Though it comes in a wide variety of styles, music tends to be quite repetitive when it comes to topic selection.
One study from June 2014 in the Journal of Advertising Research found that the primary themes in the most popular songs from 1960 to 2009 were loss, desire, aspiration, breakup, pain, inspiration, and nostalgia; the secondary themes included rebellion, jadedness, desperation, escapism, and confusion. In other words, if we aren’t singing about love, we’re singing about how terrible life is — which means the book I Hate Myself and Want to Die: The 52 Most Depressing Songs You’ve Ever Heard roughly captures the modern musical zeitgeist.
But what about geography? Surely there are songs out there dedicated to our love of places, like cities. There are decidedly far fewer songs about our favorite urban centers, but a few are extremely famous, like the “Theme from New York, New York,” originally sung by Liza Minnelli but immortalized by Frank Sinatra. There’s also “Empire State of Mind” by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys, “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair)” by Scott McKenzie, and “Walking in Memphis” by Marc Cohn. Spotify has a list of the best songs about cities.
What about the less popular songs, though — the ones you aren’t likely to find on many lists? That’s what this article is about. Here are five great (and underrated) songs about cities.
“Albuquerque” by Weird Al Yankovic
This might be one of the strangest songs of all time. Written in the same narrative style as another Weird Al odyssey, “The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota,” the ballad recounts the story of how Al won a one-way ticket to Albuquerque following a bizarre radio show contest. On his flight to the New Mexico capital, the plane crashed and everybody died, except for Al. Why?
“‘Cause I had my tray table up
And my seat back in the full upright position”
The story goes on with one outlandish twist after another for over 11 minutes.
“Babylon” by David Gray
Despite its name, the song by David Gray takes place in London, not Babylon. And while the lyrics clearly are about a love that is lost and found again, the official video (above) features some iconic images of London — such as the Underground and a red telephone booth. In a longer (and better) version of the song, there is a stanza in which Gray sings:
“Sunday all the lights of London
Shining, sky is fading red to blue
Kicking through the autumn leaves
And wondering where it is you might be going to”
It makes me think he could be taking a stroll through the truly beautiful St. James’s Park.
“New York Groove” by Hello
I love New York City, and I must admit to having played this song over my headphones several times while visiting. Written by Russ Ballard, “New York Groove” has been covered by Hello and Ace Frehley. (The Hello version is better — sorry, Ace.) One part of the song goes:
“Stop at Third and Forty-three
Dance into the night
It’s gonna be ecstasy
This day was made for me”
Presumably “Third and Forty-three” would be the corner of E 43rd St and Third Avenue in Midtown Manhattan. I’m not sure what’s so great about this spot. (The Chrysler Building and St. Agnes Church are nearby, but I doubt they’re headed to either of those places.) Apparently, the New York Mets play this song after they win — which, the 2022 season notwithstanding, means they don’t play it very often.
“Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” by They Might Be Giants
In 1930, the city once known as Constantinople officially changed its name to Istanbul. In 1953, a band called The Four Lads sang a song about it, but in modern times, the song was re-popularized by They Might Be Giants.* The music produced by this quirky band, which is also known for songs like “Particle Man” and “Experimental Film,” was described by Stereogum as being akin to a “deranged MIT experiment” due to the songwriters’ “very particular, and very perverse, imaginations.”
In “Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” the listener is treated to a brief history lesson. They remind you that New York City was once named New Amsterdam. They sing:
“Why they changed it I can’t say
People just liked it better that way”
As for Constantinople, they conclude:
“Why did Constantinople get the works?
That’s nobody’s business but the Turks”
“Boston” by Augustana
Returning once again to more normal songs, “Boston” by Augustana is about a brokenhearted woman who wants to leave California and move to Boston. In one stanza, they sing:
“She said I think I’ll go to Boston
I think I’ll start a new life
I think I’ll start it over, where no one knows my name”
Ironic, considering that many other people are fond of one particular pub in Boston precisely because everybody knows their name.
*Update on January 14, 2023 @ 7:35 pm ET: Originally, we wrote that They Might Be Giants created the song “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).” But this is not correct. One of our dedicated readers, Trevor Meusx, alerted us to the fact that it was originally sung by The Four Lads in 1953.