New York City is the birthplace to some of the greatest musical talent the world has ever seen. And due to it’s cultural vibrancy, it’s been a longtime muse for artists everywhere. Whether it’s based on the growing Manhattan skyline, Long Island race relations, a crazy night in the Lower East Side, or growing up in Brooklyn, several musicians have been compelled to capture their experience of New York through song. So, in honor of those who have produced incredible, timeless art based on perhaps the greatest city in America, here’s our list of the 7 Best Songs about NYC. We know our list won’t appeal to everyone’s opinion, so check out Time Out’s pretty comprehensive list, and let us know what you think in the comments below!
1. Elton John: “Mona Lisas and Madhatters”
Elton John may be from across the pond, but that doesn’t mean he, or his long-time lyrcist Bernie Taupin, haven’t been inspired by New York City. Arguably one of the best songs ever written, “Mona Lisas and Madhatters” is about Taupin hearing a gunshot in Spanish Harlem on his first night staying in the city. By incorporating themes of danger, beauty, sadness, and mystery, “Mona Lisas and Madhatters” stands as a powerful testament to the multiple personalities of New York. Timeless, relatable, and poignant, “Mona Lisas and Madhatters” is an essential NYC song, and is typically included in the setlist of most Elton John concerts.
2. Nas: “N.Y State of Mind”
From his debut album Illmatic (1994), “N.Y State of Mind” is not only the track which alerted fellow rappers and music producers of Nas’ lyrical genius, but it is also a near perfect depiction of NYC ghetto life. Doubling as a self-introduction to the rap scene and an unveiling of the dangerous environment that is the city of New York, “N.Y State of Mind” was and continues to be considered one of the greatest rap songs of all time. Nas was born and raised in Queens, NY, and in his career, continues to speak on behalf of his culturally dynamic and crime infested birthplace. Nas will go down as one of the greatest hip-hop artists of all time, and this NY inspired track reminds us why.
3. Bright Eyes: “Lua”
A personal favorite, the song “Lua” came from the vault of Conor Oberst’s lyrical genius. Known as one of the best songwriters of all time, it makes sense that Conor would be touched by the city in some way, albeit not the most positive one. The song is an honest portrayal of a night partying on the west side. Coined by flasks on the train, hailing taxis in the snow, a party in an actor’s loft, and those pesky sidewalk pigeons, Conor’s ode to New York is one that many can relate to. By perfectly putting into words the loneliness that comes with living in a big city and what happens when you try to party past it, Oberst hits a nerve for many twenty-something’s trying to thrive in NYC.
I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid and saw Fantasia 2000 and their animated depiction of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”, I immediately became enthralled by New York. Gershwin, who was just 26 years old at the time, premiered his “jazz concerto” at New York’s Aeolian Hall in front of famed famed composers J.P Sousa and Sergei Rachmaninoff. From humble Brooklyn roots, to piano performances on Broadway, Gershwin is one of many beloved success stories to blossom out of New York City. Through “Rhapsody in Blue”, with it’s spirit and ability to capture the heart of a changing nation, Gershwin lives on.
5. Cat Power: “Manhattan”
Though it’s not an “iconic” New York song, it’s one which was written by a very talented lady. In her song “Manhattan”, the lovely Chan Marshall discusses how the city has changed from when she first relocated in her 20’s. The chorus of “Manhattan” has a sad undertone, reflecting New York’s impermanent nature. The people and appearance of the city are continuously changing, making it difficult for individuals to call it home. But the song isn’t completely sad, as it encourages New Yorker’s to find their own truth—or a consistent identity—in themselves versus in their city. New York is a place where people come to create their legacies, so we think she hit the nail on the head with this one.
6. Billy Joel: “New York State of Mind”
No chastising needed, we just can’t get through a “best songs about New York” list without including the man who may love New York more than any of us. Billy Joel, who is now an official franchise of Madison Square Garden, has never ceased to lyrically acknowledge New York over the years. In “New York State of Mind”, the piano man talks about that ever-present need to get away, and how New York in it’s vastness provides that much needed escape. If you’ve ever felt at peace by getting lost in the Village, or wandering through Chinatown, then Billy Joel has, and will continue, to speak to you. “New York State of Mind”, in addition to other NYC-inspired songs, continues to be performed live at Billy Joel Concerts.
7. Jay-Z & Alicia Keys: “Empire State of Mind”
No “Best songs about NYC” list can go without this renown collaboration between Brooklyn’s finest and Ms. Alicia Keys. Sure, you can call it overrated compared to other songs written about New York, but I can’t help but remember when I first moved to the City from a small Texas town, and “Empire State of Mind” started playing at a party. Everyone—and I mean everyone—raised their cups to join in on the hook “concrete jungle where dreams are made of”. It was moment, a moment that can only exist with the backdrop of amazing music. And let’s not forget Jigga’s roots. Jay-Z hails in from Brooklyn, as he likes to remind us in just about every other song he produces.