In the heart of Los Angeles, just north of Hollywood and Vine, you’ll spot the 13-storey Capitol Building with the spire on top and the blinking lights that tap out the word ‘Hollywood’ in morse code.
The building is a symbol to all of the great music that has been recorded in Los Angeles and its’ surrounds. Any holiday deserves a soundtrack and LA is a town that buzzes with music.
Whether you’re cueing up Spotify, loading a CD or lugging around your vintage Walkman: these tunes provide a sonic backdrop to your adventures in the ‘city of lights’.
1. California Girls by the Beach Boys
The perfect opener. It might seem obvious, but with its clever orchestral prelude and lyric homage to all things fine about California it’s the perfect place to begin. Cut in 1965 for their Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!!) album, the song is timeless.
Brian Wilson recorded many Beach Boys’ backing tracks at the famed Gold Star Studios using session players now known around the world as The Wrecking Crew.
The Crew included such luminaries as Glen Campbell on guitar, Hal Blaine on drums, Carol Kaye on bass and many more. You’ll hear the Wrecking Crew on recordings by Frank Sinatra, Simon & Garkfunkel, the Monkees and many Phil Spector sessions among others.
2. California Dreaming by The Mamas & The Papas
Cue the Mamas and The Papas' sublime California Dreaming.
3. Eight Miles High by The Byrds
The Byrds also worked with the Wrecking Crew, but Roger McGuinn made the final recording with his trademark twelve-string guitar. As you’re cruising along Sunset and basking in radiance that is LA let Eight Miles High add to the experience.
4. Suite: Judy Blue Eyes by CS&N
Crosby, Stills & Nash grew out of three bands, the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and The Hollies. They epitomised the terrific music that’s now associated with Laurel Canyon (which is a good stone’s throw from Sunset Boulevard). It’s a natural segue from Eight Miles High to CS&N’s Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.
5. Big Yellow Taxi by Joni Mitchell
Stephen Stills' former girlfriend, Judy Collins, inspired Suite: Judy Blue Eyes. Graham Nash’s own ‘former girlfriend’ also knew how to write a great song and was a fixture on the Laurel Canyon scene. Her name: Joni Mitchell. One of the Canadian’s best tunes, which still resonates today, is: Big Yellow Taxi.
6. Different Drum by the Stone Poneys
One of the grand ladies of the canyon is Linda Ronstadt. Before launching an incredibly successful solo career, she fronted the Stone Poneys. The group had a big hit in 1967 with their cover of Mike Nesmith (Monkees) song, Different Drum.
The song was later covered by everybody from the Lemonheads to Susanna Hoffs and Matthew Sweet.
7. I Feel The Earth Move by Carole King
Los Angeles is littered with famous clubs where big name musicians built their legend from the ground up; venues such as The Whisky, The Viper Room, The Roxy and the Troubadour.
Carole King and James Taylor regularly filled the latter. Although King is from the East Coast, the records she cut in LA still fill the airwaves today. Here’s one of them...I Feel The Earth Move.
8. Running On Empty by Jackson Browne
Another man who earned his stripes at the Troubadour was Jackson Browne. Browne became a massive solo artist and had songs recorded by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, The Eagles, Nico and Ronstadt.
One song, now forever associated with the film Forrest Gump, is his classic Running On Empty.
9. (You’re) Pushin’ Too Hard by the Seeds
Every great mix tape needs a seismic shift.
As those gorgeous melodies float away it’s worth noting Los Angles has produced thousands of garage bands: one of the best was the Seeds who troubled the lower realms of the US Top 40 in 1967 with (You're) Pushing Too Hard. Perfect to play as you’re checking your look in the mirror and getting ready for a night on the town.
10. LA Woman by The Doors
Eventually you’ll find yourself in a rental car on one of LA’s vast freeways. Be careful not to press too hard on the accelerator. The Doors can do that to you.
As you settle in on this incessant groove you’ll dig Jim Morrison’s growl on a magnificent paean to Los Angeles and the aforementioned ‘city of light’, LA Woman.
11. Alone Again Or by LOVE
Arthur Lee’s Love were contemporaries of The Doors and recorded at least one masterpiece, the Forever Changes LP ,which came out in 1967. Though not hugely commercial at the time, the work of the band continues to resonate.
One of the centrepieces of the record is the sublime, Alone Again Or.
12. Observatory Crest by Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band
The enigma that is Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band are deeply tied to Los Angeles. In 1974 they cut the evocative Observatory Crest in Hollywood. A gorgeous, reflective piece, it seems to capture the mood of sun about to come up in a city that never sleeps.
‘While the city was busy/we wanted to rest/she decided to drive up to Observatory Crest’.
13. Hollywood Nights by Bob Seger and The Silver Bullet Band
Bob Seger himself was driving through the Hollywood Hills and the chorus to his future hit, Hollywood Nights, popped into his head. Returning to his apartment he set to work and finished the tune: the result was a US Top 20 hit and a song that still rocks decades later.
Find out about LA's music background. Exploring Los Angeles And Its Rock'n'Roll History
You can drive to an LA beach. A Day at Los Angeles' Venice Beach
Want more classic USA driving music? Catherine Britt's Driving Songs For A Country Journey
14. Don’t Stop by Fleetwood Mac
One band that soaked up a lot of California studio time were Fleetwood Mac. Released in 1977, Rumours took a reported three years to make.
The work showcases not only the band as players, but also the triple song-writing axis of Stevie Nicks, Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie who penned Don't Stop.
15. All I Wanna Do by Sheryl Crow
Fleetwood Mac were a massive influence on Sheryl Crow. For a minute there was a strong rumour that Crow might even join the group.
Before finding success as a solo artist Crow lent her voice in support of everyone from Stevie Nicks and Don Henley to Tina Turner and Belinda Carlisle. Crow’s signature hit All I Wanna Do is set in Los Angeles.
16. Our Lips Are Sealed by the Go-Go's
LA has been the home to many girl bands over the years. One of the breakthrough acts of the eighties LA post-punk-pop scene were the Go-Go’s. Their hit Our Lips Are Sealed (forever misheard as ‘Alex The Seal’) is loaded with California sunshine.
17. Hazy Shade Of Winter by The Bangles
Inspired to form by the Go-Go’s, The Bangles enjoyed a lot of commercial success in the 1980s with a distinct tip of the hat to the 1960s with their chiming guitar sound.
One song that captures the beat of the LA streets is their stomping cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s Hazy Shade Of Winter. The Bangles version was used on the soundtrack of the quintessential LA film of the 80s, Less Than Zero.
18. Cherry Bomb! by The Runaways
Long before the Go-Go’s and (most of) the Bangles were a dream in a parent’s garage came The Runaways. The band included Joan Jett, Lita Ford and Cherie Currie.
The Bangles Micki Steele had been an early member. The all-girl group took LA and then the world by storm. Hit Cherry Bomb!
19. Sweet Child o’ Mine by Guns N' Roses
The only people to outdo the girls in the big hair and shoulder pads department in LA in the 1980’s were the boys.
Guns N’ Roses hit the big time with their debut album Appetite For Destruction. Welcome To The Jungle almost makes the cut, but here we’ve opted for the swagger of Sweet Child o' Mine.
20. Panama by Van Halen
If you’re talking great guitarists, it’s hard to go past the man from Pasadena, California, Eddie Van Halen.
Panama was the third single from Van Halen’s squillion selling 1984 album…and it still sounds good today...especially when you’re driving.
21. California Gurls by Katy Perry ft. Snoop Dogg
One of the best slices of confection to celebrate the sunshine synonymous with LA in recent years is Katy Perry’s California Gurls. Featuring Snoop Dogg, the tune was an answer song to Alicia Keys and Jay-Z’s Empire State of Mind from the previous year, 2009. The title alone brings our mix tape full circle…