Top New York songs
#10: “The Message” (1982)
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s awesome tune isn’t just a great song about New York; it’s a great song, period. As one of the first hip hop anthems to really drive home a social point, it was a big influence on future artists, including Public Enemy and Rage Against The Machine. The picture it paints of the City may not be flattering, comparing it to a jungle, but it accurately and vividly captures the sense of struggle, alienation and wrenching willpower that is part of being poor and disenfranchised in New York.
#9: “New York City Cops” (2001)
The Strokes have both legitimate New York City roots and certifiable indie cred, so it’s no wonder that “New York City Cops” pulses with the same erratic heartbeat of the City. This rebellious anthem sparks a little protest in all of us, as it contains lyrics about getting away with a crime. The track features a chorus that shows little mercy to the law enforcement in the Big Apple, taunting and shaming them, which caused the song to be pulled from the U.S release of their debut album after the traumatic events of 9/11.
#8: “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” (2007)
LCD Soundsystem was acclaimed for its innovative and sometimes hectic blend of punk and disco, but they took things down a notch for this plaintively beautiful ballad. It’s a love letter to the City, but really to the City that once was. Singer James Murphy’s paean loathes the cleaning up of Times Square and the Disneyfication of New York, longing for the days when there was more squalor but also more character. To Murphy, the City may be safer and saner, but it’s less distinctive, and sadly, bringing him down.
#7: “Fairytale of New York” (1987)
The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl
Leave it to Shane McGowan and the Pogues to create a Christmas song full or rueful beauty, anger, remorse and drunkenness. Telling the tale of an Irish immigrant sleeping one off in New York City, the fairy-tale is full of recriminations between a man and a woman who have clearly disappointed each other. Their disillusionment is focused on their time in New York, a city that promises dreams but too often forces people to settle instead for illusions.
#6: “The Rising” (2002)
Springsteen may be a native of New Jersey, but New York embraces him as a native son. His “New York City Serenade” is a great NewYork song, but “The Rising” stands even taller. The 9/11 attacks were a traumatic event for New York, and Springsteen’s unbelievable anthem managed to address the sad realities and tragedy of the experience while simultaneously inspiring hope. It comes from a place of tremendous personal emotion and applies that emotion to a City in need of healing.
#5: “Walk on the Wild Side” (1972)
New York City is usually somewhere in any song by Lou Reed, but the portraits he paints in “Walk on the Wild Side” serve to move the City front and center. The subject of this glam rock classic is a group of travelers who arrive to the Big City and how the city has changed them. Drenched in Andy Warhol-era references, the song’s bass line and “doo-doo” refrain are mesmerizing; Reed’s lyrics make the listener feel they are somehow plugged into the part of New York City that defines cool – even if only as a voyeur.
#4: “New York State of Mind” (1976)
Has there ever been a more comforting song about The City that Never Sleeps than Billy Joel’s lovely tribute? Some people are born with the City in their soul, and this serenade is a tribute to them. No matter where a true New Yorker goes, he never feels really at home or at ease for long; he needs the smell of the City and the slightly gritty feel of its air in order to be able to relax and kick his feet up. “New York State of Mind” captures that feeling perfectly.
#3: “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” (1987)
While this Beastie Boys rant is ostensibly about the drudgery of being on the road, it’s really about the fact that no place compares to Brooklyn. Saucily tongue-in-cheek, the Boys detail all of the trials one goes through when away from the big borough; they don’t go into detail about the positives of Brooklyn, but the contrast is clear. While their libidos and egos may get stroked on tour, the only place they feel really at home is Brooklyn.
#2: “Empire State of Mind” (2009)
Jay Z and Alicia Keys
Referencing famous New Yorkers Sinatra and De Niro, “Empire State of Mind”, one of the songs Jay-Z is most associated with, is an infectious hip hop anthem with some awesome pop trappings. Jay Z and Alicia Keys are in great form here, and both capture the upbeat spirit of the piece perfectly. Dropping the names of celebrities, landmarks and other icons associated with the City, “Empire State of Mind” becomes a love letter to the City from two of its most musically exciting contemporary natives.
Before we reveal our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions:
“New York Is Killing Me” (2010)
“Chelsea Hotel No. 2” (1974)
“New York Minute” (1990)
“Downtown Train” (1985)
“Across 110th Street” (1972)
“Autumn in New York” (1952)
#1: “Theme from New York, New York” (1980)
Liza Minnelli may have introduced the song, but Sinatra owns it. And why not? Ol’ Blue Eyes’ swagger perfectly matches that of the song and of the City itself. An irresistible jazz tune that is as iconic as the star that sings it, the song is a celebration of the Big Apple’s particular mix of guts, pride, and in-your-face determination. The lyrics, especially the idea that “if I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere”, have become an indelible part of popular culture. All in all, there couldn’t be a more fitting anthem for the City that never sleeps.