Neurotic ambition unites the disparate sounds of the city. You can hear it in the libertine poetry of Patti Smith, the dissonant guitars of Sonic Youth, and the outraged prophecies of Public Enemy. What you also hear, and what may be most New York, is the obsessive need to create new sounds. This is not to say you can’t make something original out of used parts (the Strokes for one did it so very well). Points are given for style (hello, Run D.M.C.), but not if it overshadows the music (good-bye, sadly, New York Dolls). Also left off is Bruce Springsteen, a onetime fixture at the Bottom Line who has written many great songs about New York but who otherwise personifies you-know-where. The Feelies, out of Hoboken, make the cut because of their close identification with the downtown scene. And because nobody ever sounded more neurotic.
VELVET UNDERGROUND, VELVET UNDERGROUND, 1969
On which Lou Reed, the quintessential New Yorker, proved that behind his street-tough exterior, he has a heart. The strongest set of songs he ever wrote might be his most influential: Every indie rocker wishes he could write as pretty as “Pale Blue Eyes.”
PATTI SMITH, HORSES, 1975
“Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.” Smith was the great poet of the Bowery, and her debut album, with the gorgeous cover photograph by her friend Robert Mapplethorpe, is a courageous and unnerving act of self-exposure, the pinnacle of rock as art.
THE RAMONES, RAMONES, 1976
The Ramones were classic outsiders, four guys from Forest Hills who barged their way into the center of the world. Lasting longer than most of their CBGB peers combined, they made a handful of classic albums, though none ever quite equaled their debut, on which the band’s fearless amateurism feels purest.
TELEVISION, MARQUEE MOON, 1977
Though they hardly looked it, this was the Bowery’s highbrow act. The album is a master class in art-rock jamming, taught by Tom Verlaine, whose solos were freaky non sequiturs, and Richard Lloyd, a more fluid, pragmatic player, though no less astonishing.
SUICIDE, SUICIDE, 1977
Another album that showed the incredible breadth of music that was happening simultaneously downtown in the late seventies—as well as the end-of-the-world fog that hung over the entire city. While everyone else was off playing their guitars, Suicide noisily plotted the future of synth pop, mining the new sounds of electronic keyboards and merging them with crazy, noirish fifties vocals. It’s legitimately scary music, especially the harsh ten-minute epic “Frankie Teardrop.”
BLONDIE, PARALLEL LINES, 1978
Even amid the crappiness of seventies New York, glam could not be snuffed out, and nobody was more glam than Deborah Harry. Blondie gets lumped in with punk and new wave, but on this record they outed themselves as a pop band, a brilliant one, and if not for all the drugs and dissension, they would have conquered the world.
WILLIE COLÓN–RUBÉN BLADES, SIEMBRA, 1978
The classic New York Latin sound of the seventies hit its peak here, with passionately sung stories of hardscrabble Latin street life set to a scorching salsa beat and four wailing trombones. On the megahit “Pedro Navaja,” you can actually hear street noise.
CHIC, C’EST CHIC, 1978
The definitive disco album makes posh New York hedonism look cool in a way it rarely has since—and still manages to have a soul. Dance to “I Want Your Love,” then emote to “At Last I Am Free.”
VARIOUS ARTISTS, NO NEW YORK, 1978
Legendary Brian Eno–produced compilation gathered James Chance, Lydia Lunch, Arto Lindsay, and DNA into a document of the “no wave” scene that sounds tighter, more angular, and more brutal than almost any other punk.
INSTANT FUNK, “I GOT MY MIND MADE UP” (LARRY LEVAN REMIX), 1979
Old Paradise Garage veterans say Larry Levan was a religious experience on two turntables, but none of his posthumously released D.J. sets really prove it. This ten-minute, exquisitely orchestrated bass fantasia backs up every legend.
TALKING HEADS, REMAIN IN LIGHT, 1980
What if someone made the sound of New York’s neighborhoods into world music? David Byrne and Brian Eno make connections between African funk, hip-hop, Jamaican dub, and future electronics that would inspire for a decade or more.
THE FEELIES, CRAZY RHYTHMS, 1980
They were killer nerds, equal parts passive (buried, Velvets-y vocals) and aggressive (manic guitars), an approach that sonically and conceptually laid the groundwork for the white-boy college-rock revolution that followed them.
VARIOUS, “WILD STYLE” SOUNDTRACK, 1983
It’s easy to forget how playful and goofy the early years of hip-hop were. Take a ringside seat on the block to hear the Cold Crush Brothers, Grand Wizard Theodore, Double Trouble, and other early-eighties legends battle.