Certain cities have their own sounds. Put your ear to the street, and you’ll hear the unique rhythm radiating up from the sidewalk. You’ll also get gum in your hair, and you just might catch a gnarly disease. That’s because the best musical cities are a little gritty. They can be pretty, like LA, or filled with cheap beer and tasty Tex-Mex, like Austin, but on some level, they bring together divergent elements of society: the rich and the poor, the foxy and the ugly, the transient and the entrenched. It’s the intermingling of weirdos from all walks of life that makes for great music, and what follows are our picks for 10 essential songs for 10 essential American cities.
New York City
“Pretty in the City” by Cerebral Ballzy
When choosing an essential NYC song, it would be easy to think classic — The Velvet Underground, Blondie, Television, the Ramones, etc. But this is a city that’s constantly being torn down and built back up. History is important, but so is what’s going on right now, and tomorrow and the day after that. In that sense, there’s no better NYC jam than this 2014 scorcher. In just 1:28, this wonderfully named Brooklyn trash-punk quintet perfectly captures what it’s like to be young hedonists with loads of ambition and all the time in the world: “Let’s get fucked tonight, cuz it’s pretty in the city/ Let’s just dance tonight, cuz it’s pretty in the city/ Let it go tonight, cuz it’s pretty in the city/ One of these days we’ll take the town, but for now we’ll just buy a 40 oz.”
“Homecoming” by Kanye West
If Kanye West hadn’t left Chi-Town to chase his beautiful, dark, twisted pop fantasies, he’d have never gotten big enough to land this guest hook from Coldplay’s Chris Martin. Deep down, West knows he did what he had to do. But as he says in this touching ode to his hometown — personified as “Windy,” a lady he’ll always strive to make proud — he’s never forgotten where he’s from. “Do you think about me now and then?” Martin sings in the chorus, as if passing a love note from Yeezy to Windy. “’Cause I’m coming home again.”
“Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik” by Outkast
OutKast have never been shy about shouting out their hometown, and this 1994 A-Town anthem rates among their finest. “Atlanta skies be blue,” Andre 3000 raps in the final verse, after he and Big Boi have spent three minutes chatting about Caddies, joints, catfish, and grits — all in their signature slang. “The sun is beaming, it seemin’/ That I glisten, rather gleaming,” Dre continues. “20/20 got me leaning to the side/ Feel the pride, now ain’t that somethin’.” It’s more than something. This lax banger is enough to make even the proudest Yankees wish they were ATLiens.
“L.A. L.A.” by Stiv Bators
“I’ve been running from myself,” former Dead Boys singer Stiv Bators announces to start this shouty early-‘80s “Louie Louie” redo, and if that’s not LA to a T, nothing is. Bators goes on to sing about drugs and street gangs and other fun stuff, stopping every few bars to shout, “LA, LA! I’m on a Hollywood high.” Whatever he and his band of West Coast wasters are taking, it sounds like they’re having a blast. “L.A. L.A.” is splashy and trashy and constantly on the verge of collapse — just like the city itself.
“Get Busy” by The Roots
“My city ain’t nothin’ like yours,” Black Thought raps in the first verse. Yeah, everyone from everywhere says that, but on this 2008 track, Philly’s finest make a strong case for their hometown. Any city that can produce a crew like this — “half Mandrill, half Mandela,” “part Melle-Mel, part Van Halen,” as Thought tells us — must have something in the water. Here, The Roots triple up on the “brotherly love,” enlisting Philadelphian rappers Dice Raw and Peedi Peedi to spit verses, and DJ Jazzy Jeff to man the turntables. In the chorus, Thought reps a series of local ‘hoods before looking “worldwide.” Within a year, The Roots would become Jimmy Fallon’s house band, and they’d go global on a nightly basis.
“California Uber Alles” by Dead Kennedys
In recent years, the Bay Area has birthed a ton of great punk and garage bands, among them Thee Oh Sees, Hunx and His Punx, Sic Alps, the Fresh & Onlys, and Ty Segall’s various projects. Much of this music is warped and distorted, informed by the city’s psychedelic past yet decidedly forward-looking. The same goes for “California Uber Alles”, perhaps the all-time Golden State punk anthem. Released in June ’79, the Dead Kennedys’ debut single imagines a hellish future America where then- (and now) governor Jerry Brown rules with a bizarre mix of Nazi fascism and hippie-dippy ‘60s idealism: “Zen fascists will control you/ 100% natural/ You will jog for the master race/ And always wear the happy face.” It’s funny and terrifying and musically brilliant — a surf-punk nightmare that could have only come from San Fran.
“Never Alone” by Dropkick Murphys
Long before Dropkick Murphys added tin whistle and mandolin and went all Pogues on us, they were scrappy Beantown street punks brimming with boozy charm. On this standout cut from their 1998 debut album, Do or Die, the Dropkicks affirm their working-class pride, chafing against those who would label them hooligans. “Never alone!” original singer Mike McColgan bellows, a pub full of buddies helping him out. “This is Boston, it’s our hooooooome!” These knuckleheads stand tall and proud, even when they’re fall-down drunk.
“Southside” by Lil Keke
H-Town legend and Screwed Up Click member Lil Keke doesn’t just big-up his hood with this bass-heavy 1997 jam; he invents his own dance, wherein you put your knees together and move them from side to side, typically while thrusting your arms in the opposite direction. It’s an easy motion the body seems to perform naturally, as if by instinct, whenever this song comes on, and that’s part of the tune’s timeless appeal. “I’ma lift my head, and keep my pride,” Keke raps, his slurred drawl capturing the sticky-hot, hallucinatory feel of Houston hip-hop, “and let the whole world do the damn Southside.”
“Devil Town” by Daniel Johnston/Bright Eyes/Tony Lucca
Celebrated outsider artist Daniel Johnston has struggled with mental illness throughout his life, and his idea of “living in a devil town” is likely very different than most people’s. Still, this haunting ballad — all about the frightening realization that you’re as wicked as the “vampires” you see all around you — is universal. It’s also adaptable. Bright Eyes cut a killer version that caught the ear of Friday Night Lights producers, who tried to license the tune for an iconic (and ironic) victory parade scene in the season one finale. Conor Oberst said no, so they used Tony Lucca’s rendition. Neither is as stark and haunting as Johnston’s original, but both convey the fear and sadness this Austin-based eccentric must have been feeling.
“Aurora Bridge” by The Young Fresh Fellows
In the mid-‘80s, after the proto-punk bashing of the Sonics but before the sludgy thrashing of Nirvana and their grunge cohorts, Seattle was home to plenty of great bands. One of them was the The Young Fresh Fellows, a quirky power pop combo whose influence far outstripped their fame. On this 1987 ode to the Emerald City, the Fellows namecheck the Space Needle, Gas Works Park, Mariners great Gorman Thomas, and of course, the George Washington Memorial Bridge, aka the Aurora, which carries Route 99 over Lake Union. “Did you ever stop to think about what would happen if the Aurora Bridge fell down?” Scott McCaughey asks in the sing-songy chorus. It’s not the cheeriest thought, but this is a song about appreciating what you’ve got and not taking things for granted. It could all disappear tomorrow. Plug in those guitars today.
“City of Roses” by Esperanza Spalding
Portland is known for its brash, intellectual punk and indie rock, but there’s more to this Pacific Northwestern music mecca than hyper-lefty organic farming enthusiasts shouting about women’s rights over loud guitars. Soulful modern-jazz ambassador Esperanza Spalding hails from the “City of Roses”, and on this chilled-out stroll down memory lane, she thinks back to her childhood, reminiscing about “city parks, wild berries, and old bridges” — and a whole bunch of other stuff that makes the town so great. She’s even down with the weather: “Our rain is the paint that makes the land lush and the folks unique.”