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 have asked 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.
When The Extensions formed back in 2018 one thing was clear. The members’ experience and talent, honed after years of recording and touring, would definitely lead to something special. Formed by singer/songwriter Brian Erickson and drummer Pete Stern who subsequently recruited bassist Kevin Newcomb and keyboardist Lisa LoVell, the New Jersey supergroup released the fantastic EP Bellicose last year.
A big part of their success is Stern’s dedication to not only the craft of drumming but to the entire process of making music. “Pete Stern isn’t just a drummer. He is a musician who happens to play the drums,” says Erickson. “He’s a thoughtful arranger and a quiet leader of whatever project he’s involved with. The only downside is that he remains criminally underrated.”
In addition to his work with The Extensions, Stern also lends his talent to other endeavors. New Brunswick band The Centennials will be releasing their final album in July. Stern and the group are in the finishing stages of the record and you can pre-order it on Bandcamp now. Stern also is the live drummer for Middletown singer/songwriter Matt Cook whose fifth album will be out later this year.
Without further ado…the list.
10. Everclear – So Much for the Afterglow
In the mid-to-late 90’s, the way I got most of my music was hearing a song I liked on the radio, then buying the whole album. Most of the time it backfired spectacularly, but this is an album I still enjoy listening to in 2020. Part of my connection to it is when I was learning to play the drums, blasting it in my basement and playing along over and over again on my first drum kit (complete with attached cowbell for “One Hit Wonder”). You could argue this album hasn’t aged well. Sure, the songwriting and production are undeniably of the 90’s, and the references to drugs and depression used to go way over my head. But back then the general idea of “who wants to fit in anyway” definitely resonated with me, and sometimes nowadays I just want a solid dose of nostalgia. In a way, the dated sound of this album has become part of its charm. I wouldn’t call myself a fan of Everclear as a band, but I am definitely a fan of this album.
9. The National – Trouble Will Find Me
The National don’t write bad songs…they just don’t. I think I first heard them when I frequented those music blog websites that would give you a free download every week, and one week it was a song from High Violet. This album came out a few years after that, and I was hooked for good. As a drummer, there’s a lot to like here. There are some songs in strange time signatures, but even on the straightforward ones, Bryan Devendorf’s drum patterns are like works of art. He knows when to pull back and when to go for it, and all of it fits perfectly. Sonically, this album is definitely a mood. There’s an audible haze over the whole thing that feels well-suited for late night drives and rainy days. You don’t need to be in a melancholy mood to enjoy it, but when I am it feels like exactly what I want to hear.
8. The Shins – Chutes Too Narrow
There’s not a great story behind this pick, I just really love this album. The Shins strike that balance between catchy and weird that I love in a way that few bands can. It’s difficult for me to pick one Shins album because they’re such a consistently good band, but to me this one is the strongest from front to back. The acoustic “Pink Bullets” is as catchy as anything they’ve written, and “Saint Simon” contains all of the staples of a great Shins song rolled into one. It doesn’t have that stand out, well-known track like “New Slang.” Just ten really solid songs in a row.
7. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
This is a loose concept album about how Josh Tillman (a.k.a. Father John Misty) met his wife, and for me this album will always be connected to the start of my own relationship. Musically, he was pretty prominent in our early days; the first song on the first mix I made for my girlfriend was “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” from the album before this. And while his lyrics are often sarcastic, passive aggressive, or just regular aggressive, Tillman also plays into the theme of this album with some surprisingly honest and humble moments. Lines like “people are boring, but you’re something else completely” made this feel very relevant to a pair of 30-somethings starting up something new. There’s so much going on sonically, but the production is excellent, and manages to reign it all in and bring some order to the chaos. It’s always a fun re-listen, if not to reminisce then because it’s a crazy vaudeville roller coaster of an album.
6. Warpaint – The Fool
I first found Warpaint while trading music recommendations with a friend. Most of them were just okay, but when the first notes of the song “Elephants” started, I froze. The next day I bought this, their debut album, and it didn’t leave my car’s CD player for about a year. All four members are really solid musicians, but drummer Stella Mozgawa is the backbone of the album. She and bassist Jenny Lee Lindberg are locked in throughout, and I think she’s one of the more underrated drummers out there. Hearing and watching how she plays has changed the way I play for the better. I’ve definitely borrowed heavily from her at times, but I’m not going to say where. For people who haven’t heard Warpaint (which is a lot of people), the song “Undertow” on this album is a good representation of all the things they do so well. Over time they’ve become one of my favorite bands, and even though their other albums are great, this one may still be my favorite.
5. Jimmy Eat World – Futures
This came out when I was in college and spent a lot of time browsing in record stores. I remember hearing “Polaris” over the speakers and asking the cashier what it was. When they said it was the new Jimmy Eat World, I dropped whatever I was holding and bought this instead. And, unpopular opinion time, this is the best Jimmy Eat World album. I was a fan of theirs before this came out, and I think that Clarity and Bleed American are great albums also. But it feels to me like they took the best parts of those and combined them when writing this one. It’s pop punk but mature, introspective and emotional without being cheesy. It has long atmospheric epics and full on rockers, and there are no throwaway songs. Looking toward the future with cautious optimism really resonated at that point in my life/the world, but it’s also aged really well because even the brooding is done with a sense of maturity that wasn’t on their older albums. I stand by this take.
4. Third Eye Blind – Third Eye Blind
Say what you will about them, but this album is just in my DNA. I started taking drum lessons in 1994, and around the time this came out in 1997 my instructor asked me to tape some songs off the radio that I wanted to learn how to play. “Semi-Charmed Life” ended up being the first. The singles are great—aside from “Jumper”—but the strength of this album is the second half. Every song is solid, and they all flow together extremely well. Because of how young I was when I was learning these songs, the way that Brad Hargreaves constructs beats and fills ended up heavily influencing how I approach it now. I may or may not have purposely worked “Third Eye Blind fills” into Matt Cook songs and my former band Rose Boulevard too (again, not saying where). Also, This is the only CD I ever actually broke from playing it too much. Fortunately, there used to be this music store The Wall, where if you returned a broken CD with their blue sticker on it, they would replace it for you. (Thanks, The Wall! I miss you).
3. Elliott Smith – XO
This is another choice that might be a little against the grain, but I stand by it. I love all of Elliott’s work, but there’s so much about this album that I think elevates it above all the others. It came out after Elliott’s inclusion on the Good Will Hunting soundtrack and sudden attention after performing at the Oscars. His lyrics here are as well constructed as ever, dealing with his background, drug issues and reactions to his newfound fame, but filtered through sarcasm and metaphor so you can never tell for sure when he’s joking or being serious. Collaborating with Jon Brion for the first time added a full sound that was new and different for Elliott, elevating his always masterful songwriting to a whole new level. Knowing what eventually happens, this album feels like the breaking point between Elliott’s gradual rise to fame and the issues that led to his untimely passing in 2003. But in the moment, XO sounds like the album that Elliott always wanted to make and was finally able to.
2. Neutral Milk Hotel – In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
I came to this one a little later than most. I heard it for the first time back in college but it didn’t really click for me until a few years later. Now it’s easily one of my all-time favorite albums. Maybe it’s the overblown production or the use of almost 20 (!) different instruments, but this album just sounds timeless. The way Jeff Mangum sings and the use of singing saw and brass instruments sound like being transported back in time to circuses and penny arcades at the turn of the century, but his frequent reference to Anne Frank keeps the album from being weighed in any particular time or location. All of that combined with the insane fog of distortion and overdrive on everything make it sound unlike anything I’ve ever heard. Despite all the chaos it still sounds like a cohesive album, with songs flowing into each other and interludes moving the whole spectacle forward. Because of all this, the album rewards repeated listens. It’s pretty remarkable when you think about what music generally sounded like in the late 90’s.
1. Death Cab for Cutie – Transatlanticism
When I set out to make this list, this was the first album that came to mind. I was in a long-distance relationship when this came out, and she actually bought me this record when I visited her one time. It ended up being the soundtrack, and sometimes a highly accurate portrayal, of our relationship. It was made during a time when the trend was to go to louder and add more distortion, but that’s never been the Death Cab way. This album is full of texture and dynamics, and every song only uses the instruments that fit. This was also the first appearance of Jason McGerr, another drummer who I draw a lot of inspiration from. He once said in an interview the way he approaches drumming is to fill in the spaces in a song, and I’ve tried to apply that to the way I write parts ever since. But the reason it’s still my favorite album today is its staying power. I can’t count how many times I’ve listened to it from beginning to end, and it doesn’t get old. Every track flows into the next as if it was planned that way, because it probably was. Regardless of what happens in life or how my music taste changes, it’s an album I can always come back to. So if I had to narrow it down even further to one favorite album, it would be this one.
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