Seven decades and seven albums from the great state of New Jersey
I haven’t done one of these for quite a while but, since the idea behind it is pretty self-explanatory, I’m just going to jump right on in.
- In the Wee Small Hours, Frank Sinatra (1955)
In the Wee Small Hours was a concept album conceived before that phrase had even been coined. A densely woven web of melancholy, each song on this disc wanders through the past midnight streets of heartbreak and loneliness.
People forget how much musical perspicacity Sinatra had in those days but a listen to these tracks is a fast reminder. Songs like Can’t we be friends?, When your lover has gone, and It never entered my mind are bleedingly raw testaments to loss and regret.
The boy from Hoboken NJ was never everyone’s cup of tea but he dominated the era of the crooner with few rivals and gave us his own unique interpretation of the American songbook.
Alternatively, try: Sarah Vaughan With Clifford Brown (1955)
- Speak No Evil, Wayne Shorter (1966)
The saxophonist from Newark NJ who famously played in Miles Davis Quintet (2) and then went on to form seminal band Weather Report would come to be regarded as one of the great jazz composers. This talent was never more apparent than on his classic modal jazz recording, Speak No Evil.
Featuring the keyboard talent of none other than Herbie Hancock, this highly inventive set of arrangements coalesce into one of the all-time great Jazz albums. The tracks, Witch Hunt, Infant eyes, and Wild Flower are stand outs for me but the entire album hums with a freshness that has failed to dim in the intervening decades.
Alternatively, try: Here Where There Is Love, Dionne Warwick (1967)
- Darkness on the Edge of Town, Springsteen, (1978)
I know, you probably think that if I’m making a Springsteen album my 70’s selection, it should be Born to Run but sorry, can’t do that. His fourth album is and will always be my favourite Springsteen recording of all time.
Darkness is, well, dark and deeply compelling. Despite the fact that BTR contains my two favourite ever Springsteen tracks (Backstreets and Thunder Road), this album is the perfect sequencing of raw-edged songs of no redemption. Adam raised a Cain, Darkness on the edge of town, Racing in the streets, and Promised land are relentless in their portrayal of the anti-hero’s incremental slide towards the oblivion of mediocrity.
The NME called it 1978’s album of the year and were right to do so. This album has more punk attitude than any three actual punk albums I can think of.
Alternatively, try: Easter, Patti Smith (1978)
4. Especially For You, The Smithereens (1986)
The boys from Carteret, NJ kind of crept out into the limelight in the early 80’s, never really achieving the level of fame they probably deserved. The Smithereens were seen largely as a retro outfit obsessed with the Mods and ‘60s melody bands like The Byrds.
The inclusion of their track Blood and Roses on the Dangerously Close soundtrack gained them some MTV airtime but their sound never really caught the public’s imagination enough to take them to the next level.
This, their first album, was a high-water mark for the band and a very fine album it is. Pat DiNizio’s writing betrays some fairly dark feelings about love but those guitar arrangements keep things from tipping too far towards the dark side. Standout tracks include, Blood and Roses, Behind the Wall of Sleep, and the excellent Strangers when we meet.
Alternatively, try: Trash it Up, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Dukes (1983)
- The Score, Fugees (1996)
Comprising two Haitian refugees (hence the name ‘Fugees’) and one Jersey girl, the Fugees were a band to be reckoned with. Wyclef Jean, Lauryn Hill, and Pras Michel exploded out of East Orange NJ, with their second album The Score. This was urban life in Jersey laid bare. Songs like, Ready or not, and Family business sit almost uncomfortably beside covers of Killing me softly and No woman no cry, creating a tension laced with moments of pure beauty.
Alternatively, try: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Lauryn Hill (1998)
- The Meadowlands, The Wrens (2003)
Hailing from Secaucus, NJ, The Wrens were one of the anointed bands of the 90’s Indie scene. Singer/guitarist Charles Bissell along with brothers Greg and Kevin Whelan (guitar and bass respectively) and drummer Jerry MacDonald formed The Wrens at the beginning of the 90’s but this album was released at the very end of their partnership.
It could be argued they were a band of a certain time but this recording still sounds pretty relevant to me. Take a listen to She sends kisses and I think you’ll see what I mean.
Other great tracks include, Happy, and Boys you won’t.
Alternatively, try: Neptune City, Nicole Atkins (2007)
- Atlas, Real Estate (2014)
Ridgewood, NJ was the launching pad for melodic guitar band, Real Estate. One could argue that they sound altogether too similar to Britpop darlings The Stone Roses and be fairly on the money. Their lead singer Martin Courtney sounds so much like Mancurian singer Ian Brown that he comes close to parody. That said, the songs on this album are strong and the overall sound so listenable that it quickly gets under the skin.
I have no idea how a band from New Jersey ends up sounding like a Stone Roses cover band doing originals but by about halfway through this album, I stopped caring and just let the music carry me off.
Standout tracks include, Had to hear, Past Lives, and Crime.
Alternatively, try: Painkillers, Brian Fallon (2015)
I don’t own every record on this list but did listen to all of them while compiling it.
There were so many others I could have included. New Jersey has such a rich musical culture and history. I would be remiss if I failed to at least mention some of those not included, so here’s a brief list of significant NJ artists (old and new) worth seeking out; The Roches, Gaslight Anthem, Deal Casino, The Cold Seas, Titus Andronicus, Little Steven, The Shirelles, Parliament, Misfits, The Feelies, Paul Simon, The Sugarhill Gang, Queen Latifah, Count Basie, Thursday, My Chemical Romance, and Kool and the Gang.
A tip of the hat is owed to nj.com for pointing me in several useful directions.