music / Columns

The Top 5 New York City Songs

September 22, 2016 | Posted by David Hayter

New York is always making headlines worldwide, but this week all eyes were on the Big Apple for the wrong reasons as terror, however fleetingly, reigned. Over here in Europe we’ve become sadly used to these pathetic attacks and we’ve learnt that the best way to move on is to celebrate what’s great about your culture and your city – and, seeing as this is 411 Music, we’ll be discussing the Top 5 New York City songs.

Note: As I pointed out in the comments last week my lists are always subjective and about sharing enthusiasm for the music I love, so, it’s worth saying, especially given the context in which we’re doing this list, that I’m not snubbing any other potential choices – just sharing my passion and perspective.

Note II: I could write a Top 50 New York songs so this is staggeringly difficult task.

So to give you a heads up there will be no songs about young boys hanging around the school yard, no Joni Mitchell and no new states of mind, be they NY, New York or Empire, on my list. Yes and despite being a big fan of Woody Allen there will be no “Rhapsody In Blue” or any Duke Ellington for that matter.

Oh and yes, my list is very white and male, I realise this in hindsight, which is perhaps surprising coming from a lover of rap, r&B and pop.

Note III: Once again, I’m not a New Yorker so expect a lot of mythology and less reality, this list will no doubt capture stories from the city, but perhaps not the sound.

Anyway, enough prefacing, let’s get down to business…

5. “Rockaway Beach” by The Ramones [1977] 

Not to tip my hat, but some pretty heavy subject matter follows on this countdown. Fear not, it’s not all doom and gloom: while London was one home of the punk movement, the sound also thrived on the streets of New York City. New York was home to GBGB, The Ramones and, by logical extension, the absolute best pop music on the planet. Rocket To Russia is a masterpiece of immediacy and aesthetic stricture and “Rockaway Beach” is that album’s solid gold single of choice. It’s also a perfect New York City single: the sound of hot, bored and lusty kids stuck sweating on the sidewalk, giddy at the thought of hitching a ride to “Rockaway Beach”. Shakespeare it ain’t, but it is devastatingly true: the single buzzes with urban frustration and youthful effervescence, you can practically hear the pimples and taste the spit.

4. “Visions Of Johanna” by Bob Dylan [1966]

So who’s ready to take a tour of New York City? Dylan might sing at a saunter, but he sure covers a lot of real estate in these short, wistful and acerbic minutes. “Visions Of Johanna” isn’t quite enigmatic songwriting, but it’s pretty close to crossing that line as Dylan dips in and out of lucidity as he weaves these narrative of snapshots, remembrances and dream sequences together. Is Dylan slipping in and out of moments of clarity while tripping? Possibly, but “…Johanna’s” brilliance comes from Dylan’s ability to mix moments that are so present, memorable and clear with his gorgeous, but impenetrable phraseology. The result is a song that is richly romantic, but also sinister and snide. The geographical signposts drag us back towards reality, but there is no taming this New York City dream stream.

Note: Head to your favourite streaming site to hear the full original version.

3. “The Boxer” by Simon & Garfunkel [1968]

Okay, so I gave the game away, “Me & Julio Down By The School Yard” failed to make the cut, but if you think I’m making a New York City list and excluding Paul Simon then you are a madman. “The Boxer” is the quintessentially folk song that everyone should hear live. It’s a classic rambling ditty, you can hear the dirt under its fingertips, feel the distance travelled and recognise the dusty sepia-tinged warmth in the air. But unlike so many great works of strolling Americana, “The Boxer” doesn’t actually travel anywhere, the titular boxer and the protaganists of the first two verses are caught in a brutal poverty trap. Paul Simon’s vocal might be supremely evocative, but he is not capturing the bright city lights, instead he seeks the lives lost to the shadows. This is a song of struggle, perseverance and crumbling self-respect on the streets of New York City.

2. “Chelsea Hotel No.2” by Leonard Cohen [1974]

So this is a Hayter family favorite – hang on, should a family favorite really center around a blow job from Janis Joplin? Probably not, but that’s beside the point. To someone who lives outside New York (and the USA for that matter) this song perfectly evoked that era of bohemian artistry when, for a fleeting moment, the concrete jungle captured the spirit of Hemmingway’s Paris. The transition from Leonard Cohen’s misty eyed reflection of being sucked off to the picture perfect line, “Those were the reasons and that was New York/We were running for the money and the flesh”, is heart-stoppingly beautiful. “Chelsea Hotel No.2” is a song of freedom and wild unrestrained youth, told, not from the eye of the storm, but drawn from the fond and weary mind of a jaded survivor – remembering those halcyon days and their precious victims.

1. “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” by LCD Soundsystem [2007]

Perhaps a fitting number one given the week’s events, but this would have been my number one regardless. For the longest time this was my favorite song: the sorrowful late night lament of a lounge singer that provides the endnote to LCD Soundsystem’s sublime Sound Of Silver. This is the city as a cypher. All the middle aged frustration at an evolving youth culture and disenfranchisement with failed relationships is bitterly mirrored in the city’s newly sanitized streets. James Murphy isn’t really deploring the city that surrounds him – this is a love song, after all – but he is raising a glass and shedding a tear to his lost youth. For, “New York you’re perfect, oh please don’t change a thing”, read: my life is passing me by, please let me hit the pause button. Because, if something as sturdy and tangible as a city can change beyond all recognition, then what chance does a lonely flesh sack have?

Everyone, at one time or another, will sing their own version of this song in their subconscious – for me, it’s “London, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” – but only New York has James Murphy to set their loving, wet cheeked, reminiscence to music. New York is Murphy’s perfect toxic lover, no matter how bad it gets, he’ll keep on crawling back.

Remember to share your favorite New York City songs in the comment section.