Simon Vozick-Levinson's New York Soundtrack
“Listening now, many years later, the New York where I grew up comes alive again.” Rolling Stone’s deputy music editor shares his top 5 music moments.
As a documentarian, observer, and ready participant in the New York music scene, Rolling Stone deputy music editor Simon Vozick-Levinson has seen (and heard) history unfold in real time. With a lifetime of shows, favorite artists and enduring albums to consider, being tasked with sharing five songs that have become synonymous with New York could not have been easy—but Simon forged ahead, narrowed it down, and sent us his song list along with some words to take us there.
Black Star feat. Common, “Respiration” (1998)
Listening to my copy of Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star as a teenager in the late ’90s, I’d rewind to hear city streets melt into sublime poetry: “The new moon rode high in the crown of the metropolis/Shining, like ‘Who on top of this?'” Eventually, I bought a cassette single of “Respiration” so I could hear it even more often. Listening now, many years later, the New York where I grew up comes alive again.
The Strokes, “New York City Cops” (2001)
Police brutality was an ever-present concern in the city that tortured Abner Louima, killed Amadou Diallo, and tried its best to shut down nightclubs and museums. None of that is mentioned directly in this raucous outtake from the Strokes’ classic debut, but it’s the unspoken context that makes Julian Casablancas’ howl hit home—and it’s one reason we rushed to download “New York City Cops” off peer-to-peer sites after it was cut from the album.
Sonic Youth, “Rain on Tin” (2002)
Living in New York this spring has reminded me of what it was like here in the terrified weeks that followed September 11, 2001. I’ve found myself returning to Murray Street, the album that Sonic Youth made after their downtown studio was damaged that awful day. The instrumental interplay heard on songs like this one, where the guitars rage and swell and come back into harmony, is my favorite version of this definitive New York band. I think, too, about seeing Sonic Youth in Central Park in June 2003 and feeling like the city was finally back to itself. It took a long time, but it happened.
Lil Wayne, “I Know the Future” (2007)
I’ve seen too many great concerts to count over the course of my life here, but one that I’ll never forget is Lil Wayne’s first-ever headlining New York show, at the Beacon Theatre in July 2007. He was at the peak of his lyrical form, teasing the audience in their plush seats with freestyles that could have been hits and should have been written down for posterity. I can’t remember if he performed this song—one of my favorites from the leaks that preceded his mainstream coronation with 2008’s Tha Carter III—but its nonchalant brilliance (“like a circle of knives, I got the sharpest flow around”) is representative of the level he was on that night.
Patio, “Scum” (2019)
The last show I saw before the city shut down was at Brooklyn’s Union Pool in early March. The delightfully sardonic London act Dry Cleaning were the headliners, but I got there early to make sure I saw the opening set from Patio (who’d be one of my favorite New York bands of recent years even if their bassist weren’t a friend). Their 2019 debut, Essentials, is full of perfectly minimal art-punk sparklers like this one, whose chorus has gotten me through some hard days. It sounded great that night. I can’t wait to see them perform it again someday.
PHOTOGRAPHY courtesy of Simon Vozick-Levinson