30 songs that absolutely define 30 cities

These songs define some towns.

Chris Walter/GettyImages
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The West Coast

"TALKING SEATTLE GRUNGE ROCK BLUES" by Todd Snider (1994)

It was a hidden track on Snider’s debut album, but it was his live version on 2003’s Near Truths and Hotel Rooms that truly showcased the song. A mini-history of the grunge movement and the fleeting success of pop trends, Snider alternates his talking blues story with the catchy little chorus – Hey, hey, my, my – Rock and roll will never die – Hang your hair down in your eyes – Make a million dollars.”

"(SITTIN’ ON) THE DOCK OF THE BAY" by Otis Redding (1968)

Sure, if you want to be picky, Otis Redding was in Sausalito, across from San Francisco when he wrote this achingly beautiful portrait of loneliness – all the more poignant to history because he died before the song could be released. Written with Steve Cropper and with backing by the finest musicians the 1960s had to offer – Cropper and the rest of Booker T and the MGs, along with a couple of members of the Memphis Horns, I’m claiming this one for Frisco.

"DO YOU KNOW THE WAY TO SAN JOSE" by Dionne Warwick (1968)

Was there ever a more perfect songwriting-singer collaboration than that of Burt Bachrach, Hal David, and Dionne Warwick? Warwick handled Bachrach’s complex pop melodies and David’s playful wordsmithing so effortlessly that it made difficult songs sound breezy. “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” was not the peak of that collaboration, but it was a massive hit, and it gave the overlooked city some real cache by juxtaposing it against the fleeting plasticity of LA.

"SAN DIEGO SERENADE" by Tom Waits (1974)

Waits got his start in San Diego, and recorded this lovely piano-driven homage on his second album. Contemporary critics complained about the ramshackle voice and meandering melodies. But over the years, countless listeners have recognized Waits’ beautifully classical constructions as deeply affecting. “I never saw my hometown until I stayed away too long – I never heard the melody until I needed the song” may not be specific to San Diego, but it sure does capture the very cryptic nature of home.

"STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON" by NWA (1988)

Up until this point, I’ve had to make some tough decisions about what song to choose. The first song I thought of here for Los Angeles was X’s “Los Angeles” and the next one was the Doors’ “LA Woman.” I briefly toyed with the Grouch’s underrated gem “The Bay to L.A.” And then there were about twenty others.

But I’m going with the song that burst out of boom boxes in 1988 and helped create an entirely new culture. I can’t really quote the lyrics on this family site, but I’m guessing you already knew that. LA is far too big and diverse for any one song to capture it in its entirety, but this one captures a major piece of it extraordinarily well.

"PORTLAND" by the Replacements (1989)

“It’s too late to turn back, here we go – Portland, oh no – Portland, we’re sorry.” Paul Westerberg wrote this apology to an entire city after a drunken, incoherent performance at the Pine Street Theater in 1987. Drunken, incoherent performances were nothing new for The Replacements, who could also be brilliant at times. But this one became the stuff of legend.