Music

Here Are the Best Love Songs Inspired by NYC

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Ours is a city that’s easy to fall in love with, easy to fall in love in, and easier still to break your heart in (or nurse it back to health). New York City remains a timeless muse for artists of every genre and generation. We’ve already compiled a selection of the best NYC albums and the best songs about the five boroughs we call home. Now, just in time for Valentine’s Day, we’re playing these love songs on repeat because they touch on romance in a way that only New York — and the musicians who live, love, and get over their heartbreaks here — can. Here are our picks for the best New York love songs. You’re welcome in advance for compiling your Sunday-night playlist.

“New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down”  LCD Soundsystem

“I don’t see the need to make New York seem like it doesn’t have things that make me want to shoot myself in the fucking face as a way of explaining that I love it,” James Murphy told the Voice back in 2007. And this is where Taylor Swift, Jay Z, and Sinatra’s simple, Thanksgiving Day Parade–size depictions of the Five Boroughs fail, while Murphy’s winking, piano bar ditty succeeds. The Sound of Silver closer pragmatically struggles with the city in our heads and the city in front of us, but appreciates it all the same. In real life, New York is not waiting for you, not there to make you feel number one. But when you love something — really love something — honesty goes way further than fluff. — Sean McCabe

“Oh Oh I Love Her So” — The Ramones

An underrated gem from 1979’s Leave Home, “Oh Oh I Love Her So” sounds like so many other Ramones tunes on the surface, but the song is as much a valentine to New York as it is to the girl pulling at Joey’s heartstrings. “Then we went down to Coney Island, on the coaster and around again,” he sings. “And no one’s gonna ever tear us apart cause she’s my sweetheart.” It’s a solid deep cut that fits the bill. — Ryan Bray

“You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory” — Johnny Thunders

Ralph Kramden: “You’re gonna be awful lonesome around here all by yourself, Alice. Just remember, you can’t put your arms around a memory.” The Honeymooners, “Better Living Through TV”

Both Ralph Kramden of Brooklyn and John Genzale Jr. of Queens wanted to pursue the American dream. “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory” is a shot straight to the heart, track two of Johnny Thunders’s first solo album, and it does so after two minutes of cheery surf guitar opens the record. The track feels windswept, echoey, and bleak. Thunders’s voice teeters on the edge of bravado, accompanied by grand, ambitious Spector-ian acoustic guitar chords. “Feel so cold and all alone/Cause baby, you’re not at home,” Johnny sings, before closing the thought: “And when I’m home/Big deal, I’m still alone.” It will break your heart; it is meant to break your heart. — Caryn Rose

“The Only Living Boy in New York” — Simon & Garfunkel

Paul was drifting from his friend. It was the spring of ’69 and Art was caught at a film shoot in Mexico for what was to be his cinematic debut, Catch-22. Paul, alone, remained in New York, where he wrote for the approaching Simon & Garfunkel swan song Bridge Over Troubled Water. Without his partner in a city of millions, Paul channeled the lonesomeness into four minutes that eventually sway into a poignant and friendly requiem. It’s a simultaneous hug and a kiss-off: “Tom, get your plane right on time/I know that you’ve been eager to fly now.” It should come as no surprise that music supervisors working on films continue to rehash the song periodically; its layered love leaves room for boundless reveal. — Silas Valentino

“A NY Love Story” — Mack Wilds

Mack Wilds’s New York: A Love Story, his 2013 debut with legendary producer Salaam Remi, is a throwback to the soulful roots of Nineties hip-hop and the New Jack Swing era. The title track, “A NY Love Story,” is an elegant affair: Wilds is sweetly asking his current fling if they can take their relationship to the next level. “Baby, I don’t mind, making love all through…the night, but I need a love thing, too,” he sings in his mesmerizing falsetto. Over a dreamy instrumental, Wilds is a hopeless romantic, looking for “a Stevie Wonder kind of love,” and she eventually heeds his advances. In a city where Tinder is the dating app du jour, it’s pleasant to hear Wilds pursue love and happiness the old-fashioned way. — Eric Diep

“The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side” — Magnetic Fields

Like most Magnetic Fields love songs, this one is tinged with sadness and — thanks to Stephen Merritt’s drawling baritone — kind of creepy, especially with its intimation that the object of the narrator’s affection is being courted by a much-older professor. But the premise is perfect: In a city of dirty sidewalks, overcrowded subways, and pricey taxis, of course the guy with the car is the one to call up on a sunny summer day. Driving around town without anywhere to go is a luxury few New Yorkers get enjoy, making the opportunity to stick your head out the window with the wind in your hair worth a potentially crappy date. Note to single Lower East Siders who can’t seem to catch a break: Those alternate-side parking tickets might be worth it after all. — Zoë Leverant

“Hey Lover” — LL Cool J featuring Boyz II Men

LL Cool J had been hip-hop’s de facto ladies’ man for a decade by the time “Hey Lover” came around. But this time — albeit highly improbably — the rapper doesn’t get the girl. “It was Harlem at the Rucker, I saw you with your man/Smiling, huh, a Coach bag in your hand,” LL says. “But I don’t want to violate your relationship/So I lay back in the cut with a crush, that’s a trip.” LL is resigned to covet his object of affection from a distance, relying on grueling workouts, fantasies of vanilla ice cream, and Boyz II Men’s smooth, pop-r&b grooves to keep him afloat. — Sowmya Krishnamurthy


“Train Under Water” — Bright Eyes

Bright Eyes — the sometimes nom de guerre of Omaha-bred singer-songwriter Conor Oberst — has long been considered quintessential sad bastard music. But I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning, one of two LPs released simultaneously on Saddle Creek Records in 2005, is Oberst at his most hopeful and earnest. In the early Aughts, Oberst frequently drew comparisons to a young Bob Dylan, and this album seemed to recall the singer’s own Freewheelin’ Greenwich Village folk period. One of the album’s strongest tracks, “Train Under Water” — most likely referencing the L train — is at once a beautiful arrangement of steel pedal guitar and harmonies, and an ode to the complexities of inter-borough romance. “I always get lost when I leave the Village, so I couldn’t come meet you in Brooklyn last night,” Oberst offers by way of an apology, though the reported future L train closures could soon produce a fresh batch of excuses to help him skip out on a date. — Jackson Conner

“Love Comes in Spurts” — Richard Hell & the Voidoids

Urgent, dirty, and dangerous: the essence of young, snotty, Lower East Side “love” in Seventies New York City. Richard Hell deftly captured it in the two minutes and three seconds of his seminal (pun intended) 1977 tune, which kicked off and set the tone for Blank Generation, Hell and the Voidoids’ timeless debut. As Hell rants, “I was a child/Who wanted love that was wild/Though tight as slow motion/But crazed with devotion…I was fourteen and a half/and it wasn’t no laugh.” We can presume the lament chorus of “oh no it hurts” refers to an STD unwittingly contracted via one of those wild loves, but as he also sings, love “…murders your heart/They didn’t tell you that part,” hinting that under the barely controlled musical chaos beats the heart of a romantic — fitting for Hell, who took his surname from the work of decadent French poet Arthur Rimbaud. — Katherine Turman

“You Said Something” — PJ Harvey

What is it to be just one body among New York City’s 8.4 million? Some say it’s a reminder of one’s smallness. Others would argue the city’s vastness brings a sense of endless possibility. PJ Harvey’s “You Said Something” stands firmly on the side of the latter philosophy. Harvey doesn’t stray from the cliché symbols of New York City, but they stick because of her songwriting’s sense of movement. The airiness invigorates landmarks like the Empire State Building — now no longer constrictors, but pathways to that nebulous “something” Harvey croons about. In a song released in 2000, the metropolis Harvey romantically describes was a year away from being infected by death and paranoia. — Brian Josephs


“Bonita Applebum” — A Tribe Called Quest

Last year, A Tribe Called Quest’s debut album turned 25, and it was remastered and reissued with new remixes from CeeLo Green (“Footprints”), Pharrell (“Bonita Applebum”), and J. Cole (“Can I Kick It?”). Even in 2016, “Bonita Applebum” still holds up, a classic hip-hop track about swooning over a woman with an hourglass figure. Q-Tip’s lyrics are smooth as molasses, telling his side of courtship with one-liners like “You and me, hun, we’re a match made in heaven.” His confession of love goes as far as telling the girl “I like to kiss ya where some brothers won’t” — a boast of cunnilingus that’s hard for anyone to deny. Considering the influence of Tribe’s music after all these years, “Bonita Applebum” remains a song New Yorkers know all too well, and the perfect example that playing hard to get is a winning game. — Eric Diep

“New York City Serenade” — Bruce Springsteen

“New York City Serenade” is an ode to the city as much as it is a love story. It is a grand, epic tale of Diamond Jackie and Billy, with a soundtrack to match, from the piano intro (courtesy of David Sancious) that sweeps majestically from classical to jazz, before settling into the gentle, lyrical rhythm that carries the song forward. Springsteen’s narration is peak Jersey Shore hipster surfer dude, calling it as he sees it, talking about the fish lady and the jazzman and the corner boys. A string section descends seemingly from the heavens, and some of Clarence Clemons’s most emotional saxophone work walks our heroes into the sunset. It is eight minutes of hope and heart and beauty: “So walk tall, baby, or don’t walk at all.” – Caryn Rose

“I Love You Baby” — Puff Daddy featuring Black Rob

Diddy has had his fair share of emo raps. There was an especially plaintive run right after his breakup with J.Lo — but nothing goes as hard as “I Love You Baby.” A B-side favorite from 1997’s No Way Out, “I Love You Baby” introduced Harlem’s Black Rob, whose opening salvo sums it up: “I met her uptown on Dyckman, aight then/Talkin’ that, how she only dealt with businessmen.” Rob steals the tale about a duplicitous woman who sets him up, only to face a grizzly end. “Funny how it’s a small world, baby girl/Youse about to get fucked with no gel/I’mma sit back and watch this cake finish baking/And plan your extermination, word.” — Sowmya Krishnamurthy

“Puerto Rican Judo” — Ratking

Ratking’s brash brand of New York rap might not be the sound you think of when you imagine a New York City love song, but on “Puerto Rican Judo,” from their incendiary 2014 album, So It Goes, they channel their gritty and grim vision of Manhattan into a touching snapshot of an underclass relationship in Gotham. Over a Sporting Life beat that evokes the sounds of an overhead subway, Patrick Morales, a/k/a Wiki, and Wavy Spice trade bars marveling at the small miracle that is the other person. She says, “You bring out the best in me/Everything you say manifests in me.” He counters, “How you look at me like that, when I got no teeth?” In an album with a dark, complicated relationship to New York City, the song is a poignant expression of how love manifests in a town where cops, class, and race can make a relationship between a “brown girl” and a “white boy,” as Wiki describes the pair, very difficult. — Adam Downer

“You Don’t Know My Name” — Alicia Keys

Few moments in music are more endearing than Alicia Keys pausing in the middle of “You Don’t Know My Name” — the first single from her Grammy Award–winning sophomore album — to act the part of a lovestruck waitress working at a coffeehouse on 139th and Lenox. Every Wednesday, Keys’s secret crush comes into the shop on his lunch break and orders a hot chocolate. “I always use some milk and cream for you, ’cause I think you’re kinda sweet,” she admits during their first phone call, her voice shy but self-assured. The song was produced by Kanye West, the beat is sampled from the Main Ingredient’s ethereal 1974 single “Let Me Prove My Love to You,” and the music video features Yasiin Bey (a/k/a Mos Def) in the role of Keys’s hot cocoa–addicted love interest. — Jackson Conner

“Angel of Harlem” — U2

“Angel of Harlem,” from 1988’s Rattle and Hum, is brimming with the breathless, shiny optimism of the newly arrived. “New York, like a Christmas tree/Tonight this city belongs to me,” sings Bono, and we all know what he’s talking about, that moment when you first glimpse the skyline in the distance. The lyrics are stream-of-consciousness impressions, excited, quick jump shots viewed through the eyes of someone who has loved New York and everything she represents. It is an ode to the city and to its music and to the rhythm of the subways and the streets and the electricity in the air. It is about missing a time and a place you were too young to have been part of. — Caryn Rose


“Slum Goddess”  The Fugs

One of the great, underappreciated NYC bands of the mid Sixties was the Fugs, featuring poet Ed Sanders (who authored the impressive Manson tome The Family). It’s almost a novelty song in its quirky, picaresque tale-telling of young Sherry Bendel’s NYC “trip.” Sherry moved to the LES in the Summer of Love, her charms inspiring the narrator to pine and plead, “Slum goddess, won’t you please be my bride?” Her accomplishments? “Sherry organized a commune on Avenue A/She swears the revolution is just one pamphlet away.” The elusive Slum Goddess existed in a sunnier time and place: “Dope, sex, revolution, pretty paisley hues/She walks through the park/All the hippie hearts melt.” The best, though, is that Sherry’s parents “were detectives posing as bums” to find their wayward daughter. They don’t write ‘em like this anymore. — Katherine Turman

“Visions of Johanna” — Bob Dylan

What’s so remarkable about Bob Dylan’s iconic Blonde on Blonde track “Visions of Johanna” is not simply its serpentine verses or the fact that the singer is at once both laying bare his infatuation with a singular woman and simultaneously dreaming of another more desirable yet unattainable one. Rather, it’s his impressionistic depiction of a meandering New York City evening: the “all-night girls” and how “they whisper of escapades out on the D-train,” the “muttering small talk at the wall.” Mona Lisa in the museum with the “highway blues.” Dylan’s New York here is a boozy, obsessive one, equal parts love, desire, and regret, all underpinned by a supple acoustic guitar and Robbie Robertson’s treble electric. Those sights and sounds of the bustling city can blind even the most steadfast man, but Dylan is too engrossed with the woman never present, and it all blurs into one massive whirl. — Dan Hyman


“’03 Bonnie & Clyde” – Jay Z featuring Beyoncé

Jay Z and Beyoncé are hip-hop’s reigning couple, but before #RelationshipGoals, they were Young and Bey, “cruising down the West Side Highway.” Jay Z fittingly samples 2Pac’s “Me and My Girlfriend” for his first collaboration with his future wife. Never much for sap, he keeps it Brooklyn. “She rides with me — the new Bobby and Whitney/Only time we don’t speak is during Sex and the City.” Beyoncé responds like a true ride-or-die chick: “Down to ride ’til the very end, it’s me and my boyfriend.” Although the couple didn’t cop to a relationship until years later, their heat radiated off the track. — Sowmya Krishnamurthy

“I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” — The Ramones

The quintessential New York City punk band wrote the quintessential punk rock love song with 1976’s “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend.” More Sixties bubblegum schlock pop than anything else, the toe-tapping little ditty is Beatles-esque in its sweet simplicity, showing off the Queens crew’s soft side following the Sturm und Drang of their first single, “Blitzkrieg Bop.” Written by drummer Tommy Ramone, it features the band’s trademark endearingly boneheaded lyrics (“Hey, little girl/I wanna be your boyfriend/Sweet little girl/I wanna be your boyfriend” — be still my beating heart) and a sunny little beat, punctuated by crooning vocal harmonies. Tommy once said that NYC is the “perfect place to grow up neurotic,” but “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” shows that there’s plenty of room here for a dash of romance, too. — Kim Kelly

“I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” — Sleater-Kinney

If the song that inspired it charmed with its simplicity, Sleater-Kinney’s own ode to punk-rock lust (and maybe love) is a much tougher customer, snapping and snarling as it stomps all over rock ‘n’ roll’s clichéd gender roles. Vocalist and guitarist team Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein demand the adulation and admiration afforded to male stars like Joey Ramone and Thurston Moore, groupies and all — “I wanna be your Joey Ramone/Pictures of me on your bedroom door/Invite you back after the show/I’m the queen of rock ‘n’ roll” — while feigning disaffected boredom, like they’re saying it’s all just a game and they’re going to win no matter who shows up. It’s a fierce statement of strength and self-regard, delivered via yelps and warbles over a moody beat and warped surf rock riffs. After all, if you can’t love yourself, who will? — Kim Kelly

“New York”  Snow Patrol

“If you were here beside me instead of in New York, if the curve of you was curved on me/I’d tell you that I loved you before I even knew you,” Snow Patrol frontman Gary Lightbody sings amid sad piano chords. I first heard this song when I was a freshman in college — I’d never dated anyone; I’d never lived in a place that wasn’t my hometown. It’s the kind of sad, soaring song I wanted to drown in, imagining myself in a fancy Manhattan apartment with a long-distance lover who desperately wanted me to come back — but I wouldn’t. I would be independent and strong in my longing, I’d build a life in that glorious sanctuary, New York. Now I live in a mildly shitty Brooklyn apartment and am about to celebrate Valentine’s Day for the first time with a significant other — I’m a lot less romantic now, but when I listen to “New York,” it feels like I’m winking at eighteen-year-old Claire. — P. Claire Dodson

“Fuck You Tonight” — Notorious B.I.G. featuring R. Kelly

A lot has been made of the Notorious B.I.G.’s storytelling ability, hits, and basically everything else involving him. What arguably hasn’t been emphasized enough is how his lyrical economy can be as important as his mellifluous flow. His best displays of storytelling and character description are drawn vividly within a few sets of bars (see: “Suicidal Thoughts,” “Juicy,” “Niggas Bleed”). It’s a skill that made the transition from Ready to Die’s street griot to Life After Death’s slick-but-deadly mafioso a believable one, and it’s what makes “Fuck You Tonight” a standout. A lesser rapper would’ve drowned within the high-thread-count lushness of R. Kelly and Bad Boy’s production. Biggie, on the other hand, plays a convincing mack, turning the Parker Meridien hotel into a quaint accoutrement. And while an unfortunate number of r&b/rap collaborations are more superfluous than aphrodisiacs, “Fuck You Tonight” sticks with its personality: “Skip the wine and the candlelight, no Cristal tonight/If it’s all right with you, we fuckin’.” Don’t let the shadow of “Can’t You See” obscure this essential cut. — Brian Josephs

“Queen of Lower Chelsea”  Gaslight Anthem

“Did you grow up lonesome and one of a kind?/Were your records all you had to pass the time?” asks the narrator of “Queen of Lower Chelsea,” who tells us why he came to the big city in the first place. And there’s a girl (there’s always a girl, right?) who wants him and doesn’t want him, and he feels the same way: “American girls, they want the whole world/They want every last little light in New York City.” Of course, our hero came to the city for the exact same reason, but he can’t see that yet. But he’s gonna be all right; you hear it in the way his voice soars on the bridge: “Nothing is free/Not even me.” — Caryn Rose

“I Love Livin’ in the City” — FEAR

Less a song about love than a shit-stained love letter to the filthy beating heart of the city itself, FEAR’s song features lyrics about roaches and junkies, encapsulating a very special time in New York City history. (There’s even a reference to the protagonist’s burning desire to “fuck some slut,” for all you romantics out there.) In 1983, Times Square still crawled with pimps and prostitutes, its neon lights flickering invitingly over sex shops and peep shows — and that was uptown. The less said about the war zones in Alphabet City the better, and don’t even ask about Brooklyn. FEAR were originally from California, but after a riot broke out during their infamous SNL performance of “New York’s Alright If You Like Saxophones,” we claimed them as our own — and “I Love Livin’ in the City” is both their magnum opus and an instantly recognizable battle cry for anyone who calls this big, beautiful bastard city home. — Kim Kelly

“Hey Ma” — Cam’ron featuring Juelz Santana

“People think a soul mate is your perfect fit…A true soul mate is a mirror,” says Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love. Harlem rappers Cam’ron and Juelz Santana probably didn’t read her wanderlust memoir, but 2009’s “Hey Ma” is, in many ways, an exploration on how shared interests lead to romance. “You smoke? (I smoke)/I drink (Me too)/Well good — cause we gonna get high tonight.” Juelz meets a girl “downtown clubbing,” and by the time they’re at the 155th exit on the West Side Highway, he knows she’s the one — at least, for the night. You really don’t have to travel outside New York City to find true love. — Sowmya Krishnamurthy

“The L Train Is a Swell Train and I Don’t Want to Hear You Indies Complain” — Out Hud

Originally formed in Sacramento, Out Hud was a jammier offshoot of dance-punk outfit !!!, featuring members Nic Offer and Tyler Pope. But unlike !!!, Out Hud’s siren call to the club floor was wordless. Despite only being instrumental, the track “The L Train Is a Swell Train and I Don’t Want to Hear You Indies Complain,” from their 2002 debut S.T.R.E.E.T. D.A.D., is a testament to Bedford Avenue’s former desolation. Almost fifteen years later, the twelve-minute track’s math rock–indebted guitar washed in synth haze recalls the nearly barren (hipster-wise) Bedford Avenue of the early Aughts. A place where DIY on Kent meant $10 keggers boasting performances by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Les Savy Fav, before James Murphy and Co. turned the neighborhood into a pool where we’d happily drown. Whenever I want to look back at being a teen, soaking up cheap beer with Tops-bought potato chips, I flip this one on. Sure, we might lose the L for two years, but in Out Hud’s era, it was a portal to what seemed like New York’s cool future — a distant memory blockaded by so many high-rises. — Claire Lobenfeld

“Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes”  Paul Simon

In 1986, when Paul Simon brought the musical fruits of his South African sojourn to Saturday Night Live, I recall being mesmerized by Ladysmith Black Mambazo and the heretofore unknown-to-me rhythms and instrumentation. I wasn’t alone: Graceland marked a sea change for Simon. While the “diamonds” reference could be read as a reference to South Africa/DeBeers diamonds, the bouncy, utterly infectious tune is still a classic rich-girl-poor-boy love story. While “the poor boy changes clothes/And puts on aftershave/To compensate for his ordinary shoes” to take his wealthy paramour dancing, ultimately, the playing field is leveled as they end up “by sleeping in a doorway/By the bodegas and the lights on Upper Broadway/Wearing diamonds on the soles of their shoes.” Emphasis “their” from “her.” Swoon. Love triumphs over class differences in what is possibly one of the only contemporary American pop radio tunes to feature singing in Zulu. — Katherine Turman

“Autumn in New York” — Billie Holiday

Many great musicians have performed “Autumn in New York” since composer Vernon Duke first wrote the jazz standard in 1934. Versions by Charlie Parker and Frank Sinatra, as well as a beloved duet by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, stand out as particularly moving renditions. But there’s something about the melancholic beauty of Billie Holiday’s voice — the ineffable warmth she wraps around each note — that captures the true romance of Duke’s music and lyrics. The delicate accompaniment by pianist Oscar Peterson allows Holiday to shine, and listeners are easily transported to a crisp November day in Central Park, experiencing the mixture of excitement and sadness that often comes with falling in and out of love in New York City. “It’s autumn in New York that brings the promise of new love,” Holiday sings longingly. “Autumn in New York is often mingled with pain.” — Jackson Conner

“Good Fortune” — PJ Harvey

“Good Fortune” is the sound of your heart beating, of falling in love late at night at a party, of a glance across a crowded room, of connecting in a moment and realizing that you are, yes, now ready to let go of your bruised and broken heart, and take a chance again. The song is the soundtrack to running through dark, deserted downtown streets, the narrow side streets in Chinatown and Little Italy, back in the day when there was a difference. You’re running hand in hand in the middle of the night, in a world where it feels like it’s just the two of you. Harvey’s voice is strong and in control, reassuring you: You got this. You’ll get over this. — Caryn Rose

“New York State of Mind”  Billy Joel

In recent times, Billy Joel has become as much a part of New York City’s fabric as Lady Liberty or the Empire State. In the mid Seventies, however, after returning to the East Coast following a three-year stint in Los Angeles, Joel was feeling sentimental and lovelorn. “New York State of Mind” is the singer-pianist’s love letter to the city he adores; it’s a reflection on parting ways with supposed ease in exchange for that energetic heart-jolt only felt strolling through the boroughs. “I know what I’m needing/And I don’t want to waste more time,” Joel sings, slow-rolling piano burbling beneath. “I’m in a New York state of mind.” Never a hit single, the Turnstiles track has gone on to achieve almost mythical status among Joel’s fans due in large part to the singer performing the song in the wake of the tragedy of 9/11. What was once the tale of a young man returning to the bustle has come to signify something far greater: our collective love of that which is familiar and safe. — Dan Hyman

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