From the city that never sleeps to the concrete jungle where dreams are made of, New York City has long been the source of music and lyrical inspiration.
I have put together this list of obvious and not so obvious musical references to the Big Apple. Below the list I’ve added a link to the Spotify Playlist and some additional notes to the songs, their locations and references.
|Welcome To New York City||Cam’ron|
|An Open Letter To NYC||Beastie Boys|
|The Boy From New York City||Darts|
|Walking Down Madison||Kirsty MacColl|
|New York Counterpoint: I. Fast||Steve Reich|
|New York State of Mind||Billy Joel|
|The Only Living Boy in New York||Simon & Garfunkel|
|New York City Serenade||Bruce Springsteen|
|Empire State of Mind (Part II)||Alicia Keys|
|Nights On Broadway||Bee Gees|
|To Turn You On – Remastered||Roxy Music|
|I Love New York||Madonna|
|Angel Of Harlem||U2|
|No Sleep Till Brooklyn||Beastie Boys|
|I’m Waiting For The Man||The Velvet Underground|
|53rd & 3rd||Ramones|
|The Killing of Georgie (Pt. I and II)||Rod Stewart|
|Englishman In New York||Sting|
|Chelsea Morning||Joni Mitchell|
|Chelsea Hotel #2||Leonard Cohen|
|Across 110th Street||Bobby Womack|
|Subway Train||New York Dolls|
|Brooklyn Bound||The Black Keys|
|Leaving New York||R.E.M.|
|New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down||LCD Soundsystem|
|New York Is Killing Me||Gil Scott-Heron|
|Down And Out In New York City||James Brown|
|Back In NYC||Genesis|
|Union Square||Tom Waits|
|Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters||Elton John|
|New York City||John Lennon|
|New York City||The Peter Malick Group|
|Back To Manhattan||Norah Jones|
|King of New York||Fun Lovin’ Criminals|
|Native New Yorker||Odyssey|
|Living For The City||Stevie Wonder|
|Little Italy||Stephen Bishop|
|Coney Island Baby||Lou Reed|
|New York Tendaberry||Laura Nyro|
|Heaven’s In New York||Wyclef Jean|
|New York Minute||Don Henley|
|Take The “A” Train||Ella Fitzgerald|
|Harlem Blues||Nat King Cole|
|Rhapsody in Blue||George Gershwin|
|Hey Manhattan!||Prefab Sprout|
|Fairytale of New York||The Pogues|
|Theme From New York, New York||Frank Sinatra|
Welcome To New York City
Harlem rapper Cam’ron, with a little help from Jay Z welcome us to New York City with raps about some of the key locations in New York,
“Home of the World Trade. Birthplace of Michael Jordan… Home of Biggie Smalls. Roc-A-Fella headquarters.”
An Open Letter To NYC
New Yorker’s the Beastie Boys were already famous for singing ‘no sleep til Brooklyn’ before they released their album, ‘From the Five Boroughs’ including this track. The Five Boroughs is a reference to the main areas of New York city Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island.
The Boy From New York City
Almost a one hit wonder from London doo-wop band, The Darts.
Walking Down Madison
The first of two entries for the late Kirsty Macoll, this track was taken from her album, Electric Land Lady itself a riff on Jimi Hendrix’s album Electric Ladyland. Electric Lady could be a reference to Jimi’s Greenwich Village Electric Lady Studios completed just a few months before his untimely death in London.
New York Counterpoint: I. Fast
This electronic piece intended to capture the throbbing vibrancy of Manhattan, was created by Steve Reich a renowned musician and son of a Broadway Lyricist.
New York State of Mind
“I’ve seen all the movie stars in their fancy cars and their limousines
Been high in the Rockys under the evergreens
I know what I’m needin’, and I don’t want to waste more time
I’m in a New York state of mind”
A love letter to his home city Brooklynite Billy Joel’s song was largely overlooked until he played it during the 9/11 Tribute to Heroes.
The Only Living Boy in New York
During the writing for Bridge Over Troubled Water, Art Garfunkel headed down to Mexico for the filming of Catch 22 leaving Paul Simon to do the writing. He came up with, “The only living boy in New York” as a minor dig at his friend.
New York City Serenade
Bruce Springsteen grew up across the water in New Jersey, frequently heading into the city for his early gigs. This serenade was simply fictitious account of a young couple experiences the big city.
Empire State of Mind (Part II)
“Grew up in a town
That is famous as a place of movie scenes..”
Jay Z owns a chunk of Tidal, so we can’t add his Empire State of Mind to the Spotify list. But we can add Alicia Keys inspirational track about her home city (she was born in Hell’s Kitchen)
Nights On Broadway
This track was recorded two years before the band became synonymous with the New York Disco scene, and a certain Mr Travolta.
To Turn You On – Remastered
The return of Roxy Music saw Bryan Ferry reimagined as a cool lounge lizard. This atmospheric song from their Avalon album contains the evocative line,
“Is it raining in New York, on Fifth Avenue?”
I Love New York
From Madonna’s last great album, she sings of her love for New York at a time when she was living in London. Go figure.
Angel Of Harlem
“New York, like a Christmas tree
Tonight this city belongs to me”
On the Joshua Tree, U2 had started to embrace Americana. With the their Rattle & Hum follow up, they embraced the culture even more, recording at Memphis Sun Studios, working with a Harlem Gospel Choir and recording this track. The Angel is Bille Holliday.
No Sleep Till Brooklyn
The title is a riff on Motorhead’s No Sleep til Hammersmith, itself a reference to the Hammersmith Odeon concert venue in London.
I’m Waiting For The Man
“Up to Lexington, one, two, five
Feel sick and dirty, more dead than alive..”
Lou Reed writing about a white man going uptown to Harlem to score drugs.
53rd & 3rd
The area of 53rd & 3rd was a well known spot for male prostitution. The song written by Dee Dee Ramones documents the struggle of a young man to turn tricks to pay for his drug habit.
The location is also referenced in..
The Killing of Georgie (Pt. I and II)
“An ambulance screamed to a halt on fifty-third and third”
Georgie was the true story of a gay friend who went to New York and met with a tragic end.
Englishman In New York
Sting’s ode to his friend Quentin Crisp, a British gay icon who had just moved to the big city.
Before Joni made Los Angeles her home, the Canadian stayed in the Chelsea district of New York. This song, from her second album was inspired by decor of her room and the constant sounds outside her window.
Famous for her collaborations with The Velvet Underground, Nico performed this Lou Reed penned track to accompany the movie of the same name.
Chelsea Hotel #2
‘The Chelsea’ Hotel was New York’s answer to LA’s Chateau Marmont. Naturally, musicians and artists were drawn to the hotel including Leonard Cohen who took up residence during 1968 .
Across 110th Street
110th Street is seen as the dividing line between Harlem and Central Park. It was the title of a 1972 movie, about a Harlem robbery that ended in mass murder. The song is probably more famous now for the soundtrack to Jackie Brown than to this movie.
A song of death by poisoning, and travel on New York’s Underground.
We never really find out why he’s bound for Brooklyn, or how he paid for the train fare!
Leaving New York
Michael Stipe considered the city to be his second home and therefore, leaving New York was never easy. One one departure, his airline view of the city inspired him to write the song.
New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down
This 2007 track was James Murphy’s love letter to his home city, signalling his love and frustration with the city.
“New York, I love you but you’re bringing me down
Like a death of the heart
Jesus, where do I start?
But you’re still the one pool where I’d happily drown”
New York Is Killing Me
Taken from Heron’s final album, “I’m New Here” this song echoes the album theme of regret, reconciliation, and redemption. Releases in 2007, this song may be referencing his early 2000s time in New York State prison for possession of Cocaine.
Down And Out In New York City
Taken from the soundtrack to Seventies Blaxpoitation movie, “Black Cesar” about an African American growing up in Harlem who turns to crime after a being attacked by a cop as child.
Back In NYC
From the classic (IMO) Genesis album, ’The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway’ . The album tells a story of Rael, a Puerto Rican youth living in New York City, his journey of self discovery and the bizarre incidents and characters he meets along the way.
Taken from his 2005 album, ‘Rain Dogs’ this is a jazzy story of male prostitues in this New York landmark.
Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters
On Bernie Taupin’s first visit to New York, he allegedly heard a gun shot from his hotel window. Elton takes the lyrics and delivers this beautiful song.
“Now I know
Spanish Harlem are not just pretty words to say
I thought I knew,
but now I know that rose trees never grow in New York City…”
“This Broadway’s got
It’s got a lot of songs to sing
If I knew the tunes I might join in
I’ll go my way alone
Grow my own, my own seeds shall be sown, in New York City..”
East Harlem is often referred to as Spanish Harlem.
New York City
John Lennon had moved to the Big Apple wot encouragement from Yoko Ono. Before it became a fatal decision, Lennon enjoyed the 24 hour culture and creativity it offered. This song was inspired by his move to the city in 1971 and the people he started to meet. It featured on his 1972 album, “Somewhere in New York City”.
New York City
Before Norah Jones released Come Away With Me, she had worked with the Jazzy Peter Malick Group. This song was the opening track of the titular album.
Back To Manhattan
Now an established solo artist, Norah Jones recorded this song for her breakup album ‘The Fall’, as she breaks up with bassist Lee Alexander, moving out of his Brooklyn home.
King of New York
The criminals wrote this track about wannabe gangsters train to emulate ‘The Dapper Don’ Gotti who was arrested at the Ravenite Club in Little Italy.
Native New Yorker
Originally written for and performed by Frankie Valli, the track was covered by Odyssey who were not New Yorkers! Singing to a broken hearted friend, the song extols the wonders of New York City – if you can make it here you can make it anywhere.
Living For The City
“New York, just like I pictured it.”
Stevie Wonder’s epic song about racial prejudice. Whilst the song lyrics don’t mention the city, the studio album with interlude makes it clear where this song is set. “
A charming tale of life in this part of the city.
Coney Island Baby
Lou Reed again, this time on his solo album of the same name. His ‘Coney Island baby’ was a reference to Reed’s transexual lover Rachel Humphreys.
New York Tendaberry
Laura Nyro, a Bronx born writer and singer, released this song from the album of the same name in 1969. Tendaberry is just a play on words – tender berry.
Heaven’s In New York
“First thing I’d do is go back in time
Take the Twin Towers put it back in the skyline”
After growing up in Haiti, Jean emigrated to the USA making New York his home.
New York Minute
Don Henley is possibly more associated with Hotel California than New York. Minute. The phrase is short hand for how quickly things can change.
Take The “A” Train
“You must take the ‘A’ train
To go Sugar Hill ‘way up in Harlem
If you miss the ‘A’ train
You’ll find you’ve missed the quickest way to Harlem..”
“Saturday night in Harlem,
Ahh every thing’s alright.
You can really swing and shake your pretty thing,
The parties are out of sight.”
Did you know Harlem was released as a single with a good B side. DJ’s preferred the other side, making ‘ain’t no sunshine’ a huge hit!
Taken from the album St. Louis Blues.
Rhapsody in Blue
If you’ve seen Woody Allen’s Manhattan then you’ll know how this piece has become iconic with Manhattan. Both Woody Allen and George Gershwin are were born in Brooklyn, New York.
Of the piece, Gershwin wrote, “I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness. By the time I reached Boston I had a definite plot of the piece, as distinguished from its actual substance”
“The great big city’s a wondrous toy
Just made for a girl and boy —
We’ll turn Manhattan
Into an isle of joy.”
From Durham, England to New York City, Prefab Sprout recorded this love letter to the Big Apple for their album, ‘From Langley Park to Memphis’ sharing the excitement that many of us feel on the first arrival into the city.
“Hey Manhattan ! Here I am ! Call me star-struck Uncle Sam.
Strolling Fifth Avenue
Just to think Sinatra’s been here too ..”
Fairytale of New York
Now more associated with Christmas (in the UK) this Pogues song title was lifted from a book by J. P. Donleavy.
Theme From New York, New York
How can we not finish with this, most iconic of New York songs? Sinatra, born in Hoboken New Jersey, only recorded this song in 1980 covering the original version performed by Liza Minelli.
So there we go. 50 songs, spanning decades, styles and genres. Which one is your favourite? Which song would you add to this list?