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The Best Music Books of 2021

best music books 2021
Jem Aswad

So many music books, so little time. As always, we did our best to keep up with the bounty of music tomes that have hit the shelves in the past year, and as always, we failed dismally — but we did read quite a few! Below are our summations of the best ones that we actually managed to finish, with no offense intended toward those we didn’t.

The Beatles — Get Back”  by the Beatles; John Harris (editor) — When the book component of the Beatles’ “Let It Be” memorial year came out in hardback in October, full of transcribed dialogue from the original 1969 recordings, Variety wrote: “It’s remarkable how much of ‘Get Back’ reads like it could be adaptable into an off-Broadway play.” Of course, we did soon all get to see many of these fertile exchanges enacted, and not just reenacted, in Peter Jackson’s multi-part documentary. It’s no discredit to Jackson’s fine work, though, to say that some of these scenes play out even better on the page than they do on screen; things mumbled offhand on-camera can suddenly loom as much more momentous, or hilarious, in cold print. It’s also worth noting that there is by no means complete overlap between the dialogue in Jackson’s series and in the book. The filmmaker and book editor John Harris both had access to the same piles of transcripts and footage, but made some different choices from there, without checking each other’s work. In any case, if “Get Back” as a film left you wanting more, there are outtakes of the outtakes to be found in bound form. God help us, Beatlemaniacs, each and every one: Even with eight hours of viewing under our collective belts, we can’t stop going back. — Chris Willman

“Broken Horses: A Memoir” by Brandi CarlileThere’s plenty of evidence in Carlile’s memoir of her being a high-minded (or Highwoman-minded) soul — taking up charitable efforts for refugees and other human rights work; supporting other women in music, both the newcomers and not-so-newbies; providing a public template for what gay marriage and parenting can look like to a populace that’s still adjusting to these things. But over emphasizing her role-model qualities might risk undercutting what a candid, fun and sometimes irreverent read “Broken Horses” is.  Carlile is as full of play in her prose as it seems she was in her childhood. If Huck Finn could be a young, gay, faintly redneck girl growing up in Washington state, that’d be Carlile as she describes here, and that sense of wonder and delight is never too far away even when she’s having some heavier reckonings with homophobia or the vagaries of show business. As good a rock autobiography as we’ve had since her hero Elton John’s “Me,” Carlile’s memoir is, from page to page, a healing balm or a good malt liquor. — Chris Willman

“Beeswing: Losing My Way and Finding My Voice 1967-1975” by Richard Thompson with Scott Timberg — Thompson is indisputably one of the greatest songwriters and guitarists to emerge in the past 50 years, and this autography — which wisely focuses on the first decade of his career — shows just how much he and his legendary first band, Fairport Convention pioneered the fusion of rock and English folk and were at the epicenter of the exhilarating London music scene of the mid-late ‘60s. While there’s no shortage of triumph (the group’s many classic albums and concerts) and tragedy (the 1969 tour-bus crash that killed original drummer Martin Lamble and deeply scarred the band), Thompson’s measured, very British tone actually underplays his fascinating story. — Jem Aswad

“Crying in H Mart: A Memoir” by Michelle Zauner — Despite her parents’ role as occasional muse to her lyrics as frontperson of the band Japanese Breakfast, Zauner’s autobiographical tale of growing up as a young Korean-American is separate from, but obviously related to, her music. She’s more plainspoken and free as an author than as a songwriter; blunt but also buoyant. With that, her intimate memoir is unbound and unblinkingly fearless – yet dramatically structured – in recalling the emotion of her mother’s death and the manner in which a young Zauner forged her identity as an artist and as a woman. The most telling and humorously heartfelt parts of her story come when writing about her time at her grandmother’s home in Seoul, where Zauner and her mother bonded over traditions of food and family. Here, her life and aesthetic come together, connecting her to every aspect of being Korean, with heritage shrouding “Crying in H Mart” like a warm blanket. — A.D. Amorosi

“Decoding Despacito: An Oral History of Latin Music” by Leila Cobo Don’t be fooled into thinking Cobo’s historical volume is just about “Despacito,” the record-smashing 2019 single sensation by Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee (and Justin Bieber). Billboard‘s veteran VP of Latin Music uses that track’s mega-crossover appeal to draw a line from contemporary Latin pop’s start to the present, while touching on the politics of being Puerto Rican, Spanish, Cuban, Brazilian, and beyond in America. Certainly, legacy artists and ground-breakers such as Ray Barretto, Willie Colón and Ceila Cruz are present, as is the manner in which salsa pulled itself up from the barrios of New York City and became the foundation of the influential Fania label. But Cobo’s book also offers slices of life and detailed portraits in rhythm and nuance: ‘60s heroes such as Carlos Santana and José Feliciano (whose sophisticated folk is appropriately recognized here), the mainstreaming of Latin pop in the ‘80s-into-‘90s with the Estefans and the Iglesiases, modern day salseros such as Marc Anthony, and present-day heroes such as J Balvin and Rosalía all make an appearance — and Cobo even brings in lesser-known heroes such as merengue master Elvis Crespo in for good measure. — A.D. Amorosi

“Eternity” by Sukita — Now 83, veteran photographer Masayoshi Sukita begins “Eternity” by addressing the pandemic, writing “With my creativity curtailed under the current circumstances, my consciousness turns to the past” — which is a suitable introduction to this coffee-table book collecting some of his most iconic work from across a remarkable career. While his images of Bowie — which range from 1973 to 2009, including the famous “Heroes” album cover — are the most famous, the works here range from glam-rock (Marc Bolan, Iggy Pop, Eno, Roxy Music), punk and new wave (Elvis Costello, the B-52s, Joe Strummer, filmmaker Jim Jarmusch) and a number of Japanese artists less familiar to us westerners (his shots of Yellow Magic Orchestra are some of the best in the book). Stunning. — Jem Aswad

“Hot Stuff: The Story of the Rolling Stones Through the Ultimate Memorabilia Collection” by Matt Lee — There are collectors, and then there are people who might as well be the Prince or Michael Jordan of collecting. Matt Lee is one of those guys: His Rolling Stones collection has landed him in the Guinness Book of World Records, and much of the stuff is autographed (he’s friends with the Stones by this point). This photo-driven book sprawls from rare records to signed contracts to posters and drumsticks and guitars and costumes the bandmembers wore onstage, and loads more. While the early material is astonishing — an actual copy of their first demo disc, dozens of concert posters, autographed copies of their earliest records, even a pair of maracas that Mick Jagger apparently shook onstage in Australia and New Zealand in 1965 — Lee places equal emphasis on the band’s later years, when they issued increasingly tacky shoes, clothes, belts, wine lines, glasses, luggage tags, and apparently anything else that might turn a buck. But no matter what the era, fans will find plenty to (sorry) get their rocks off here. — Jem Aswad

“Kid A Mnesia: A Book of Radiohead Artwork” and “Fear Stalks the Land!: A Commonplace Book” by Thom Yorke and Stanley Donwood — These companion art books show the depth of Radiohead singer Thom Yorke and visual artist Stanley Donwood’s decades-long creative partnership, focusing on the iconic logos and designs of the band’s critically lauded “Kid A” sessions. Filled with rare artwork, early drafts, poetry and even a glossary to many of their inspirations, these works shed light on some of their more cryptic mysteries, while folding in new shadows to consider. — William Earl

“The Lady Swings: Memoirs of a Jazz Drummer” by Dottie Dodgion & Wayne Enstice — The list of female drummers who receive the acclaim they deserve is pathetically short. Imagine, then, what that means for female jazz drummers, women holding down the beat in a field deeply associated with men. What’s inspiring about Dodgion’s story and the manner in which she tells it (along with Enstice, of “Jazzwomen: Conversations with Twenty-One Musicians” fame), is that she never blames circumstance or portrays herself as hindered by her gender. Unsentimentally, gigs are gigs, jazz is jazz; may the best woman win. Dodgion played the Vegas Strip, the Big Apple’s clubs, the snowy slopes of the Delaware River Water Gap and worked through the macho brotherhood of jazz without relying on cliché or a man’s shoulder to cry on or rely on. Her musings on her earliest gigs (auspiciously with the likes of Charles Mingus and Benny Goodman) are frank and funky. Through shows and sessions in the 1970’s with Ruby Braff and Joe Venuti, or ‘80s showcases with Melba Liston and brass virtuosos the Brecker brothers (Michael and Randy), Dodgion accentuates the positive but isn’t afraid of the downside, both professional and personal. — A.D. Amorosi

“Led Zeppelin: The Biography” by Bob Spitz — With countless thousands of books (including official autobiographies) magazine articles, videos, a lavishly detailed official website, and an apparently definitive documentary on the way, one may well wonder what possibly could be left to say about Led Zeppelin that hasn’t already been said. And the first few pages of Spitz’s overheated, very 1970s prose — “Heads bouncing, hands jerking, bodies flinging helter-skelter to the beat” — don’t do much to refute that perspective. But once the book settles into its groove, Spitz’s deep research shows in spades: He’s either interviewed or culled past interviews with the principals as well as many of the lesser-visited people around them — childhood friends, former bandmates, various people from the business — to present a view of the band that, while familiar, provides enough new detail to capture even the most educated Zep fan’s imagination. — Jem Aswad

“A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance” by Hanif Abdurraqib — Let a poet do the job of a critical thinker while considering a legacy, and the rewards will be rich. That is the case when Hanif Abdurraqib – the poet behind “The Crown Ain’t Worth Much,” the essayist of “They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us” and the author for “Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to a Tribe Called Quest” — set his sights on a wide array of grand Black musical and arts moments, and their lasting impact on American culture. Named after a famous quote from expatriate singer Josephine Baker during 1963’s March on Washington — “I was a devil in other countries, and I was a little devil in America, too” — Abdurraqib looks at the wholesome marketing of Whitney Houston; the signature soar of singer Merry Clayton on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”; the weekly influence of Don Cornelius’ “Soul Train”; the influence of turn-of-the-century minstrel shows on vaudeville; the church-going past of Aretha Franklin; and even the act of bluffing during card games. His unusual approach creates an unusually far-reaching picture. — A.D. Amorosi

“Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres” by Kelefah Sanneh — During his years at the New York Times, Sanneh was one of the best music critics in the business, although his move to the New Yorker in 2008 has found him writing primarily about non-musical subjects. However, he makes up for lost time with this sprawling tome, a collection of in-depth histories of nearly every major genre of music from the past 50 years: rock, R&B, country, punk, hip-hop, dance and pop. While his insights are keen and the histories well rendered, his tactic of combining 101-level introductions with graduate-level analysis may have some readers slogging through pages of very familiar information before reaching previously untraveled terrain. Having said that, most readers will find much to learn in the genres they know less about — his take on country music, which he had no background in and compares to learning a new language, is particularly fresh — and actually, this book is probably tailor-made for any number of college or high school courses on contemporary music history … — Jem Aswad

Nöthin’ But a Good Time: The Uncensored History of the ’80s by Tom Beaujour and Richard Bienstock — After Mötley Crüe’s “The Dirt,” how much more uncensored can heavy hair metal get without needing a plain brown wrapper? “Nothin’ But a Good Time” does manage to rival Crüe decadence by the sheer volume of its participants and their tales of downward-spiraling (or upward, depending on the substance in question) and mirth and madness, all while linking the ultimate party music to the snide politics of the Reagan Era. Buyer beware: This is not a politically correct read, as misogyny and rude sexual overtures abound. But gossip, gore and “Girls, Girls, Girls,” aside, what is best about this “Good Time” is how veteran rock writers Beaujour and Bienstock never let the reader forget the intensity of hair metal’s musicality and the ferocity of its axemen. Devil horns up! — A.D. Amorosi

“Prince and the ‘Parade’ & ‘Sign O’ the Times’ Studio Sessions 1985 and 1986” by Duane Tudahl — As the Prince estate’s archive team digs deeper and deeper into his much-vaunted vault, what is most astonishing is just how much more music exists than even the most completist fans ever dreamed. Tudahl is a key member of that team, and in this second volume from Prince’s most prolific era — and arguably his most inspired — he takes more than 600 pages just to inventory, describe and provide context around the hundreds and hundreds of songs, concerts and rehearsals that the artist, who famously rarely slept, recorded: A day with a four-hour soundcheck, a concert and a multi-hour recording session was normal. Needless to say it takes dedication to get through this brick-heavy tome, but the reader sees and hears the creation of the “Parade” and “Sign O’ the Times” albums — as well as multiple side-projects and unreleased albums like “Dream Factory” and “Crystal Ball” — all of which took place over just two years. — Jem Aswad

“Rainbow in the Dark: The Autobiography” by Ronnie James Dio — Appearing some 11 years after Dio’s death from cancer, this autobiography from arguably the greatest heavy metal singer of all time was completed by his wife and former manager Wendy, but she seems to have done a fairly seamless job: In fact, reading the book is like sitting next to the man born Ronald James Padavona himself — whose musical career stretched back to the late 1950s — and hearing him reel off story after story. While some of those tales feel a bit time-worn, things really kick into gear when he joins forces with Ritchie Blackmore in Rainbow in the mid-1970s, progressing to an underrated stint with Black Sabbath and then his own band, and the glories and frustration that came with all three. The book wisely stops at the peak of Dio’s solo career in mid-1980s — sidestepping the perfunctory “and then, and then” later-years narrative that burdens so many rock bios. Along the way, we find out how he effectively invented the devil-horns hand signal that has since become indelibly associated with heavy metal, and the role his Italian grandmother played in it. — Jem Aswad

“The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music,” by Dave Grohl — Of all the true-to-Foo things that Grohl did during lockdown — make a new album, record Bee Gees hits for Record Store Day, film a horror movie with his band, tour as soon as lockdown lifted, be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame honor, record non-Foos music with Mick Jagger, Greg Kurstin and his daughter Violet, and, well, lots more overexposure-flouting activity — this memoir, “Tales of Life and Music” is his most guileless effort. He doesn’t go for the jugular or dish dirt — that’s not Grohl’s style. Instead, he sticks to a shaggy dog, do-anything-for-rock backstory (a loving mom with no money, making drums out of pillows), a teen dream of playing in punk bands (Scream) and playing with gods (Led Zeppelin, Tom Petty, Iggy Pop), and making the Foo Fighters’ debut album by himself, before turning it into the long-running band of brothers it’s become. That he tells his not-so-tall “Tales” with the same friendly ferocity in which he plays and sings makes his memoir a pleasure to behold — even if it could use more fight than Foo. — A.D. Amorosi

“Unrequited Infatuations: A Memoir” by Stevie Van Zandt — After 60-odd years in the entertainment business, Steven Van Zandt — Bruce Springsteen’s longtime guitarist, friend and consiglieri, aka Little Steven, Miami Steve and now, apparently, Stevie Van Zandt — knows what his audience wants. Thus, this book is wisely centered around his many years working with the Boss, as well as his semi-parallel role as consiglieri in “The Sopranos.” While there are plenty of well-worn road tales from his years with the Boss, there’s also deep insight into his outwardly-amicable-but-not-really split with Springsteen in 1984, his ensuing wilderness years as a solo artist, and finally his reunion with the E Street Band, which ironically coincided with his stint on “The Sopranos.” Bonus: His detailing of “Sopranos” mastermind Dave Chase’s genius in casting Van Zandt in the Silvio role — and the considerable scheduling hurdles he worked around — which not only brought even more Jersey realness to the series, but showed how deeply he understood what the Boss’ longtime wingman could bring to the character. — Jem Aswad