From Bob Dylan to Leonard Cohen: The 10 best songs inspired by New York City
New York City has been the muse for some of the finest artists from every single generation, the soul of the city seems to be like catnip for musicians who are attracted to the bright lights and the even brighter dreams that come with it. Few places on earth can rival the musical history of New York and that intrinsic relationship that the Big Apple has with artistry.
There isn’t one overriding style that NYC can be linked with, it has its feet spread across almost every single camp in music and, more often than not, it is at the forefront of worldwide musical trends. New York has been the longstanding centre of the American music industry, but it could quite easily be coined as the musical capital of the world. In attaining iconic musical status in the early 20th century, New York has since retained its position despite the rise of musical lexicons of other cities such as Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, Nashville, and San Francisco — nowhere else can quite knock it off its perch.
Although Los Angeles is now perhaps the mecca of pop music and where the business side of music is largely dealt with, New York still feels like the place which restores the soul of music. The artists featuring on the list below aren’t all New York natives but they have all spent time in the Big Apple which, in turn, has welcomed them with open arms. It’s fair to say, a little bit of the artist has remained in the city, even if their bodies haven’t.
This is the city that we have to thank for the folk scene that Greenwich Village gave the world in the 1960s, the punk scene that gave the voiceless a voice in the ’70s, introduced hip-hop to the world in the ’80s and then made everyone fall back in love with rock ‘n’ roll at the turn of the century. The songs on this list aren’t all simply odes to New York. Instead, they tell the tale about the many facets to the city’s personality — both the beautiful and the cruel — the very humanity that makes it hum.
Let’s take a look at the best songs that New York City has inspired!
The 10 best songs inspired by New York City:
’53rd & 3rd’ – Ramones
No list about New York would be worth their salt if it failed to mention the Ramones. They were a pivotal voice in the punk movement and embodied that New York spirit. ’53rd & 3rd’ is one of the band’s earliest songs and was a stalwart of their sets during their days spent cutting their teeth at the legendary CBGB’s alongside new wave bands such as Blondie and Talking Heads.
The song was written by bass player Dee Dee Ramone and is about young male prostitutes selling themselves to older men in exchange for cash. The title for the track derives from the corner of 53rd Street and 3rd Avenue in Manhattan, New York, which is the place that was frequented by men looking to hustle. It was rumoured that Dee Dee himself took part in this activity to fuel his drug habit before the band took off. The track is a thunderbolt of frenetic energy and lands with the same searing intensity of the band’s back catalogue.
‘Chelsea Hotel No. 2’ – Leonard Cohen
Located at 222 West 23rd Street, the confrontational redbrick ran along the block and demanded an appreciation of its gothic grandeur. The Chelsea Hotel is as much a pivotal figure in music and literature as the bustling brains that occupy its rooms. Geniuses of the fields such as Mark Twain, Charles Bukowski, William S. Burroughs, Jackson Pollock and more could be found in this location. Arthur Miller, the luminary playwright, says it all as efficiently as you’d expect, saying, “No vacuum cleaners, no rules, no shame.”
It was within these walls that Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was the home to Patti Smith on many occasions, it would provide sanctuary for Jack Kerouac to type out his novel On The Road on a ridiculously long scroll of paper. In the sixties, it would provide a creative hub for some of the decade’s most prominent artists; Joni Mitchell, Lou Reed, and Jefferson Airplane all penning songs with the Chelsea as the main protagonist. On top of that, it was the scene and the subject for one of Leonard Cohen’s most poignantly perfect pieces of work.
The Chelsea Hotel in New York City is where Cohen lived when he wasn’t at his home in Montreal or his cottage on the Greek Island of Hydra. He chose the Chelsea because he heard he would meet people with a similar artistic bent, which is exactly what he did when he met Janis Joplin at the hotel and who became the muse for this piece of New Yorker iconography.
‘No Sleep Till Brooklyn’ – The Beastie Boys
In 1986, hip-hop was on the verge of becoming the behemoth of a genre. It is undoubtedly the biggest in the world today and the reason it would become such a tour de force was in part down to the enigma that was The Beastie Boys.
Their debut record, Licenced To Ill, remains one of the all-time great hip-hop records and they made sure to shout out their hometown on ‘No Sleep Till Brooklyn‘. They put the lyrics together by hanging out with their producer Rick Rubin and throwing out comical lines to make each other laugh, then decided to keep the best ones. The band spent a lot of time at the New York club Danceteria around this time, which they say provided them with a constant source of inspiration.
‘Talkin’ New York’ – Bob Dylan
This track appeared on Dylan’s self-titled debut album in 1962 and tells the story of his struggle after arriving in New York. He wasn’t finding gigs and was worried that his career wouldn’t ever get going, it’s also one of only two original songs that made it on his debut album.
New York provided Bob Dylan with a platform to hone his craft. Without the helping hand of the city then who knows what could have happened to his career if he hadn’t made that bold decision to follow his dreams. He quickly made a name for himself as he went from coffee shop to coffee shop throughout Greenwich Village and turned himself into an icon.
While his connection to the city isn’t as wholly celebrated as others, there’s no doubt that without the Big Apple, Dylan would have floundered.
‘Summer In The City’ – The Lovin’ Spoonful
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more feelgood anthem than The Lovin’ Spoonful’s ‘Summer In The City’, which never fails to put a spring in your step. The song contrasts what life is like during a sweaty summer day in New York with the beautiful summer night, which makes everything else worthwhile.
The track topped the charts throughout the summer of 1966 in America and still sounds timeless all these years later. It offers a poignant reminder that the good times are always round the corner and why there’s no greater place to be on an evening than New York City.
‘New Dorp, New York’ – SBTRKT ft Ezra Koenig
Ezra Koenig from Vampire Weekend is a New Yorker through and through but the influence of the city isn’t overt through his lyricism. When he linked up with English producer SBTRKT in 2014, Koenig decided to put things right and finally pay homage to the town that made him on ‘New Dorp, New York‘.
SBTRKT told The Guardian how he managed to unlock a different side of Koenig by getting him to rap on the track: “We talked about it beforehand, and it made sense because Ezra had these great lyrics and I was intrigued by the fact he had this hip-hop past,” he explained. “It’s a quintessential New York song, it feels like it has ownership of a place and time, and that was what my album was about for me.”
‘Empire State Of Mind’ – Jay-Z and Alicia Keys
‘Empire State Of Mind’ is the unofficial anthem of New York City and Jay-Z perfectly encapsulates everything great and good about the place in one song. It’s a track that still sends shivers down the spine.
His counterpart on the track, Alicia Keys explained to MTV News about how the collaboration came about: “I’ve admired Jay-Z for a long time. Reasonable Doubt is my all-time favorite album, period, and he’s been on the scene for long time. I always figured that we would do some type of collaboration, and finally, it came together with this.
“He reached out to me said, ‘I have this big New York record. I feel its right for us to do it together. It has this big Frank Sinatra, take-it-there feeling. I feel like you could really do something with it.’ I really felt the energy of New York all through it. It felt classic, it felt so good; the piano obviously was in there. I said, ‘I love it, so let’s do it.’ We communicated a lot during the process. I think we both are really happy with how it came out.”
‘Little Faith’ – The National
The National were adopted sons of New York City and, like Bob Dylan, the city helped them achieve their dreams and gave them a sense of freedom that nowhere else could. Although, New York is a place that’s close to their hearts on ‘Little Faith’, Matt Berninger makes clear his distaste for urban life as he sings: “Stuck in New York and the rain’s coming down, I don’t feel like we’re going anywhere.”
In 2013, Berninger spoke about what makes New York special, even if he does occasionally hate it: “Even when I look at it now, I’m in a Scorcese movie. I don’t feel natural here. I feel a suspension of reality. I think that’s what’s so amazing about this city; it’s a muse, and it’s a fantasy place. It’s just such a romantic, strange city that’s always a part of the songs.
“We’re just drawn to New York the way people are. I think we’re very representative of so many people of this city because so many weren’t born and raised here.”
‘New York City Cops’ – The Strokes
The political anthem against police brutality was written in response to the 1999 shooting of Amadou Diallo. The 23-year-old Guinean immigrant was unarmed when he was shot and killed by four plainclothes policemen in New York City who incorrectly thought that Diallo was reaching for a gun. The truth, however, was that the innocent man was, in fact, pulling out his wallet which feels all too tragically similar to the killing of George Floyd.
New York native and The Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas spoke with Vulture in 2018 about how the political aspect of The Strokes and, more significantly, how it was often overlooked in their early songs: “When it was taken of the album after 9/11, the political element got removed from the band’s narrative,” he said.
Politics aside, the song is a scintillating piece of garage rock which indicated to the whole world, after a decade or two of hip-hop dominance, that rock ‘n’ roll was back on the menu.
‘Subway’ – Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ 2012 track ‘Subway’ was written after Karen O’s husband Barnaby Clay sent the singer a list of ‘Top 50 songs written about New York City’. So it was only fitting that the track made its way on to this list too. She told NME: “He was like ‘you gotta write one.’ I wrote this track, which is a love song set on the most New York City thing there is – the metro system.”
The track is a lovely tribute to the town that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs played such a crucial part in transforming the cultural landscape of throughout the 2000s. ‘Subway’ isn’t an upbeat anthem, instead, it’s an eerie yet beautiful piece of music that makes you feel like you’re staring endlessly at your reflection on the window whilst lost in thought on an empty metro carriage in the middle of the night.