This article originally appeared in the November 2001 issue of Los Angeles magazine.
Every city has a soundtrack, but sometimes Los Angeles seems like a soundtrack that has a city. The songs that have come out of L.A. have an identity that often eludes the geography of L.A. These songs—100 soundtrack, actually, for a city that has always liked to think of itself as utopia, or 100 utopias—were all recorded here, but beyond that they are not just from L.A., they’re of L.A. They’re not necessarily about L.A., or by longtime residents, let alone natives; in what must have been a paranormal occurrence I was actually born here, but I realize most of you are just with pretensions. Rather these are records with the current of the city running through them. In other words, if they had been recorded anywhere else, in some fundamental way they would have been different
And if that sounds a little subjective, of course that’s just the half of it. Because while a number of writers—David Cantwell (Heartaches by the Number), Ben Edmonds (Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On & the Last Days of the Motown Sound), Mikal Gilmore (Night Beat), Peter Guralnick (Careless Love), Greil Marcus (The Old, Weird America), Dave Marsh (The Heart of Rock & Soul), Steve Propes (L.A. R&B Vocal Groups), Michael Ventura (Shadow Dancing in the U.S.A.), Craig Hansen Werner (Holler If Ya Hear Me), Jonny Whiteside (Ramblin’ Rose), Darnel Wolff (You Send Me)—were lifesavers when it came to hard history, hot tips, and invaluable leads, in the end all selections were made by a committee of, well, one. Which is to say that all laughable inclusions, contemptible omissions, and forehead-slapping lapses in taste are mine and mine alone. With these caveats out of the way, then, in the tradition of radio-station countdowns and cheesy VH1 specials, we begin with number …
100. “Loser,” Beck (1994)
Before he became the most overrated artist of the ’90s, there was an even-money chance he might record a song that told you something about how he felt rather than how smart he was. That assumes the central sentiment of this record—”I’m a loser, baby / So why don’t you kill me?”—wasn’t completely a joke. For Beck it may have been, but not necessarily for the generation that embraced it as an anthem, including Kurt Cobain nursing that shotgun in the wilds of Seattle.
99. “White Christmas,” Bing Crosby (1941)
Inevitable. From the land of yellow Christmases, written by Irving Berlin for the movie Holiday Inn, it was the biggest record of the 20th century. The first time Crosby heard the composer play it on the piano, he just nodded and said, “Well, I don’t think you have to worry about this one, Irving.”
98. “Sixteen Tons,” Tennessee Ernie Ford (1955)
On the cusp of be coming America’s favorite male gospel artist, Ford cut this Merle Travis song to fulfill a contract and, snapping the beat to set the tempo, was upstaged by his own fingers.
97. “Harlem Nocturne,” the Johnny Otis Orchestra (1945)
On the cusp of becoming a rhythm-and-blues star with songs like “Willie and the Hand Jive,” a Greek American passing as African American slowed down a honky-tonk tune until it had nothing to do with Harlem anymore, and instead it became the definitive soundtrack for every mean street down which every L.A. private eye ever walked.
96. “The Heart Of Saturday Night,“ Tom Waits (1974)
The soundtrack of Barney’s Beanery—”Is it the crack of the pool balls, the neon buzzin’? / Telephone ringin’ it’s your second cousin”—assuming the narrator ever got that far west of Cahuenga.
95. “James Brown Is Dead” L.A. Style (1992)
In keeping with the rave culture’s aesthetic of anonymity, we’ll probably never know whether there was anything truly L.A. about this—made by six producers and one Scottish-born Nigerian female vocalist—other than that it was played from the clubs of Hollywood to the canyons of San Gabriel. James Brown survived in any event.
94. “Ode To Billie Joe,” Bobbie Gentry (1967)
This was released during the pschedelic summer of ’67 and couldn’t have been more at odds with either its time or its genre—country blues with a cello. But soon all of America was trying to figure out what that guy threw off that damn bridge. Legend has it somewhere in Capitol’s vaults is a seven-minute version that reveals all, but at this point would we really rather know?
93. “Fade Into You,” Mazzy Star (1993)
A fin de siecle Kitten with a Whip, singer Hope Sandoval sounded like she looked: every man’s doom.
92. “Fever,” Peggy Lee (1958)
All sass and style, and having traveled a long road to stardom, she knew what she was about, and wrote her own words to this Little Willie John blues. If “Sixteen Tons” has the all-time best finger snapping by a male vocalist, this is champion of the female division, unless someone out there happens to know those aren’t Peggy’s sassy, stylish fingers—in which case keep it to yourself.
91. “The Letter,” the Medallions (1954)
It sounds suspiciously like a paean to matrimonial love, but no one has ever really been sure what lead singer Vernon Green is saying. Dadaist doo-wop.
90. “Doctor Wu,” Steely Dan (1975)
Let’s not delude ourselves. This was L.A. music for people who hate L.A., which is one reason critics loved it so much. Other reasons: wit, originality, general all-around weirdness, and cynicism laced with more compassion than these guys would usually cop to.
89. “Route 66′ Theme,” Nelson Riddle (1962)
For an America still straining at the seams of self-repression, this was the soundtrack of freedom and the Road—not Kerouac’s, but as close to it as either television or the early ’60s was going to get.
88. “Moonlight In Vermont,” Willie Nelson (1978)
Where else was a Texas boy going to sing a song about Vermont but Los Angeles? Actually, the L.A. recording execs thought the idea was folly, but Willie’s favorite singer had always been Frank Sinatra, and the Stardust album, arranged by Booker T. Jones, made him a superstar. This was the gem of those sessions, and if it was better than Sinatra’s version, Frank probably didn’t mind: It was better than anyone else’s, too.
87. “Peel Their Caps Back,” Ice-T (1989)
Cinematic and horrific, a cold-blooded narrative of a drive-by that backed up all the rapper’s “original gangster” boasts, while implicitly acknowledging how little they mattered.
86. “Macarthur Park,” Richard Harris (1968)
Of course I’m not kidding, but more to the point neither was Harris, who sang this as if he thought he was still King Arthur in Camelot, or songwriter Jimmy Webb, for whom a run-down park was the obvious landscape for love melting away like a cake in the rain. If it’s an axiom of both the city and pop music in general that authenticity is the enemy of audacity, then this was audacity taking no prisoners; and in a season otherwise dominated by Hendrix, Cream, and “Jumpin” Jack Flash,” it was the record everyone talked about.
85. “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” Bonnie Raitt (1991)
Raitt hadn’t sounded this emotionally naked since “Love Has No Pride” 20 years before, except that now 20 years of weary wisdom were thrown into the bargain.
84. “Welcome To The Jungle,” Guns N’ Roses (1987)
The ’60s Sunset Strip riots two decades later, with the victors searching the rubble wondering what they won.
83. “This Town,” the Go-Go’s (1981)
If you saw them at the now-departed Starwood Club down on Crescent Heights in the late ’70s, when Belinda Carlisle was a chubby little girl from Thousand Oaks and twice as sexy for it, it was obvious they would be huge if anyone could get just half their energy on record. Only later did their significance sink in: an autonomous American girl group not only playing their instruments but writing their own material, particularly this deadly Valentine to their city—a Pop-Tart with a razor blade in the middle.
82. “The Dark Tree,” Horace Tapsco (1989)
Two years after the death of this postbop pianist and founder of Watts’s Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra, the public is only beginning to catch up with his legend. But anyone who was listening one late autumn night at Catalina’s in Hollywood, where this was recorded, already knew.
81.“Long Ago (And Far Away),” Jo Stafford (1944)
From the biggest-selling female vocalist of her time, a Jerome Kern-Ira Gershwin song, released near the end of the war, that struck a chord with an America yearning for its lost innocence. The melancholy in Stafford’s voice knows it not only isn’t coming back, but that it was never there.
80. “Sue Egypt,” Captain Beefheart (1980)
In the late ’60s Don Van Vliet collapsed into a double album called Trout Mask Replica the entire musical history of America, or the America of his mind, anyway. By the end of the ’70s, on the verge of calling it quits and returning to a successful career as a painter—and your music has to be pretty weird if you can make a better living in this country as a painter—he was collapsing into this three-minute, five-part suite the entire musical history of, oh, Mars maybe. Which might not have been that different from the America of his mind.
79. “She’s Got It,” Little Richard (1956)
The B-side to “The Girl Can’t Help It,” from the movie of the same name, this was written for the movie, too. The gift who couldn’t help it and the she who had it were both Jayne Mansfield, for whom three simply weren’t enough dimensions—but that’s only if you think for two seconds Richard wasn’t singing about himself.
78. “Farmer John,” the Premiers (1964)
Barrio-punk, from east of the L.A. River. By his own account, 4,000 miles away in Canada a still-obscure Neil Young heard it, played it onstage, and found the Meaning of Life.
77. “For A Dancer,” Jackson Browne (1974)
In the Hollywood Hills, where the Meaning of Life was more elusive, L.A.’s ’70s romantic was trying to explain it to someone—”a reason you were alive / but you’ll never know”—before she slipped away. He was too late, and the grief was palpable before anyone realized this was a eulogy.
76. “Chelsea Bridge,” Gerry Mulligan and Ben Webster (1959)
Webster, one of the great old-school tenor sax players of his time, met Mulligan, king of the West Coast cool-school baritone sax, on this Billy Strayhom rhapsody, as lovely and wistful as a morning fog off the Palisades.
75. “Hearts Of Stone,” the Jewels (1954)
“They’ll say no no no no no no no no no no no no no … hearts of stone / will never break but amid the hottest rock-and-roll sax west of Little Richard, the singer didn’t sound so sure. Sometimes in pop, artifact transcends history; like a nova vanishing into darkness, L.A.’s Great Lost Doo-Wop Classic came and went.
74. “Fuck Tha Police,” N.W.A (1988)
This rap landmark may have had more rage than reason, but just off the top of your head: How many cops was it again who beat the crap out of Rodney King three years later?
73.“Theme From ‘Chinatown,'” Jerry Goldsmith (1974)
Released near the climax of the Watergate scandal, when all America’s authority figures had gone bad, this was a shimmery requiem to a city that still belonged to the angels, before the angels went bad, too.
72. “Twelve-Thirty,” the Mamas and the Papas (1967)
The times they epitomized only a year earlier having passed them by, they made their best record. “Young girls are coming to the canyon,” John Phillips wrote; thinking of his wife Mama Michelle, who had already walked out the door for other Papa Denny Doherty, Phillips probably didn’t notice that the young girls coming to the canyon were named Kasabian and Krenwinkel and—escorted on the arms of Charles Manson—had death in their eyes.
71. “Rise Above,” Black Flag (1981)
They were playing a Washington, D.C., gig when a crazed fan jumped onstage; weeks later, as writer and singer, the crazed fan, Henry Rollins, led the hardcore band to their defiant manifesto. Uplifting, actually, if you didn’t mind that it made your ears bleed.
70. “My Funny Valentine,” Chet Baker (1954)
On this Rodgers and Hart love song with a vicious streak, the genius of trumpeter Baker’s vocal is its androgyny, hovering in the air between cruel humiliation and tender longing as surely as it seems to hover between genders.
69. “Lover Man,” Charlie Parker (1946)
To most jazz historians this session was a catastrophe. A few hours later, the sax man many consider the single most important figure in jazz after Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington would, in a dementia born of heroin, set his bed on fire, wander his hotel naked, be beaten and arrested by police and shut away in the Camarillo mental institution. But if one word for “Lover Man” is shambles the other is heroic, Parker locked in a ferocious losing battle with his demons, and displaying in his defeat how great art is often not about chops or mastery or execution, but courage and character.
68. “Riot In Cell Block #9,” the Robins (1954)
Arriving from the East Coast, two Jewish teenage songwriters named Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller had a funny idea they were black. None of the groups who benefited from this whimsy, including the prototype of the Coaster, who made this highly flammable piece of novelty-sociology, saw any percentage in setting them straight.
67. “When I Fall In Love,” Jeri Southern (1952)
This unjustly forgotten singer had a voice described as “smoky,” but it was really more like a vapor: the distillation of reverie. Her singing was utterly guileless, generous, promiscuous; she slept with all her songs. If this doesn’t reduce you to a puddle, you may be the Antichrist.
66. “Wild Is The Wind,” David Bowie (1976)
As he was living the worst year of his life in L.A., “doing bad things with bad people,” who knows when it seemed like a good idea to record this overwrought Dimitri Tiomkin theme to a crummy old Anthony Quinn film? While coked to the gills in the, back of his limo rolling down La Cienega? Staring out from the edge of some Hollywood cliffside wondering if he should plummet to earth like the alien he was always playing? But backed by the Phil Spector-cum-Kraftwerk production, he did the most sincere, desperate singing of his career thus far; a few months later he got out of town for good, snarling a heartfelt wish that “the fucking place should be wiped off the face of the earth.”
65. “It’s A Lonesome Old Town,” Frank Sinatra (1958)
The flip side of Bowie’s “Wild Is the Wind,” separated by only a couple of decades and fewer degrees of sensibility than you might think, this was the obscure, desolate heart of Sinatra’s greatest period. If anyone today recorded anything this bleak and uncompromising, his career would be over before it began.
64. “Whittier Blvd.,” Thee Midniters (1964)
The greatest of the Latino garage bands, living legends before this explosive instrumental was half out of the radio, they influenced more musicians in East L.A. than Elvis and the Beatles combined.
63. “Pushin’ Too Hard,” the Seeds (1966)
Los Angeles may have considered itself the American Utopia of the mid ’60s, but this didn’t sound too utopian. Unhinged lead singer Sky Saxon thought he was singing to his girlfriend who was taking an unseemly amount of time in the supermarket, but a country increasingly engaged in an inexplicable war in Southeast Asia—that had other uses for young men than the making of savage records—might well have assumed Saxon was singing to it.
62. “Stan,” Eminem (2000)
We shouldn’t make too many excuses for him. To do so in the name of irony or postmodernism or the hope that he’s just kidding (yeah, maybe) is to trivialize the power of art to have consequences. But as not only written but performed by the musical godchild of Sky Saxon, this fable of a young hip-hop fan in search of a human connection while on his way to oblivion—and taking others with him—is a tour de force: riveting, scary, moving.
61. “Earth Angel,” the Penguins (1954)
From the city of earth angels, when every 16-year-old girl was one.
60. “Roll With Me, Henry,” Etta James (1955)
Not nearly euphemistic enough for the times, this was retitled “Dance with Me, Henry,” and when that wasn’t coy enough either, it was called “The Wallflower,” which James certainly wasn’t. Born and raised in L.A., still practically jailbait, she recorded it with co-vocalist Richard Berry and arranger Johnny Otis. Immortality would come to James six years later in Chicago with “At Last,” but the gods gave her a taste of it here.
59. “Powerhouse,” Carl Stalling (1951)
Industrial ambient by way of Stravinsky and Bugs Bunny, this was the soundscape of chugging cartoon factories as written by 1930s American surrealist Raymond Scott, considered by many the godfather of electronica. Scored by Stalling, who also made such other Looney Tune classix as “Putty Tat Trouble,” “Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals,” and, of course, the eternal “To Itch His Own.”
58. “Please Send Me Somone To Love,” Percy Mayfield (1950)
An extortion letter to God, with Mayfield holding his own soul hostage in exchange for tranquillity in our time: “Unless man puts an end to these damnable sins / Hate will put the world in a flame / What a shame.” For his temerity, a car accident two years later left him scarred for life.
57. “Billie Jean,” Michael Jackson (1982)
There’s no denying this electric moment in pop history, brilliantly produced by Quincy Jones, written and sung by a man wearing all his paranoia on his rolled-up sleeve.
56. “$1000 Wedding,” Gram Parsons (1973)
Inventing country-rock while nobody noticed, Parsons was a man out of time and place. With the Flying Burrito Brothers he wrote this devastating song about a wedding to the mother of his child that in fact never happened, and singing it was more than he could stand; the voice didn’t catch up with the heart for another five years, when musical soul mate Emmylou Harris was there to provide backup. Two months after that, from an overdose of tequila and morphine in Joshua Tree, he was dead.
55. “Ain’t Nobody’s Business,” Jimmy Witherspoon (1947)
Like Central Avenue compatriot Johnny Otis, Witherspoon reincarnated himself any number of times. But he brought his great blues spirit to whatever he was singing, from gospel to jazz, and this R&B smash was its essence.
54. “The Man I love,” the Nat King Cole Trio (1944)
A slyly insurrectionist instrumental arrangement of the Gershwin standard, with the flip side, “Body and Soul,” only marginally less impressive. Rumor has it the pianist later did some singing.
53. “La Bamba,” Ritchie Valens (1959)
As the Premiers’ “Farmer John” was a revelation for Neil Young, so this was for Jimmy Page. Old Veracruz by way of electric bass, a Mexican traditional relegated to the B-side because it was sung in Spanish, it was bumping the Top 20 when Valens’s tour plane went down in Iowa. While the rest of the country mourned fellow passenger Buddy Holly, L.A. mourned Valens, especially the Latino community that needed a survivor a lot more than another martyr.
52. “Birds,” Neil Young (1970)
Beginning with his days in Buffalo Springfield, the dangerbird of American rock was always expecting to fly, but no take-off was as sad or radiant as this. The soundtrack of Topanga Canyon, after the gold rush and before the flood that, sooner than anyone else, Young seemed to sense was coming.
51. “I Don’t Need No Doctor,” Ray Charles (1966)
After Charles went Hollywood, apparently leaving his gritty rhythm-and-blues period behind him, a lot of artists were under the impression they were picking up where he left off. Turned out he hadn’t quite left yet. His last great record.
50. “A Matter Of Time,” Los Lobos (1984)
Dazed and confused, young Valens lifted his head from the Midwest snow to ponder the small plane’s smoking rubble. Painfully he struggled to his feet and began to walk, where or for how long he didn’t know; later, after his delirium had passed, he couldn’t say exactly how it was he had come to find himself back in the land of his ancestors. For the next 25 years, as all the other promises he made to himself faded with youth, he held on to the one made to his Mexican family of a better life in,the land of his birth. Many nights he risked everything on a futile attempt to cross an unforgiving border, from the other side of which, once having finally made it to safety, he would then send for his wife and children: “It’s only a matter of time,” he assured them. The evening of his final try, now well into middle age and slowing down, Valens held his wife close and whispered in her ear, as he always did, that everything would be all right. But this time he had a funny feeling, and she did, too.
49. “Blue,” Joni Mitchell (1971)
Acid, booze, and ass / Needles, guns, and gross / Lots of laughs….” An epitaph for the ’60s, to whomever didn’t already know they were dead.
48. “Closer,” Nine Inch Nails (1994)
A love song. First a little atmosphere (the house where Sharon Tate was murdered), then the romantic part: “I want [ to fuck you like an animal / I want to feel you from the inside.” Terrifying, depraved, and, God help you, sexier than you’ll ever admit.
47. “Cry Me A River,” Julie London (1955)
A love song. Intensely shy about her bombshell looks, apprehensive about her torrid singing, musically I naked but for a bare bass and stark guitar, London invented a new genre: revenge-torch. Robert Johnson by way of Marilyn Monroe.
46. “I Can’t Get Started,” Lester Young (1942)
In his time Young was the great tenor sax alternative to Coleman Hawkins. There’s a lot of controversy about the impact on his sanity—and his art—of a horrific stint in an army none too happy about his marriage to a white woman. But there’s no dispute that he was in full command of his powers here: With Nat Cole on piano, Young answered the brash Bunny Berigan rendition of the song with something more mournful. Seventeen years later, when Sinatra recorded his version, you know Young’s was the one he was listening to.
45.“Boulder To Birmingham,” Emmylou Harris (1966)
Her mentor gone, the student assumed his inspiration and spirit in order to write this hymn to his passing and—for a moment, anyway—to surpass him. Though nobody else would agree, including Harris, Gram Parsons would have thought it was worth the price.
44. “For What It’s Worth,” Buffalo Springfield (1966)
“There’s something happening here / What it is ain’t exactly clear”—but the first stinging guitar chords told the story before songwriter Stephen Stills opened his mouth. Mistaken by some at the time as the soundtrack of revolution, in fact it was the soundtrack of utopia’s new unspoken doubts.
43. “Night And Day,” Fred Astaire and the RKO Orchestro (1934)
The Cole Porter classic as recorded for The Gay Divorcee, Astaire and Ginger Rogers’s second movie together. His singing was almost as elegant as his dancing. But where you knew the &racing couldn’t be that easy, the singing sounded like it was, which made him the favorite of great songwriters who liked the idea of a singer smart enough to get out of the way of a great song.
42. “Alone Again Or,” Love (1961)
All the multiple personalities of this strange band never came together more effectively than here, with the lyric of hippie optimism offset by the ominous melody, Arthur Lee’s black-punk harmony vocal overshadowing Bryan MacLean’s folk-soul lead vocal, flamenco guitar threading psychedelic strings, and Spanish horns that the producer later felt compelled to apologize for when in fact they’re the most inspired touch of all. If this was the soundtrack of the Sunset Strip—and it was—it was also a warning of paradise lost.
41. “Ohio,” Crosby, Stills, hash & Young (1970)
Provoked by the shooting of four students by National Guardsmen at Kent State University, written, recorded, pressed, and in the stores in less than two weeks, it was delivered with the force of a bulletin, which is the way it was heard. Except for David Crosby’s anguished cries of “How long?” at the end, this was all Neil Young, from the stormy guitar to the words he seemed to bite off as he sang them: “What if you knew her and / Found her dead on the ground?’ Iconoclastic as opposed to ideological in the fashion of his three partners, he took his politics personally.
40. “Los Angeles,” X (1980)
Playing the Chinatown punk clubs of the late ’70s the band could barely contain their sense of Armageddon, and soon every performance was just another advance in a scorching, triumphal march to the sea. When they recorded this John Doe-Exene Cervenka piece de resistance about a brutal, merciless L.A. everyone knew existed but pretended not to, they weren’t just the best band in the city or, for that matter, the country but—all due allowances made for the Clash, of course—the best on the planet.
39. “Sail Away,” Randy Newman (1972)
From L.A.’s most original songwriter since Leiber and Stoller, sung from Eden’s far shore, a slave trader’s sales pitch for the promised land, as sweepingly lovely as it is appalling.
38. “I Had Too Much To Deam(Last Night),” the Electric Prunes (1966)
One night at the dinner table when I was 16, my father casually announced that at the aerospace company where he worked, there was a guy whose son was a member of some group called—name uttered in disbelief—the Electric Prunes, who were then riding high on the national charts with this song. I was stunned: My dad knew an Electric Prune’s dad? Was this conceivable? The quintessential psychedelic record, cut in that hotbed of acid, Studio City.
37. “Misirlou,” Dick Dale and the Del-Tones (1962)
World music before there was such a thing: surf guitar echoing out of the alleys of Istanbul.
36. “Let’s Get It On,” Marvin Gaye (1973)
Having freed himself from the dictates of the Motown music machine and moved to L.A., Gaye was in his hedonistic element: Yes, this is the soundtrack of sex—but also liberation.
35. “Loose,” the Stooges (1970)
Here’s a good one: Their record company decided it would bring this Ann Arbor band out to L.A. to keep them under control, which was like bringing the Black Death to 14th-century Europe to contain the world’s rodent population. After Jim Morrison’s demise the Doors tried to recruit the Stooges’ lead singer, one James Jewel Osterberg, aka Iggy Pop, but Iggy decided to have himself committed instead; when he got out of the loony bin, still very bent but certainly having left the bin a little loonier, he wrote songs about his adopted town with titles like “Kill City.” Nothing, however, was as harrowing as this, a predatory rampage down Hollywood Boulevard.
34. “Hound Dog,” Big Mama Thornton (1953)
It may be elitist to claim this original version is superior to that by a certain Tennessee track driver a few years later. But given the trucks of money the Tennessee kid drove off with, it may also be justice.
33. “Jailhouse Rock,” Elvis Presley (1957)
Leiber and Stoller thought they were kidding when they wrote this; after all, weren’t they always kidding? Fortunately the Tennessee truck driver didn’t get the joke and, for once, in his best moment in his best movie, branded onto celluloid all his incendiary magnetism.
32. “Let’s Have A Party,” Wanda Jackson (1958)
Eventually she would give her heart to Jesus, but for three very secular minutes it was up for grabs. Covering a song from the Elvis movie Loving You, this hot 20-year-old rockabilly princess kicked the King’s butt to the far corners of the realm and left Little Richard and Jerry Lee breathing hard, too.
31. “The Honeydriper,” Joe Liggins and His Orchestro (1945)
The soundtrack of the Little Tokyo clubs where this number was a sensation, stripped down to something between a chain-gang chant and penthouse seduction, it had no beat per se but more than enough rhythm to suggest a little rock and roll on the horizon.
30. “Laura,” David Raksin (1944)
Noir Tchaikovsky, the most transporting of all movie themes. As part of the great Otto Preminger film of the same name, it lifted Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews to the level of their most glamorous dreams; drifting through the bars and nightclubs of postwar L.A., it had a similar effect on the city at large, until it became a movie unto itself.
29. “Cruisin’,” Smokey Robinson (1979)
Cruising Sunset Boulevard with Detroit well out of his rearview mirror, one of the great singer-songwriters had this epiphany. Legend has it that Bruce Springsteen made a tape loop of it so that while driving down his mythic highway, he could listen to Smokey sing the glorious chorus on and on and on into infinity.
28. “Don’t Worry Baby,” the Beach Boys (1964)
Did God write this melody? If pop is finally nothing more than the mathematical possibilities of four chords, Brian Wilson has done things with four chords other songwriters are still trying to figure out, the most sublime example being the algebra of awe and heartbreak in this B-side to “I Get Around.”
27. “Mule Skinner Blues,” Jimmie Rodgers (1930)
On a train somewhere from his 14th to his 33rd year when he recorded this most famous of his “blue yodels,” he invented country music. Part of a Hollywood Follies revue that never made it west of Kansas, Rodgers kept going, already racked by the tuberculosis that would kill him; three years later, at the very end he had a cot set up in the recording studio so that, between spasms of blood, he could wring out of his life every song he had left.
26. “I’m A Lonesome Fugitive,” Merle Haggard (1966)
Barley out of Bakersfield and already an icon, with a stay in San Quentin—for a drunken, botched robbery attempt—only six years behind him, Haggard cut his first number-one record and irrevocably defined his persona; after that, everyone just got out of the way.
25. “Eight Miles High,” the Byrds (1966)
It was an idea mind-boggling in its obviousness—Dylan crossed with the Beatles—and the 12-string guitar that announced “Mr. Tambourine Man” a year earlier fairly chimed, as though the millennium was at hand. But when the band then crossed their Beatled Dylan with John Coltrane, this supersonic record became the event horizon of L.A. music: Never before had there seemed so many possibilities. Afterward, they all began imploding one by one.
24. “Summertime Blues,” Eddie Cochran (1958)
If they have the summertime blues in Los Angeles—kids around the world must have wondered when they heard this frightening teenage howl—is there any hope for the rest of us? Between the nihilistic guitar lines that thrilled Pete Townshend was the answer: No.
23. “Over The Rainbow,” Judy Garland(1939)
You hate it. You’re sick of it. You never want to hear it again. Until you hear it again. While driving along Sunset Boulevard, in need of one more song for The Wizard of Oz, Harold Arlen pulled over to the curb and wrote down the melody, playing it for lyricist Yip Harburg a few days later. Harburg hated it. He was sick of it. He never wanted to hear it again. Louis B. Mayer hated it; preview audiences hated it. On more than one occasion as the film made its tortured way to the theaters, the song was floating like a feather down to the cutting room floor only to be lifted by some random breeze of destiny. But regular audiences heard in it the supreme example of the right song married to the right tremulous voice—that of an insecure 16-year-old girl who stepped in for beloved national treasure Shirley Temple at the last minute, and for whom the song was a window on the rest of her life, through which she saw nothing but sorrow and longing. Months later, when it won the Academy Award and a terrified Garland was sent up to accept the trophy, the Oscar audience wouldn’t let her leave the stage without her singing it on the spot.
22. “Burning Love,” Elvis Presley (1972)
Only weeks before, Priscilla had left him for another man. The soundtrack of spontaneous human combustion.
21. “Caroline, No,” Brian Wilson (1966)
The Great Gatsby of pop, with a fading train in the night replacing the receding green light of East Egg’s pier. Like Gatsby, at the age of 24 Wilson was already wandering dazed in a dream of the past, where utopia was adolescence and, like Daisy, Caroline was the golden goddess who betrayed him by growing up. As he sat barefoot at a piano that he installed in a sandbox installed in the middle of his house, one can imagine the mortified glances shared by the other Beach Boys, each more blessedly uncomplicated by genius than the next. And though this was the coda to a classic album they finally deigned to associate themselves with, they insisted that if it must be a single, it be released under Brian’s name alone.
20. “The Crystal Shop,” the Doors (1967)
Tapping into the nocturnal side of the city in a way no one had before, they were dismissed by the rest of the L.A. rock community, pointedly uninvited to the Monterey Pop Festival. After the Beach Boys and the Byrds, however, the Doors made more sense than anyone knew, and although the summer of Peace and Love wasn’t half over before the band of Sex and Death had the biggest record of the year, it was the darkly gorgeous B-side of “Light My Fire” that best caught their vision of sensual anarchy, its promise lethal, its threat exquisite.
19. “Louie Louie,” Richard Berry (1956)
Covered by more than 1,000 artists who never have been completely clear what ifs about, Berry’s song was unanimously assumed to be pornographic if only because no one could absolutely prove it wasn’t. Fittingly, the original seems to have disappeared from the face of the earth—or at least into the catacombs of&generate collectors, who play it in secret corners at secret hours.
18. “The Chase,” Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray (1947)
Tumultuous, ecstatic, the soundtrack of postwar Central Avenue, the Battle of the Great L.A. Tenor Saxes, and the first bebop rave.
17. “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” Frank Sinatra (1956)
Mid-way through, with the band starting to bubble over, you can almost hear arranger Nelson Riddle snort to himself, “I’ll show this little punk a thing or two”—at which point the volcanic track erupts as though to blow the singer out of the studio. Of course America’s Swinger held his own, but when it was all over the two men must have stared across the lava field between them in some amazement, accomplices in a cataclysm.
16. “Be My Baby,” the Ronettes (1963)
Boom. Boom boom boom. Boom. Boom boom boom. Bam! and out cascades the most exciting opening in pop. Ten years later Martin Scorsese used it over the credits of Mean .Streets to signal an urgent new aesthetic primitivism; one can picture all four Ramones sitting in the darkened movie theater looking at each other, the single collective lightbulb they had among them sputtering over their heads with inspiration. A decade after that, rad Brit band the Jesus and Mary Chain started so many songs the same way they practically made a concept out of it.
15. “Family Affair,” Sly and the Family Stone (1971)
The recording of this track is so notorious—Sly Stone ensconced in the Hollywood Hills in the old house of Jeanette MacDonald, now part pharmacy and part arsenal, part whorehouse and part bunker—that it’s hard to know whether its dreadful power as the darkest record in the funk canon is a complete shock or completely predictable. The family he was singing about might have been his own or might have been America, but in any case, within a few miles and a few months of the Manson Family’s reign of terror, dysfunctional was hardly the word for it.
14. “Too Marvelous For Words,” Art Tatum (1953)
Given the sustained level of genius that informed Tatum’s tone and virtuosity, that married technical invention to joyous expression, anyone born in the last 50 years might be forgiven for calling him the Hendrix of jazz piano; if anything, of course, Hendrix was the Tatum of electric guitar. Blind and mostly self-taught, during his 4T-year life he blazed his way from Ohio to New York to Los Angeles, from Fats Waller worship to a singular place in history: “God,” Waller famously announced to his audience one night, on seeing his former protege them, “is in the house.”
13. “Stormy Monday,” T-Bone Walker (1947)
“They call it stormy Monday, but Tuesday’s just as bad…. “Let’s count the number of people who have recorded this; actually, let’s not. Written by Walker, whose guitar taught B.B. King half of what he knows, this was a shot across the bow of blues history.
12. “Sing Me Back Home,” Merle Haggard (1967)
After “Lonesome Fugitive” he established for himself a position in country music roughly analogous to Charlie Parker’s in jazz. This was his stellar accomplishment, both a reach back to his bad old prison days and a leap of dark imagination, the thoughts of a condemned man walking to his death, as heard and sung by someone who had taken that walk in 1,000 nights of the soul.
11. “That Lucky Old Sun,” Ray Charles (1963)
The purists have it that after his period with Atlantic Records in the ’50s, it was all musical Tomism: white songs with white strings and white arrangements. In fact, rendering the blackness of his voice all the more inescapable, these were some of the most subversive records ever made—the Trojan Herd smuggling into the gates of the White City the blind Negro who sneaked out at midnight singing in the voice of a slave. This overwhelming performance of a ’40s standard is obscure relative to Charles’s more popular hits of the time, such as “Born to Lose” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You” (both recorded here), maybe because his Vocal is too filled with a pain the White City couldn’t stand to hear. But with all due respect to the purists and the indisputably brilliant Atlantic tracks, it’s as great as anything the man ever did.
10. “Peter Gunn,” Henry Mancini-(1958)
Absolutely, irresistibly, hands down, no contest, the coolest TV theme of all time. From its let’s-rumble beginning to the Ride of the Motorcycle Valkyrie horns, it’s all danger and sex, and it must have shocked the era’s rockers. In last season’s debut episode producer David Chase flattered himself that it might be the soundtrack of The Sopranos, before it became obvious The Sopranos couldn’t hold Mancini’s leather jacket. Chase switched to a Sting song.
9. “Blue Yodel No. 9,” Jimmie Rodgers and Louis Armstrong (1930)
Five weeks after eighth blue yodel “Mule Skinner Blues,” the father of country and the father of jazz recorded this, unfazed by the momentousness of it. Over the seven decades that followed, having started at the top, the fusion of the two most American forms of music had nowhere to go but down.
8. “A Night In Tunisia,” Charlie Parker (1946)
Parker stayed behind in L.A. when his partner Dizzy Gillespie returned to New York: Was it as an homage, or retribution by h friend who felt abandoned, that Parker then recorded Gillespie’s most famous song and took it away from him? His new, hostile hometown a portal to more hospitable cities of the mind, this was a pulsing fantasia by which, as Bird took flight, he left not only the rest of the band down on terra firma but part of him, self, too; whether it was out of fear or relief, he later expressed the conviction that he would never again match it. Replacing Gillespie’s horn in the septet was that of a 19-year-old who had come to L.A. just to play with Parker, Miles Davis.
7. “When You Wish Upon A Star,” Cliff Edwards (1940)
The most beautiful song in movies, as sung by a cricket. Though by now my four-year-old son has heard it, I hope to be around when he actually hears it. If he takes after his father, that will be when he’s 40.
6. “Angel Eyes,” Frank Sinatra (1958)
He was called the Voice, but that was a misnomer. It was never about his voice, which was at its best when, as a singer, he was at his least impressive; in fact it was when he lost his voice for a year, his vocal cords hemorrhaging, that he reached inside for something no one had ever heard from him. In the years before the shtick, before the ring-a-ding-ding and dooby-dooby-doo, Sinatra would forge a relationship with his songs not unlike that between Brando and his greatest film roles: at once utterly dominant and utterly submissive, with the song as both slave and dominatrix. “Scuse me while I disappear,” he sings at the end, his whisper of “Ava?” inaudible in the following darkness, not even knowing anymore whether he hopes she answers.
5. “Every Grain Of Sand,” Bob Dylan (1981)
With the vast bulk of his legacy scattered from New York to Nashville to Minneapolis, nonetheless it was Los Angeles where the best American songwriter since Ellington wrote and recorded his best song. Not his most famous, to be sure, its power lying largely in the fact that it came at the lowest point of his career, from out of a spiritual confusion—”in the time of my confession / in the hour of my deepest need”—that exhausted all self-righteousness, at least for the moment. A hymn not to any religious ideology, then, but to the Mystery of it all, and to what may have been more his intuitive hope than certain conviction that there is indeed a Master’s Hand, and that it hasn’t passed him over.
4. “Stardust,” Nat King Cole (1956)
Acknowledging Louis Armstrong’s great 1931 rendition and Artie Shawls famous 1940 celebration, Frank Sinatra’s audacious 1962 deconstruction and Willie Nelson’s canny 1978 reinvention, this is the definitive version of the most perfect of all pop songs. Written by Hoagy Carmichael in 1927, recorded more times than “Louie Louie” and “Stormy Monday” put together, it became such a grail for singers and musicians that Cole, a first-rate jazz pianist who never set out to be a singer and therefore underrated himself, probably didn’t have the sense to be intimidated. As a result, his interpretation has no agenda. Intimate, serene, a little haunted, joined to a glistening Gordon Jenkins arrangement, it drifts somewhere above the twilight—and if none of that is convincing, well, Hoagy Carmichael thought it was the best version, too.
3. “Lonely Woman,” Ornette Coleman (1959)
A revolution. Coleman so defied conventional notions of harmony and pitch and chord change that Miles Davis called him “psychotic,” though, coming from Miles, maybe it was a compliment. This is “Harlem Nocturne” with its senses deranged, drunk notes dripping in the air like rain running down a window, Coleman’s sax careening between lyricism and pathos on the one hand and exhilaration and cacophony on the other. It converted not only trumpet man Don Cherry and bassist Charlie Haden (both of whom played on it) but—over the years that followed, thousands of miles away—a young Iggy Pop, still a model high school student, and Lou Reed, still a literature major in college, who heard it and felt the furniture in their heads turn upside down.
2. “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” the Righteous Brothers (1964)
The Righteous Brothers wanted to give this song to the Everly Brothers, and when Barry Mann, who wrote it with Cynthia Weil, heard the final result he thought it had been recorded at the wrong speed, because Bill Medley’s voice was so low. But producer Phil Spector, who for the better part of a year had watched his pop empire fall to Anglo-Saxon hordes, knew what he had the moment he heard Mann and Weft play it for him at the Chateau Marmont; and for a Spector record the opening seconds are unprecedented in their humility: The first thing you hear isn’t one of the producer’s explosive orchestral crescendos but a single voice, Medley’s rising out of the silence. The record builds, fades, builds again, fades again, each resurrection ratcheting up the passion another unquantifiable notch, and it all goes on a good minute longer than anything radio was playing in those days. So when the record label was printed with the time on it, faced with the prospect of his masterpiece going unheard, Spector did the only morally responsible thing. He lied.
1. “A Change Is Gonna Come,” Sam Cooke (1964)
In 1964, the most utopian year in American history—not in spite of John Kennedy’s assassination but because of it, transforming the country by a martyrdom grander than he was—between the apotheosis of Martin Luther King’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial in the summer of ’63 and the rude awakening of L.A.’s Watts riots in the summer of ’65, gospel/soul heartthrob Cooke made this record. By the time it was released as a B-side, in a truncated version that wasn’t restored for an, other 20 years, Cooke himself was a martyr of sorts, murdered in an L.A. motel under tawdry circumstances. But when he soars from the bridge of the song into the final verse, the hair stands up on the back of your neck and he redeems not only anything he ever did, but everything you ever did, too: Ageless the very first time anyone heard it, shattering on every level, as a testament of personal struggle, racial justice, and spiritual transcendence, this became the national anthem of the Dream Deferred and the America that still hasn’t come to pass, sung as though from the grave by a ghost who doesn’t yet know he’s dead.