Here’s a look at the 10 best independent New Jersey LPs & EPs to cross my desk in what surprisingly was a great year for recorded music from the Garden State. There’s also 10 honorable mentions of additional great releases. All are self-released unless indicated by an indie label.
If you’re spending money on Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday or Giving Tuesday, invest in these great Jersey artists:
1. A Halo Called Fred, “Go Home Drama You're Drunk and Other Tales of Going through Hell to Escape the Evil Monkeys” (Lump’N’Loaf Records) -- An extensive collection of hysterically satirical, weirdly irreverent, expertly crafted tunes. In 40 years of writing about music, I’ve never had as much fun and laughed so much as I did while writing the review for this awesome album.
2. The Milwaukees, “The Calling” (Mint 400 Records) -- Inspired by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, The Replacements, Hüsker Dü, The Afghan Whigs and Foo Fighters, Jersey City indie greats The Milwaukees have returned with “The Calling,” their sixth album and first in nine years. America needs a lot to make it great again, but this album definitely is a step in the right direction.
3. Stella Mrowicki, “Pine Trees and Wildflowers” -- Wonderfully rootsy five-song follow-up to last year’s self-titled debut LP. Like its predecessor, this gospel-folk EP was written, recorded, produced, mixed, mastered and nearly entirely performed by Stella, including piano, guitar, drums, bass, banjo, organ and percussion. While that’s impressive, the best part of “Pine Trees and Wildflowers” remains brilliant songwriting that continues to defy Stella’s young age with words of wisdom and stunningly beautiful arrangements.
4. Blaise & David Ross Lawn, “Velvet Noir Stripped” -- I honestly don't know how they did it other than being incredibly talented, but Blaise and David Ross Lawn have improved upon a portion of the former's 2018 sophomore LP, "Velvet Noir," with heartbreaking emotional weight and pinpoint piano excellence.
5. Roadside Graves, "That's Why We're Running Away" (Don Giovanni Records) -- Examination of the struggle to accept defeat and loss and whether to give up peacefully. Along the way, this album shares a comfort and honest self-reckoning within the tiny space between running away and believing.
6. Mike Montrey Band, "In the Middle of Hope" -- Two of the most unsung heroes of rock ‘n’ roll are Gram Parsons & Emmylou Harris, both of whom should be a lot larger than life than they are. That’s why it warms my musical heart to hear Mike Montrey and his sweetheart of the rodeo, Jen Augustine, sing duets because their soulful, pretty, bittersweet harmonies remind me so much of Gram & Emmylou. Mike Montrey Band’s new EP has several heart-warming, bone-chilling duets among its impressive six songs performed by a spine-rattlingly good band.
7. Bruce Tunkel, “American Patriot” -- Skewering of America and its so-called patriots by one of New Jersey’s most prolific songwriters with intelligence, stunning narrative structure, and gut-wrenching irony.
8. Bruce Tunkel, “Us” -- Whereas “American Patriot” is venomously political, “Us” is confessionally reflective. A healthy 18 songs, the 80-minute collection examines the fragility of hearts and minds for the most part. Bruce is prolific indeed dropping eight LPs and 30 singles in the past 30 years. This year’s two outings add greatly to the catalog.
9. Candy Cavity, self-titled -- Singer-songwriter-guitarist Candace Schur has that irresistible combination of Marilyn Monroe-like qualities: charming, cute, sweet, sexy, beautiful, naughty and trashy. The fact that she is surrounded by a band of burly, bearded macho men in Candy Cavity makes her even more fascinating. Their erotic self-titled debut EP is a bittersweet exemplification of the band’s dichotomous name as it chronicles relationships good and bad with a pop foundation cemented by the shudder of grunge and painted with the verve of punk.
10. 19DRT, self-titled -- Intense trio of Jersey Shore scene veterans make a wonderful racket on an impressive seven-song self-titled, self-produced and self-released EP that they call noisy sludge punk. Fans of drummer Reg Hogan's other bands -- Defiance Engine, Solarized, Freak Theater and Daisycutter -- definitely will dig it, as will fans of vocalist-guitarist Frank Burdynski and bassist Dean Monjoy's other band, Dab Nebula, as well as Frank's Coffin Void.