It's the season when the hatred slow-cooked by endless months of triple-digit temps starts to fade, and you start to remember why you live here. Phoenix is a tough place for much of the year, though. The city feels like a giant, smoggy suburb, surrounded by inhospitable desert filled with vicious cacti and unfriendly critters like scorpions and rattlesnakes.
Apparently, this geographic unease filters into the arts as well. As we scoured our music collections and racked our brains for songs about Phoenix, a trend became clear. There simply aren't many songs about Phoenix in general, and mostly, the city symbolizes despair, desolation, or perhaps a false mirage of hope opportunity.
It's instructive to note that of most of the songs made post-1980, only a few of these have music videos. Modern songs about Phoenix tend not to be hits.
See, Phoenix is not New York, an international city of immigrants and glamour, romanticized from afar. Nor is it Los Angeles, scorned from the outside by mostly beloved within. No, Phoenix lacks a geographic musical tradition like that of some of the nation's greatest cities, perhaps stemming from the fact that the only people who want to move here are snowbirds, and they aren't writing songs. But read and judge for yourself. For better or for worse, when songwriters think of the Valley of the Sun, they mostly don't think happy thoughts.
These are the 25 best songs about Metro Phoenix. We employed a fairly inclusive approach in compiling it. If Phoenix or another nearby city either plays a central role in the song is the primary subject, it could be included in the list. Enjoy.
Waylon Jennings — "Hey Willie"
Waylon Jennings got his start in Lubbock, Texas, as a touring bass player with Buddy Holly and the Crickets on what would be the band’s final tour. After Holly’s death in a plane crash in 1959, Jennings eventually found his way to Phoenix in 1961. Upon arriving in town, Jennings formed the Waylors, a rockabilly band so in demand that they played seven nights a week in clubs around town. Soon after he recorded his debut album, Waylon at JD's, in Phoenix, Waylon left for L.A., eventually settling in Nashville. In the process, he became a country music legend, reaping the spoils and suffering from the nefarious trappings that come with fortune and fame. But on this track, he’s imploring Willie (presumably Willie Nelson) to return with him to Phoenix and a simpler time when “music meant more than fortune or fame,” as he sings on the chorus. Jennings finally fulfilled his wish, moving back to the Valley (albeit without Willie) in 2000, living here until his death in 2002. BRENT MILES
JFA — "We Know You Suck"
This 43-second blast of suburban wasteland angst expressed what it was like to be an aimless adolescent in a town like Phoenix, where suburban boredom turned into petty crime. Days spent skateboarding through Smitty’s parking lots, breaking hood ornaments off cars, and nights spent at punk rock shows at the VFW hall. And if JFA was playing, you can bet all of us in that hot, sweaty place were screaming along at the top of our lungs with the second verse of this song:
“I hate Phoenix, boring place / Narrow-minded people, a fucking waste / Rip it up is my cry / So why don't you just fucking die.”
But, c’mon guys, we have to admit that growing up in Phoenix wasn’t that bad. B.M.
Gordon Lightfoot — "Carefree Highway"
Carefree Highway, located just north of Phoenix, is officially known as State Route 74. It starts in the town of Carefree, runs west past Lake Pleasant and ends just south of Wickenburg. As the story goes, Canadian folksinger Gordon Lightfoot happened upon the highway and set to writing lyrics regarding a woman named Ann, who left him for reasons he guesses “must be wanderlust or trying to get free.” But driving through the empty expanse of the open desert can bring clarity, and as he reflects on his failed relationship with Ann, Lightfoot seeks to move on, slipping away down the literal and metaphorical Carefree Highway. "The morning-after blues from my head down to my shoes / Carefree Highway, let me slip away, slip away on you." B.M.
Alice Cooper — "Alma Mater"
Vincent Damon Furnier, better known as Alice Cooper, has close ties to the Valley, forming the first incarnation of the Alice Cooper band while attending Cortez High School. This track, written by guitarist Neal Smith, is from Alice Cooper’s fifth album, School's Out, and looks back on the halcyon days of high school. Saying goodbye to friends and classmates before everyone went on to marriage, mortgages, children, and boring, dead-end jobs. Except in Alice Cooper’s case, it was going on to entertain thousands with an innovative brand of heavy metal that relied on theatrics to accompany the music, employing stunts that included wearing live boa constrictors as a fashion accessory, decapitating baby dolls with a life-size guillotine, and spewing fake blood all over stages across the globe.
“Alma Mater” mentions Camelback High School (which Smith attended) and Cortez High School. Interestingly, the third verse of the song relates a tale of high school high jinks, dropping a snake down a classmate’s dress, with the refrain “No, I don’t think Ms. Axelrod was much impressed.” With a quick check of the 1966 Cortez yearbook belonging to my mom (who attended Cortez with Cooper), reveals that “Ms. Axelrod” was Helen Axelrod, Cooper’s biology teacher. Axelrod is most likely the only biology teacher to ever be name-checked in a rock and roll song and it probably made for great a topic of conversation around the Axelrod dinner table. Cooper still resides in the Valley, and though Axelrod may not have been impressed with Cooper’s mischievousness in biology class, she was most likely impressed as he became one of the biggest rock stars of our time. B.M.
Robert Earl Keen — "Furnace Fan"
Texas songwriter Keen weaves a tale of touring through Phoenix in the summertime, singing on the chorus, “I understand why lizards live in sunny Arizona / Why people do and call it home I’ll never understand.” Although, it’s presumptuous of Keen to assume that lizards enjoy summer in Phoenix. I’m fairly certain if you talked to a lizard when it’s 120 degrees outside, they’d tell you they’d rather be in the Galapagos Islands or wherever it is that lizards dream of going. Then again, if you’re trying to communicate with lizards on a searing summer day, you’ve got bigger problems and should seek shade and water or think about cutting back on your drug use immediately.
We do take umbrage with the opening lines of this song, as Keen erroneously sings “We were at the Rhythm Room in Scottsdale, Arizona.” The Rhythm Room is, in fact, located at 10th Street and Indian School in Central Phoenix. But we’ll give Keen the benefit of the doubt and assume the heat of the summer he’s singing about fried his brain, temporarily rendering him geographically challenged. Either that or he asked a lizard for directions. Never ask a lizard for directions, tourists — especially if you’ve insulted one in a song. B.M.
Glen Campbell — "By the Time I Get to Phoenix"
“By the Time I Get to Phoenix” is just one of many successful collaborations between Jimmy Webb, one of the greatest American songwriters in modern times (that opinion is non-negotiable) and singer Glen Campbell, who had a hit with the song in 1968. In the song, Webb leaves a goodbye letter on his lover’s door, and then drives east, musing along the way about how his spurned lover’s day is going. I’m guessing she’s probably having a pretty bad day.
I’m assuming Webb is departing from Los Angeles, where he resided at the time the song was written. And this was L.A. in the late ’60s! Amazing music happening up in Laurel Canyon and down on the Sunset Strip! Beautiful weather! The Manson Family! In the first verse, he arrives in Phoenix in the early morning. Now, if memory serves correctly (and it usually doesn’t) my first recollections of moving to Phoenix as a child were seeing a motorhome burning to the ground and a hooker beating the crap out of her pimp with a purse that must have been full of bricks because the pimp went down like Ivan Drago at the end of Rocky IV. Or that could have happened on Van Buren last Wednesday, it’s hard to say. Why the hell Webb didn’t turn around upon arriving in Phoenix is beyond me. Though, if his first impressions of Phoenix were similar to mine, this would probably be a much different song.
Even more mystifying is that in the second verse, he keeps going east to Albuquerque, arriving around lunchtime. I spent some time in Albuquerque one weekend and, again, I am bewildered that he still had a chance to head back west but failed to do so. The only explanation that makes sense is that he would have had to come back through Phoenix and apparently heading east through the barren wasteland of the Texas panhandle seemed more appealing than returning to Phoenix. I can’t say I blame him.
Now, I’d like to take a moment and clarify that I am in no way slighting Jimmy Webb. He can do no wrong in my book (“MacArthur Park” notwithstanding). But even Webb has a sense of humor about the song. Introducing it at a concert in Phoenix recently, he related a tale of a fan who parsed the lyrics too literally, explaining to the fan “It’s a song, man. A fantasy! It didn’t actually happen.” The fan he was referring to was former President of the United States, Bill Clinton.
Finally, in the last verse, Webb arrives at his destination in Oklahoma. Oklahoma is okay, I guess. B.M.
Jimmy Eat World — "Goodbye Sky Harbor"
Flying over the Valley out of Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport truly shows how homogenous this city’s suburbs look. Red tile roofs, cul-de-sacs, and swimming pools as far as the eye can see. In my experiences, when taking off or landing in most cities, the pilot usually points out landmarks of interest to the passengers. But I can’t recall a time a pilot has ever pointed out anything of interest while flying over Phoenix. That’s because there is absolutely nothing to see from the skies over the Valley. And that brings us to the last verse of this song by local boys done good and seriously the most well-balanced group of musicians in a popular rock band that I’ve ever encountered, Jimmy Eat World. Frontman Jim Adkins sings “So here I am above palm trees so straight and tall / You are smaller, getting smaller.” Oh yeah, I forgot to mention the palm trees. Miles and miles of palm trees, as far as the eye can see. B.M.
Old 97’s — "The Fool"
“Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in Notebook E. And this song is chock-full of both. This tune by Dallas roots-rockers Old 97’s is pretty much the antithesis of Jimmy Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” Our hero in the song leaves Phoenix “in a borrowed VW Bug” for a girl who is pregnant and with whom he is madly in love. He is our hero because, finally, someone escapes Phoenix and it’s because he’s in love! And they live happily ever after. Ha! Totally kidding, this is a country song after all. Tragically, by the third verse, our hero and his love die in a car accident. I guess that’s why this song is called “The Fool.” There is no such thing as hopes and dreams. This is Phoenix, after all. B.M.
Chronic Future — "Scottsdale"
Scottsdale brings to mind high-end art galleries and malls full of designer clothing stores. In other words, quite the opposite of South Central Los Angeles. This 1996 song by Scottsdale’s teenage rap-rockers Chronic Future takes their peers to task, imploring them to pull up their Guess jeans and stop trying to be wannabe gangsters, mocking them for being “Scottsdale brats.” It is a bit amusing that Scottsdale teens are rapping about other teens being wannabes for driving around in their Hondas listening to gangster rap. Or maybe that’s the genius of it. B.M.
Phunk Junkeez — "Going Down to Buckeye"
This 1992 local hit pays a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the tiny two-lane town southwest of the Valley. Things pick up in this sleepy little burg during spring break when revelers pass through on their way to Rocky Point, Mexico, which is when the song takes place. The Junkeez are driving through town in their Pinto with the “top down,” looking for the section of town “where everybody likes to get down.” The band toasts Buckeye for, among other things, its good-looking women and refried beans. B.M.
Richard Buckner – "Surprise, AZ"
This one by itinerant songwriter Richard Buckner is based on a newspaper article he read about a mother and son who die in a car accident in Surprise. Throughout, he’s imagining the conversation between the two as their caskets are driven side-by-side back to Oklahoma for burial. Then the chorus comes in and just consists of Buckner singing “Surprise, Arizona / Put us out of our sweet misery” Yes, uplifting stuff. B.M.
Dyke and the Blazers — "Funky Broadway"
Dyke Christian found his way to Arizona from New York to be part of the O’Jays to play bass in their backing band. By the time he got to Phoenix, the job had fallen through and, without enough money to return to New York, he found himself stuck in Phoenix; a feeling I’m sure a lot of us can relate to. Eventually things picked up for Christian and he found himself a band and wrote “Funky Broadway,” a 1967 Billboard hit song celebrating the nightlife along “dirty, filthy Broadway” Road in South Phoenix. Sadly, in 1971, Christian died after being shot outside a bar on Buckeye Road, just a short two miles north of “Funky Broadway.” B.M.
Marty Robbins — "Ride Cowboy Ride"
Did you know that country singer Marty Robbins, a native of Glendale, was also a NASCAR racer? I did not until I started researching this song about a cowboy driving a herd of cattle all over Arizona while his “darlin’” lay dying in Tucson. He starts out in Prescott and then drives the cattle north to Flagstaff. When he returns to Prescott he receives the letter bearing the sad news that his love is on her deathbed. So he races toward Phoenix through the “mesquite and sage” as he passes the “Wickenburg stage.” Granted, it seems that trying to get from Prescott to Phoenix via Wickenburg is a bit out of the way. But one thing I’ve learned from my research is that when writing a song, do not let a sensible route get in the way of a good rhyme, geography be damned.
When our cowboy arrives in Phoenix, he trades his horse for another to ride back to Tucson. At the end of the song, our cowboy finally arrives in Tucson just in time to hold his lover’s hand and see the smile on her face before she dies. If only he had a damn race car. B.M.
Public Enemy — "By The Time I Get to Arizona"
One of the few songs on this list to have an actual music video contains the harshest critique of Arizona, and with good measure. Before Jan Brewer was asking brown people to show their papers, there was Evan Mecham, who made national news for something equally intolerant — he refused to recognize a paid federal holiday for Martin Luther King Jr., pulling offensive moves like trying to make it an unpaid holiday on a Sunday. Public Enemy struck back at Mecham in the music video, where they assassinate him with a car bomb. The song is called "By the Time I Get to Arizona," but Chuck D is really talking about Phoenix here, but Glen Campbell beat him to that song title. In the song, Chuck D calls the whole state racist and says, "I urinated on the state while I was kicking this song." It's nearly five minutes of a well-deserved tongue-lashing.DAVID ACCOMAZZO
Gorillaz featuring Bobby Womack — "Bobby in Phoenix"
The Gorillaz' 2010 album, The Fall, is a musical travel diary, with geographically anchored songs titles like "Detroit," "The Snake in Dallas," "Amarillo," "Seattle Yodel," and "Bobby in Phoenix," the last of which features Bobby Womack singing whimsically about Phoenix. And . . . wait, is this a positive song about Phoenix? A song where the city doesn't act as a stand-in for betrayal, heartache, desperation, or hopelessness? It certainly appears so. The song sounds like a tourism ad: "Let's talk about Phoenix / It's got a way of making you breathe a little better / The storm and rain if you need to escape / Oh, you wonder why." The song itself is hypnotic and relaxing, a pleasant postcard from a Brit's road trip through America. D.A.
Aimee Mann — "Phoenix"
Back to the theme at hand. Aimee Mann's 2008 album, @#%&*! SMILERS, features the most obvious and depressing rhyme for the word "Phoenix": "Got out of Phoenix, just in time / a box of Kleenex, for the ride" and sings of escaping javelinas and DUIs. Whatever happened to Mann in Phoenix, it was nasty and involved a lover. If you believe songwriters, Phoenix is the place where love dries up and hope goes to die, and only by escaping the city can you ever feel hope for a better life. If there's something redeeming about Phoenix, you'd be hard-pressed to find a song describing it. D.A.
Cady Groves — "Phoenix"
As far as heartbreaking songs titled "Phoenix" written by female singer-songwriters go, Cady Groves ups Aimee Mann on the despair front. "Phoenix" tells the story of the fallout of two young lovers who'd moved to Phoenix in search of a better life. If only they had listened to every other love song written about Phoenix! Maybe they would have stayed in Oklahoma and gotten an affordable, in-state education. Instead, they move to Phoenix and almost immediately, everything goes horribly wrong. "We made it one month till you started pushing / On the part of your life you really know you shouldn't it." There's no hope for the couple: She's waiting for him to "seal the deal," and he's off to California without telling her when he's coming back. The song tells the opposite of fairy tale love; it describes what happens when you take a leap of faith and fall face-first into the gutter. There's a sense of sad desperation running through the entire song, culminating in the singer's realization that it had become "clear you regretted coming here with me." Ouch. D.A.
Iron & Wine — "My Side of the Road"
"Saw you take it on the chin outside the Phoenix Motor Inn," begins this Iron & Wine song. Now, as far as we could tell, there isn't such a place as the "Phoenix Motor Inn" anywhere in the Valley; though oddly, there's one in New Zealand. That's the only mention of Phoenix in the song. But since the song also mentions Frisco (the one in Texas, we assume), let's go ahead and say this song begins in Arizona. This isn't a love song. Rather, it tells the story of a someone who gets beaten down in life only to recover and "slide across the stars." If that image isn't breathtaking enough, singer Samuel Beam continues: "Saw you lose before the start, I saw you shining in the dark / Saw you change, saw you choke, saw you running out of rope / Saw you shaking off the blues, saw you recognize a tune." He sings of watching this person change, grow, and evolve, but all from a distance. Each verse ends with the refrain, "But I never saw you down on my side of the road." This melancholy song is an underrated Iron & Wine gem, in which Phoenix plays a small but important role. D.A.
Jamie O'Neal — "There Is No Arizona"
Many of the songs on this list are b-sides. Not "There Is No Arizona" — it's one of Jamie O'Neal's biggest hits. It's a love song that mentions Arizona, and the city in this case is a false promise, a symbol of redemption that will forever remain unrealized. Now, this song doesn't explicitly mention Phoenix, and the only city mentioned is Sedona. That said, it does mention the Painted Desert — an image so intrinsically Arizona that it was our theme for our Best of Phoenix issue this year — so we're going to include it here. It's a simple premise: "He promised her a new and better life, out in Arizona / Underneath the blue never ending sky, swore that he was gonna / Get things in order, he'd send for her / When he left her behind, it never crossed her mind / There is no Arizona / No painted desert, no Sedona." Arizona is once again the place where love goes to die, or more specifically in this case, where love flees when it fades. D.A.
Andrew Jackson Jihad — "Scenesters"
This song represents a specific time and place to a lot of people in the local music scene. We imagine that it's probably the same for Andrew Jackson Jihad singer Sean Bonnette, as this song, released in 2005, doesn't make it into the band's live repertoire much these days. Perhaps the anger that inspired the song has passed. Regardless, Bonnette lets everyone have it in this song. Hipsters get called out for their "snide comments and aversion to applause." Insufferable straight-edge hardcore kids are "getting high on their own self-righteousness." Basically, there are just "assholes everywhere," showing a hint of self-awareness when he says "there are pretentious, judgmental assholes everywhere." The song directly addresses the Phoenix music scene as well, as it name-checks beloved former music venue Modified as well as the Marquee Theatre in Tempe. It's a glorious moment of rage and angst and frustration captured in song. D.A.
Haymarket Squares — "I Hate This City"
If local punkgrass band Haymarket Squares had moved to Colorado in 2000, they might have found a more welcoming audience. After all, that was the time when Yonder Mountain String Band, String Cheese Incident, and Leftover Salmon were starting to gain momentum and help build a home for jamgrass and string music in the pot state. Regardless, perhaps it's best that the band grew up right here in the Valley. It's hard to be punk anything in Colorado — it's just too pleasant a place to live, and it'd be tough for the Squares to call themselves "punkgrass" with all that legal weed around. Not only do Phoenix music fans have this tremendously talented band to ourselves, but it seems the experience of living in the Valley has sharpened the band's sarcastic wit and cynicism, their beloved trademarks. Look no further than "I Hate This City." It's a stinging criticism of the city punctuated by a kazoo solo. It's not fair, balanced, or even well-considered. It's simply a liberal rant put to music. Take the second verse: "I hate this city. Because of white flight. And there's no culture. And there's no nightlife. We're too damned spread out. In this fucking desert. Why do I live here? I don't fucking remember." D.A.
The Format — "Tune Out"
Ask any Phoenix native ages 25 to 35 to name songs about Phoenix, and The Format's "Tune Out" comes up often. People seem to love this song, despite the fact that it follows the familiar formula about love songs taking place in Phoenix. There's not so much heartbreak as boredom expressed in the song's lyrics. The chorus goes, "The 51 is backed up and too slow / Let's turn out by turning on the radio." That's right, the catchiest part of the song is about traffic. The song is about a stagnant relationship, dealing with boring issues like choosing which side of the bed to sleep on. "No one I know is more depressing then me / or should I say the two of us, ’cause after all we're all we've got." No wonder they just want to turn on the radio and tune out. D.A.
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Authority Zero — "Mesa Town"
Authority Zero is the pride of Mesa. Whether this is a song that will make the higher-ups in Mesa proud is another thing. After all, it's basically a song about getting drunk, starting fights, and looking to score in Mesa. Not to be outdone, there's also a mention of a woman: "I had a girl, she left me too / She left me for some other dude / Well, I really wish her well / She made my life a living hell." Even in Mesa, love doesn't seem to work. D.A.
Hans Olson – "Phoenix Boogie"
Venerable Valley blues musician Hans Olson’s “Phoenix Boogie,” which was used as the theme song for the Phoenix Mercury’s first season, is popular with local audiences, and it’s no wonder why. Olson documents Phoenician’s pent-up desire to go out and soak up the nightlife, letting loose after the sun goes down on a stifling summer day. If you’ve survived a summer here, you know nighttime is the only time it’s safe to go outside, and sometimes even then it’s too damn hot. B.M.