Take a trip to the West Coast with these brilliant records
Los Angeles has been a hugely significant breeding ground for a diverse number of genres over the years. Many a musician has found their muse, enjoyed their big break or delivered a career-defining moment while holed up in the bright and shining metropolis on the West Coast.
The City of Angels has had a huge bearing on the development of modern popular music, and the great creative influence of the much-mythologised city has presented itself through countless albums and songs — many of which are considered to be true greats. While by no means exhaustive, we’ve cherry-picked 12 classic albums which have the unmistakable influence of LA running through their veins.
Guns N’ Roses – ‘Appetite for Destruction’ (Geffen, 1987)
Is there a more fitting choice to begin with than Guns N’ Roses’ bombastic debut? Blessed with a collection of hard-rock hits as big as their hairstyles (‘Nighttrain’, ‘Paradise City’, ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine’), this rip-roaring LP goes straight for the jugular from the very first second as that amp-destroying riff ushers in the apocalyptic introduction-to-LA that is ‘Welcome To The Jungle’.
Most LA moment: Although initially written while visiting Seattle, Axl Rose has made no bones about which depraved city of “fun and games” he was really referring to in ‘Appetite For Destruction”s opener. “I just wrote how LA looked to me,” he later recalled about the origin of the lyrics. “If someone comes to town and they want to find something, they can find whatever they want.”
Most LA lyric: “Welcome to the jungle, it gets worse here everyday / You learn to live like an animal in the jungle where we play” on ‘Welcome To The Jungle’.
Rage Against The Machine – ‘The Battle of Los Angeles’ (Epic, 1999)
‘The Battle of Los Angeles’ was the name given to the curious episode during the Second World War when US coastal defences in LA fired into the skies after receiving bogus reports of an aerial attack from the Japanese air force (no enemy wreckage was ever recovered). There was nothing dubious, however, about the battle lines Rage Against Machine drew with their version of ‘The Battles of Los Angeles’ 20 years ago. Zack de la Rocha and his always on-point bandmates refocused their razor-sharp political righteousness on the state of play in the US at the time of their 1999 LP, which arrived at the tail-end of Bill Clinton’s rocky administration and would go on to soundtrack the dismay which greeted the early George W. Bush years in the new millennium. Brash, expressive and firmly to-the-point, Rage’s anti-establishment outlook was fiercely conveyed through the rabble-rousing likes of ‘Testify’, ‘Sleep Now In The Fire’ and ‘Guerilla Radio’.
Most LA moment: Designed by the LA-based creative The Phantom Street Artist, the album cover features a stirring chalk outline of an individual with a raised fist which has been daubed on an anonymous LA wall. A call-to-arms illustration for the band’s persistent revolutionary rhetoric.
Most LA lyric: “Reach for the lessons the masked pass on / And seize the metropolis, it’s you that it’s built on…” on ‘War Within A Breath’.
Kendrick Lamar – ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’ (Aftermath, Interscope and Top Dawg, 2012)
Kendrick’s appointment as the next great hip-hop superstar was made official back in October 2012 with the arrival of his stunning second studio album. A vivid and largely autobiographical account of his formative experiences growing up in Compton, ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city”s powerful and twisting narrative quickly made it a contender for the greatest LA street story ever told. Kendrick was just 25 (!) when he finished ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’, and he’s since gone on to release two more suitably sublime and ambitious records — but ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’ will forever remain his LA opus.
Most LA moment: The depiction of Compton, right from the house party “on El Segundo and Central” we enter with a young K. Dot all the way through to the triumphant closing collaboration with Dr. Dre, which extols their shared home city and sees the N.W.A. man ceremoniously passing on the baton to his successor.
Most LA lyric: “So now I’m down Rosecrans in a Caravan / Passin’ Alameda, my gas meter in need of a pump / I got enough to get me through the traffic jam / At least I hope ’cause my pockets broke as a promise, man” on ‘Sherane a.k.a Master Splinter’s Daughter’.
The Doors – ‘LA Woman’ (Elektra, 1971)
Recorded entirely at The Doors’ private rehearsal space on Santa Monica Boulevard, ‘LA Woman’ — their final album with Morrison before his death — was praised upon its release in April 1971 and has come to be considered (depending on who you ask, of course) as one of the band’s greatest works. The likes of ‘Riders On The Storm’, ‘Love Her Madly’ and the title track have all passed into rock legend, and the bohemian spirit of LA is ingrained in this remarkable record.
Most LA moment: It’s hard to narrow it down to just one — even the late Ray Manzarek would testify to that. “We didn’t approach the album with one vision,” he reflected. “But after we started working on the songs, we realised that they’re talking about LA. They’re about men, women, boys, girls, love, loss, lovers-lost, and lovers-found in Los Angeles.”
Most LA lyric: “Are you a lucky little lady from The City of Light? / Or just another lost angel?” on ‘LA Woman’.
N.W.A. – ‘Straight Outta Compton’ (Ruthless and Priority, 1988)
Well before ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’ there was ‘Straight Outta Compton’, N.W.A.’s vital and game-changing debut album, which will always be right up there in terms of the true LA classics. The gangsta rap pioneers introduced themselves to the world with this raw and captivating 1988 LP; a work filled with gripping and unflinching street tales that shone a shocking, no-holds-barred spotlight on the myriad problems – from police brutality to the crack epidemic – plaguing inner-city LA areas like Compton in the late-1980s. A track as direct as ‘Fuck The Police’ was always going to ruffle feathers, and Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy-E and co. can’t have been surprised when the actual FBI investigated and subsequently warned the group for their choice of lyrical target.
It didn’t harm the immense popularity of the record, though, which remains as much a provocative listen today as it was over 30 years ago. While N.W.A.’s life span was short, the group became immortalised by ‘Straight Outta Compton’ and the record helped pave the way in particular for Dre’s hugely influential music career, with another Dre-helmed LA classic, ‘The Chronic’, following four years later.
Most LA moment: Where they proudly stick a flag in their home city on the triumphant ‘Compton’s N the House (Remix)’: “Boy, you should’ve known by now / Compton’s in the house.”
Most LA lyric: “I’m expressing with my full capabilities / And now I’m living in correctional facilities / ‘Cause some don’t agree with how I do this / I get straight, meditate like a Buddhist” on ‘Express Yourself’.
Lana Del Rey – ‘Honeymoon’ (Interscope / Polydor, 2015)
While born in New York City as Lizzy Grant, Lana Del Rey is very much at home 2789 miles away from there. “This Hollywood-centric environment is still an important thing that gives me life, being in town and the characters and the constant heatwave,” she told NME in 2017 about her enduring affection for LA. “It’s a little bit of a cliché – I totally get it; but I still feel like [LA] enhances something in me that’s already cooking.”
LA, if not the whole of California, has been a towering presence throughout much of Del Rey’s discography, with 2015’s ‘Honeymoon’ a particular highlight. Del Rey shares her Super 8-filtered vision of a mystical and lush LA throughout the record, from ‘High By The Beach’ to ‘Salvatore’. “The narrative [of ‘Honeymoon’] was a tribute to Los Angeles and because of the soundscaping — we had a lot of amazing strings — I think the mood was the narrative,” Del Rey told the Current in 2015. “It’s a lot of descriptive pieces about driving at night or being in love, not being in love. Kind of the same old thing.”
Most LA moment: ‘Honeymoon”s tour guide Lana sitting on the top deck of an LA Starline Tours bus on the album cover. Perhaps tour guiding is what she gets up to in her spare time…
Most LA lyric: “Baby, if you wanna leave / Come to California / Be a freak like me too” on ‘Freak’.
The Beach Boys – ‘Pet Sounds’ (Capitol, 1966)
The bright optimism of the Pacific blue in ‘Surfin’ USA’ (to pick just one of the band’s many odes to surfing) may have helped launch The Beach Boys to stardom in the early ’60s, but it was on ‘Pet Sounds’ where Brian Wilson’s genius shone through. Everyone, everywhere knows ‘Pet Sounds’: from the ubiquitous ‘God Only Knows’ to the surprising football fan-favourite ‘Sloop John B’ (“[insert rival team’s location]’s a shithole, I wanna go home” remains a popular terrace chant to this day), the beloved 1966 work was vaunted as “progressive pop” from the off, despite disappointing initial sales. The term “perfect pop” seems far more fitting.
Recorded at four studios in Hollywood, ‘Pet Sounds’ richly combined the group’s smooth harmonies with what writer Jon Savage noted in his excellent book 1966: The Year the Decade Exploded was “the true sound of Los Angeles — the full range of exotica, surf and lounge music”. Put it on today and you’ll be transported straight back to that mid-1960s LA idyll which was the perfect backdrop for Wilson to craft his masterpiece.
Most LA moment: The dreamy, sun-kissed instrumental introduction on ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’, which makes us want to dive straight into the beautiful blue LA sea. Now wouldn’t that be nice?
Most LA lyric: “I once had a dream so I packed up and split for the city / I soon found out that my lonely life wasn’t so pretty” on ‘That’s Not Me’.
Frank Ocean – ‘Channel Orange’ (Def Jam, 2012)
Although born in California, New Orleanian Christopher Breaux really became Frank Ocean when he moved back to the West Coast in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina destroyed his home studio. LA was very kind to Frank: a few years after moving there he met Tyler, the Creator and joined Odd Future, before signing to Def Jam as a solo artist and self-releasing the brilliant sample-heavy mixtape ‘Nostalgia, Ultra’ in 2011. But it was his majestic and LA-indebted major label debut ‘Channel Orange’, which arrived a year later, which made everyone sit up and take notice.
Most LA moment: The many facets of the ‘Sweet Life’ (and the not-so-sweet life) of living in LA which are depicted at various points throughout ‘Channel Orange’. We get descriptions of Ladera Heights (“the black Beverly Hills / Domesticated paradise, palm trees and pools“), a taxi ride-turned-confession booth (on the stunning ‘Bad Religion’) and the simple survey of the beautiful LA vista: “Start my day up on the roof,” Ocean observes on the irony-laced ‘Super Rich Kids’. “There’s nothing like this type of view.”
Most LA lyric: “A tornado flew around my room before you came / Excuse the mess it made, it usually doesn’t rain in Southern California,” on ‘Thinkin Bout You’.
Tom Petty – ‘Full Moon Fever’ (MCA, 1989)
“We fell in love with LA within an hour of being there,” the late musician recalled about the year he and his band, the Heartbreakers, made the move to the West Coast. “We just thought, this is heaven. We said, ‘Look: everywhere there’s people making a living playing music. This is the place.’”
Petty’s soaring brand of Americana-infused rock with the Heartbreakers always came calling back to the West Coast, but his 1989 debut solo album really showcased his enduring personal affection for the city. Best known for the inclusion of the spot-the-San Fernando Valley-landmark tune ‘Free Fallin”, the LA-recorded ‘Full Moon Fever’ was made, according to Petty, “for the sheer fun of it. We never sweated it. It was the most enjoyable record I’ve ever worked on.”
Most LA moment: His cover of ‘I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better’ by LA folk-rock royalty The Byrds.
Most LA lyric: “I wanna glide down over Mulholland / I wanna write her name in the sky” on ‘Free Fallin”.
Red Hot Chili Peppers – ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik’ (Warner Bros., 1991)
Before ‘Californication’, the Chilis’ ode to the “wandering souls who’ve lost their way searching for the American dream” in the Golden State, there was their breakthrough creation ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik’. Recorded with producer Rick Rubin in an apparently haunted mansion in Laurel Canyon, the band’s archetypal sex, drugs and rock’n’roll record feels intensely indebted to LA. “The only thing I could grasp was this city,” frontman Anthony Kiedis recalled to Rolling Stone about the story behind the LP’s biggest song, ‘Under The Bridge’. “I grew up here for the last 20 years, and it was LA — the hills, the buildings, the people in it as a whole-that seemed to be looking out for me more than any human being. I just started singing this little song to myself: ‘Sometimes I feel like I don’t have a partner…‘”
Most LA moment: ‘Under The Bridge’ can’t be topped as the record’s crowning LA moment, which originated from a moving confessional poem Kiedis penned in one of his notebooks.
Most LA lyric: “Sometimes I feel like I don’t have a partner / Sometimes I feel like my only friend is the city I live in / The city of angels” on ‘Under The Bridge’.
2Pac – ‘All Eyez on Me’ (Death Row and Interscope, 1996)
A demanding 27 tracks were crammed into ‘All Eyez On Me’, the last album to be released by Tupac during his lifetime. Recorded entirely in LA immediately after his release from an East Coast prison in October 1995, Pac clearly had a lot to get off his mind by hitting the booth straightaway — and an array of rappers practically queued outside the studio door to get a guest spot on what became one of hip-hop’s defining creations.
Taking on added poignancy in the wake of his death just seven months after the album’s release (“Anytime y’all wanna see me again, rewind this track right here. Picture me rollin,” he instructs the listener on ‘Picture Me Rollin’), ‘All Eyez On Me”s most immediate moment was, naturally, ‘California Love’ where he “serenade[d] the streets of LA” with Dr. Dre. If California ever secedes from the US, you should fully expect this to become the Golden State’s national anthem.
Most LA moment: Roger Troutman’s”In the ciiiiiiiiiity…” rallying cry on ‘California Love’.
Most LA lyric: “Now follow as we ride / Motherfuck the rest, two of the best from the Westside” on ‘2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted’.
Hole – ‘Celebrity Skin’ (DGC, 1998)
‘Celebrity Skin’ didn’t come about easily (“Making that record was insane,” guitarist Eric Erlandson recalled. “There were obstacles at each step of the way, nothing was smooth and easy”), but it was LA where this blood, sweat and tears-type of creation all (eventually) came together. It quickly became part of the city’s canon of great rock albums, and Courtney Love herself was bullish about how she rated the record. “I built it as a monument,” she told Rolling Stone. “That important record where art and commerce are meeting, where discipline and restraint are meeting total organic truth. Like ‘Nevermind’. Like ‘Appetite for Destruction’. Like ‘The Wall’. Like ‘Rumours’. Big, huge records with something to say.”
Most LA moment: Wryly referring to herself as “a walking study in demonology” on the fierce title track. Released in between her starring roles in The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996) and Man on the Moon (1999), Love was keenly aware of how Hollywood, up to its old tricks, and the entertainment industry at large had tried to steal her away.
Most LA lyric: “When I wake up in my make-up / It’s too early for that dress / Wilted and faded / Somewhere in Hollywood” on ‘Celebrity Skin’.