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Words and Music
July 12, 2011 9:56 AM   Subscribe

Words and Music. The staff at Pitchfork list their favorite books about music.

"The idea of saying that any 25 or 50 or 100 music books are the "best" seems ridiculous. So this is not that sort of list. Instead, it's a list of 60 music-related books that explore the depth and breadth of our collective obsessions. There's no shortage of writing about music-- or ways to write about it-- and this is not a definitive be-all-end-all list as much as a starting point. All of these works lead to other worthy titles, undiscovered albums, and new ways of thinking about the sounds flowing into our headphones on a daily basis."
posted by rocket88 (56 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite

 
"The idea of saying that any 25 or 50 or 100 music books are the "best" seems ridiculous"

But don't doubt for a second that the latest Phoenix album is exactly 3% worse than the latest from Arcade Fire.
posted by auto-correct at 10:01 AM on July 12, 2011 [16 favorites]


Oooh, I hate Pitchfork. But this was a good list. Thanks for forcing it past my filter.

Both "Our Band Could Be Your Life" and the Miles Davis auto-bio were fantastic reads. Also, any Lester Bangs.

One minor quibble is that it seems kind of light on books about the industry. Let me recommend Appetite For Self Destruction, for a nice overview of how the excesses of the 70's led inexorably to the crash of the 90's

Another great one they missed is The Secret History Of Rock which does a killer job of tracing influences in modern music.
posted by lumpenprole at 10:02 AM on July 12, 2011


I had hoped to see Talking Music on this list, which is my personal favorite book of music writing, though it definitely focuses on the art-music composer end of things. The authors interviews many working composers about their methods and history.

Also, Elevator Music is a fascinating history of the Muzak corporation and the idea of music-as-ambiance in general.
posted by Barking Frog at 10:05 AM on July 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Also, cue the avalanche of Pitchfork hatred. The first rocks have already started rolling.
posted by Barking Frog at 10:06 AM on July 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


"Miles: The Autobiography by Miles Davis with Quincy Troupe" -- really? A good percentage of that book was plagarized from the much better book Milestones
posted by milnak at 10:06 AM on July 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


Generation Ecstasy/Energy Flash is one of the best books I've ever read. A much better book than Last Night a DJ Saved My Life. I'm surprised it's not on the list.
posted by empath at 10:09 AM on July 12, 2011


Disappointed not to see the autobiography of Johnny Cash, Cash by Johnny Cash.
posted by Apropos of Something at 10:11 AM on July 12, 2011


Generation Ecstasy/Energy Flash is one of the best books I've ever read. A much better book than Last Night a DJ Saved My Life. I'm surprised it's not on the list.

It's on page 3 of the list.
posted by Barking Frog at 10:11 AM on July 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


In case your-favourite-book-about-your-favourite-band-sucks Pitchfork-backlash snark overtakes this thread, I'll say right off the top - as a journalist and writer of a nonfiction book on pop culture - that they've compiled a very interesting and eclectic reading list.

A couple of additions/annotations:

With all due respect to Country, the truly essential Nick Tosches music book is Hellfire, his masterful, novelistic biography of Jerry Lee Lewis.

There's no bad Peter Guralnick, but his two-volume Elvis bio (Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love) should be on that list; it feels, as you're reading it, like it's the whole history of pop music in one man's story, which it damn near is.

Very glad to see my colleague Carl Wilson on there for Let's Talk About Love, which is worth reading for many reasons but would be worth the cover price for his discussion of thematic similarities between Celine Dion and punk rock alone. (Hypothesis: "Punk is anger's schmaltz" - discuss.)

One of the best books ever written about pop music is not on that list. That book is Louie Louie by Dave Marsh. It is an exhaustive history of the song "Louie Louie" and its fulcrum-like role in inventing rock & roll. It is a great read and you should go read it now.
posted by gompa at 10:13 AM on July 12, 2011 [3 favorites]


The Land Where Blues Began by Alan Lomax is pretty great, if you want to know, among other things, what it was like for black musicians in the Deep South in the middle of the 20th century. Powerful stuff.
posted by swift at 10:20 AM on July 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


It's on page 3 of the list.

Goddamn, could they make the 1|2|3 any smaller at the bottom of the page?
posted by empath at 10:21 AM on July 12, 2011


empath: Generation Ecstasy/Energy Flash is one of the best books I've ever read.

Rejoice, US readers: Energy Flash is coming soon(ish)
"Energy Flash strictly speaking never came out in the US: Generation Ecstasy was the abridged version, so this is the first-time-in-America appearance of the unexpurgated, non-streamlined original. Plus it also contains the 40 thousand extra words of the updated/expanded 10th anniversary edition of Energy Flash that Picador released in the UK in 2008."
Bonus: bibliography for the 2008 edition of Energy Flash, and the omitted discography from the 2008 edition.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:25 AM on July 12, 2011


I was pleasantly surprised at that list. They had my two favorite music books, Revolution in the Head and Rip It Up and Start Again and many other personal faves.

I was especially happy to see How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music on the list. It's a book I recommend to anyone looking for a strong history of popular music in America over the past century. The book does a better job at putting all of the changes of popular music in chronological context than I've seen anywhere else. Elijah Wald has does such detailed research that he occasionally takes the fun out of music, but it's helped me better understand how one moment in music directly affected another.

On first look the only disagreement I have with that list is putting the The SPIN Alternative Record Guide on there over the Trouser Press Record Guides. Maybe it's a generational thing, but those books influenced my buying habits for 20+ years and the reviews are well written and usually spot on.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 10:28 AM on July 12, 2011 [3 favorites]


Oh, I should link to my list of my favorite dances about architecture!

In all seriousness I love books about music and there are a few here I haven't read, so yay!
posted by padraigin at 10:29 AM on July 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oooh, I hate Pitchfork. But this was a good list.

So what's it gonna be? Hate or open-minded analysis of what's actually on offer. Because HATE is boring and predictable, and like you said, this is a good list. IT doesn't contain every great book ever written about music but man, it would make for a damned good start on anyone's reading on the topic.

Congrats, Pitchfork.
posted by philip-random at 10:31 AM on July 12, 2011 [4 favorites]


Cool post. Will peruse. One more book suggestion, a work from which I learned pretty much everything about the origin of "The Blues" is Blacks Whites and Blues by Tony Russell.
posted by telstar at 10:32 AM on July 12, 2011


Oh Pitchfork. It's nice how in their list they managed to include a token book about women in popular music, edited by a woman and with articles by women writers, so that they covered all the bases. Women artists must be grouped together, women can only be influenced by or influence other women, and the first job of a female critic is to write about female artists.

Yes, I know there's a book there by Ellen Willis. We're still talking one book out of 60 that isn't a catch-all survey of "women in music". But wait! There are some more women involved in music, and here they are, in The Dirt: Confessions of the World's Most Notorious Rock Band, by Mötley Crüe and Neil Strauss!:
Drugs are used, abused, sworn off, and re-embraced with unholy vigor. Women (and burritos) are sexually violated, friends are accidentally murdered, and at one point bassist Nikki Sixx fucking dies, only to inexplicably return from the great unknown. You know that urban legend about Jimmy Page and the mud shark? Yeah, well, these guys actually did that-- except it was with a telephone receiver.
I'm so tired of Pitchfork's institutionalized sexism, you know? I still look at it every day-- you can't really be interested in the current musical scene and ignore it completely-- but it grates.
posted by jokeefe at 10:43 AM on July 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


Decent list. Needs Clinton Heylin's Bootleg.
posted by Trurl at 10:44 AM on July 12, 2011 [3 favorites]


Energy Flash strictly speaking never came out in the US: Generation Ecstasy was the abridged version

Do you know what the differences are? I had no idea it was abridged, it's a pretty thick book even so.
posted by empath at 10:52 AM on July 12, 2011


Always Magic in the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era.

Includes the tale of a then very pregnant Carole King singing Will You Love Me Tomorrow for the first time from a Manhattan phone booth and him replying "sounds like a hit, now go write another".
posted by pianomover at 10:53 AM on July 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


The Recording Angel: Music, Records and Culture from Aristotle to Zappa

by Evan Eisenberg


This is a really good book. Just my $0.02.
posted by chavenet at 10:56 AM on July 12, 2011


Trurl, that's a fascinating book, I definitely recommend it.

Another missing gem (or rather, tome) is People Funny Boy: The Genius of Lee "Scratch" Perry. It's a dense 538 pages, which I still have not completed.


Energy Flash strictly speaking never came out in the US: Generation Ecstasy was the abridged version

empath: Do you know what the differences are? I had no idea it was abridged, it's a pretty thick book even so.

No idea, but you can probably ask Simon Reynolds - he replied to my questions about the re-release of Energy Flash.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:58 AM on July 12, 2011


Seconded on Guralnick's two vol. Elvis bio. Simply epic.

Personally, I'd suggest Sidney Bechet's Treat It Gentle. A great view of the early days of jazz, and into so many other worlds long gone, particularly New Orleans of a hundred years ago. Wonderful read.
posted by Capt. Renault at 11:00 AM on July 12, 2011


No idea, but you can probably ask Simon Reynolds - he replied to my questions about the re-release of Energy Flash.

Yeah, I sent him an email like 8 years ago asking him why he completely ignored trance and he he wrote back that he had written a chapter that got added later, I think.
posted by empath at 11:02 AM on July 12, 2011


Does Pitchfork have any decent writers yet or are they still solely the domain of kids whose musical knowledge only goes back as far as "Ninja Rap" by Vanilla Ice and now only listen to flavor-of-the-month "indie" bands with alliterative names?
posted by entropicamericana at 11:06 AM on July 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


I won't commit either way, entropic, until you tell me which would be more likely to earn your rare esteem.
posted by gompa at 11:13 AM on July 12, 2011 [3 favorites]


I clicked through the list for the express purpose of complaining that How To Wreck a Nice Beach was overlooked, but there it is. What a great book-- a must read for any librarians / information folk who are also music nerds.
posted by activitystory at 11:23 AM on July 12, 2011


No FYM by ICE means this list is some bullshit.
posted by Senor Cardgage at 11:25 AM on July 12, 2011


Generation Ecstasy/Energy Flash is one of the best books I've ever read. A much better book than Last Night a DJ Saved My Life. I'm surprised it's not on the list.

I feel the opposite. Generation Ecstasy repeats Juan Atkins' claim that he invented Chicago house, which is easily disproven.

Missing from the list is one of my favorite music books, Chicago Soul by Robert Pruter, which is accessible enough for the general public but is meticulous in its citations and research.
posted by hyperizer at 11:28 AM on July 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Where's Hammer of the Gods?!

oh right, Pitchfork.
posted by not_on_display at 11:33 AM on July 12, 2011


Competent but not groundbreaking. 6.8
posted by naju at 11:46 AM on July 12, 2011 [3 favorites]


Thought it was more of a 6.7 or 6.75...
posted by gagglezoomer at 11:52 AM on July 12, 2011



I won't commit either way, entropic, until you tell me which would be more likely to earn your rare esteem.


But it's so trendy to hate hipsters, and besides, I'm sure entropic hated Pitchfork before it was cool.
posted by WhitenoisE at 11:57 AM on July 12, 2011


Where's Hammer of the Gods?!

Stephen Davis' Hammer of the Gods, though it can't help but tell a fascinating tale, is a long way from anything I'd call a quality read. His Rolling Stones book on the other hand, Old Gods Almost Dead: The 40-Year Odyssey of the Rolling Stones, is actually quite worthy ... although it does sort of end with a slow, prolonged, wet fart as it insists on continuing to take the Stones seriously past say, 1975.
posted by philip-random at 12:09 PM on July 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


I feel the opposite. Generation Ecstasy repeats Juan Atkins' claim that he invented Chicago house, which is easily disproven.

Do you mean detroit techno? Because I don't remember that in the book. Juan Atkins isn't even from Chicago.
posted by empath at 12:13 PM on July 12, 2011


I am pleased that in spite of the title of the article and in spite of the fact Paul Morley is on the list, Morley's Words and Music is not on the list. I half-loved it and half-hated it and it felt like exactly the sort of "You're too stupid to understand" thing that would make Pitchfork's list.
posted by yerfatma at 12:23 PM on July 12, 2011


I'm going to toss in Scott Miller's Music: What Happened as my recent favorite book about music, though Our Band Can Be Your Life and Flowers in the Dustbin are also two favorites.
posted by Joey Michaels at 12:23 PM on July 12, 2011


Well, maybe I'm reading too much into it, but Reynolds writes, "When British A & R scouts came to Chicago to investigate house music in 1986-87, they discovered that many of the top-selling tracks were actually from Detroit." He then quotes Atkins claiming, "We were selling more records in Chicago than even Chicago artists" (source).
posted by hyperizer at 12:55 PM on July 12, 2011


All that's saying is that Detroit Techno was more popular in Chicago than Chicago house was at the time, which might have been true.
posted by empath at 12:58 PM on July 12, 2011


This list would be genuinely helpful to anyone trying to broaden their understanding of music, which is not something you can always say about the writing in Pitchfork.

Positively 4th Street by David Haidu, American Hardcore by Steve Blush and The Trouser Pres Record Guide edited by Ira Robbins would be some of my possible additions to the list.
posted by jeffen at 1:28 PM on July 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung changed my life. After reading it in my suburban bedroom I knew I wanted to see and write about rock and roll. I bought Astral Weeks and a Sex Pistols album and ending up writing Bangs-imitation prose so horrible the local street press specified 'no Lester Bangs wannabes' on their next writer callout. Eventually I calmed down.

Greil Marcus is perfect, as is Dylan's Chronicles. List might be missing Songs In The Key Of Z, which talked about Wesley Wilis, Jandek, etc.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 3:33 PM on July 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


This list was great. It included many books I love, many books that have been on my "to read" list for years, and some really surprising choices that I may have to add to my want list.

I would like to second the admiration for the following books:

Lester Bangs, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung
Chuck Klosterman, Fargo Rock City
Greil Marcus, Mystery Train (a little overrated but still good)
Dave Marsh, Louie Louie ("gompa" does not steer you wrong, get thee to a library or used bookstore and read it!)
Ian McDonald, Revolution in the Head
David Ritz, Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye (Ritz had such a close relationship with Gaye that he later converted from Judaism to Christianity based on Gaye's example)
Jon Savage, England's Dreaming

Needs to go on the "to read" pile:

Michael Azzerad, Our Band Could Be Your Life
Joe Boyd, White Bicycles
Jeff Chang, Can't Stop Won't Stop
Julian Cope, Krautrocksampler (you can download a PDF of it on the Web)
Peter Guralnick, Sweet Soul Music
Daniel Levitin, This Is Your Brain on Music
Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain, Please Kill Me
Simon Reynolds, Rip It Up and Start Again
Alex Ross, The Rest Is Noise
John Szwed, Space Is The Place
Dave Tompkins, How to Wreck a Nice Beach
David Toop, Oceans of Sound
Elijah Wald, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll

Other omissions that I'd like to recommend:

Charles R. Cross, Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain
Greil Marcus, Dead Elvis (I like it more than Mystery Train)
Robert Walser, Running with the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal
Elijah Wald, Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues
Frank Zappa, The Real Frank Zappa Book (don't know if it's still in print, but it was a favorite in my high school days)
Tricia Rose, Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America
Michael Hicks, Sixties Rock: Garage, Psychedelic, and Other Satisfactions
Richie Unterberger, Turn! Turn! Turn!: the '60s Folk Rock Revolution
Richie Unterberger, Eight Miles High: Folk-Rock's Flight from Haight Ashbury to Woodstock
anything about the Velvet Underground I can get my hands on

And last but not least...

Bubblegum Is The Naked Truth and Lost in the Grooves, both edited by Mefi's own Kim Coooper
posted by jonp72 at 4:11 PM on July 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Where's Hammer of the Gods?!

To be fair, the list does include Motley Crue's The Dirt, which is kind of Hammer of the Gods for the young 'uns. But I must say that, back in 1985, when Hammer of the Gods came out, that book was the shilznit. It made every boy in junior high school wish he could hail Satan, do copious amounts of mind-altering drugs, trash hotel rooms, and engage in a three-way with a groupie and a mudshark. Who cares if it's of poor literary quality or dodgy factual accuracy? What could be more rock 'n' roll than that?
posted by jonp72 at 4:40 PM on July 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


Never read their one by-women-for-women book, but I did read Cindarella's Dreaming, which was excellent.

On this list I've read England's Dreaming, Please Kill Me, This Is Your Brain on Music and Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, and I would recommend the hip hop book. It only covers NYC and LA, but it's got a lot of sociopolitical talk for a book about music.

After reading this list, I have decided that I have to read that John Darnielle half-music-criticism-half-creative-writing 33 1/3 book.
posted by subdee at 6:30 PM on July 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


My best friend swears by Joe Carducci's Rock and the Pop Narcotic, but I haven't read it yet.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 6:32 PM on July 12, 2011


Errr, Cindarella's Big Score. Which is about women in punk, which is how I got the title mixed up. That was the book where I found out that some all-male punk groups were associated with some all-female punk groups, like fraternities and sororities.
posted by subdee at 6:34 PM on July 12, 2011


My favorite is Starmaking Machinery, which is all about an album made by Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen back in the 70s. A really in-depth look at how records used to be made. The two Rolling Stone record review paperbacks that covered 1968 through about 1972 used to be my bibles, too.
posted by rfs at 8:12 PM on July 12, 2011


empath, if that were true, period WBMX, Ron Hardy, and Frankie Knuckles mixes would include lots of Detroit tracks (which they don't). Also note that while there were three main Detroit labels, there were over 100 Chicago ones [self-link].

All I'm saying is if Reynolds was going to make sweeping statements about house music, he should have talked to a few Chicago folks for their perspective. (Disclaimer: I love Chicago house and Detroit techno and have talked to many musicians from both cities personally.)
posted by hyperizer at 8:34 PM on July 12, 2011


Strings of Life was a big house record, wasn't it? I'm just not sure you can separate cleanly techno and house in the early days. It was all one scene with a lot of crossover.
posted by empath at 8:42 PM on July 12, 2011


That seems like a pretty good list. It had a handful of books that I've read and enjoyed. The only thing I didn't see on there that I would have added would be The Ambient Century by Mark Prendergast. I read that when I started listening to music more seriously. I don't believe I could have asked for a more comprehensive and fundamental overview of most of the seminal events in western music of the last hundred years.
Most of the content is well known to fans of specific composers and bands but the treat is how Prendergast contextualizes it all amidst the changing technologies involved with music creation and reproduction.
posted by coolxcool=rad at 9:04 PM on July 12, 2011


I would nominate a little-known novel: The Bear Comes Home, by Rafi Zabor (a musician), simply because he does something I had assumed was impossible. Zabor describes what goes through a jazz musician's head as he improvises. There are some stunning passages in the book.
posted by kozad at 10:42 PM on July 12, 2011


A lot of good stuff, but I noticed they were missing one of my personal favorites, Glimpses by Lewis Shiner. It's been released for free download HERE(pdf) or you can compensate the author on amazon.

It's about a radio repairmen with a terrible relationship with his late father. The main character accidentally discovers the ability to visualize alternate realities where great lost albums were finished and brings back recordings to sell in the real world.
posted by sandswipe at 12:22 AM on July 13, 2011


Leonard B. Meyer's Emotion and Meaning in Music (1957) is good too.

From Wikipedia:

His most influential work, Emotion and Meaning in Music (1957), combined Gestalt Theory and theories by Pragmatists Charles Sanders Peirce and John Dewey to try to explain the existence of emotion in music. Peirce had suggested that any regular response to an event developed alongside the understanding of that event's consequences, its 'meaning'. Dewey extended this to explain that, if the response was stopped by an unexpected event, then an emotional response would occur over the event's 'meaning'.

Meyer used this basis to form a theory about music, combining musical expectations in a specific cultural context with emotion and meaning elicited. His work went on to influence theorists both in and outside music, as well as providing a basis for cognitive psychology research into music and our responses to it.

posted by beshtya at 6:15 AM on July 13, 2011


I was glad to see Carl Wilson's Let's Talk About Love - A Journey to the end of Taste in there right at the end. That really is a remarkable wee book.
posted by peterkins at 6:46 AM on July 13, 2011


jokeefe: Oh Pitchfork. It's nice how in their list they managed to include a token book about women in popular music, edited by a woman and with articles by women writers, so that they covered all the bases. Women artists must be grouped together, women can only be influenced by or influence other women, and the first job of a female critic is to write about female artists.
+1. Flavorwire has now put together a list of Great Books about Music by Female Writers in response to this typical piece of clueless Pichfork misogyny.
posted by Sonny Jim at 1:19 PM on July 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Sonny Jim, thank you for that! Relatedly, 33 Women Music Critics You Need to Read, also from Flavorwire. I haven't read the entire list yet, but I expect that Anwyn Crawford (who wrote this excellent takedown of Nick Cave) will be there. I admire her writing tremendously.

Part of my issue with Pitchfork's list isn't just the lack of female writers; it's the lack of female subjects. Going by their list, all the music made by women can be dealt with in 1/60 of the space allotted to male artists. A list of books about popular music that includes nothing about Riot Grrl, or the Motown girl groups, or the women who helped to found punk? It's a form of judgement on what is important and what's not, and it's draining to see the pattern repeat yet again. This is how the canon is made; this is the mechanism by which women's art or writing or music is obscured, as it has been continually over the centuries.
posted by jokeefe at 1:41 PM on July 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


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