Most big cities with any sort of history have a song. If that city’s New York, it has about 1000 of ‘em. But to be a classic of the genre, the song has to speak to bigger themes about city life, be it the hustle, the danger, or the beauty below the filth.
Here, we go beyond Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind” to look at songs about New York and other cities that feel universal to city dwellers everywhere. Nas, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder give voice to the gang violence and systematic racism of inner-city living. Talking Heads and Arcade Fire bemoan small-town existence. The Pretenders and Sufjan Stevens ache over poorly planned Midwest sprawl branded as urban revitalization. Many more simply get swept up into the charms of city life.
Click through for all 25 — unranked — on the following pages, and a Spotify playlist.
Sufjan Stevens — “Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head!” (2003)
Though Sufjan only completed two out of 50 in his state albums project, Illinois and Michigan spawned a number of great songs about life in cities small and big. “Chicago” may have idealized the city from a newcomer’s perspective, but “Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head!” is a sarcastic history of Detroit’s numerous revitalization strategies that ultimately concludes, “Once a great place, now a prison.” Those unfamiliar with Detroit’s decline in the late 20th century may find Stevens’ repetitive chirping of errant words confusing, but his allusions to the Tigers winning the ’84 World Series and public transportation being built downtown are spot-on.
Nas — “N.Y. State of Mind” (1994)
“N.Y. State of Mind” makes almost no direct references to New York City, besides the hook and the end of the verses. Then again, Nas’ Illmatic classic doesn’t even really need to: “I think of crime when I’m in a New York state of mind.” And so, Nas uses his words to describe gang warfare in bloody, vivid detail, making “N.Y. State of Mind” one of the most definitive songs about life in the ghetto ever penned.
Marvin Gaye — “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” (1971)
Another essential songs about life in the ghetto, though one that’s decidedly more pacifist than “N.Y. State of Mind.” Everyone from Gil Scott-Heron to Joe Cocker to John Mayer has covered “Inner City Blues,” the emotional climax to Gaye’s landmark album, What’s Going On. Gaye’s solution to a broken system for a struggling class is a soulful salve: he throws up his hands and cries out, hoping to convince others that the government is prioritizing the wrong things.
The Kinks — “Waterloo Sunset” (1967)
At first glance, “Waterloo Sunset” seems like a simple song about gazing off at the Thames near London’s bustling Waterloo Station as another day ends. However, Ray Davies manages to capture a specific feeling familiar to city dwellers: the idea that the city is an overwhelming abyss, but simple pleasures — be it the stability of a sunset or a lover to walk with you along the river — can save you.
Lou Reed — “Dirty Blvd.” (1988)
Reed’s written many classics set in New York, but few address the city’s class divide in the way “Dirty Blvd.” does. The New York single contrasts the rich and the poor in the city in a way that would be considered hypocritical if Reed wasn’t so damn accurate about slum life. “This room cost $2,000 a month, you can believe it, man — it’s true,” Reeds chuckles. “Somewhere there’s a landlord’s laughing ’til he wets his pants.”
The Decemberists — “Los Angeles, I’m Yours”
West Coasters have embraced “Los Angeles, I’m Yours” in a way that confuses me. Three 12-line verses find Decemberists leader Colin Meloy dismantling the allure of LA, whose “hollowness will haunt you,” before he declares his allegiance. Perhaps this is “the realest thing”: comparing a city to “an ocean’s garbled vomit on the shore” and loving it anyway. In Meloy’s case, I think the Oregon native just really hates LA.
Bruce Springsteen — “New York City Serenade” (1973)
Like other musical icons of the American middle class, Springsteen is inspired by cities and the struggles of those who live there. Mellencamp can have the small towns of Indiana; Springsteen’s got New Jersey and New York (though The Boss’ ode to my Ohio hometown, “Youngstown,” gets it right as well). From “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” to “Incident on 57th Street,” there’s a bit of competition over which of these New York songs is his finest. I’m partial to the joyous ten-minute closer to The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, “New York City Serenade.” These must be among some of the finest lines ever penned about New York life: “It’s midnight in Manhattan, this is no time to get cute/ It’s a mad dog’s promenade/ So walk tall, or baby, don’t walk at all.”
PJ Harvey — “You Said Something” (2000)
PJ Harvey’s Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea is a classic New York album right up there with Illmatic, so it’s hard to pick just one song. But despite its mentions of Brooklyn and Manhattan, “You Said Something” is applicable to really any city. Harvey chronicles rooftop nights spent staring out at skylines and discussing life in a way that she’s never been able to shake.
Jens Lekman — “Black Cab” (2003)
If you live in a city with public transportation, you know what Jens Lekman is getting at with “Black Cab.” Sometimes it’s just too late to take the train, you’re in a neighborhood with no regular taxis, and you just want to go home after a rough night. Your only savior is a black cab (or a livery, as they call it in New York) driving by, and you take it despite its sketchy status. The 2014 version of this song would be called “Uber That Doesn’t Show Up.”
Pretenders — “My City Was Gone” (1982)
Chrissie Hynde bemoans the urban sprawl around her native Akron, Ohio in this classic rock radio favorite. In an effort to revitalize and rebuild as a Rust Belt leader, Akron took on development projects that subsequently turned the “pretty countryside” Hynde had known as a child into parking spaces and shopping malls.
LCD Soundsystem — “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” (2007)
LCD Soundsystem songs deal obliquely with a scene that was of a certain time and place, specifically New York in the 2000s. So it seemed inevitable that James Murphy would write a more direct homage to the city, and on 2007’s Sound of Silver, he did. Naturally, it was a cynical view that New York was better before Giuliani ‘Disney-fied’ it with regards to crime and filth. Fittingly, it’s perhaps the most epic song LCD Soundsystem ever recorded.
Talking Heads — “The Big Country” (1978)
On the More Songs About Buildings and Food closing track, Talking Heads leader David Byrne spends several minutes setting a scene of idyllic small town life before he drops the bomb: “I wouldn’t live there if you paid me.” He addresses every single alternative to city living, from the suburbs to the farms, but the differences are unimportant to him — he “wants to be somewhere.”
Arcade Fire — “The Suburbs” (2010)
“The Suburbs” makes the list as a reminder of why people flock to cities. Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler remembers growing up in the urban sprawl of Houston, specifically the master-planned super-suburb that is The Woodlands, Texas. While he’s not as harsh as David Byrne in “The Big Country,” Butler isn’t exactly nostalgic either. Mostly he fantasizes about suburban warfare so milquetoast, he’s bored by it.
The Lovin’ Spoonful — “Summer in the City” (1966)
Car horns and the sound of a jackhammer bring a sense of accuracy to The Lovin’ Spoonful’s biggest hit. While upbeat, “Summer in the City” isn’t exactly metropolitan equivalent of a Beach Boys surf track. They’re essentially saying, “Cities are miserable places in the sweltering heat, the pollution practically sticking to you — so vices must be chased.”
N.W.A — “Straight Outta Compton” (1988)
Just outside Los Angeles, Compton has been mythologized in rap as the most dangerous city in America, thanks to N.W.A. The rap collective’s album of the same name doesn’t shy away from the gritty details of life in the ghetto and the relentless effort it takes to escape the cycle while still remembering your roots. It should be required listening for every entitled person living in a city.
Interpol — “NYC” (2002)
Paul Banks’ lyrics aren’t exactly poetry, but his less-is-more approach actually works in this case. He’s clearly a few years into his New York life, and he’s found that he needs to adjust in order to keep going in this dirty, difficult town. New York is a place that inspires strong reactions, so a vague chorus (“New York cares/ Got to be some more change in my life”) allows people to project their own city experiences onto it.
Stevie Wonder — “Living for the City” (1973)
Don’t let its funky melody fool you — “Living for the City” is a harrowing tale about systemic racism and the lengths one man goes to in order to survive in New York. Parents try to make ends meet, and while their kids strive for something more than a working-class struggle on the brink of poverty, some things are out of their control.
Ryan Adams — “New York, New York” (2001)
Four days before 9/11, Ryan Adams filmed a video just across the East River, for what would become his breakthrough single. The Twin Towers right over his shoulder, Adams looked back on his time in New York with a bittersweet taste in his mouth. Despite his baggage, he’ll always love New York — but it’s time for him to mosey along. There’s an intangible, intoxicating power to New York and any resident’s personal history with the city that Adams captures quite well.
Randy Newman — “Baltimore” (1977)
“I Love L.A.” may be Newman’s most well-known ode to a place, but his discography is peppered with songs about struggling mid-sized cities, from “Burn On” (about Cleveland) to “Dayton, Ohio – 1903.” Newman’s finest work in this genre, however, is “Baltimore,” a solemn ballad detailing the city’s increasing crime and poverty in the 1970s (and onward), and how it forced families to flee.
Jay Z and Alicia Keys — “Empire State of Mind” (2009)
“Concrete jungle where dreams are made of” is, admittedly, one of the worst lines of Jay Z’s career (right up there with “D’ussé is the shit if I do say so myself”), but “Empire State of Mind” is the upbeat anthem — about how people flock to New York to chase their dreams — that the city somehow didn’t have already. No matter how many times “Empire State of Mind” gets blasted at New York arenas, its piano line has a certain power that it can be difficult not to get swept up in.
U2 — “City of Blinding Lights” (2004)
This single off How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb captured a bit of early U2’s beauty and introspection without seeming like a PSA. In an obtuse way, Bono is encouraging himself, his lover, and a post-9/11 New York all at once. He’s purposefully set his story in the city, entangling his feelings about growing older and more self-conscious with the location.
Blur — “For Tomorrow” (1993)
Damon Albarn name-checks a number of London locales in this Modern Life Is Rubbish opener, from Primrose Hill to Kensington. Though the track and its video directly deal with England’s metropolitan hub, the larger theme of “For Tomorrow” is one that applies to life in any big city: the struggle of being there can be, in part, the promise of tomorrow’s opportunities.
Bob Dylan — “Talkin’ New York” (1962)
On this classic off his self-titled debut, Dylan chronicles his earliest days in the city, spent hustling around the Greenwich Village folk scene and looking for more stable work. Part spoken-word blues, part harmonica wailing, “Talkin’ New York” features Dylan’s best barb about city life: “A lot of people don’t have much food on their table/ But they got a lot of forks n’ knives/And they gotta cut somethin’.”
Sara Bareilles — “Manhattan” (2013)
I admit this is probably the sappiest song on the list, but Bareilles captures something no other artist here does: the way a break-up can divide the city into forbidden territory and safe zones. At times it seems as though giving up New York’s biggest borough is as painful to Bareilles as leaving her emotionally unavailable lover, but it’s likely for the best. Streets once strolled with an ex can be hard to walk down after love fades.
The So So Glos — “My Block” (2009)
Brooklyn natives So So Glos offer up a snarling take on the borough’s rapid gentrification with lines like, “The rich kids in the hungry neighborhoods out looking for something to eat.” But more than even that, “My Block” sums up the modern New York struggle while still acknowledging that those of us who live here think it’s the center of the universe.