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.
We love Cranston Dean. We have loved his music ever since seeing him perform at the Asbury Music Awards in 2013.
Sadly, a misunderstanding between us developed in 2017 and we only just reconciled last year. Granted, COVID delayed that smoothing over of feelings by almost two years. But, still, we waited way too long. 2017 was a year and a half, problem-wise. We both had stuff going on that the other didn’t know about. Snarky Facebook posts were made. I took it personally. Things snowballed from there.
I let that dark time brew for much too long. Sorry Cran! Happily, thanks to Jackson Pines adding Cranston to their full-band lineup on drums and having him with them at Icarus Brewing the night before Thanksgiving 2021–and after I had two very strong beers–we were able to hug it out. We hugged a lot that night and enjoyed several more very strong beers together… there are even pictures that I don’t remember being taken of all the hugging.
So, we’re back to straight up loving Cranston Dean and his gorgeous, soulful music. He recently had a really lovely Tiny Desk Concert submission, too.
Check out Cranston Dean at The Chubby Pickle in Highlands on Saturday April 9.
Here comes his Top Ten List:
Thanks for letting me list off my favorite albums here on YDKJ. I usually give this information, unsolicited, to strangers at the bar. So I am excited to share it, solicited, with YDKJ and my favorite DePaul fans!
10. Punch – Punch Brothers
Shane Luckenbaugh, the drummer in my band, showed me this album the first time we hung out back in 2009. After listening to this album, Chris Thile rightly became one of my biggest inspirations. I am always a fan of anything he is on, however, this album sticks out to me in particular as an outstanding achievement in playing, composing, and recording.
Punch Brothers is a five piece ensemble of virtuosos with the instrumentation of the Bluegrass legend Bill Monroe (Mandolin, Upright Bass, Violin, Banjo, and Guitar) and while they play bluegrass very well, I wouldn’t call them a bluegrass band as they delve into classical and indie quite a bit with the same control and virtuosity.
The recording style of this album is old-school, with no over-dubbing, and the tracking done live around a set of condenser microphones. This is the way that albums used to be made before multi-tracking came around into prominence in the 1960’s. With this way, the dynamics and blend must be achieved during the recording process, whereas you can tweak those things in post-production when multi-track recording. Similarly, wonky notes cannot be fixed in the editing stage because it is impossible to isolate each separate track. This is a great way to bottle up the energy of the band but is also incredibly challenging as a performer and gives me another reason to love this record.
My favorite feature of this album is the four movement piece called, “Blind Leading The Blind” that takes up the 2,3,4, and 5 spots on the track listing. The band has been described as “American country-classical chamber music” and this piece of music really highlights that.
9. Fear Fun – Father John Misty
Say what you will about him, but I am a big fan of FJM. For starters, I am a sucker for auxiliary percussion and this album has so much of it. Sometimes when I listen to it with headphones, I get a chuckle over how silly some of the percussion is while still sounding coherent and tasteful.
The songs to me are honest and refreshing, the music bops, and the subject matter is right up my alley. Drinks, impending doom, sex, drugs, rock & roll….. What’s not to like?
8. Ram – Paul & Linda McCartney
When I first heard the band, Man Man, I thought I had stumbled onto something completely unique….. And then I heard Ram by Paul McCartney (and Linda).
My friend, Dylan Sevey (The Minks) and I were on the road together and stopped at a record store (as one does). While rummaging through records, Dylan picked up a copy of Ram and asked if I had heard it before. I hadn’t heard it but he assured me that I would love it – he wasn’t wrong. It became a staple go-to album for my girlfriend and I when we started dating 6 years ago and it is still in rotation today!
Aside from the nostalgic connections, and the grooves of the record containing the sounds and songs of my favorite Beatle (and his favorite wife), I love this album for the humor of the album title and art. Made shortly after the Beatles broke up, there is a National Geographic-esque picture of a beetle getting well….. Rammed by another beetle. This, coupled with the title, has always made me laugh.
Further, giving credit to Linda (who is on very little of the album) seems to be a dig at John & Yoko. And I doubt Linda had to work as hard as Yoko did on Double Fantasy and Ram is so much better. Take that Yoko!
7. Malibu – Anderson .Paak
I was first introduced to Anderson .Paak through a collaboration he had with Knxwledge called NxWorries. Through that I started to listen to Anderson .Paak’s first album Venice (which was hard to pass over) so by the time Malibu came out, in 2016, my friends and I were all hooked on Anderson. I flipped out when I saw him drumming at the 2022 Super Bowl!
This album is a sweet mix of funk, classic soul, classic r&b, jazz, and hip-hop. Fans of Curtis Mayfield, The Roots, Mac Miller, Kendrick Lamar, and Prince will all be in heaven. The production value is top-notch with a great blend of analog and digital recording. I’m a big fan of how they blended a live band and the West Coast production (we know and love) instead of juxtaposing the two. Feels completely natural to me. On one track we have Robert Glasper on keys, Pino Palladino on bass, and legendary drummer Chris Dave on production. Schoolboy Q, Talib Kweli, The Game, and Madlib also make it on the album.
The album features a great sample of “Molasses” by Hiatus Kaiyote and a feature from Rapsody on “Without You” with the whole album being tied together by short samples of interviews with early surfers. It is a great album for a road trip, a slow burning joint, or a romantic evening– a very multi-purpose album.
I love it even more because it reminds me of the friend who introduced me to it, who we have since lost. When I listen now, I can think back on years of good times we had together…. love when music does that. The guitar player in my band, Riley, has had this album in his car for years now…. It’s always in the disc changer.
6. Swing Lo Magellan – Dirty Projectors
This album came out in 2012, but I didn’t know about it until 2013 or 2014, when my trusty friend and bandmate, Shane, introduced me to another favorite album of mine. I am very lucky to have friends with great music taste; I’m too lazy to go looking sometimes.
Dirty Projectors is a project fronted by David Longstreth with every album featuring a rotating cast of musicians. This album and it’s predecessor Bitte Orca, are clinics in the power of tension and release within music. The album moves from abrasive to sweet-sounding and back again on every track. Using volume, tone, and (most impressively to my ear) the vowel color of the backing vocals to create the most impressive peaks and valleys.
This album is driven by drums and percussion with the core of the album being the vocal harmonies, string arrangements, and killer songwriting. The songwriting and arranging doesn’t take a traditional approach like most music I hear and so it’s hard to explain this album because it takes from so many places and pushes to so many more.
5. To Pimp A Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar
This album is a masterpiece in my opinion. Production, tone, musicianship, lyricism, and storytelling are all on full display here. I had listened to “Section .80” and “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City” so much with my bandmates, especially the latter. We were all so excited for this album to come out and Kendrick sure as hell didn’t disappoint.
Dr. Dre is the executive producer on this album, so you know you will get that classic West Coast Hip-Hop vibe. Thundercat is all over this record as a bass player, vocalist, and producer– and if you don’t know Thundercat, you gotta go study up.
Robert Glasper, Kamasi Washington, Rapsody, Bilal, SZA, Terrence Martin are some of the musicians who dot this record and they are all established legends or legends in the making. So many great producers on this album too, Flying Lotus, Knxwledge, Pharrel Williams to name a few. For good measure, they have cameos from George Clinton, Snoop Dogg, and Ronald Isley.
Musicians and playing aside, this album is one of my favorites of all time because it makes me uncomfortable at many points. Not because the music is bad or the lyrics cringy, but because the truth hurts. Kendrick Lamar, one of the greatest musicians of his generation and of all time, is someone who makes me proud to be an American. In much the same way that Jazz, Blues, Rock, and R&B make me proud to live here… that is until I remember how my musical heroes often have experienced a completely different America, solely based on the color of their skin.
That breaks my heart. I am not proud of America for much these days, but her music bumps.
4. Shotgun Willie – Willie Nelson
Willie Nelson: “First King of Texas”, “World Treasure”, “Pride of a Nation”… I feel like he should have an official title that reads something like that. I don’t want to rant too long about how I feel about funky country but it is yet another gift to the world from right here in the U.S.
This album has accompanied my band and me on so many road trips and it never lets us down. We are all big fans of songwriting but sometimes, on long drives, songwriter driven music can get a bit drowsy. Unless, that is, it’s Willie Nelson.
The album starts off with the title track and the first notes you hear are Willie’s famous and unmistakable guitar ‘Trigger’ and the track is a blend of fiction and non-fiction, painting a mostly comical and fictitious background for a very true story about Willie Nelson taking absolutely zero shit from anyone.
On tracks like “Whiskey River”, the feel bounces from classic country in the verses to funk in the chorus and solos. “You Look Like The Devil” (In the morning) is as funny to me as “You’re The Reason Our Kids Are Ugly” by Lorretta Lynn and Conway Twitty.
A good friend of our band, Jana, got a bunch of us together for a Willie Nelson concert. At 80-some-odd years old that man and his band put on such a great show. As you look around a Willie Nelson crowd you will see at least 3, if not 4, generations of people all together, laughing, dancing, singing, and screaming for songs off of this album like “Whiskey River”, “Stay All Night (Stay A Little Longer)”, “Devil Shivers In His Sleeping Bag” and of course “Shotgun Willie”.
3. Kind of Blue – Miles Davis
This record is important to history. Miles Davis is arguably the most influential musician in American Music and this album was made, in my opinion, at the peak of his career.
This is a man who played with the Father of Bebop, Charlie Parker. This is a man who, in order to fulfill his obligation to Prestige Records, recorded 4 albums in two sessions here in Hackensack, NJ. Steamin’/Cookin’/Workin’/Relaxin’ with Miles Davis Quintet, which went on to contain iconic Miles tracks that would linger till the present day. To Miles, they were just two sessions that he did to free himself from his contract and eventually make Kind Of Blue on Columbia.
By the time he got in the studio for this record, he was playing with future pioneers in Jazz in a way that had never been seen before… Miles brought loose sketches containing the basic foundation of the album in place of thorough charts. Instead of his players being under his direct stewardship for this album, like he had been under Bird (Charlie Parker), his bandmates were entrusted to let their musical spirit show overtop of these sketches of tunes that Miles had brought to the studio. Simultaneously, they were encouraged to make honest mistakes and work themselves out of corners. With John Coltrane on tenor sax, Cannonball Adderly on alto, Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Jimmy Cobb on drums. Miles had a killer band that would go on to define Jazz for so many years to come, be it through the people who were inspired by this album or through the personnel on this album who went on to reshape Jazz.
Before going into the studio for this record, Miles Davis Quintet had been enjoying great recognition in Europe. He had recently gone through a nasty break up and was falling into one of his many drug phases…. This album must have really filled his sails.
The nostalgic reason that I love this album is that my friend, Chris Clark, brought this to me when I was in the hospital going through a hard time. This album will always remind me of his gesture of love and friendship…. Plus, it is a great album and so I will love it forever.
2. Voodoo – D’Angelo
I could probably write something just as long about Black Messiah by D’Angelo. Yet, only one can make the list, and while I love Black Messiah musically and topically, Voodoo holds a special place in my heart.
This is another great album that I was turned on to by my bandmates and yet another that reminds me of good times with them. Voodoo is another album that speaks to me based on how well it plays through. It is a study in how a track list should go, in how to capture energy, on how to push the envelope. The personnel on this album range from Bilal and Jill Scott to Quest Love & Charlie Hunter.
When I was first getting into music in Asbury Park, Scott at The Saint hired me a few times to work the door. One time was a Sunday show…. One of those weird ones where it’s a foundation or a music school…. I was super hung-over from my gig the previous night and absolutely infatuated with “Voodoo” at the time. I thought I was dreaming when I saw Charlie Hunter’s name on the show bill that afternoon. Thank God I wasn’t dreaming and thank God that Scott and The Saint still book me on their stage despite being a terrible employee all those years ago.
This album 100% influenced other great records by artists across genres:
John Mayer – Continuum
Bahamas – Sad Hunk
Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly
The space between releases of D’Angelo albums are always worth the wait with how masterful they are. But he is constantly working with other artists, putting on crazy live shows, and working on these albums. Every note and every space has purpose…. Absolute genius!
1. Rubber Soul – The Beatles
Rubber Soul is the first album that I remember falling in love with. Growing up with an avid Beatles fan of a mother, I had to pick a favorite Beatles album sometime. I was 5 or 6 in my mother’s kitchen, learning to dance on her feet as she cooked after a long day of her 9 to 5. For that nostalgic reason, I will always love this and choose it as my favorite Beatles album. However, from a tonal sense, I love this album because it’s The Beatles being experimental and trippy without forcing it. I hate forced music. Sometimes I feel like I am guilty of making it myself but I hate it nonetheless. Miss me with “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”.
But Rubber Soul….. When Paul McCartney played the Super Bowl, I had already been a Beatles fan but I put “Michelle” on repeat after that performance (I don’t even remember if he played it). This record is full of sounds and songwriting that would come to define the Beatles records to follow and is in my opinion the first one where they had their own sound.
Feathers & Fishhooks – Rayland Baxter
I, Sunflower – Paul Arednt
The Lights from the Chemical Plant – Robert Ellis
Illmatic – Nas
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