New Jersey’s best indie records of 2017

Makin Waves, Top 10

Makin Waves’ Top 10 NJ indie releases pictured clockwise from top left: Sweet Crude, Cook Thugless, The Cryptkeeper Five, Hodera, Mr. Payday, The Vansaders, The Brixton Riot, Wetbrain, Experiment 34 and Spowder.

In celebration of Thanksgiving and all the shopping that follows it, Makin Waves looks at the best independently released recordings the Garden State had to offer this year.

Here are the 10 best indie records released by Jersey-based acts and/or labels that crossed my desk so far in 2017, plus 10 more honorable mentions. This list is running this week in thanksgiving for their talent and drive, and in hopes that you will spend Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday purchasing local music.

1. Sweet Crude, Créatures (Rhyme & Reason)

The frequently French-singing Sweet Crude is an indigenous South Louisiana potpourri of exquisite-sounding vocals, layered percussion and a sea of keys that the New Orleans-based sextet call drum pop Louisianais. While some might scoff at the French, if you think of it as an unusual instrument, it really is quite beautiful, like most of the rest of the record. Fans of the similarly rhythmic, vocally rich but much larger Polyphonic Spree will enjoy Créatures, but the emphasis is on French rather than African ancestry.

2. Cook Thugless, Money (self-released)

Cook Thugless is an amazing New Brunswick-based band that has made three exceptional concept albums: 2013’s SPACE, 2015’s TIME and the recently released Money, the best of the bunch. It’s rare when a local unsigned act makes lasting art, but that is what Cook Thugless has done with Money. The 17-track collection proves that rap and hip-hop can uplift the soul and expand the mind rather than waste time, space and money in the gutter glorifying violence and degrading women.

3. The Cryptkeeper Five, Stronghold (Pure White Music)

Trenton-based indie punk-rock veterans The Cryptkeeper Five musically express a love of The Clash and Bruce Springsteen. On Stronghold, The Cryptkeeper Five’s sixth album, first in six years, and arguably their best yet, the band fuse those loves on such track as the Celtic-tinged “Frankie.”

4. Hodera, First Things First (Take This to Heart)

First Things First, Hodera’s follow-up to the exceptional 2015 full-length debut, United by Birdcalls, hits ya right off with three songs that could be hits. One thing’s for sure, First Things First is not disposable as it makes astutely painful observations about the Millennial generation’s frustrating stagnancy and subsequent self-loathing.

5. Experiment 34, Charismanic 2.0 (self-released)

After 33 failed attempts to save rock ‘n’ roll, the alien mad scientist who devised Experiment 34 — which could be me since this is my son Matthew’s band — successfully spawned psycho-funk, a hard, heavy, aggressive mix of punk, funk, metal, rap and psychedelic rock that bonds into an invigoratingly inventive chemistry.

6. Spowder, Health Palm (State Champion/Sniffling Indie Kids)

Spowder is without question one of New Jersey’s best bands. Live, they are tops! With their full-length debut, Health Palm, Spowder do a great job of living up to the live show and demonstrating a studio maturity well beyond their initial EPs.

7. Wetbrain, A Certain Light (self-released)

Throughout A Certain Light, Wetbrain proves to be immensely talented musically, lyrically and production-wise, channeling acts such as Television, Talking Heads, Prince and John Lennon, especially with Yoko Ono. Wetbrain is inventive and imaginative and injects a great sense of pride into the words “original band.”

8. Mr. Payday, “Welcome to the Modern World” (Polanco)

Doug “Sluggo” Vizthum has made impressive records with Pleased Youth and Bad Karma, two of New Brunswick’s greatest bands, but his third outing with Mr. Payday may be his best. The band’s full-length debut, Welcome to the Modern World, is a 10-song collection that demonstrates how Mr. Payday has grown into itself and developed a more cohesive sound and style with the strongest songwriting Vizthum has done since Bad Karma’s debut LP in the early ’90s.

9. The Brixton Riot, “Close Counts” (Mint 400)

The Brixton Riot are extremely passionate about their ragged power pop, as well as music in general. The 11-song sophomore LP, Close Counts, features such nuggets as The Jam-like, tongue-in-cheek “The Ballad of Pete Best,” a wink and a nod to the original Beatles drummer; and “Little Spark,” a love song for vinyl junkies in the spirit of “Left of the Dial,” The Replacements’ salute to college and public radio.

10. The Vansaders, “No Matter What” (self-released)

From the opening blast of the rowdy, raucous, reluctant love song “Roll the Dice,” Asbury Park-based The Vansaders offer a brand of well-crafted, lyrical punk rock that recalls the kind of thought-provoking songwriting that made The Clash one of the greatest groups of all time. No Matter What isn’t just adolescent angst channeled into two chords through speakers on full. It’s edgy like that, but with a sense of patience, focus, style and nuance that also will interest fans of great songwriters, such as Johnny Cash and Bruce Springsteen, and other sharply crafted bands, like The Waterboys and The Animals.


The Successful Failures, Ichor of Nettle (FDR)

Black Flamingos, Neon Boneyard (Hi-Tide/Little Dickman)

Glenn Morrow’s Cry for Help (Rhyme & Reason)

Toothgrinder, Phantom Amour (Spinefarm)

Disposable, Can’t Stop Smiling (self-released)

Albert Savage, Savage on the High Seas (Blue Wave Entertainment)

Jackson Pines, Purgatory Road (self-released)

Jeff Linden + the Black Spot Society, Sad Bastard Songs (self-released)

Fairmont, A Spring Widow (Mint 400)

The Battery Electric, Little Eden Sessions, Vol. 1 (self-released)

Bob Makin is the reporter for and a former managing editor and still a contributor to The Aquarian Weekly, which launched this column in 1988. Contact him at Like Makin Waves at


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1 comment

Mavi November 27, 2017 - 4:20 pm

You should add Pioneer the Eel to the lineup, although I’m not sure if they are from the New Brunswick scene; I saw them play twice at The Court Tavern and were amazing.


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