Top 10 American Rock-n-Roll Cities

If you were an 80s hair metal band on tour through the hinterlands, it was easy to pump your fist onstage and proclaim “of all the towns we’ve played, this is the rockin-est town of ‘em all!” It was a cheap, risk-free maneuver—this was before the Internet was available for fact-checking, and no righteous hometown metal head would challenge such a claim. But like so many of the epic metaphysical questions raised by the 80s hair metal movement (RATT or Winger?; Aqua Net or Rave?; nature or nurture?), the seemingly simple query of America’s Best Rock-n-Roll City seems eternally vexing.

Sociologists have studied it, mayors have debated it, and John Cougar sang about it—but nobody has definitively answered it. Until now.

That’s right. The editors of Weeping Elvis have stepped into the fray to rank America’s Top Rock-n-Roll Cities. We’ve combed through the archives, listened to the radio stations, and thrown-up in the clubs—all so that you, the rock listener, can have an authoritative guide to the American Rock Landscape.

In addition to the subjective opinions of our Editorial Board, we’ve tried to keep it as objective as possible by giving points for bands from the town, musical styles spawned by the town, current musical scenes, and great radio stations.

So gas up the car and crank up the tunes, these are the Top Ten Rock-n-Roll Cities in America:

10. Minneapolis, MN (tie)

“I can always trace it back to that night in Minneapolis” – Lucinda Williams

Maybe it’s the long winters, maybe it’s because people needed something to do while their cars warmed up, and huddling around the hi-fi player was as good as it got, but something spawned a surprisingly vibrant music scene in an otherwise 2,000-mile musical wasteland on I-90 between Lake Michigan and Seattle.

Bona Fides: Bob Dylan (via Hibbing, via Greenwich Village), Prince, The Suburbs, Hüsker Dü, The Replacements, The Geardaddies, The Jayhawks, Soul Asylum, Atmosphere, Tapes ‘n Tapes.

Points Off For: Hey 612—where have you been since the Replacements broke up? Also, Yanni.

Current Scene: The Current 89.3 is arguably the best radio station in America, First Avenue (and 7th Street Entry) has launched more punk and indie careers than most arenas ever see. Plus Electric Fetus is as good an independently owned record store as you’ll find anywhere.

 

10. Nashville, TN(tie)

Kings of Leon

“Nashville’s where you go, to see if what is said is so” –Drive-By Truckers

Just when you think that Nashville is a one-trick musical pony, a  second glance reveals a raw, beating rock-n-roll heart beneath the city’s schmaltzy Music Row veneer. Consider this: Bob Dylan recorded one of rock’s greatest albums—Blonde on Blonde—in Nashville. Gene Vincent recorded “Be Bop A Lula,” here as well, not long before Roy Orbison laid down “Only the Lonely” in RCA Studio B. Plus, the annual Bonnaroo Music Festival takes place in a field a little over an hour away.

There’s a reason that Jack White, both Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney of The Black Keys, and Ben Folds relocated to Nashvegas: this town rocks.

In addition to honky-tonks like The Station Inn, The Bluebird Café, and (the sadly tourist-ridden) Tootsie’s, Nashville hosts some classic rock music venues, including The Ryman Auditorium (aka, “The Mother Church,” which may be the most acoustically perfect building in America), The Exit Inn, The Cannery Ballroom, The Mercy Lounge, Cantrell’s (which closed years ago, but defined Nashville’s underground in the 80’s), The Muse (for hard core punk), Roberts Western Wear and The End (f/k/a Elliston Square).

Bona Fides:  Jason and (the Nashville) Scorchers, Webb Wilder and the Beatniks, Steve Earle, BR-549, The Kings of Leon, Be Your Own Pet, Jeff the Brotherhood, the Features, Paramore.

Points Off For: Modern country, being the town that fired Johnny Cash.

Current Scene:  Despite the loss of Vanderbilt’s iconic college radio station WRVU 91.1, the “City without a Subway” soldiers on with super hip venues like Third Man Records (Jack White’s Studio, which features the live venue The Blue Room), United Record Pressing, Hatch Show Prints (a moveable-type print shop which has printed posters for everyone from Patsy Cline to The Pixies), and the spectacular Grimey’s New & Preloved Music record store (and its live venue The Basement).

9.  Athens, GA

R.E.M.

“Vacation in Athens is calling…” – R.E.M.

There’s something in the water here on the Georgia Piedmont. In fairly short order, this small college town gave rise to the campy, quirky majesty of a dance act like the B-52s and then, the chiming Byrds-esque harmonies of R.E.M., arguably the greatest American rock band of all time. Athens stays relevant to this day, from the Elephant 6 collective to the bizarre pageantry of Kevin Barnes’ Of Montreal.

Bona Fides: The majestic 40 Watt Club, B-52s, R.E.M., Love Tractor, Pylon, Dreams So Real, Vic Chestnut, Sugar, Neutral Milk Hotel, Olivia Tremor Control, Drive-By Truckers (via Muscle Shoals), Of Montreal, Wuxtry Records, WUOG 90.5.

Genres/Scenes: Jangle pop/”kudzu rock.”

8. Boston, MA

The Pixies

“I love that dirty water. Oh, Boston, you’re my home!” – The Standells

“I’m shipping up to Boston” –Woody Guthrie/The Dropkick Murphys

Boston’s musical pedigree was given a huge boost in the late 80s and early 90s as a new crop or Generation X indie kids rescued the city’s music scene from a death spiral of classic rock myopia.

Bona Fides: Dick Dale, Jonathan Richman, Aerosmith, J. Geils Band, Boston, The Cars, The Del Fuegos, Aimee Mann/Til Tuesday, Gang Green, The Pixies, Dinosaur, Jr., Juliana Hatfield/Blake Babies, The Lemonheads, Buffalo Tom, Tracy Chapman, Guster, Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Dropkick Murphys, Passion Pit.

Points Off For: Aerosmith, Steven Tyler, James Taylor. Also, Steven Tyler.

 

7. San Francisco, CA

http://www.wolfgangsvault.com/jefferson-airplane/poster-art/poster/BG100.html

“If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.” – Scott McKenzie

Ah, the psychedelic San Francisco Sound of the late Sixties: Bill Graham’s Fillmore, the Grateful Dead, Haight-Ashbury, Jefferson Airplane, the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Tests, Sly & the Family Stone, Janis Joplin, mass “happenings” in Golden Gate Park, Blue Cheer (the acid and the band). Not to mention El Cerrito’s Creedence Clearwater Revival (arguably the Bay Area’s greatest band).

How do you top an over-the-top music and cultural legacy like that? If you’re Jello Biafra and the Dead Kennedys (arguably the Bay Area’s greatest band), you don’t even try—you categorically reject it, thereby rebelling against the previous generation’s rebellion. And this SF punk rock ethic continues to this day (particularly in the East Bay) with Rancid, Green Day, and NOFX.

Bona Fides: Grateful Dead, Sly Stone, Jefferson Airplane, Doobie Brothers, Pointer Sisters, The DKs, Chris Isaak (via Stockton), Primus, Faith No More, Counting Crows, Green Day, Rancid, Brian Jonestown Massacre, Donnas.

Points Off For: Journey (we’re still not buying it, neither nostalgically nor ironically); “We Built This City on Rock-n-Roll” by Starship (perhaps the worst song in history, yet the city took no legal action to disassociate itself).

6. Seattle, WA

“Frances Farmer will have her revenge on Seattle” – Nirvana

Long before Mudhoney and Pearl Jam ever donned the flannel, brought punk sensibilities to heavy metal, and started singing two octaves lower than normal, there was a first wave of Seattle scenesters who cranked up the amps and brought the fuzz. Seattle practically invented garage rock—from the rollicking surf guitar picking of The Ventures to the Leslie amp fueled buzz attack of The Sonics and The Kingsmen (who forever entered rock lore by having their cover version of “Louie Louie” banned in cities throughout the US).

Does Seattle have street cred? Well, let’s see. It was here that Ray Charles got off the bus from Georgia and changed popular music forever. Then Jimi painted the sky with purple feedback and reshuffled the musical DNA of generations to come. Then came grunge, and its feminine response, the Riot Grrrrl movement with Olympia’s Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney (who we still “heart”). And or course, it was here that Kurt Cobain plugged a Fender Jaguar into his veins and saved rock-n-roll. Again.

Plus, for good measure, right under the Space Needle rests perhaps the best music museum in the US—the Experience Music Project. So yeah, Seattle’s got chops.

Bona Fides: Quincy Jones, The Ventures, The Sonics, The Kingsmen, Jimi Hendrix, Heart, Young Fresh Fellows, Sub Pop Records, Green River, Mother Love Bone, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Screaming Trees, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Mudhoney, Sunny Day Real Estate, Death Cab for Cutie, Band of Horses (via SC), Fleet Foxes.

Scenes: Garage Rock. Grunge

Points Off For: Resting on its laurels for a decade after Grunge. Inspiring a wave of copycat Diet Grunge bands like Silverchair.

Current Scene: A generally nurturing (and non-jealous) environment where local radio and local bands actually support local artists. KEXP 90.3, EMP, KNDD The End 107.7, The Crocodile in Belltown, Easy Street Records.

 

5. Austin, TX

“When the sun goes down on Austin town, that’s when I’ll know I’m home.” – The Old 97s

Austin's Spoon

Though the days of legendary venues like the Armadillo World Headquarters are long gone, the “Live Music Capitol of the World” boasts great venues up and down Fifth and Sixth Streets (and elsewhere) that nightly bellow a wide range of blues, Tejano, country, rock and punk into the Hill Country sky.  The residents of Austin take their music very, very seriously, as evidenced by not one, but two upper echelon music festivals—South by Southwest and the Austin City Limits Festival.

Bona Fides: 13th Floor Elevators, Austin City Limits (the longest running TV show in US history!), Stevie Ray Vaughn, The Violators, Lucinda Williams, The Sword, The Reivers, Daniel Johnston, Spoon, Okkervil River, Voxtrot, …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead. Also, it’s where The Clash shot the video for “Rock the Casbah.”

 

Points Off For: Not cultivating more home-grown Austin bands that are from Austin, rather than transplants.

Current Scene:

SxSW, ACL Festival, ACL Live at The Moody Theater, The Continental Club, KGSR 93.3, the singularly fabulous Waterloo Records, Emo’s, KVRX 91.7.

 

 

 

4. Chicago, IL

“Things will be better in Chicago” – Tom Waits

This is the town that Muddy Watters and Howlin’ Wolf moved to, in order to bring the world their music. Enough said.

Bona Fides: Chess Records, Curtis Mayfield, The Staples Singers, Chicago Transit Authority, Big Black, Naked Raygun, The Jesus Lizard, Smashing Pumpkins, Eleventh Dream Day, Ministry, Liz Phair, Material Issue, Urge Overkill, Wilco, Kanye West, Lupe Fiasco, Umphrey’s McGee.

 

 

 

Current Scene: Reckless Records in Wicker Park, the eternal Caboret Metro, The Elbo Room,  the timeless and utterly unique WXRT 93.1, Schubas.

Points Off For: Styx, Peter Cetera-era Chicago, The Blues Brothers.

 

 

 

 

3. Los Angeles, CA

“It’s 5 AM and you are listening… to Los Angeles.” – Soul Coughing

John Doe and Exene of LA Legendary band X, by Laura Levine

What can you say about America’s second largest city and the rock scenes it has spawned? Where do you start? In terms of rock geography alone, the number of rock landmarks is astonishing–The Riot House on Sunset, Hollywood Bowl, The Capitol Records Building, The Whiskey, Viper Room, The Greek Theater.

A city with this rich a history could easily rest on its laurels. LA keeps reinventing itself.

Bona Fides: The Beach Boys, The Mamas and The Papas, The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, The Doors, War, The Eagles, Warren Zevon, X, The Germs, The Go-Gos, Los Lobos, Black Flag, The Circle Jerks, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Thelonious Monster, Concrete Blonde, Fishbone, Jane’s Addiction, Guns-n-Roses, Bad Religion, NWA, Beck, Silversun Pickups, Airborne Toxic Event. (And this doesn’t even include O.C. bands like Social Distortion, Face to Face, Sublime.)

Points Off For: The Eagles, having to drive after a show, Indie 103.1 going off the air.

Musical Genres and Scenes: Laurel Canyon Sound, LA Punk, Hair Metal, Silverlake.

Current Scene:  The saintly KCRW 89.9, The Echoplex, The Troubadour, Rodney on the ROQAmoeba Records—the mother of all record stores.

 

2. New York, NY

The Ramones at CBGBs, 1977 (Photo by Ebet Roberts,https://www.morrisonhotelgallery.com/photo/default.aspx?photographID=7363)

“New York’s Alright if You Like Saxophones” – Fear

“I’ll always love you though, New York.” – Ryan Adams

New York’s rock pedigree is unassailable. From the Brill Building to the Chelsea Hotel to Max’s Kansas City to Warhol’s Factory to CBGBs to The Mud Club to Electric Ladyland Studios to the bathroom stalls of Studio 54–this city is the glitter-filled gutter and dark throbbing loins of the dirty, sexy, glamorous, dangerous rock-n-roll ethic.

It would be hip to assert that New York no longer matters to the rock scene. After all, Manhattan has become an increasingly sterilized strip mall with Citibanks where gritty, authentic landmarks used to be. Yes, the cutting-edge artists and musicians have long been priced out of the market by stockbrokers and trustfunders. Yes, Brooklyn is the new epicenter of the U.S. indie rock scene. And New York FM radio is (and has always been) a sonically soulless wasteland.

But on any given weekday night in Manhattan, you can wander into a club in the East Village and Lower East Side and still have your face melted. This hunk of granite in the Hudson still has a vibrant, offbeat urgency that continues to fuel its rock-n-roll vitality.

So we’re not giving up on you New York City. Just don’t give up on us, either!

Bona Fides: Bob Dylan (via MN), Simon & Garfunkel, The Shangri-Las, The Ronettes, The Velvet Underground, The New York Dolls, KISS, Richard Hell & The Voidoids, Patti Smith, Television, Talking Heads, The Ramones, Blondie, Grandmaster Flash, A Tribe Called Quest, Sonic Youth, Billie Holliday, Pete Seeger, Blonde Redhead, LCD Soundsystem, Jay-Z, Africa Bambaataa, Run-DMC, Public Enemy, Beastie Boys, The Strokes, Interpol, Wu-Tan Clan, Gogol Bordello, and yes, Lady Gaga.

Musical Genres: New York is the birthplace of American Folk, Punk and Hip-Hop. Top that, bitches!

Points Off For: Billy Joel; Billy Joel fanatics.

The Strokes

Current Scene: Very few cities have the rich array of cool rock venues that New York boasts—Bowery Ballroom, Irving Plaza, Mercury Lounge, Cake Shop, Fontana’s, Lakeside Lounge, Pianos—each booked with multiple bands every night of every week. And great record stores like Bleecker Street Records and Bleecker Bobs still thrive.

Brooklyn

“Brooklyn, Brooklyn, take me in.” – The Avett Brothers

In these turbulent economic times, not all bands start off independently wealthy like The Strokes, able to afford a lifestyle of A-list models, vintage rock t-shirts and expensive Manhattan apartments. That’s why over the past 10 years, artists of all stripes, especially musicians, have been migrating to New York City’s most populous borough, making it the de factoepicenter of the indie-verse.

Craig Finn of The Hold Steady

Bona Fides: KRS-One, They Might Be Giants, Mos Def, MGMT, The Hold Steady, The Dirty Projectors, Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, Grizzly Bear, TV on the Radio, Japanther, Matt & Kim, The National, Les Savy Fav, The Fiery Furnaces.

Current Scene: Music Hall of Williamsburg, Warsaw (the Polish National Home by day), Brooklyn Bowl, Sound Fix Records, Ear Wax Records.

Points Off For: Barry Manilow, insufferable Williamsburg hipsters in safety glasses, sincerity beards, and cardigans intent on ruining indie music with cute, twee, Librarian Rock (ee, Grizzly Bear).

1. Detroit, MI

“Don’t forget the Motor City… this was supposed to be the New World.” –X

“You gotta lose your mind in Detroit, Rock City” – KISS

 

Wayne Kramer of the MC5

Just what the hell the Rock Hall of Fame is doing in Cleveland, we’ll never know. It ought to be in Detroit.

The depth of Detroit’s impact on America’s musical psyche is staggering. This town doesn’t just spawn artists, it spawns entire genres. At Motown Records’ “Hitsville, USA,” Berry Gordy and the Funk Brothers created a common language for black and white America that bridged a cultural divide during a time of strife. Most cities could rest on their musical laurels based on that accomplishment alone.

But Detroit kept going: Northern Soul artists, while commercially disappointing at the time, begat a cult following for decades half a world away in Northern England. And without the mighty MC5 and Sir Iggy, we would have never had punk rock. Plus, the Motor City also gave the music world its biggest female pop artist of all time and probably the greatest rapper for good measure. And, for good measure, why not throw in The White Stripes, who helped reclaim rock-n-roll for a new generation at the turn of this century? Hell even “The Twist” was invented in Detroit (thank you Hank Ballard)!

Hard times have befallen the Motor City– white flight, urban blight, government bailouts… not to mention the hapless Lions. But musically, the city roars like a vintage muscle car, tear-assin’ out of the Midwest to transport us to the rock-n-roll Promised Land.

Just as the auto industry has reinvented itself and downtown Detroit has become a virtual laboratory of imaginative urban renewal experimentation, the Motor City’s music scene continues to evolve, emerge and surprise.

Bona Fides: Hank Ballard, Bill Haley, Little Anthony & the Imperials, Jackie Wilson, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, Diana Ross & The Supremes, The Temptations, Martha & The Vandellas, The Four Tops, Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels, Iggy Pop, The MC5, CREEM Magazine, Alice Cooper, Bob Seger, Ted Nugent, Madonna, Don Was, The White Stripes, Eminem, The Dirt Bombs, Detroit Cobras, The Majestic Theater/Magic Stick.

Musical Genres Spawned: Motown, Northern Soul, Protopunk, Psycho-Blues

Points Off For: Kid Rock, who is neither a kid, nor does he rock.

The White Stripes (Photo by Annie Liebowitz)

Iggy Pop

Worst Rock-n-Roll City in America: (Tie—Pittsburgh and Miami)

Pittsburgh

PIttsburgh's Gregg Gillis, a/k/a Girl Talk

How can a city with this much grit, spirit, and authenticity have spawned such an anemic musical output? Girl Talk is incredible, but at the end of the day, he’s a DJ. Thus, the Steel City’s lasting gift to the rock-n-roll cannon is, um, Donnie Iris. Not to mention WDVE, the city’s premier FM station, whose dinosaur rock play-list hasn’t been updated since 1981 and would be a Spinal Tap-esque joke, except for the fact that nobody in Pittsburgh is in on it.

Miami

Somebody please turn down the ooontz-ooontz-ooontz club music and inform Miami that Rock-n-Roll was invented.

Punching Above its Weight:

Akron, OH

Devo, Chrissie Hynde, The Black Keys—not too shabby for the former Rubber Capitol of America.

Muscle Shoals, AL

Muscle Shoals Studios— 3416 Jackson Highway, The Swampers, Drive-By Truckers (pre-Athens; Patterson Hood of the Truckers is the son of David Hood, the Swampers’ bassist). This is the town where The Stones birthed “Brown Sugar” and Wild Horses,” where Skynyrd recorded “Street Survivors,” and The Black Keys laid down their Grammy-winning Brothers album.

Dayton, OH

Ohio Players, Kim & Kelly Deal, Lou Barlow, Guided by Voices

A Brief Word on Memphis and New Orleans: 

Memphishas a storied American musical tradition that predates even Delta Blues, and obviously includes Sun Records, Elvis Presley, and the glorious Southern Soul of Stax/Volt Records (and its house band Booker T & The MGs). However, with the exception of Alex Chilton and Jay Reatard, where have you been since Isaac Hayes recorded “Shaft”

New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz, zydeco, and other American music forms. It is second to no city in the world in terms of the central role of music to its civic DNA. Rock-n-Roll just isn’t a major part of its genetic code.

 

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