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.
Let’s get it out of the way off the bat. New Jersey singer/songwriter Rory D’Lasnow plays guitar upside down and backwards. He uses this unique method to create some of the most heartfelt and authentically honest songs being released these days. His timely and powerful 2020 single “An American Lie” was a scathing rubuke of the illusion of liberty and equality that people of color are assumed to have while they are subjected to ever increasing violence and the fact that these social issues fall out of view once the fickle news cameras find the next story. The song made our Top 20 Songs of 2020 list and left us wanting more.
Last month D’Lasnow examined mental health issues with the release of “Forgotten.” D’Lasnow, who works as a counselor in the mental health field said, “I’ve seen families ravaged by the often unfortunate ramifications of mental illness and substance abuse and it’s heartbreaking to watch. You never want to place judgment on what are inevitably complex circumstances, but seeing firsthand the impact that estrangement from one’s family can have left such a profound impression on me.” The song is a gorgeous meditation on aging, loneliness and family that takes its time building to a powerful denouement with swirling guitars. The song inspires reflection and, hopefully, the urge to reach out to someone who might need to hear from you.
I can’t wait to hear more from D’Lasnow and luckily I won’t have to wait too long. His eagerly anticipated forthcoming EP Songs From An Empty Room is due later this year.
Without further ado here is the list.
When I was asked to select my top ten favorite albums I thought it might be a challenge, but I wasn’t prepared for this! Thank you to You Don’t Know Jersey for inviting me to be a part of this project. Here’s my best, extremely thorough, stab at it:
10. Motion City Soundtrack – Commit This to Memory
Take a journey back to 2005 with me – one of the best years for music – in my opinion. These guys were crushing it on purevolume.com, where all the best music lived – and they just put out their second full-length produced by Blink-182’s Mark Hoppus. Pop Punk bands were coming out of the woodwork, but MCS stood out from the pack. First, they had the synth and the “Cars” vibes. Throw in Justin Pierre’s wholesome Ben Folds-like vocals delivering deeply confessional lyrics about his deteriorating mental health and penchant for self-medicating and I was hooked. They had plenty of great songs over the years – but this album was the crown jewel. I’m making the easy choice here regarding the best song on the record. Though there are so many good ones like Time Turned Fragile, When You’re Around, Hold Me Down, and the extremely candidly named “LG FUAD” (it stands for something not so appropriate if you don’t know) – it’s “Everything Is Alright” that steals the show in my book. It starts off with that simple, but unforgettable, groove and then thunderously explodes into a wall of sound. Pretty much right off the bat – Justin disgruntledly rattles off a list of things that freak him out but doesn’t want to come to the grips with the fact that he needs help: “Cause I hate the ocean, theme parks, and airplanes/Talking to strangers, waiting in line/I’m through with these pills that make me sit still/Are you feeling fine? Yes I feel just fine”. Relatable.
9. The Killers – Sam’s Town
Killers frontman Brandon Flowers famously said in advance of its release that Sam’s Town would be “one of the best albums in the past 20 years”. Many might find that comment obnoxious. I know I initially wasn’t crazy about it. But was he wrong? “Bones” is epic. “Read My Mind” is haunting. Every damn song on this record is stellar in a different sort of way, but I have to go with the layup “When You Were Young” as the top track, as it is – in my opinion – one of the greatest songs of all time. It’s so clearly Springsteen-esque that it’s hard not to poke fun – the riff sounds eerily similar to Stevie Van Zandt’s iconic intro lead in “Born to Run”, the breakdown in the middle again feels borrowed from The Boss, and then the familiar tale of escaping your circumstances and running away in the arms of some working class knight in shining armor? Okay, well whatever it is – it’s great. Flowers has a flair for the dramatic and he leans into it here and knocks it out of the park if you ask me.
8. Regina Spektor – Begin to Hope
Regina was one of the defining artists of my late high school years and MAN is she a joy to listen to. This record has a deluxe version with like twenty songs and it STILL doesn’t have any filler. Regina is a profoundly unique and versatile songwriter with a gorgeously distinctive voice and the piano chops of a classically trained composer and she shows it all off on here. “Fidelity” and “Better” were standout pop songs – with both highlighting her unique style and impeccable vocal control. “Hotel Song”, “Apres Moi”, “20 Years of Snow”, and “That Time” show how abjectly bizarre she can be while still making it sound hauntingly beautiful or infectiously catchy. I’ve shown “Music Box” to many a skeptical friend, but it’s one of my absolute favorites. However, “Samson” is a flawlessly evocative track and has to take the cake. “You were my sweetest downfall/I loved you first”. Heartbreaking.
7. Jimmy Eat World – Futures
I absolutely love Jimmy Eat World and it just blows me away how many great songs they have scattered across so many records. But that chugging guitar that leads the record off in the gorgeous title track is – to me – the cherry on top of their finest effort. “Work” and “Pain” were fantastic, but for me the best track has to be “Futures” or “Just Tonight” – which I feel is a bit compromised by the overly slick production – because that raunchy guitar pattern in the verse is something to behold.
6. Paramore – Riot
I actually almost chose a different Paramore record here. I have really come to love their self-titled album – which I initially hated. But come on – Between “That’s What You Get”, “Hallelujah”, and OF COURSE “Misery Business” – this record is filled with undeniable pop punk staples. Hayley half-heartedly mutters “Hit that – hit that – snare” and then before you know what’s hit you – the whole song feels like it could knock you flat on your back. Powerful, epic hooks and just massive production and arrangement – its just so damn good. And it was recorded right here in Jersey. <3
5. Brand New – The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me
This record is everything I love about music. Subtle and soft and then utterly unhinged. A perfect predecessor to 2009’s even more abrasive and controversial “Daisy” (another favorite), Jesse Lacey screams (literally) “tortured artist” on this one. But man can he channel that angst into something stirring. As you may have noticed by now – I love opening tracks – and “Sowing Season” pummels you right out of the gate. It starts out delicate and gentle, then becomes massively aggressive, with meandering bass lines and thunderous drums – as is the trend for the rest of the record. Lacey shakes you to your core when he hollers defiantly: “I am not your friend/I am just a man who knows how to feel/I am not your friend, I’m not your lover, I’m not your family!” That said, I don’t think I have it in me to not crown “Degausser” the best track of this record. “Millstone” is also excellent and “Jesus Christ” was the “hit”, but it’s Deguasser’s ethereal guitar work weaving in between a beefy bass line and hypnotic drumming by Brian Lane that gets me.
4. Hozier – Hozier
I found this record more recently. It came out more recently than some of these other ones, but I was even more late to the party. “Take Me to Church” is good. It is. But “Angel of Small Death” and “Jackie and Wilson” especially made me feel things I didn’t know I could feel. The lyrics, the voice, the swagger – Andrew Hozier-Byrne is a wordsmith that can effortlessly convey the most subtle of sentiments with unparalleled grace and eloquence. Rattling off lines with the rhythmic complexity of Lin-Manuel Miranda ” with his gorgeous croon…I just never cease to be in awe of his ability to tell a story and make it cooler than anybody else. In Jackie and Wilson he offers all of himself – too much of himself it turns out – after becoming enthralled with a woman who later leaves him flat – “So tired trying to see from behind the red in my eyes/No better version of me I could pretend to be tonight/So deep in this swill with the most familiar of swine/For reasons wretched and divine”. Wait, I take it back. “Cherry Wine” is a masterpiece. A tragic tale of an unwavering, perverted interpretation of devotion to your lover in spite of mistreatment – “The way she shows me I’m hers and she is mine/Open hand or closed fist would be fine/The blood is rare and sweet as cherry wine.” How he conveys this nuanced and REAL concept of lying to oneself to defend a love that’s no damn good gets me every time. Ah, call it a tie between Jackie and Cherry Wine. Just a must listen all around.
3. My Chemical Romance – Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge
Just iconic. I remember being in my godmother’s living room, swearing I was born into the wrong generation (I grew up on a steady diet of oldies and classic rock) and then I saw the video for “I’m Not Okay” and thought….”Now THAT is cool”. “Ghost of You” is epic and gorgeous, “To The End” is a super underrated track, and “You Know What They Do to Guys Like Us in Prison” is a hell of a lot of fun – reminiscent of early Panic at the Disco before giving way to a straight forward, aggressive chorus. But had I seen the video for “Helena” first, I think my adolescent brain would have exploded. I still cannot watch this video without my jaw on the ground. Hypnotizing and unforgettable. And the song itself is such a beauty. I’m such a sucker for great opening tracks and Gerard Way’s delicate near-whispering with two palm muted guitars giving way to an assault of sound in the verse is just too cool to handle.
2. The Used – In Love and Death
I could pretend I’m embarrassed to like The Used, but I embrace the hell out of it. Some people may think the songs are silly. But god – find me one bad track on this record. Their 2002 self-titled debut was outrageous – “Maybe Memories”, “Poetic Tragedy”, “Buried Myself Alive”, and “A Box Full of Sharp Objects” are perfect snapshots of Bert McCracken’s ability to flawlessly meld the beautifully melodic with the most ferocious scream. But on this record – their second – they are at the absolute pinnacle of their craft. Great opening track – CHECK. “Take It Away” features a spoken word monologue interrupted by the cocking of a gun and it sets the tone for an explosive rest of the record. “I Caught Fire”, “Let It Bleed”, and “All That I’ve Got” are just beautiful – a little bit of pretty, a little bit of ugly. “Hard to Say” showcases Bert’s surprisingly gorgeous tone, but I think my two favorites may have to be “Listening” and “I’m a Fake”. There isn’t a more cathartic feeling in the world than hearing Bert McCracken sound like he’s absolutely losing his mind.
1. Taking Back Sunday – Where You Want to Be
Taking Back Sunday is one of my favorite bands, so I knew I’d be including something from them, but it was a difficult task to choose between this one and 2006’s “Louder Now”. The latter almost took its place. With that epic Fred Mascherino guitar riff that opens the record on “What’s It Feel Like to Be a Ghost”, the relentlessly dizzying “Spin”, and arguably one of the most epic modern rock songs ever written – “MakeDamnSure” – it was a tough task. From that unmistakable Adam Lazzara opening gasp to that lead guitar part that resurfaces in different octaves throughout the song, it’s a perfectly constructed rock piece. Three GREAT songs and a few real good ones make it a must listen, but 2004’s “Where You Want to Be” is a masterpiece. Fred’s frenetic staccato guitar work right out of the gate, the urgent alternating vocals of him and lead singer Adam Lazzara, the chugging guitar that leads into Bonus Mosh taking you into the unbridled emotion in the chorus – “Well it’s love make it hurt!”. Then, the massive bridge succumbing to the absolutely brutal “I GOT IT BAD” at the end of Decade Under the Influence…so good. The off-kilter This Photograph Is Proof, and desperately aggressive One-Eighty by Summer…there are just too many good tracks on this record. Adam’s lyrics are unsettling and intriguing as always: “I need you defenseless, dependent, and alone”.
Billy Joel – Glass Houses
Billy Talent – Billy Talent II
Bloc Party – Silent Alarm
Circa Survive – Blue Sky Noise
Death Cab for Cutie – Plans
Fall Out Boy – From Under the Cork Tree
Fletwood Mac – Fleetwood Mac
Panic at the Disco – A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out
Say Anything – Say Anything
The Beatles – Help
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