New York is the epicenter of many things, including an expansive skyline lined with buildings housing giants in many different fields, including commerce and finance. The city is also the home to one of the greatest American tragedies; September 11th, 2001. It is where immigrants passed through looking for new homes and born and bred New Yorkers celebrate their rich heritage. One thing that makes New York so unique is that it’s truly a melting pot of so many different nationalities, cultures, and classes of people. Throughout the city, you’ll find the working class in Brooklyn and Queens and the upper echelon in Manhattan. With so much culture and diversity, it’s no wonder, so many amazing singers hail from New York, and others pass through its limits on their stop to fame. The songs on this list capture the true essence of New York, chance encounters, social unrest on the streets, and iconic songs that celebrate what it’s truly like to live in one of the best cities in the world. Although these songs cross numerous genres and time periods, they all have one thing in common; a celebration of the Big Apple. These are the 20 best New York songs of all time.
20. New York City Rhythm – Barry Manilow
New York is the singer’s home. To him, the city is equal parts class and hard work. There are many different facets to the city, lyrics, and melody, the song capture the city in all its diversity. Much of the music in the song reflects this by adding many different rhythms and grooves, combining them with Manilow’s signature style.
19. Talkin’ New York – Bob Dylan
Dylan is one of the greatest folk musicians and songwriters of all time. Throughout his music, you feel that you are alongside him, seeing and experiencing things through his eyes. This song, released in 1962, is a litany of what it felt like to leave Minnesota for Greenwich Village, New York, to pursue his dreams of becoming a musician. Many of the lyrics in this song are about early struggles to find paying gigs and how he kept trudging to find the goal he wanted. He tried several times before to write a song about his anxieties in the city. This is the one that is considered a classic track.
18. No Sleep Til Brooklyn – Beastie Boys
Beastie boys wanted to parody a heavy metal song, and from the video to the exuberant lyrics, they managed to do just that. The song’s title is taken from a 1981 album by Motorhead; No Sleep ‘Til Hammersmith. Slayer guitarist Kerry King provided the stand-out guitar riff. The song’s origins are from a jam session when the group, alongside their producer Rick Rubin started saying the craziest things just to make each other laugh. Jay-Z later performed this song at his 2009 All Points West Festival to honor the group.
17. Brooklyn Zoo – Ol’ Dirty Bastard
The singer was part of the Wu-Tang Clan before launching a solo career. Brooklyn Zoo was his debut single. Alongside other rappers who lost too soon like Tupac, Ol’ Dirty Bastard is a legend, which shows why. Even though this song didn’t see as much airplay as other songs, true fans feel it is one of the greatest from the singer’s catalog. Undoubtedly, it’s lines like And when it rains it pours, “cause my rhymes hardcore. That’s why I give you more of the raw.” that prove how authentic he indeed was.
16. N.Y. State of Mind Part 2 – Nas
This song was on the singer’s debut album. There are samples from two different jazz tracks; Mind Rain by Joe Chambers and Flight by Donald Byrd. Although this isn’t an upbeat song per se, it draws attention to the violence that can be found on New York’s streets. The radio edit version only took one take. When DJ Premier spoke about it, he said he knew it would change people’s perceptions.
15. Big Apple Dreamin’ (Hippo) – Alice Cooper
This song was on the album Muscle of Love, released in 1973. Some consider it the first song mentioning The Big Apple, a fond euphemism for New York. Hippo refers to the Hippopotamus Club club on East 62nd Street, where the group often played. Since New York was such a significant influence on the group, it seems only natural this song appeared on their final album.
14. Fairytale of New York – The Pogues
The group decided they wanted to write a Christmas song. However, instead of a traditional one, they opted for lyrics that celebrated the antithesis of Christmas. The song spent 109 weeks on the Irish music charts. It’s a fantastic feat because it took the writers over two years to capture just the right tone. The song’s origin came from Elvis Costello, who produced the group’s album Rum, Sodomy, & The Lash. He told Jem Fisher he couldn’t write a song with Cait O’Riordan, later Costello’s wife. Another group member, Shane McGowan’s birthday, was on Christmas Day.
13. Welcome To New York – Taylor Swift
Swift once called the Big Apple “an electric city.” This was the lead single from her album 1989. Even though the singer often felt lost in the city, it held a special place in her heart because it inspired her and helped pave her road to success.
12. Love It Or Leave It Alone/Welcome To Jamrock – Damian “Junior Gong” Marley
This song was the lead single from the album by the same name. Pitchfork Media dubbed it one of the best 500 songs of the 2000s. You hear common world issues such as poverty and political corruption throughout the lyrics over a distinctly Jamaican beat. However, against the backdrop of New York City, it illuminates these problems in a way other cities might not give the same insight. If you want to listen to a unique version, you can hear it on Sims 2 Bon Voyage, sung in Similish.
11. New York Minute – Don Henley
When someone thinks about a New York minute, more than likely, you think about a split second, and this is what the lyrics of this song are about. Henley’s lyrics speak to how life and everything about it can change extremely quickly. Co-writer Danny Kortchmar said Henley wanted to use the title to reflect the frantic pace of the city. When the song dropped, it was the longest of the year weighing in at almost six and a half minutes. Years after its initial release, it appeared on several tv shows, including a 1995 episode of Friends, The One With Two Parts: Part 2.
10. New York, NY – Nina Hagen
This song was the singer’s lead single on her 1983 album, Angstios. Hagen co-wrote the song with Karl Rucker and Steve Shiff. Later, it was part of several other hit and compilation albums, including The Very Best of Hagen and Prima Nina in Ecstasy. If you listen to the rap portions of the song, both the English and German are Hagen.
9. Safe in New York City – ACDC
ACDC has stuck with a specific genre of music throughout their career, all-out rock songs that celebrate bad boys and partying. This song isn’t a departure from their other songs. However, it works well, significantly since it dropped shortly after September 11th and celebrated the energy and nightlife that makes New York famous.
8. New York Groove – Kiss
According to Louder Sound, this song became the signature song for Kiss’ first guitarist Ace Frehley even though he didn’t write it. He grew up in the Bronx and embodied what New York is at its core in many ways. Many people mistakenly think he wrote the song because of how much he enjoys singing it. Initially, it was written and sung by Russ Ballard of Hello.
7. New York – U2
This song is a B-side on the album All You Can’t Leave Behind. The lyrics of the song capture the image of a melting pot. Moreover, this song illuminates the tragedy of September 11th, 2001. The roots of New York started with a drum pattern from Larry Mullen Jr. between other recording sessions for the album.
6. Empire State of Mind – Jay-Z (featuring Alicia Keyes)
Originally, Jay-Z wanted to team up with Mary J. Blige on this song. The song’s lyrics are about the singer’s ascent to fame from the Marcy Projects. Additionally, the song’s lyrics also pay tribute to other iconic stars like Robert Deniro and Frank Sinatra. One of the most iconic performances was done with Jay-Z’s backup singer Bridget Kelly at a New York Yankee’s game in 2009; she also filled in for Keys at the MTV Europe Music Awards.
5. Autumn In New York – Billie Holiday
Vernon Duke wrote the song in 1934, and since then, many artists have tried their hand at the beautiful melody. According to Billie Holiday’s website, her voice was pitch-perfect for the song that is a bluesy tribute to not so much the season as a metaphor for love ending. Oscar Peterson contributed the piano score that accompanies Holiday’s haunting voice.
4. Hey There Deliah – Plain White Tees
In 2007, you couldn’t miss this song. According to multiple sources, it’s written about Delilah DiCrescenzo, a cross country runner who graduated from Columbia University. At the time, she was never frontman Tom Higgenson’s girlfriend. He wrote the song hoping to capture her heart. Later she said that if it hadn’t been about her, someone else would have been the inspiration.
3. New York, New York – Frank Sinatra
Liza Minelli first sang the song, but Frank Sinatra made it famous. One of the things that made it such a stand-out is that he changed several lyrics in the music. “Come on come on through New York, New York” was changed to “It’s up to you, New York, New York.” Sinatra’s version also received a Grammy nomination in 1981. It now has almost 100 million listens on Spotify.
2. New York State of Mind – Billy Joel
Joel, a true New Yorker, wrote this song after returning to his beloved city from Los Angeles, where he lived for a short time. The line “taking a bus on the Hudson River Line” is taken from the location where he started writing the song. One of many songs on the album, Turnstiles celebrated his return home.
1. Chelsea Hotel #2 – Leonard Cohen
Cohen wrote this song about the famous New York hotel. After he wrote it, Cohen refused to disclose the song’s heroine for a long time. However, during a 1976 concert, he finally admitted it was about Janis Joplin. His inspiration was an elevator ride with Joplin, where she told him she was at the hotel looking for Kris Kristofferson. Cohen pretended he was the singer. Even though Joplin knew he wasn’t Kristofferson, she spent the night with Cohen. This song is his recollections of what that night was like for him.
Marilyn J. Appleberg once said, “more than anything else New York is a city of superlatives, a place where the best, the brightest, the biggest is the norm.” Considering this quote, it’s easy to understand why so many singers wrote songs celebrating the city. Some are only chance encounters, and others celebrate the iconic reasons why the city is well-regarded; nonetheless, they all have one thing in common, a city that each day remains larger than life.