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10 Bands That Defined The California Sound, As Ranked By Vicki Peterson Of The Bangles

Updated September 7, 2021 5.8k views10 items

The Bangles played a free show at Pershing Square in Los Angeles, California on Saturday, July 14th. In advance of that show, guitarist Vicki Peterson graciously curated this list exclusively for Ranker! Here's what she had to say about it.

The California Sound. Surf guitar? Sure. Shimmering harmony vocals? Yes, please.  Who really defines the music associated with California: that warmth-of-the-sun, top-down-on-the-convertible, singing-at-the-top-of-your-lungs feeling? If someone asked me to compile a list (and, strangely enough, someone did!), I would come up with a too-long roll of bands that shaped the soundtrack of my California childhood. It’s not definitive, it’s not complete, and you can disagree with some of the choices if you like. But here, in roughly chronological order, are 10 bands that (for me) define the California* Sound.

  • Photo: Elektra Records / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Arthur Lee & Love

    Perhaps not as well-known as the Byrds or other LA psychedelic folk groups, Arthur Lee and Love’s music mixed acoustic guitar and complex Latin-flavored rhythms with their mind-bending lyrics to create a unique picture of the California landscape. Lovely songs like “Alone Again Or” and “Five String Serenade” play nicely with rockers “My Little Red Book” and “7 & 7 Is” (which we Bangles whip out from time to time).

  • Photo: via Wikimedia

    Love ‘em or hate ‘em, you have to admit that the early '70s sound of Los Angeles belongs to the scene around the famous Troubadour nightclub, and that means the Eagles. If I were making a list of singer-songwriters who captured the sound of California, then people like Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt would be at the top…

    But this is about groups and these guys did record a song with “California” in the title. A ubiquitous song. It’s a song you can recognize in the first eight notes and can probably hum the guitar solo, too. The Eagles carried on the harmony-laced country/ folk/rock tradition begun by the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and Crosby, Stills & Nash, but they polished it to a sheen and made it look good. Just like LA.

  • 7

    In the late '70s, many regions of the country had a robust punk rock scene, but we in California were fortunate to have this stunning band playing in our local clubs. Tattered but stylish, handsome but not too handsome, their careless chic defined “cool,” and their sound was utterly unique. Billy Zoom’s guitar work updated the surf guitar of the past. After decades of lush vocals, singers John Doe and Exene Cervenka approached harmony in a completely new way. What could have sounded disconnected and dissonant when sung by anyone else was the perfect urgent delivery system for the lyrics. And those lyrics - poetic, honest portrayals of loss, love, and life in Los Angeles - were (not to put too fine a point on it) genius.

  • Also children of the Los Angeles punk scene, the Go Go’s cleaned up nicely and released possibly the definitive California summer record in 1981, Beauty and the Beat. Playful and impish, never taking themselves too seriously, they made danceable (that funny, awkward, '80s dancing!) pop with some savvy lyrical pokes at Los Angeles. With MTV and videos spreading the message to the world, the California sound was more vibrant than ever.