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Top 10 Tunes That Evoke NYC Spirit and Place
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Top 10 Tunes That Evoke NYC Spirit and Place

Picture of Michael McGrath
Updated: 3 February 2017
For many artists, New York is a confluence of ideas, movements, statements and revolutions. It’s been a hatchery for the arts for well over a century. Music is one of the cities’ most shining examples. The city has been the birthplace or a nurturing element for musicals, jazz, disco, rap, pop and punk rock. The purpose of this piece is to give this music a face or place within the city. We check out 10 New York tunes that evoke a sense of the city.

Duke Ellington | Take The A Train

Duke Ellington was the world’s first ambassador of Jazz. He called New York home for over 50 years and during that time, he played every club or joint in town. Ranging from the Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Center to The Cotton Club in Harlem. He named this song, one of his most famous compositions, in homage to one of Harlem’s most famous transportation arteries. Pay tribute to this legend and his music by putting down three dollars and taking a ride uptown.

MTA NYC Subway A Train Map

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Stephen Sondheim & Leonard Bernstein | The Jet Song

When West Side Story opened on Broadway in 1957, it was like no show anyone had every witnessed before. Leonard Bernstein’s sharp, jazzy score, Jerome Robbins’ energetic choreography buttressed with a brilliant book by a then unknown Stephen Sondheim, all culminated into a shot heard around the world. The Broadway Musical was forever changed. Most of Lincoln Place, the neighborhood where the show takes place, was torn down during the early 1960’s to make way for The Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. The Jet Song captures the elements and attitude of that old neighborhood. Should you be inclined to stop by, there is still enough energy and architecture to make your trip worthwhile.

Lincoln Center for Performing Arts- 10 Lincoln Venter Plaza, New York, NY, USA,

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Cole Porter | Tin Pan Alley

Tin Pan Alley was the home to American song for almost 50 years. It began in the mid to late 1880’s and ended around the advent of the phonograph. The sound of melody wafted out the windows all along West 28th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues as songwriters and music publishers set up shop. Many of the great composers of their time cut their teeth here, from Scott Joplin to Irving Berlin. Perhaps, the most famous of them all was Cole Porter. Classically trained, Porter had a penchant for musical theater compositions and on that rare occasion, a cowboy song. Anything Goes is one of his most endearing melodies. When there, seek out a plaque that commemorates this vital piece of American culture.

Tin Pan Alley, W. 28th Street & 5th Ave, New York, NY, USA

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Lou Reed | Walk on the Wild Side

The Beatles sang of love, Bob Dylan of protest and Lou Reed of despair, heartbreak and uncontrollable urges. His canvas was New York at a time when the city was falling apart, both physically and morally. This surprise 1973 hit encapsulated many of his most potent themes: drug addiction, prostitution and sexual ambiguity. The characters of this song populated downtown on the lower west side of Manhattan, where much of the prostitution had resided. Though the Meat Packing District has changed dramatically over the years, there are still those late nights when one can conjure up a ghost or two from years past.

Meat Packing District, West 14th Street, 11th Avenue, New York, NY, USA

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The Ramones | Rockaway Beach

The New York Dolls may have been the first punk rock band to knock on the door of rock and roll, but The Ramones knocked it off its hinges. The Ramones were a refreshing breath of fresh air at a time when rock had become bloated and pretentious. Their base may have been the iconic music club, CBGB’s, but their roots were in Forrest Hills, Queens. And anyone who hails from there knows, the best place close by for some summer fun was Rockaway Beach, which they immortalized with this classic tune on the Rocket To Russia album.

Rockaway Beach, Queens, New York, NY, USA

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(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman | Carol King

If you were to put Tin Pan Alley into a garbage compressor along with Rock and Roll, Pop and Soul Music, then moved it uptown a mile north, you would have the Brill Building. Some of the most influential songwriters, music publishers and recording stars of the 1950s and 1960s made their home here. Carol King was the epitome of Brill’s ethos. She wrote great songs for every one from The Monkeys to Herman’s Hermits before embarking on her own successful career in the early 1970’s. This particular song is considered one of the best songs she ever written and was a huge hit for Aretha Franklin during the late 1960s. If you get a chance to pop by The Brill, you will find that music still courses through this structure’s veins.

The Brill Building-1619 Broadway, New York, NY, USA

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Rapper’s Delight | The Sugarhill Gang

Like the blues, the origins of the hip-hop music are quite sketchy. What most people do agree upon, is it was incubated in the outer boroughs of Brooklyn, The Bronx and in the upper reaches of Manhattan during the late 1970’s. Beyond that, it was a culmination of many minds working independently. Each piecing together scraps of song beats, music samples, dance, lyrics, attitude and style to create the last great music movement of the twenty century and beyond. The Rapper’s Delight was the first hit single ever to make the charts in 1979 and opened the ears of the world. Allure is a great hip-hop club to catch this world in motion.

Allure Club & Lounge 33-02 Queens Boulevard,Queens, New York, NY, USA,

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Shattered | The Rolling Stones

If you were a big music star within the span of the past 40 plus years, odds are you recorded some music at Electric Lady Studios. Located in West Village, it was the brainchild of the iconic Jimi Hendrix in the early 1970’s. Everyone from The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin to U2 and Daft Punk passed through its hallowed doors. Nestled just off of W. 8th street in the West Village, it is still as relevant today as it was when it first opened shop. This Rolling Stones song was not recorded at Electric Lady (it was recorded in France), but it is a love/hate letter to the city that consumed and obsessed their souls at its darkest hour and most exciting times – the 1970’s.

Electric Lady Studios, 52 W 8th Street, New York, NY, USA

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Le Freak | Chic

The roots of the 1970’s Disco tidal wave had some ties within New York’s gay male culture. Starting by way of communal loft parties and sketchy downtown clubs in The Village, it gradually – then suddenly – engulfed the city like an electronic pandemic. For several years, disco was king and at its height, Studio 54 was its castle. It was the world’s night life home for the fantastic, the famous and the fabulous . Nile Rodger’s unit, Chic, was one of the driving forces behind the music with their pulsing electronic beats, silky-smooth, unrelenting bass lines and staccato guitars. Somehow, in this shape shifting city, even after the party has ended, and a very long hangover ensued, Studio 54 still manages to remain. No longer a must go destination ( now in the guise of a theatre company) it still manages to hang on more of a reminder of a club that once held the world in its palm.

Studio 54, 54 W 54 Street, New York, NY, USA

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New York, I Love You, But You Bring Me Down | LCD Soundsystem

If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere’ – Frank Sinatra. There is no greater entertainment king maker (or queen) than New York City, and its court resides at Madison Square Garden, the most famous arena in the world. Everyone who is anyone has played there. It is a right of passage for both artist and fans . LCD Soundsystem played their final concert there. This particular song has the perfect vibe and evokes what most New Yorkers feel occasionally.

Madison Square Garden, 4 Pennsylvania Plaza, New York, NY, USA,

By Michael McGrath