The 60 Best Songs Ever Written About New York City
For the past few weeks we've been locked in the basement at Yankee Stadium, subsisting on nothing but Bergen Bagels, listening to the best songs about New York City through headphones endorsed by Lou Reed. Our mission: to come up with a list of the 60 best songs ever written about our city, songs that best capture what it's like to live, love, struggle, and exist in the sprawling, unforgiving, culturally dense metropolis we pay too much to call home. We started by agreeing on the songs we shouldn't include — naked and clunky stabs at new New York anthems that fall flat and ring inauthentic, like Jay-Z's "Empire State of Mind," U2's "New York," and Taylor Swift's "Welcome to New York." Instead, we focus on tracks that are so New York, and so good, they can't be denied. Here they are. Listen to our Spotify playlist, which has most of the songs you'll read about below.
Contributors: Steve Almond, R.C. Baker, Heather Baysa, Jack Buehrer, Jesus Diaz, Tom Finkel, Chaz Kangas, Mike Laws, Linda Leseman, Brian McManus, Albert Samaha, Alan Scherstuhl, Mike Seely, Brittany Spanos, Katherine Turman
See also: The 50 Most New York Albums
60. Catey Shaw - "Brooklyn Girls" OK, you're right. The message inherent in Catey Shaw's "Brooklyn Girls" is tough to digest — that our beloved Brooklyn of yesteryear has forever changed, that it has been whitewashed beyond recognition — but there's no denying that no other song out of New York this year did a better job of describing us to us. Because like it or not (and many choose the latter, understandably) this is what we are now. Many of us — especially in the parts of Brookyn Shaw is describing — are a bunch of navel-gazing art types here on someone else's money. If the song is insufferable, it's because that part of Brooklyn has become insufferable. And Shaw may be, as Vice described her, "the Rebecca Black of Brooklyn gentrification," but the fact is that she wouldn't exist had Vice not already done a majority of the legwork in turning once-industrial, blue-collar Williamsburg into a place for overpriced vinyl and pour-over coffee. "Brooklyn Girls" is a comitragic, catchy-as-hell romp whose hook reels you in whether you like it or not. The outrage about it is at best self-serving and at least misguided. You have to tune out to tune in to it. In that way, it's just like living in New York.
59. Rufus Wainwright - "14th Street" Rufus Wainwright's 2003 album Want One is a lavish affair, rendering early post-millennial New York on a glorious operatic scale, and "14th Street" is a jewel of a song. An ailing soul on the brink of suicide takes the downtown divider line as the setting for a romantic walk that turns into a lost love affair. Some of Wainwright's best lyrics can be found in the chorus: "But why'd you have to break all my heart?/Couldn't you have saved a little bit of it?" It's plaintive and tragic and utterly breathtaking in the grand sweep of orchestrations as immense as this "home of the brave and of the weak."
58. Cam'ron - "Welcome to New York City" At a time when Roc-A-Fella was New York hip-hop's most visible entity, hip-hop fans looked to the house that Dame Dash built for an anthem post–9-11. What we got: the immortal "Welcome to New York City." Over a Just Blaze beat, Harlem's Cam'ron and Brooklyn's Jay-Z, along with fiery newcomer Juelz Santana, gave New Yorkers a galvanizing anthem to rebuild the rap community on. The track cemented the Just Blaze sound as one of the city's most exciting, and Cam, Jay, and Juelz's combined performances further established them as New York's most visible torch-carriers.
57. Jim Croce - "You Don't Mess Around with Jim" The late James Joseph Croce purveyed words of wisdom: "You don't tug on Superman's cape/You don't spit into the wind/You don't pull the mask off that old Lone Ranger." In Croce's repertoire is the especially pointed "New York's Not My Home," with personal, pained lyrics, but sans a memorable hook, while "You Don't Mess Around With Jim" is Croce at his height, singing a catchy little ditty about a hick Alabama pool shark in the city where "Bowery's got its bums...." Listeners of a certain age recall that the You Don't Mess Around With Jim LP spent 93 weeks on the charts, starting in 1972 (hitting No. 1 in 1974), while Croce himself was gone by 1973, the pop chronicler of pathos silenced in a plane crash at the age of 30.
56. The Pogues - "Fairytale of New York" The Pogues' 1987 paean to broken dreams in the Big Apple features Shane MacGowan at perhaps the soberest he's ever sounded, which is still three sheets closer to alcohol poisoning than you've ever been. One of the great sad, booze-soaked Christmas ditties, MacGowan insists "Fairytale" was conceived after Elvis Costello, the band's producer at the time, bet them they couldn't make a successful holiday hit. But here we have it, a (maybe needlessly) Yuletide-set duet about immigration to New York City and its eventual pitfalls when Lady Liberty's siren song leads you crashing into the unyielding rocks of Ellis Island. It's chock-full of endemically New York imagery like Sinatra, heroin use, references to an "NYPD choir" (which does not exist), and falling in love on bitterly cold street corners.
55. Public Enemy - "A Letter to the New York Post" While it could be rightly said that no Public Enemy song that hands over the verses to Flavor Flav is the best anything — "911 Is a Joke" aside — "A Letter to the New York Post" sees Flav and Chuck D at a place most New Yorkers have been at some point: entirely fed up and exhausted by the New York Fuckin' Post. And though Flav's lyrics can make you wince (at one point he rhymes "James Cagney" with "fagney" — c'mon, guy), the overarching sentiment of the song is one that rings true for every New Yorker whose morning ritual includes gawking at the paper's needlessly mean headlines on newsstands every day: that, as Mr. Chuck elegantly puts it, the New York Post is "America's oldest continuously published daily piece of bullshit."
54. The French Connection soundtrack Released in 1971, The French Connection depicted grizzled New York cops chasing suave French dope peddlers — most famously in a Pontiac LeMans careering onto Brooklyn sidewalks beneath a runaway elevated train. At the time, Gotham was as crime-ridden in reality as onscreen, and in her review of the film Pauline Kael noted that the era's rowdy audiences made going to the movies feel like "being at a prizefight or mini Altamont." Indeed, with frantic piano runs, strangled strings, horns braying louder than taxicabs, and fractured time signatures, jazz trumpeter Don Ellis's title cut and moody scene-setters — "Hotel Chase," "Bugging Sal and Angie," "The Shot," "Frog One Is in That Room" — confirm Kael's assessment that the "score practically lays you out all by itself."
53. Alice Cooper - "Big Apple Dreamin' (Hippo)" "Big Apple Dreamin' (Hippo)" appears on 1973's Muscle of Love, the last album recorded by the original Alice Cooper group. "Hippo" has been said to refer to the Hippopotamus club, formerly on East 62nd Street, but just to be sure, we asked the bass player, Dennis Dunaway. He says, "Yes, the group had gone to the Hippopotamus club," but " 'Hippo' was merely a quick title to identify what began as an instrumental idea. By the time the lyrical idea came together, we were locked into calling the song 'Hippo.' " So now you know.
52. Steve Forbert - "Grand Central Station, March 18, 1977" The "New Dylan" tag is an unfair cross to bear, but that's precisely the label singer-songwriter Steve Forbert carried when Nemperor Records dropped his debut, Alive on Arrival, in 1978. The album cover faintly echoed The Freewheelin' Bob of 15 years prior, minus a slushy backdrop and a shivering Suze Rotolo embrace. That's not baby-faced Forbert's fault. "Grand Central Station, March 18, 1977" is a 22-year-old from Meridien, Mississippi's God's-honest paean to coming in from the country. And even taken at face value, it delivers.
51. New York Dolls - "Subway Train" In this tune, the New York Dolls compare frustrated love with riding the subway, a parallel that should resonate with anyone who's been stuck underground in purgatorial limbo waiting for the train to move. You really can't call yourself a New Yorker until you've been trapped between stops for an hour or more. Alternatively, the lyrics could be interpreted as being about commuting from one borough to another to see your significant other. Pro tip for NYC romances: Date someone who lives in your borough, else risk getting this song stuck in your head.Next Page
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