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25 Classic New York Songs

Your subway has been crippled by snow, the walk/don’t walk signs read both — and maybe you’re wondering, “Why do I even live in New York?” Well, put on your headphones, cue up a song like “Empire State of Mind,” and remember. On the eve of Jay-Z’s March 2 valedictory lap at Madison Square Garden, we solicited recommendations from critics and musicians and then threw them in a blender to come up with a playlist of the most New York songs written since 1965 (caveats: no instrumentals, no movie theme songs) that get at the city’s romance — the sex, the grit, the wit, the skyscraper-size ambition. We fully expect you to disagree [Editor’s note: WTF? Jennifer Lopez?!?!]. You wouldn’t be New Yorkers if you didn’t. So cue up your own New York playlist in the comments.

1. “(Theme From) New York, New York,” Frank Sinatra, 1980  
When Hoboken’s favorite son recorded the Liza original, he added an across-the-river dreamer’s swagger to Kander and Ebb’s ode boozy manifesto of NYC exceptionalism.

2. “Walk on the Wild Side,” Lou Reed, 1972
This jaded roundup of Warhol superstar creation myths (“Holly came from Miami F-L-A … shaved her legs and then he was a she”) offered a still unmatched window on the druggy, sexually fearless, sad, funny world of downtown.

 3. “New York State of Mind,” Billy Joel, 1976
There are other great New York homesick ballads (Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” Steely Dan’s “Dr. Wu”), but this Ray Charles–indebted, piano-bar ballad is the best — a reminder that to lose touch with the city is to lose touch with yourself.

4. “Visions of Johanna,” Bob Dylan, 1966
Dylan’s lament, written on the cusp of his stoned, Edie Sedgwick–romancing, Warhol-taunting period, uses coughing heat pipes and jelly-faced women to distill just how phantasmagorical and spooky our city can appear.

5. “Juicy,” Notorious B.I.G., 1994
The ultimate rags-to-riches story: Biggie recounts “blow(ing) up like the World Trade,” but like all real New Yorkers, he’s not completely sold. The fall could be just around that corner he used to work. “And if you don’t know / now you know.”

6. “Rockaway Beach,” the Ramones, 1977
The sun is out, the streets are baking, and Joey’s chewing out a rhythm on his bubble gum. As harmonic and jubilant as any Beach Boys surf classic, this is a three-chord summertime anthem for bored kids left with nothing but fire hydrants and public pools.

7. “Our Time,” Yeah Yeah Yeahs, 2001
Post September 11, 2001, most fists pumped to “Won’t Get Fooled Again” or “The Rising,” but the city’s truest anthem of defiance came from the mouth of a beer-drenched, spandex-covered Karen O. “It was an older, song, written in 2000,” says guitarist Nick Zinner, “and I remember people really identifying with the song after 9/11. It initially surprised us, but I think it’s a misfit rallying call to whatever you want it to be, or whatever you want it to be against.”

8. “The Only Living Boy in New York,” Simon and Garfunkel, 1970
In a metropolis of 12 million, sometimes the movie in your mind is the only one you can clearly see. And no matter what the plot, this melancholy classic fits your private soundtrack, isolating that urban phenomenon of romantic isolation.

9. “Native New Yorker,” Odyssey, 1977
Those who didn’t come here from Ohio or Michigan or Kingston or London or Moscow, those born and raised in the Five are a different species altogether.  Whether “up in Harlem” or “down on Broadway,” they “know the score” — but no matter how tough, every New Yorker is a secret romantic.

10. “Across 110th Street,” Bobby Womack and Peace, 1973
The City can be oppressive, crazy-making, and heartbreaking.  The rich stay rich and the poor stay poor. But this blaxpoitation-era theme is a powerful reminder that New York soul survives.

11.  “New York, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down,” LCD Soundsystem, 2007
The only thing more soul-crushing than slaving away to stay in some dingy studio in a dangerous neighborhood is when Giuliani, then Bloomberg try to sanitize everything. And yet we stay, because filthy or sterile, New York is “still the one pool where [we]’d happily drown.”

12. “New York City Cops,” the Strokes, 2001
This track was removed from American versions of 2001’s Is This It after 9/11 out of sensitivity ( “New York City cops — they ain’t too smart.”), but it’s less an insult than a tribute to street-prowling Droogs eluding authority. “I always took that song as a love story,” says guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. “The two people are together and the cops are fucking with them … There’s something about walking down the street as a gang.  It’s a tough place. It gets you excited.” Casablancas first shared the song with Hammond on a train back from Hoboken: What’s more New York than that? 

13. “Fairytale of New York,” the Pogues, 1987
Generally, blowing all your racetrack money on whiskey and wooing back your girl with the promise that you’ll be up again in no time qualifies as a cautionary tale. In New York, spiritual second home of this band, really all Irish, it’s just another Christmas — with the “boys of the NYPD” ringing out the bells.

14. “Shattered,” the Rolling Stones, 1978
“Go ahead, bite the big apple. Don’t mind the maggots.” New York remains the place where it’s considered perfectly acceptable to chase the dream until you’re a battered, scattered mess of fabulously subhuman fashion victimhood, pop a downer, sleep a few hours, and try it all again the next day. After all, “pride and joy and greed and sex, that’s what makes our town the best.”

15. “B-Boy Bouillabaisse,” Beastie Boys, 1989
Sometimes X-rated (“Took off her pants / you know what I saw”) but most often sweet (shout-outs to Orange Julius, Bernie Goetz, and the Knicks betray their homesickness while recording in Los Angeles), this nine-part sonic suite is merely the most engaging of a half-dozen Beastie valentines to their hometown. “Hello Brooklyn!”

16. “I’m Waiting for the Man,” Velvet Underground, 1967
New Yorkers hate to wait on lines, whether it’s at the CVS or on the corner.  Scoring smack is reduced to another errand, defined by need, desire, shopping lists, and efficiency. Lou Reed made this connection, drawing inspiration from our impatience.

17. “Famous Blue Raincoat,” Leonard Cohen, 1971
In other cities it’s considered immature for adults to indulge in their own teenaged solipsistic misery — but alienation never goes out of style here. With his breathy baritone, Cohen makes a December in exile on the Lower East Side seem like a spiritual hell so frigid you might not survive it — in other words, perfect.

18. “C.R.E.A.M.,” Wu-Tang Clan, 1993
Enter Staten Island, and the greatest acronym in hip-hop history (“Cash rules everything around me”). Over the RZA’s creepy, looped piano riff, Raekwon and Inspectah Deck recount a brutal youth and draw the only solution they can see: “Cream! Get the money! Dollar dollar bill yo!”

19. “Empire State of Mind,” Jay-Z, 2009
A new classic, by design, with nods to its peers on this list (plus Nas’s worthy “N.Y. State of Mind”). Homegrown Alicia Keys sings the hook, but it’s Jay who sounds reborn big-upping his hometown. “These streets will make you feel brand-new … ”

20. “Going Home,” Luna, 1994
Whether it’s catty (“What she saw in him nobody knew / it was a mystery”) or whimsical (“The Chrysler building was talkin’ to the Empire State”), that dark wit we New Yorkers pride ourselves on is here in abundance. The song is a late-night, erudite trifle made poignant by fate. (Who can listen to the lyric “the Twin Towers were talking to each other” without welling up?) “I’m pretty sure the lines about the skyscrapers talking to each other were inspired by a Don DeLillo novel,” Dean Wareham says, explaining his take on a classic summer rooftop party. The rest of his inspiration was geographic: “New York songwriters are lucky to be influenced by places like Great Jones Street or the Chrysler Building or Coney Island.”

21. “Subway Train,” New York Dolls, 1973
Strap-hanging as a metaphor for life: For everyone riding the A train on an endless loop hoping the solution to everything will hop on at the next stop, the Dolls know your pain.

22.  “You Said Something,” PJ Harvey, 2000
For years, PJ Harvey was all about the primal, violent side of love (man-eating vaginas!). But after one heady summer in New York City, she was writing unabashedly rhapsodic love songs about rooftops in Brooklyn and the unforgettable things hipster boys say on them.

23. “Too Many Creeps,” Bush Tetras, 1980
It’s natural, after living in an urban environment for a while, to begin to loathe humanity. These jaded, stylish post-punk babes wrote the ultimate angular anthem to blast as you hightail it upstate for a weekend spent with nobody.

24. “Lua,” Bright Eyes, 2004
Go out, get loaded, make grand promises you won’t keep to people you barely know until you’re staggering around empty streets trying to hail a cab to the next party before the sun comes up. Stop. Repeat till you’re dead, 30, or move to the suburbs.

25. “Jenny From the Block,” Jennifer Lopez, 2002
This just-another-girl-on-the-6 ode to humility is cringe-worthy (“I stay grounded as the amounts roll in”), but, perhaps unintentionally so, poignant. After all, the urge to stay down by law is one of our strongest drives — like Bloomberg riding the train then carbon foot-printing off to some tropical island. Hooey-filled as this track is, it’s so gloriously New York.

And the rest …

26. “Marquee Moon,” Television.
27. “Summer in the City,” the Lovin’ Spoonful.
28. “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,” Elton John.
29. “Around the Way Girl,” LL Cool J.
30. “I Know You Got Soul,” Eric B. & Rakim.
31. “Mercy Snack,” Pavement.
32. “Check the Rhime,” A Tribe Called Quest.
33. “People Who Died,” The Jim Carroll Band.
34. “Coney Island Baby,” Lou Reed.
35. “New York, New York,” Ryan Adams.
36. “Stayin’ Alive,” The Bee Gees.
37. “South Bronx,” BDP.
38. “Tom’s Diner,” Suzanne Vega
39. “Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side,” The Magnetic Fields.
40. “I Am … I Said,” Neil Diamond.

25 Classic New York Songs