. — JB

Jane’s Addiction — Nothing’s Shocking

Another record centered around a house, this time the house in Los Angeles’ Wilton Historical District, where Perry Farrell lived with, amongst other people, one Jane Bainter, an “an intellectual… [who] knew how to act aristocratic, even with a needle and a spoon on the table” who would give the nascent band its name. Like Mötley Crüe’s den of debauchery, the Wilton house was a party house, but one where the party had already started to turn dark. Many of the songs on Nothing’s Shocking were born out of Wilton jam sessions, and out of the band’s strange and fragile dynamics emerged a sound that was genuinely unique. When Jane’s were at their peak, they sounded like no-one else — this was rock ‘n’ roll with the sort of hypnotic energy that’d later characterize dance music, furnished with lyrics that encompassed everything from the tender (gorgeous love song “Summertime Rolls,” for instance) to the startlingly prescient (“Ted, Just Admit It” and its meditations on celebrity culture and the commodification of sex.) And it was very much a product of its time — a time that, due to its very nature, couldn’t last. As Navarro said, ruefully, years later: “What do you want me to say? There was always five pounds of heroin, all the booze and coke you wanted, all the girls you wanted — all looking for nothing but guys in bands. And I wasn’t even old enough to legally drink yet.” — TH

Snoop Dogg — Doggystyle

Is Doggystyle the only album on this list to include references to weed on every song, a spirited interlude about scrotum, and the sounds of Snoop taking a bath with his girl? Most definitely — and, in fact, that’s part of its charm. Doggystyle is a testament to Snoop Dogg’s unflinching Snoop-ness, how he just has to *do him* in fully actualized form even here on his debut. There are more technically impressive West Coast rap albums, but as far as personality goes, Doggystyle’s got it in spades. More than that, the record — along with Dr. Dre’s The Chronic — introduced a mainstream audience to G-funk, a style marked by slow, hypnotic synth grooves, female-sung hooks, and Parliament Funk samples, as favored by Snoop, Dre, and their compatriots (and whose influence can still be heard in hip-hop today). — JM

Joanna Newsom — Have One On Me

An album beginning with a song called “Easy” — with its verdant lyrics celebrating the anti-act of languishing in bed with a lover forever, and a loose, sprawling structure to match — could certainly never be mistaken for a New York album. The further you get into Joanna Newsom’s Have One On Me, the more it seems to evoke the alternatively soft/cradling and cragged/ferocious California landscape as it does the relationship at its core. Whether that’s intended is debatable, but with “In California” as its centerpiece, it’s hard not to get caught up in envisioning each song occurring in a different CA locale. In a glowing review, Pitchfork noted how the album often, and especially in “In California,” was reminiscent of Joni Mitchell, a poet laureate of sorts for the state. In this song about her native state, Newsom recalls both the album’s love-saturated, ecstatic beginning — “When you come and see me in California/ You cross the borders of my heart” — and foreshadows its ultimate, disillusioned close, where the bed of sexy languor becomes a symbol of emptiness: “Some nights I just never go to sleep at all/ And I stand/ Shaking in my doorway like a sentinel/ All alone/ Bracing like the bow upon a ship/ And fully abandoning any thought of anywhere/ But home/ My home.” — Moze Halperin

Fleetwood Mac — Rumours

Fleetwood Mac may be half British and half Californian, but the latter won out on their most iconic album, recorded primarily in the hippie holdout of Sausalito. You can hear California’s sunny, laidback side in “You Make Loving Fun,” “I Don’t Want to Know,” and “Second Hand News,” even when the two couples at the heart of Fleetwood Mac are at odds in the lyrics. Slight remnants of Gram Parsons guitar twang and Laurel Canyon folk manifest in “Never Going Back Again” and “Dreams.” And California’s druggie excess? Oh it’s all over the album, baby. — JM

Joni Mitchell — Blue

As the story goes, a Canadian singer-songwriter found herself in Europe after a rough breakup with her British beau — and ended up with an album that sounds like a dreamer’s view of California in the early ‘70s. Along with CSNY, Joni Mitchell was a Laurel Canyon mainstay, but with her magnum opus Blue, she created a timeless work of folk and piano pop that needs no knowledge of the scene to be felt and loved. “Will you take as I am?” she pleads on “California,” and you know she’s not talking about the ex-boyfriend (Graham Nash). It’s one of the most beautiful songs ever about embarking on a journey to find oneself — which, coincidentally enough, is what people seem to crave when they go soul-tripping through the California desert. — JM

Red Hot Chili Peppers — Blood Sugar Sex Magik

You can’t get much more quintessentially Californian than the Chili Peppers, and even if they’re a band much maligned these days, this correspondent will stand beside their early ’90s output until the world comes to a very unfunky end. Whatever you think of the band, there’s no doubt that this record represented their artistic peak — bona fide genius John Frusciante was well integrated into the band and on peak form (even though he’d quit the tour for this album to retreat into isolation and addiction for the best part of a decade), the rhythm section of Flea and Chad Smith was tighter than a fish’s arse in a vacuum, and Anthony Kiedis had moved from being 100 percent sex-obsessed to about, ooh, 83 percent sex obsessed! The rest of his lyrics addressed a variety of topics — politics, environmentalism, the death of guitarist Hillel Slovak — with surprisingly impressive results. The whole record is squarely located in the Hollywood Hills — Kiedis shouts out the City of Angels in “Under the Bridge,” of course, but the landscape of L.A. features throughout the record, giving it a genuine sense of place, one that’s all sunny days and endless, empty nights. — TH

N.W.A. — Straight Outta Compton

N.W.A.’s masterwork is as relevant today with regards to race-related police brutality as it was in 1988, or in 1992 when the Los Angeles Riots broke out, or really any of the times when the LAPD has caused racial tensions to run high (as Eazy-E would say, “Fuck Tha Police”). Class division, and by extension racial division, is a huge issue in L.A., and no album captures the disenfranchised perspective better than the Dre-produced Straight Outta Compton. “Important” doesn’t seem strong enough a word for the album’s function in culture. — JM

Elliott Smith — Figure 8

One thing you generally don’t think of in relation to California is bedroom melancholy. But then, there’s something uniquely miserable about being depressed and/or strung out when the sun’s shining and everyone is outside being beautiful and young and healthy. It’s a feeling that Elliott Smith’s music captured like no-one else’s, so much so that you could choose pretty much any one of his albums here. But it’s Figure 8 that feels the most L.A., right down to the iconic cover art shot on the corner of Sunset Blvd and Fountain Ave, a place that’s now become a sort of de facto Elliott Smith shrine. — TH

Love — Forever Changes

Released in late 1967, Love’s third album is the sound of the Summer of Love morphing into something darker, weirder and more than a little bit out of control. Forever Changes brought listeners right inside the brilliant, brittle mind of iconoclastic songwriter and frontman Arthur Lee — a place filled to the brim with idyllic childhood imagery, paranoid delusions, and baroque string arrangements. Even for those of us who can’t stomach much in the way of hippie music, Forever Changes is a revelation, an album that is both a product of its era and totally unconstrained by it. — JB

Green Day — Dookie

You could call 1994 the year pop-punk broke, and Green Day’s Dookie was its Nevermind. In their pre-“Time of Your Life” days, the onetime 924 Gilman Street regulars captivated the youth of America with melodic tales of boredom-driven onanism, punk-house squalor, and the kind of anxiety that sends you running to shrinks and whores for answers. Two decades on, Dookie remains an irresistible collection of slacker anthems — but there’s more to it than most of us who first encountered it in middle school probably remember. For one thing, it’s surprisingly romantic, from the clumsy propositions of “Sassafrass Roots” to the bratty wistfulness of “When I Come Around.” And then there’s the fact that it’s full of bisexual subtext drawn from Billie Joe Armstrong’s own identity (see: “Coming Clean,” the gender of that sex worker in “Basketcase”), which casts its massive mid-’90s popularity in a somewhat new light. — JB

The Beach Boys — Pet Sounds

Of all the surf-pop to emerge in the mid-20th century, The Beach Boys painted the most idyllic portrait of California’s shores, so much so that their biggest hits border on beach fetishization. It’s also telling that they were referred to as “America’s Band,” given their undying allegiance to their SoCal roots. And as America began changing and striving for more in the mid ‘60s, so did the Beach Boys. Pet Sounds is the manifestation of that ambition, as heard in Brian Wilson’s Wall of Sound-esque approach to harmony and his obsession with topping The Beatles’ increasing interest in psychedelic instrumentation. Think of a postcard-ready sunset over the Pacific; “God Only Knows” is the sonic equivalent of that. — JM

No Age — Nouns

Proof that Californian punk doesn’t have to be skateboard-wielding mohawked dipshits from the OC singing about their dicks! Apart from being a great record in its own right, Nouns also was the breakthrough record for a whole new L.A. sound, one that was rooted in experimentalism and ambition. Calling it “punk” at all is probably a stretch, actually, but whatever label you put on it, Nouns has the combination of manic energy and relentless creativity that’s always characterized the best rock ‘n’ roll. — TH

The Go-Go’s — Beauty and the Beat

The Go-Go’s reinvented the California cool girl when they burst into the public consciousness in 1981 with their debut, Beauty and the Beat. Those active in the thriving late ‘70s L.A. punk scene, however, were already aware of the group, who were more punk upon initial formation. That aesthetic has its place in Beauty and the Beat, and it’s a big part of what makes these tidy, surf-tinged pop songs stand out. — JM

Black Flag — Damaged

Greg Ginn founded Black Flag in 1976 in Hermosa Beach, California, but it wasn’t until 1981’s Damaged that the band proved once and for all that West Coast hardcore punk could compete with the DC scene. It helped, of course, that DC ex-pat Henry Rollins was leading Black Flag at the time; his rage and his voice would help to catalyze an entire scene. — JM

Grateful Dead — Live/Dead

You didn’t think you were going to get out of a California albums list without a Grateful Dead live album, did you? This, their first, set the bar quite high when it came to capturing the Dead’s improvisational talents. Recorded over the course of several performances at the Dead’s quintessential haunt, San Francisco’s Fillmore West, Live/Dead is a document of a time when the Grateful Dead were at the epicenter of a counterculture before it became a punchline. — JM

The Offspring — Smash

Just four years before they hatched one of the most obnoxious modern-rock radio earworms of the ’90s, “Pretty Fly (For a White Guy),” The Offspring broke through to the mainstream with a minor skate-punk masterpiece. The Orange County act’s third album became exactly what its title promised, selling an incredible 11 million copies for indie punk label Epitaph and opening up its scene’s sound to young fans around the world. “Come Out and Play” was Smash‘s socially conscious hit single, whitesplaining gang violence to the mall punks, but its real work of genius is “Self Esteem” — a startlingly honest shout-along about a guy who knows that he’s bein’ used, but it’s OK, man, ’cause he likes the abuse. Perhaps the most misandrist song ever written and performed by an all-male act, it taught an entire generation of dudes that the more you suffer, the more it shows you really care. (Right? Yea-ea-eah!) — JB

For further listening:

Dr. Dre — The Chronic Bad Religion — Stranger than Fiction The Byrds — Mr. Tambourine Man Katy Perry — Teenage Dream Neil Young — After the Gold Rush Ice-T — O.G. Original Gangster Big Brother & the Holding Company — Cheap Thrills Best Coast — Crazy For You Cypress Hill — Black Sunday No Age — Nouns Van Halen — Van Halen