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Village Voice Names the “Most New York Albums”

March 17, 2014

Three weeks ago the Village Voice posted their “50 Most New York Albums,” a list of “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.” Because their list came from a large list of contributors, and features “everything from the unaffected cool of the Lower East Side to the horn-spiked salsa of Spanish Harlem and much more,” some of the records on their list are foreign even to me, the most New York of New Yorkers. Nevertheless I wanted to call out about 20 albums from their list that would most likely make my list of the most New York albums as well (and a few that wouldn’t):

  • #50: Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Fever to Tell (2003)

What the Voice said: Fever to Tell is still a perfect downtown New York record, gritty and artsy and stylish. Karen O has always sounded (and dressed) like the most inaccessibly hip girl at the art school party, but Fever’s appeal is also about the genuine substance locked inside layers of noise and attitude and snarl.

What I say: I agree, Karen O is the quintessential post-2000 New York girl, and guitarist Nick Zinner also should get mentioned as a poster-boy for New York cool. I couldn’t imagine this record coming out of anywhere else.

  • #49: Jay Z – The Blueprint (2001)

What the Voice said: The Blueprint is a reminder of a New York that still seemed invincible, the city where the American dream was available to anyone with a hustle and the heart to see it through.

What I say: This album had the misfortune of being released on September 11, 2001, but as time has passed that seems to have added to its legacy and mystique, rather than detracted from it. This is Jay-Z’s masterpiece.

  • #48: Jim Carroll – Catholic Boy (1980)

What the Voice said: 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.

What I say: Maybe #48 is the right spot for this album overall, but “People Who Died” represents a specific era in New York as well as any song ever written.

  • #47: Lana Del Rey – Born to Die (2012)

What the Voice said: Despite her Las Vegas past and L.A. crass, Lana Del Rey is still the queen of Coney Island. […] In her way, this New York singer embraces a dreamier ideal of life in the city.

What I say: Are you kidding me? I actually like this album, but to say it represents New York in any way whatsoever, even “in her way” (whatever that means) is heresy. Lana Del Rey is a lot of things, but more than anything she is Hollywood, not New York.

  • #46: Ciccone Youth – The Whitey Album (1988)

What the Voice said: Some stuff about how Sonic Youth and Madonna are both very New York.

What I say: I love Sonic Youth. Daydream Nation is one of my favorite albums of all time. And Madonna was a trailblazer in her own right. That doesn’t make The Whitey Album list-worthy. The reason you probably haven’t heard of it is because it is best forgotten.

  • #45: 50 Cent – Get Rich or Die Tryin’ (2003)

What the Voice said: 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.

What I say: Get Rich or Die Tryin’ is not my bag, but it’s hard to argue with the impact it had on the city nightlife in mid-2000s. “In da Club” feels like the first and biggest song of its kind, so if that’s what they mean by “changed the way we think about rap and music as a whole” I can’t say I disagree.

Whoa! I just realized that I hit each of the first six records on the list. That’s not at all what I meant to do. Let’s fast forward a bit to …

  • #33: They Might Be Giants – Lincoln (1988)

What the Voice said: 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 piata: No matter how long you hit it, it’s got more candy and curios to give.

What I say: Loyal readers know how much I love this Brooklyn band. I’ve seen them live three times just since starting this site. But I don’t see why one would call Lincoln a “New York album.” In any event, anything that gets TMBG a little bit more publicity is OK by me.

  • #29: LCD Soundsystem – Sound of Silver (2007)

What the Voice said: Murphy peels off indictments of Bloomberg, of boring people in bars, of hype and mediocrity in measured tones seething toward a sudden, cacophonous crescendo, distilling all our disappointment and resentment and unflagging devotion to this city into a single 5:35 song.

What I say: That song, “New York, I Love You, but You’re Bringing Me Down”, so perfectly encapsulates the feeling that New York sometimes evokes that it’s difficult to describe in words. This is a song that natives must hear.

  • #25: New York Dolls – New York Dolls (1973)

What the Voice said: Music to get fucked up and fuck by, preferably in the bathroom of a LES dive.

What I say: New York’s answer to Jagger and Richards, the Dolls get so much respect by other musicians but came a few years too late (or too early) to be commercial successes. Had they just found a way not to overlap with the disco era I think the Dolls would have been huge. Instead they’re that band that so many New York (and non-New York) artists point to as an inspiration.

  • #19: Lou Reed and John Cale – Songs for Drella (1990)

What the Voice said: 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. 1990’s Songs for Drella chronicles the Pop genius’s conquest of the Big Apple …

What I say: I honestly don’t know this album at all. But if measured purely based on how much of New York can be represented in the concept behind an album, it’s hard to top the founding members of the Velvet Underground singing a tribute to Andy Warhol.

  • #18: Sonic Youth – Goo (1990)

What the Voice said: 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. But Goo is a record that has NYC woven into its fabric from start to finish.

What I say: Now we’re talking! The thing about Goo is that I can imagine those outside NYC thinking that it’s a lot of noise (or pretension), but to me this album sounds almost perfect. Maybe I’m being myopic, but I can’t see Goo getting much traction on the west coast.

  • #16: Madonna – Like a Virgin (1984)

What the Voice said: 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.

What I say: I’m perplexed. Why waste a spot on The Whitey Album if you’re going to include both Goo and Like a Virgin? I very vaguely remember when Like a Virgin rocked the world back in the mid-80’s and I agree it felt like a New York-centric thing. In retrospect though it feels like she belongs to everyone, not just New Yorkers. Madonna was too big for even this city to contain.

  • #15: The Strokes – Is This It? (2001)

What the Voice said: [The Strokes] live and die on the genre’s fundamentals, the transition from quiet to loud, unbeatable melodies and an attitude that comes with being among the last of Manhattan’s bona fide rock stars.

What I say: Talk about missing the point. The greatness of the Strokes doesn’t come from their being “among the last of Manhattan’s bona fide rock stars.” It comes from their being the first of a new generation of New York City rock stars, the band that brought guitar rock back to the city, hopefully for good. Every band we hear nowadays that “sounds New York” or “sounds Brooklyn” owes a debt to Is This It? (SKATERS anyone?)

  • #13: The Ramones – The Ramones (1976)

What the Voice said: This three-chord masterpiece remains timeless, despite so expertly capturing the true essence of the trash and treasures of the Lower East Side in 1976.

What I say: If the Strokes were the soundtrack to New York City in 2001-02, the Ramones were same for New York City 1976-79. Quick name association game: I say “the Ramones”, you say … correct answer is CBGBs. Now that’s New York.

  • #11: Blondie – Parallel Lines (1978)

What the Voice said: 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. But it’s still in Manhattan, so it keeps crackling with energy and entertainment.

What I say: I have no idea what the f**k the Voice is talking about. Maybe seeing Blondie play Times Square on New Year’s Eve got lodged in their brains and two months later the image still resonates. Despite getting their break, like the Ramones, at CBs, Blondie was somewhat of an outsider on the scene, in constant quarrel with Patti Smith. Patti was (and is) New York; Blondie is America.

  • #10: Television – Marquee Moon (1977)

What the Voice said: Fronted by Tom Verlaine, who took his stage name from one of his influences, Paul Verlaine, Television made music for another side of the East Village’s sleaze and pontificated on its scummy inhabitants on Marquee Moon, a collection of songs that were a swirling shock to the musical system.

What I say: I’m noticing a trend. If you played CBs in the late ’70s you are by definition a New York band. I’m not arguing, just pointing out the obvious. One of the interesting things about New York music is that there are certain trend lines that never go away, even if they hibernate for short stretches. The commonalities between three very New York bands – the Velvet Underground, Television and Sonic Youth – is easily apparent, even though they played decades apart. In their case it’s the mix of art and punk that represents this city. It feels like the time has come for another band to take that mantle.

  • #9: Notorious B.I.G. – Ready to Die (1994)

What the Voice said: Ready to Die is a meditation on struggle, on the make-it-here-make-it-anywhere come-up every New Yorker strives for. The despair of Brooklyn slums makes the triumph of Manhattan penthouses all the sweeter. But the gate between the two New Yorks is thin — all desire entrance and few make it through.

What I say: Remember what I said about 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’, about the impact it had on the city nightlife in mid-2000s? Take that and multiply it by 10 and you have Biggie’s Ready to Die in mid-’90s NYC.

  • #7: Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967)

What the Voice said: Lots of really great stuff about how “influential,” “confident,” and “uncompromising” this album is.

What I say: I’ve kind of said it already, but it bears repeating. Without New York City – specifically the environment created by Warhol – the Velvets never happen. And without the Velvets perhaps you never have the sound that begat Television, Sonic Youth and dozens of other New York bands. I haven’t looked at the top 6 on this list, but I’m shocked that six albums can be more New York than The Velvet Underground and Nico.

  • #5: Patti Smith – Horses (1975)

What the Voice said: 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.

What I say: I can’t argue with Smith’s New York-ness; I wrote only 100 words or so ago that “Patti was (and is) New York; Blondie is America.” I just never got on board with her music as much as many others on the list above. I won’t argue with people who love her, I just can’t count myself among them.

  • #4: Public Enemy – Fear of a Black Planet (1990)

What the Voice said: Call it incendiary Rotten Apple rap.

What I say: 1989 was the year of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. 1991 gave us New Jack City. In between those movies came Fear of a Black Planet, a record that presented similar aggressive and antagonistic sentiments as those movies. Whether it was because the media controlled the message or merely delivered it, the message was clear in 1990 and it could be heard on Fear of a Black Planet.

  • #3: Beastie Boys – Paul’s Boutique (1989)

What the Voice said: The chaotic, sample-savvy production exposed the many layers lurking beneath the surface, and the album is New York — loud, smart, opinionated — from top down.

What I say: I prefer Licensed to Ill.

  • #1: Nas – Illmatic (1994)

What the Voice said: 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…” This is Nas’s New York, the blocks and corners of the Queensbridge towers, but it could be any housing project in the five boroughs. It’s a New York of snitches and stick-up kids and smoke-nice rocks. Nas spares no details in his storytelling, a brisk 10-chapter narrative setpiece taking us through the fear and despair and arrogance and joy and camaraderie and nostalgia and hope that make up the essence of adolescence inside the chaotic blight of early ’90s New York City. Through it all, the simmering danger never leaves. It lingers as the backdrop, a state of mind, because “shit is real and any day can be your last in the jungle.”

What I say: Well I guess we know where the Village Voice stands on the Nas vs. Jay-Z  feud. The Blueprint comes in it #49 and Illmatic at #1? I think even Nas himself would blush. I refuse to accept that this is the most New York album of all time, no matter what your criteria.

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