The 10 Best Music Cities in the United States

Whether it's a rock and roll layover or a road trip to the center of Blues, read why these music cities matter.

Hopper Editors - Oct. 26, 2017

American music reflects the culture of the country – take a thread and follow it, and at the end of it is a rich, nuanced deeply polarized mural, a story of the fight for civil rights, the media, and the eking out of truth in media. In the beginning was a drum, a rattle and a chant. Then, one by one, the cultures descended on this new world, and brought with them classical instruments from France, Spain, the UK and other parts of Europe. African slaves came, melting into the pot, and not very long after, the Blues emerged. From there, it’s been an ever-changing song cycle integrating new themes and variations on those themes. Now, as an immortal voice has told us, If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. Want to catch live music and see where some the most important musicians and singers in history made it? Do the American music tour.

10. Minneapolis

That both The Replacements and [the artist formerly known as] Prince were born and bred in Minneapolis is enough of a name drop to land them on this list. Bob Dylan, born in nearby Duluth and regular man about Minneapolis as a young acoustic upstart, is the mic drop. Just leave it there. Or maybe we would, but the tradition of merry music making lives on. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, there was The Time, the legendary funk and pop group that gave us such hits as "Jerk Out" and "Jungle Love"; and then Babes in Toyland, who screeched and growled their way from the Twin Cities to the hearts of young punks. The ‘90s: remember Semisonic? Remember "Closing Time," that sound so synonymous with ‘90s pop-rock? How about Soul Asylum, with that seminal hit "Runaway Train"? And even now, the music keeps coming, through the soulful Brother Ali, and the cool uncle of the indie scene, The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn, who has even set up a Twin Cities-themed bar in Brooklyn because home was just a few too many states away. But while he is home, and while music lovers visit or go out in the city, it’s to places like First Avenue, in the Warehouse District downtown (it lent some background in Purple Rain), or the Varsity Theater, whose stage Amy Winehouse, Cold War Kids and Girl Talk have rocked.

9. Portland

Portland’s music scene had its renaissance relatively late, beginning in the ‘80s, but its born and bred indie bands have also helped buoy the city’s reputation as a hipster hub. Counted among PDX’s native sons and daughters are Hole, the Dandy Warhols, Gossip, and later, the Decemberists, She & Him, Esperanza Spalding and Blitzen Trapper. Now the city’s a magnet, having adopted Modest Mouse, Spoon, and others, as well as their large, garrulous and bespectacled fans. Want to catch some music in Portland? Check if it’s sunny outside and maybe hit a park. Otherwise, The Aladdin Theater, a medium-sized venue has hosted Beck and Macy Gray; the Roseland Theater sells out for Pearl Jam-sized crowds and Mississippi Studios and the ‘50s style Doug Fir Lounge offer an intimate setting for touring indie bands. Then go out to the nearest food truck pod and grab a gourmet gluten-free waffle as a late-night munchie, because, you know, Portland.

8. Miami

If you’ve got a favorite summer hit, there’s a strong chance that it’s by someone from Miami or produced by someone from Miami. "Heart of Glass" fan? Debbie Harry was born in Miami. Do you jam out to Enrique Iglesias? He was raised in Miami. How about new EDM mega-star Steve Aoki? Miamian. Hell, even Thurston Moore, the least Miami type of person in music probably, was born in Miami. Others: Jason Derulo ("Jason de-rulooo"), Gloria Estefan, Stack$, and that’s just the tip of a bilingual iceberg. There’s tons of diverse venues for music appreciation: the mega-clubs on SoBe spinning top forty; Bardot, a chill lounge that often hosts DJs like Kygo and Eli Escobar; the indie-magnet Fillmore, a perennial Miami stop for people like Tori Amos and Ray Lamontagne; there’s Tobacco Road, which attracts jazz, blues, indie and Brazilian tunes, and even more. Want to soak up some Latin music? Check out Little Havana, which has great Cuban-infused bars and lounges, as well as regular music festivals.

7. Chicago

Almost every popular American music genre has roots in Chicago. Trace the Great Migration from the South and you’ll find Chicago as a major stop-off point for American jazz, the place where Chicago-Style Dixieland Jazz poured into the streets, and Chicago blues style continues its traditions. Boogie down to Boogie Woogie: we can thank the citizens of Chicago for that one. Now, with EDM tracks taking over rock and hip hop, Chicago gets major props for originating House music – even the name "House" came from the Chicago nightclub The Warehouse. The Chicago R&B and Soul scene birthed people like Sam Cooke, Curtis Mayfield and the Staple Sisters, and more recently Jennifer Hudson and R. Kelly. However, fans about to rock don’t even question the importance of the namesake behind Chicago the band. From Styx and REO Speedwagon in the days of classic rock, to the ‘90s alt rockers The Jesus Lizard, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam and Smashing Pumpkins, to the new now, the indie grandaddies Wilco, Flaming Lips, Spoon, and Pavement. And we haven’t even touched Kanye West. Let it be known that the Windy City stages have been blessed with some Chi-town magic.

See 6 tips, like when to book your ticket, from the Hopper research team that can save travelers hundreds on their flights to Chicago.

6. New Orleans

There’s very little about the New Orleans music scene that isn’t already canonized in American history. It is a scene made legendary. Even the airport is named Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, in case visitors are ever caught unaware of who really runs this town. All over the city, blowing out every street corner, is the still-living ghost of the most important musical genre in the country, the brass-heavy New Orleans Jazz. Visitors who want to get a sense of it need only take a short walk up Bourbon Street at night, where street performers play standards for the visiting masses; but those who want to get at the heart of it can walk a few blocks north to Treme, wherein lies the Candlelight Lounge, tiny little bar with a brass band that’ll blow your socks off. For $10 cover on Wednesday night, a tourist can feel like a local, grab a bowl of free rice and beans, and dance along to the Treme Brass Band. More live jazz can be found at The Spotted Cat, just steps from the famed French Quarter – in fact, drop in any time and you’re bound to see a decent show. For a younger crowd, d.b.a also proudly features jazz and blues, but in a more relaxed, down to earth setting with a nice lineup of local and imported beers.

5. Los Angeles

Los Angeles is a sprawl, and so is their music scene. One may remember fondly the Sunset Strip, which first recorded bands like Buffalo Springfield, The Doors and the original summer hit machine, the Beach Boys. And then there was the darkness, an Appetite for Destruction, one might call it – and did, since Guns ‘n’ Roses helped put the pedal on the California metal, along with Van Halen, and their big-haired brothers, Mötley Crüe and Slayer. The ‘90s where a sprawly time, when down by the beach sprang Beck and Sublime; while straight outta Compton, Tupac, Dre and Snoop were finding their light. Now, the city has given rise to Indie, with bands like Rilo Kiley, Giant Drag, Best Coast, HAIM, and more, taking their California sounds with them across the world. Where to go for live music in LA? Check out the Troubadour, where every indie upstart gets their first big crowd; or the Hollywood Bowl, an outdoor amphitheatre that has been graced by everyone from Frankie S to Bruno Mars. For a classic LA atmosphere with an indie twist, the El Rey is a venue that was built in 1936 as a theater and has retained much of its streamlined Art Deco design.

See 5 tips, like when to book your ticket, from the Hopper research team that can save travelers hundreds on their flights to Los Angeles.

4. New York City

Historically, New York has always been where it’s at for artistic development. The sounds were brought over to the harbor over the turn of the century from all across the world and they folded neatly into the musical fabric, one that would later include the sounds of former slaves who migrated north to New York. There music came from the American showtunes generated from the legendary Tin Pan Alley and Broadway; it played all across to Harlem, where on 52nd and 5th, passersby could hear the brassy tones of Miles Davis’ trumpet floating angelically down the street on afternoons he skipped his classes at Juilliard. In the ‘60s, simple folk and the sounds of peace were strummed out of smokey cafés in Greenwich Village where a young Bob Dylan, aided by Dave Van Ronk and other folksters of the age, quietly eclipsed whatever else was going on from a spotlighted stool in the Gaslight Café. Still, you can trace the past: stop into Birdland jazz club, where Charlie "Yardbird" Parker headlined in the ‘50s, and sit at the current incarnation of bebop; or step into the Apollo Theater, which moved from burlesque, to jazz, to soul, to all popular mediums. A ton of other current venues pop up all over the city to keep up with New York’s formidable EDM, indie rock and hip hop scene.

3. Nashville

There’s a reason why Nashville’s other name is "Music City, U.S.A". It’s the home of Grand Ole’ Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame; the homeland, whether native or adopted, of Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Billy Ray Cyrus (and his by now more famous daughter, Miley), Emmylou Harris, Jimi Hendrix, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, the Allman Brothers, Taylor Swift and many, many, many others down the line kicking dust on that old country road – it’s the home of country music itself. Without Nashville, Taylor Swift wouldn’t exist – not literally, of course, because she could have easily have been born in Memphis or whatever, but her sound, that blend of pop and country, the production of it, using smoother background vocals and radio-friendly instruments actually originated in 1950, pioneered by the staff at Decca, RCA and Columbia Records. Now 90% of that sound you hear on the radio is a continuation of that Nashville Sound. Where to go to catch an earful of Nashville? The Bluebird Café is a local favorite, a 90-seat space that has been graced some of the most important musicians of the latter part of the last century: Garth Brooks was discovered at the Bluebird Café, LeAnn Rimes mingled there with the songwriters behind Carrie Underwood’s biggest hit; Carrie Underwood has played a set. Another stop on the Nashville music circuit is the Station Inn, 40 year old bluegrass and country club which was a regular stomping ground for more earthy and roots performers like Alison Krauss, Jimmy Martin and Bill Monroe.

2. Austin

Austin, Texas, located at the intersection of country and rock, and jazz and blues, has an interesting music scene that is constantly keeping up with the newest sounds. From the ‘30s on, it was jazz and blues; while country music kept its Texas claws in Austin. As the more liberal city in the South at the time, people like Willie Nelson found a home in Austin. Janis Joplin was born and raised, went away and came back, mixed psychedelics with the blues. The anti-establishment was beginning their descent – in the form of the psychedelic 13th Floor Elevators, and then punk and new wave; soon everyone who could carve out a niche for themselves in this wild west of genre-bending did, whether it was ska, contemporary blues, reggae, indie, prog rock, whatever. The Police, Blondie, the Talking Heads, the Clash, and Elvis Costello made regular stops to play the Armadillo World Headquarters, one of the more important music halls at the time. Now we’ve got SXSW, a hub of youth culture and constant gardener of the newest sights and sounds. There are no city limits to Austin anymore – it’s a globalized community accepting of all good things and all good music. Is it any wonder it’s the live music capital of America?

1. Memphis

The blues have always existed, but Memphis draped a new sound over it and made it commercially viable. Recently, Travel and Leisure wrote a piece about the best Live Music Cities in the States and somehow left off the River City, and nearly every commenter, even non-Memphis residents, let them have it. Commenters are brutal; anonymous music loving commenters more so. You don’t forget Memphis soul and blues, and you don’t forget Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Wilson Pickett, and Aretha Franklin, all who got their start playing around Memphis in the 1950’s and ‘60s. You certainly don’t forget that Justin Timberlake, the man we will always honor for bringing Sexy Back, is from Memphis, which makes sense, because Memphis Soul is just, sexy. Like Al Green’s "Let’s Stay Together", and Ann Peebles’ "I Can’t Stand the Rain", those clean horn lines and soft, sultry falsetto. And the swagger – never mind walking down the street to Booker T and the M.G’s "Green Onions", Memphis was the birthplace of the inimitable Elvis Presley; the place where BB King turned from a Mississippi native into the Beale Street Blues Boy. Get a sense of the King’s playground at B.B. King’s Blues Club (on Beale, where else?) or see the new Memphis scene at the Hi-Tone Cafe in Midtown, which combines all genres with great burgers and made-to-order pizzas.

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