The 50 Most NYC Albums Ever


March 7, 2014 Update: We’ve added more albums that didn’t make the cut: The Most NYC Albums That Didn’t Make Our Most NYC Albums List.

For the past week we’ve been locked in the torch of the Statue of Liberty, subsisting on nothing but Russ & Daughters’ lox, listening to the best records about, by, and for New York City through headphones endorsed by Lou Reed. Our mission: to come up with a list of the 50 Most NYC Albums Ever; albums born of the five boroughs 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. The albums we finally agreed upon capture everything from the unaffected cool of the Lower East Side to the horn-spiked salsa of Spanish Harlem and much more. So let’s get to it. Here, now, the 50 most quintessential New York records. Apologies in advance for The Muppets Take Manhattan not making the cut.

Contributors: Rae Alexandra, R.C. Baker, Lilledeshan Bose, Jonah Bromwich, Tom Finkel, Kat George, Beca Grimm, Chris Klimek, Brett Koshkin, Nick Lucchesi, Anna Merlan, Phillip Mlynar, Chris Packham, Albert Samaha, Alan Scherstuhl, Elliott Sharp, Brittany Spanos, Tessa Stuart, Eric Sundermann, Katherine Turman

Listen to selected songs from most of these 50 albums with our Spotify playlist

Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Fever to Tell (2003)
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs might not be the hipster band du jour anymore, but Fever to Tell is still a perfect downtown New York record, gritty and artsy and stylish. Karen O has always sounded (and dressed) like the most inaccessibly hip girl at the art school party, but Fever’s appeal is also about the genuine substance locked inside layers of noise and attitude and snarl. O’s lines here are plaintive and written to cut like diamonds, like when she addresses a string of no-good lovers in “Y Control,” rebuking both them and herself: “Well I’m just one poor baby/’Cause well I believe them all/Wish I could buy back the woman you stole…”

Jay Z – The Blueprint (2001)
Jay-Z famously mocked Nas for having a “one hot album every 10-year average.” And yet Jay himself has only reached the height of his potential three times in a nearly 30-year career. The highest of those heights was The Blueprint, an imperialistic rap album built upon a New York sound that subsumed whatever else was in its path. Released on September 11, 2001, The Blueprint is a reminder of a New York that still seemed invincible, the city where the American dream was available to anyone with a hustle and the heart to see it through.

Jim Carroll – Catholic Boy (1980)
With his New York drug-drawl and angel-headed hipster-hustler lyrics, poet-turned-musician Jim Carroll spoke-sang with an urgency that belied his drug of choice. “Crow,” about muse and friend Patti Smith, is a gift, as is Bobby Keys’ sad sax on the spare, mysterious “City Drops into the Night.” But it was a litany of especially New York deaths — by subway, The Tombs (jail), and “heroin in upper Manhattan” — that made “People Who Died” an unlikely hit. Carroll’s perfect phrases and phrasing make his recorded debut both a literary and musical gem.

Lana Del Rey – Born to Die (2012)
Despite her Las Vegas past and L.A. crass, Lana Del Rey is still the queen of Coney Island. The self-appointed “gangsta Nancy Sinatra”‘s massive debut stirred discussions of authenticity while delivering a surreally romantic worldview of a futuristic Guys and Dolls New York. Even the male subjects of her songs create a composite of the quintessential young New York hipster, from his blue jeans to his apathy and bad reputation. In her way, this New York singer embraces a dreamier ideal of life in the city.

Ciccone Youth – The Whitey Album (1988)
1988’s The Whitey Album is what happens when you take two essential NYC musical icons — underground masters Sonic Youth and pop queen Madonna (last name: Ciccone) — add punk legends like Black Flag’s Greg Ginn and the Minutemen’s Mike Watt, and mash the whole thing together in an avant-garde experiment. Madonna’s “Burning Up” and “Get into the Groove” are both covered here, and while the latter is a wall of kaleidoscopic distortion and electronic claps, the former is infused with a distinctly Velvet Underground flavor, to really hammer the inherent New York-ness of Whitey home.

Listen to selected songs from most of these 50 albums with our Spotify playlist

50 Cent – Get Rich or Die Tryin’ (2003)
50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’ is not only important to New York, but it changed the way we think about rap and music as a whole. Something about the way this guy’s flow — a smooth, almost mumbling menace — made you feel like you could bench-press 17 cars with one arm. Famously shot nine times in his hometown of Jamaica, Queens, before his come-up, 50’s brash, unapologetic “How to Rob an Industry Nigga” is a man rapping without fear. He had nothing to lose, and the city to gain.

West Side Story – Original Cast Recording (1957)
Maybe it’s the ’57 Broadway cast record with the extra swears. Maybe it’s the cleaned-up movie version with Natalie Wood swapped in for Carol Lawrence. Either way, this ever-lovin’, mother-buggin’ masterpiece still thrills and fascinates. Here’s Leonard Bernstein, the most beloved American composer of his day, clanging jazz against classical against the Tin Pan Alley tradition in an attempt to capture that thing that lowbrow pop nails harder than upper-crust art: the feel of the street. Young Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics are like shards of smashed bottle, and the brittle, hilarious “America” remains stunning: the experience of new immigrants examined in the showstopper of showstoppers.

Jennifer Lopez – On the 6 (1999)
Jennifer Lopez’s On the 6 was famously named for the train she would ride into Manhattan from her native Bronx, you know, before she was a super-famous millionaire pop star with questionable movie credentials. The album is a bridging of worlds — it’s a broken-hearted Jenny from the Block’s ode to unreliable love and undeniable passion (New York in a nutshell), and it marries a distinctly Latin sound to poppy r&b. On the 6 sounds like humid summer nights in New York, between the sloshing of open fire hydrants and the shouts of drunk lovers fighting on the street.

Simon and Garfunkel – Bridge Over Troubled Water (1970)
Paul Simon is the consummate pop songwriter of the Baby Boom generation, and Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, released in early 1970, was the kazillion-selling capstone of that generation’s defining decade. Both artists grew up in New York, and the arterial blood of the city courses through every groove of Bridge’s being. Speaking of grooves, most listeners today are denied the original vinyl release’s full effect: Side one opens with the title cut, a deeply layered tour-de-force production that crescendos over its entire five-minute duration; Side two starts with the album’s other heavily produced, five-minute entry, “The Boxer,” whose symbol-laden Simonic lyrics tell a classically New York story of small-town boy beaten down by the big city.

Mountain – Climbing (1970)
More cowbell? No, it’s perfection kicking off the now-classic rock staple that is “Mississippi Queen,” a heavier-than-thou, Southern-inclined, blues-rock groover created by New York’s own Leslie Weinstein (West), a guitarist so talented Jimi Hendrix cited him as an influence. The musical behemoth of Mountain formed in time to play Woodstock, and were broken up by ’72. Still, ballsy if nuanced rockers including “Never in My Life” and “Sittin’ on a Rainbow” hail Mountain as America’s answer to Humble Pie.

Listen to selected songs from most of these 50 albums with our Spotify playlist

Bob Dylan – The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963)
From a cover shot on a West 4th Street corner with Suze Rotolo to lyrics that spoke of hitting an unknown road, social change, and the poetry of love, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan located the voice of a young folk singer having finally settled in a thriving capital of youth culture and music. Though Dylan’s self-titled debut featured the legendary talking blues track about relocating to Greenwich Village, “Talkin’ New York,” Freewheelin’, with memorable songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Girl from the North Country,” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” did more than just speak on Dylan’s experience — it spoke for a shifting city and generation.

Ka – Grief Pedigree (2012)
Ka, the O.G. of Brownsville, drops knowledge with a seen-it-all monotone, lyrics spare and vivid. It is a voice of disillusionment, of resignation. The era of New York’s urban blight — the setting for so many of the city’s hip-hop masterpieces — ended years ago, washed away by the waves of development and crime fighting. Grief Pedigree tells the stories that haven’t changed. Ka’s lessons address causes and consequences that spin the cycle of struggle. For there is choice — “Do them years or be a snitch… Turn the other cheek or pop the trunk” — and then there is fate — “Had a cold heart ’cause my apartment was freezing.”

Richard Hell and the Voidoids – Blank Generation (1977)
For a Jewish kid born in Kentucky, Richard Hell created one of the most representative records of articulate and primal New York punk. From the cacophonous opening guitar salvo of “Love Comes in Spurts” (all hail Robert Quine’s staccato, edgy, jazzy guitar), Blank Generation is sublime. Hell’s urgent delivery and often sarcastic piss-taking is so beautifully bratty and smart, perfectly suited for scene classics like “Down at the Rock & Roll Club.” Hell, still one of New York’s most beloved denizens, hasn’t made music for way too long. Well, we’ll always have Blank Generation.

Billy Joel – 52nd Street (1978)
Billy Joel has never been afraid to whack everyone over the head with his affection for this city — most memorably with 1976’s “New York State of Mind” and 1983’s “Uptown Girl” (which was an education to the rest of the world about NYC’s class system). But it was on 52nd Street that he got to the core of his hometown, effectively capturing the strut of the city, the conflicts and beauty within it and paying homage to its love affair with jazz. But the jazz nods weren’t the only reason this album was called 52nd Street — that’s also where Joel recorded it and where his record label’s offices were at the time.

Saturday Night Fever – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1977)
Saturday Night Fever cannot be separated from its tough Brooklyn backdrop, no matter how many disco lights you shine on it. So when you’re listening to this soundtrack — whether or not you’re watching Tony Manero strutting down the street with subway trains rumbling over his head — it is impossible to think of anything but New York City. The fact that soundtrack-dominators the Bee Gees hail from Australia? Utterly irrelevant. Thanks to the movie, every song on this record screams NYC, with a healthy smattering of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge thrown in.

Listen to selected songs from most of these 50 albums with our Spotify playlist

Lady Gaga – The Fame (2008)
When a proud New Yorker named Stefani Germanotta arrived on the scene, she was a breath of fresh air in a Disneyfied pop landscape then rehashing the tamer moments of the genre’s history. Lady Gaga threw in our faces the excesses and the drama of celebrity and wealth. Her aptly titled debut, The Fame, gave us Lower East Side grit dressed in Upper East Side pearls, and the world ate up every nugget of pop goodness she supplied with her string of singles that included “Poker Face,” “LoveGame,” and “Paparazzi,” birthing both the spectacle and the illusion.

George Gershwin with the Paul Whiteman Concert Orchestra – Rhapsody in Blue (1924)
Brooklyn-born pianist and composer George Gershwin debuted “Rhapsody in Blue” on February 12, 1924, at Manhattan’s Aeolian Hall. Gershwin played piano along with Paul Whiteman’s Palais Royal Orchestra. Sousa and Rachmaninoff were there. The piece has since become synonymous with the city, thanks to numerous pop culture references, including the heroic opening scene of Woody Allen’s Manhattan; when you hear “Rhapsody in Blue,” you think of the New York skyline. Just like the city, Gershwin’s composition is dazzling, unpredictable, frantic, and serene.

They Might Be Giants – Lincoln (1988)
Boasting the only near-hit single to dream about the DuPont Pavilion Flushing’s 1964 World’s Fair, these Brooklyn stalwarts’ 19-track Lincoln is like some everlasting art-pop pi–ata: No matter how long you hit it, it’s got more candy and curios to give. Spiky and sprightly, as craftily allusive as the East Village performance scene it sprang from, Lincoln belies the band’s reputation as crafters of kiddo earworms — instead, they’re design-oriented post-punk intellectuals with supreme melodic gifts. And the Dial-a-Song service teased in the liner notes was tipping the world to the 718 back when Ludacris was a virgin.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono – Double Fantasy (1980)
Double Fantasy is the last album John Lennon released in his lifetime, created as his return to music-making after five blissful years as a stay-at-home dad and meant to reflect his love story with Yoko Ono. A few weeks after its release, Lennon was murdered outside his New York apartment. No one can separate the songs in this album from Lennon himself, and it’s even harder when you realize just how sentimental he was. The expressions of love in “Beautiful Boy” and “Woman” are almost cheesy, and hearing how happy he was “dreaming his life away” makes his sudden death even a bigger travesty. Of course, he was already a legend, but just thinking of the giant void he left and the what-might-have-beens make this album such a sweet sorrow.

Andrew W.K. – I Get Wet (2001)
Lest there be any confusion: “It’s Time to Party” and “Party til You Puke.” Andrew Wilkes-Krier’s 12-song debut is monomaniacal in its focus and commitment to pure, unabashed Neanderthal rock, as winningly performed by a smart guy. There are no hidden agendas: “I Love NYC” is homage to his adopted home town, while “Don’t Stop Living in the Red” is another clue to the motivational speaker he would eventually become. A.W.K. doesn’t fight for his right to party — it’s sanctioned from above, everyone is invited, and on I Get Wet, the inclusionary positivity is impossible to resist. Fuck the guilty pleasure: This is just pleasure.

Listen to selected songs from most of these 50 albums with our Spotify playlist

Various Artists – No New York (1978)
It was 1978 and Brian Eno was in the city working on the Talking Heads’ More Songs About Buildings and Food. In May, he attended a no wave festival at Artists Space, in Tribeca, and he liked what he saw. So Eno pitched a no wave comp to Island, and, for whatever reason, they bought it. Four bands, four songs each. Contortions. Teenage Jesus & the Jerks. Mars. DNA. No New York captured the sonic side of the scene in all its violent, disruptive, and sublime brilliance. It remains the defining statement of one of the city’s most disturbingly creative moments.

LCD Soundsystem – Sound of Silver (2007)
LCD Soundsystem’s expertly calibrated contribution to the canon is made of tin cans and tinsel, tightly coiled guitar strings and kalimba keys, asphalt and skyscrapers. Sound of Silver was engineered to sit on a shelf next to the Velvet Underground and the Talking Heads, but the city, while being the album’s raison d’tre, is mostly evoked, not named. Maybe that’s because Murphy is saving it all up for the record’s final number, “New York, I Love You, but You’re Bringing Me Down,” a critique most stinging for its casualness. Murphy peels off indictments of Bloomberg, of boring people in bars, of hype and mediocrity in measured tones seething toward a sudden, cacophonous crescendo, distilling all our disappointment and resentment and unflagging devotion to this city into a single 5:35 song.

Art Blakey – A Night at Birdland, Vol. 1 (1954)
There are hundreds of jazz LPs that belong on this list, plus thousands of sides waxed back before “album” was a word applied to record-making. Few, though, capture the bustling, joyous urgency of an era as well as this killer Blue Note date, an evening distinguished by Pee Wee Marquette’s pipsqueak intro, Blakey’s glorious time-keeping and time-dicing, three ace compositions by pianist Horace Silver, and the peerless, lyric flights of the doomed Clifford Brown — heartbreakingly, he’s named here by Marquette as “the new trumpet sensation” just two years before his death. His soloing sounds fully matured here, and Blakey’s bandleading still sounds state of the art. How ’bout a big hand now?

Sonny Rollins – The Bridge (1962)
You know this story? Three years after Saxophone Colossus, the LP that showed him just to be what its title claimed, the bold-toned reedman chucked stardom and went off the grid, Dave Chappelle-style, preferring to hone his art before the audience that meant the most: himself. Rollins sorted out his soul beneath the Williamsburg Bridge, blowing for up to 15 hours a day, emerging three years later with The Bridge, a superb quartet session alive with all the truth and soul he’d been searching for — exactly what he needed to keep up with Coleman and Coltrane. Jim Hall’s guitar proves a stellar foil, and a tender “God Bless the Child” is as blissed as bop gets.

Interpol – Turn on the Bright Lights (2002)
This is what it sounds like when you realize the way you dressed as a teenage theater tech became your uniform as an adult. Turn on the Bright Lights has shed none of its sleek, brooding sensibilities in the 12 years since its initial drop. Paul Banks’s heavy velvet voice cradles your ear as a stranger’s armpit does your head on a packed weekday morning L train. The skittering cymbals flicker like ash from a hand-rolled cigarette out an illegal cab window and down the BQE. Ah, romance.

Listen to selected songs from most of these 50 albums with our Spotify playlist

New York Dolls – New York Dolls (1973)
Even with production by pop sensibilist Todd Rundgren, New York Dolls is a snotty, sassy, dirty collection of aural swagger and evocatively sexy, supremely satisfying rock ‘n’ roll filth. David Johansen and Johnny Thunders were the guttersnipe version of Jagger and Richards; oft-imitated and venerated. But despite the calculated creation of the Dolls — who are best on their pure punk spewings like “Trash” and “Personality Crisis” — Johansen’s nasally angst and brazen strut are revelatory. Music to get fucked up and fuck by, preferably in the bathroom of a LES dive. How do you call your lover boy?

Joe Bataan – Subway Joe (1968)
Only in New York does it make perfect sense that the original “King of Latin Soul,” Joe Bataan, was the progeny of a black mother and a Filipino father. Born in Spanish Harlem in 1942, Bataan created a distinct style — an amalgam of pop, boogaloo, Motown, salsa, and soul — while trying to find a place in the music world. By melding Latin sound with English lyrics, Bataan popularized the term “salsoul.” The result? Gems such as the 1968 album Subway Joe, which begins with a quest for Chinese food and a scuffle over seats in the subway. It’s an eight-song set so tight, so finely hewn with tales of life in the ghetto, and so godamn danceable that it cemented Bataan’s place in history and turned him into New York canon.

Afrika Bambaataa – Death Mix (1983)
The birth of hip-hop is one of New York City’s favorite fables: Kids in the blighted Bronx of the ’70s rose up from the rubble by cannily spinning snippets of other artists’ music and rhyming over them at rec rooms and block parties. Death Mix is that story in record form. Reputedly captured live at James Munro High School in the Bronx, hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa and his partner in breaks DJ Jazzy Jay rummage through their crates while members of the Soul Sonic Force talk hype into the mic. (Some pressings also add extra routines from the Cosmic Force.) Death Mix is the ultimate wallflower recording, offering a funky peek into the nascent hip-hop scene.

Cro-Mags – Age of Quarrel (1986)
Perhaps more than any other New York hardcore band, Cro-Mags have the most tumultuous and talked-about history, due to well-publicized feuds between members John Joseph and Harley Flanagan. But the Cro-Mags were in sync long enough to record 1986’s Age of Quarrel, a 15-song crossover opus inspired by Motošrhead guitars and featuring Joseph’s rat-a-tat lyrics about life on the Lower East Side. It’s the sort of stuff that still gets charged punks diving off stages at Cro-Mags shows in modern-day Williamsburg. Today, you can find Joseph giving punk-rock walking tours downtown and guiding tourists past former squats and dope spots captured in those streetwise lyrics.

Wu-Tang Clan – Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers (1993)
New York is a fierce town, unrelenting, full of scowls and sidewalk shoulder bumps, an 8-million-member ruckus. Some people just can’t handle it. Wu-Tang Clan’s 36 Chambers captures the city’s noir and the instinctual hustle it breeds. Iron-hard bars over menacing beats. A sizzling stew of crooked wisdom and dark humor, with a dash of full-throated madness. The gods of Shaolin proclaim their mastery of this cesspool, drawing a thick line in the dirty snow: Stand with the Clan in the front or with the punks in the back.

Listen to selected songs from most of these 50 albums with our Spotify playlist

Joe Cuba Sextet – Wanted Dead or Alive (1966)
By easing off the brassy horns up front and interspersing piano or vibraphone leads instead, Joe Cuba invented his own self-described “bastardized” version of salsa called boogaloo. Dabbling in English lyrics helped to transcend the cultural crevice, and it wasn’t long before his group made their way up the charts with “Bang Bang.” An infectious crossover hit that leaves listeners shaking their hips to a rolling piano riff. Alongside similar tunes like “Push Push,” it was Wanted Dead or Alive that opened the door to a new, brilliant world of Latin sounds.

Lou Reed and John Cale – Songs for Drella (1990)
The only thing capable of reuniting Lou Reed and John Cale after the acrimonious dissolution of the Velvet Underground was the death of their mentor, Andy Warhol. 1990’s Songs for Drella (Andy’s nickname among the denizens of his Factory, conflating Dracula and Cinderella) chronicles the Pop genius’s conquest of the Big Apple, from his determination to leave Pittsburgh in “Small Town” — “I hate being odd in a small town/If they stare let them stare in New York City” — to Lou’s genuine anger in “I Believe,” when the rocker channels Warhol’s electric-chair paintings by fantasizing about would-be Warhol assassin Valerie Solanis: “I would’ve pulled the switch on her myself.” The closing ballad, “Hello It’s Me,” featuring Cale’s angelic viola, expresses the ultimate measure of success in New York: “They really hated you/Now all that’s changed.”

Sonic Youth – Goo (1990)
There’s nothing as quintessentially alt-New York as watching Sonic Youth’s “Tunic (Song for Karen)” video, directed by renowned modern artist Tony Oursler (a fellow New Yorker), inside the Whitney Museum. But Goo is a record that has NYC woven into its fabric from start to finish. “Kool Thing” was written by Kim Gordon after she conducted a disastrous interview with LL Cool J for Spin magazine, thinking they would bond as fellow creatives from the same city. Instead, he said things like, “The guy has to have control over his woman.” Cue amazing song on an already dazzling album.

Kid Creole and the Coconuts – Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places (1981)
Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places opens with “Going Places,” where the chorus buzzes out a mantra every New Yorker believes to their very bones: “Believe me, you know/When you leave New York you go nowhere!” With that, Kid Creole and the Coconuts proceeded to create a pastiche of sound — disco-funk, pop-rock, calypso-reggae — that could be considered a metaphor for New York’s own diaspora. August Darnell, after all, was born in Montreal, and grew up in the Bronx, in neighborhoods where both English and Spanish were spoken. As he told the New York Times, “To me, the beauty of music is its possibilities for mutation, and that mutation represents a larger ideal: global coexistence.”

Madonna – Like a Virgin (1984)
The consoling New York fantasies of ninth-grade Midwestern introverts involve graduating and moving to the big city, reinventing their personas and histories, and becoming cool, self-actualized urbanites that nobody from high school would even recognize. Madonna’s whole career has been characterized by the continuous reinvention of her image and music, and on Like a Virgin, it was happening from track to track. Her capitalist “Material Girl” persona is miles away from the ambiguity and innuendo of the title track. The pre-Auto-Tune honesty of “Angel” finds her fearlessly trying to hit some low notes just barely within her range, but with so much swagger you almost don’t notice — and that’s a pretty New York thing, too.

Listen to selected songs from most of these 50 albums with our Spotify playlist

The Strokes – Is This It? (2001)
Disillusionment, lethargy, and effortless cool are the ingredients that carried Is This It?, an 11-song collection of ragged, guitar-driven rock ‘n’ roll. Originally pegged to a garage-rock revival alongside bands like The Hives, The White Stripes, and The Vines, The Strokes now seem clearly singular, a band that combined glamour and grit, that was theatrical without sounding contrived. The Strokes, like the Stones before them, remain underrated songwriters. But they live and die on the genre’s fundamentals, the transition from quiet to loud, unbeatable melodies and an attitude that comes with being among the last of Manhattan’s bona fide rock stars.

Rolling Stones – Some Girls (1978)
Ever perverse, Mick Jagger denied the hometown crowd a prideful cheer when, recording the live ‘Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out’ at Madison Square Garden in 1969, he substituted “Strollin’ on the boulevards of Paris/as naked as the daylight I will die” for those infamous original lines in “Honky Tonk Women”: “I laid a divorcée in New York City/I had to put up some kind of a fight.” But Glimmer Twins Jagger and Keith Richards reveled in Gotham’s edge, never more so than on 1978’s punk-inflected, disco-infused Some Girls, where opening track, “Miss You,” finds Jagger driven mad by lost love — “I’ve been walking Central Park/Singing after dark/People think I’m craaaaa-zeeeee” — before losing it completely on the album’s finale, “Shattered”: “My brain’s been battered, splattered all over Manhattan.”

The Ramones – The Ramones (1976)
Henry Rollins once said: “Ramones music is a mineral — naturally formed. To mess with it, you are immediately meddling with forces far greater than you.” Indeed, the Ramones’ self-titled debut remains a force of nature. No album before or since has so seamlessly combined every element of rebellious teenagehood — hedonism (“Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue”), open-hearted love songs (“I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend”), unhinged violence (“Beat on the Brat”) and youthful exuberance (“Blitzkrieg Bop”) — and made it sound so appealing. This three-chord masterpiece remains timeless, despite so expertly capturing the true essence of the trash and treasures of the Lower East Side in 1976.

Tito Puente – El Rey Bravo (1963)
The timbales-playing bandleader laid down what is perhaps his best-known material as nothing more than filler. “Oye Como Va” was pounded out to round off a plethora of some of his best works like the internationally inspired “Tokyo de Noche,” featuring the handiwork Johnny Pacheco on flute. But it would take another eight years for a fledgling guitarist named Carlos Santana to cut a cover version of “Oye Como Va” that would send legions scurrying back to Puente to mine similar inspiration.

Blondie – Parallel Lines (1978)
Blondie’s Parallel Lines is a sort of sonic version of Times Square. Sure, it use to be rough, scary, and crammed with crooks. Then it got cleaned up. But it’s still in Manhattan, so it keeps crackling with energy and entertainment. Lead singer Debbie Harry is our Dorothy Parker, Clem Burke our Keith Moon. Plus, producer Mike Chapman showed squares that disco is only as cool as the people who make it. The kids changed their clothes but kept their attitude, and became the first group from CBGB’s to sell without selling out. And you know what? It was a gas.

Listen to selected songs from most of these 50 albums with our Spotify playlist

Television – Marquee Moon (1977)
In a post-Horses world, punk had found its poetry and dove into the work of some of the literary world’s earlier rebels — young French poets. Suddenly, the Bowery became electrically romantic, and CBGB legends Television were the stars. Fronted by Tom Verlaine, who took his stage name from one of his influences, Paul Verlaine, Television made music for another side of the East Village’s sleaze and pontificated on its scummy inhabitants on Marquee Moon, a collection of songs that were a swirling shock to the musical system. As the scene transitioned into a post-punk sound, Television made it all worth watching and, of course, listening to.

Notorious B.I.G. – Ready to Die (1994)
Biggie Smalls understood the grind: the stress-filled days; the roads forged from desperation. “Pockets broke as hell, another rock to sell,” he rapped, “That’s why you drink Tanqueray, so you can reminisce and wish you wasn’t livin’ so devilish.” Ready to Die is a meditation on struggle, on the make-it-here-make-it-anywhere come-up every New Yorker strives for. The despair of Brooklyn slums makes the triumph of Manhattan penthouses all the sweeter. But the gate between the two New Yorks is thin — all desire entrance and few make it through: “Either you slingin’ crack rock` or you got a wicked jump shot.” The lure of the pleasures can turn boys into demons and leave those who falter lying in bed with a phone in one hand and a pistol in the other.

James Brown – Live at the Apollo (1963)
Can speakers sweat? The sound of a man on his knees tearing his throat bloody to get you off, Live at the Apollo remains the sturdiest of pop cornerstones. It’s the foundation of great soul shouting, of drill-the-band tightness, of church-as-orgy and orgy-as-church, of much of the Apollo’s legend, of Brown’s rep as showbiz’s hardest worker, of the very idea of an album as the record of a performance you wish to hell you could have caught, and of letting the groove ride out toward the full-fledged funk it would become a few years later. So raw you might want to dab it with iodine, it would stand as any other performer’s crowning achievement — and Brown was just getting started.

Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967)
That oft-repeated quote ascribed to Brian Eno about how everyone who bought The Velvet Underground’s low-selling, Warhol-produced debut formed their own band might be true, but it implies the record is great on account of its vast influence instead of its own nigh-inexhaustible sensual and literary merits. “Sunday Morning” lulls, “I’m Waiting for the Man” churns, “Femme Fatale” warns,”Venus in Furs” reveals a forbidden world, and that’s just the first four songs, none of which are “Heroin” or “All Tomorrow’s Parties.” No debut was ever so confident or uncompromising.

Harlem River Drive – Harlem River Drive (1971)
The cultural and ethnic mixture of New York is one of the defining reasons for our city’s greatness. Bandleader Eddie Palmieri knew this when he brought together a group of musicians from different backgrounds to forge an amalgamation of salsa rhythms with the funkier leanings of then-current soul and jazz music in 1971. Jimmy Norman would lace the group together with lyrics about the world around them on songs about broken homes and broken windows and attempting to rise above it all with a musical patois that every New Yorker and beyond could relate to.

Listen to selected songs from most of these 50 albums with our Spotify playlist

Patti Smith – Horses (1975)
Someone somewhere once decided to call Patti Smith the “godmother of punk,” but it’s better to think of her as its high priestess, and of Horses, her debut album, as its primary religious text. How else, than with divine assistance, could you explain her seamless track-to-track transition from spitting, wailing, feverish on the opener (her reimaging of Van Morrison’s “Gloria”) to delicate and demure, reciting poetry to a soft piano soundtrack on “Birdland,” before morphing into a mortician to deliver the haunting “Elegie.” What would this list look like without her? We can only be thankful that we’ll never know.

Public Enemy – Fear of a Black Planet (1990)
The cusp of the ’90s saw Long Island power-troop Public Enemy, once righteous hometown heroes, being hit by criticism and controversy off the back of Professor Griff’s perceived anti-Semitic statements. Chuck D’s reaction channeled the aggressive antagonism of a scorching hot New York City summer as the Enemy’s third album constantly teetered at boiling point, not least with “Welcome to the Terrordome” sounding like a violent out-lashing of pent-up anger. The set was capped by the climax cut “Fight the Power,” itself previously heard in Spike Lee’s turbulent Bed-Stuy-set Do the Right Thing. Call it incendiary Rotten Apple rap.

Beastie Boys – Paul’s Boutique (1989)
In many ways, Paul’s Boutique is the Beastie Boys’ thesis. It didn’t offer the feelings of anger and pent-up hooliganism Licensed to Ill conjured, but with Paul’s, the boys proved they had more than cans of Budweiser up their sleeves. What the album made clear was that these dudes were smart. The chaotic, sample-savvy production exposed the many layers lurking beneath the surface, and the album is New York — loud, smart, opinionated — from top down.

Gil Scott-Heron – Pieces of a Man (1971)
From the album’s opener, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” there was no mistake. A slinky bass-lined shot had been fired and the world was listening. Funky jazz rhythms forged by the hottest hired guns of the days laid beneath politicized lyrics that covered everything from plastic people and corrupt cops to drug use and relationship woes. It was a proto-rap assault spit out like steam bursting from the strained seams of life. By anyone’s measure, it’s fair to say that hip-hop as we know it today would not exist without this album.

Nas – Illmatic (1994)
From Illmatic‘s opening verse, Nas sets the stakes. Within seconds he’s facing death, caught off guard when the guns are drawn. “I ran like a cheetah with thoughts of an assassin/Pick the MAC up…” This is Nas’s New York, the blocks and corners of the Queensbridge towers, but it could be any housing project in the five boroughs. It’s a New York of snitches and stick-up kids and smoke-nice rocks. Nas spares no details in his storytelling, a brisk 10-chapter narrative setpiece taking us through the fear and despair and arrogance and joy and camaraderie and nostalgia and hope that make up the essence of adolescence inside the chaotic blight of early ’90s New York City. Through it all, the simmering danger never leaves. It lingers as the backdrop, a state of mind, because “shit is real and any day can be your last in the jungle.”

Listen to selected songs from most of these 50 albums:

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