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Musical World Tour: The Best Songs About New York City

Not so long ago, we were listening to M83’s glorious Dead Cities, Red Seas and Lost Ghosts album. The album’s not heavy on lyrics, but its widescreen soundscapes definitely reflect its evocative, dramatic title, and it got us thinking about the manifold different ways the world’s great cities have been immortalized in song — and about how different cities have inspired very different musical tributes. In view of this, we figured that it’d be an interesting idea to do a semi-regular series wherein we choose our five favorite songs about a particular city. The first stop on our whistlestop world tour? Why, right here at Flavorpill central in New York City. Hop on board after the jump.

LCD Soundsystem — “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down”

We’re especially partial to this song because it captures the New York of today, not the much-mythologized city of any number of past eras. James Murphy’s lyric deals with the creeping Disneyfication of New York — “New York, you’re safer and you’re wasting my time/ Our records all show you are filthy but fine” — and the collateral cultural damage of Rudy Giuliani’s much-trumpeted clean-up of Manhattan. The reality of the island in 2011 is that while you’re a lot less likely to get shot there, it doesn’t really matter, because unless you’re making money hand over fist, you’re not likely to be living there in the first place.

Nas — “NY State of Mind”

Nas’s vision of New York, by contrast, dates from an earlier, bleaker era — but it still applies to the dark pockets of the city that nestle mutely up against the bright lights of the Sarah Jessica Parker-ified districts of Manhattan. Filching the title from Billy Joel’s sentimental postcard to the city, Nas sets out what New York means to him: a perilous urban landscape where “every block is like a maze,” a city where cash is king and your guard can’t be dropped for a moment — “I never sleep,” he raps in the song’s sole, crucial repeated line, “’cause sleep is the cousin of death.”


Lou Reed — “Dirty Blvd”

Reed’s written reams of lyrics about New York, and for all that he clearly loves his home city, and that its environment has been a constant influence on his music over the years, he’s never been one to be overly sentimental about it. (Or, indeed, about anything else, really.) “Dirty Blvd” captures the city at the tail end of the Koch era, and pulls absolutely no lyrical punches, depicting a metropolis with an ever-widening gap between rich and poor, where the positions of the privileged few are maintained by the labor of exploited immigrants, all under the gaze of the “Statue of Bigotry.”

Leonard Cohen — “Famous Blue Raincoat”

It’s not all grim realism here, though. Pretty much everyone who moves to New York does so with some measure of starry-eyed idealism, something that even epoch-defining poetic geniuses aren’t immune to. “Famous Blue Raincoat” isn’t about New York per se — its lyric takes the form of a letter to a friend-turned-love rival — but its setting permeates every line, so much so that you can almost see Cohen in a sparsely-furnished room on Clinton Street, punching away at his typewriter as music plays in the dark street below.


Liza Minelli — “Theme from New York, New York”

And yes, if you can make it (t)here, you’ll make it anywhere, etc etc etc.