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Get your groove on in the best music cities in the US

Whether you want to breakdance on the block, shake your tail feather to country, or head-bang while rocking out, the US is home to many of the best music cities in the world. 

With a long history of migration leading to an incredible melding of cultures, the US can lay claim to being the birthplace of a wide variety of popular music genres. In fact, its music tells the story of this great heritage and of its people, drawn from every corner of the world. So for any music lover, a US getaway offers up countless opportunities to discover the sounds of a city, the history of music in a place, and an endless sonic heritage.

Best music cities in the US

It feels as though every city, from the largest to the smallest (we see you with your jazz festival, Carson City, NV) has a musical heritage and famous faces who have been entertaining the world since rock ‘n’ roll landed its first guitar strum.

Best music cities in the US

We love a musical city at SoundAround Tours – music history courses through our veins like a riff from a Fender Stratocaster, so join us, as we take you to the best music cities in the US.

1. Rock Around the Clock in Memphis

It is not a leap to say that if not for Memphis, modern music in the US would be very different today. With gospel, rhythm and blues, rock ‘n’ roll, and soul all having their origin story in the city, Memphis is a big hitter worthy of any music traveler’s list.

Beale Street in Memphis
Beale Street in Memphis

Long before Elvis shook his hips and made Memphis famous, other artists were laying down the foundational sounds that would become rock ‘n’ roll. Composer W.C. Handy, known as the Father of the Blues, was wowing the world with his songs “Memphis Blues” and “St. Louis Blues” in 1914. Then, between the 1920s and 1940s, countless musicians made their mark in and around Black-owned Beale Street, developing an intrinsically Memphis blues sound which gave rise to rock ‘n’ roll.

While many believe the first rock n’ roll song was recorded in Memphis, there is much debate as to which song came first.

When Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm arrived at Sam Phillips’ Memphis Recording Studio, later renamed Sun Studio, they had a broken bass amp after it fell off the truck on their way up from Mississippi. Phillips stuffed the broken amp with paper, and the resulting distorted guitar sound on their song “Rocket 88” became a hallmark for the new musical genre of rock ‘n’ roll. It is interesting to note that Ike Turner did not believe the song was the first rock song, but rather an R&B song that “is the cause of rock n’ roll’s existence.”

While the song was erroneously released under the name of Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, its influence is legendary, paving the way for local teen, Elvis Presley and more, to take rock ‘n’ roll to the world.

There are others though that say another famous Sun Studio recording is the first rock n’ roll song. In 1954, an unknown Memphis teen named Elvis Presley did a session there with guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black, in what became known as the Blue Moon Boys recording session.

After struggling to record several ballads that just were not clicking, the group took a break. A nervous Elvis started releasing his pent up energy on an Arthur Crudup song he loved. Typically played in a slow blues style, Elvis sped it up on his rhythm guitar and added a bit of country flair. Sam Philips liked what he heard and captured Elvis’s version of “That’s All Right, Mama.”

He gave the record to local DJ Dewey Phillips at local radio station WHBQ and the phones rang off the hook as kids around Memphis called to hear the song over and over.

Elvis Presley
Elvis Presley

By the 1960s and 1970s, it was soul music that pumped out of Memphis. Stax Records formed in 1961, and in 15 years saw more than 167 hits in the Top 100 pop charts, and a staggering 243 hits in the Top 100 R&B charts from artists including Otis Reading, Sam & Dave, Carla Thomas, Rufus Thomas, Issac Hayes, Booker T and the M.G.s, and The Staples Singers.

Unusually for the times, Stax Records’ house band included Black and white musicians, and the studio was famous for its blending of musical genres.

Perhaps early music pioneers like W.C. Handy couldn’t have anticipated the impact their music was set to have. Yet, you can trace the early sounds of Memphis through to most popular music today.

Memphis musicians

W.C. Handy, Elvis Presley, BB King, Louis Armstrong, Memphis Minnie, Otis Redding, The Staple Singers, Al Green, Aretha Franklin, Ike & Tina Turner, Booker T. & the M.Gs, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carla Thomas, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins.

Top Memphis music attractions

2. Move to the beat in New York City

You don’t have to say the name of this city twice! New York is synonymous with music, be that doo-wap, punk rock, soul, disco, or hip hop.

This vibrant city has been a melting pot for people from all over the world, and with it, they brought countless musical styles that have risen up from the streets of the Seven Boroughs to take over the world.

New York
New York is home to hip hop

Though George Gershwin helped transition popular music on the city’s Broadway stages from classical to more contemporary forms like jazz and blues in the 1920s, it has always been New York’s underground scene, that has delivered its culture-defining music.

Take for example, the Harlem Renaissance era, of the inter-war years, which led to increased interest in African American art and music. Adding a little jazz to the blues, New York artists like Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker’s music evolved into be-bop. Then singing groups like The Cadillacs and The Drifters rose from the sidewalks to the clubs with their doo-wap harmonies.

Home to iconic venues like The Cotton Club, Studio 54, and CBGB, which spurred sub-cultural movements, such as disco and punk, New York led the way, changed the game, and reinvented so much of modern music.

Jay-Z is as New York as hip hop itself | Photo: imagepressagency

And that was even before a little thing called hip hop began to bubble away on the blocks of the Bronx in the 1970s. Starting out as a cultural exchange between Latinos, Caribbeans, and African Americans at block parties where DJs would spin soul music, hip hop grew to become one of the most influential music genres of 20th century.

New York’s The Sugarhill Gang is said to be responsible for first taking hip hop to the mainstream with the song “Rapper’s Delight”. Meanwhile other NY artists like LL Cool J, Notorious B.I.G, and megastar Jay-Z have ensured it stayed there.

New York Musicians

Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Blondie, The Velvet Underground, Patti Smith, Jay-Z, LL Cool J, Lil’ Kim, Notorious B.I.G, Nas, 50 Cent, Joey Bada$$, Alicia Keys, Luther Vandross, Wu Tang Clan, Beastie Boys, Lady GaGa, Billy Joel, Run D.M.C., De La Soul.

Top New York music attractions

Strawberry Fields
Strawberry Fields is a memorial to John Lennon in Central Park

3. Make for the Twin Cities for The Minneapolis Sound

A Midwest town covered in ice and snow for much of the year may seem an unlikely home for a ground-breaking music genre. With Scandinavian and German immigrants primarily settling there, Minnesota was best known in the 1920s for The Andrews Sisters and as the birthplace of Judy Garland, but not as one of the best music cities in the US.

In the 1960s, two Minneapolis-recorded songs broke the Top 10 charts – “Surfin’ Bird” by The Trashmen in 1963 and “Liar, Liar” by The Castaways the next year. But it is safe to say that through the 1960s, Minneapolis was not the place where most people looked for the next big thing in music. That all changed by the 1980s.

Minnepolis is one of the best music cities in the US

The story of how a sub-genre of funk, rock, new wave, and R’n’B, came into being is a fascinating one. The city of Minneapolis had a small but thriving African American community, who fled the oppression of Jim Crow laws of the South.

While the North offered the promise of a better life, many African Americans found a more subtle, but still oppressive, form of segregation in the Twin Cities. Housing covenants prevented Black families from living in many areas resulting in the development of distinct African American neighborhoods on the city’s Northside and Southside. Black musicians were limited to where they could perform, and there were no dedicated Black radio stations in town. These unique factors created a crucible under which talented, young musicians growing up in Minneapolis in the 1960s and 1970s created the new sounds fueled by both Black and white musical styles.

Musician Prince from Minneapolis
Prince was a pioneer of The Minneapolis Sound | Photo: Northfoto

Of course, every movement needs a leader. The Minneapolis Sound was led by none other than Prince, who used his prowess as a multi-instrumentalist, coupled with new technology of the 1980s, like the LinnDrum machine and Polymoog synthesizers, to lay the foundations of the genre. His 1980 album, Dirty Mind, is a cornerstone moment for the genre’s development.

Prince was surrounded by many talented musicians in Minneapolis, with the likes of Morris Day and The Time, Sue Ann Carwell, Cynthia Johnson, Garry “Jellybean” Johnson, Pepe Willie, and Sonny Thompson all helping to mould The Minneapolis Sound.

By the mid-1980s, not only was Prince topping the charts with his synthed-up songs, but other artists propelled The Minneapolis Sound forward, most notably Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Their work with Janet Jackson, whose first five albums embodied and evolved The Minneapolis Sound, along with others such as Alexander O’Neill, Sounds of Blackness, and the S.O.S. Band helped to solidify the genre’s importance in popular culture.

Janet Jackson
Janet Jackson’s early albums embodied The Minneapolis Sound | Photo: Everett225

Minneapolis though, isn’t only known for its funky rock. Folk legend Bob Dylan’s musical journey began in the city when he attended the University of Minnesota in 1959.

Dylan, Spider John Koerner, and Leo Kottke honed their musical skills in the coffee houses and bars in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood.

While Dylan quickly left Minnesota to go to New York City in the early 1960s to follow in his hero Woody Guthrie’s footsteps, he kept connections to Minneapolis. In 1974, he rented out Sound 80’s Studio 1 to re-record five songs for his album Blood on the Tracks. Heralded as one of his best albums, it was his collaboration with the studio engineers and session musicians at Sound 80 that made the album a classic.

Minneapolis mural paying homage to Bob Dylan

It was also during this time that live venues like Kelly’s Pub and Jay’s Long Horn Bar brought in national punk and rock acts that inspired The Suicide Commandos, godfathers to Minneapolis’ successful alternative rock groups of the 1980s and 1990s like The Suburbs, The Replacements, Babes in Toyland, Hüsker Dü, and Soul Asylum. 

Minneapolis musicians

Prince, Bob Dylan, Morris Day & The Time, The Family, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Janet Jackson, The Jets, Alexander O’Neill, The Suicide Commandoes, The Replacements, Soul Asylum, Babes in Toyland, Hüsker Dü.

Top Minneapolis Music Attractions

  • Paisley Park – Prince’s home and studios.
  • SoundAround’s Prince Tour – learn more about Prince’s Minneapolis.
  • First Avenue – discover the club where Purple Rain was filmed and its anthemic title song was recorded.
  • Sound 80 Studios at Orfield Labs – home to the first digital recording in the world to win a Grammy and where Prince, Dylan, and Cat Stevens recorded. Orfield Labs also contains The World’s Quietest Room.
  • Schmidt Music Wall – stand at the iconic spot where Prince was photographed as a pre-fame teen.
  • Bunkers – live music six nights a week with a host of hot resident bands.
  • Dakota Jazz Club – for dinner and jazz.
  • Twin Cities Jazz Festival in June.

4. Dance in the streets in Detroit

It may be known as the Motor City, but make no mistake – the world of music owes much to the sound of Detroit. It is famed for its Motown Sound, a combination of R’n’B, pop, and soul and countless hits that propelled the careers of many Black artists in the 1960s and 1970s.

Before then, the city was once a key jazz hub of the North, attracting Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Sonny Stitt, Ahmad Jamal, and Horace Silver to the shores of the Detroit River.

Diana Ross and Berry Gordy | Jean Rouse

But it was when producer Berry Gordy Jr founded Tamla Records in 1959 that Detroit’s home-grown music success exploded. The label, which later became known as Motown Records, pumped out chart toppers fueled by an in-house hit-making team.

Gordy was an innovative businessman who built artists’ careers and marketed them with the speed of production and finesse of the motor car factories that gave Detroit its moniker. As the famous Motor City was transformed by the artists coming out of Motown, Gordy bestowed upon Detroit a new nickname: “Hitsville USA”.

Detroit was transformed in the 1960s from just Motor City to a music city of the USA by the influence of Motown Records

But Motown is not the city’s only claim to fame. Other great names also grew out of Detroit’s musical mix – George Clinton (a former Motown writer), Madonna, and rapper Eminem all hail from the city. And it would be remiss not to mention Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin, who was born in Memphis, but made her home in Detroit and drew many performers to the city to record with her.

Detroit musicians

Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Martha Reeves & The Vandellas, George Clinton, Madonna, Iggy Pop, Eminem, John Lee Hooker, Alice Cooper, Anita Baker, Lizzo, Aaliyah, Jack White.

Top Detroit Music Attractions

5. Jazz it up in New Orleans

We’ve mentioned how jazz influenced music in many US cities, but New Orleans is the undisputed epicenter of the art form.

Music is omnipresent in New Orleans. It oozes from every venue of the city’s French Quarter, and snakes along its streets lined with brass bands and idle buskers, much like the Mississippi River that flows through it, making New Orleans one of the most vibrant music cities in the US.

New Orleans jazz performer
New Orleans jazz performer

With Creole and Cajan culture flowing from the bayous of Louisiana into the city, New Orleans also delivers side dishes of zydeco (an intrinsically Louisiana take on rhythm and blues), and brass band music.

Heard in any New Orleans’ Second Line, brass music has been popularised by the likes of Trombone Shorty, the Hot 8, and the Dirty Dozen, who refuse to let this style of jazz become a relic of the past. In fact, their funky brass takes on modern songs to bring the form right up to the present.

New Orleans
The French Quarter in New Orleans is a hive of music

In the 1990s, the city emerged as a lab for hip hop, pioneered by No Limit Records, founded by local rapper Master P and Cash Money Records. They produced dozens of albums by New Orleans rappers including the likes of Mystikal, Master P, and Lil Wayne.

The city is also known for the development of bounce music, a very New Orleans style of rap. Interjecting Native American Mardi Gras chants, electro dance beats, vocoded raps, and call and response elements, bounce was pioneered by rappers like Big Freedia.

Big Freedia
Acts like Big Freedia have brought New Orleans bounce to hip hop | Photo: imagepressagency

New Orleans Musicians

Louis Armstrong, Irma Thomas, Fats Domino, Allen Toussaint, Dr. John, Harry Connick Jr, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Mahalia Jackson, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Hot 8 Brass Band, Trombone Shorty, Big Freedia, The Neville Brothers.

Top New Orleans Music Attractions

6. Go a little bit country in Nashville – Music City USA

They don’t call Nashville Music City USA for nothing! The home of bluegrass and country, Nashville has long drawn visitors connected by their passion for music. As early as the 1800s, Nashville became a center for music publishing.

While famous for country music, Nashville also had its equivalent of Memphis’ Beale Street – Jefferson Street – which, by the 1930s, became a hub for rhythm and blues, with Black musicians pumping out tunes from speakeasies, supper clubs, and bars.

Nashville is home to bluegrass and country

Nashville wears its moniker well and you’ll find music seeping out of every honky tonk bar through to more sophisticated venues like the historic Ryman Auditorium. Head to the famous RCA Studio B and you can get a feel for the music that made the city.

Today, though country still rules the airwaves in Nashville, it’s not the only sound of the city with hip hop talent, like Isaiah Rashad, coming through to claim their place in the city’s music hall of fame.

Nightlife in Nashville
Nightlife in Nashville

Nashville musicians

Dolly Parton, Chet Atkins, Kitty Wells, Patsy Cline, Roseanne Cash, Etta James, Miley Cyrus, Isaiah Rashad, Taylor Swift, Jack White.

Top music attractions in Nashville

7. Journey from the blues to house in Chicago

The Windy City has one of the most fascinating stories in American music history as it takes us on a journey from the blues through to modern house music.

Chicago – home to blues and house music

With large numbers of African Americans leaving the South in search of better opportunities during the Great Migration (from 1910-1970), Chicago attracted thousands of people, bringing with them the sound of the Mississippi Delta.

That sound evolved and modernized amid the hubbub of the cold North. Chicago blues became influenced by the use of amplified, electric instruments led by legendary musicians like Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Bo Diddly, Koko Taylor, and Howlin’ Wolf.

The city’s sounds evolved once more, as R’n’B and soul morphed into disco. Chicago band Earth, Wind & Fire famously took their R’n’B and rock-fused disco to the masses, championing its evolution into club music.

Green Day at Lollapalooza
Green Day at Lollapalooza | Photo: Shea Flynn for Lollapalooza

Then, in the 1980s, Chicago DJs like Frankie Knuckles, often referred to as the Godfather of House, took disco and infused it with electro funk, synth pop, and hip hop to create the blueprint of today’s house music.

Chicago musicians

Jennifer Hudson, Frankie Knuckles, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Bo Diddly, Koko Taylor, Howlin’ Wolf, Chicago, Earth, Wind & Fire, Common, Mavis Staples, Sam Cooke, Kanye West, Herbie Hancock, The Smashing Pumpkins, Lupe Fiasco.

Top Chicago music attractions

8. Discover future soul in Atlanta

Atlanta’s rise to become a music city of note was understated but powerful, much like the music and artists that have put it on the map.

All roads lead to Atlanta for music of the 21st century

In 2009, the New York Times stated that after 2000, Atlanta moved from the margins to becoming hip hop’s center of gravity, as part of a larger shift in hip hop innovation in the South. Artists like Outkast, T.I., and Ludacris brought their style of Southern hip hop, crunk and trap to the fore and much attention to Atlanta’s music scene.

But before these artists made a name for themselves, bands like 1980s outfit Arrested Development were already switching the hip hop narrative and captivating global audiences.

Janelle Monae is one artist bringing futurism to Atlanta’s music scene | Photo: Ben Houdijk

Atlanta is also hugely significant in the development of soul, with artists like Usher, Monica, Toni Braxton, and TLC emerging from the city in the 1990s. The same decade, artists linked to the city were influential in the emergence of a new style of laid-back soul, as pioneered by India Arie, Musiq Soulchild, and Janelle Monae. Neo-soul takes classic soul music and mixes it with grooves borrowed from hip hop, funk, and electronic music.

Even though Atlanta has an eye towards the future of music, it has many well-known names in its past, including Ma Rainey, Ray Charles, James Brown, and Gladys Knight.

Atlanta Musicians

Janelle Monae, TLC, Ciara, Usher, Toni Braxton, Monica, John Mayer, Ray Charles, Arrested Development, Outkast, Jermaine Duper, Musiq Soulchild, T.I., Gladys Knight, Ma Rainey, India Arie, Ceelo Green, Soulja Boy, Ludacris, Monica, Lil Jon, Keri Hilson, Gucci Mane.

Top Atlanta music attractions

9. Go gigging in Austin

The joke that Texans like both types of music – country and western – falls a little flat in Austin. The self -titled “Live Music Capital of the World” is quite clear that with more than 250 live music venues, you can can hear any kind of music that gets you moving.

Austin, Texas
Austin – the Live Music Capital

In the 1970s, Austin became known as a haven for young, innovative musicians, eschewing traditional sounds of Nashville to embrace a liberal country counterculture.

Progressive artists like Willie Nelson, Townes Van Zandt, and Shakey Graves lived and performed in Austin for decades. As the city’s reputation continued to grow it has become a creative hotbed for rock, blues, jazz, new wave, indie and more.

Austin also attracts huge crowds with festivals like SXSW that bring the music industry to Texas.

Willie Nelson
Willie Nelson | Photo: Joseph Rouse

Austin musicians

Janis Joplin, Willie Nelson, Gary Clark Jr., Shawn Colvin, Shakey Graves, Townes Van Zandt, And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, Lucinda Williams, Roky Erickson.

Top Austin music attractions

10. Get into grunge in Seattle

Though Seattle may be slightly more famous as the home of the nation’s coffee culture, it is also one of the most influential music centers in the US, with the 1990s being a seminal time for the city’s music scene that left a lasting impression on the world.

Seattle known as the home of grunge

While not previously recognized as a key music city, in that decade, four bands emerged from Seattle’s chaotic scene, dominated by hardcore and metal bands.

Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and Soundgarden are widely recognized as the pillars of The Seattle Sound or grunge. But they didn’t only establish a new musical genre, their influence ignited a whole counterculture.

Dave Grohl (formerly of Nirvana) and the Foo Fighters came out of Seattle’s grunge scene

While Soundgarden’s previously highly acclaimed albums Grammy-nominated Ultramega OK (1988) and Deep Six (1986) were foundational to its emergence, Nirvana’s 1991 album Nevermind is often referenced as the most influential grunge album.

Following its release, grunge shaped the sonic and fashion landscapes of the 1990s and beyond. Nirvana’s lead singer, Kurt Cobain, was elevated to god-like status following his untimely death, aged just 27.

Roots and Branches sculpture
Roots and Branches sculpture at Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture | Photo: Miles Around

While heavily dominated by male artists, 1990s Seattle and neighboring city of Olympia were home to the Riot Grrl movement, which confronted the misogyny and oppression of the dominant society and spoke power to women’s rights, politics, and punk music. Groups like Bikini Kill and Heaven to Betsy led the way, and worked in tandem with the queercore movement groups to elevate the art and rights of the LGBTQ+ community.

Seattle was also the birthplace of legendary guitarist, Jimi Hendrix, who was also tragically a member of The 27 Club. Born in the city in 1942, Hendrix’s fame grew in London and he is one of the most influential electric guitarists in the history of popular music.

Seattle musicians

Jimi Hendrix, Nirvana, Kurt Cobain, Foo Fighters, Dave Grohl, Bam Bam, Hole, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Macklemore.

Top Seattle music attractions

11. Make it a West Coast Hip Hop thing in Los Angeles

We stay on the West Coast for our final stop on this musical journey. And when it comes to hip hop, the coast you represented was all important in the 1990s.

LA skyline and palms
From beneath LA’s palms comes hard-hitting hip hop

New York gave birth to hip hop, but it was transformed on the West Coast when the band NWA rose up from the streets of Compton to reign supreme over hard-edged, political rap. When the band split to pursue individual projects, Dr. Dre continued to evolve West Coast hip hop alongside artists like Snoop Dogg.

When a young guy from the East Coast made his way west, the world of hip hop took note. Tupac Shakur is considered one of the greatest hip hop stars that ever lived. With a family heritage in the Black Panther Party, Tupac also never shied away from tackling political themes in his music.

Kendrick Lamar | Photo: Featureflash

Latterly LA’s hip hop scene is still packing a social and political punch with artists like Childish Gambino and Kendrick Lamar offering up thought provoking songs like “This is America” and “Alright”, respectively.

LA musicians

NWA, Ice Cube, Easy E, Dr. Dre, Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur, Childish Gambino, Anderson .Paak, Etta James, Beck, Roy Ayers, Herb Alpert, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Billie Eilish, Finneas.

Top music attractions in LA

  • The Grammy Museum – with exhibits on a huge number of Grammy-winning artists.
  • The Novo – a great spot for catching up and coming hip hop acts.
  • Hollywood Walk of Fame – see the stars on the famed stretch of Hollywood Boulevard.
  • Capitol Records Studios – you can’t go inside this office block but it’s worth a photo of the iconic exterior.
  • Amoeba Music – spanning a whole block of Sunset, it is a cornucopia of tunes.
  • Guitar Center’s Rock Walk and Museum – see the hands that created the music on the Rock Walk and an incredible array of memorabilia in the museum.
  • The Troubadour – this club, a hotbed for folk, it also helped launch the careers of Elton John, whose first US show was here, and more. Go there to see new talent.
  • Whisky a Go-Go – more live music at a bar that’s been the epicenter of LA’s rock scene for more than three decades.
  • Andaz West Hollywood – known as the Riot House, this hotel has seen more than it’s fair share of music mayhem after becoming a legendary hangout for the likes of the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin.

The US music scene is as large and diverse as the country itself, and the music cities we explored here help to tell of the history, culture, and very identity of Americans and also their influence on the wider world.