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.
If you are in and around the New Jersey music scene chances are you have met Chris Nova. I first met Chris when I interviewed him for a profile on his band Boxed Wine many years ago. They were one of the first local bands I covered here at YDKJ and the thing that struck me was his friendliness and sense of humor. He made one of my early forays into music journalism a breeze. With addictive hooks, driving rhythm and Nova’s energetic delivery, Boxed Wine kicked major butt as well. With his continued work with Quality Living among other projects he is always busy. His latest band is Ruby Bones with drummer James Janocha and FC Spies on bass. Their new single “Heart of Darkness” is a short, frenetic burst of indie rocking power.
On to the albums. In his own words, “Here’s the monstrosity of a list I composed!”
I was terrible at technology when I was younger, absolutely terrible. So much so that I became entrenched in a weird Limewire and Kazaa purgatory, spending hours downloading single songs at a time and then painstakingly building their respective albums in iTunes. This ended with me burning possibly/mostly incorrect records onto minidiscs (remember them?) and then eventually CDs for my Sony Walkman (thanking god for the G-Shock protection and Bass Boom features every night.) Between this and scrambled pornography, the early 2000s were obviously a difficult time for everyone, especially high school freshman Chris.
Needing a better system, I ended up paying a classmate to burn me albums in bulk. No, I didn’t have a clue as to how torrenting worked and yes, I was simultaneously terrified of the RIAA. With my odd method in place I quickly managed to build a collection of music to match my burgeoning tastes and teenage angst. The first non-classic rock bands I ended up enjoying were AFI, Coldplay, Taking Back Sunday, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and a little up-and-coming rock band called the Strokes.
While I listened to these groups on repeat, that teen angst turned out to be peer-pressured. AFI quickly disappeared, along with the first two TBS records. Then Seth Rogen ruined Coldplay for everyone, leaving only RHCP and the Strokes left. Both bands (respectively) became favorites, but the Strokes seem to be in it for the long haul. At this point I’ve adored just about everything they, and their members, have done (and no, we don’t talk about half of Angles.) So in terms of personally beloved records, there’s no better place to start:
The Strokes – Room on Fire (2003)
The Strokes are just that one band for me. Everybody has one, and I’m not sure one even gets to choose which group becomes theirs. Timing, age, upbringing, etc. dictate what music you’ll end up being attracted to, and nothing sounded as cool to 14 year old me than a hip New York band playing a throwback sound that reminded me of all the classic rock bands I was raised on. The huge difference with the Strokes was that I could call the band my own, and that might be the most important thing for any teenager.
Thankfully the world happened to agree and their first two records are now certified classics in whatever’s still left of the rock establishment. And while some make a case that the band were pretty boys and payed their way to fame, most of those people are also in the indie rock bands that never got the same recognition. There’s a reason for that, and it’s called songwriting. The Strokes, simply put, write excellent songs.
The same way the Cars and Velvet Underground did before them, Julian Casablancas crafted short, insanely catchy pop songs that weren’t afraid to rock. While contemporaries Weezer wrote earworms for the nerdy outcasts, the Strokes recorded and delivered music that just had swagger, with a singer not afraid to croon one minute and scream through a chorus the next. It had and has a way of sticking with you, and while their debut is the more critically lauded record, I always end up listening to Room On Fire more often than Is This It. Both records are just about perfect, so it really is a toss up depending on the given day.
Red Hot Chili Peppers – By the Way (2002)
While I rarely listen to this record now, I still feel overwhelmingly compelled to include it in this list. It’s the album I listened to most before college, and the one that I remember driving around to throughout high school. As I said earlier, I strongly believe that the same douchey frat boys who ruined Dave Matthews Band and championed the copyright-infringing Sublime have also sullied the good name of RHCP.
Yes, the band isn’t afraid to be ridiculous and goofy. Yes, they sometimes look childish for it. Yes, they technically sold out on every account when that was still not cool to do. I know all of this, but it doesn’t truly bother me. By the Way is still a fantastic record, bouncing around genres, filled with hooks and, most importantly, not afraid to be beautiful. It’s the best record John Frusciante did with the band, and in my opinion the best record they’ve made period.
Take it away from their identity as a rock institution, all their shirtless fans, and even most of their discography, and I promise you’ll appreciate this record.
Phantom Planet – Phantom Planet (2004)
I had discovered Phantom Planet (and pretty much every other band I liked) through the soundtrack to the classic and enduring Fox show The OC. The teenage exploits of Ryan, Marissa, Summer, and Seth enthralled me almost as much as hearing Death Cab and the Walkmen for the first time, to the point that the show and its soundtrack came to define who I thought I wanted to be.
While my California surfer dreams never took off, the one thing that really stuck was Phantom Planet. I became enamored with their sugary take on power pop, quickly aligning myself against a high school of peers obsessed with the heartache of My Chemical Romance and the Used. But then Phantom Planet ended up changing to became something even better.
With this self titled record the band reinvented itself and switched their sound from power pop into a dirty garage rock, something critics quickly assumed happened because the Strokes and White Stripes exploded. I don’t agree with the bandwagon-jumping claims, and the amount of effort put into these songs seems to eclipse what Jack White put into his overdriven blues numbers. The record of Phantom Planet’s reinvention is aggressive but not grating, intricate but easily processed, and has a band that’s truly firing on all cylinders.
Alex Greenwald’s sunshine-tinged voice developed a Joe Strummer-like sneer as the band met his world weary lyrics with music to match. Even the music video for ‘Big Brat’ preempted the zombie craze that would soon commandeer pop culture. Seriously, this record is amazing from start to finish and hasn’t been far out of my rotation since I first heard it. Its follow-up record, Raise the Dead (a concept album about cult members), is equally worth checking out as well.
Devendra Banhart – Rejoicing in the Hands (2004)
Freak folk. What a great subgenre name, no? At the helm of the short-lived ship was a weird, seemingly reclusive bearded guy with an odd name. Banhart wrote songs about spiders and teeth, then sang them in a creepy, croaky voice while apologizing for absolutely nothing along the way. While I adored it and still do, Banhart’s music is personally important because it’s pretty much what taught me how to write better songs. Through him, I learned to move away from imitating artists, gradually letting them become influences rather than attempting to ape their particular styles. Thanks Devendra!
Spoon – Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (2007)
If I was being totally honest, this list would have at least 6 Spoon records on it. They’re called the most consistently great band of the 21st century, and they’ve certainly earned that moniker in every way. As a band they might have developed their iconic sound slowly, but Britt Daniel’s songs have quickly dug themselves deep into the rock and roll canon. No record better exemplifies their growth than Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga.
Ironically, Spoon had their commercial breakthrough with the song ‘The Underdog’ off this album, despite Britt not originally wanting the song on the record. Thankfully everyone else convinced him it was too good to leave off, though I will agree it definitely has a peppier vibe. Like many future fans, the track was a catalyst that got me more into the band after I wore out Kill The Moonlight (‘The Way We Get By’ was on the OC, remember?).
Every track on this album oozes cool, with the band fully embracing the sparser, groove-based song structures they’d only toyed with previously. Years later, Ga^5 is probably still the most accessible Spoon record, but not by much. In time, 2014’s They Want My Soul might actually overtake it as their most popular album, but people now tend to say that about every new record the band releases.
David Bowie – Ziggy Stardust… (1972)
The Starman himself! I didn’t get into Bowie until halfway through college, and still have a long way to go in understanding the breadth of his music. He was truly a genius… in choosing collaborators, and Mick Ronson was the first perfect person he aligned himself with. Ronson and the other Spiders from Mars dictated the sound of this record, but it was Bowie figuring out how to write excellent pop songs that let them elevate the material. For proof of that just look at the pre-Spiders version of ‘Moonage Daydream.’
Every song on the record is fantastic, it exploded the idea of glam rock into the mainstream, and quickly turned Bowie into a fashion and music icon. Not much more needs to be said, but I will heavily recommend you listen to the songs that didn’t make the record. ‘John, I’m Only Dancing (Sax Version)’ is one of the best tracks of the era and made me realize the saxophone could be more than just cheese (before Clarence Clemons truly drove that point home.)
Ezra Furman – Day of the Dog (2014)
Always sporting an air of mystery, Ezra Furman would likely be an icon if his band existed in the 70s, but I guess becoming a cult favorite musician over the last decade is pretty cool too. As a songwriter who does whatever he wants on each record, he’s garnered a ‘New Dylan’ moniker on multiple occasions. Happy to shed the title (and his band the Harpoons), he more recently found a new backing band to make doo-wop inspired rock and roll that’s easily more bite than bark.
Day of the Dog is my favourite collection of his songs, but each of his records are excellent and pretty unique. For a skinny guy in a dress and occasional lipstick, him and his band the Boyfriends have become a well-oiled touring machine that shames every group of big burly dudes still playing quote unquote “rock.” They put on one of the best shows period and without a doubt will eventually garner the massive audience they so rightly deserve.
It’s my strong opinion that Furman’s ‘My Zero’ should be sent to space and/or tossed into the National Library of Congress for preservation.
Tokyo Police Club – Champ (2010)
Another college-defining band, Tokyo Police Club’s second full length record found the group expanding their sound to be larger, while not necessarily more poppy. Resonating heavily with myself and a few close friends, the album’s nostalgic look back at the concept of childhood has slowly made it a mainstay in our music collections. I also just realized I don’t have this on vinyl, and that’s a problem (even though I barely ever listen to vinyl it’s still the coolest way to support a band, yeah?).
Being quite a fan of clever, down to earth lyrics, Dave Monks’ sentiments have been a go-to for the past decade:
“Cause I’ve been taking your advice
Like a Speak and spell
I could get to know you better
But never know you well”
The entire record is full of memorable lines like these, along with plenty of tasteful synth and guitar earworms to accompany them. It’ll get stuck in your head for days, and for me it’s now been years.
Hot Hot Heat – Make Up the Breakdown (2002)
Frontman Steve Bays might be the king of lyrical wordplay, and with Hot Hot Heat he got to express his cleverness for five albums before ending the project in 2016. Every record has something different and great to offer, but their debut (technically) will likely go down as the band’s defining work. Taking post-punk and dance-punk and filling the space in between with a ridiculous amount of hooks, HHH were like the spazzier and poppier cousin to hipper bands like the Rapture.
‘Bandages’ lined up perfectly with the likes of ‘Take Me Out’ and ‘Fell in Love with a Girl,’ got the group plenty of positive recognition, then eventually some major label attention. Bays’ current band Mounties also has some of the same weird-pop tendencies and is very much worth a listen.
The Long Winters – Putting the Days to Rest (2006)
This is one of those albums I put on when I don’t know what to put on; when I’m looking for a record that feels like home. Maybe there’s a better metaphor to describe it, but it still gave me an “Oh, of course!” moment when choosing albums for this list.
As someone with a peculiar voice, I’m often attracted to singers that share the same quality. John Roderick isn’t afraid to sing his heart out, sporting an everyman quality to his lyrics that isn’t easily ignored. Like John Darnielle of Mountain Goats fame, Roderick too has a fantastic way of picking apart little moments of life to form perfect lyrical sentiments. “Is your high horse getting a little hard to ride?” is a nice example, and even reads like it could be pulled right out of a Weakerthans song.
While I’m not a big fan of the idea of poetry, much preferring words to be set to music, the Long Winters have a way of crossing that divide. The words tell stories but do so through small details rather than overt statements, and the songs’ meanings are often obscured for the grander idea of producing a feeling in the listener. If that’s not a rare accomplishment for a band then I don’t know what is. Listen to this record and hope they make another one sometime soon.
The Thermals – The Body The Blood The Machine (2007)
The Thermals have become a band’s band. Efficient, lean, heavy, and long-running, not to mention consistently great. They’re the only band I’m ok with calling punk-pop, because there really isn’t a better descriptor. They’re not afraid of angry songs with loud catchy choruses, and the long term agenda of the group has always been to play to as many people as possible while truly getting their audience to feel something. Whatever that something may be, it’s always delivered with nothing but raw, unbridled energy.
The band weren’t always veterans though, and the record where they really proved themselves was none other than The Body The Blood The Machine. Using Christianity as its primary theme, the record scorches through ten tracks pointing out the hypocrisy of religion using themes from the Bible itself. No person has ever been as cruel as Old Testament God, and the band isn’t afraid to take those stories and convert their events to song, drawing parallels to other historical events as well as the modern day. Hutch Harris inhabits these songs and makes their lessons his own, all without hiding the influence religion has had on him (for better or worse).
The Clash – London Calling
Wilco – Summerteeth
Bright Eyes – I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning
The Walkmen – Heaven
LCD Soundsystem – Sound of Silver
Cut Copy – In Ghost Colours
Bruce Springsteen – Greetings from Asbury Park
The Mountain Goats – The Sunset Tree
The National – Alligator
Destroyer – Destroyer’s Rubies
Honorable mentions include albums I don’t consider myself to be a big enough fan of, but nonetheless listen to all the time. Hope I was thorough enough for anyone reading.
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