While New York City, Los Angeles, and Nashville have garnered world-renowned reputations as American musical hotspots, Boston has quietly cultivated dozens of trailblazing bands.
Beantown produced new wave hitmakers The Cars, college rock pioneers the Pixies, and modern Celtic punks the Dropkick Murphys. Even legends like Van Morrison and Bob Dylan paid highly influential visits to Boston before ascending to rock stardom.
With all of this history, it’s no surprise that one of the oldest cities in America has a wealth of songs written in its honor. For a no-nonsense auditory trip to The Hub, check out our list of the best songs about Boston. Let’s get started.
1. “Dirty Water” by The Standells
While The Standells’ 1965 garage rock hit “Dirty Water” is celebrated by Bostonites, the song was an ironic homage intended to put the city down.
The band’s producer wrote the single in a spiteful mood after he experienced a mugging while visiting, and his ire shot to number 11 on the Billboard charts.
The Standells performed this mockingly loving ode to the city’s dirty rivers and puritanical collegiate curfews from their vantage point far away in California. No member of the band had even stepped foot in Massachusetts!
Regardless, “Dirty Water” has become a Boston anthem thanks to an unadulterated love of the city—the good and the bad!
2. “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” by Dropkick Murphys
In the running for the most quintessentially Boston band ever, Dropkick Murphys would have to be high on the list. Originally from the suburb of Quincy, the band’s Irish heritage and D.I.Y.-styled blue-collar approach are tailor-made for the city.
The band used abandoned Woody Guthrie lyrics for their crossover hit “I’m Shipping Up to Boston.” Its folk roots and shanty-like drunken roar are a match made in heaven.
For a city steeped in history and nearly a quarter Irish, the words of an American folk legend put to a barrage of Celtic punk sounds like home.
3. “Roadrunner” by The Modern Lovers
Boston proto-punk pioneers The Modern Lovers wrote a homage to rock and roll and their hometown with their classic single “Roadrunner.”
Singer Jonathan Richman’s experience of driving into Boston to see The Velvet Underground captures both the loneliness of teendom and the life-affirming power of rock music.
Using the Velvet Underground as their guide, the band lets a sprawling set of lyrics that reference Massachusetts unfold over a punk-inflected chord structure.
Its simple construction and insistent beat are charmingly infectious and a point of pride for any punk or rocker from the area.
4. “Rock & Roll Band” by Boston
It doesn’t get much more provincial than a band from Boston naming themselves Boston and singing a song about a band from Boston.
Boston’s “Rock & Roll Band” is a prime example of the songwriting and engineering skills that catapulted the band to success. Songwriter Tom Scholz attended Boston’s MIT for engineering and used those skills to design his recording studio and guitar pedals.
Thanks to Scholz’s pristine-sounding recordings and wholly unique guitar tones, the group became a household name.
“More Than a Feeling” is one of their most enduring songs, but fans from Boston know “Rock & Roll Band” belongs to them.
5. “Midnight Rambler” by The Rolling Stones
“Midnight Rambler” is a Rolling Stones song loosely inspired by Albert DeSalvo, better known as the infamous Boston Strangler.
In the early 1960s, DeSalvo terrorized the Boston area and became one of the earliest of America’s serial killers.
The Rolling Stones’ character study of DeSalvo appeared on their classic album Let It Bleed.
That was the second in their critically lauded string of five albums from 1968 to 1973 that are venerated in the rock and roll canon.
6. “For Boston” by The Hold Steady
The Hold Steady made their name by combining elements of classic rock with indie and punk while weaving Kerouac-esque tales of sordid affairs in cities across the country.
“For Boston” is a B-side from their album Boys and Girls in America, and between its character’s accounts of the underbelly of Beantown, listeners get to receive a veritable audio tour of the city.
From Boston University to The Common and across the Allston neighborhood over to Lansdowne St. near Fenway Park, The Hold Steady drops enough local references to have every Bostonite’s heart swelling with pride.
7. “I Want My City Back” by The Mighty Mighty Bosstones
The Mighty Mighty Bosstones are another in the grand tradition of gritty, street-style punk bands to come out of Boston. Their fiery brand of ska mixes well with a brash, blue-collar bravado that begs listeners to raise their fists while singing along.
Their track “I Want My City Back” will resonate with any listener that wishes the world would slow down. The Bosstones wrote the song after the closing of beloved Boston punk venue The Rat, where the band got their start.
Losing the parts of your hometown from your youth is hard, but at least you can sing along to The Bosstones about it.
8. “Bill Lee” by Warren Zevon
Warren Zevon always had a soft spot for the weird and wily. While most well known for his hit “Werewolves of London,” Zevon’s illustrious career featured many wry tales of outsiders. The song “Bill Lee” is among these hidden gems.
Bill Lee pitched for the Boston Redsox during the 1970s and became known by his nickname “Spaceman.” His alignment with the counterculture movement and outspoken persona made him a controversial fan favorite.
Zevon’s ode to Lee is not a character study but an outline of the complicated pitcher.
Before you know it, the song is almost over, and in lieu of lyrics outlining Lee’s unsavory quotes, a harmonica fills the void.
9. “Boston” by Kenny Chesney
If you’re from Boston, you love two things: Boston itself and telling people you’re from Boston. Ironically, it’s a country song that outlines this mindset in perfect detail.
Kenny Chesney’s “Boston” is a loving nod to the concept that you can take a little bit of home with you wherever you go.
While the song’s main character has fled the cold concrete for an easy-going tropical island, she’ll always tell you about Boston while rocking a Red Sox cap. That type of pride is as Boston as it gets.
10. “Mass. Ave.” by Willie Alexander
There’s a good chance that you’ve never heard of Willie Alexander. He’s the type of punk pioneer that never broke into the mainstream.
Success seemed to evade the Bostonian singer at every turn, even a stint in the post-Lou Reed version of The Velvet Underground couldn’t help.
But during the span of his career, he became a local legend. Thanks to Beantown pride anthems like “Mass. Ave.,” Alexander made freezing cold Boston feel cool.
Coupling his punk rock pedigree with a never-say-die approach to his career, this rock pioneer and his Boston anthems perfectly encapsulate the city.
Summing Up Our List Of Boston Themed Songs
Boston’s outsized influence on American history took hold during the Boston Tea Party—an event that signaled the beginning of an American style of rebellion that centuries later found a musical voice.
While there are countless sunshiney songs about west coast states and hundreds of odes to the limitless possibilities of New York, the glitz and glamor of these pop hits are quick to fade.
It speaks volumes that music from Boston has always sounded a little different. These ten songs about Boston prove that its musical legacy is about grit. After all, there’s a reason why they call it “Boston Strong!”