It’s that time of year again, when artists of nearly every variety hunker down in beatific Brooklyn — and more specifically at the Prospect Park bandshell — for the outdoor festival known as Celebrate Brooklyn. This month alone, everyone from Chaka Khan to Esperanza Spalding and Lucinda Williams touches down south of Grand Army Plaza. It’s no secret that the borough has quite the musical history, but how often have you stopped and thought about how many timeless tracks are dedicated to Brooklyn? Probably not enough. No worries: To commemorate the start of Celebrate Brooklyn, we’ve rounded up the fifteen best odes to Brooklyn. Check out our Brooklyn-toasting selections, from the Notorious B.I.G. to Neil Diamond and more.
Lou Reed, “Coney Island Baby”
Coney Island: A fantasy land of Ferris wheels and cotton candy; a last stop before the Atlantic Ocean; the setting for Lou Reed’s bleeding heart of a 1976 LP. The title track off Reed’s album is its centerpiece, a lilting six-minute dirge baring the heart of our hamstrung hero, who says he wants “to play football for the coach” before admitting that, like so many other Coney Island wanderers, he just wants a shard of acceptance.
Beastie Boys, “No Sleep Till Brooklyn”
Sure, the skeezy cornballs causing ruckus and simply looking to get laid soon became activists, but on Licensed to Ill the Beastie Boys were more than content to get drunk before class and party-rock in order to pay for slushies. “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” is as much an homage to the Beasties’ native borough as it is a tale of young rowdies discussing the finer points of “trashing hotels like it’s going out of style.”
Jay Z and the Notorious B.I.G., “Brooklyn’s Finest”
Nearly twenty years after recording this collaboration (and almost as long since Biggie’s tragic death), Jay Z and the Notorious B.I.G. remain two of Brooklyn’s most iconic voices. That they joined forces here on Jay’s Reasonable Doubt, even at such an early stage in Hov’s career, was monumental: Two of the borough’s baddest were shouting out Marcy and Bed-Stuy, propping up Flatbush and Red Hook. “Brooklyn, represent, y’all,” Jay bellowed, and dude’s been doing so ever since.
Sonny Rollins, “The Bridge”
If ever there was a grand musical folklore surrounding Brooklyn, Sonny Rollins is surely its central character. One of the renowned saxophonist’s most iconic albums and tracks, “The Bridge” derives its name from Williamsburg’s. It’s where the Lower East Side resident — burdened by his quick rise to fame and on sabbatical to perfect his craft — would take his horn to practice alone, sometimes for up to sixteen hours at a time. The resulting track remains a hard-bop masterpiece, stutter-stepping but smooth, aggressive but agile.
On the next page: “Brooklyn, Brooklyn, take me in…”
Brenda Kahn, “In Indiana”
For all the Brooklyn songs constructed by artists actually living in Brooklyn, there are still a fair few, like Brenda Kahn’s “In Indiana,” that speak of longing to be in the borough’s grasp. Her 1992 plea finds the angst-ridden singer, currently “2,000 miles from Avenue A,” dreaming of being able to “live on the Brooklyn side,” where, “If I could look out my window through those metal neon lines of the 50-foot Domino Sugar sign,” she’d see that it “hangs over Brooklyn like a cross on a hill.”
Lana Del Rey, “Brooklyn Baby”
There’s something in the way Lana Del Rey moves — it’s almost a slither — that feels grimy, deceitful, and definitively New York. It’s possible “Brooklyn Baby,” off her wonderful sophomore album, Ultraviolence, is a pose rather than a proper positioning. Jazz, Lou Reed, Beat poetry — they all get a fair shake here. Nevertheless, there’s a dark mystery in the song that’s all BK. Longing and camp, absurdity and pristine beauty: That’s Brooklyn, baby.
The Avett Brothers, “I and Love and You”
“Brooklyn, Brooklyn, take me in,” the Avett Brothers plead on the title track off their breakthrough 2009 Rick Rubin–produced major-label debut. And as the acoustic guitar chimes and the piano plods, we’re transplanted to a safer place. The song was reportedly inspired by the band’s show at the Galapagos Art Space — “My hands they shake, my head it spins” — but whatever anxieties inspired the song only give it more emotional heft.
Yasiin Bey, “Brooklyn”
There’s cruising music, and then there’s Yasiin Bey’s shout-out to his native borough. “Brooklyn,” off the Artist Formerly Known as Mos Def’s 1999 debut solo album, Black on Both Sides, is as direct an ode to Brooklyn as you’re likely to encounter. “Best in the world all U.S.A.,” he shouts, reminiscing on throwing on an Izod in Bed-Stuy and walking “the streets like a sweet.” Yes, Bey is “from the slums that created the bass that thump back,” and he’s damn proud of it.
Catey Shaw, “Brooklyn Girls”
OK, so the song may have been dubbed the “most hated on the internet” and “the anthem nobody wanted” for Brooklyn, but although painting an uber-stereotypical portrait of Brooklyn, Shaw’s viral ode to the borough is worth including on this list if only for its sheer circa-2014 ubiquity. “Combat boots in the summer/Subway train rolling under,” Shaw sings of her perceived female Brooklynite in that forced, nasally doo-wop croon. On second thought, let’s forget we reminded you of this one.
Justin Townes Earle, “One More Night in Brooklyn”
It’s a painful lament, to be sure, but Justin Townes Earle’s bluesy strut, “One More Night in Brooklyn,” off his 2010 Harlem River Blues LP, just feels good for the soul. Where some odes to Brooklyn prop it up, in Earle’s eyes, it’s a temporary trap. “It’ll never match the beauty of a Tennessee spring/But it’s something new,” he sings. Ultimately the singer-songwriter packs his bags, orders in — maybe some cheap Chinese — and in the end declares that it’s not where but who we’re with: “It’s one more night in Brooklyn, baby/It’s just you and me.”
Ol’ Dirty Bastard, “Brooklyn Zoo”
“Shimmy Shimmy Ya” may go down as the breakout single from Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s first solo release, but “Brooklyn Zoo” — all aggression and an undeniable banger — remains a hip-hop-head favorite. In this song, Brooklyn represented the grand stage and the place of battle for ODB. It’s where the late MC shined brightest: “Shame on you when you step through to/The Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Brooklyn Zoo.”
The Black Keys, “Brooklyn Bound”
Slinky, sexy, pure blues grit. With Dan Auerbach’s Hendrix-esque guitar stabs and Patrick Carney’s rounded-edge fills, “Brooklyn Bound” was a pure shot of adrenaline on the Black Keys’ debut album, The Big Come Up. Like so many dreamers’ before, the Keys’ Brooklyn represented the promised land: “Well, I hate to leave you, hate to put you down/But that way you love, darling, no, I’m Brooklyn bound.”
The Lonely Island, “Where Brooklyn At?”
Love ’em or hate ’em, the Lonely Island’s parodies are almost always rooted in a deep love of pop culture. So while, sure, their goofy interlude “Where Brooklyn At?” is, um, a bit dumb, when contrasted with the countless hometown hip-hop shout-outs — including, of course, Biggie, and Tupac’s famous “Where Brooklyn At?” Funk Flex freestyle — it’s undeniably on point. “But seriously, can anyone tell me where Brooklyn at?”
Neil Diamond, “Brooklyn Roads”
In 1968, when he first released “Brooklyn Roads,” his first single for MCA on his Velvet Gloves and Spit LP, Neil Diamond was still carving out his soon-to-be-signature style. Little did we know that the song — an undeniably cheesy recall of his youth, “the smells of cookin’ in the hallways/Rubbers dryin’ in the doorways” — would come to perfectly encapsulate the Jewish Elvis’s grand and epic storytelling savvy.
Foxygen, “Brooklyn Police Station”
Equal parts goofy and righteous, Foxygen’s modern-day we-aren’t-gonna-take-it/Who-esque screed, “Brooklyn Police Station,” is a notoriously reckless tribute to good ol’ law enforcement stifling. “I don’t want to go to where they want to kidnap me/Brooklyn Police Station,” they sing. No, these longhairs aren’t long for authority, but if trouble is what they’re looking for, Brooklyn has plenty to be found.
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