Music has always been a great backdrop to help us better understand each other a little bit better, stories that bring out our humanity and connect us or cultural critiques that take the temperature of a given community or time. But just as importantly, the world of rock and roll has always been a wild ride. Below are a few recommendations, fiction and non-fiction, that left an impression on me recently and all of them feature a great, full-cast recording.
Daisy Jones and the Six
This novel is a great time. Listeners follow an American rock and roll band, iconic in this fictional world, from the earliest beginnings of their lead singers to their unexpected breakup and all of the drama and excitement that the sex, drugs, and rock and roll lifestyle brings with it.
The story is told through a ‘documentary’ style that will feel familiar to those who love TV shows like The Office. Featuring some well-known names, the voice acting feels natural and it’s easy to listen to. Give this book a listen if you’re into historical fiction and the culture that emerged around bands like Fleetwood Mac.
The Final Revival of Opal & Nev
Set in New York’s punk scene in the 1970s, this story is about so much more than music. The main characters are Opal and Nev, an iconic duo of the time that has since gone their separate ways. Opal is a black musician, evoking other pioneering women in the industry like Grace Jones and Nev was her Elvis Costello-ish partner. Their story is ‘retold’ by a journalist who captured both Opal and Nev’s oral history of their time together and crafts it into a journalistic narrative.
This novel told a great story, so immersive that for a moment I second-guessed myself that perhaps it was a true story. The periodic ‘editor’s notes’ really hooked me into it and made this story feel authentic. And as an outsider to everything about this story, I found it really highlighted some of the nuances of race in music and made me really think about the world around me.
Nina Simone’s Gum
A non-fiction addition to the list, at times this memoir reads a bit more like song lyrics than most autobiographical works. Written by the veteran composer and musician Warren Ellis, the story is anchored around a physical object, a piece of chewing gum left by Nina Simone, that actually frames so much of his long career. It was definitely the title that hooked me but hearing about the author’s career journey and how a little piece of trash became his totem was really fascinating.
Of those who lend their voices to tell Ellis’ story, Nick Cave is the most notable. The deep, familiar rumble of the Red Right Hand singer is almost relaxing alongside the other voices that help propel the author’s retelling of life. This is a great read for anyone who is deeply interested in the music industry or likes to think about how found objects develop meaning and help us frame our own experiences.
There is something uniquely different about all of these stories, none of them are your cookie-cutter stories told in a linear three-act structure. All of these audiobooks have something to say that is rooted in music but really tell stories about the human experience. They all play with voice, chronology, and perspective to help guide the listener toward an intended purpose. And really, couldn’t we all use a bit more rock and roll in our lives?