Anyone who’s strolled through Central Park or people-watched from the steps of Union Square knows that New York City has a distinct beat and musical undertone. From the dimly lit clubs in the Village that offer cozy Sunday-morning jazz brunches to the bright lights and exciting numbers showcased along Broadway every night of the week, music is woven into the fabric of the Big Apple.
With a healthy mix of folk songs, classic tunes, and modern hip-hop, here’s a playlist to cue up next time you’re headed out on a big-city adventure.
Song: “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love)”
When to play: Entering the city
The obvious pick for a Jay-Z hometown melody is “Empire State of Mind,” the well-known track on which Alicia Keys croons that New York is “a concrete jungle where dreams are made of.” But, why go for the obvious pick? You’re in NYC — live a little!
I’ve always found the rapper’s 2001 track to be slightly more in tune with the spirit of the city. Whether you’re riding the Metro North in from Yonkers, crossing the George Washington Bridge from New Jersey, or stuck in traffic on the Long Island Expressway, throw this song on when that famous skyline comes into view and let Kanye West’s flute-heavy beat (which he adapted from Bobby “Blue” Bland’s 1974 “Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City”) carry you in.
Song: “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down”
Artist: LCD Soundsystem
When to play: Walking through Central Park
There’s a certain sadness hanging over New York City. Maybe it’s the constantly rotating shadows from the towering skyscrapers, or the collective consciousness of all the dreamers who flocked here only to have their spirits broken. Despite all its wonders, most New Yorkers can identify with this feeling, even if they can’t articulate it. Luckily, James Murphy — frontman for LCD Soundsystem — can do both. In this slow-moving ballad, he identifies this profound sensation while maintaining that it hasn’t lessened his love for the city at all.
Song: “You Make Me Feel So Young”
Artist: Frank Sinatra
When to play: Window-shopping along Fifth Avenue
It’s been the setting for more films and shows than I could ever count, but few scenes capture the childlike wonder New York instills in its newcomers than Buddy and Jovie’s date from “Elf,” during which they sip the world’s best cup of coffee, skip down Fifth Avenue, and marvel at the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree — all of which is set to Sinatra’s classic tune. Long-time residents will surely look down their noses at you for delighting in such typical tourist attractions, but hey, there’s a reason they’re so popular. Throw this Sinatra classic on when walking down Fifth Ave or lacing up your ice skates at 30 Rock, and let the magic of the city consume you.
Song: “The Boxer”
Artist: Simon and Garfunkel
When to play: People-watching on the subway
A ride on the New York subway is really what you make of it. If you let the delays, unidentifiable odor, and deafening screeches from the rails get to you, you’re probably not going to have a great time. If, instead, you take the opportunity to people-watch, and recognize that everyone sardined in there with you has their own story that’s “seldom told,” you can pass the time by letting your imagination wander.
This Simon and Garfunkel classic is able to capture the indomitable spirit of all the unsung heroes of New York, and it does so with a beautiful melody to boot. If nothing else, press play and turn the volume up to block out the repetitive urging of the PA system to “stand clear of the closing doors.”
Song: “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)”
Artist: Oscar Isaac and Marcus Mumford (though there are many versions by other folk artists)
When to play: Sitting on a bench in Washington Square Park
The Coen brothers’ brilliant film “Inside Llewyn Davis” tracks the journey of the eponymous 1960s singer as he travels from the folk scene of Greenwich Village to a club in Chicago hoping for a big break. Almost better than the film itself is the soundtrack, produced by T Bone Burnett and featuring a host of guest artists including Bob Dylan, Justin Timberlake, Stark Sands, and others. This song, featured in the film’s trailer, combines the raspy, yet comforting voices of Marcus Mumford and the movie’s star, Oscar Isaac, to create a melancholy folk tune perfect to accompany you in the Village’s iconic park.
Song: “No Sleep Till Brooklyn”
Artist: Beastie Boys
When to play: Riding the M train into Brooklyn
Most subway lines between the boroughs take you under the river. The Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges, however, support both car and rail traffic, meaning you can look out the window while exiting Manhattan and watch as you float into New York’s most populous borough. What better way to celebrate the occasion than blasting the Beastie Boys’ hip-hop/hard-rock anthem? The bass-heavy tune will have you ready to go the moment the train pulls into the Marcy Avenue Station.
Song: “Tompkins Square Park”
Artist: Mumford and Sons
When to play: Relaxing in Tompkins Square Park
After focusing their first two albums on their home city of London, Mumford and Sons turned their sights west in 2015 with “Wilder Mind.” Their third studio album brings listeners on a tour of New York City with engaging tunes like “Ditmas” and “Broad-Shouldered Beasts.” Though many critics lambasted the band for its departure from the folk genre it had previously dominated, “Wilder Mind” provides a new sound and perspective that is no-less inspiring than their previous work. The album’s opening track provides a sad, heartfelt melody as two doomed lovers meet in the titular park for one last goodbye.
Song: “The Greatest Show”
Artist: Various Artists
When to play: Walking down Broadway and/or Times Square
In the upbeat opening number from the movie musical of the same name, Hugh Jackman’s P.T. Barnum asks us if we want to go “where it’s covered in all the colored lights, where the runaways are running the night.” If you’ve never made your way down Broadway at nightfall, seen the flashing marquees advertising a host of shows, and felt the undeniable electricity in the air, you might not identify with what Barnum’s referring to. In his case, of course, the show was a circus, not a Broadway production, but that magical feeling, that sensation that you’re in the midst of something spectacular, remains the same.
Song: “Walk on the Wild Side”
Artist: Lou Reed
When to play: On an early-morning stroll in Brooklyn Bridge Park
With vibrant-green spaces, playgrounds, volleyball courts, and even a carousel, Brooklyn Bridge Park often feels like an oasis amid a massive metropolis. There are few better times to sprawl out in the grass and enjoy the spectacular waterfront view than at the break of dawn, when the rising sun illuminates the lower Manhattan skyline just across the river. The opening bass line of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” provides the perfect background music for watching the greatest city in the world wake up — though they do say it never sleeps in the first place.
Artists: The Notorious B.I.G.
When to play: Anytime
This list would feel incomplete without a track from Biggie Smalls, the Brooklyn-raised rapper who practically single-handedly put East Coast hip-hop on the scene in the 90s. For old time’s sake, go with his hit “Juicy,” whose dreamy beat and singalong lyricsine to feel more like a New York anthem than most of his others. It’s easy to feel lost in such a huge city, so pop those earbuds in whenever you’re struggling to remind yourself that, as the hook says, “You know very well who you are. Don’t let them hold you down. Reach for the stars.”