Photo by Julien Fourniol
Earlier this year, New York magazine published its “Ultimate New York Playlist,” a collection of 25 songs (and then some) for a Big Apple-themed jamfest. It’s a great list, and a great idea. If only I had thought to share my NYC playlist with the masses. I threw it together in the Summer of 2003, when I was in exile with a serious case of saudade(look it up) for my once and future home. I’ve been adding to it since, including two obviously significant recent inclusions, and I figure today is an appropriate day to publish it.
(I know it’s easy for me to say “I thought of it first, years ago,” so you’ll just have to take my word for it that I wouldn’t waste my time and yours on a post that would otherwise be a blatant ripoff.)
Not coincidentally, my playlist has a few songs in common with New York‘s. But mine is also shorter, and admittedly a little more mainstream. Nevertheless I think you’ll see that it’s also vastly superior, so get out your iPod and start programming.
1. Empire State of Mind (Jay-Z featuring Alicia Keys, 2009)
Of course, right? Obviously this was one of the recent additions. Jay-Z’s powerful anthem became an immediate classic, and the perfect leadoff song, supplanting….
2. New York, New York (Ryan Adams, 2001)
As the video tells us, it was filmed four days before the 9/11 attacks. Though the song has a positive tempo and sound, its timing makes it poignant.
3. On Broadway (The Drifters, 1963)
This song was literally written on Broadway, by the songwriting team of Weil and Mann. It’s been covered by umpteen artists, including Eric Carmen, Tom Jones, James Taylor, Tito Puente, Neil Young, and Widespread Panic. Previous releases by the Cookies and the Crystals also exist, but the Drifters’ recorded the definitve one.
4. Tom’s Diner (Suzanne Vega, 1991)
Tom’s Restaurant on Broadway and 112th has been immortalized in popular culture twice: in this catchy pop song by Vega, and as the diner of choice on “Seinfeld.” These Greek-owned diners are part of the fabric of life in NYC.
5. No Sleep Till Brooklyn (Beastie Boys, 1987)
My personal mantra on any given Saturday night.
6. Walk on the Wild Side (Lou Reed, 1972)
If you’re gonna romanticize New York, you gotta take the bad with the good. That includes the backsliding days of the 1970s, when the town was bankrupt and practically left for dead. Reed paints a deviant picture as he sings about male prostitutes, transsexuals, drugs, and yes, the “colored girls.”
7. The World I Know (Collective Soul, 1995)
Underrated and nearly-forgotten song by a likewise nearly-forgotten band. Slightly depressing – the song deals with suicidal tendencies – but enjoyable.
8. New York Groove (Ace Frehley, 1978)
A simple ode by the Kiss guitarist. Also previously recorded by a British band called Hello.
9. Across 110th Street (Bobby Womack, 1972)
The theme song to a blaxploitation film of the same name. Womack sings of a Harlem where pimps are “trying to catch a woman that’s weak,” and “pushers won’t let a junkie go free.” Later featured as an homage in Tarantino’s Jackie Brown.
10. The Boy from New York City (The Ad Libs, 1965)
Back to some lighthearted fare from Bayonne, New Jersey’s Ad Libs – their only hit.
11. New York (U2, 2000)
U2 released its classic LP All That You Can’t Leave Behind in 2000, but it might as well have come out on September 12, 2001. The band has always shown an affection for the city, and here Bono attempts a tribute in the vein of Sinatra or Joel. The song itself isn’t that memorable, but Bono’s earnest lyrics, as well as the surrounding context of the album, make up for that.
12. You Said Something (PJ Harvey, 2000)
This came out the same year as the U2 song above, and is a likewise moving and prescient ballad.
13. Spanish Harlem (Aretha Franklin, 1971)
Ben E. King recorded the original version of this Jerry Lieber/Phil Spector classic, but Aretha’s pipes certainly laid claim to it, as she is wont to do. Dr. John’s smooth keyboards are icing on the cake.
14. The Boxer (Simon and Garfunkel, 1969)
A curious tune about loneliness in New York, which switches from first person to third in the third verse. If you have any doubt about the power of this song, check out Simon’s performance on “Saturday Night Live” from September 29, 2001.
15. Rockaway Beach (The Ramones, 1977)
You didn’t think we’d get through this list without Forest Hills’ very own, did you? Classic bubble gum rock about hitching a ride to the beach in Queens.
16. New York State of Mind (Floyd Pepper, with Dr. Teeth and Zoot)
That’s right. I don’t like Billy Joel. But he pretty much nailed it with this song, which is one of the top two or three NYC tributes of all time. If you’re like me and can’t deal with the sanctimony in Joel’s voice, I suggest you give this version a try. It’s the version I grew up with, before I’d ever heard of the Piano Man. And after all, the Muppets are a New York institution in their own way. I also recommend Carmen McRae’s version.
17. The Message (Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, 1982)
Back to dystopia, in the South Bronx at its nadir. This hip hop classic emotes utter frustration with survival in the ghetto; as the lyrics lament, “It’s like a jungle, sometimes it makes me wonder how I keep from going under,” followed by some grunts of semi-insanity.
18. Downtown (Petula Clark, 1964)
“Downtown” does not specifically reference New York or any part of it; the song could be about Milwaukee or Ottawa if you want it to be. Whatever it makes it a NYC song is what we read into it. Yet coming as it does at the end of a golden era of Broadway-based songwriting, as well as of New York itself, it’s an appropriate inclusion. (Tony Hatch, the British-born songwriter who penned it, has admitted that he wrote the song upon his first visit to New York.) “Downtown” was used by the city to promote tourism in Lower Manhattan following 9/11.
19. Dirty Boulevard (Lou Reed, 1989)
You may have noticed that this playlist switches gears between fun and depressing, but alas, that’s life in the city. By 1989, commentary on the dirty and downtrodden was old hat for Reed – you could include an entire Velvet Underground album on this playlist if you wanted – but it’s safe to say his was a lonely voice in a year whose top hits came from Bobby Brown, Chicago, Paula Abdul, and Debbie Gibson. On this tune, which sounds like a coffehouse open mic rant, Reed is especially acerbic; not even the “Statue of Bigotry” is safe from his lyrical assault. (“Give me your hungry, your tired, your poor, I’ll piss on ’em…”)
20. Theme from New York, New York (Frank Sinatra, 1980)
I can’t imagine what the Chairman would think of “Dirty Boulevard,” but consider this song a remedy for all of the sadness, pollution, overpopulation, crime, and poverty we’ve been hearing about ’til now. This is one of those instances where the theme song eclipsed the movie (by Martin Scorsese no less) for which it was penned. Sinatra, and his voice, had peaked long before, but after mailing in so many recordings in the ’60s, he belts this one with gusto. His inbred enthusiasm more than makes up for his by-then shot vocal chords, and he sounds like he could be singing about a young man from Hoboken about to cross the river to “make it there.” This song, for those who don’t know, plays at the end of every Yankees home game.
21. Empire State of Mind (Part II) – Broken Down (Alicia Keys, 2009)
Keys’ more sobering sequel to the Jay-Z song bookends the playlist. Where Jay-Z’s anthem is all about bravado and ego, here Keys answers with sweetness and vulnerability, determination mixed with fear and innocence. That she uses the same refrain shows how versatile lyrics can be. Most of these songs belong to one end of the emotional spectrum or the other, but this one is the perfect mix, and a great coda to Sinatra’s timeless tribute.