The 25 Best Songs About New York City

Music Lists Best Songs
The 25 Best Songs About New York City

New York is easily the most romanticized American city in movies, music and TV. That doesn’t mean it’s as shiny and wonderful as you’ve been led to believe in every romantic comedy and rock album ever made, but it is one of the most resilient cities we’ve got. It’s not for everyone—the squash of crowds, sweaty subways and street noise can be overwhelming for some. For others, it’s akin to an orchestra. New York has had a lot thrown at it, especially this year. As one of the worst coronavirus hotspots in the U.S., New Yorkers have been forced to show up by hunkering down, isolating in tiny apartments, town homes and studio flats and avoiding the sacred public spaces that normally serve as ad hoc living rooms, kitchens, gathering spaces and homes away from home when actual home is a 900-square-foot closet shared with two other people. In honor of this strong, beautiful city, we rounded up 25 of the best songs ever written about New York. There were a bunch to sift through, and we undoubtedly left off a few of your favorites, but these are the NYC songs that mean the most to our staff and writers. We hope they inspire a little of that NYC strength and spirit in you.

Listen to our Best NYC Songs playlist on Spotify right here.

25. Billy Joel: “New York State of Mind”

You’ll find plenty of Billy Joel gems when you dig around in the Paste Vault. Check him out wearing a younger man’s clothes, cigarette hanging from his lip, regaling a crowd in New Jersey with his then-new single, “New York State of Mind,” in 1976. For those who roll their eyes at the fact he’s sold out Madison Square Garden more than 40 times, it’s worth watching to see the man in his prime, through those loyal fans’ eyes. Compare and contrast that with Tony Bennett’s rendition at the 2002 Newport Jazz Festival. Whereas Joel’s initial debut above feels off-the-cuff, interrupted by ab-libs and lousy with freewheeling solos, Bennett’s tightly-paced, hotel-lobby cool jazz arrangement makes the song feel elegant and standardized. —Zane Warman

24. The Gotobeds: “New York’s Alright (If You Like Sex & Phones)”

That’s the right attitude to have. New York’s alright. It’s got some good things to do, but it can also be a huge drag. It’s a place. Yeah, its old paintings are probably more famous than your town’s old paintings, but it also doesn’t have your favorite bar or BBQ joint. Also living there can be brutal; you know how sometimes being around a lot of people only makes you feel even more alone than you already did? Imagine living that every minute of your life. Or imagine having to operate in the miserable New York music scene, which the Gotobeds mock at the start of “New York’s Alright.” New York’s okay, but you can also do cool stuff in whatever town you’re in—and that town needs it more. Double props to this song for being as anti-cellphone as it is indifferent towards New York. —Garrett Martin

23. Leonard Cohen: “First We Take Manhattan”

This track is thrilling because it opens I’m Your Man in a mode in which we’ve never heard Cohen before, as a kind of cosmopolitan thrill-seeker and provocateur. There’s an air of espionage in the tune somehow (reinforced later in the record by the outlandish “Jazz Police”) and Cohen’s booming baritone makes the listener feel like a conspirator. What’s the conspiracy, exactly? If you believe the speaker in the chorus, the goal is no less than world domination. We’re with you Leonard, let’s do this. —Nate Logsdon

22. Taylor Swift: “Welcome to New York”

Rumor has it that Michael Bloomberg himself commissioned this song, but it might as well have been sung by Disneyland animatronics. However, as someone who moved to New Jersey as a teen, I have a soft spot for this song. In the year following my move, I was forcefully optimistic and tried very hard to paper over my fears about making new friends with empty reassurances. One thing I could consistently look forward to was sitting in the backseat of my parents’ car with my fifth generation iPod Nano, earbuds in, and timing this song on my queue so I could listen to it as we crossed the George Washington Bridge. —Jane Song

21. Le Tigre: “My My Metrocard”

Getting your first Metrocard is an exhilarating rite of passage, and it’s even better when you finally get to ride alone. Le Tigre perfectly encapsulates that childlike thrill with a more rebellious twist in their 1999 song “My My Metrocard.” The vibrant power-punk guitar repetition punctuated by the infectious tambourines brought an edgy twist to the beloved girl groups of the ’60s with Kathleen Hanna’s iconic yelping vocals. The song describes the often disorienting, yet liberating journey into New York City’s bustling subway system. “Think I’ll go a little, but then I go far!” exclaims Hanna, as the endless possibilities of transferring across subway lines make for exciting discoveries. “My My Metrocard” is a throwback to careless exploration with friends, twirling on subway poles, and jumping turnstiles as a middle finger to Mayor Giuliani. One swipe of a plastic card opens the floodgates to just about anything, and Le Tigre reminds you to take advantage of it. —Jade Gomez

20. Jim Croce: “New York’s Not My Home”

Jim Croce offers a proper antithesis to his contemporary Harry Nilsson’s “I Guess The Lord Must Be In New York City” in “New York’s Not My Home,” where he bemoans every aspect of the city after living there for a year. With expertly twangy guitar work, plenty of humming and harmonica and the mellow, humble attitude of all the James Taylor-types who made this era of soft-rock so freakin’ endearing, Jim Croce chronicles the ups and downs of love and loss in the life of a classic, 30-something road dog. This song probably won’t help you appreciate New York, but it will have you longing to walk back down your own version of Croce’s “hot dusty Macon road” and set up shop with a “hard lovin’ Georgia girl.” I can’t get enough of Croce’s unapologetically southern outlooks on everything. —Ellen Johnson

19. Boogie Down Productions: “South Bronx”

This 1987 track, courtesy of the legendary group Boogie Down Productions, pays homage to the birthplace of hip-hop. As the lead single from their debut album Criminal Minded, released that same year, “South Bronx” is notorious for its role in “The Bridge Wars” that pitted BDP against Queens rapper MC Shan after he released “The Bridge.” The song memorably samples James Brown’s “Get Up Offa That Thing” and undeniably launched KRS-One’s groundbreaking career not only as a skilled rapper but an exemplary lyricist. Years later, “South Bronx” remains one of music’s most recognizable—and galvanizing—anthems while serving as a crucial piece of hip hop history. —Candace McDuffie

18. Joni Mitchell: “Chelsea Morning”

Joni Mitchell sang of “butterscotch” sunshine and a fleeting “rainbow” on “Chelsea Morning,” a song from her 1969 classic Clouds. She didn’t depict the hustle and bustle of New York City, but rather a peaceful a.m. scene—breakfast, oranges, “a song outside my window.” You can’t hear it without longing to slip into a bathrobe, pour a cup of coffee and just nest. Yet, it’s undeniably about New York City. That “song” she mentioned?—“The traffic wrote the words.” “Chelsea Morning” possesses a movement and a light that’s felt in all the best songs about NYC. It’s there in Harry Nilsson’s urban hymn “I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City” as the banjo cracks on. It’s there—in a somber way—in LCD Soundsystem’s lilting, lovely, relatable (if you’ve ever spent considerable time in the city, that is) “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down.” It’s even there in Taylor Swift’s charged 1989 opener, “Welcome To New York,” the kind of classic awestruck, bright-lights banger the city so often inspires. New York City is infinite, therefore its potential for musical muse is also infinite. As long as NYC stands, people will write songs about it. —Ellen Johnson

17. Purple Mountains: “Snow Is Falling In Manhattan”

There’s no debate as to which 2019 song is the best and truest NYC ballad. It hits different after David Berman’s death last summer, but it maintains the dark, mystical beauty that simmered up the first time I heard it on a sweltering day in July. Hearing Berman’s lyrical poetry is nothing new, but there’s something so special about this particular description of New York. It works almost like an antithesis to Mitchell’s “Chelsea Morning.” Her NYC scene was a bright, light spring morning; his, a dark, cozy winter’s night. “Snow is falling in Manhattan / In a slow diagonal fashion / On the Sabbath, as it happens,” he sings. Then, later, the location becomes even more exact as the borough count rises to four: “Coming down in smithereens / On Staten Island, Bronx and Queens / It’s blanketing the city streets.” But he’s safe inside, with a “fire crackling.” And what a comforting vision that is, especially now. —Ellen Johnson

16. Harry Nilsson: “I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City

You might recognize Harry, the 1969 self-titled effort from one of soft-rock’s greatest rascals, Harry Nilsson, as the inspiration for much of the music in the 1998 film You’ve Got Mail. The movie starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan features the cozy “Puppy Song” as well as “I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City,” which will whisk you away to a simpler, busier time in the city’s life (“Marchin’ Down Broadway” and the song “City Life” are also helpful in that regard, though the latter might make you feel thankful that you don’t live in NYC). While this is not the better-known Nilsson Schmilsson, Harry is a charming snapshot of one of the 20th century’s greatest singer/songwriter’s on the cusp of fame. So, “say goodbye to all your sorrows,” and hop on the imaginary train to Nilsson’s New York City, a magical land full of puppies and walks in the park and new love. Sounds pretty great, right? —Ellen Johnson

15. Billie Holiday: “Autumn in New York”

Frank Sinatra’s version of “Autumn in New York,” Vernon Duke’s 1934 jazz standard, is the only one to enjoy any chart success as a single one and a half decades later, but Billie Holiday’s take on the song is unimpeachably, undeniably, unequivocally better. If we’re to name one rendition of Duke’s songcraft as definitive, it is, or should be, hers; Holiday’s voice gives the myriad conflicts and contradictions in the lyrics her stamp and a clearly drawn set of distinctions between the good of New York versus the bad. That is, after all, the great strength of her voice: She modulates her pitch from line to line, verse to verse, with casual mastery, one moment telling of her fondness for the greatest city in the world, the next outlining the way its greatness so often cross-pollinates with loss and abiding sadness. She’s in love. She’s in anguish. She alternates between the two axes on and off, lilting through the emotional connective tissue binding her to the song. It’s her way of telling the story driving “Autumn in New York” through her own lens, not Duke’s or anyone else’s for that matter. This is a slow, deliberate piece that’s made comfortable through mellowness, but it’s made immortal through Holiday’s melancholy. —Andy Crump

14. The Velvet Underground: “I’m Waiting For The Man”

Forget best Velvet Underground songs—this one’s arguably one of the best songs, period. The pounding track about waiting to score whatever $26 will get you has been covered by the likes of David Bowie, Beck and Belle & Sebastian, but no one does it quite like the original. —Bonnie Stiernberg

13. Frank Sinatra: “New York, New York”

Even for a city that’s produced an endless supply of self-referencing music, there is perhaps no song that captures New Yorkers’ collective image of their town as much as Frank Sinatra’s rendition of “New York, New York.” The song occupies a unique position as the hallmark for no less than three globally recognized institutions—Sinatra, the city itself and the New York Yankees. Recorded in 1979 and released in 1980, Sinatra’s version took on a life of its own after Liza Minelli sang it first as the theme song for Martin Scorcese’s 1977 namesake film starring Minelli opposite Robert DeNiro. At the peak of her powers, Minelli was able to match Sinatra’s booming presence pound for pound, so it’s not just Sinatra’s larger-than-life quality that cemented his version in history. Yes, his vocal positively oozes exuberance—listening to signature lines like “I want to wake up in a city that doesn’t sleep,” it’s hard to imagine that Sinatra wasn’t being sincere about the subject, especially having grown up across the Hudson River in Hoboken, N.J., right in view of Manhattan’s fabled skyline. That said, it’s composer John Kander and arranger Don Costa’s orchestration that give the song its strangely timeless quality. The instrumental hook (DAH-DAH dah-dah-dah) is just as iconic as any of the song’s most memorable lines, and the ambience of the Sinatra recording hearkens back to classic 1940s and ’50s-era records where vocalists took center stage accompanied by an orchestra. Immediately on its delivery, Sinatra’s “New York, New York” (officially titled “Theme from New York, New York”) sounded like a distant echo from the past, as if its spirit were as old as the migration impulse that has fueled the city’s story from its very inception. Your New York experience won’t be quite complete until you’ve gone up to The Bronx and heard Sinatra’s voice carrying through the air after a Yankee game. —Saby Reyes-Kulkarni

12. Jay-Z feat. Alicia Keys: “Empire State of Mind”

Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’s thundering, wholesome and proud ode to New York City was originally created by a couple of other artists, PAngela Hunte and Janet “Jnay” Sewell-Ulepic during a trip to London where they both felt homesick. They sent it in to Roc Nation for Jay-Z to record to it, but it received some less-than-positive reviews, leaving them to think that it would never become anything. But thanks to a welcome turn of events that involves it being heard by the right person at the right time at a barbecue, Jay-Z decided to give it a shot, bringing on Alicia Keys to sing the original hook. And together, the two made history with a rousing love letter to the Big Apple. From getting high fives from the New York Knicks and (then) New Jersey Nets to taking an Ambien to stay awake in The City That Never Sleeps, Jay-Z’s wide-eyed appreciation for the heartbeat of America brings an intense passion into your heart. But when Keys comes roaring onto the chorus, that’s when the chills form and you feel the utter infatuation with the area. It resonated with the world, going more than five times platinum. No matter where you’re from, you’ll feel like you live in Manhattan when you listen to it. —Trey Alston

11. Bobby Womack: “Across 110th Street”

One of the late Rock & Roll Hall of Famer’s best-known hits, Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street” shares its name with the 1972 blaxploitation film for which it was written and recorded, as well as the line dividing the hard streets of Harlem from the northern edge of Central Park. The lushly composed “struggle song” melds the personal and the universal, with Womack (who was born into poverty in Cleveland) recalling his own battle “to break out of the ghetto,” and lamenting racial and geographical divisions that still persist today: “The family on the other side of town / would catch hell without a ghetto around / In every city you find the same thing going down.” “Across 110th Street,” too, still resonates, spanning generations as a soulful anthem for marginalized folks fighting to survive, whether in New York City or any other. —Scott Russell

10. Leonard Cohen: “Chelsea Hotel #2”

This song is one of those minor miracles that populate so much of Cohen’s catalog. It has the feel of something written in secret, quickly and quietly. You can, in fact, imagine him writing it in a room maybe like the one in the Chelsea Hotel where he famously made love with—and was given a legendary backhanded compliment by—Janis Joplin, to whom the song is addressed. His phrasing on this tune is particularly pristine: try not to choke up when he pleads (and recedes), “I need you, I don’t need you.” But the truly great and iconic feature of this song is that, for all the emotion and memory that he applies to its performance and composition, he ends on a profoundly ruthless statement that hangs, dangerously, in the air: “I don’t think of you that often.” —Nate Logsdon

9. Interpol: “NYC”

It will be difficult to convey to future generations just how well Interpol epitomized dapper-dressed early-aughts cool. Let “NYC” serve as Exhibit A. Most post-9/11 tributes to New York were mawkish, chest-beating drivel, but “NYC” (almost certainly written before the attacks but released a year later) depicted the city as a gloomy haze of feigned apathy and social disguises. With its brooding refrains and skewed imagery (only Paul Banks could make a line like “The subway is a porno” sound deep), “NYC” functions as Turn on the Bright Lights’ de facto title track, and perhaps a larger signifier of the era. “It did become the soundtrack to that particular time,” Matador founder Chris Lombardi said of the song in 2012. “That song is about New York falling apart. That’s what the whole record’s about.” —Zach Schonfeld

8. The Ramones: “Rockaway Beach”

The Ramones were my first true love, but it wasn’t until I lived in New York City (Queens, specifically) that I fully understood the gist of their bare-bones Beach Boys ode “Rockaway Beach.” It’s not a beach song, per se, but a song about how gross and sticky the city feels on a sweltering day; it’s about escapism, about getting to the beach. How? Hitching a ride. Because the bus is, apparently, too slow, and it involves loud disco. Even a crowded city beach feels worlds away from dog-day concrete playgrounds and rooftops, and “Rockaway Beach” salutes its eternal promise of respite in some of Dee Dee Ramone’s most economic poetry: “Chewing out a rhythm on my bubble gum / Sun is out, and I want some.” —Sara Bir

7. The Pogues: “Fairytale of New York”

An iconic counterpoint to both cheery Christmas songs and starry-eyed views of the Big Apple. Perhaps this time and place are cozy and full of wonder for you, with delicately hung mistletoe and snowy strolls down Fifth Avenue. Or perhaps you gave up your dreams for a lover you now hate, your family members are tearing each other apart in alcohol-fueled rage, and you’re searching for meaning while moldering in the drunk tank. To say this song is emotionally tumultuous is to undersell this bitter masterpiece that raises a pint to all the sluts and the scumbags and belches out “Merry Christmas!” while somehow never losing its beautiful sense of longing. It is the most New York and the most Irish. We would have it no other way. —Allison Keene

6. Sharon Van Etten: “Seventeen”

“Seventeen” is an origin story in the Springsteen vein. In the video, a grown Sharon Van Etten walks with her younger self through old NYC stomping grounds—Union Pool, Baby’s All Right, the Marcy Street JM subway stop. The lyrics paint a picture of a bygone New York City, one where up-and-coming rock musicians like Van Etten ran wild. “Downtown harks back / halfway up the street,” she sings. “I used to be free / I used to be seventeen.” Since then, she’s achieved some of those dreams she was chasing around Manhattan and Brooklyn, but she has also since relocated to L.A. And that might be the biggest pill to swallow. —Ellen Johnson

5. Nas: “N.Y. State of Mind”

Before the coasts battled in the names of 2Pac and Notorious B.I.G., Nas’ Illmatic helped raise the bar for East Coast hip hop. Nas’ lyrical mastery begins with his first verse on “N.Y. State of Mind” and ceases to relent. He’s intricate and articulate throughout the record, delivering some of hip hop’s classic lines. It’s his kind of lyricism, along with Q-Tip and Pete Rock’s understated production, that begged for hip hop to be considered as poetry.—Max Blau

4. St. Vincent: “New York”

Few lyrics have resonated more this decade than “You’re the only motherfucker in the city who can handle me.” But “New York’s” strength doesn’t necessarily come from its refrain as much as its hyper-specific ode to Manhattan crossed with a breakup song. From callouts to Astor Place (she even spins in the Astor Place Cube in the music video!) to 1st and 8th Aves, Annie Clark bemoans the loss of a lover—presumably her ex, Cara Delevingne—and her friends, who like many in the arts community this decade, packed up their belongings and moved to Los Angeles. The piano ballad is easily the best song about New York released in some time, miles more emotionally affecting than the Google Maps-like, landmark-referencing “Empire State of Mind,” and it’s one that does a lot with a little, stripping away Clark’s manic guitar-playing in such a way that you almost forget she’s still the best guitarist of her generation. —Steven Edelstone

3. The Strokes: “New York City Cops”

“New York City Cops” is one of modern rock’s most mythical songs. Everyone knows any time you ban something, that makes it much more desirable, but even if “New York City Cops” wasn’t removed from the U.S. version of The Strokes’ debut album, it would still be just as good (Funnily enough, even the album cover was banned in America). Is This It came out in the summer of 2001, just a few months before the 9/11 attacks, so later copies of the record removed the song, which some found in poor taste due to its jabs at the city’s first responders. With The Strokes being one of New York’s most essential bands, it’s fitting that they would have a song that references such an overwhelmingly visible presence in the city. And to be fair to The Strokes, given recent events, the barbaric department is pretty clearly not worth defending, and in the controversial chorus, Julian Casablancas is only regurgitating lines from “Nina,” some character who “just can’t stop saying” the phrase “New York City cops, but they ain’t too smart.” A classic New York City band influenced by other classic New York City bands, singing about a specifically New York City institution is about as NYC as it gets. —Lizzie Manno

2. Beastie Boys: “No Sleep Till Brooklyn”

Few bands evoke The City That Never Sleeps quite like the Beastie Boys, whose standout Licensed to Ill track is a rightful fixture on lists like this one. Titled as a tribute to Motörhead’s 1981 live album No Sleep Till Hammersmith and featuring an ear-splitting guitar solo from Slayer’s Kerry King, “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” stays true to (while affectionately goofing on) the rock ‘n’ roll in which the Beasties were rooted, reveling in the traveling drug and sex circus that is the classic rock tour. The raucous, Rick Rubin-produced party anthem is nothing if not a posse cut, with Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz, Michael “Mike D” Diamond and the late Adam “MCA” Yauch swapping rowdy bars fast and furiously, with an iconic shout-along chorus at its core. Though the Beastie Boys were just beginning to take their show on the road circa 1986, this hit made it clear they’d never leave Brooklyn behind. —Scott Russell

1. LCD Soundsystem: “New York, I Love You, but You’re Bringing Me Down”

As the last song performed during its last show at Madison Square Garden (before returning to the spotlight in 2017), to the surprise of no one, LCD Soundsystem busted out “New York, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down,” the perfect way to conclude such a perfect night. In the documentary Shut Up and Play the Hits, the song is prefaced by Murphy getting in a cab and visiting the members of LCD Soundsystem for dinner, followed by a contemplative drive as Murphy looks out at the city he calls home. It’s a beautiful moment where you can see the love in Murphy’s eyes, almost as if once LCD is done, he’ll be kicked out of the city he has embraced and criticized. “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” is Murphy’s anthem for the city that has let him down, but still it’s “the one pool where I’d happily drown.” Like the kids who had borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered ’80s, Murphy never got to see NYC in its heyday and you can feel the pain in missing this moment of musical and cultural significance. He’s been promised one thing, been sold a bill of lies, but still he’s accepted what he has been given. Maybe the city at its peak still exists to someone, but not for him. The love for New York has always loomed big in Murphy’s music, from his love of The Velvet Underground and CBGB and the artists that come along with that, but “New York, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down” is his love song for a love he’ll never be able to shake, no matter if it still disappoints him. —Ross Bonaime

Listen to our Best NYC Songs playlist on Spotify right here.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin