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The 15 best New Jersey songs

If you’re heading to the Garden State, this playlist will get you there in toe-tapping style

Thinking of crossing the Hudson? You should—there are tons of awesome things to do in New Jersey, in addition to the state's having a bunch of neighborhoods that match up pretty neatly to nabes you already love in NYC. Never ones to leave our apartments without the right musical accompaniment, we’ve created this playlist to see you through the (shorter than you think!) journey there. Expect some classics (come on, you can’t do this list and not have Bon Jovi or Springsteen on it—that’s technically illegal) but also some hidden gems and surprises. Now get yourself some spray tan and get moving!

Written by Michael Chen, Andrew Frisicano, Sophie Harris, Nick Leftley, Tim Lowery, Hank Shteamer and Carla Sosenko.

“99 Problems” by Jay-Z

Verse one of this immortal Black Album smash finds Mr. Carter issuing an all-purpose tell-off to critics and haters, but in verse two, he gets geographically specific, relating a Michael Mann–worthy 1994 encounter with the New Jersey police. Sure, the narrator has drugs stashed in his car, but he's pretty sure that's not why he's being pulled over. ("’Cause I'm young and I'm black and my hat's real low?" he ventures, when asked.) Jay-Z being Jay-Z, he got his revenge on Jersey by, you know, helping relocate its beloved Nets to his hometown. Garden State, we feel bad for you, son.—Hank Shteamer

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“Fake Blues” by Real Estate

With lazily strummed guitars and a swimming pool of slapback echo, the Bergen County boys—from the other Ridgewood, in Jersey—meditate on crappy postcollege jobs and getting out of the burbs. Unsurprisingly, since writing this tune for their 2009 debut record, they've decamped to Brooklyn.—Andrew Frisicano

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“Theme Song for a New Brunswick Basement Show” by Lifetime

The boardwalks and backstreets of the Garden State are already well documented; on this track, '90s pop-punk band Lifetime takes on DIY basement concerts. The short, sweet story tells of seeing a mediocre band and talking to a crush. You can almost feel the sweat-soaked white T-shirt of the guy standing next to you.—Andrew Frisicano

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“Night Falls on Hoboken” by Yo La Tengo

Cult favorites Yo La Tengo unfurled this slow-tempo tribute to their hometown as the album closer to And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out (2000). Tribute might be a strong word, though, considering that lead vocalist Ira Kaplan sings, “Come on, let’s leave our misery / And crawl toward where we want to be.” Despite the downcast lyrics and moody atmospherics, the song has a sense of hope that the protagonists will eventually manage to escape their rut and find a place to “sleep one night peacefully” (tip: it’s not Manhattan). The track is nearly 18 minutes long, perfect for a twilight stroll from Fiore’s Deli to the Hoboken waterfront, where you can watch dusk creep up on the New York City skyline as you scarf down a roast-beef-and-mutz. Mmm…what were they complaining about again?—Michael Chen

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“Jersey Girl” by Tom Waits

Tom Waits is the gravelly king of cool—so what does it mean that one of his most beautiful songs is about a gal from the Garden State? (Granted, we have a feeling his titular Jersey girl was probably not of the Teresa Giudice variety.) Waits sings about crossing the river west to see his lady (sorry, whores of Eighth Avenue, this is not your night!), and we have to admit we’re a little jealous: It’s been a long time since anyone’s whisked us down the Shore, hugged us tight and taken us to a carnival. (Wait, that’s actually never happened to us.) Waits’s dreamy ballad (later famously covered by the Boss) is almost enough to make us seek romance in Jerz—just as long as we get to go to the Cheesecake Factory.—Carla Sosenko

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“I Like Jersey Best” by John Pizzarelli

No song namechecks Jersey locations like this one: “The Pinelands and the Vinelands / Seaside Heights, Margate / You can have Miami / I love the Garden State.” Released on 1999’s P.S. Mr. Cole, it takes listeners on a trip from Rutgers to the oil refineries, stopping briefly at Cherry Hill, Lake Hopatcong and a sat nav’s worth of other high points along the way. It even pays homage to the state’s most famous musician (sorry, Jon Bon Jovi): “Some states have their rock stars, but Springsteen beats them all.” Damn straight. —Nick Leftley

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“You Can’t Catch Me” by Chuck Berry

The greatest rock & roll stars know how to make anything sound appealing, and so it goes with Chuck Berry on this 1956 belter, where Berry suggests we race a souped-up "air mobile" down the New Jersey Turnpike. A premonition of Marty McFly's hoverboard, perhaps? Who cares, we'll take it! And so, as it happens, did the Rolling Stones, who covered the track in 1965, plus John Lennon, who was sued by Berry's publisher for ripping off the song in the Beatles' "Come Together" (get a load of the line "Here come old flattop" in Berry's original here), and Bruce Springsteen, who drops the line "New Jersey Turnpike in the wee, wee hours" on his haunting Nebraska album. Sure enough, it's a helluva song.—Sophie Harris

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“No Future Part Three: Escape from No Future” by Titus Andronicus

In the video for this epic cut from 2010, Andronicus frontman Patrick Sickles goes on a rant dispelling all the ugly stereotypes about his home state (Jersey Shore, bad smells, Real Housewives). Directed by fellow Jerseyite Tom Scharpling (The Best Show on WFMU), the road-trip footage—chronicling the band rocking out from the Pine Barrens in South Jersey all the way up to Jersey City—is a raucous love letter to the state. After a nod to Mahwah, the song’s final mantra (“You will always be a loser,” a sentiment anyone who grew up in the shadow of NYC can relate to) shifts from a lament to an embracing punk anthem.—Tim Lowery

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“Hackensack” by Fountains of Wayne

Most folks know Fountains of Wayne for its ultra-catchy ode to MILFs, “Stacy’s Mom,” but the power pop quartet—named after a kitschy lawn-ornament store in Wayne, New Jersey—has been spinning tales about underdog heroes of the tristate area for close to two decades. One of our favorites is “Hackensack,” a touching yet comical 2003 ditty about a perpetual dreamer who grows up in the titular northern New Jersey suburb, pining for the high-school hottie. She goes on to become a famous Hollywood starlet; he sticks around the hometown, working a dead-end job at his dad’s paint store. The years, the miles and the polar-opposite lifestyles do little to deter our indefatigable hero’s optimism, as he sends out a long-distance dedication to his would-be steady: “If you ever get back to Hackensack, I’ll be here for you.” Keep the dream alive, bro!—Michael Chen

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“Woke Up This Morning” by Alabama 3

Some songs just have to be included, whether they’re technically about Jersey or not. Alabama 3 actually hails from Brixton in London, England, but its 1997 song—specifically the “Chosen One Mix”—is now indelibly linked to the Garden State thanks to its presence in the iconic opening credits of The Sopranos. It is literally impossible to hear this song now without picturing Tony’s cigar-chomping drive from Manhattan, through the Lincoln Tunnel, over the Pulaski Skyway and down to Caldwell.—Nick Leftley

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“Jersey Bounce” by Ella Fitzgerald

This irresistible ditty originally hit the No. 1 spot in 1942, as performed by Benny Goodman and his orchestra. But despite that success (and the legion of others who’ve covered the song since, including Glenn Miller and the King Sisters), it’s still most associated with the inimitable Ella Fitzgerald, who scats adorably throughout. It’s the perfect song for a warm night’s drive in the Garden State, because, quite simply, “No town makes it sound the same as where it came from.” And remember, “If you don’t feel so hot / Go out to some Jersey spot / Whether you’re hep or not / The Jersey bounce’ll make you swing.”—Nick Leftley

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“Palisades Park” by Freddy Cannon

One of the best summer songs ever (ever, we say!), Freddy “Boom Boom” Cannon’s 1962 ode to the sprawling, long-gone Bergen County amusement park overlooking Manhattan finds the singer cruising for girls, eating hot dogs and making out on the Ferris wheel. Not a bad way to spend a day on the other side of the Hudson.—Tim Lowery

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“Atlantic City” by the Band

Nobody evokes the whole “we’re doomed, so we might as well live it up” scenario better than the Boss. Add in the inimitably lived-in drawl of the Band’s late, great Levon Helm—who turned in a definitive version of the Springsteen tune on the group’s 1993 comeback disc, Jericho—and you’ve got existential pop at its finest. “We’re goin’ out where the sands turn to gold / But put your stockings on, 'cause it might get cold,” sings Helm, portraying Jersey’s titular gambling hub as a new El Dorado, and hinting at the unsavory element of organized crime lurking below the surface.—Hank Shteamer

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“Livin’ on a Prayer” by Bon Jovi

There was, obviously, no way that this song couldn’t be on this list. “Livin’ on a Prayer” (from 1986’s Slippery When Wet) manages to encapsulate the hardworking, blue-collar lifestyle of the state better than almost any other song—better, even, than anything on the Jov record New Jersey. Under the hair-metal bombast, it’s actually a kinda depressing song (“Gina dreams of running away / When she cries in the night, Tommy whispers, ‘Baby, it’s okay’”), but then, if there’s one state that excels at covering its troubles in a sheen of grinning, party-ready glitter, it’s Joisey.—Nick Leftley

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“Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” by Bruce Springsteen

Really, who else could top this list? The first name that springs to mind when you think of the Garden State has written too many Jersey anthems to count—“Born to Run,” “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy).” But our biggest soft spot is for this peppy live staple from 1973, where the Boss—all get-me-out-of-here working-class gumption—gets “stuck in the mud somewhere in the swamps of Jersey” and gives the ultimate fuck-you to his sweetheart’s disapproving dad: Taking his daughter away and, rocker attitude and all, coming into some big money through a record deal. Jersey boy for the win.—Tim Lowery

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Kyle C
Kyle C

Holy Shit! Nick Leftley! My Favorite Maxim Writer on New Jersey