The 1950s was the golden age of jazz, with titans like Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Cole Porter, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Chet Baker, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Ornette Coleman, and Sun Ra all regularly releasing brilliant, timeless music. The 1950s aren’t remembered as being a particularly cool era today, but the jazz scene of this period was just as radical and debauched as the R&B and rock scenes that came in its wake.
Early ’60s New York City Folk Scene
Greenwich Village in the late ’50s and early ’60s was the epicenter of a folk revival that became the soundtrack for a generation of political activists and set in motion the rise of Bob Dylan. It’s the perfect era for earnest, politically engaged people who care a lot about tradition and authenticity.
The hair metal era was all about goofy, cheerful excess – big hair, big budget videos, busloads of strippers, and nonstop partying. It is the perfect era for anyone who just wants to go to a paradise city where the grass is green and the girls are pretty.
The TRL era of the late ’90s and early ’00s was a golden age for glossy teen pop, and the heyday of Britney, Christina, NSYNC, and the Backstreet Boys. It’s not “cool,” but it was the best time ever to be an upbeat, pop-obsessed teen.
Scott Gries/Hulton Archive
The rave scene of the late ’80s and early ’90s set the template for much of what we know as EDM culture today – massive psychedelic dance parties, rampant MDMA use, and thumping, euphoric techno. The first wave of rave is the ideal time for highly energetic extroverts, and anyone who lives by the credo of PLUR – peace, love, unity, and respect.
The Golden Age of Hip-Hop was a time of wild creativity, with acts like Run-D.M.C., Eric B & Rakim, Public Enemy, Salt N Pepa, Beastie Boys, and De La Soul basically inventing hip-hop culture from scratch as they went along. And it’s not just about the music, obviously – graffiti, street art, dancing, fashion, and DJ culture are all part of it too. It’s an incredibly fun and vibrant time for music, but also very radical in its political message and artistic philosophy.
Frank Micelotta/Hulton Archive
The grunge era was the one time where it was totally mainstream to be a dirty, miserable person in worn-out boots and old flannel shirts. There’s never been a better era for epic, angst-ridden rock music, and it’s the only time when it was possible to witness icons like Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley in action before their untimely deaths. Just try to avoid heroin, OK?
Frank Micelotta/Hulton Archive
’90s Indie Rock
The ’90s were the glory days of indie rock – Pavement, Guided by Voices, Liz Phair, Sonic Youth, Belle & Sebastian, Modest Mouse, etc. It was also the best time ever to be an unrepentant music snob, since the pre-internet era made it possible for people heavily invested in scenes to know about all the best moment long before everyone else.
Jamaica in the ’60s
Jamaican music in the 1960s was brilliant, radical, and constantly evolving, with ska mutating into rocksteady, roots reggae, dub, and dancehall over the course of a decade. The limited means of Jamaican artists resulted in innovations like DJ culture, rapping, and remixes that have become central to modern music culture. The “sound system” parties were pretty intense, but the music was relaxed and groovy, and the weed was plentiful.
The Jazz Age
The Roaring Twenties was a great time for anyone with a love of glitz, glamour, dancing, and jazz. This was a very decadent era, but also rather progressive – the women’s suffrage movement hit its peak, and the period is defined by the emergence of the flapper.
Laurel Canyon in the Late ’60s/Early ’70s
Joni Mitchell, Crosby Stills and Nash, Carole King, The Eagles, The Byrds, Love, and many other singer-songwriters all converged in the idyllic Laurel Canyon region of Los Angeles in the late ’60s and early ’70s to basically live the hippy dream. The vibe of the scene was very relaxed, and the music was mostly low-key and introspective. It’s basically the one time in pop culture when the coolest thing you could be was an introverted homebody who wanted to be close to nature.
The first wave of punk rock in the late ’70s was one of the most radical and vibrant periods in the history of music, with bands like The Ramones, Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Slits, X-Ray Spex, Wire and The Buzzcocks redefining the sound, style, and ideology of rock. Punk has mutated a lot over the years, but this is ground zero.
The Motown era isn’t just about Motown Records, but the entire boom of soul music that came out of Detroit and other midwestern cities through the ’60s. It’s not an easy time to be alive – this is basically the soundtrack to the civil rights movement – but this is an unparalleled period for R&B music.
Hip-hop was born in the ’80s, but hit its stride in the ’90s. This is the era of Biggie, Tupac, Wu-Tang Clan, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, A Tribe Called Quest, Nas, Outkast, The Pharcyde, and The Fugees. Rap became more glossy as the decade progressed, but for most of the decade, it was raw, rugged, and vital.
New wave is sorta hard to define – it’s basically a catch-all for all sorts of music that was influenced by the first wave of punk, but wasn’t necessarily punk itself: Blondie, Talking Heads, Devo, Elvis Costello, New Order, The Smiths, The Cure, Echo and the Bunnymen, Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, etc, etc. The main thing is that while punk was mostly about provocation, aggression, and tribalism, new wave was about subverting the mainstream with stylish, unapologetically individualistic pop music.
The glory days of disco in the late ’70s and very early ’80s was a period of glitzy, stylish hedonism, and inventive dance music that pulled in elements of many other genres. White rock dudes vilified disco at the time, but in retrospect that was mainly because it was a movement that was more about catering to women, African-Americans, Latinos, and LGBT people.
Rock music in the ’70s was huge and wildly ambitious, from the majestic riffs of Led Zeppelin and the theatrical art rock of David Bowie to the ornate pop of Electric Light Orchestra and the elaborate soundscapes of Pink Floyd. This is the time when the idea of the “rock star” really takes shape, as pretty much everyone involved in the rock scene was basically an out of control hedonist.
Rock in the ’60s was a constantly evolving thing, with wildly inventive artists like The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, and The Who basically making up rock culture as they went along. This is an extremely earnest and progressive period too, with most of the counterculture defined by hippie ideals.