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.
Ringwood band Quality Living is unique in the New Jersey music scene not only for creating some of the most infectiously upbeat indie pop I’ve heard but for doing it with so many band members. You’d think with all those musicians they would be tripping over themselves not only musically but physically. At a recent show at Hansil’s in Oakland I saw the entire band take up a stage that was the size of a small studio in Manhattan. But on record or live they work together deftly to create some amazing tunes.
They released their excellent self-titled debut album last year and the record is filled with great indie pop songs with a touch of soul throughout. Guitarist/Vocalist Darrel Norrell has a smooth and polished delivery that works well with the breezy music that is the band’s forte. Their recent single “Oh No,” which you can hear below, is already being lauded as this year’s perfect summer song.
Quality Living are heading into the studio soon with Skylar Ross Recording to work on some new tunes. These are songs they’ve been playing live and they will be the first recordings to include their new keyboard player, Danny Augugliaro. It will be exciting to hear what he will bring to the music. The band plans to release the new songs with Sniffling Indie Kids as a series of singles as the year moves along.
Be sure to catch the band live this Saturday July 22nd at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park. It is their first trip to the shore town and share the bill with Rocky & the Chapter, Wayne Oliveiri and Me an Bobby D. Other future shows include August 12th at Quality Living HQ in Ringwood with A Bird, Ruby Bones, We’re Ghosts Now, and Night on the Sun as well as August 14th at Boontunes in Boonton with A Bird.
The top 10 struggle is real. Darrel’s list is below.
This was hilariously tough to write. Once upon a time when I was an ignorant teenager, I might have been the type to try and pin down objective truth when establishing musical hierarchies. In fact, I may have thought I was better than everyone because I listened to Tool. But time goes by, your tastes change rapidly, you start looking for different things out of the music you choose, and the realization is thus: A person’s relationship with music is often in motion. Having completed the list, I don’t really know what my all-time favorites were… I just know what I like right now. What I’ve made is an attempt to stay true to that that while avoiding picks that are “safe” or nostalgic for nostalgia’s sake. Another fun fold to the difficulty level is that it’s very easy to slip into purple prose when gushing about music you love. With all this in mind, I edited this into a smoldering heap. Ed and Alice probably expect that I’ve abandoned this altogether. I’m grateful for their patience, and I’m very glad I stuck with it–I would love to revisit this in a year and see if I’d make any changes.
Mac DeMarco – This Old Dog
Mac represents the most recent of the artists who are particularly important to me. Some of my friends think he’s pretty boring. He’s mellow; that’s for sure, but I have long had a pretty forgiving mellowness threshold (shouts to American Football). The title track of This Old Dog serves as a great primer on why Mac is so huge right now: no-frills production, a direct, earnest lyrical message, and an incredible gift for note choice. As the album moves along, he tosses in the world’s grooviest rhythm section–maybe not hyperbole–and really tasteful keyboard parts take the forefront (“On the Level,” “One More Love Song,” “For the First Time”). It’s a clinic in building something unique out of simple, timeless components. And yeah, I know he does crazy stuff and puts drumsticks in dark places. It’s best to look past the shock–what really charms people is his attitude. I haven’t gotten out to a show of his yet, but I did veg out to some of his performances online. Some sort of kooky voodoo took hold of me–ever since I watched him get his goof on, I’ve been having a lot of fun on stage myself. Isn’t that remarkable?
Coheed & Cambria – In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3
This pick is straight from the salad days, but it hangs in there because it’s still so good. Even back when I was a super fan–and I was–Coheed was hilarious. Claudio Sanchez over-pronounces everything. There are uncomfortably-angsty lyrics that say things like “pull the trigger and the nightmare stops.” Occasionally, someone steps up to the mic and screeches like a demonic turkey vulture. But looking past their endearing campiness, the band made an undeniable classic in this album, packing it full of engaging, memorable bursts of Rush-meets-emo sci fi nonsense. Sanchez was my James Hetfield. While other guitar players at my school were woodshedding with “One” and “Master of Puppets,” I used to come home from school and belt out chipmunky vocal lines over powerchords and pinch harmonics. Those were the days, I tell ya… skinny jeans, swinging mics from their cables, and belting “man your own jackhammer!” while we covered the title track at our local VFW. You can ask my band mates about that–many of us were in that mess together. Coheed 4 lyfe.
Nick Drake – Five Leaves Left
There was a foggy, isolated section of my life during which I very much needed Nick Drake. In this era, there’s so much folk, and I have always found much of it to be offensively boring–thankfully
Neil Young – On The Beach
While much has been written on the subject of On The Beach being a great album, finding your way to it at a moment in life where some personal relationships are ending in sloppy fashion makes it extra potent. Opener “Walk On” serves as an uplifting “to hell with it” anthem. From there, the album slides into balancing difficult emotions in a way that few artists, to my knowledge, have managed to do with such incisiveness. The whole affair transcends the Americana it’s steeped in, such that a dweeb like me who knows nothing about the blues can appreciate the desolate beauty and woozy rhythms. I spent some time digging into some other music by Neil Young, and I think I have realized that I’m not a big fan, but this one alone gives him my vote as one of the all-time greats. “Motion Pictures,” “See the Sky About to Rain,” and “Ambulance Blues” all serve as reminders of why I have always had a soft spot for tunes that are bone-crushingly sad.
Kurt Vile – Wakin On A Pretty Daze
Together with Mac DeMarco and Courtney Barnett, I see Kurt Vile as one of the leaders in a musical movement that could either be restoring the guitar’s relevance or, at the very least, empowering the hell out of dad rock (should that be gendered? Parent rock? Idk. Help). This album is a straight beast. Under the bleary-eyed, carefree surface, there’s a lot of conflict and tension, and of course, that mirrored one phase of quiet, aimless post-collegiate existence in which I really needed a guiding light. As silly as it may sound, all of the wisecracky wisdom played a meaningful part in not “living life to the lowest power,” and it also very much rejuvenated my waning interest in the guitar. A bunch of these tracks are long, and a good percentage of that length is comprised of KV guitar adventures. If you had told me that before I listened, you might have scared me away, but the lengthy guitar passages aren’t about chops or idle exploration—they carefully, coolly bring you deeper into the mood. Unreal writing and performances throughout. b’lieve i’m goin’ down, by the way, is even better, but this one was something of a touchstone.
Modest Mouse – The Moon And Antarctica
To the shock of no one, I’m one of many who had a lengthy journey into the world of Pacific-Northwestern indie bands. Moon was and probably still is my favorite stop on that train. Years ago, when my cynicism dwarfed my faith in humanity, there was a great deal to relate to in the backwoods, drunken philosophy that informs the lyrics. That’s not really the case nowadays, but even without connecting to the world-weariness, the songs have so much power. “Third Planet” and “Gravity Rides Everything” are now timeless classics, and other songs like “Life Like Weeds,” “A Different City,” and “Lives” left a comet-sized imprint on my guitar playing. The album’s utterly-perfect production, which is a topic unto itself, might be what sets it apart from the other great records they put out. I guess I also like to put it on when I’m in the “everyone needs to go away” sort of mood that I have found is very much a thing even when you are an official Adult.
…And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead – Source Tags & Codes
“It Was There That I Last Saw You”—is there any song that sets the tone for an album quite like that? It introduces the band’s tendency to be both massive and beautiful at once, as well as a propensity for suddenly swinging into gentle interludes… everything is tenuous. The whole album walks that tightrope in a way that can’t be replicated (a point they punctuated through future releases–they fled utterly from the sound established on Codes). There are some outlandish songwriting ideas that suggest the band was riding some sort of haphazard wave of inspiration—“How Near How Far” is a great example, employing this silly, clattering, machine-gun burst as a drum beat while still managing to be the most gentle and pretty song on the whole disc. Hardcore’s shadow looms over the whole thing in the coolest way, and erupts on “Homage” and “Days of Being Wild.” Almost everything about the album feels like it could either be a burst of reckless genius or just an accident. I’ve been listening to it on and off since high school, when it first served to take me more deeply into the world of punk and indie.
Belle & Sebastian – Dear Catastrophe Waitress
I especially had trouble figuring out what I should try and say about Belle & Sebastian. It took a long time for me to realize that they were one of my favorite bands. They are the first thing that comes to mind when I think of “quiet brilliance.” They lean on no conceit or gimmick. Some songs tell colorful stories; others have gnarly hooks; some just offer stately, sunny vibes to sip on. They are probably at their absolute best when they’re writing horrifyingly-sad love songs–Stuart Murdoch’s stories and characters manage to be relatable despite being painted with rich detail. DCW exemplifies this best (or Sinister, depending on the day/my mood). “If She Wants Me” and “I’m A Cuckoo” contain some of the best and most sincere lyric writing that I know of. They genre hop quite a bit, and I’ve always admired how Murdoch can sandwich moments of heartbreak within quips and silliness. One day, I will make good on my repeated threats to show up at an open mic armed with a set of covers.
Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks – Pig Lib
When I was younger, I hated Pavement—I thought the music sounded like a piss-take on any band that ever rehearsed more than once a year, and I wanted to punch their snotty singer in his word hole—but not too long ago, I had some weird breakthrough that began with Pig Lib, particularly “(Do Not Feed the) Oyster.” The chorus got stuck in my head while I was cooking dinner, and I started singing “under the grou-ou-ou-ou-ound” without really thinking about it. I eventually put the song on to break its hold, and saw that a switch had flipped without reason. Just like that, he got me. Everything by both Pavement and the Jicks felt fresher than hell. I chose Pig Lib for the list largely because it’s got cute little side-tunes telling straightforward stories that feel endearing in Malkmus’s hands (“Craw Song,” “Vanessa From Queens”). “Animal Midnight” and “Us” are super powerful. His best songs are like movies or TV shows that you rewatch to unearth additional layers—there is always something new to think about, and for Malkmus, it usually appears effortless. For the record, having to choose between this, Jagbag’s, Brighten the Corners, or Crooked Rain was a nightmare.
Death Cab For Cutie — The Photo Album
This final spot could change by the day. After starting blurbs for some other records, it occurred to me that there was one band that had, to that point, been left out altogether. It’d be disingenuous to ignore them, since they stuck with me for so long. So, let’s talk about Death Cab. I would put forth that there has been no aughts-era indie star who has taken more crap than Ben Gibbard. My admiration for the band stems chiefly from his style of songwriting and singing. He communicates really vivid emotions without resorting to histrionics… he is eloquent; he paints pictures; he gives himself permission to be bitter, wrong, and flawed. The Photo Album is when he and Chris Walla first hit their stride, building guitar backdrops that are diverse, inventive, and often stunningly pretty (“A Movie Script Ending,” “Blacking out the Friction”–my goodness). You could say that this album served as a rough blueprint for their platinum-selling, Grammy-nominated Plans, a height from which the band was doomed to fall. When indie seemed to veer in a direction where shooting for the heartstrings was viewed as tacky, Gibbard subsequently became the poster child for critics who loved ragging on the wimpy kids (perhaps just to distance their insecure selves from the “indie beta-male” caricature). That impression of him lasted and cast a stubborn shadow over the five wonderful albums that kicked off their career–but if you ask me, I think time will view the music in a favorable light. I realize I’ve said little about the album itself, so I’ll part with this thought: don’t forget to dig up The Photo Album sometime… it has aged well.
Honorable mentions, most of which could have been in that last spot instead;
Copyright, You Don’t Know Jersey, LLC (2010-2024)