This story was originally posted in October 2017.
Fellow New Jersey music diehards, this is it — the ultimate Garden State music bucket list: 50 Jersey albums that wholly define our state’s contributions to rock, pop, hip-hop, jazz and much more.
If your love for great music is matched only by your love for New Jersey and its most brilliant creative minds, you might as well take the rest of the day off because we’ve got just about everything here, from old Sinatra standards and Springsteen faves all the way through New Jersey’s punk, funk and soul heritages. Each one of these records marks an artistic zenith for the artists involved and reminds just how much talent from all corners of the sonic spectrum has been harbored in Newark, New Brunswick, Asbury Park and elsewhere.
These records not only made waves on the national scene, but many also either defined a certain Jersey sound (i.e. Southside Johnny’s “Jersey Shore rock” influence) or, like Fugees’ “The Score,” captured the experience of living here.
You won’t find a better list of Jersey’s best albums anywhere on Earth, so let’s settle in and revisit the cream of the Garden State crop — ordered chronologically, not ranked — beginning more than 60 years ago with a kid in Hoboken and running all the way through 2017.
What’s your favorite New Jersey album? Tell us in the comments.
1. “In The Wee Small Hours,” Frank Sinatra, 1955
We begin with a biggie in Frank Sinatra, whose beloved “Wee Small Hours” is no stroll along the Hudson. Weaving one of the earliest concept albums, The Chairman was singularly melancholy here, crooning on love’s struggles, old breakups and the night’s ultimate loneliness. Sixty years later the album stands as impeccably written and recorded, a true marvel of his Capitol Records period. There’s plenty of bright, buoyant Sinatra to be had before and after “Wee Small Hours,” but if you need a rainy day record, this is it.
2. “Sarah Vaughan With Clifford Brown,” Sarah Vaughan, 1955
Sarah Vaughan was as dazzling a female vocalist as New Jersey has ever produced, and while much of her catalog is coveted by jazz and bebop fans, let’s highlight her collaboration with the excellent trumpeter Clifford Brown, a masterful meeting of talents. So much of the dueting, the light tugging between voice and instrument, is utterly transportive. “April in Paris” in particular just melts into you.
3. “Tonight’s The Night,” The Shirelles, 1961
Motown had The Supremes, New Jersey had The Shirelles. Doris Coley, Shirley Owens, Addie Harris and Beverly Lee — all of them Passaic natives who formed the act for a talent show in high school — rose to prominence in the Brill Building era, most notably for “Tonight’s The Night” and its hits “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” “Dedicated to the One I Love” and “Boys,” the latter of which was covered on The Beatles’ debut album two years later.
4. “Sherry and 11 Others,” The Four Seasons, 1962
While The Beach Boys spent 1962 redefining the male vocal group sound out in California, Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons did their part in Newark as they rekindled the doo-wop style with Valli’s crystalline falsetto and the hits “Sherry” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry.” Of course, “Sherry and 11 Others” would launch Valli’s pop career, which still churns today, and this early Four Seasons period would be immortalized on Broadway in “Jersey Boys.”
5. “The Very Best of Connie Francis,” Connie Francis, 1963
Maybe this one’s a bit of a cheat, but considering Connie Francis, Newark’s own late ‘50s/early ‘60s pop-rock hit queen, was best known for her singles and not her full albums (unless you’re partial to her international records) here is her greatest hits collection, which includes her biggest numbers “Who’s Crying Now,” “Stupid Cupid,” “Where the Boys Are” and more.
6. “Strangers In The Night,” Frank Sinatra, 1966
Musically, “Strangers in the Night” is rich and full of swing and banner arrangements, but the circumstances surrounding the two-time Grammy winner are perhaps most impressive here. When “Strangers” was released Sinatra was already 50 years old, still recording standard-style pop songs in a world now dominated by the Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Yet “Strangers” became Sinatra’s only platinum-selling solo album and sustained him as a top draw heading into his career’s latter stages. The lesson here: Never sleep on The Voice.
7. “Speak No Evil,” Wayne Shorter, 1966
Though it took Shorter many professional years to earn recognition of his own, Newark’s venerable saxophonist was — in Miles Davis’s band, as well as solo — a brilliant composer, and “Speak No Evil” is widely regarded as his masterstroke in modal jazz. Inventive arrangements balance between his own playing and the contributions of his quintet, which most notably included Herbie Hancock on piano. If you wish to get lost in New Jersey jazz for a few minutes, check out the album’s title track, or “Witch Hunt.”
8. “Here Where There Is Love,” Dionne Warwick, 1967
It took me a little time to decide between “Here Where There Is Love” and its successor “Dionne Warwick in the Valley of Dolls,” but ultimately I landed on the former and its Dionne staples “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself” and “Alfie,” plus a wonderfully creamy take on “What The World Needs Now Is Love.” But the real difference-maker here was her cool, soulful and unexpected rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
9. “The Wild, The Innocent, And The E Street Shuffle,” Bruce Springsteen, 1973
“Greetings” was fine, but Bruce’s sophomore LP — which went largely unheard and un-promoted until after “Born To Run” had already ascended — was his first true brush with rock n’ roll greatness. Fan favorites “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” and “Incident on 57th Street” appeared here, and the 10-minute closing opus “New York City Serenade” remains one of The Boss’s most elegant and underrated tracks. Ask old Springsteen diehards — the folks who used to watch him in Seaside Heights or East Paterson — what their favorite album is: there’s a good chance it’s “Wild, Innocent.”
10. “Wild And Peaceful,” Kool and the Gang, 1973
If you view Kool and the Gang merely as the band who wrote all those played-out wedding songs, dig deeper into the Jersey City group’s discography to find its commercial breakthrough “Wild and Peaceful,” a genuinely funky and rich outing complete with “Jungle Boogie” and the endlessly sampled “Hollywood Swinging.” The big pop crossovers like “Celebration” would come later.
11. “Horses,” Patti Smith, 1975
Simply put, punk doesn’t develop in the same way — especially for female artists — without Patti Smith’s momentous debut “Horses” and its daring blend of pumping rock and lyrical experimentation. “Horses” was a big-bang moment for the New York punk scene and for Smith, who leapt from Deptford to the underground Manhattan scene and then onto the national stage. To this day, few bands identifying as punk give the same credence to lyrical composition and theming as Smith, the genre’s undoubted godmother.
12. “Never Can Say Goodbye,” Gloria Gaynor, 1975
Chances are you know Gloria Gaynor for “I Will Survive,” but by the time her defining smash came along in 1979, she was already an early disco diva, who scored a handful of dance club hits beginning with tracks off “Never Can Say Goodbye.” The title track, “Honey Bee” and “Reach Out I’ll Be There” all came off the Newark native’s debut album in ‘75 and notched Gaynor as one of the harbingers of the soon-coming disco craze.
13. “Born To Run,” Bruce Springsteen, 1975
Well, here’s a no-brainer. The argument can be made that Springsteen’s thunderous breakout record is New Jersey’s most significant contribution to popular music of any sort, let alone the rock landscape it would help sculpt. And what hasn’t already been said about “Born To Run”? It’s a defining moment for The Boss, laden with impassioned songwriting, vivid Jersey vignettes, urgency, redemption and escape. And it features his three best songs (according to our comprehensive ranking) in “Born to Run,” “Thunder Road” and “Jungleland.”
14. ‘Mothership Connection,” Parliament, 1975
It’s a tall task selecting the most significant album in P-Funk’s sprawling catalog, but ultimately I landed on the group’s galactic calling card “Mothership,” the wildly funky outing that saw George Clinton’s ever-changing cast of players settle into a wacky concept — pimps in space! — and knock out some immensely soulful and pleasing music. The list of beaming individual highlights, from keyboardist Bernie Worrell to multi-instrumentalist Bootsy Collins, is too long to list, so let’s just simply decree that we want the funk, gotta have that funk!
15. “I Don’t Want To Go Home,” Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, 1976
While the advent of the “Jersey rock” sound is typically synonymous with the rise of Springsteen, his Jersey Shore pal Southside Johnny Lyon had plenty to do with the emergence and survival of that explosive, bluesy bar-band jam style as well. “I Don’t Want To Go Home,” Johnny and The Asbury Jukes’ debut record, was in part an extension of Bruce and his guitarist Steven Van Zandt, who produced and wrote three songs, including the beloved title track. Springsteen added “The Fever” and “You Mean So Much to Me” to an album that nearly captures the wonderful commotion that is a smoky Southside show.
16. “Elegant Gypsy,” Al Di Meola, 1977
If you’ve never immersed yourself in jazz fusion before, begin with Bergenfield’s Al Di Meola, an iconic guitarist in the genre whose second LP “Elegant Gypsy” is a virtuosic, speeding waltz of rock and jazz. While some material from Return To Forever — Chick Corea’s band where Di Meola also played — is also beloved by fans, Di Meola’s best-known solo track is “Gypsy’s” “Mediterranean Sundance,” an immaculate duet with flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia.
17. “Parallel Lines,” Blondie, 1978
“Lines” was Blondie’s high note, a devilishly good mix of power-pop, punk-rock and new wave. Sure, the hits were there: “Heart of Glass,” “One Way or Another,” “Hanging on the Telephone.” But top to bottom there’s no real lull here, just a batch of bright guitar work and Hawthorne’s own uber-cool frontwoman Debbie Harry, who was at once commanding, playful, elegant and brash.
18. “Static Age,” Misfits, 1978 (officially released in 1997)
The Misfits were, are, and will always be New Jersey’s most iconic punk outfit, even if their classic lineup split just as the band began to widely release most of its music. Hence the horror-happy Lodi band’s recording chronology reads like a math word problem. Today we highlight “Static Age,” which took a cool two decades to hit shelves after its recording, but at least punk staples “Last Caress” and “Hybrid Moments” finally made it to a full-length album. Glenn Danzig and Jerry Only reunited for a gig at Prudential Center in Newark last year.
19. “Easter,” Patti Smith Group, 1978
One more from Patti, in tribute to “Easter” — the album that introduced Smith’s punk-rock genius to the pop-loving world. Highlighted by her biggest hit to date in “Because the Night’ (famously penned by Bruce Springsteen), “Easter” saw Smith functioning under more accepted rock regiments and birthed what some critics argue is truly the finest work of her career. If you’re just embracing into Patti Smith now, “Easter” is the easier entry point than “Horses,” though it’s still packed with plenty of punch.
20. “The River,” Bruce Springsteen, 1980
Last year I made the case that Springsteen’s bold and punchy “River” cycle was actually his best era ever — certainly it’s his most fun period of songwriting and performing. This was the sweet spot that many stars get to enjoy, those moments of success just before the true pop explosion (in this case 1984’s “Born in the U.S.A.”), and all the complications that come with superstardom. “The River’s” juxtaposition between narrative melancholy and roadhouse wallop was addictive and through more recent outtake releases, we now know Bruce’s “River” days were ultimately his most lucrative in terms of pumping out killer tunes.
21. “Crazy Rhythms,” The Feelies, 1980
Jangle, jangle, pop. The Feelies’ rolling entree into the indie-rock zeitgeist is revered today as a decisive bridge between punk and new wave movements, an album that with dry sarcasm and experimentation helped define post-punk as a viable genre — R.E.M. and The Smiths weren’t far behind. Seminal tracks like “Loveless Love” and “The Boy With The Perpetual Nervousness” built the Haledon band into crunching legends at Maxwell’s in Hoboken and beyond.
22. “Sugarhill Gang,” The Sugarhill Gang, 1980
With one addictive song, three guys from Englewood introduced America to hip-hop — nuff said, right? “Rapper’s Delight” is still a breezy, labyrinthian jam and while the rest of the trio’s debut album is moreso a R&B album than a rap record, without Wonder Mike, Big Bank Hank and Master Gee, who knows how long it would’ve taken hip-hop to catch on in the U.S.
23. “Whitney Houston,” Whitney Houston, 1985
If you remember 1985, you remember the first time you heard Whitney Houston. Such power, soul and clarity from a 21-year-old from East Orange, who became an instant star with three No. 1 singles off her debut LP: “The Greatest Love of All,” “Saving All My Love For You,” and “How Will I Know.” Houston would dominate the mainstream for the next decade-plus and pave the way for women of color — namely her successor Mariah Carey — to dominate in the pop sphere.
24. “Especially For You,” The Smithereens, 1986
From the plain streets of Carteret and Scotch Plains leapt The Smithereens, an alt-rock outfit with a penchant for easy ‘60s melody and pounding rhythms. But there was a dark streak in singer Pat DiNizio’s writing, and a desperation surrounding his views on love. You hear it in the debut “Especially For You” and its rumbling Jersey rock classics “Blood and Roses” and “Behind the Wall of Sleep.”
25. “Slippery When Wet,” Bon Jovi, 1986
Bon Jovi has spent 30 years trying to replicate the success of “Slippery When Wet,” the diamond-certified harborer of “You Give Love A Bad Name” and perhaps the ‘80s most enduring mega-rock staple in “Livin’ on a Prayer.” The pop-metal vocals from Jon Bon Jovi here are glossy good, bolstered by Richie Sambora’s excellent guitar shreds.
26. “Whitney,” Whitney Houston, 1987
Houston’s second LP is New Jersey’s greatest modern pop record, not only in terms of vocal ability — her titanic performances on “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” and “Didn’t We Almost Have It All” were instantly timeless — but in commercial dominance. The album debuted a No. 1 — a first for a woman — and remained there 11 weeks: a feat rarely bested since.
27. “All Hail The Queen,” Queen Latifah, 1989
For all her recent film work it’s easy to forget Queen Latifah was once a seething hip-hop emcee from East Orange, who was never better than in her funky, sample-happy debut “All Hail The Queen.” The single “Ladies First” is still one of the best feminist rap anthems ever conjured.
28. “Naughty By Nature,” “Naughty By Nature, 1991
You down with N.B.N.? In the usual Jersey music, or even Jersey hip-hop chatter we sometimes forget Naughty By Nature, who took East Coast rap by force in ‘91 with the crossover single “O.P.P.” and a killer debut album. Swirling rhymes on “Yoke The Joker” and “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” are intense and combative — East Orange’s Treach, Vin Rock and DJ Kay Gee were gonna make you listen, no matter what.
29. “Of The Heart, Of The Soul, And Of The Cross: The Utopian Experience,” P.M. Dawn, 1991
“Utopian” is a fine way to describe the melty rap-R&B of Jersey City’s P.M. Dawn, especially the debut that dropped the chart-topper “Set Adrift On Memory Bliss” on the masses in ‘91 and forced everyone to chill out — for four minutes, at least. The brothers Attrell and Jarrett Cordes were deft mic commanders who twisted rap verses into ultra-pleasing pop crossovers, plus Attrell aka Prince Be was a sinfully gifted emcee. If “Of The Soul” was released today, out of nowhere like it was 25 years ago, it’d still be a hit; these jams are forever good.
30. “The Complete Decca Recordings, Count Basie, 1992 (originally recorded 1937-39)
Between guest spots and his own orchestra, Red Bank’s Count Basie has recorded heaps material. But if you want some of his best stuff all in one place, check out “The Complete Decca Recordings,” recording in the late ‘30s, not long after the pianist first formed his big band. The three-disc set includes all the swing staples, incredible piano work from Basie and the brassy power of his orchestra, plus special features from Fats Waller, Benny Goodman, George Gershwin and more.
31. “Whut? Thee Album,” Redman, 1992
Redman’s first four albums were all knockouts, but his ‘92 debut was an especially throttling project. “Whut” plays out like a psycho-rapper fever dream, full of starts, stops and bouts of interrupted consciousness, but when the Newark rhymer settles in on “Time 4 Sumaksion” and “Tonight’s Da Night,” his jabbing delivery is as good as any Jersey rapper has ever been. Period.
32. “The Score,” Fugees, 1996
Scraped straight off the Newark streets and catalysed in Wyclef Jean’s East Orange basement, “The Score” was not only the most unfettered portrayal of urban life in Jersey music history, it was most folks’ introduction to soulful songstress Lauryn Hill, who’d famously immortalize her voice two years later. We’ll keep dreaming about a Fugees reunion show.
33. “The Carnival,” Wyclef Jean, 1997
The common hip-hop narrative is that the Fugees imploded around 1997 and the breakup spurred Lauryn Hill’s Grammy-winning “Miseducation” effort. But true rap fans know that the split also forged Fugees mastermind Wyclef Jean’s debut solo album, which was just as compelling in its rhymes over hip-hop, soul, reggae and even disco — “We Trying To Stay Alive,” set over the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” is still a total jam. “The Carnival” set Clef off on what’s been a very strong, eclectic solo career.
34. “I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One,” Yo La Tengo, 1997
I’ll be the first to say it: Yo La Tengo’s best work is a dense, demanding listen. Despite the Hoboken band’s association as a noise-pop group, there’s a softness and wandering warmth to the album, but it takes some attention to grasp certain elements, like the vocal underneath “Deeper into Movies,” or the island drums inside fan favorite “Autumn Sweater.” The trio has released a long list of acclaim-worthy music, but this epic, dizzying effort is still YLT’s greatest triumph.
35. “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,” Lauryn Hill, 1998
When Lauryn Hill’s lone solo record was recognized by the Library of Congress in 2015 as an album worthy of preservation, the library wrote: “The album effortlessly fuses soul, rap, rhythm and blues, and reggae. Hill’s vocal range, smooth, clear highs and vibrato are stunning.” I couldn’t have said it better; “Miseducation” still ranks as one of the most compelling records any New Jersey woman has ever released, regardless of genre. It’s too bad she never released a follow-up.
36. “Through Being Cool,” Saves The Day, 1999
If you adore pop-punk, chances are you also worship Saves The Day’s seminal LP “Through Being Cool,” the pinnacle of suburban Jersey petulance. And if you don’t fancy Chris Conley’s impassioned vocals and Highland Park town-name-drops, just know that bands like My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy probably don’t exist without this killer record.
37. “How I Spent My Summer Vacation,” The Bouncing Souls, 2001
An album for all raucous occasions, the Souls’ anthemic “Summer Vacation” was just a little too unpolished to fully cash in on the pop-punk boom of the early ‘00s. But it unleashed a list of fan favorites including the ultimate chest-pounder “True Believers,” and the punchy vocals of Greg Attonito mix just right with Pete Steinkopf’s galvanizing riffs.
38. “The Tyranny of Distance,” Ted Leo and The Pharmacists, 2001
There are pockets of aging indie kids around New Jersey who still don’t understand how Ted Leo never properly blew up, especially following the release of “Tyranny,” a terrific record that bridges polar extremes. Leo’s wild-boy delivery and driving guitar work are kept cohesive by his mastery of pop hooks and structure. His lyrics feel intimate and relatable while jamming a Cliff Notes worth of literary references into a dozen tracks. He also keeps his Jersey roots close; the delicate ballad “The Gold Finch and the Red Oak Tree” is named for the state bird and tree, respectively.
39. “Still Ghetto,” Jaheim, 2002
“Still Ghetto” is still smooth as ice. Jaheim Hoagland’s soulful crooning was a beacon of early ‘00s R&B and the New Brunswick native’s sophomore LP was a joyous and soulful outing, laden with rich vocal work and old-school sampling that made Jaheim sound much older than he was at the time (just 24 in 2002). Jaheim has steadily released music ever since, but nothing has matched the creamy jam “Put That Woman First” and the thankful “Everything I Am,” dedicated to his deceased parents.
40. “War All The Time,” Thursday, 2003
While Thursday’s breakthrough LP “Full Collapse” probably rakes in the most nostalgia, the band’s most complete outing was its major-label debut “War All The Time,” a impassioned imprint on the national emo scene that produced the pounding anti-office anthem “For the Workforce, Drowning” — still a mainstay on my gym playlist — and a gloomy view of post-9/11 America through gray-scaled Jersey eyes.
41. “The Meadowlands,” The Wrens, 2003
Though The Wrens are probably remembered more clearly as darlings of the ‘90s East Coast indie scene, their ‘03 swan song of sorts — we’re still waiting on a follow-up — was the band’s finest moment, a devastating album of pain and failure laid over crunching guitars and the moroseness of a band that returned after seven years to tell you how horrible a time they had in the interim. Charles Bissell’s pensive vocal is gorgeous here — I forgot how much I loved “She Sends Kisses.”
42. “The Black Parade,” My Chemical Romance, 2006
I’ve gone on record before decreeing My Chem as the greatest New Jersey band this century so far — an opinion by which I still stand — and “Black Parade” was just awesome. It’s a dynamic, encompassing concept record with a wholly imagined gothy narrative and no valleys. “Welcome to the Black Parade” and “Famous Last Words” were defining moments in the mid-2000s emo-punk movement and lifted the Belleville group to cult-iconic status.
43. “Colorblind,” Robert Randolph and the Family Band, 2006
For all the banner New Jersey artists who have emerged in this young century, none have delivered more consistently virtuosic performances than pedal steel titan Robert Randolph and his Family Band. The group’s debut “Colorblind” was an apt introduction to their mix of rock, funk, blues and gospel — an impressive blend that eventually led to collaborations with Carlos Santana, Eric Clapton and Dave Matthews.
44. “Neptune City,” Nicole Atkins, 2007
To outsiders, Neptune City sounds like a fantastical sort of place — vaguely celestial? vaguely aquatic? But to Atkins, a native of Shark River Hills, Neptune City was just a neighboring Monmouth County town. The Jersey Shore songstress framed the burg as the setting for her soaring escape, back into the Brill Building era with dazzling vocals and dreamy soundscapes. Her major label debut “Neptune City” was too a harbinger of Asbury Park and its shore town tributaries’ return to the Jersey music spotlight.
45. “The ’59 Sound,” The Gaslight Anthem, 2008
What “Born to Run” was to Jersey Baby Boomers, “The ‘59 Sound” is to the state’s rock-lovin’ millennial generation. The gritty New Brunswick alt-rockers doubled down on greaser nostalgia, weaving lines about old hot-rods and radios with tales of love’s trials over buzzy riffs. Virtually every track off this driving album is a fan favorite from the biggest Jersey rock band of the last 10 years.
46. “Greater Than (Live),” Tye Tribbett, 2013
If you ever needed an entry point into New Jersey gospel, look no further than Camden band leader Tye Tribbett, and his electrifying, Grammy Award-winning live album “Greater Than.” This record is a beast — it’s all power — fueled by the glory of God and a propulsive live band. Listen to “He Turned It” and “If He Did It Before … Same God” and try not to dance. We dare you.
47. “Atlas” Real Estate, 2014
Real Estate, the critic-beloved indie-rockers from Ridgewood, have always been subtle in their traipsing, summery sounds. There’s an easy beauty to the melodies, as well as in singer Martin Courtney’s creamy delivery. Those elements clicked best on “Atlas,” a forlorn yet undeniably listenable album. Oh, and how about that album cover, which features a mural painted inside an old Alexander’s department store in Paramus — it’s Jersey through and through.
48. “The Most Lamentable Tragedy,” Titus Andronicus, 2015
Titus’s latest album is a haul — 29 songs, 93 minutes — but this searing rock opera is the most rewarding Jersey punk album of the past decade or longer. For the most part, frontman Patrick Stickles’ slick songwriting matches the album’s grand scope, which expands far beyond guitars and bass to add strings, organs and bells. This will be a tough project for the Glen Rock band to top.
49. “Live At The Village Vanguard,” Christian McBride, 2015
Jazz in New Jersey lives on perhaps most notably through Christian McBride, the phenomenal bassist from Montclair who headlines the town’s annual Jazz Festival and is the jazz advisor for NJPAC in Newark. His latest live album, cut at the famed Village Vanguard club in New York, is sensational recording of McBride’s trio (bass, piano and drums), with dynamite musicianship throughout: check out the fleet-fingered “Cherokee,” which won a Grammy Award for Best Improvised Jazz Solo in 2016.
50. “CTRL,” SZA, 2017
In February 2018, you will almost certainly see the Maplewood R&B ingenue SZA among the nominees for Best New Artist at the Grammy Awards. Such hype stems from “CTRL,” a delightfully rich, mesmerizing re-telling of relationship problems that notches the most exciting album any New Jersey woman has released since “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.” It’s a terrific, vulnerable outing from a new voice — now leave this list and go check it out.
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