I have always been fascinated by what music 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.
Singer/songwriter Don Ryan currently calls Hawthorne his home but like the wandering characters in the works of Jack Kerouac, Bob Dylan and Tom Waits he has lived in many places. They just happen to be all in North Jersey including Passaic, Union City and Carlstadt. Ryan infuses the experiences of his life into every song he writes.
Recently signed to Mint 400 Records, Ryan and his band The Black Canvas Movement have just released his amazing new record Warwalking Part One. Shades of Waits, Nick Cave and The Beatles echo in these wonderfully crafted songs. Ryan himself produced the record. “It’s the first thing I’ve ever produced, and I literally knew nothing whatsoever about engineering or mixing or mastering an album when I started this endeavor.” You wouldn’t know that based on how outstanding the record sounds. Not that it was easy to do. “It’s actually true to say that I’ve never worked harder on anything in my entire life.” His vocal range is also quite impressive whether he is using a gritty growl or reaching the highs of Perry Farrell.
Now about the Garden State. “New Jersey gets such a bad rap, but I love that there’s a grittiness and honesty to the people of Jersey that one just doesn’t find elsewhere. People from New Jersey are often not to be trifled with, and that is something I greatly respect.” Like us he also loves the food of our state and he certainly knows Jersey. “If I wake up at 3am craving a cheeseburger, I know that there are only twenty minutes separating me from that reality of scarfing one down!” Amen!
Now grab a cup of coffee, settle in and check out Ryan’s list below.
OK, before I begin, let me just establish a few ground rules. I’m disqualifying all Beatles and Nirvana records — it’s just too easy.
I’m also disqualifying albums from three of my other favorite bands: Pantera, Alice in Chains, and the first five Metallica records. I don’t think there’s a single imperfect note on any of those albums, and I truly mean that. How boring a list would this be if it was just five Pantera records and five Metallica records? Or just ten Beatles records? Etc…
Also, these albums will be listed in no particular order.
The only other rule I’m establishing is that each album I list is one that I not only consider great, but perfect. Yes, perfect! As in, it achieves the exact goal it strives to achieve, and there’s nothing about the album that I would dream of changing. That’s a high bar to set, and I’m sure there will be dissenting views regarding some of my picks, but a list of perfect albums is a really difficult and fun challenge in which to engage!
So, without further preamble…
1. Queen – A Night at the Opera
Queen’s A Night at the Opera is about as close to a Beatles record an album can get without actually being a Beatles record. Much like most of the Beatles later output, A Night at the Opera has a very mixtape/variety show feel to it. This album really does have it all: From the bitterly scathing “Death on Two Legs (Dedicated To…)”, a song which tears limb from limb the band’s former manager, whom Freddie Mercury alleged to have abused and mistreated the band; to the achingly sweet Motown-inspired ballad “You’re My Best Friend”, penned by bassist John Deacon for his wife; to the comically epic “I’m In Love With My Car”, which was drummer Roger Taylor’s witty ode to his Alfa Romeo sportscar (or, as Taylor sings it, his “automo-love”); to the Biblically epic “The Prophet’s Song”, which features a lengthy vocal solo by Mercury, in which he utilizes multiple delay effects to build enormous operatic harmonies that rival any choir under the sun.
Despite every track offering something utterly unique and perfectly satisfying, including Queen’s most ubiquitous number, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” there exists an extra special place in my heart for the Brian May song “’39”. When my mother first bought me this record when I was nine years old, she had mentioned that “’39” was her favorite track. I remember the first time I heard it — my parents and I were in a hotel on a family vacation to Washington D.C. The song was so gorgeous, it defied language for me at the time, and quite frankly it still does.
Recently, I was in the midst of a health crisis and recorded a version of “’39” for my mom on Mother’s Day. Even though it was just a one-take cell phone recording, just being able to send my mother a “thank you for everything” note in the form of that song was one of the greatest musical moments of my life.
2. Nicole Atkins – Neptune City
There will forever be a special place in my musical heart for Nicole Atkins. Discovering her music was one of the strangest and most serendipitous experiences of my life.
It was October 2007. I was at a musical crossroads in my life, as my band had recently imploded and I was searching for something new — not just a new project, but a new sound entirely. Something about what I had been doing artistically over the previous few years just wasn’t sitting well with me. I was in a fairly ever-present state of malaise and irritability, frustrated beyond words at the string of bad luck that I had just experienced. (I was so heartbroken that I even tried to convince myself to give up music altogether, a notion that I had never even remotely considered before. I even went so far as to stop playing for a few weeks — an absolute eternity for me.)
Then one morning, my then-girlfriend and I were sitting around my squalid apartment in Passaic, NJ, hungover from the night before, when an American Express commercial came on the television featuring Nicole Atkins and her band. The commercial, decidedly corny and badly scripted, for some reason triggered my wrath (clearly a testament to the hair-trigger upon which my bitterness had been set at the time). “Who the hell is Nicole Atkins?” I demanded to no one in particular. “I’ve never even so much as heard of this person, yet she is apparently well-known enough to be featured in a credit card commercial, staying in posh hotels? I’ll bet this isn’t even a real artist. She has the looks of an actress anyway. How cynical has marketing gotten that we’re now being sold fake musicians to idolize?”
I happened to be sitting at my computer as this (now comically ill-advised and ironic) rant came roaring from my lips. So I decided to fact check the American Express commercial. (Yes, this was the level of my intensity at that moment. I wasn’t just going to let it go. I was going to fact check a credit card commercial.)
I googled “Nicole Atkins”, and the first result was a Myspace page (yes, this was 2007). I clicked on the link, now already feeling a little silly that much of my caveman rant had already been proven wrong. There was, in fact, a singer named Nicole Atkins. “But is she any good?” I rhetorically spewed in the general direction of my girlfriend, who was no longer listening, and had gotten out of bed to make herself some breakfast.
I would love to have access to a scan of my brain as the next few moments unfolded. I clicked the first of four tracks on Atkins’ Myspace music player. It was really impressive — solid from start to finish. Then I clicked track number two — it was astonishing. Now the third — “Ok, I’ll bet this is where it’s all going to start to fall apart“. But it didn’t. The level of quality remained top notch. By the time I clicked on the fourth track, “Party’s Over”, which was the song used in the American Express commercial, I had already called my girlfriend back into the room, and excitedly declared, “Not only is there a real Nicole Atkins, but everything I’ve heard so far is fucking awesome! She’s also playing Maxwell’s in Hoboken this Thursday. Do you want to go?”
So we set out to Maxwell’s only a few nights later (Thursday, October 11, 2007, to be exact) to check out this “actress” from the American Express commercial. As excited as I was, I was still skeptical. Would the rest of her set be anywhere near as interesting as the four featured songs on her Myspace page?
I would, again, love to see a scan of my brain over the course of the ensuing hour, as I was pummeled by song after gorgeous, powerful song. Just after a rendition of “Love Surreal” — a show-stopping live number that is as dancy as disco, but hits as hard as metal, my mind was made up. This was something special. This was something almost once-in-a-lifetime special.
She then announced that her major label debut album, Neptune City, was set to be released at the end of the month.
This was the first (and only) time I ever felt like I had just seen a legend perform just prior to their mainstream success. I felt like I had been on the ground floor of something so beautiful, the experience was utterly ineffable.
Within the next few days, I bought her debut album and was yet again blown away. It wasn’t just good. It was perfect. From start to finish, it was a perfect record. The soulful crooning, the moodiness, the subtle but unquestionably effective psychedelic layering, the lush strings, and of course most importantly, the songs themselves. Nothing felt contrived. The uptempo numbers felt just as natural as the slow, eerie dirges.
It all affected me so profoundly, I realized that this album was precisely the inspiration I was so desperately searching for. It was a vital element that led me toward the sound that I finally felt suited me as an artist. Without having seen that credit card commercial, without attending that show at Maxwell’s, and without hearing that Neptune City record, I can say with certitude that I would be a very different artist today.
What started as a moment of judgment and nastiness and bitterness wound up, in hindsight, being one of the most important moments of my life. Inspiration has a funny way of sneaking up on you.
Over the course of the next year, my girlfriend and I had gone to see Nicole Atkins somewhere near a dozen times. And each time, we were just as blown away as the last.
Unfortunately, after we broke up in 2009, I could no longer bring myself to see Atkins play. Too many ghosts of a shattered long-term relationship haunted the very thought of seeing Atkins live again.
But that breakup was eleven years ago, and both my ex and I have been moved on for many years now, so I do believe that at this point I’m only doing myself a great disservice by continuing to deprive myself of seeing this brilliant entertainer. A Nicole Atkins show in my future seems long overdue.
3. Wilco – Summerteeth
I was extremely late to the party with this record. My friend and longtime musical collaborator had highly recommended it to me in 2009, ten years after the album had been released. I gave it a once-over one evening, and for some reason I didn’t think much of it at the time. (This is true of so many of my favorite records — upon first listen, so many of the perfect gems that I’ve come across have struck my ear strangely at first.)
It wasn’t until I gave the album a re-listen on an autumn evening walk a year later that the shining brilliance of Summerteeth became so obvious. The dark, strange, jumbled lyrics; the layers upon layers of bewitching psychedelia; the desolation; the isolation — it was all so wondrous, how could it have ever escaped me?
Much like A Night at the Opera, this album also features a bit of mixtape approach. The songs are varied, yet held together by a certain continuity. The fact that Wilco were able to weave seamlessly in and out of songs as diverse as the uptempo and optimistic “Nothing’severgonnastandinmyway(Again)”, to the angelic lullaby “My Darling”, to the gloomy “How to Fight Loneliness”, to the one-of-a-kind murder ballad “Via Chicago” (whose iconic first lines are “I dreamed about killing you again last night/And it felt alright to me”) is an absolutely masterful feat.
4. Elliott Smith – From a Basement on the Hill
One of the metrics by which I measure the things that I love most in this world is whether or not anything quite like them exists elsewhere. I can confidently say that there is no album in the world that achieves what From a Basement on the Hill does.
Basement was a posthumous release, Elliott’s final effort before his tragic death. It was intended as a follow-up to his major label masterpiece Figure 8 (also a perfect album that almost made this list).
If the mission statement of Figure 8 was to build a Phil Spector-esque “wall of sound” using the traditional means — lush string arrangements, beautifully layered instrumentation, intricate piano lines, and rich background vocals — the mission statement of Basement was to build a “wall of insanity”. There was still a wall, but gone were the blueprints. The songs themselves were at their core still more or less pop formulations (intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, outro), but the layering was accomplished not by traditional means, but through the use of noisy guitar parts, meandering background vocals, and seemingly completely random sounds that would appear out of thin air and vanish just as quickly.
When approached through a cursory, more holistic listen, the songs might just sound like slightly off-kilter, Beatles-esque indie rock, infused with a tinge of noise rock. But when examined under a microscope, the “tinge” of noise becomes a befuddling orchestra of sounds that should, by sheer musical logic, sound insulting over these songs — but inexplicably, they are perfectly complementary.
Lyrically, Basement is a monochromatic portrait of desperation and addiction. It’s so intensely depressing, I often find myself having to give myself long breaks from this album. I’ve suffered from fairly severe depression for much of my life, and while Basement can sometimes feel like a warm blanket doled out by a truly understanding friend, there are other times when it can feel like a nightmare trip through the darkest corridors of the human psyche.
Perhaps the only record that should come with a mental health warning, Basement is, for some of us, a rapturous experience best enjoyed sparingly.
5. Beck – Mutations
This album seems to have dug its way into my very DNA.
I first heard it as a young musician who, at the time, was primarily writing metal music. The composition of heavy metal is often quite different than most other genres, especially psychedelia and folk — which are the primary components of Mutations. For one, metal is almost entirely riff-based, whereas psychedelia and folk are almost wholly chordal. And secondly, metal tends to intrinsically have a thick, solid sound just based on the hard-hitting tones of the instruments involved, whereas psychedelia and folk tend to derive their musical intricacy and depth by the use of sonic layering — such as adding strings, additional percussion tracks, background vocal harmonies, etc.
As a young metalhead, the layering within other styles of music was something of a mystery to me. I would hear Beatles albums and their lush arrangements and just have no idea how one would go about replicating that kind of sound.
Beck’s Mutations was the first album that inspired me to make an attempt at writing chord-based, layered music. I spent months dissecting that record, trying to understand the mechanics of this new style that was well outside my comfort zone.
This album, mostly somber in its tone, also has the distinction of having quite literally changed my view of death in a single lyric. The song “O Maria” includes the lines “Cause everybody knows death creeps in slow/Till you feel safe in his arms”. That lyric can easily be dismissed as morbid, but in my view there is a deeper and more hopeful truth being expressed, whether Beck intended it or not.
It seems to me that no matter how one is in the process of dying, there must be a point at which acceptance insists upon itself. That at a certain point, even in the worst of deaths, there must be a point at which one simply naturally surrenders to the process. It almost seems a self-evident inevitability to me. At some point, either due to the unbearable nature of the particular death one finds himself in the grips of, or through a very Zen acceptance of death itself, there must be a point, however close to the end, in which one simply feels “safe in [death’s] arms,” rather than continuing a losing battle against the inexorable.
Perhaps you may also dismiss this as morbid and depressing. But it’s given me much hope that at the end, I may be ready to accept things as they are.
Apologies to those who may be bummed out now, but while we’re on the subject of the morbid, allow me to get to my next pick:
6. White Zombie – Astro-Creep: 2000
On this list so far, a White Zombie album finds itself firmly planted in the realm of “one of these things is not like the other”. But again, as I said with the Elliott Smith entry, I love things that are truly unlike anything else I’ve ever heard. And Astro-Creep: 2000 fits that bill perfectly.
There’s ingenuity on virtually all fronts when it comes to this record: there’s a perfect coalescence of a live band (with one of the most unique monster guitar tones in history), a vocalist with an instantly recognizable and utterly blistering growl, synthetic beats along with acoustic drum sounds, horror movie samples, and lyrics that can either be read as deadly serious or as slightly tongue-in-cheek, depending on one’s viewpoint.
For underground/horror/sci-fi movie fans, there are shout-outs galore — such as the “Real Solution #9” repetitive lyric, “Who will survive and what will be left of them?”, which is the tagline on the movie poster of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The title of the song “More Human Than Human” is the motto of the Tyrell Corporation from Blade Runner. And this is not even close to the tip of the iceberg.
Unlike most other extremely heavy bands of the era, White Zombie made the interesting artistic decision to eschew the chest-thumping “we’re tougher than you” vibe, and head straight toward us weirdos and outcasts who were in love with horror movies and stomping riffs, and loved dark, morbid, haunted house thrill rides. White Zombie wasn’t a band hell-bent on starting a revolution. Its primary goal was to entertain, in much the same way that drag races and haunted houses and horror movies do, and Astro-Creep: 2000 accomplished that goal in spades.
And this is all to say nothing of the production on this record, which could be a blog entry all on its own. Helmed by the legendary producer Terry Date (Pantera, Deftones), Astro-Creep: 2000 is just as sonically unrelenting as any contemporary metal record (if not more so). This album is one those rare records that feels like it could have come out 25 years ago, or yesterday morning.
7. Down – NOLA
I’ve disqualified all Pantera records from this list, but I still have the leeway of including a Phil Anselmo (Pantera vocalist) side project.
Down is a southern metal supergroup, and at the time of its debut album NOLA, its lineup included Phil Anselmo (Pantera), Pepper Keenan (Corrosion of Conformity), Jimmy Bower (Eyehategod), and Kirk Windstein and Todd Strange (Crowbar). And in 1994 when this album was being recorded, all of the above were in peak form.
What’s surprising about this supergroup is how relatively low-key it was when it began. It was ultimately just a bunch of friends getting together to periodically write some sludgy metal tunes. In fact, they didn’t even start out with a record contract or any serious label interest. Down began circulating demos around the US in the early 90s, and from what I understand, just happened to be playing a show that was being attended by an Elektra Records executive, who offered them a deal rather immediately.
The album itself is an absolute juggernaut of epic proportions. If one took the spirit of bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Allman Brothers, and shoved it into a furnace with a few Black Sabbath records, the resulting product would be something like NOLA.
While the album yielded a somewhat radio-friendly minor hit with “Stone the Crow”, it was songs like “Underneath Everything” and “Eyes of the South” that made this record pummel in a way that no other album in the world does in quite the same way. It was a metal classic the moment it hit the shelves.
8. David Bowie – The Man Who Sold the World
This was another record that had a truly profound impact on my writing. I had already begun to embrace the influence of much late 1960s and early 1970s psychedelic music, but I had aspirations beyond just the standard fare lyrical trippiness. I was looking for a way to bridge the gap between the kaleidoscopic experimental strangeness of acts like Syd Barrett and The Beatles with the pitch darkness of lyricists like Leonard Cohen and Pantera’s Phil Anselmo.
This album dared me to be daring. Through The Man Who Sold the World, I was able to see how it was possible to combine the truly strange with the truly unsightly. Songs like “All the Madmen”, “After All”, “Savior Machine”, and “Running Gun Blues” became something of a master class for me on how to combine themes were both trippy and dark.
9. Aesop Rock – The Impossible Kid
I must admit, I’ve never been much of a hip hop guy. It’s not that I’ve ever had anything against the genre in principle, it’s just often been very hard for me to relate to rap. I’ve had a very similar experience with punk music. It was just that I had come from a very different world, and I was slow on the uptake when it came to great music within styles with which I was generally unfamiliar.
I was first exposed to the music of Aesop Rock by my friend Chris, a rapper who releases music under the name Emergence (@emergencehiphop on Instagram). Chris had taken me to a show in NYC at Bowery Ballroom in which Aesop was performing with Kimya Dawson of the Moldy Peaches.
I remember the show being extraordinarily impressive, but I knew I would have to dig deeper to even begin to grasp the flurry of flow of Aesop’s words slamming into me like a turret gun barrage. I was not yet a “true believer”, but my interest was most certainly piqued.
The other remarkable thing about the show itself was that a few hours afterward, my friends I were drunkenly perambulating the city when we happened to wander past Bowery Ballroom, only to find Aesop and Kimya just hanging out outside the venue alone. It was such an unexpected and exceedingly pleasant experience. They were both so kind and gracious. Aesop had just purchased a gyro from a street vendor, and even happily indulged me when I requested a photo of the two of us with the gyro. He was such a cool guy, in fact, that I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I would soon be digging deep into his discography with my friend Chris’s guidance.
Chris prepared me a mixed tape of some of his favorites, and it literally took one song, “Facemelter”, to convert me fully. And it didn’t stop there. The prevailing sentiment from my mouth after each track was, “This guy is an absolute genius!”
Aesop Rock is also unique beyond words in that he actually seems to get better and better with age. His 2012 effort, Skelethon, was the first of his records that I deemed perfect from start to finish. How few artists tend to pull that off mid-career?
But as perfect as Skelethon is, The Impossible Kid hit me in a different, even more meaningful way.
For one, it has the distinction of being the one and only hip hop record to ever bring me to tears. And not only did it bring me to tears, it did so on the very first listen to the very first single, “Rings”.
“Rings” is a confessional number about Aesop’s regret over having given up visual art, despite having formerly been so in love with drawing and painting that he had graduated from Boston University with a Visual Arts degree. The video for the song begins with Aesop being killed in a car accident, thus rendering too late his desires to ever return to the world of fine arts.
My girlfriend, Victoria, was a Fine Arts major from Rutgers Mason Gross School of the Arts. And over the years, she had simply begun to lose confidence in herself, eventually giving up painting altogether. It was sad to watch, and I’m sure for her it was a heartbreaking experience to live.
Upon her first viewing of the “Rings” video, she too broke down sobbing.
The silver lining in all this, though, is that she almost immediately began to paint again, due in no small part to Aesop Rock. Listening to that record, especially “Rings”, finally illuminated for her the reality that there really is no time like the present.
We are both forever in debt to Aesop Rock, not merely for the beautiful art he has created, but the beautiful art that now exists in our own home that we owe directly to his inspiration.
10. Queens of the Stone Age – …Like Clockwork
This is yet another rare-beyond-words example of a band releasing, in my opinion, its strongest ever material mid-career. QOTSA has long been one of my favorite bands of all-time, and after unleashing album after album for more than a decade, all of which just slayed, it was almost impossible to imagine that this band still had its best days ahead of them.
Enter …Like Clockwork.
From the throbbing syncopation of the opening number, “Keep Your Eyes Peeled”, it should be clear to any listener that this album is about to be a thrilling hell ride through totally uncharted territory in human states of consciousness.
…Like Clockwork is a far more deeply confessional record than QOTSA had ever released. The moody and intense “I Appear Missing” (which showcases some of Dave Grohl’s most impressive drum work ever) is a song about vocalist Josh Homme’s bout with a MRSA infection that not only left him hospitalized, but at one point stopped his heart, rendering him legally dead until hospital staff were able to revive him with a defibrillator. It took Homme four months of bed rest to fully recover from the ordeal, and the nearly unavoidable depression that would follow such a state began to take its hold, giving way to lyrics like “Shock me awake/Tear me apart/Pinned like a note in a hospital gown/Deeper asleep/Further down/The rabbit hole never to be found”.
Between lyrics like these, as well as those penned for “The Vampyre of Time and Memory” (“I want God to come and take me home/’Cause I’m all alone in this crowd”), Homme had never before opened himself up to his audience in this way, and as saddening as it is to see in deep pain someone for whom you have the utmost respect, it’s also a source of even greater respect to see that person so open and honest about what he’s enduring.
..Like Clockwork provides so much insight into the fragility of the human experience (and even the humor and fun therein — “If I Had a Tail”, “Smooth Sailing”), to ignore this album is to do oneself a great disservice.
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