I’ve provided my favorite movies, bands, and songs, and now we reach the last in this series: My favorite five albums. This should be the easiest of the posts, so I shouldn’t be such a coward this time. You’ll get your five. Again, however, I’m going to give you my favorite albums by the bands I mentioned previously, but my absolute favorite album of all time isn’t from any of them. Despite my methodology, though, this could very well represent my actual, favorite five albums.
This is an unusual choice for Rush fans, but in discussing it online with several other fans, I’m definitely not alone. I’m not going to go into this in detail, because it’s a personal matter. I’m simply going to make this vague statement: There was a moment in time when I truly became an independent person. For better or worse, this was a significant moment and a significant development, and Grace Under Pressure was part of my life during that moment of clarity. It’s tough to separate this album from that.
Rumors, Fleetwood Mac
If you’ve read the previous two posts, you knew this was coming. I was raised on this album. It belonged to my older brother, but I could listen to it whenever I wanted, and he bought it at a time when I finally had a choice of what music I heard. I had my own radio, so I could listen to which songs I heard on the radio, and from 1977 forward, I slowly started my modest collection of albums so I could listen to the music I wanted to hear when I wanted to hear it. Despite it not being mine, Rumors was the start of that.
Powerslave, Iron Maiden
As with GUP above, I think I’m making a choice that isn’t very popular among fans of the band. Yes, my favorite Iron Maiden song is on this album, but as with much of our attachment to art, this is about more than the art itself. This is about nostalgia. This was my first Iron Maiden album, and the music on it is solid from start to finish. I’m also a huge fan of the instrumental, Losfer Words, as well as the title track. I’ve spent many hours jamming to these songs on my guitar or bass (though I’ll never win an award for my playing).
The Stranger, Billy Joel
This album combines the positive qualities I’ve referenced throughout this series of posts. While the music is all from a specific genre, it’s diverse within that genre. Scenes from an Italian Restaurant is epic. It’s like an Iron Maiden or Rush song in that it has multiple movements, all lyrically tied together, yet clearly distinct from one another musically, producing one hell of an effect. The band has enough members in it to fully fill out the music. The instrumentation doesn’t include merely the traditional guitar, bass, keyboard, and drum set collection, but adds woodwinds and other percussion. Hell, there’s even an accordion in there. Joel is a native New Yorker. He grew up in the ultimate melting pot. This influenced how he collected personnel and wrote his music, and the Stranger is probably the best example of that from his discography. As far as I’m concerned, this was one of my favorite artists at his absolute peak.
Once again, I admit that this is all subjective, but there’s a pseudo-objective reason why Duke is my favorite album. As Duke was being written, you could still say Genesis was going through a transitional phase after the departure of Peter Gabriel. This was their third album after Gabriel left, and second after Steve Hackett left, so Phil Collins, Mike Rutherford, and Tony Banks were still trying to figure out what they wanted to do, even having considered for a time writing only instrumentals going forward. After finally settling on six songs that comprised the Story of Albert, the band realized they needed more music to fill out the album. Each of the members wrote two more songs. The result was remarkable.
Because the earlier six songs were telling a common story, Duke was strongly coherent. The later six songs mixed things up a bit to keep the album from being monotonous, but those later six songs were still connected to the earlier six, both lyrically and musically. In other words, you had a strongly coherent album of spectacular songs with just enough variety to prevent you from getting bored. The songs themselves represented a stunning bridge between progressive rock and popular music.
Of course, you must like this kind of music for any of this to matter, but that’s why I admit that it’s still a subjective question. In fact, many Genesis fans hate Duke because it tries to be both things, and to them Duke represents to worst of both worlds. Obviously, I believe it represents the best of both worlds. I’ve occasionally said that I’d be happy to pay full price for a concert ticket where Genesis got back together and just played Duke from start to finish. I’d need nothing else.
Subjectively speaking, Duke is my favorite album of all time. YMMV.
Are you kidding me? How am I supposed to do this? Bands were hard, and movies were harder, but songs are impossible. There are just too many deserving of high praise and to which I have a deep, personal connection for me to pick just five, but that’s been the thing for the past two posts. I guess I’ll have to give it a shot. While I have a clear favorite song, what I’m going to have to do is pick my favorite songs by some of my favorite bands. My sanity depends on it. There’s just no way to organize a list that large.
As alluded to yesterday, my favorite song comes off of Moving Pictures, and it’s Limelight. I have no connection to the lyrics, as I haven’t even had 15 minutes of fame, but that music kills me every time. I’ve heard that Alex Lifeson believes this to be one of his most emotional solos. For what it’s worth, I agree.
Sometimes, white people just want to punch someone. Rime appeals to that instinct, but the lyrics are based on Coleridge’s classic poem of the same name, which certainly doesn’t endorse such behavior. The bass solo always amazed me, but I could probably say that about any of Steve Harris’s bass solos. Like progressive rock bands, Iron Maiden didn’t shy away from epic songs that would never get radio airplay. They wrote what needed to be written and took no short cuts. The result, as expected, was always phenomenal.
Summer Highland Falls, Billy Joel
My favorite Billy Joel song comes off Turnstiles, which isn’t his worst album, but isn’t his best. The album isn’t bad in my opinion — he’s my #4 artist of all time! — but not everything can be the Stranger, ya dig? (Oooo, foreshadowing!) Anyway, I love how the consummate piano player just sits down with his piano and pours out his heart. Sure, he lets the band in for a bit of it, but make no mistake: This is about a guy, his life, and his piano.
By now, you must be getting the picture. To avoid undercutting the concerns of my post on bands, I’m going to cop out yet a third time. No #5 for you!
Yeah, I’m a coward, but let’s do this one more time tomorrow. I promise you’ll get five entries.
Following up from yesterday’s post on my five favorite movies (sort of), I give you my five favorite bands. As this is all subjective, I can’t really justify my view by any objective metric, but I’ll be damned if I won’t try. Music is my favorite art form, so this one should have been tougher, but it turned out to be a little easier.
#1: Rush (tie)
What’s wrong with the people that don’t like Rush? No modern band in history can say that each of its members (or even just three of them) are in the consensus top twenty, of both music professionals and fans, for their respective talents. Geddy Lee and Neil Peart are often seen as the best bass and drum players respectively in modern music, and Alex Lifeson, while never given a #1 ranking, is solidly in the consensus top twenty. The songwriting isn’t silly and formulaic unless it’s the time for that. You can’t help but like what you like, but at the very least, this band deserves your undying respect for their musicianship. I, on the other hand, love this band’s music. I discovered it, and notably what remains my favorite song (q.v.) by any band, in middle school. The music kept coming until relatively recently. Oddly enough, I never particularly liked Tom Sawyer, which was the first song I heard from them.
Not only does this band get points for talent and songwriting, but they also get some serious nostalgia points. I was raised on Rumors. The fact that they had five members, three of whom were emotionally troubled songwriters, allowed them to produce rich, varied music packed with heart.
Here’s an interesting anecdote. Stevie Nicks wasn’t even two miles from me when she came up with the title to her masterpiece, Silver Springs. At least, that’s what I want to believe. As the linked map shows, I lived in Silver Spring, MD at about two miles from the exit sign that caught her eye and resulted in the name of the song. Rumors came out February 4, 1977, which is almost to the day when we moved out of that house. That’s when my brother bought the Rumors album and Silver Springs started to get some radio airplay as the B-side for Go Your Own Way. This band’s new music kept me going all the way through college. As soon as I was old enough to buy my own albums, I started going backwards through time and learning their older stuff as well, though nothing beats what was produced by the classic band lineup from Rumors, et al.
I also want to re-quote something an author wrote about the Chain.
Nothing sums up that song, that album, or my life better than that.
#3: Iron Maiden
I didn’t discover Maiden until freshman year at college, and they hit me like a ton of bricks. I was primarily a bass player, and Steve Harris is one of the best that’s ever picked up the instrument. Bruce Dickinson is no slouch with the microphone either. It’s not just the music, though. One of the handful of concerts I’ve attended was the Seventh Son of a Seventh Son tour in 1988 (not sure if it was the 7/24 or 8/7 show). Along with Pink Floyd’s Momentary Lapse of Reason tour (June 1 of that same year), I was floored by the visuals as well. These remain my two favorite concerts because of how those visuals added to the overall showmanship of the concerts. 1988 was a hell of a year for me, musically speaking at least.
#4: Billy Joel
For the longest time (yes, that’s a pun), Joel was my favorite artist. Sorry, Billy, but you’ve been demoted to #4. What a fall from grace (almost a pun), loser! Seriously though, this guy goes back farther than I can remember. Like the other entries on this list, he was top five the moment I heard his music, and he never left that list. He’s also the only headlining artist I’ve seen live twice. (I saw Black 47 in a small bar in Soho and then again at the Guinness Fleadh, 1999, but no repeats otherwise.) I saw him on the Bridge tour with my sister and then again decades later with my sister and her eldest son.
Sorry, but I’m going to cop out again. I can’t name a fifth band because then I’d be slamming the door on a bunch of bands I’d instinctively call “top 5.” I also won’t even provide an “honorable mentions” list (again) for fear of leaving some deserving bands off that one as well. I challenge you to do better. See if you can limit yourself to just five without feeling dirty.
The lesson here is that there are really just four at the top, and then a bunch of stuff … bunched together beyond that. Or I’m a coward.
To all these musicians, including the ones I didn’t mention, whose music I listen to repeatedly, I sincerely thank you. Technology make life livable; art makes life worth living.
Last night was the Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 quarantine watch party. The best story arc in the MCU was Nebula’s, and it really came together in this movie thanks to both the writing and acting. No one can topple Thor as my favorite character, but she comes in as a close second. Sure, I’ve beaten this point into the ground but done so across several blog and social media posts that even I, the author, can’t track. Now I’m going to put it all together in one place so I can just point people to this post. Note well that the creators themselves may disagree with my analysis here and there, but art is in the eyes of the beholder. Great art speaks to people regardless of their own biases and perspectives, and I’ve learned recently that many people agree with my analysis of both the actor and the character. I truly hope I do everyone justice in expressing that analysis. To that end, while I’ve been trying to improve my writing by shortening my posts, this one can’t be done quickly. There’s a lot to unpack, so grab a drink and some snacks; you’ll be here for a while.
In GotG Volume 1, Nebula is a one-dimensional character. She’s an assassin crafted by a family with a far different dysfunction than any real human has experienced. Maybe you’ve experienced something as bad or worse, but unless your parent turned you into a cyborg because you didn’t murder well enough, you can’t truly relate. Every relationship Nebula has had is either severe familial dysfunction or predator-to-prey. She’s been trained to be nothing more than a killer; that’s all she is. She’s never laughed, never had a friend, and lacks the social context even to address her issues, let alone resolve them. The only emotions we’ve seen from her are anger and frustration (e.g., “Thanks, dad.”).
In GotG Volume 2, things slowly start to change. Gamora’s time as a Guardian has brought her along her own path of redemption, but she has no confidence in Nebula in that regard. Thus, the movie starts with Nebula feeling no love from her sister. However, when Peter, Drax, and Gamora are leaving with Ego and Mantis, there’s a moment where Nebula senses something inside herself. She gives a quick downward glance, accompanied by a brilliant musical choice making it clear that this scene was as much about Nebula as it was about any of the Guardians.
[C]obbled together by Buckingham at a time when certain people in the band weren’t even speaking to each other . . . “[t]he Chain” is a stark reminder that you’re forever tied to the people you love most, even while they’re betraying you. –Jillian Mapes
My interpretation is that Nebula doesn’t understand these feelings because she’s never had them before now, but they’re clearly triggered by Gamora leaving her and the subconscious recognition that if Gamora can have an adoptive family, so can she. Peter and Gamora were further along this path than Nebula, but they were all on the same journey (as was Rocket, but in a different way). Later, Nebula saves Rocket from execution for what she claims to be selfish reasons, but there’s clearly a change going on inside her. The 2014 Nebula wouldn’t have stopped the execution.
Skipping ahead to the planet of Ego, Nebula attacks Gamora. She’s genuinely angry, but not having to look Gamora in the eye is key to her ability to kill her sister. When the battle brings them face to face, she can’t do it. She yells out in frustration because all she knows is killing, and she suddenly can’t. She feels like she’s lost control of herself. Even at this point, my interpretation is that she doesn’t understand why.
And then there’s that moment when at last she gets it. She yells, “You were the one that wanted to win, and I just wanted a sister!” At 3:44, you see for a brief instant a relaxing of her eyes. I wish they had held the shot on her face for another second. She’s as surprised as Gamora. It’s at that point Nebula finally has a basic understanding of what she’s been feeling. She’s still Nebula, and there’s still plenty of road to travel, but you can’t address an issue until you first acknowledge it. She’s finally done that, and that’s why it’s one of my favorite lines in all of cinema.
There are a few more moments that help her along. She can’t understand how the Guardians can be friends because they always fight. Drax explains it to her.
Nebula: “…. You’re not friends.” Drax: “You’re right. We’re family.”
This helps her understand that right and wrong, love and hate, etc. aren’t always defined strictly by actions, but also by intent. Sometimes right and wrong look the same but nevertheless are not. Soon after, she becomes a Guardian by joining their fight to save the universe. She’s not just doing so to help herself; she’s also helping her sister. She’s not just working alongside someone in a morbid contest to kill more victims; she’s learning the notion of truly bonding with others for a common goal. Cooperation rather than competition.
Nebula’s part in the movie ends with an awkward hug, and then Gamora pensively watching Nebula ride away in search of Thanos. On the one hand, it’s a sad moment, but on the other, it’s a moment of hope that’s going to be desperately needed in the MCU within the next couple of movies.
Nebula’s journey to date is longer than the other MCU characters, but it takes on a familiar form. Like most of the MCU characters, as Nebula evolves into a better version of herself, her methods don’t change. For example, Tony Stark is a self-absorbed, playboy and arms dealer, and then becomes a family-oriented peace-lover out to save the world. Either way, his methods are the same: Develop weaponry. It’s all he really knows, so we judge him more by his intent than by his methods (though he often makes mistakes worthy of judgment). Thor is similarly self-absorbed and deemed unworthy, but eventually joins the fight to save half the universe. How? By recklessly plunging into battle, preferring brute force over tactics. He’s still Thor. And do I really have to mention Ant-Man? As discussed in the prior section, Nebula’s still figuring out that the same actions can be considered good or evil based in large part on intent. Sure, some acts are inherently good or evil, but in the movie universe, even that idea can be relaxed for the sake of drama. We can also allow ourselves to forgive a movie character despite an unforgivable past (see, e.g., Darth Vader saying, “My bad,” and then becoming a Force ghost), which would never fly in the real world (where I’m sure you agree that she deserves that maximum penalty you feel the law may morally impose no matter how much she loves her sister). This is because filmmakers have to use these extremes in order to properly convey the message to the audience. Still, there are rules of engagement, which Tony will later explain to her.
Nebula’s first scene in Infinity War has Thanos torturing her. After freeing herself, we next see her on Titan joining the fight to stop Thanos. While wanting to do the right thing but still not appreciating the importance of intent, she must be very confused by her current mission, which is to assassinate her adoptive father. She experiencing the same two defining characteristics of the life she’s trying to leave behind: Family dysfunction and predator killing prey. But this battle helps break those bonds of confusion just a little bit more. She’s doing the right thing despite the nature of her actions.
When it becomes apparent that Thanos has executed the Snap, she appears to show a bit of remorse for the loss of life Thanos just caused. With Gamora already dead, one might not expect her to have anything more to lose, yet she still exhibits renewed sadness — not frustration or anger — about what had occurred. Is this genuine?
This is where we see it all come together, with Guardians music playing. Ms. Gillan acts out the entirety of this journey in the following scene with two lines consisting of nine words in total, as well as three grunts. She uses body language and facial expressions buried in makeup. It’s not Klingon-like make up, but it still represents a barrier to conveying the message. However, even more difficult are the constraints placed upon her by the script. If Ms. Gillan — who I’ve read is a talented piano player — had suggested adding a moment to this scene in which she and Tony were singing and laughing while she was playing the piano, she would have been laughed off the set. Nebula doesn’t play the piano. She doesn’t laugh, and she doesn’t sing. She’s a stoic, distant, guarded cyborg who’s just learning emotions that we all take for granted. Ms. Gillan isn’t permitted to express those emotions fully but must somehow still convey them as they slowly rise to the surface.
And she does a masterful job of it. Here’s the scene:
The first thing we see is a paper football game. Nebula’s instinct is to cheat by blocking Tony’s attempt. To her, this is a competition, and that’s always meant win at all costs. Win for the sake of winning. Tony explains that, while they’re adversaries, she has to follow the rules of engagement. Again, this must be confusing for her, but she’s trying. In fact, she says, “I would like to try again,” which is 2/3 of the words she’s given in the scene. Consciously, she wants to continue to play, but subconsciously she wants to continue to learn.
When Nebula wins, Tony extends his hand as a showing of sportsmanship. He congratulated Nebula for beating him. Nebula understandably pauses. I imagine her thinking, “What’s going on here? Why is he congratulating me? No one’s ever done that before.” Well, of course not; everyone she’s ever beaten is dead. He still wants to be her friend despite just competing against her. “Wait. What’s a friend?” She’s clearly never had one. Then Tony asks whether she had fun. Again, she has to pause to process the question. “What’s ‘fun’? I’ve never had fun.” But she realizes she has had fun and answers in the affirmative. Remember, all of this is being done with little dialogue, obscuring makeup, and severe constraints on the character’s presentation.
But what happens next leaves little doubt that her transformation is genuine. Putting morality aside, the smart thing to do would be to kill Tony as quickly as possible (or at least as soon as he’s finished with his modifications to the ship). He’s in a weakened state due to his injuries, and as a fully biological person, he probably can’t last as long as Nebula without food, water, and perhaps oxygen. The sooner he dies, the less resources he burns in a futile effort to survive before seeing a rescue currently nowhere in sight. Not only does Nebula never consider killing him, but she actually takes steps to maximize his chances of survival, placing herself at greater risk. She provides medical treatment to his wounds and gives him the last bit of food. Even more profound, after Tony drifts off to sleep, Nebula picks him up off the floor and places him in a chair. If he’s destined to die, she wants him to die with dignity. Even if he’s going to die in his sleep, she wants him to be “comfortable.” And she shows genuine sorrow for what seems to be inevitable. All of this is for a guy she just met. Does this seem like something 2014 Nebula would do?
I’d like to write a lot more, but I’m sure you get the point. So, in the interests of finishing up this post, I’ll summarize the next 2 hours and 45 minutes of Endgame by saying it becomes even more obvious that Nebula’s transformation is genuine. During the rest of the film, she continues to display emotional development, seeming more and more “human” as she goes, and she’s legitimately trying to save everyone, not just herself. Her interactions with her 2014 version enforce that position. “You don’t have to do this . . . . You’ve seen what we become. . . . You can change.” Unfortunately, 2014 Nebula isn’t there yet. “He won’t let me.”
But you do see a tear running down 2014 Nebula’s cheek as she dies (blacked out of this clip). Seeing her future self could have been her start if there were only more time.
Sure, the writers had to do their part in setting this course for the character, and I applaud their work, but someone had to actually act it out despite a number of handicaps placed upon her. Ms. Gillan acted circles around Robert Downey Jr. in their shared scene, and I don’t think anyone noticed. The movies were more Mr. Downey’s than anyone else’s, so everyone was focused on him. Nebula’s importance in Endgame proves that the Russo brothers had faith in Ms. Gillan’s talent.
I agree. I feel that Ms. Gillan has the talent to win an Oscar one day. I have a modest track record for predicting such things (e.g., predicting Reese Witherspoon’s eventual Oscar based on her performances in two forgettable movies from the mid- to late-nineties). This comes not from personal talent, but rather from attending the theater since I was in elementary school. I can’t tell you how many now-famous actors I’ve seen perform at Arena Stage at a time when they were first cutting their teeth in the arts. I learned to look for that talent even when a bad script hides it. Whether Ms. Gillan ultimately wins an Oscar will rely on two factors beyond her acting: Being given the right part and script and being willing to go through the expensive campaign to essentially buy the award from the Academy. I cannot predict either of those, but she’s got one out of three already. That’s more than most of us (and dare I say, much of Hollywood) have.
No MCU character had a more significant, personal story arc than Nebula, and at times she was exceptionally well-acted.