Most books about music and musicians are quickly puked-up exercises in nearly competent hackery.
So imagine my surprise, my relief, even my joy to discover how easy it was to select a dozen music books that I can unequivocally recommend.
In fact, the tricky part was narrowing my list down, so to keep under my word count I’ve mostly avoided artist memoirs. No Wilco fan needs a nudge to check out the new Jeff Tweedy, after all, and no one with a sense of humor needs me to tell them the Beastie Boys’ book is hilarious.
Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968
By Ryan H. Walsh
We’ll be enduring 50-year anniversaries of classic rock albums for years to come (maybe not quite 50, if we’re lucky), but few will be as wide-ranging and astute as this examination of the context from which Van Morrison’s dreamy, elusive landmark recording arose, a colorful survey of the counterculture of Boston as the Irish rocker found it when he travelled there to record.
Bing Crosby: Swinging on a Star: The War Years, 1940-1946
By Gary Giddins
You’ve had 17 years to read Giddins’ Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams-The Early Years, 1930-1940, so if you’re not ready for this follow-up you’ve only got yourself to blame. The former Village Voice jazz critic set the gold standard for music bios with his first volume; its sequel follows Bing’s career as the musical innovator became a film star and made himself at home at the center of American popular culture.
Homeplace: A Southern Town, a Country Legend, and the Last Days of a Mountaintop Honky-Tonk
By John Lingan
Lingan set out to Winchester, Virginia to profile Jim McCoy, the DJ who long ago jumpstarted Patsy Cline’s career. But he stayed to examine the complex forces of history, economics, and identity that shaped that region’s history and that continue, in unexpected ways, to shape its future.
In on the Kill Taker
By Joe Gross
The 33 1/3 series, which has been delivering book-length reflections on significant albums in bite-sized, gift-friendly little publications for 15 years, has always been hit or miss. But recent releases suggest a sharp increase in quality control. Case in point: this expert discussion of Fugazi’s third album and how the DC band preserved their anti-mass-market ethos as punk became ridiculously profitable in 1993. (Full disclosure: I’m pals with the author, but I’m also principled enough that our friendship has restrained me from being more effusive about his writing than I would be otherwise. So there.)
Is It Still Good to Ya?: Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967-2017
By Robert Christgau
Do you write about music? Read about music? Think about the stuff even a little? Well even if you’ve never read a word Christgau has written—or, really, even if you’ve disagreed with every word of his you’ve read—he’s had an effect on how you write or read or think. Though Christgau is best known for his pithy, graded Consumer Guide blurbs, this monumental tome collects his longer essays on both essential figures in popular music and his own pet favorites, at least a few of which he’ll convince you deserve to be considered essential themselves. Buy two copies—one to throw angrily across the room, one as a reference.
My Own Devices: True Stories from the Road on Music, Science, and Senseless Love
As with any good memoir, Dessa’s writing mingles the specific and the universal: Yes, I’ve felt that way, you think, but not exactly that way—and those feelings sure didn’t make me do that. Yes, this is a book about a woman who’s still hung up on a guy and doesn’t want to be. (It’s P.O.S, if you want to be gossipy about it—and why wouldn’t you?) But she’s self-aware about her foibles without ever being too cute about it. Her music tends toward melancholy, as she notes, but she’s constitutionally immune to tragedy, bringing a hyper-analytical sensibility to bear on her unruly emotions and persevering with good old Midwestern pluck.
Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century
By Nate Chinen
Even before Kamasi Washington started selling out rooms the size of the Palace, it was clear that jazz had moved beyond the crises and conflicts that defined it in the ’80s and ’90s. Chinen suggests that jazz’s loss of cultural prominence has been good for it, freeing up its creative energies and allowing it to disregard past controversies.
She Begat This: 20 Years of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
By Joan Morgan
Morgan was among the first generation of journalists whose style was reshaped by ’90s hip-hop—her collection When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost is essential. As Hill’s contemporary, she’s ideally suited to explain what made the first solo female rap superstar an unprecedented cultural figure, and to chart the precedents she set for those who followed her.
To Throw Away Unopened
OK, I’m cheating—this isn’t exactly a “music book.” The Slits guitarist already documented her brief punk career and its aftermath in her brilliant 2014 memoir, Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys, which you should read immediately before you do anything else. I’ll wait. Finished? OK, then, on to round two, which recounts her mother’s death and explores her parents’ past from an unsentimental (but not cynical) and analytical (but not distant) perspective, while keenly observing the power dynamics of family and how allegiances between relatives shift over time.
Wasn’t That a Time: The Weavers, the Blacklist, and the Battle for the Soul of America
By Jesse Jarnow
As he demonstrated on his journey through the ’60s and beyond, Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America, Jarnow has a gift for remapping historical terrain you thought you knew every feature of already. This time it’s the folk movement of the ’40s and ’50s and the scourge of McCarthyism he brings vividly to life. Now I’m looking forward to reading what he discovers next time—about the ’30s, the ’20s, the ’10s....
We Are the Clash: Reagan, Thatcher, and the Last Stand of a Band That Mattered
By Ralph Heibutzki
There’s no shortage of books about the Clash, but Heibutzki may be the first champion of the band’s maligned twilight years. He not only finds heroism in Joe Strummer’s decision to persist after Mick Jones and Topper Headon left the band, but also provides insight into a political moment whose repercussions continue to shape our own.
Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyoncé, Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl
Evelyn McDonnell, editor
You may have noticed a few male names on this list. Too many male names, probably. Well, here’s an oasis for when you’ve heard enough from opinionated men. McDonnell, who edited the pioneering 1995 collection of female music writing Rock She Wrote, hit up some of the best women writing about music today for 104 essays that discuss female musicians, not all of whom “rock” in the loud guitars and booming drums sense. Essential.