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Five Albums You Should Be Listening To Right Now
This week's curator: Nathan Rabin, head writer for the A.V. Club and author of My Year of Flops.
By Nathan Rabin
Every two weeks, titans of the mediasphere give Nerve their music recommendations. This week's curator: Nathan Rabin, head writer for the A.V. Club and author of The Big Rewind: A Memoir Brought to You By Pop Culture and the recently released My Year of Flops: The A.V Club Presents One Man's Journey Deep Into the Heart of Cinematic Failure.
For someone who makes his living thinking way too hard about pop-culture, I am shockingly ignorant about huge swaths of contemporary music. As the head writer of the A.V. Club, I plunge so deep into my professional and personal obsessions that huge cultural phenomenona sometimes pass me by. For the past four years my primary obsession has been with failed movies, the subject of my column My Year of Flops, which has just been adapted into a spiffy new book with tons of exclusive material published by the good/indulgent folks over at Scribner. So instead of being ahead of the curve, I sometimes find myself thinking things like, "Who is this Justin Bieber everyone keeps talking about? Is he an athlete or something?" Therefore, while I'd love to be able to recommend five new releases (or listen closely to five new releases, for that matter), I'm going to have to travel back in time for five random releases that reflect the scattershot state of my psyche. They're less five albums you should be listening to right now then five albums you might want to listen to at some point, if so inclined. Or not. Hey, no biggie.
1. Joni Mitchell, Blue
How did I go thirty-four years without listening to Blue? Why did I go thirty-four years without listening to Blue? Did I nurse some strange subconscious grudge against beauty or truth? I finally caught up with Joni Mitchell's melancholy masterpiece for an A.V. Club feature called Better Late Than Never and felt myself being transported to a beach party in Laurel Canyon in 1971 where the sun is always setting and everyone is beautiful and sad and fucked-up in equal measure. The quintessential breakup album and an elegy for the lost promise of the 1960s counterculture, Blue would be almost unbearably grim if it weren't for the life-affirming sprightliness of "Carey" and "California." If you don't fall in love with Mitchell listening to Blue then you're not really human.
2. Gary Stewart, Out of Hand
I first encountered Stewart while researching a column on classic country for the A.V. Club called Nashville or Bust. I was spellbound by Stewart's voice, a trembling vibrato that radiates bottomless pain and anguish. My introduction to Stewart's oeuvre was, appropriately enough, "Drinkin' Thang", a propulsive slice of romantic ennui that combines the late singer-songwriter's dominant themes: alcoholism and heartbreak. "She's Acting Single (I'm Drinking Doubles)" takes a goofy title into bracingly dark territory as Stewart obsesses about a relationship doomed by a toxic cocktail of binge drinking and infidelity, while "Dragging Shackles" is perfect Southern rock. Stewart obsessed about infidelity and broken relationships. In his songs, they are the source of unbearable torment. Stewart's "Ten Years Of This," which was covered by noted super-fan Bob Dylan, might just be the most evisceratingly dark anniversary song ever written yet — when Stewart's wife of forty two years died, Stewart ended his own life with a shotgun blast to the neck less a month later. There were no half measures in Stewart's music or in his life: he felt everything deeply, whether it was love or hate or anything in between.
Listen: "She's Actin' Single"
She's Actin' Single
3. Now That's What I Call Music! 19
For the past year or so I've been revisiting the bestselling Now That's What I Call Music! pop compilation series in an A.V. Club column called THEN That's What They Called Music. The Now That's What I Call Music! compilations are, by definition, a mixed bag, but volume 19 is unusually strong, if characteristically all over the place. Where else can you find The Killers sharing space with Li'l Jon-produced R&B songs about girl-on-girl violence (Brooke Valentine's unspeakably awesome "Girlfight"), you-go-girl positivity from Beyonce and the other two people in Destiny's Child ("Girl"), and a cartoon group peddling its biggest hit and most infectious smash (Gorillaz's "Feel Good Inc."). Volume 19 of the most important compilation series ever is so strong and eclectic it almost threatens to give Now That's What I Call Music! and pop music in general a good name. Almost.
Listen: "Girl Fight"
4. Bob Newhart, Something Like This
To continue a theme, I didn't discover Bob Newhart's stand-up albums until recently, and I feel terrible about it. Newhart is a true virtuoso of stand-up comedy, a conceptual genius who can do more with a pregnant pause and slight stutter than most comedians can accomplish with long, profane metaphors. Newhart is one of the geniuses of the stand-up form, but his delivery and style are both so unique that it's damn near impossible to rip him off. From Newhart's buttoned-up mind spring some of the most gleefully absurdist routines in the history of American comedy. It'd be hard to imagine anyone else gleaning belly laughs from the awkward politeness of a new security guard at the Empire State Building asking his superior, as meekly and professionally as possible, exactly how he's supposed to deal with the enraged giant primate currently running amok in the floors above him.
Listen: "King Kong"
5. Elizabethtown — Soundtrack
I am unhealthily obsessed with Elizabethtown. It was one of the primary inspirations for My Year of Flops. Its opening narration provided the ratings system for the column and book and an autographed still from the film adorns my desk. Oh, and I coined the phrase "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" to describe Kirsten Dunst's character in the film. I'm also a big fan of the film's soundtrack. It's every bit as sweet and nakedly sincere as the movie that inspired it, but without Susan Sarandon tap-dancing or performing stand-up comedy at her husband's wake. As befits a film that ends with an epic road trip, Elizabethtown flows like a great mix-tape. The tone is overwhelmingly gentle, sad, and reflective, but there's abundant darkness under the soothing surfaces of songs like Elton John's "My Father's Gun" and Ryan Adams' "Come Pick Me Up." Besides, if Crowe's background as a teen journalist taught him anything, it's that you can't go wrong with Tom Petty, who contributes two great songs. Elizabethtown divided critics and audiences alike. It even divided me — I reviewed it twice for the book, first negatively and then positively — but the unimpeachable soundtrack soars as a not-so-secret success.