We've heard others try to claim the crown, but to our ears the world capital of popular music has to be New York City—home to Tin Pan Alley and birthplace of American punk rock and hip-hop. Whether getting into New York or Empire states of mind, singing odes to particular intersections or walking on the wild side, musicians have been belting out tributes to the Artist Formerly Known as New Amsterdam virtually since it came into being. And when you hear those songs, close your eyes and picture our great city, chances are you'll wish you were here. Below are 14 of the songs we think do the most to get people into the New York groove.—Jonathan Zeller
"Rockaway Beach," The Ramones (Rocket to Russia, 1977)
For fans of: Sun, fun, punk rock
New Yorkiest lyrics: "Up on the roof / Out on the street / Down in the playground / The hot concrete"
Why you'll pack your bags: It's a summer day, and Queens' favorite homegrown punk pioneers want to hit the beach. Fortunately, it's not hard or far to reach in the Ramones' most successful US single by chart position. The leather-jacket-clad lads salute the shining sun and the ease of taking public transit (specifically the bus) to get out to the popular Queens hangout. Sure, there aren't many lyrics, but in reliable Ramones fashion the power chords pound down like noontime rays.
Not the most punk-rock thing we've ever heard: The Queens Economic Development Corporation used the song in a 2013 advertising campaign to draw people out to the beach. —JZ
• Rockaway Beach (obvs)
• The John Varvatos store (where CBGB used to be)
• The Ramones exhibition at the Queens Museum
"Root Down," Beastie Boys (Ill Communication, 1994)
For fans of: Street art, ’80s hip-hop battle tracks, the subway
New Yorkiest lyrics: "Every morning I took the train to High Street station / On the way back up, hearing battle tapes / Through the underground, underneath the sky scrapes"
Why you'll pack your bags: The Beasties constantly paid homage to New York City (the three emcees were all born here), mentioning highways, streets and subway lines all over their tracks—as Mike D does here in referencing his subway journey via the High Street station (the A and C lines, for those taking notes) in Brooklyn Heights. It'll get you psyched for the simple act of commuting. "Root Down" refers to a jazz song by Jimmy Smith—which the Beasties sampled here—and to their own roots, firmly planted in NYC. —Christina Parrella
• Brooklyn Heights Promenade
• The Brooklyn Bridge
"New York Groove," Ace Frehley (Ace Frehley, 1978)
For fans of: Triumphal returns
New Yorkiest lyrics: "Here I am, again in this city / with a fistful of dollars"
Why you'll pack your bags: Not for the excitement that might await at "Third and Forty-Three," an intersection namechecked in the song as the "exit to the night." These days, not so much. A bank? Sure. Staples? Check. But it hardly matters, because the song does such a good job of convincing you that when you come (back) to New York City, you've got the world at your feet and your senses will be working overtime. You'll find your own Third and Forty-Three. And it doesn't matter whether you’re a local returning or a visitor from afar: though Ace is from the Bronx, the song was written by former Argent singer Russ Ballard, who's a Brit. —Andrew Rosenberg
• Queensboro Bridge
• '21' Club
• Anyplace you dive into the nightlife
"Take the 'A' Train," Duke Ellington (1941)
For fans of: Transit, uptown
New Yorkiest lyrics: "The quickest way to Harlem"
Why you'll pack your bags: Back in the 1930s, New York City's A express train to Harlem was shiny, new and worthy of celebration. It got as much with this swingin' jazz standard composed by Billy Strayhorn for Duke Ellington's big band. These days, the A still makes the same speedy trip from 59th Street to 125th Street (just eight minutes!), where Harlem's full musical history awaits. Less than two blocks away, you'll find the famed Apollo Theater, where where performers at Amateur Night hope to break in. Other musical stops include jazz club Minton's; soul, jazz and funk spot Shrine Bar and Restaurant; and the Cotton Club—the re-creation of the joint where Duke first made his name in the 1920s—for Sunday brunch.
By the way: You should listen to the Ella Fitzgerald version, too. —Brian Sloan
• A Train
• The Apollo Theater
• 125th Street
"Shattered," The Rolling Stones (Some Girls, 1978)
For fans of: Studio 54, the '70s, Andy Warhol
New Yorkiest lyrics: "Life's just a cocktail party on the street / Big Apple"
Why you'll pack your bags: This song, reputedly penned in the back of a taxicab by Mick Jagger, portrays the exciting but rugged condition of New York City during the 1970s. Jagger references the west side, uptown and a street synonymous with the Fashion District: "shmatta, shmatta, shmatta, I can't give it away on Seventh Avenue." (Shmate is a Yiddish word for rag.) New York City is safer and cleaner now, but listening to this song still gives you the feel of what it was like to live in Manhattan at the time—cocktail parties, over-the-top disco fashion and cigarettes. And you know, you can still find that stuff if you know where to look. —CP
• The Lower East Side
"Supermodel," RuPaul (Supermodel of the World, 1993)
For fans of: Fashion
New Yorkiest lyrics: "You better work!"
Why you'll pack your bags: RuPaul got his start in the Meatpacking District in the '80s, starring in student films shot on its then-deserted streets and living atop the Jane West Hotel. A few decades later, the area is bustling and home to big brands like Diane von Furstenberg and Stella McCartney, along with photo studios like Milk and Industria. Head down there and you, too, will feel that "everything looks good on you." Prove it with a stroll on downtown’s unofficial fashion runway, the High Line. —BS
• The High Line
• 14th Street
• The Meatpacking District
"Schuyler Sisters" (from the musical Hamilton, 2015)
For fans of: American history, hip-hop musicals, hip-hop musicals about American history
New Yorkiest lyrics: "History is happening in Manhattan / And we just happen to be in the greatest city in the world"
Why you’ll pack your bags: Hamilton, a hip-hop ode to our first secretary of treasury, is also a love letter to New York City. Alexander Hamilton's is a classic immigrant journey: a Caribbean-born "bastard" (the show's word, not ours) who became one of the most influential figures in American history. Only in America—and only in New York—was that possible. "Schuyler Sisters" captures the patriotic spirit of the American Revolution in New York City, and you can catch echoes of that revolutionary history downtown. The song is also spot-on about the way some young folks come out to the City to rub shoulders with those making things happen. —Alyson Penn
Want Hamilton tickets?: Try for ’em at nycgo.com. The show is very popular, so you may face a long wait.
• Financial District
"Only Living Boy in New York," Simon and Garfunkel (Bridge Over Troubled Water, 1970)
For fans of: Folk, solitude
New Yorkiest lyrics: "And here I am / The only living boy in New York"
Why you'll pack your bags: The paradox of feeling alone in a city of more than 8 million people is something almost everyone in New York has felt at some point or another. Paul Simon wrote these lyrics when Art Garfunkel was off shooting Catch-22 in Mexico, making him feel like the "only living boy" in the City. The song captures the moody and reflective—but sometimes liberating—spirit of walking the busy city streets during those lonely times. —AP
• Washington Square Park
• West Village
• Central Park (site of the biggest Simon and Garfunkel concert ever)
"42nd Street" (from the musical 42nd Street, 1933)
For fans of: Glitz, glamour, showmanship
New Yorkiest lyrics: "Come and meet those dancing feet"
Why you'll pack your bags: "Naughty," "bawdy" and "gaudy" are a few choice (and consecutive) adjectives used to describe Times Square's colorful main drag in this song. The horns, shuffling beat and old-timey showbiz vocals evoke a stagecraft that’s still very much alive on the song's eponymous thoroughfare, which in recent decades has been restored to glory as a showplace for the best of Broadway. In addition to watching the dancing feet at the various theaters, tourists flock to "the Deuce" to see the gigantic, bright billboards and sidewalks crowded with a vibrant mix of humanity from all over the world, choreographing their own improvised ballet as they jostle their way to the night's entertainment. —BS
• 42nd Street
• Times Square
• New Amsterdam Theater
"Doin' the Things That We Want To," Lou Reed (New Sensations, 1984)
For fans of: Listening to your muse
New Yorkiest lyrics: "There's not much you hear on the radio today / But you can still see a movie or a play"
Why you'll pack your bags: Reed sings about seeing Sam Shepard's Fool for Love, and how it reminds Reed—patron saint of New York cool—of Scorsese's NYC movies. The words of the title, repeated after every other line, take on a double meaning: the City is so full of avant-garde culture that you'll have your pick of things that appeal to you, and artists themselves have the freedom here to operate according to their own vision—just like Lou himself always did with his talk-singing, crunchy riffs and street poetry (here "rhyming" New York, so brilliant, Raging Bull and things they do in one stanza). —AR
• The Public Theater
• St. Ann’s Warehouse
• Bowery and Bleecker Streets, or any other downtown corners from Mean Streets
"Protect Ya Neck," Wu-Tang Clan (Enter the Wu-Tang, 1993)
For fans of: Timberland boots, Sony Walkmans, hanging out on fire escapes
New Yorkiest lyrics: "Oww, here comes my Shaolin style / To my crew with the 'soo!'"
Why you'll pack ya bags: So you can see where the Wu was born. The squad of street-smart rappers had just formed their cohesive crew in 1993, and this debut single identified and embraced their affiliations and individual identities. The rhymes are quick, dense and dirty, with each verse expounding on surviving ("protectin' ya neck") in Staten Island—aka Shaolin—in the early '90s. For some, it is impossible to think of Staten Island and not conjure up the Clan's most visceral songs. —CP
• The Staten Island Ferry
• St. George
"Autumn in New York," Billie Holiday (A Recital by Billie Holiday, 1956)
For fans of: Crunchy leaves, cozy sweaters, wine
New Yorkiest lyrics: "Lovers that bless the dark / On benches in Central Park / It's autumn in New York / It's good to live it again"
Why you'll pack your bags: New York is one of the most romantic cities in the world, and we'd argue this is more evident in the fall than any other time of year.* That’s when the Central Park foliage changes color and the temperature is perfect for waterfront walks in oversize sweaters. You can find the sophisticated, old-world shade of New York evoked in Billie Holiday’s song year-round in the City's dimly lit jazz clubs, cozy cafés and vintage bookshops. —AP
*Author’s opinion does not reflect the official position of NYC & Company, which maintains that every season in New York is equally wonderful.
"Sci-Fi Wasabi," Cibo Matto (Stereo Type A, 1999)
For fans of: Food, cultural cross-pollination
New Yorkiest lyrics: "Obi-Wan Kenobi is waiting for me / in Union Square / My wheel needs repair / The bike lanes glowing all over the city / My bike specializes in the nitty-gritty"
Why you'll pack your bags: Cibo Matto began in New York City, but its two members—Yuka Honda and Miho Hatori—came from Tokyo. Their sound incorporated influences from all over the world: rock 'n' roll drive, hip-hop beats and pop hooks among them. Like a lot of New Yorkers, they were obsessed with food—in addition to the titular sci-fi condiment, the song namechecks stromboli, ravioli and aioli during their East Village journey. It's hard to follow the "plot," but Honda and Hatori's hyper-specific narration and action-movie music nevertheless convey the exhilarating struggle of big-city life. Also, credit where credit is due: they prophesied the proliferation of NYC bike lanes. —JZ
Where to listen:
• Union Square
• St. Mark’s Place
• In a bike lane (on your bike, with a helmet on, paying attention to traffic)
"Miami 2017," Billy Joel (Turnstiles, 1976)
For fans of: Tenacity
New Yorkiest lyrics: "They turned our power down / And drove us underground / But we went right on with the show"
Why you'll pack your bags: This apocalyptic song (the one that starts "I've seen the lights go out on Broadway") is dark on the surface, but has a rollicking beat and uplifting subtext. Joel—the official New York Bard of Musical Storytelling™—wrote it as a show of defiance during New York City's 1970s economic crisis, when he moved back east from Los Angeles. President Ford may have told New York to "drop dead"—that's how the Daily News put it—but Joel and others stuck around and made sure the City lived to see better times.
Hear for yourself: The song has become a live favorite (it sometimes opens Joel's Garden shows) and a reminder that even when the five boroughs have been down, they're never out. —JZ
• Empire State Building
• Times Square
• The Home Run Apple from Shea Stadium