From Adele's Hometown Glory to The Clash's London Calling: Here are the 25 greatest London songs ever released
- Credit: PA
This is a list of the 25 greatest London songs ever and, as such, the chances of you agreeing with it are absolutely miniscule. Deal with it.
It was set in stone shortly after 6am on a cold Sunday morning in November 2021, and then I changed it again.
I've stuck (almost entirely) to songs that explicitly reference London, so there is no room for classics like Radiohead's Fake Plastic Trees or Underworld's Born Slippy (NUXX), which were inspired by Canary Wharf and Soho.
And I've not listened or re-listened to every song ever recorded so there will be an omission I spot 15 minutes after publication. I'll have to deal with that.
25. Electric Avenue (Eddy Grant, 1982)
"Now in the street there is violence, and lots of work to be done."
Inspired by the Brixton riots, this featured on Grant's Killer on the Rampage album and is full of anguish. And then in 2001 someone thought it was a good idea to speed it up a bit, added a happy house beat and it reached number 5 in the UK charts...
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24. Mornington Crescent (Belle and Sebastian, 2006)
This apparent ode to the Radio 4-favourite tube station caps off the Scottish band's sixth album, The Life Pursuit, with a melodic gaze from afar.
"Men with their bowlers, kids with their spats, ladies with chauffeurs, dogs wearing hats and jackets."
23. Mile End (Pulp, 1995)
Not every London song is entirely celebratory. This gem from Pulp featured on the b-side of Something Changed, as well as on the Trainspotting soundtrack. It describes a flat shared by Steve Mackay and Jarvis Cocker, who apparently described it as "the worst nine months of my entire life".
"And now we're living in the sky. I'd never thought I'd live so high. Just like Heaven, if it didn't look like hell. The lift is always full of piss. The fifth floor landing smells of fish."
22. LDN (Lily Allen, 2006)
But it's not all blocked sinks and stinking lifts. Or is it? Lily Allen's pop smash is joyful, but has a kicker. The preceding lyrics will divide listeners, but I love it.
"There was a little old lady, who was walkin' down the road. She was struggling with bags from Tesco. There were people from the city having lunch in the park. I believe that it's called al fresco."
21. History (The Verve, 1995)
While Lily Allen cited Wordsworth's Composed Upon Westminster Bridge as an inspiration, The Verve turned to William Blake for this elegiac beauty. It dates back to when the drugs still worked and overtly reimagines Blake's poem London.
"I wander thro’ each charter’d street, near where the charter’d Thames does flow. And mark in every face I meet - marks of weakness, marks of woe." (London, William Blake)
"I wander lonely streets behind where the old Thames does flow. And in every face I meet - reminds me of what I have run for." (History, The Verve)
20. Bow E3 (Wiley, 2007)
"I am so Bow E3 you would not believe it."
The "godfather of grime" lays it on heavy with this celebration of his neighbourhood. The phrase "Bow E3" gets more than 100 shout-outs in three minutes, ramming home the point.
"The whole of E3's got so much talent. I hope you see."
19. Take Me Back to London (Ed Sheeran feat Stormzy, 2019)
"But when you get to the top, man, it's never enough 'cause you can win Brits (it don't stop) and you can do Glasto (headline slot) but when you're miles away and you're feeling alone, gotta remember that there ain't no place like home."
That's right, these pop behemoths cast themselves as Dorothys for the 21st century in this not-entirely-relatable duet.
18. Up the Bracket (The Libertines, 2002)
Just when Britpop was becoming a fond memory, along came a couple of likely lads, tumbling out of boozers and getting into scrapes in dingy corners across the capital. Pete Doherty and Carl Barât both lived and told a tale of love and pain, creating their own world between the streets of the drug dealers and a mystical Albion.
"But it's just like he's in another world. He doesn't see the danger on show. Wind up like Joseph - bloody in a hole."
17. Itchycoo Park (Small Faces, 1967)
London has often been reimagined and it has been debated which particular piece of land became Small Faces' Itchycoo Park, with Little Ilford Park a prime contender. Whichever it was, it inspired a blissed-out 60s classic.
"I feel inclined to blow my mind, get hung up, feed the ducks with a bun. They all come out to groove about. Be nice and have fun in the sun."
16. We Love the City (Hefner, 2000)
This is the title track from the band's third album (probably their best) and is a love letter to London, though the relationship is dysfunctional - "because it never loves us back".
"This is London, not Antarctica. So why don't the tubes run all night?"
Master songwriter Darren Hayman will have been delighted when, 16 years later, some of the tubes began to run all night.
15. London Boy (Taylor Swift, 2019)
A route to the pop superstar's heart, apparently, is to take her to a shedload of different places. During a whirlwind romance, the suitor here takes Taylor to Camden Market, Highgate (where he lives), the West End, Brixton, Shoreditch, Hackney, Bond Street, Hampstead Heath and Soho. My suspicion is she was dating a Lonely Planet writer.
"They say home is where the heart is but, God, I love the English."
14. Buck-In-Hamm Palace (Peter Tosh, 1979)
To be honest, this epic dub-disco-funk freak-out has little to do with London...except:
"Light up your spliff. Light your chalice. We gonna burn it in a Buk In Hamm Palace."
13. The Only Living Boy in New Cross (Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine, 1992)
"Hello, good evening and welcome to nothing much."
Except these opening lines are actually an introduction to quite a lot. While Simon and Garfunkel's The Only Living Boy in New York is a melancholic hymn to loneliness, Carter's track, punning that title, is a chaotic, disaffected and anthemic tour across London (the greatest city in the world).
12. A Rainy Night in Soho (The Pogues, 1986)
In Shane MacGowan's own words, "we may never know what it means" but this meditation on life passing is The Pogues at their poetic best.
"We watched our friends grow up together and we saw them as they fell. Some of them fell into Heaven, some of them fell into Hell."
11. Down in the Tube Station at Midnight (The Jam, 1978)
Paul Weller was a Woking boy, but the big city was just a short train ride away, and several Jam tracks are explicitly set in the capital (Strange Town, Carnaby Street, London Traffic), but this story of a mugging is the band at their urgent best.
"I first felt a fist, and then a kick. I could now smell their breath. They smelt of pubs and Wormwood Scrubs. And too many right wing meetings."
10. Barking (Ramz, 2017)
This absolutely massive hit by Ramz has had nearly 380 million plays on Spotify and appears to be about an early-morning hook-up that isn't going to benefit either party.
"I might link my ting from Barkin', 7 am in the mornin'. She's callin', I'm yawnin'. She's jarrin', no stallin'."
9. I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea (Elvis Costello and the Attractions, 1978)
Hook-up or no hook-up, Elvis makes it very clear under no circumstances does he want to go to Chelsea. As a Spurs fan, I have some sympathy.
8. For Tomorrow (Blur, 1993)
For many critics, Blur became a parody of themselves in the '90s populating their songs with charmless men from Laaandon. Those critics are wrong - The Great Escape is a very good album. This beautiful song started that whole period off on record, as the opener to Modern Life Is Rubbish.
"Then Susan comes into the room. She's a naughty girl with a lovely smile. Says: "Let's take a drive to Primrose Hill. It's windy there, and the view's so nice."
7. Werewolves of London (Warren Zevon, 1978)
"Ah-hoooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo, werewolves of London."
6. West End Girls (Pet Shop Boys, 1984)
I toyed with including the version by Walthamstow's finest, East 17, to be contrary. But I couldn't do that to national treasures the Pet Shop Boys.
"You think you're mad, too unstable, kicking in chairs and knocking down tables in a restaurant in a west end town."
It should be said that the song isn't actually explicitly about London - in fact "in a west end town" doesn't even make much sense with reference to London's West End - but the video depicts Neil and Chris having a lovely day out in the city, so that's good enough for me.
5. Baker Street (Gerry Rafferty, 1978)
I first became aware of the song via a 1992 rave cover by Undercover, but it's a stone-cold classic. It has the most famous saxophone solo in pop (which wasn't played by tv presenter Bob Holness, despite an urban myth sparked by an NME spoof).
"Winding your way down on Baker Street, light in your head and dead on your feet. Well, another crazy day, you'll drink the night away, and forget about everything."
4. Hometown Glory (Adele, 2007)
Adele wrote her emotive tribute to London (specifically West Norwood), aged just 16. It was apparently the first song she ever wrote and has since been plastered across the charts and television dramas. What a talent. Lyrically it is pretty straight forward but this is charming:
"Is there anything I can do for you dear? Is there anyone I could call?"
"No and thank you, please madam, I ain't lost, just wandering."
3. Feed the Birds (Julie Andrews, Disney Studio Chorus, 1964)
"Though her words are simple and few, listen, listen, she's calling to you."
Brings a tear to the eye. I challenge you to listen without welling up, just a little. Bless you, Mary Poppins.
2. Waterloo Sunset (The Kinks, 1967)
"But I don't need no friends. As long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset I am in paradise."
North London's The Kinks could have had several entries in this list, not least the glorious Muswell Hillbilly, but this masterpiece captures the loneliness of city life.
1. London Calling (The Clash, 1979)
With The Guns of Brixton and (White Man) in Hammersmith Palais, The Clash would also have been pushing for the top spot in this official chart. But London Calling is the driving anthem of the city, steeped in tragedy, conflict and impending doom. Altogether now:
"The ice age is coming, the sun's zooming in, engines stop running, the wheat is growing thin. A nuclear era, but I have no fear 'cause London is drowning - I live by the river."