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.
50. Paul Simon – “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” A catchy tune that cracked the pop charts off Paul Simon’s self-titled first solo album, “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” boasts lyrics that have inspired all manner of interpretations. If you hit the Google hard enough, you can find Truman Capote appearing to theorize that “Me and Julio” is about Simon and a schoolmate in the Bronx engaging in a homosexual relationship, much to Julio’s mother’s chagrin. Also: connections between “Rosie, the Queen of Corona” and rosie being a term that relates to masturbation and corona referring to the penis. A demo version released a decade ago should have put the lie to that, but hell, go ahead and play with it awhile. Paul Simon grew up in Queens, BTW.
49. Beastie Boys – “An Open Letter to NYC” To the 5 Boroughs (2004) was the first Beasties album following the September 11 attacks and, for such a quintessentially New York group, the entire album’s tribute to both hip-hop and their birthplace has been as lauded as it is underappreciated. While the surface-level hyper-specific homage to the nooks and crannies only a New Yorker would know is most potent in the album’s “Open Letter to NYC,” the track/album’s production being rooted in golden-era electro-fueled early hip-hop offers a deeper ode for veteran heads of the genre.
48. Andrew W.K. – “I Love NYC” As our readers already well know, Andrew W.K. is a deep, deep thinker. And where many of his Voice advice columns aim for your head and heart, his songs hit you square in the gut. “I Love NYC” bubbles with the kind of excitement and exuberance only a city like ours can inject, the kind of feel-good shot of adrenaline you get to experience when all is going right for you in the city that never sleeps. We once watched Andrew perform the song on New Year’s Eve at Irving Plaza, the whole crowd taking over the chorus, smiling their dumb ecstatic heads off: “I love/New York City/OHHHHH YEAHHHH/NEW YORK CITY!”
47. Patti Smith – “Gloria” Van Morrison taught us how to spell the lady’s name, but we credit Patti Smith for making her a New Yorker. In 1976, in probably the best of the tune’s many covers, Smith adapted “Gloria” for the burgeoning CBGB crowd, adding the iconic opening “Jesus died for somebody’s sins…but not mine.” A lot about Gloria got grittier after she moved to Manhattan — Smith takes away all the polite innuendo, replacing it with more-than-suggestive grunts and references to parking-meter humping. Everything is sped up — the song’s speed-of-a-subway tempo as well as Gloria’s game as she arrives at the narrator’s walk-up for a midnight tryst. With such an ability to harness the energy of a city in one late-night bootycall, when Smith “takes the big plunge” and wants to tell the world that she just “ah-ah made her mine,” she might as well be talking about rock ‘n’ roll itself.
46. Notorious B.I.G. – “Guaranteed Raw” “Brooklyn’s Finest” may be the obvious choice, but we’re more fond of Biggie’s boom-bap homage to rap’s yesteryear, “Guaranteed Raw.” On it, the “heavyset brother from Fulton Street” takes you through an average day in the life of “Bed-Stuy Brooklyn where this rapper was originated” — one that saw him “makin’ money smokin’ mics like crack pipes,” drinkin’ Hennessy, and smoking a blunt or two. Or three. Or four. “Live in action,” Biggie always was “guaranteed raw.”
45. Tom Waits – “Downtown Train” Every now and then, back in the day, Tom Waits sat down and wrote a pop song. You have to wonder: Tom Waits? Writing a pop song? What does that look like? What does it feel like? Does it come naturally to him? Doesn’t matter, really. “Downtown Train” is as hooky as a Tom Waits song can be, and it conveys an experience that’s immediately familiar to anyone who has ever ridden the subway and is capable of falling in love, and of being lonely. You get the feeling Tom Waits has a big old sack full of low-rent similes in his closet that he can dig into whenever he wants. He’s like the Santa Claus of low-rent similes. The thing is, they only seem cheap. They’re actually the diamonds in the sidewalk.
44. Ramones – “53rd and 3rd” You really can’t get more New York than the Ramones (and songs named after actual intersections). We can’t say whether Dee Dee’s 1976 lament about a teenage rent boy working a notorious pickup corner to fuel his heroin habit was autobiographical, but let’s face it, it was probably biographical for someone. In the Ramones’ classic loud-and-fast style, the song explodes with the depraved energy of 1970s New York and the perverse determination of an enterprising junkie. The actual midtown intersection, by the way, is now boxed in by three high-rise office buildings with handsome courtyards, a Duane Reade, and a TD Bank. But polished as it is, that place will never be clean.
43. The Clash – “Koka Kola” Imagine: four safety-pinned punks from blighted bleedin’ England — and they’re gonna outsource spleen to our sweet big apple? In 1979? Glass house, boys. But we’ll still give “Koka Kola” a pass, partly because it shows the Clash having ripened beyond “I’m So Bored With the U.S.A.” ‘s straight-ahead broadsides into a rabble-rousing that was thoroughly more nuanced, incisive, and funny. (And all this evolution in a positively Beatlesque two years’ time.) “Koka Kola” is still a takedown, but it softens its blows by way of a sweet-sung chorus wherein the narrator cops to being no stranger to the coked-up adman culture he aims to excoriate. Post–Wolf of Wall Street, it’s still hard to say which impresses more: that the song sketches the Masters of the Universe, right down to their snakeskin suits and alligator boots, this early in the game, or that the increasingly agitated patter of its verses so perfectly evokes their addled lifestyle. Eyes like pinballs and tongue like a fish, indeed.
42. Lou Reed – “New York Telephone Conversation” Is there any musician more New York than the late and beyond-great Lou Reed? Probably not, because no other artist could so succinctly capture the middle-of-the-night phone conversations we hear and have around the city as he did in his Transformer song “New York Telephone Conversation.” Clocking in at an insanely swift 1:31, the ditty bounces and satirizes both the gossip and desire for the gossip that New Yorkers can overhear from their windows and on the streets 24 hours a day while also partaking in it on our own. In true Reed fashion, the song takes itself to a place of incomparable longing to hear these words from very particular people.
41. Harry Nilsson – “I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City” When you consider the hall-of-mirrors paradox that was Harry Nilsson, it makes sense that “Everybody’s Talkin’,” a song he sang but did not write, won him a Grammy after director John Schlesinger chose it for the soundtrack to Midnight Cowboy, while “I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City,” a song the Brooklyn-born Nilsson wrote and sang, missed the cut. That’s not to slight “Everybody’s Talkin’,” which suited the film’s sad arc. But with its upbeat lyrics and John Hartford–like banjo twang, “I Guess” would have led off the proceedings nicely. One can only wonder what Nilsson would’ve thought, had he lived to see his composition prominently showcased in 1998’s You’ve Got Mail.
40. A Tribe Called Quest – “Check the Rhime” “Check the Rhime” is the song that introduced the St. Albans, Queens, hip-hop trio to the masses (a few months before “Scenario” would catapult them to stardom). It also detailed their journey from budding artists on “the Boulevard of Linden” to one of the most inventive acts of the last several decades. They rhyme about perfecting their “fly routines on [Q-Tip’s] cousin’s block” over top of deft sampling that seamlessly fuses jazz saxophonist Grover Washington Jr.’s “Hydra” with Average White Band’s “Love Your Life.” In the process, they gave the suburbs their first taste of what they could expect from the Tribe for the next decade. It’s the rare early-’90s hip-hop track that holds up all these years later. It’s on point. All the time.
39. The Kills – “What New York Used to Be” What’s New York without a little retrospective cynicism? The Kills singer Alison Mosshart (from Florida) seems annoyed in this song with the New Yorker tendency to wax nostalgic about what “used to be.” “Tell me how much better the weather, c’mon,” she chants as the song ends, “grass, show me how it used to be.” Other things she mentions the city “used to be” include “easy,” “fun,” “dreaming,” “fame,” “the city,” “fast,” and “low.” It seems a jab from the point of view of an unjaded newcomer toward longtime dwellers who gripe about a city that by nature is constantly changing.
38. Ol’ Dirty Bastard – “Brooklyn Zoo” Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s zoo isn’t a place you’d want to bring the kids. His Brooklyn is not one you’d venture into to purchase a high-end cheese from a specialty shop or have your mustache waxed by a guy in suspenders. No, his “Brooklyn Zoo” is one rife with the “type of pain you couldn’t even kill with Midol/Fuck around, get sprayed with Lysol.” Increasingly, as rents rise, developers buy up vast swaths of the borough, and condos go up, it’s a place many of its longtime residents no longer recognize. It only takes one spin of this ODB classic (from his still-incredible Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version) to be reminded of what it used to be, and, for better or worse, how precious it’s become.
37. Woody Guthrie – “Jesus Christ” The year 2014 saw the release of My Name Is New York, Nora Guthrie’s oral history/walking tour/songbook/chronicle of her father’s life and times — and prodigious output — in New York town. Woody Guthrie wrote a lot of songs that New York City figures in, most notably “This Land Is Your Land.” He wrote a few songs that are 100 percent New York, but they aren’t his best songs. One of his best songs, “Jesus Christ,” is about…Jesus Christ. But it’s also Guthrie’s vision of how the world goes around, how it has always gone around. The closing verse brings it home: “This song was made in New York City/Of rich man, preacher, and slave/If Jesus was to preach what He preached in Galilee/They would lay poor Jesus in His grave.”
36. Sonny Rollins – “The Bridge” In 1959, Sonny Rollins decided to take himself to the woodshed. Lamenting his perceived musical shortcomings, as well as his falling star among jazz critics, he decided to retire. Only he didn’t. He stopped recording and performing, but never stopped practicing. He worked on his new sound at the crest of the Williamsburg Bridge so as not to disturb the neighbors in his Lower East Side apartment. When he emerged from his exile three years later, he recorded a song called “The Bridge,” which he put on his 1962 comeback album of the same name. Ironically, his style hadn’t drastically changed during his years on the bridge — the album was mostly a collection of standards. But the title track was an original, inspired by the hundreds of hours he spent suspended between Manhattan and Brooklyn. The song’s centerpiece is a motif of ascending and descending interplay between Rollins and guitarist Jim Hall, which gives the record a sense of urgency we had yet to hear from the Saxophone Colossus.
35. New York Dolls – “Trash” Some compare their lovers to flowers, others to sweets or a summer’s day. Here in New York, we liken them to what we’re most familiar with: trash. The New York Dolls’ 1973 debut single doesn’t mince words: “Please, don’t you ask me if I love you/’Cause I don’t know if I do,” asserts the ever-ambiguous David Johansen, embodying a romantic indifference that’s facilitated by a city where there’s always another, always a better option, as well as a simple, characteristically New York willingness to tell it like it is. The song’s subject could be male or female, gay or straight, a sex worker or a junkie, or maybe just your average middle manager on a bad night. Doesn’t matter, the narrator picks them up on the street and thus they are: trash. Bursting into the chorus right out of the gate, it’s by far the glammy proto-punk album’s fastest and hardest hit. The intoxication of a night in the city, with its million random hookups waiting to happen, is barely contained as Johansen’s lyrics race alongside Jerry Nolan’s drums. This is what it sounds like when garbage glitters like gold.
34. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five – “New York, New York” There’s a reason Melle Mel’s outstanding songwriting and ferocious mic presence have kept him mentioned in rap’s all-time-greatest lists for over three decades now. At a time of zodiac signs and loud clothing, Mel was painting pictures of the very struggle that gave birth to rap music. “New York, New York” inverts the extravagance of the romanticized Big Apple, exposing the dystopian rat race that stigmatized the pre-Disney city among outsiders who dared not speak of it. It’s easy to forget how avant-garde the act of rapping itself was in a world where the genre was just emerging, and Mel’s inimitable style helped show what a unique perspective this bold new medium could offer. Mel’s down by law, and he knows his way around.
33. Ben E. King – “Spanish Harlem” Upper Manhattan’s Spanish Harlem (in more gentrified parlance: East Harlem) has inspired at least eight artists to song, including Paul Simon and Beirut, but it’s Ben E. King’s 1960 rendering of “Spanish Harlem” that’s the most evocative. The talent is scary-good: Written by Jerry Leiber and Phil Spector, and produced by the hitmaking duo of Leiber and partner Mike Stoller, Ben E. King’s soulful tribute to a lovely lady “with eyes as black as coal that look down in my soul” is an innocent aural love letter. With a trademark orchestral/horn figure in the middle and the Spanish guitar and marimba lending the Latin flair, the tune’s timelessness is proven with dozens of covers. From Willy DeVille’s terrific, raw version to a one-minute punk take by Bowling for Soup to Leon Russell’s Cajun-spiced boogie instrumental rendition, the song shines — but it’s Ben E. King who owns it.
32. Ace Frehley – “New York Groove” Though it’s KISS-torically the Spaceman’s most-beloved solo song, this three-minute pop-rock gem was actually penned by songwriter and ex-Argent member Russ Ballard and initially recorded by British glam band Hello in 1975. There’s a reason Ace Frehley’s 1978 version on his solo record was his biggest hit — it’s a great, uplifting song, and perfect for Frehley. The impossible-to-resist stomp-along underpinnings driving the tune are topped with fittingly triumphant and Ace-like sentiments: “I feel so good tonight…Who cares about tomorrow?” When the song takes a half-step up at a minute in, the irresistible factor rises commensurately.
31. Lady Gaga – “Black Jesus + Amen Fashion” This edgy pop song was a bonus track on the special edition of Born This Way, and Gaga neatly tucks a hidden meaning into the lyrics. Ostensibly, the tune follows the would-be star’s move from her native Upper West Side to the Lower East Side at age 19. But the imagery of a “Black Jesus,” says Gaga, is a metaphor for being challenged to think about the world in an entirely new way — something she says she experienced when she moved downtown. And who among us hasn’t had our worldview expanded by this city?
30. George Gershwin – “Rhapsody in Blue” Try to imagine the opening montage of Woody Allen’s Manhattan with anything other than “Rhapsody in Blue” playing over top of it. It’s damn near impossible. But George Gershwin’s masterpiece almost didn’t happen. He was asked to write a concerto-inspired piece for a jazz concert being put together by bandleader Paul Whiteman, but Gershwin was convinced he didn’t have enough time to complete the composition. He was eventually persuaded to take on the project just five weeks before the piece was set to debut at Aeolian Hall in midtown. The entire composition came to him during a train ride from New York to Boston, but when it came time to debut the work during the February 12, 1924, concert, he still had yet to transcribe the song’s iconic piano part — which he himself performed. He was forced to improvise, more or less building the backbone of the song as the performance went along.
29. Neil Diamond – “I Am…I Said” Neil Diamond might have lived in L.A. for a spell, but he didn’t belong in L.A. Diamond knew this; that’s why he wrote “I Am…I Said,” which was inspired by a spate of rock-bottom therapy sessions in the City of Drunken Angels. The lyrics aren’t as nonsensical as they seem; he talks to chairs and compares himself to frogs, but that’s what fucked-up people do. Diamond needed New York, something he made clear years later with his cinematic star turn in The Jazz Singer. “L.A.’s fine, but it ain’t home. New York’s home, but it ain’t mine no more.” New York’s not anyone’s, really, but no New Yorker has peeled off the Apple’s skin for as many Middle American women as Diamond. Love’s on his rocks. Ain’t no surprise.
28. Cub – “New York City” There’s lots to feel fuzzy about regarding Vancouver ’90s cuddlecore clique Cub’s ode to New York, the most adorable of which is probably that their declaration “everyone’s your friend in New York City” was in reference to a pre-Giuliani NYC, which the video for the song lovingly captures. Also great is the admirably silly take on the major landmarks, especially revering the Empire State Building as “where King Kong lives.” Cub’s attitude is that of either the best visitor or worst tourist, an outlook so lovably affable, we can’t help but say, “Awwwwww.”
27. Bobby Womack – “Across 110th Street” Written back when crossing into Harlem was still considered “a helluva tester,” Bobby Womack’s theme song to the 1972 blaxploitation classic Across 110th Street is a plea to rise above one’s upbringing. It’s the confession of a gangster caught between trying to “break out of the ghetto” and doing whatever he has to do to survive in the ghetto. Womack describes, in great detail, the 1970s Harlem that many like to pretend still exists today. But really, with its lush string arrangements and Philly soul groove, the song is a time capsule of both a sound and a New York that, for good or for bad, are long gone.
26. Gil-Scott Heron – “Madison Avenue” Aficionados will argue for “New York City,” a joyous paean to the city’s polyglot spirit that roves from tinkling piano jazz to a riot of timbale. Fair enough. But Gil Scott-Heron didn’t just love his hometown. He understood its brutal bustling heart, that vast avenue dedicated to selling tinseled dreams to a lonely nation. Fuck Don Draper, folks. Hell, fuck Don DeLillo. If you want the ultimate appraisal of America’s true ideological capital, drop the needle on this funked-up classic, a song with enough groove to make Prince sound like a minor duke. Scott-Heron may be gone from this world, but his sly social critiques just keep getting louder.
25. George Benson – “On Broadway” Like a lot of songs written before people started smoking bushels of pot and questioning authority, “On Broadway,” originally popularized in the early ’60s by the Drifters, was a tad too earnest and taut. That was before George Benson got his hands on it. A spectacularly versatile multi-instrumentalist and vocalist who jumped genres with ease, Benson infused the track with soul, grit, glamour, and a supreme brand of confidence (alternately known as “swagger”) that attracted you to him — and NYC — like a magnet. ” ‘Cause I can play this here guitar/And I won’t quit till I’m a star on Broadway.” Never for a second do you doubt him — or the “name in lights” dreamscape that existed before Hollywood stars gobbled up plum stage roles (or high-rise condos) just to bolster their cred.
24. Bobby Rodriguez y La Compañia – “El Número 6” Before Rubén Blades, bandleader, there was Rubén Blades, songwriter. Blades’s “Número 6” was a huge hit in 1975 for the salsa band Bobby Rodriguez y La Compañia. The song is told from the point of view of a guy waiting a long, long time for the 6 train on 116th Street; he’s got to get home first and change into his party duds for a night out with his woman. A train finally pulls in…but it’s the 4. The 6 train never comes. Our hero complains that the price of a token is too high — and he has a point: The MTA bumped fares 43 percent, from 35 cents to 50, in September of ’75.
23. Elton John – “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” In the early 1970s, Elton John was on a roll. He literally could not stop making hit records, even when he tried (and he did try. See “Rock, Crocodile”). When this incredible run brought John and lyricist Bernie Taupin to New York for the first time, it seemed inevitable that the two would have something to say about the city that both had long romanticized from afar. On one of his first nights in town, Taupin heard a gunshot outside of his hotel room. He thought of Ben E. King’s song “Spanish Harlem” and immediately jotted down, “Now I know ‘Spanish Harlem’ are not just pretty words to say/I thought I knew, but now I know that rose trees never grow in New York City.” They became the opening lyrics to one of John’s most earnest, sad, and beautifully naive ballads. He has since described the song as one of his favorites that he’s ever recorded.
22. Cannibal Ox – “Pigeon” The early-2000s underground hip-hop scene in New York offered a hyper-experimental take on the culture’s foundations, with the location of the genre’s birthplace giving these creations instant credibility. One of the best results came in the form of Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein. Vast Aire’s lofty slam-poetry-esque flow combined with Vordul’s subtle softspoken streetwise style atop El-P’s crunching synth-based boom-bap to perfectly capture where New York was. Closer “Pigeon” exemplifies the New York hustle, with the titular bird mirroring the city’s human inhabitants. Fowl language was never so fly.
21. Glen Campbell – “Rhinestone Cowboy” “Hustle’s the name of the game” on the “dirty sidewalks of Broadway” in Glen Campbell’s signature hit–cum–nail in his career’s coffin. He’s tired of walking these streets, he sings, and he mopes that “nice guys” here get “washed away” — existential complaints no hard-working Wichita lineman would have time for. But Campbell’s narrator here still holds to a dream: Somehow, for some reason, the lights are going to shine on him, and he’ll be riding a horse, and he’ll be shellacked over in glittery costume jewelry. The song’s colossal success proves this whining character’s no mere dreamer — if anything, it’s a tribute to the fact that one way to make it in the only American city that counts is to create something so shitty and gaudy and dumb that the rest of the country can’t resist it.
20. Beastie Boys – “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” Brooklyn’s influence is all over everything the Beastie Boys produced together, but nothing is quite as affecting as their lovely ode to the borough, appropriately titled “No Sleep Till Brooklyn.” Nearly 30 years after the release of the Rick Rubin–produced jam, the song is now a tourist-y rite of passage for anyone who crosses any of the bridges out of Manhattan, with lyrics now visible in the captions to every friend’s Bushwick warehouse party Instagram and last year’s VMA promos. Somehow, none of that dampens the punch of Kerry King’s guitar riffs and the lyrical gymnastics of these NYC boys.
19. Leonard Cohen – “First We Take Manhattan” As with any Leonard Cohen song, there are a million interpretations. Is this song about his career? Is it about terrorism? It’s up to the listener to parse Leonard’s vague yet incisive poetry, first performed by Jennifer Warnes before the writer took a crack at it. With his vocals, Cohen brings the type of cold industrialism necessary for the dark ’80s tune. Of course, by this time, Cohen already had a pretty firm grip on Manhattan, having relocated to this isle to become a folk musician 20 years prior to the song’s release.
18. Velvet Underground – “I’m Waiting for the Man” An autobiographical tale of trekking to Harlem to score some heroin — “Twenty-six dollars in my hand/Up to Lexington, 1–2–5/Feelin sick and dirty, more dead than alive” — Lou Reed’s 1967 “I’m Waiting for the Man” comes complete with racial tension — “Hey white boy, what you doin’ uptown?” — and stylish dealers — “He’s all dressed in black/PR shoes and a big straw hat.” (“Puerto Rican fence-climbers” were pointy-toed footwear perfect for scaling chain-link while shaking off pursuing cops.) On the live album 1969, the Velvet Underground opened a crackling set in the hinterlands with this paean to dissolution, including an ad-libbed intro from Reed: “Pull up your cushions — whatever else you have with you — that makes life bearable in Texas.” Wherever he went, Lou never left his New York state of mind behind.
17. Simon & Garfunkel – “The Boxer” For a time after Simon & Garfunkel released “The Boxer,” many listeners theorized that the song was a veiled chronicle of heroin addiction. It was actually a song about a New York artist — Paul Simon — who’d been taking a lot of shit about his music and was sick of it. The cut, which appeared on Bridge Over Troubled Water a year after its initial release as a single (“Baby Driver” was the upbeat B side), is a production tour-de-force that includes a signature bass harmonica lick from the great Nashville session man Charlie McCoy. How New York is it? When Simon and Garfunkel reunited on Saturday Night Live in 1975, they opened with “The Boxer.” And when Simon appeared on the first SNL to air after 9-11, he sang “The Boxer” as first responders and Rudy Giuliani, that glory whore, looked on.
16. Run-D.M.C. – “Christmas in Hollis” It’s their goofiest song by far, but one that breathes New York in a way their classic cuts about Adidas, King Midas, ordering Big Macs at KFC, and all-around kingliness don’t. “Christmas in Hollis” humanized Run-D.M.C., turning them from fedora- and gold-rope-wearing gods atop hip-hop’s ever-influential mountain into a few guys who, like you, allowed themselves to be taken in by a little bit of Christmas cheer. What’s more, it introduced us to where they were from, Hollis, Queens, a place that thankfully rhymes with “Mom’s cooking chicken and collard greens.”
15. Vernon Duke – “Autumn in New York” Like many jazz standards, Vernon Duke’s 1934 paean to, well, autumn in New York, is one that has no real definitive version. It’s been recorded more than 200 times, as both an instrumental and with lyrics, and by artists as diverse as Billie Holliday (probably your best bet), Sun Ra, and The Dudley Moore Trio. Although many of the sung versions contain their own interpretation of the lyrics, each drives home the same message — New York City between the end of a sultry, unlivable summer and an even more insufferable winter is about as damn near perfect as it gets in the Big Apple. And if you’re in the process of falling in love, or even just going out on a first date…I mean, where would you rather do it? Los Angeles?
14. Interpol – “NYC” Even a decade after its release, you’d still be hard-pressed to find anyone who really knows what “Subway, she is a porno” means, but there is a kind of hazy plod to Interpol’s “NYC” that does perfectly exemplify the everyday life of many a working New Yorker: those bits of your commute where you keep your head down, downshift into autopilot, and strap on your mental and emotional armor for the battle you find daily in the rat-race capital. Lead singer Paul Banks has always had trouble with clarity in his lyrics, but we get — nay, feel — what he’s saying on most of “NYC.” These pavements, they are a mess; every New Yorker does wear “seven faces”; and, at some point, you’ll find yourself “Sick of spending these lonely nights/Training [your]self not to care.”
13. Ramones – “Rockaway Beach” The Ramones might be the Beach Boys of New York, at least on this song. All that’s missing is the falsetto. Bass player Dee Dee Ramone sings the truth: “It’s not far, not hard to reach/We can hitch a ride to Rockaway Beach.” You can, in fact, take any number of buses to the Rockaways in Queens for a pleasant summer getaway from the city. Some parts of the beach are nicer than others, and no, it’s not the Caribbean, but it beats sunbathing on your rooftop, right? If you’re lucky, your bus driver won’t “blast out disco on the radio” en route.
12. Joni Mitchell – “Chelsea Morning” Thanks to Joni Mitchell’s trademark lilting sunny vocals, signature acoustic strumming, and lighter-than-air lyrical musings, “Chelsea Morning” is one of the most un–New York NY songs. The Canadian chanteuse sings of a late ’60s wherein the city seems possessed of a kinder, gentler “milk, toast, and honey” mien; even traffic is melodic. Her paean to a small personal moment on the city’s West Side brims with welcoming sun, rainbows, and crystals; even pigeons seem enchanting. (So much so that Hil & Bill Clinton named their offspring after the song.) Though Mitchell has apparently dismissed her composition as a bit of a treacly, nascent effort, the sweet gem was covered by three artists — Judy Collins, Fairport Convention, and Jennifer Warnes — before Mitchell herself even released it.
11. Frank Sinatra – “The Theme From New York, New York” C’mon!
10. Nas – “NY State of Mind” There is a New York where the nights are jet-black. Where each block is like a maze full of trapped rats. Where “the Island” doesn’t mean Manhattan, and from the stories of those returning home, “the Island” is even more packed than Manhattan. It’s a New York of smoke-nice rocks and bullet holes left in peepholes. It’s a New York where fake dudes don’t make it back. It’s a New York that never sleeps, ’cause sleep is the cousin of death. A dungeon, Nas calls it, and he guides us through this New York with his seen-it-all, just-the-facts, understated oratory, which slices through DJ Premier’s menacing piano-laced beat, dropping knowledge and wisdom and indoctrinating us into the ways of this New York, injecting us with a New York State of Mind.
9. Patti Smith – “Piss Factory” Yet again, she’s screwin’ up the quota. The best-known NYC songs are about how great you are for makin’ it here (“New York, New York”), or how much hustle/discipline you evinced taking it over (“Empire State of Mind”). Patti Smith’s “Piss Factory,” though, is about dreaming of making it — both to New York and in New York. Over bristling and insistent guitar, piano, and bass, Smith’s teenage protag spew-monologues about how a go-nowhere job won’t keep her from going someplace. She’ll hop that train, Jack, come to New York, and finally let loose what she’s been holding back, the thing she knows she’s got but her factory-mates don’t: desire. Like millions before and after her, she’s gonna get here and become who she already secretly is — and maybe she’ll have the hustle-discipline to make it.
8. Billy Joel – “New York State of Mind” Few songwriters are as intrinsically linked to New York as Bronx native Billy Joel, now the first “music franchise” at Madison Square Garden. The original version of “New York State of Mind” was not a single when it appeared on the album Turnstiles in 1976, but it’s become an iconic tune both for Joel and for this city. Apart from the memorable melody and lyrics, the piano licks that accompany a blossoming sax solo give the song a quintessentially New York jazz feel. Many, many artists have covered this classic, but there’s something about the original version that never gets old, no matter how many times you’ve heard it.
7. Garland Jeffreys – “Wild in the Streets” Garland Jeffreys recorded “Wild in the Streets” with swamp-boogie grand wizard Dr. John, but its hot-summer-asphalt beat and back-alley-hiss chorus are NYC through and through — just like Jeffreys himself. Born in Brooklyn in the 1940s, half black and half Puerto Rican, he went to college with Lou Reed and was an early protégé of John Cale. His rock-, soul-, and reggae-inflected albums brought him a measure of acclaim in the late 1970s, but even back then Jeffreys was an underrated and underappreciated homegrown virtuoso. Though it was cut in 1973, “Wild in the Streets” didn’t make it onto an album for another four years. That’s fine in retrospect, because as a slice of New York life it has proven timeless. Look at it this way: If you go into a jukebox bar in this town and Garland Jeffreys ain’t on the jukebox, turn around. You’re in the wrong bar.
6. Rolling Stones – “Shattered” In the 36 years since the Stones’ seminal love letter to/indictment of the city, precious little has changed: “To live in this town you must be tough, tough, tough, tough, tough!/You got rats on the west side/Bedbugs uptown.” Mick Jagger hit it on the head with his lyrical observations, the Glimmer Twins creating a dirty, bouncy urgency that pairs perfectly with the snapshot of the divisive decadence and difficulty that was New York in the late ’80s. To wit: “Bite the Big Apple, don’t mind the maggots.” Quite possibly the only rock song to use the word schmatta, “Shattered” ‘s lyrics are spot-on in their pointed observations, snottily talk-sung by Jagger. Maybe Mayor de Blasio can use a lyric as the city’s motto: “Pride and joy and greed and sex/That’s what makes our town the best.”
5. Duke Ellington – “Take the ‘A’ Train” Whether you know it or not, you’ve heard “Take the ‘A’ Train” hundreds of times. When you’re watching any film that takes place in the 1940s or ’50s, chances are there will be a scene where the signature tune of the Duke Ellington Orchestra is playing in the background. It’s probably the first song that comes to mind when you think of swing-era New York City. Though it was written by longtime Ellington collaborator Billy Strayhorn, the song will forever be associated with the Duke. It has lyrics (the A train is how you get to Harlem, in case you were wondering), and some of the greatest jazz vocalists have recorded and performed it, but the instrumental versions — with the woodwinds driving the melody — are the most easily recognizable. If you want to hear the lyrics, Ella Fitzgerald’s interpretation is the benchmark. It’s worth your time for the scatting alone.
4. The Jim Carroll Band – “People Who Died” If you live in New York and haven’t read Jim Carroll’s memoir The Basketball Diaries, shame on you. If you saw the movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio and haven’t read the book, shame on you twice. Carroll was a longtime downtown darling when he released his debut LP in 1980, but Catholic Boy remains a punk classic 35 years on, and “People Who Died” is its pièce de résistance. A litany of casualties from Carroll’s real-life youth — the son of a bar owner, he was a hoops prodigy who discovered poetry and heroin while on scholarship to Trinity School — the three-chord song bristles with tragic élan. Did all those kids perish as Carroll sings that they did? The book and our money say yes, but it’s too late to quiz the source. In 2009 Jim Carroll died of a heart attack at age 60, and NYC is much the poorer.
3. Le Tigre – “My Metrocard” This peppy takedown of Giuliani (“He’s such/A fucking jerrrrk”) and the sterile New York he created is Kathleen Hanna at her spirited best: political, yes, but also fun, energetic. She was new to the city when she and her first post-Bikini Kill band, Le Tigre, wrote it, fresh from a cross-country move from the Pacific Northwest, and in her voice you can hear the kind of wide-eyed excitement all new transplants possess before they’ve been beaten down by the daily grind. Live here awhile and your MetroCard becomes a chore, something else to add to the pile of things you have to maintain. But in “My My Metrocard” it’s the key to a city Hanna is eager to explore, and the self-congratulatory dance we all do once we’ve started to figure out the subway system. “NEXT STOP Atlantic Avenue/NEXT STOP Christopher Street/NEXT STOP Transfer to the/NEXT STOP A, C, or E.”
2. Bob Dylan – “Visions of Johanna” Someone ought to make a map that details all the places Bob Dylan has sung about. Oh, wait — someone already did (http://bit.ly/bob-dylan-map). Dude really gets around, songwriterly speaking, and there’s a lot of NYC on that map. One or two Dylan songs are New York–specific (roasted chestnuts like “Hard Times in New York Town” and “Talkin’ New York” come to mind); others (“Joey”; “Hurricane” if you stretch the boundaries) are explicitly set here. There’s the famously vitriolic “Positively 4th Street” — which, interestingly, makes absolutely no mention of New York beyond its title — and songs that pinpoint places (the Chelsea Hotel, Elizabeth Street, Grand Street). But no Dylan song evokes this city the way “Visions of Johanna,” released on Blonde on Blonde, does. The Dylan-mapmakers excluded the song — or maybe overlooked it — presumably because the sole explicit reference isn’t a place, per se, but a subway line: “the all-night girls they whisper of escapades out on the D train.” That’s just as well. A song about disillusionment and loss, “Johanna” is less a geographic coordinate than an exquisitely executed painting of lonesome city winter, masquerading as a seven-and-a-half-minute tune.
1. Stevie Wonder – “Living for the City” The hardest-edged hit this fa-la-la-ing superstar ever dared, “Living for the City” finds Wonder at his most Muppety gruff, shouting tough truths (and iffy rhymes) over warm, mounting synths and a backbeat that lurches and starts like the old Eighth Avenue Independent. The single edit trims the playlet at the song’s center, which briskly treats the Great Migration and the North’s institutionalized racism in less than a minute — within 10 seconds of arriving in New York, the song’s hero is locked up by racist cops. But because Wonder’s an optimist/melodist/genius, the hardness blooms again and again into what might be his greatest musical inspiration: those ribbons of glorious synth after each verse, hardy as sidewalk flowers but airy and galactic as aurora borealis. That’s how Wonder sees the world, with impossible hoping illuminating the darkest visions.