Quintessential – representing the most perfect or typical example of a quality or class.
VILLAGE VOICE STAFF
FEBRUARY 18, 2014
For the past week we’ve been locked in the torch of the Statue of Liberty, subsisting on nothing but Russ & Daughters’ lox, listening to the best records about, by, and for New York City through headphones endorsed by Lou Reed. Our mission: to come up with a list of the 50 Most NYC Albums Ever; albums born of the five boroughs that best capture what it’s like to live, love, struggle, and exist in the sprawling, unforgiving, culturally dense metropolis we pay too much to call home. The albums we finally agreed upon capture everything from the unaffected cool of the Lower East Side to the horn-spiked salsa of Spanish Harlem and much more. So let’s get to it. Here, now, the 50 most quintessential New York records. Apologies in advance for The Muppets Take Manhattan not making the cut.
50. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Fever to Tell (2003) The Yeah Yeah Yeahs might not be the hipster band du jour anymore, but Fever to Tell is still a perfect downtown New York record, gritty and artsy and stylish.
49. Jay Z – The Blueprint (2001) Jay-Z famously mocked Nas for having a “one hot album every 10-year average.” And yet Jay himself has only reached the height of his potential three times in a nearly 30-year career.
48. Jim Carroll – Catholic Boy (1980) With his New York drug-drawl and angel-headed hipster-hustler lyrics, poet-turned-musician Jim Carroll spoke-sang with an urgency that belied his drug of choice.
47. Lana Del Rey – Born to Die (2012) Despite her Las Vegas past and L.A. crass, Lana Del Rey is still the queen of Coney Island.
46. Ciccone Youth – The Whitey Album (1988) 1988’s The Whitey Album is what happens when you take two essential NYC musical icons — underground masters Sonic Youth and pop queen Madonna (last name: Ciccone) — add punk legends like Black Flag’s Greg Ginn and the Minutemen’s Mike Watt, and mash the whole thing together in an avant-garde experiment.
45. 50 Cent – Get Rich or Die Tryin’ (2003) 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’ is not only important to New York, but it changed the way we think about rap and music as a whole.
44. West Side Story – Original Cast Recording (1957) Maybe it’s the ’57 Broadway cast record with the extra swears.
43. Jennifer Lopez – On the 6 (1999) Jennifer Lopez’s On the 6 was famously named for the train she would ride into Manhattan from her native Bronx, you know, before she was a super-famous millionaire pop star with questionable movie credentials.
42. Simon and Garfunkel – Bridge Over Troubled Water (1970) Paul Simon is the consummate pop songwriter of the Baby Boom generation, and Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, released in early 1970, was the kazillion-selling capstone of that generation’s defining decade.
41. Mountain – Climbing (1970) More cowbell? No, it’s perfection kicking off the now-classic rock staple that is “Mississippi Queen,” a heavier-than-thou, Southern-inclined, blues-rock groover created by New York’s own Leslie Weinstein (West), a guitarist so talented Jimi Hendrix cited him as an influence.
40. Bob Dylan – The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963) From a cover shot on a West 4th Street corner with Suze Rotolo to lyrics that spoke of hitting an unknown road, social change, and the poetry of love, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan located the voice of a young folk singer having finally settled in a thriving capital of youth culture and music.
39. Ka – Grief Pedigree (2012) Ka, the O.G. of Brownsville, drops knowledge with a seen-it-all monotone, lyrics spare and vivid.
38. Richard Hell and the Voidoids – Blank Generation (1977) For a Jewish kid born in Kentucky, Richard Hell created one of the most representative records of articulate and primal New York punk.
37. Billy Joel – 52nd Street (1978) Billy Joel has never been afraid to whack everyone over the head with his affection for this city — most memorably with 1976’s “New York State of Mind” and 1983’s “Uptown Girl” (which was an education to the rest of the world about NYC’s class system).
36. Saturday Night Fever – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1977) Saturday Night Fever cannot be separated from its tough Brooklyn backdrop, no matter how many disco lights you shine on it.
35. Lady Gaga – The Fame (2008) When a proud New Yorker named Stefani Germanotta arrived on the scene, she was a breath of fresh air in a Disneyfied pop landscape then rehashing the tamer moments of the genre’s history.
34. George Gershwin with the Paul Whiteman Concert Orchestra – Rhapsody in Blue (1924) Brooklyn-born pianist and composer George Gershwin debuted “Rhapsody in Blue” on February 12, 1924, at Manhattan’s Aeolian Hall.
33. They Might Be Giants – Lincoln (1988) Boasting the only near-hit single to dream about the DuPont Pavilion Flushing’s 1964 World’s Fair, these Brooklyn stalwarts’ 19-track Lincoln is like some everlasting art-pop pi–ata: No matter how long you hit it, it’s got more candy and curios to give.
32. John Lennon and Yoko Ono – Double Fantasy (1980) Double Fantasy is the last album John Lennon released in his lifetime, created as his return to music-making after five blissful years as a stay-at-home dad and meant to reflect his love story with Yoko Ono.
31. Andrew W.K. – I Get Wet (2001) Lest there be any confusion: “It’s Time to Party” and “Party til You Puke.” Andrew Wilkes-Krier’s 12-song debut is monomaniacal in its focus and commitment to pure, unabashed Neanderthal rock, as winningly performed by a smart guy.
30. Various Artists – No New York (1978) It was 1978 and Brian Eno was in the city working on the Talking Heads’ More Songs
About Buildings and Food.
29. LCD Soundsystem – Sound of Silver (2007) LCD Soundsystem’s expertly calibrated contribution to the canon is made of tin cans and tinsel, tightly coiled guitar strings and kalimba keys, asphalt and skyscrapers.
28. Art Blakey – A Night at Birdland, Vol. 1 (1954) There are hundreds of jazz LPs that belong on this list, plus thousands of sides waxed back before “album” was a word applied to record-making.
27. Sonny Rollins – The Bridge (1962) You know this story? Three years after Saxophone Colossus, the LP that showed him just to be what its title claimed, the bold-toned reedman chucked stardom and went off the grid, Dave Chappelle-style, preferring to hone his art before the audience that meant the most: himself.
26 Interpol – Turn on the Bright Lights (2002) This is what it sounds like when you realize the way you dressed as a teenage theater tech became your uniform as an adult.
25. New York Dolls – New York Dolls (1973) Even with production by pop sensibilist Todd Rundgren, New York Dolls is a snotty, sassy, dirty collection of aural swagger and evocatively sexy, supremely satisfying rock ‘n’ roll filth.
24. Joe Bataan – Subway Joe (1968) Only in New York does it make perfect sense that the original “King of Latin Soul,” Joe Bataan, was the progeny of a black mother and a Filipino father. Born in Spanish Harlem in 1942, Bataan created a distinct style — an amalgam of pop, boogaloo, Motown, salsa, and soul — while trying to find a place in the music world.
23. Afrika Bambaataa – Death Mix (1983) The birth of hip-hop is one of New York City’s favorite fables: Kids in the blighted Bronx of the ’70s rose up from the rubble by cannily spinning snippets of other artists’ music and rhyming over them at rec rooms and block parties.
22. Cro-Mags – Age of Quarrel (1986) Perhaps more than any other New York hardcore band, Cro-Mags have the most tumultuous and talked-about history, due to well-publicized feuds between members John Joseph and Harley Flanagan.
21. Wu-Tang Clan – Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers (1993) New York is a fierce town, unrelenting, full of scowls and sidewalk shoulder bumps, an 8-million-member ruckus. Some people just can’t handle it.
20. Joe Cuba Sextet – Wanted Dead or Alive (1966) By easing off the brassy horns up front and interspersing piano or vibraphone leads instead, Joe Cuba invented his own self-described “bastardized” version of salsa called boogaloo.
19. Lou Reed and John Cale – Songs for Drella (1990) The only thing capable of reuniting Lou Reed and John Cale after the acrimonious dissolution of the Velvet Underground was the death of their mentor, Andy Warhol.
18. Sonic Youth – Goo (1990) There’s nothing as quintessentially alt-New York as watching Sonic Youth’s “Tunic (Song for Karen)” video, directed by renowned modern artist Tony Oursler (a fellow New Yorker), inside the Whitney Museum.
17. Kid Creole and the Coconuts – Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places (1981) Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places opens with “Going Places,” where the chorus buzzes out a mantra every New Yorker believes to their very bones: “Believe me, you know/When you leave New York you go nowhere!” With that, Kid Creole and the Coconuts proceeded to create a pastiche of sound — disco-funk, pop-rock, calypso-reggae — that could be considered a metaphor for New York’s own diaspora.
16. Madonna – Like a Virgin (1984) The consoling New York fantasies of ninth-grade Midwestern introverts involve graduating and moving to the big city, reinventing their personas and histories, and becoming cool, self-actualized urbanites that nobody from high school would even recognize.
15. The Strokes – Is This It? (2001) Disillusionment, lethargy, and effortless cool are the ingredients that carried Is This It?, an 11-song collection of ragged, guitar-driven rock ‘n’ roll.
14. Rolling Stones – Some Girls (1978) Ever perverse, Mick Jagger denied the hometown crowd a prideful cheer when, recording the live ‘Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out’ at Madison Square Garden in 1969, he substituted “Strollin’ on the boulevards of Paris/as naked as the daylight I will die” for those infamous original lines in “Honky Tonk Women”: “I laid a divorcée in New York City/I had to put up some kind of a fight.”
13. The Ramones – The Ramones (1976) Henry Rollins once said: “Ramones music is a mineral — naturally formed. To mess with it, you are immediately meddling with forces far greater than you.”
12. Tito Puente – El Rey Bravo (1963) The timbales-playing bandleader laid down what is perhaps his best-known material as nothing more than filler.
11. Blondie – Parallel Lines (1978) Blondie’s Parallel Lines is a sort of sonic version of Times Square. Sure, it use to be rough, scary, and crammed with crooks. Then it got cleaned up.
10. Television – Marquee Moon (1977) In a post-Horses world, punk had found its poetry and dove into the work of some of the literary world’s earlier rebels — young French poets. Suddenly, the Bowery became electrically romantic, and CBGB legends Television were the stars.
9. Notorious B.I.G. – Ready to Die (1994) Biggie Smalls understood the grind: the stress-filled days; the roads forged from desperation. “Pockets broke as hell, another rock to sell,” he rapped, “That’s why you drink Tanqueray, so you can reminisce and wish you wasn’t livin’ so devilish.”
8. James Brown – Live at the Apollo (1963) Can speakers sweat? The sound of a man on his knees tearing his throat bloody to get you off, Live at the Apollo remains the sturdiest of pop cornerstones.
7. Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967) That oft-repeated quote ascribed to Brian Eno about how everyone who bought The Velvet Underground’s low-selling, Warhol-produced debut formed their own band might be true, but it implies the record is great on account of its vast influence instead of its own nigh-inexhaustible sensual and literary merits.
6. Harlem River Drive – Harlem River Drive (1971) The cultural and ethnic mixture of New York is one of the defining reasons for our city’s greatness.
5. Patti Smith – Horses (1975) Someone somewhere once decided to call Patti Smith the “godmother of punk,” but it’s better to think of her as its high priestess, and of Horses, her debut album, as its primary religious text.
4. Public Enemy – Fear of a Black Planet (1990) The cusp of the ’90s saw Long Island power-troop Public Enemy, once righteous hometown heroes, being hit by criticism and controversy off the back of Professor Griff’s perceived anti-Semitic statements.
3. Beastie Boys – Paul’s Boutique (1989) In many ways, Paul’s Boutique is the Beastie Boys’ thesis.
2. Gil Scott-Heron – Pieces of a Man (1971) From the album’s opener, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” there was no mistake.
1. Nas – Illmatic (1994) From Illmatic‘s opening verse, Nas sets the stakes. Within seconds he’s facing death, caught off guard when the guns are drawn. “I ran like a cheetah with thoughts of an assassin/Pick the MAC up…”
Contributors: Rae Alexandra, R.C. Baker, Lilledeshan Bose, Jonah Bromwich, Tom Finkel, Kat George, Beca Grimm, Chris Klimek, Brett Koshkin, Nick Lucchesi, Anna Merlan, Phillip Mlynar, Chris Packham, Albert Samaha, Alan Scherstuhl, Elliott Sharp, Brittany Spanos, Tessa Stuart, Eric Sundermann, Katherine Turman