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23rd Annual Makin Waves Awards

By Bob Makin

originally published: 12/24/2021

23rd Annual Makin Waves Awards

Makin Waves’ annual holiday gift to the New Jersey music scene returns with a fresh batch of awards for the 23rd time throughout its 33-year history. This year’s big winners are veteran Jersey Shore singer-songwriter Tom Kanach with three and Montclair-based Jewish bluegrass band Nefesh Mountain, Asbury Park jam band Dogs in a Pile, and North Jersey hard rock act Reality Suite each with two. 

As we deal with the latest surge of the pandemic, may these wonderful independent artists remind us to remain hopeful through their uplifting music and continue to lend them the support they so richly deserve and need. 

Band of the Year: Nefesh Mountain – This husband-and-wife-led blend of old-time Judaic and Appalachian music, culture and heritage woven into a beautiful, mesmerizing tapestry experienced a torrent of accolades and accomplishments in the face of adversity. Despite the pandemic and without a major label, Nefesh Mountain made their debut at Nashville’s fabled Grand Ole Opry, were featured in Rolling Stone magazine, jammed with esteemed violinist Mark O’Connor and Phish’s Mike Gordon, recorded with bluegrass greats Jerry Douglas and Sam Bush, topped the bluegrass charts, and toured the nation in support of two 2021 albums -- their award-winning 2021 studio LP, “Songs for the Sparrows” and the live Hanukkah album, “Live from Levon Helm Studios: A Holiday Hanukkah Holiday Concert.” Expect lots more in 2022 from this warm, wonderful band. Click here for more about Nefesh Mountain. 

Male Artist of the Year: Tom Kanach – Backed by an amazing band of punk and pop veterans, this longtime Jersey Shore tunesmith has been on a prolific tear since returning to the music scene in 2017 after a long hiatus. In 2021, his incredibly supportive indie label, PopClique, released the five-song EP, “Change,” a video for each of its songs, and most recently, the powerful new single, “If,” that starts the album/single/video cycle over again for next year. Perhaps Jersey-raised music industry legend Matt Pinfield, who shared the stage of Asbury Park’s The Saint earlier this year with the Tom Kanach Band and other friends, wrote about Tom best: “Tom’s songs come from an honest place, which inspires, and is evident in, the narrative of his lyrics about navigating life changes -- emotional, romantic, missteps — and digging down for his and the listener’s own personal strength … Tom Kanach Band will connect with you -- if you give them the chance.” Click here for more about Tom Kanach.

Female Artist of the Year: Taylor Tote – Only in her mid-20s, Taylor already is a veteran of the internationally recognized Asbury Park music scene and a well-respected one at that. Recently shifting her sound from lyrical rock to danceable pop, Taylor remains a dynamic songwriter throughout her most productive year yet that gave us eight singles: “Lowkey Stressed,” “Selfish,” “21 Min Drive,” “My Dear Friend,” “Multivitamin,” “I Left My Heart in NYC,” “Strawberry,” and a cover of the holiday classic “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.” That’s one very six-and-a-half weeks! And more is coming soon that will keep her just as busy in 2022. Click here for more about Taylor Tote.   

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Best New Artist: bb – Like multiple Makin Waves Award-winner Stella Mrowicki before her, bb – born Brittany Byrne – is a product of the esteemed Music Technology and Industry program at Rowan University. And like Stella, she produced an impressive debut release, the four-song EP, “lows.” This also was a solo debut for the front woman of the Jersey Shore band Skyeline. Looking forward to hearing more from both. Click here for more about bb. 

Song of the Year: “Change” by Tom Kanach – Melodically inspired by Supertramp’s “Logical Song,” the title track of Tom’s 2021 EP captures the sadness and hope that have battled each other throughout the nearly two years of the pandemic. Several songs have been inspired by COVID, including Tom’s cathartic new single, “If,” but I believe “Change” is the best of the bunch of the bunch because of its powerful delivery and meaningful eloquence. 

Album of the Year: “Songs for the Sparrows” by Nefesh Mountain -- The seamlessly remarkable and intoxicatingly joyous third album by the Makin Waves Band of the Year with a blending and bending of Americana, Eastern European, Appalachian, Israeli, and Celtic music that will make the most wayfaring stranger an instant fan, especially those of special guests Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas. 

Best EP: “Change” by Tom Kanach – Kudos to Tom’s producer-engineer Joe Rowley for crafting (and co-writing and playing bass on) a five-song collection of irresistible nuggets that deserved the attention each got with their own videos. Again, Matt Pinfield says it best: “I suggest checking out his songs, EPs and creative video vision any way and anywhere you consume and enjoy music that moves you.” 

Songwriter of the Year: Dave Vargo – Dave has released two singles from his forthcoming third album that continue his tradition of well-rooted but fresh songwriting. They are the anthemic “Half Bad” and the relational divide of “Fault Lines.” Dave’s also a super great guy very active in Musicians on a Mission and Asbury Park Porchfest, both of which make the New Jersey music scene an even better place. Click here for more about Dave Vargo. 

Best Live Band: Dogs in a Pile – Asbury Park’s most popular jam band understandably have grown their following up and down the East Coast with a fun show filled with tasty jams, righteous grooves, inventive originals, and nods to such classic faves as Grateful Dead, Frank Zappa, and Steely Dan. Undeterred by the surge, Dogs in a Pile can be enjoyed live New Year’s Eve at Brooklyn Bowl Philly with Spafford; Jan. 1 at The Cutting Room, New York City (Phish After Party); Jan. 20, Space Ballroom, Hamden, CT; Jan. 21, Higher Ground, Burlington, VT, and Jan. 22, The Met, Pawtucket, RI. Click here for more about Dogs in a Pile.

Tsunami Award (Most Supportive Behind the Scene): Neil Sabatino of Mint 400 Records -- Fairmont founding singer-songwriter-guitarist-producer-videographer-graphic artist Neil Sabatino’s multi-hyphenated talents also include founder of the band’s label, Mint 400 Records, one of the most active and nurturing indies in the state. Since 2007, Mint 400 has amassed a catalog of more than 400 releases, many of which were produced by Neil, Makin Waves 2020 Producer of the Year. Click here for more about Neil. 

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Best Vocalist: Kimmii Heart of Reality Suite – What do you get when you combine a hard-working hard rocker with a bikini model? Reality Suite’s Kimmii Heart, one of the best frontwomen in the biz. You can see Kimmii and Reality Suite open for the L.A.-based metal band Otep and New Hampshire hard rockers Sepsiss on Feb. 25 at Dingbatz in Clifton. Click here for more about Reality Suite. 

Best Guitarist: Jimmy Law of Dogs in a Pile – Inspired by Jerry Garcia’s bubbly sound, Jimmy brings a more muscular crunch to his six-string slinging akin to Warren Haynes, Jimmy Herring and Angus Young. The results distinguish Dogs from other jam bands.  

Best Drummer: Brian King of Reality Suite – A great hard-rock drummer, Brian also is king of social media, promoting his band better and bigger than just about anybody, which makes his top-notch, rock-solid drumming even more known. 

Best Bassist: Brian Legentil of LKFFCT – Brian’s energy and passion are so contagious, they make any LKFFCT performance even more fun. I’m not sure how he brings so much groove to the indie band’s music while jumping around so much, but I’m sure glad that he does. Click here for more about Brian and LKFFCT. 

Best Instrumentalist: Michael Squillace – One of the more sought-after saxophonists at the Jersey Shore, Michael’s star began to rise when he paid it forward in honor of his dearly departed sister with the annual Jammin’ for Jaclyn. He wins Best Instrumentalist for the second consecutive year. His extensive work with Taylor Tote has been particularly impressive. Click here for more about Michael.  

Producer of the Year: Bruce Tunkel of Beanland Studio – Bruce mainly works on his own prolific catalog of music at his home-based Beanland Studio in Central Jersey, but this year, he also added to his resume great stuff from James Deely and Broken Darling. Click here for more about Bruce Tunkel, last year’s Makin Waves Songwriter of the Year.

Video of the Year: “Close 2 U” by Ser Xerri – Aided by a great sexy song, this silly clip is so much fun, so visually different than the sensual tune it represents. Both Xerri and his willing co-star Avery Mandeville (aka Little Hag) have a contagious blast making fun of themselves, as well as pretentious videos that take themselves too seriously. Throughout Xerri’s guitar playing and singing are tops. So is the cinematography of Level 13 among many beloved Asbury Park settings. Click here for more about Ser Xerri.

Bob Makin has produced Makin Waves since 1988. Follow Makin Waves on Facebook and contact Bob at

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