I have always been fascinated by what musicians listen to when they aren’t creating their own music. What music inspires them, what albums do they return to again and again—their “desert island” discs. With this in mind I decided to ask some of my favorite New Jersey musicians to name their top 10 favorite albums of all time. Not the albums that they think are “important,” or that have influenced many other artists or ones of technical merit. I wanted to know their very favorite albums that they love just because the records mean the most to them.
Neil Sabatino is no slacker. He is the founding member of indie rock band Fairmont in which he is guitarist and vocalist. He started the label Mint 400 Records back in 2007 in his apartment and has grown it to a roster of over 40 bands. He promotes shows in New Jersey to help expose the myriad amount of talented musicians in the state, especially in North Jersey. He works a day job and has a family. That he finds time at all to create such amazing music is astounding. Their recent album A Spring Widow finds Sabatino and Fairmont with a fuller sounding record exploring some darker sides of life. It is a winner.
You can catch Sabatino and Fairmont at Stosh’s in Fair Lawn this Friday. Dubbed the Indie Rock & Craft Beer night, the show also features Delicate Flowers, Kult Of Mary, Quality Living, Ruby Bones, and Jett Brando. Should be a great show so come on out!
Neil’s list is below.
Let me preface this by saying this is a near impossible task for me so I am going to have my list consist of the albums that have been with me the longest and have remained as a constant listen for a period of 10 years or more where applicable. This is also skewed slightly because I might have burned myself out on some important albums from over-listening in my younger years.
TOP TEN IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER;
1. Elliott Smith – Either/Or
I might have just as easily put Alexi Murdoch or Nick Drake in this spot but there is something tonally about this record and haunting about the vocals that puts it at the top of my list for acoustic records. The guitars are so full and the drums and bass so punchy with those soft whispery vocals filling out each composition with perfection. Every time I hear “The Ballad Of Big Nothing” I get goosebumps, it feels like the perfect soundtrack to some giant cinematic moment. Along with my other favorite tracks Speed Trials, Rose Parade and Say Yes, this album is simplistic but complex in a way that Nirvana was complex meaning it’s a simple formula they follow but I don’t know if anyone else on Earth could play those songs or sing the way that Elliott Smith does on this record. Say Yes is possibly my favorite with it’s Beatles-ish vibe but played in a such a delicate way that every time it comes on you find yourself turning the volume up to hear the intricacies of each moment.
2. Pavement – Brighten The Corners
Other Pavement fans don’t dig this record as much as the others but for me when I heard the first single “Shady Lane” in 1996 I was blown away and went out and bought the album on vinyl and cassette so I could listen to it at home and in my car. This album to me represented musically what I thought a band like Nirvana could make if they mellowed out and matured. Lyrically it was poetic, goofy, and somehow worked. Stephen Malkmus sometimes was screeching and off key or singing like he purposely wanted to sing in a way opposite of all those metal and grunge rockers of the time and hardly push the notes out in a way like he was having a conversation over the song. This record from beginning to end to me has elements of the Beatles, Violent Femmes, The Replacements, The Pixies, classic rock and like a billion other things. It was like Nirvana in that it was an amalgamation of all the music that had come before it. I hear bits of influence from this album in bands like Wilco where they have these weird bits of noise in mostly melodic pop type songs. This album is also one of albums of the 90’s where they had two guitarists, one panned left and one panned right doing drastically different things throughout the songs but playing so perfectly off of one another that songs don’t ever feel too busy or like somebody is showboating, the only other band of that era I remember doing that well was Radiohead. I remember Grunge kind of simplified everything and these guys seemed to make it complex again. To me they hit so many moods on that record and have such interesting arrangements but also have this sense that parts of songs were almost improvised like a jazz record. I kind of feel this record is way more important than people give it credit for being. The naysayers think it was just their attempt to be more commercial and pop but all these years later it sure doesn’t feel that way, it feels like a bunch of bands were influenced by this record whether they know it or not.
3. That Dog – Retreat From The Sun
That Dog is another band that I feel doesn’t get anywhere near as much credit as they deserve. This record is so good and starts with a song that I feel like could have been the template for what a bunch of indie bands were doing in the 2000’s like Mates of State and bands like that. This record has harmonies that are comparable to The Beach Boys. I have to say though the single they picked “Never Say Never” is not one of the top songs I enjoy from this album. This album, I did not hear when it first came out, so it was years later but it felt so fresh and new. The songs had this dissonance in parts but syrupy sweet harmonies and a writing style that seemed more personal than the lyrics that appeared on the Totally Crushed Out record. The band had gotten away from their much more dissonant sound for this album and it had this overall feel like it was their best most polished work. Originally it was supposed to be Anna Waronker’s solo album and I think that is why the feel of this record is different. I can’t imagine this record being as good though if the Haden sisters were not involved. This record to me also felt so far ahead of it’s time in way like Weezer’s Pinkerton, that if you put this record on now you’d see it definitely had things on it that sounded like 2007 more than 1997. This album has so many amazing moments mostly due to the harmonies that make this a standout record in my collection. I think any band doing songs that involve harmony should learn from That Dog some of the interesting ways to use them. The weird part to me is some of the music on this album is simple but this record seems like they picked the perfect producer in Brad Wood to really help them build on what was best about their previous albums and add to that this whole other thing. I mean this was 20 years ago and this record seriously aged so well that you’ll be surprised it’s not from the last few years. This is a gigantic feat especially since bands from the 90’s did skate by a lot on simplistic songs because of Nirvana but this album has a complexity like Brighten The Corners or Pinkerton that these bands had no way of knowing would stand the test of time so well.
4. Stan Getz – Getz/Gilberto
This is the jazz record I chose from the many that I love because it has this amazing quality to it that never gets old for me. It’s jazzy bossa nova with two of my favorite voices Joao and Astrud Gilberto who have this mellow soothing tone. Most of the album is in Portuguese and I don’t speak it at all so that tells you how great the songs are if I connected with it, without knowing what most of the lyrics are. This record from beginning to end has such fascinating rhythms and tones. When I listen to this album on vinyl it is recorded so well that it feels like Stan Getz is in the room with his saxophone playing and the singers are softly signing right into your ear. It’s such a delicate and warm recording and that also has a lot to do with why it’s in my top ten and why I’ve probably listened to it 10,000 times. Getz is as important as Coltrane but plays in a way that is completely opposite. You could almost say Coltrane is like the punk rock avant garde player who always pushed the envelope but Getz kind of kept it simple playing things that are just enjoyable and soothing to hear like the same kind of soothing as Sinatra’s voice. Joao Gilberto is also an understated but amazing guitar player who again doesn’t play with the intensity of a gypsy jazz artist like Django Rheinhardt but instead plays this soothing style that compliments the voices and the sax on this record. Although I still listen to the classics like Coltrane’s A Love Supreme or Dolphy’s Out to Lunch! this is the jazz record I come back to the most often.
5. Bob Dylan – Highway 61 Revisited
For me Dylan was hard to get into when I was young because of the voice. It was weird and nasally and I didn’t quite get what the fuss was after hearing some of his earliest records like Freewheelin and then some of his 80’s stuff which I have to say I still to this day am not very fond of. However the first time I heard this record I purchased it on cassette for 2$ and it didn’t leave my car stereo for a few years. This album was magical to me from the performance to the lyrics to the melodies. By the time I had heard it in the late 90’s it was so out of context from when it first came out and was the record that all of Dylan’s fans hated because he went electric. For me though, I was just starting to not appreciate punk rock so much as I moved into my mid 20’s and was looking for something that had grit but better musicianship. This record for me was everything I was looking for. How big and full and complex Like a Rolling Stone sounded compared to bands I was listening to at the time. It was guitars, electric and acoustic, organs, piano, drums, bass and this never ending stream of lyrics that were anti-establishment. It was exactly what I was looking for. Tombstone Blues had such a punk feel with it’s striking snare and piercing guitar licks. This album turned me into a huge Bob Dylan fan overnight. Even the mellow songs like Queen Jane, Ballad of a Thin Man, and Desolation Row all grabbed me. Songs like Highway 61 Revisited were so badass for being written in 1965 and I just felt this connection to Dylan like he was the ultimate rebel, he basically said fuck you to his fans and did what he wanted and at the same time spoke up about social injustice at a time where that wasn’t a popular thing to do and could end your career. This also is the only Dylan album that I can honestly sit and listen to all the way through where I don’t skip any tracks. I feel like he edited himself well on this album where as on some of his other records by the time you get to the 7th verse and chorus you’ve heard enough. I also feel like he had more to say in the 60’s especially in 1965 about the world, whereas, although I enjoy later records like Desire or Blood On The Tracks I’m not a huge fan of Bob Dylan the fictional storyteller.
6. Radiohead – The Bends
This record blew my mind in 1995 and although I could say I really love every Radiohead record, I chose this one because this is the one that grabbed me and I knew it word for word when I was 18. It was also the year I got to see them live for the first time at Roseland Ballroom and they were that band for me that I had to have every single track they released, every B-Side, every live thing. The only other band I had felt that way about was Nirvana and with Kurt’s death, Radiohead filled a gigantic void for me. This album got me interested in using guitar pedals and trying to be Johnny Greenwood. Songs like Just and Fake Plastic Trees had me sitting down on guitar and just marveling at the simplicity yet complexity at the same time of their music. Thom Yorkes voice could be singing nonsense and it never mattered to me because of how haunting it was. I used to swear that the timbre and tone of Thom’s voice just had this magical effect on people, it was hard not to fall in love with. The lyrics didn’t always make complete sense to me but when he sings in Just “You do it to yourself” it just always got me and I always found interesting how the lyrics could be vague but you could interpret them and mold them into something meaningful to yourself with Radiohead. I loved the introspective aspect of the lyrics and I’m not sure I had heard other bands that did that well at the time. It was introspective but not as high school as NIN lyrics, it felt more adult to me at the time. This record was the kind of record that probably influenced a generation to go out and start bands just as much as Nirvana did but it felt smarter and less primal than what Nirvana was doing. Radiohead always felt smart and like they were pushing the envelope of songwriting. I think this record was just the tip of the iceberg which of course once they got to make OK Computer we saw a more fleshed out version of what they could be. I also like that this was the start of their relationship with Nigel Goodrich. For me this also was the only Radiohead record that didn’t have that weird track like Fitter Happier, Treefingers or Hunting Bears, it was all alternative rock songs from beginning to end. I would say later records had better songs but this one is the one I like best as an overall album with no skippers. It’s actually hard to choose, it’s like choosing the best Beatles record.
7. Portishead – Third
I love Portishead so much and it pains me to complete a list like this and only list one of their albums. A lot of people disagree with me on this one and even I myself didn’t love this record at first. However this record grew on me overtime and again they are one of those bands who have these songs where the chord progressions are just 2 chords but then you have all this weird percussion stuff and electronic noise all with Beth Gibbons voice pulling it all together. She might be my favorite vocalist on this list. There are songs that are so delicate, sweet and evocative and then there are dirtier weirder songs like We Carry On or Machine Gun. On this album it touches on things like mellow lounge and travels to weirder darker spaces that sound like an industrial goth songs with elements of Joy Division. Speaking of, that is a great comparison band for Portishead, simplistic two chord song structures but weird industrial bits that and an emotive vocalist who seems as troubled and depressed as Ian Curtis. Like I said this record took a while to grow on me but of the three Portishead studio albums I find myself going back to this one most often as full album that I will sit and listen to from beginning to end. This record took them like 10 years to finish and they produced it themselves. I kind of feel like when a band does that, they are showing you their true selves and what they have always wanted to sound like whereas producers muddy that water. I also admire that they got rid of the Trip Hop aspect that they’d been known for just completely and came up with all of these crazy sounds on this record. In a way that is was a huge influence on me as I started producing music back around that time period, it made me want to search for unique sounds for records and stray from typical.
8. Pixies – Doolittle
One of the first cover songs I ever learned on guitar was Wave Of Mutilation and it might have been the first song I ever could play and sing at the same time. I remember starting a band in 1994 and everyone said you sound like The Pixies before I even knew who they were. Once I found out who they were I was in love with everything about them but especially this album. The thing that always struck me about them is they looked so ordinary and were devoid of that rock star swagger but then you hear how fierce Frank Black is right from track one- Debaser and you are just blown away. I just thought it was amazing how a band could scream sometimes over such syrupy sweet music. The simplistic solos at time in the 80’s when everything else was just shredding was eye opening for me. I remember saying back then that I’d much rather be The Pixies, the kind of band that inspires bands like Nirvana rather than be Nirvana. I remember covering I Bleed and other tracks and learning it was ok to find dissonant notes and incorporate them into poppy music. The other thing that struck me about this albums was how eclectic it was. It seemed like every song jumped to a different genre, aside from the simplistic bass playing it’s hard to find a common thread among all the songs since Frank Black could be crooning one minute and screaming the next or like in Monkey Gone To Heaven just talking about the toxic waste in New Jersey. The harmonies on this record as well got my attention. Kim Deal and Frank Black sound so angelic singing together. There are songs on this record that grabbed me as a younger musician because of the punkiness like Tame or Dead and then as I listened over the course of 20 years tracks like Hey, Here Comes Your Man and Gouge Away became my favorites. It was like an ever evolving record that went so many different places in 15 tracks. For many years in many artists music I have heard bits and pieces of The Pixies and dare to say they might be one of the most influential bands of all time. It was like when people heard “Where Is My Mind” from Surfer Rosa, you knew the band had a record like Doolittle in them, they just needed to stay together and become that.
9. The Cure – Boys Don’t Cry
The Cure was another band that I hadn’t heard and then I started a band and people said my music was like The Cure. So when I first heard their hits I was intrigued and loved certain songs like Close To Me, Friday I’m In Love, and A Letter To Elise but when I heard their first album I was a fan. Their first album is so much more gritty than anything they did after that. I was always a goth fan and loved Bauhaus and Joy Division but the cool thing about The Cure was their songs were more pop than Joy Division, an easier listen and they were less dramatic than Bauhaus and a lot less weird on Boys Don’t Cry. The album feels so simple too with just drums, bass, guitar, a band stripped down to the simplest elements and yet full compositions that are simplistic but complete. This is an album that you could have heard in 2007 and thought it was brand new. It had this element that made it timeless, like no effects and no things that would date the recording. The interesting thing about this album is it is almost the same as the Three Imaginary Boys album but was trimmed and had additional singles included to try to hook fans outside the UK in 1980. I have heard both and because this is just a neater package with a group of 13 songs that I love, this is the album that I fell in love with and is probably my favorite Cure album. I think it’s allure for me is the dark pop edge it has and the biting wit I felt the lyrics had. It felt to me like The Smiths but darker and more stripped down with more sincere emotion in the lyrics. I was the kid who wore black through my teenage years and then went to art school, there is sort of a reason The Cure is a band that spans 35 years and it’s because of the connection the music has to outcasts and loners. I don’t think I met one person at art school who wasn’t very into The Cure. For me when I first started joining bands, The Cure’s first record is what I wanted to sound like and when I brought elements of that into punk bands I was in like Stick Figure Suicide, Pencey Prep and even my current band Fairmont it all yielded positive results because no matter the era the things The Cure did on that first record are cool. It’s like a mix of early punk, garage rock and early 80’s new wave and there’s no way to go wrong with that mix.
10. Wilco – Yankee Foxtrot Hotel
I’ll admit it, I didn’t get it at first. It confused me as to why there was so many little parts where it felt like they forgot to track guitars or orchestral parts. It wasn’t until I watched their documentary and kind of understood how Wilco deconstructed songs on this album that I saw the genius of this record. This record also was definitely a gigantic influence on how I began to produce records and made me see that producing a record doesn’t have to be such a straightforward journey from point A to point B. I definitely see this album as a statement that said to major labels, “You don’t know what the fuck you are doing”. When Reprise refused to release it and the band proved a million percent that the label was a bunch of fucking idiots it was a win for artists everywhere and kind of ushered in an era of bands being more sure of their visions. This album to me sounds so personal and heartfelt whereas other things at that moment couldn’t do that without coming off as whiny or self important. To me Jeff Tweedy always came off as one of those really genuine guys who just wants to make records and he’d be doing the same exact thing even if he wasn’t famous for it. So you have these personal sounding mellow tracks and then you have these songs like Heavy Metal Drummer that make you feel nostalgic for youth or Jesus, etc. which feels almost like a 60’s pop hit. Then on the same record the band whips out I’m The Man Who Loves You which is also bluesy, country rock with dirty guitars and a bounce to it like a 60’s funk song. They also are one of those bands who seem like they could pull off any style they want. The intro of this record comes in like a dream and goes into this amazingly messy pop song that kind of builds on what Pavement was all about but with lyrics that cut deep when Tweedy bemoans “I am trying to break your heart”. This record will be something people are still talking about long after Wilco’s existence.
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