As our nation’s unofficial cultural capital, it’s impossible to cover the full scope of the music of New York City. What is the real sound of New York City? The gritty punk of the 80’s, the witty irony of 2000’s indie rock, the gangster rap of the 90’s, the pop icons that sprout from the five boroughs like weeds? Perhaps all of it is what gives New York City a breadth and depth of musical talent that is unmatched in the world.
1. Good Morning – Bleachers – 2017
When he’s not writing Billboard hits for pop princesses like Taylor Swift, Lorde and Lana Del Rey, New Jersey born, Brooklyn based Jack Antonoff produces music under Bleachers. Bleachers features the catchy hooks of Antonoff’s previous band fun. mixed with anthemic 80’s pop sensibilities and baroque symphonic layers.
2. Dirt Off Your Shoulder – JAY-Z – 2003
One of New York City’s most famous rappers, Brooklyn born and raised JAY-Z solidified New York City’s status as one of hip-hop’s epicenters. Dirt Off Your Shoulder was the second single from his acclaimed Black Album and made the news when it was referenced by Barack Obama during the 2008 Democratic Presidential Debates.
3. Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard – Paul Simon – 1972
Already known as a Greenwich Village icon from his days with Simon & Garfunkel, Paul Simon rose to further heights with a solo career that showcased the floating vocals and lyrical poetry from his New York City folk days.
4. Always Be My Baby – Mariah Carey – 1995
One of the original pop divas of the 1980’s and 90’s, Mariah Carey is a New York City musical institution. Carey was the first artist to have her first five singles reach number one on the US Billboard Hot 100. She also holds the all-time record with eighteen number one singles overall.
5. Mo Money Mo Problems – The Notorious B.I.G – 1997
Although he only released two albums before his tragic early death at age twenty-four, The Notorious B.I.G is consistently referred to as the greatest rapper of all time. Mo Money Mo Problems was one of his best works and shows off his unique storytelling abilities as well as easy and unforced lyrical delivery.
6. Step – Vampire Weekend – 2013
Vampire Weekend burst onto the indie music scene with their self-titled debut that featured the clever lyricism and erudite messaging that won them Grammys along with a passionate cult following. Their later albums would turn down the pretension and turn up an impressive musicology that led to further critical acclaim.
7. Sunday Morning – The Velvet Underground – 1967
When The Velvet Underground first released their debut album The Velvet Underground & Nico it sold poorly and was ignored by critics. The album was experimental in view and its lyrics discussed drug abuse, prostitution and deviancy. However, while it only sold an initial 30,000 copies, it eventually developed a cult following and went on to be remembered as one of the most influential albums of all time. In 2006 it was inducted into the Library of Congress and in 2003, Rolling Stone ranked it as the 13th Greatest Album of All Time.
8. Always On Time – Ja Rule, Ashanti – 2001
One of the most played songs of the 2000’s, Always On Time featured two New York City R&B icons in Ja Rule and Ashanti. The song peaked at number one on the US Billboard Hot 100.
9. I Wanna Dance With Somebody – Whitney Houston – 1987
While technically from nearby Newark, New Jersey, Whitney Houston is one of the best-selling musicians of all-time, as well as the most awarded female artist ever. Her first two albums Whitney Houston and Whitney are the two best selling first two albums ever. While the song I Wanna Dance With Somebody was originally not well received by critics, it went on to become an enduring dance classic of the 80’s.
10. In Da Club – 50 Cent – 2003
Anyone in high school or middle school in the early 2000’s will instantly recognize the opening horns and percussion of In Da Club. In Da Club was 50 Cent’s first number one hit and was certified Gold within the year.
11. Call Me – Blondie – 1980
Originally created for the 1980 film American Gigolo, Call Me was one of new wave band Blondie’s biggest singles and their second number one hit. Blondie would go on to sell over forty million albums around the world and continue to release music well into their fourth decade.
12. Poker Face – Lady Gaga – 2008
Before Lady Gaga showed up to the Grammy’s in a dress made of raw meat, before she won an Oscar, before she performed at the Superbowl, she released The Fame. The Fame took the pop world by storm, injecting independent experimentation into an industry previously dominated by saccharine pop princesses. Lady Gaga would go on to become one of the defining artists of the decade and her musical generation.
13. Everyday – A$AP Rocky, Rod Stewart – 2015
One of the most successful rappers of the decade, ASAP Rocky released three albums to critical acclaim and commercial success. Everyday features vocals from Rod Stewart and was listed by Rolling Stone as one of the best songs of 2015.
14. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill – Ms. Lauryn Hill – 1998
At times controversial and always mysterious, few artists are as enigmatic as Lauryn Hill. Releasing her first and only studio album to universal critical acclaim, Hill found commercial success as a hip-hop and neo-soul star. However, after controversial audience interactions, as well as dissatisfaction with the music industry, Hill dropped out and would only release one more album, an MTV Unplugged session that was widely panned. She would release little music in the years after that and would find herself in legal trouble, eventually serving a three-month tax evasion sentence in 2013.
But her only album continues to fascinate listeners. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill won 10 Grammy nominations and propelled Hill to instant international stardom. In 2015 the album was inducted into the Library of Congress.
15. N.Y State of Mind – Nas – 1994
With its searing imagery of life in the African American ghetto, N.Y State of Mind quickly separated Nas from his peers. The song is often mentioned as one of the greatest rap songs of all-time and is one of the few songs featured in the Norton Anthology of African American literature.
16. Someday – The Strokes – 2001
One of the most popular acts of the garage band revival, The Strokes are one of the most critically acclaimed bands of the 21st century. Their debut album This Is It was listed by many publications as one of the best albums of the decade, as well as one of the best debut albums ever.
17. She’s Always a Woman – Billy Joel – 1977
One of the Big Apple’s rock icons, Billy Joel has sold over 150 million records world-wide. His songs feature all the highs, and lows, of life and stardom in the city. Few musicians are as tied to their city as Billy Joel is to New York.
18. No One – Alicia Keys – 2007
Classically trained and blessed with a gospel belting voice, Alicia Keys was one of the most commercially successful and critically acclaimed musicians in the 2000’s. Her album As I Am earned her three Grammy nominations in 2007 as well as the single No One that ended up as number one on the Billboard Hot 100.
Keys is also an acclaimed acoustic performer and has the unique distinction of being the first woman to have an MTV Unplugged album debut as number one.
19. The greatest – Lana Del Rey – 2019
Although her music may conjure up cinematic images of LA, Lana Del Rey hails originally from NYC. As the decades’ original melancholy sad-girl pop star, Lana Del Rey would go on to influence an entire generation of female pop artists from Halsey to Lorde. Her 2019 album Norman F****** Rockwell would collect Grammy nominations, including for Album of the Year.
In The greatest, she muses on burn-out, nostalgia, climate change as well as finding meaning in an existentially challenged world.
20. Joan Baez – Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right – 1970
Starting in the folk clubs of 1960’s Greenwich Village, Joan Baez would go on to become one of the leading figures of the counter-culture movements of the 60’s and 70’s. Equally comfortable as a musician and political activist, Baez has released over thirty albums and performed publicly for over sixty years.
Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right is a cover of an original Bob Dylan song, an artist she helped popularize with her many covers of his work.
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