×

The Best Music Books of 2022

best music books 2022
Jem Aswad

If you want to know the feeling of constantly failing… well, yes, you can read any number of musicians’ memoirs about their early years, but you can also try to keep up with the vast number of music books released every year. It’s like trying to keep up with multiple TV series at the same time, or the number of lies a certain former president tells every day — you keep up as best you can and hope you’re not missing a blockbuster. Of course, the upside is there are many, many great books released this year, and although we’re sure we are missing many of them, below are the best music books of 2022 that we actually managed to read.

“The Islander: My Life in Music and Beyond” — Chris Blackwell with Paul Morley
The list of artists that Chris Blackwell’s Island Records spawned under his watch is astonishing and arguably without peer for a company of its size: U2, Bob Marley, Nick Drake, King Crimson, Roxy Music, Traffic, Free, Cat Stevens, Grace Jones, Brian Eno, Steve Winwood, Robert Palmer, Jethro Tull, Fairport Convention, Toots & the Maytalls, the Cranberries, Marianne Faithfull, King Sunny Ade, Eric B. & Rakim, Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come” and so many others. He co-founded the company in his native Jamaica in 1959, relocated to London and within five years had launched the first global reggae hit, Millie Smalls’ “My Boy Lollipop.” A couple of years later he pivoted into rock, and, well, you can see above how that went. All of that and more is put into dazzling focus in “The Islander,” which is on the level of Elton John’s “Me” and Patti Smith’s “Just Kids” for all-time great music memoirs — seemingly unlikely characters (legendary actor Errol Flynn, “James Bond” author Ian Fleming, Miles Davis make cameos along with the aforementioned artists. It is so well-written (for which Blackwell credits cowriter Morley) and filled with superstars that the glamour almost overshadows the keen musical insight he displays almost casually throughout — he speaks of the influence of Fats Domino on reggae, the importance of the swinging jazz drums in Procol Harum’s 1967 smash “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” the fact that bass is effectively the lead instrument in reggae music — as well as pearls of wisdom, like “In my experience, when people are described as difficult, it usually just means that they know what they want.” While he offers uneven defense to accusations of exploiting some of the artists he signed and certain family members warrant only fleeting mentions, as a music tome, this one is hard to beat. — Aswad

“Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story” by Bono
The U2 singer’s stage presence may be bombastic, but Bono’s startlingly intimate autobiography is a look into his greatest loves and heartbreaks. Between the formation of U2, its near break-up and the bumps along the way, there is plenty of rock talk. But Bono writes beautifully about his relationship with his parents and his wife, detailing how their love lifted him to extraordinary heights. With prose far beyond the typical ghostwritten rock star bio, Bono organizes the highs and lows through the lens of classic U2 songs, which adds further insight beyond the lyrics. While the last stretch of the book namechecks the world’s most powerful people through his dedication to humanitarian efforts, the biggest sparks come through passages recounting tales with his bandmates. Even though the grandiosity of U2 could sometimes turn into self-parody, the emotion driving the group is vividly chronicled in “Surrender.” — William Earl

“Moonage Daydream: The Life and Times of Ziggy Stardust” — David Bowie with Mick Rock (reissue)
Despite its title, this book is not a direct companion to Brett Morgen’s sprawling David Bowie documentary released earlier this year — instead, it’s a long-overdue reissue of the lavish coffee-table book of Bowie’s epochal “Ziggy Stardust” era of 1972-73. Originally released in a pricey edition of just 2,500, it includes more than 600 photos taken by Bowie’s personal photographer at the time, the late Mick Rock, along with lengthy, fascinating commentary written by Bowie himself, which provides unequalled insight into the person, persona and master plan from a man who often did his utmost to avoid providing it. Throughout, there are stellar details and aside like this one about the lightning-bolt Ziggy logo: “I was not a little peeved when Kiss purloined it. Purloining, after all, was my job.” But most of all it’s a feast for the eyes: Bowie’s lurid costumes, makeup and stage presentation did much to light up the monochrome of early ‘70s Britain, and it evokes the period and the persona as much as any film. Absolutely essential for any fan. — Aswad

“The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal the History of Pop Music” — Tom Breihan
Based on “The Number Ones,” Stereogum senior editor Tom Breihan’s ongoing column reviewing U.S. No. 1 pop hits, his new book of the same name looks at how 20 top tracks affected the culture, and/or changed the game, musically and sociologically. Ripe with opinion and spiced by peppery humor, Breihan’s new essays find the Beatles and the Beach Boys sitting comfortably next to fellow “Number Ones” Bon Jovi and Soulja Boy. Breihan ponders the co-dependency between Bob Dylan and the Byrds when it came to “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and touches on George McCrae’s disco-era smash, “Rock Your Baby,” as a track intentionally written to top the charts. Breihan’s book also lovingly looks into deserving artists (e.g., Dylan, Bruce Springsteen) who have never topped the singles charts. — Amorosi

“The Byrds: 1964-1967” — Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman & David Crosby
The Byrds are one of the greatest and most influential rock groups of all time: They weren’t only influenced by the Beatles, they influenced them; they showed the world that Bob Dylan songs could rock; and via their own classics like “Eight Miles High,” “So You Wanna Be a Rock and Roll Star” and “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better,” they paved the way for countless artists that followed, from jangle-pop to psychedelia to country rock. Surprisingly, for 58 years the group never had the long-view biography they deserved — but that situation was remedied in spectacular fashion this year with BMG Books’ stunning “The Byrds: 1964-67,” a comprehensive oral history and a gorgeous coffee-table photo book all in one. The editors licensed virtually every known photo of the group from the era, sat down with surviving founding members Roger McGuinn, David Crosby and Chris Hillman, and got them to share their memories of the moments, the band, the era, each other and lots more. (The book follows the group as it gradually goes from a quintet to a quartet to a trio, and leaves off before Gram Parsons’ arrival in 1968, which launched a whole new chapter of the Byrds.) It’s an inspired approach that we’d love to see many more artists follow. — Aswad

“Faith, Hope and Carnage” — Nick Cave and Sean O’Hagan
Nick Cave is certainly capable of authoring starkly surreal fiction as he has in novels “And the Ass Saw the Angel” (1989) and “The Death of Bunny Munro” (2009), and in non-fiction writings such as “The Sick Bag Song” (2015). Yet, since 2015, Cave has undergone personal and spiritual transformations based on the passing of two of his sons, and the outpouring of emotion and support from fans and others. With that, Cave’s usual catalog of violence-driven characters and dire narratives now include more intimate metaphorical clues to his inner-life. In a series of interviews with Irish journalist-friend Sean O’Hagan — presented in Q&A format — Cave becomes an open narrator and a bold-faced conversationalist. He talks up the creative process with elements of hallucination and improvisation in the mix. But it is earnestness, hurt, and joy that come through during these fireside chats as Cave discusses finding religion and rehab in unexpected, moving ways. — Amorosi

“A Song for Everyone: the Story of Creedence Clearwater Revival” — John Lingan
The sad story of Creedence Clearwater Revival has been told many times in the half century since the band split up, from “Behind the Music” to singer-songwriter-frontman John Fogerty’s 2016 autobiography. This extensive volume, which Fogerty declined to be interviewed for, looks at things largely from the perspectives of the band’s rhythm section, bassist Stu Cook and drummer Doug Clifford (the fourth member, Fogerty’s brother Tom, died in 1990). This account offers a strong history of the Bay Area band’s early days — they first began playing together in middle school — and follows as they develop a local reputation and as Fogerty increasingly asserts his dominance, eventually insisting on writing and singing all of the songs, playing lead guitar and even working as their manager. The latter decision in particular proved to be ill-advised, as 21-year-old Fogerty was no match for the aggressive business brain of Fantasy Records chief Saul Zaentz; he ended up making a very bad deal for himself and spent many decades railing against the unfairness of a situation of his own making.

As so often happens, with success came discord: The group’s almost unprecedented hot streak — an incredible seven Top 5 singles and five Top 10 albums (two of them No. 1s) in just over two years — made them one of the most popular acts in the world, but it all began to unravel at the 1970 Royal Albert Hall concert that opens the book, as the crowd roared for an encore that everyone except Fogerty wanted the band to give. The group dissolved as quickly as it had found success, in a flurry of legal disputes and ill feeling that have continued ever since. Lingan provides an impressively detailed history of both the band and the East Bay music scene of the era — distinct from the concurrent Haight-Ashbury San Francisco psychedelic scene across the bay, of which Creedence was never a part — although his perspective on the broader music world and the times is less compelling. — Aswad

“Dilla Time: The Life and Afterlife of J Dilla” — Dan Charnas
J Dilla — a.k.a Jay Dee, a.k.a. James Dewitt Yancey — was a pioneering hip-hop producer who never worked on a “hit” record, although his discography includes collaborations with or remixes of songs by greats like D’Angelo, A Tribe Called Quest, the Roots, Common, Busta Rhymes, the Pharcyde and many others. He died in 2006 of a rare blood disease at the age of just 32, with few except musicians and dedicated hip-hop fans aware of the pioneering work he had done. Yet in the years since his death, awareness of his brilliance and his innovations with rhythm and production — which often sounded like random accidents but are acknowledged by many musicians as genius — has spread dramatically: Questlove, one of the first and certainly the most vocal of his disciples, says Dilla’s work “was so perfectly imperfect that it redefined the way I thought about art.”

Longtime hip-hop journalist Dan Charnas, author of the definitive history of the hip-hop business “The Big Payback” and an associate professor at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, not only teaches regular classes on Dilla’s work, he dedicated four years of his life to writing the 450-page “Dilla Time.” It’s no ordinary book: equal parts biography, musical analysis and cultural history, it delves deep not only into Dilla’s history and music but also into the histories of rhythm and his hometown of Detroit; the three elements even come together in a mind-melting chapter that compares Detroit’s street plan with rhythm theory. “Dilla Time” is not a lean-back read — the segments on the science of rhythm can have readers tapping armrests, trying to follow his labrynthine explanations — but it’s among the deepest studies of the genre to date, and truly brings Dilla the flowers he long deserved. — Aswad

“The Philosophy of Modern Song” — Bob Dylan
Dylan’s first book since his “Chronicles” semi-memoir is rife with hot takes, a lot of them on songs and singers dating back to eras as cool to the touch as the 1930s. Modernity is in the eye of the beholder, and judging from the 66 songs that Dylan has chosen to write essays about here, Elvis Costello’s “Pump It Up” and the Clash’s “London Calling” just about represent the end of popular music’s golden era for him. But why would he want to write about alternative rock (the very name of which earns a disdainful passing comment) or hip-hop when he could be writing about Perry Como, who to Dylan is a “downright incredible” performer who “lived in every moment of every song he sang”? Most, but not all, of the 66 chapters are divided into two sections, one of which provides some period detail about the tune or artist in question, with Dylan being as much of a historian or more-than-decent rock critic as he fancies himself. The other sections are more literary discursions in which he might imagine himself as the songs’ protagonists, who, in his mind, are often much more tortured than the original lyricists intended. His take on Eddy Arnold’s “You Don’t Know Me”: “A serial killer would sing this song.” (!) Of Rosemary Clooney’s “Come On-a My House,” he says, “This is the song of the deviant, the pedophile, the mass murderer.” (!?!) Dylan’s prose style tends so much toward old-school, hardboiled pulp fiction at times, you may find yourself wondering if he really wanted to write a book about music or a Mickey Spillane homage. While I cherish those more purple passages, complete with all the cuckolded men and evil femmes fatale that Dylan fantasizes populating these songs, I understand why those wouldn’t be for everybody. But when he’s writing straightforwardly about music, the book’s cup runneth over with observations that probably any reader will find smart and salient. The crucial thing pulling it all together is his belief that a good song creates a whole universe, whether it’s the one intended by the writer or something that’s inferred by you, me or millions of listeners. —Willman


“Her Country: How the Women of Country Music Became the Success They Were Never Meant to Be” — Marissa R. Moss

The subject of women in country music is almost too big for one book and Marissa R. Ross knows it, so for her where-we’re-at snapshot of the gender divide in the genre, she settles in on three artists — Mickey Guyton, Maren Morris and Kacey Musgraves — as her key go-tos, or come-back-tos. So in effect, you’re getting three nearly complete biographies for the price of one… even as her frame is constantly widening to survey other major figures in the music, too (like Margo Price, who gets enough due here that Moss’ book makes a pretty nice complement to that singer’s own memoir, also featured in this list). Moss has been so outspoken in her coverage of women’s issues for Rolling Stone Country and other outlets that you know she’s not going to suddenly turn dry and dispassionate in her writing on those subjects here. But once she’s laid out the list of obstacles women still face in just getting the proverbial seat at the table — a snapshot of the state of institutional sexism in and around 2022 that we very much need — she’s able to also, at leisure, provide exactly what you’d hope a book such as this would expend much of its time on: the joy and righteousness of how these women rose to the top, from winning talent contests and even yodeling competitions as girls to asserting themselves as great, mature artists in the present day, against almost impossible odds. They are all, as a Musgraves album title once cheekily put it, “pageant material” — and Moss’ book is a terrific pageant of bona fide heroines unto itself. — Willman

“The McCartney Legacy Volume 1: 1969-73” — Allan Kozinn and Adrian Sinclair
Amid the countless thousands of Beatle books published over the past half century, it’s hard to imagine any unturned stones, but Tom Doyle’s 2013 history of Paul McCartney’s first solo decade, “Man on the Run,” presented a refreshing new angle — and anyone who enjoyed that book can double down with this exhaustive tome (actually, at 750 pages covering just three years in this first volume, it will be more like sextupling down once the authors reach 1980). Considering the vast reams of material that have already been written and the 50-plus years’ worth of interviews the subject has done, it’s a daunting task, but they manage to be completist and focused at the same time: There’s plenty in here that fans will already know, but also plenty they might not, and they mine interviews with not just McCartney but relatively untapped quotes from many of the people around him — and it also incorporates a deeply detailed log of McCartney’s studio sessions that’s as thorough as Mark Lewisohn’s “Beatles Recording Sessions.” Perhaps most significantly, it presents one of the most fair and sympathetic portraits of Linda Eastman McCartney to date, a pioneering and iconic rock photographer who largely left her career to become wife, mother and — only because he wanted her to — McCartney’s much-ridiculed bandmate in Wings. While her counterpart Yoko Ono has largely received a long-overdue historical revisionism, it’s well past time Linda did as well — and nearly 25 years after her death, this book should go a long way toward correcting those spiteful and biased misconceptions. In all honesty, we’re only up to 1971, but this doorstop is everything a serious fan could possibly want, and then some. — Aswad

“Maybe We’ll Make It” — Margo Price
Price had a hardscrabble upbringing as the daughter of an Illinois farming family that was just made to be grist for country songs — and eventually it was, when she released her Third Man Records debut, titled, yes, “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter” (the nod to Loretta’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter” being very much intentional). Yet it wasn’t till the mid-2010s that she really pursued country music, almost as an inadvertently successful afterthought, in the wake of the many years that she and husband Jeremy Ivey spent trying to get any kind of traction with their now-defunct rock band Buffalo Clover. Although Price’s account of her childhood is more than absorbing, some of the rock musicians who’ll pick up her memoir might be forgiven for skipping ahead to the chapters where she delves into Buffalo Clover’s ups (there were a few) and downs (numbering seemingly in the thousands). How many musicians won’t relate to the following: Spending thousands to go to SXSW, just to play for a handful of disinterested non-VIPs? Saving money while touring by crashing with venue waitresses, who may or may not want to crawl into the same bed? Bonding by binging? Intra-band romances and affairs that can make a group “like Fleetwood Mac, without the success”? Helping out friends by playing full sets on the drums while eight months pregnant? (OK, maybe everything about Price’s road stories isn’t quite so relatable.) Her stoic attitude about being a working musician as well as poet makes Price seem like “one of the boys,” until harrowing pregnancy stories intervene. You remember the saying about how Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels? Price has some of the same tales to tell as her male counterparts, but with emergency C-sections, too. The book essentially wraps up with her breakout 2016 “Saturday Night Live” performance, leaving you hankering for a sequel this sharply remembered, keenly written and marvelously self-perceptive. —Willman

“Queer Country” — Shana Goldin-Perschbacher
It is a fitting tribute to Lavender Country pioneer Patrick Haggerty – who passed in 2022 – that queer studies scholar Shana Goldin-Perschbacher created such an historical volume. Long before k.d. lang came out, Haggerty was a quiet force in gay country, a musical and social subdivision long discussed only in whispers. Goldin-Perschbacher chronicles the silence within country’s circles and marvels at diverse LGBTQ+ musicians like Trixie Mattel, Orville Peck, Brandi Carlile, Brothers Osborne front-man T.J. Osborne and Lil Nas X in the present day (the author also includes trans and non-binary musicians Mya Byrne and Rae Spoon in her conversation). Along with essaying a movement in the making, Goldin-Perschbacher portrays a trail blazed by these sonic, gender adventurers against the odds of traditional country music/Nashville conservatism. Though occasionally dry and pedantic (the author was the first queer studies postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University, and a specialist in interdisciplinary popular music studies and identity studies at Temple U), “Queer Country” finds its own funk, and follows the dusty sound and vision of LGBTQ+ artists in a communal and erudite fashion for a dynamic, much-needed read. — Amorosi

“Rap Capital” Joe Coscarelli

If ever a history was too big and too small at the same time, it’s this one. In his first book, the ace New York Times reporter Coscarelli puts a microscope on the thriving and enormously influential Atlanta hip-hop scene. His reportorial writing style is densely packed and starts off moving very quickly, with brief and concise histories of Atlanta and its Black music scene, while setting up a side narrative about Lashawn Jones, who eventually becomes the mother of top Atlanta rapper Lil Baby. But after 50 or so pages, he zooms into microfocus on Baby and the Quality Control label — home to Migos, Young Thug and others — while touching only in passing on the huge number of other artists involved in the scene and even the label, particularly female artists. There is also the problem of attempting to write a history while the subject matter is still very much current: The months-long imprisonments of Young Thug, Gunna and other members of the YSL collective get just a passing mention (as they took place just before the book’s publication), and Takeoff’s tragic and appallingly senseless murder was still in the future. Despite its excessive length and selective focus, “Rap Capital” does add up to a definitive history of the city that has spawned so much of the past decade’s best hip-hop. — Aswad

“Sly & the Family Stone: An Oral History” — Joel Selvin (reissue)
In this era of eBay and ebooks and Dropbox, it’s hard to explain just how difficult it could be to find certain books back in the day — I scoured used-book stores for this fascinating oral history, originally published during the 1990s, for years before finally giving up. With Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Questlove at work on a film about Sly Stone, the timing for its re-release could not be much better. In this comprehensive volume, veteran San Francisco music writer Selvin recounts this generation-shifting group’s history by talking with basically everyone — from bandmembers and managers to label execs and Sly’s parents and other family members — chronicling Stone’s rise from precocious child church musician to DJ and producer and finally . What emerges is a first-hand account of both the kaleidoscopic talent that drove Stone to the top and attracted so many people to him, and the madness that he soon descended into and never truly returned from, a victim of ego, drug abuse sycophants and the era: There are harrowing scenes of his Hollywood Hills mansion being filled with drugs, thugs, guns and attack dogs. It amounts to a definitive history of one of the rock generation’s greatest and most tragic artists. — Aswad

“Shine Bright: A Very Personal History of Black Women in Pop” — Danyel Smith
An outsized percentage of recent music books are hamfisted “But enough about the Beatles/ Prince/ Beyonce, here’s more about meeee”-type attempts at merging a personal memoir with the history of an artist. It’s a very, very difficult approach to pull off, but with “Shine Bright,” Danyel Smith — former Vibe editor, longtime journalist and podcaster — has done it brilliantly. A unique combination of history, criticism and personal memoir that was nearly a decade in the making, Smith weaves the stories of foundational Black female musicians ranging from Mahalia Jackson, Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin through Gladys Knight, Jody Watley, Mariah Carey and more — and her personal observations of Whitney Houston, whom she interviewed extensively, are especially poignant and moving. While those histories are fascinating and deeply researched, Smith’s ability to interweave them with social and cultural context and particularly her own history not only as an entertainment and culture journalist but as a Black woman from East Oakland — and to be conversational and analytical at the same time — is masterful. “Shine Bright” is one of the most rewarding and deeply engaging music books to come along in years. (Disclaimer: Smith and this writer were colleagues at Billboard in 2011-2012.) — Aswad

“A Book of Days” — Patti Smith
Having worked out much of her autobiography with “Just Kids” (2010) and “M Train” (2015), the poet-punk found a novel approach to continued memoir writing with “A Book of Days.” Meant to mimic her new-found love of connection through Instagram, Smith doles out snapshots from a life well lived – one-a-day during a Leap Year – with deeply ruminative descriptions of each photo. With many deaths among her friends and lovers, Smith’s snaps, such as those of Sam Shepard reading Beckett, and of a guitar from MC5’s Fred Smith (her late husband), are particularly poignant. Patti also has fun inviting viewers into her life and home with photos of her weedy garden in Rockaway, cherished old boots and books, and several affectionate snaps of her playful cat. Yes: Patti Smith likes cat selfies, a small gesture that makes “A Book of Days” as charming as it is elegiac and prosaic. — Amorosi

“Sun Ra: Art on Saturn: The Album Cover Art of Sun Ra’s Saturn Label” — Sun Ra and Chris Reisman
Growing up in Philadelphia, working at the legendary 3rd Street Jazz, I was privy to visits from Sun Ra, the local Afrofuturist and avant-garde bandleader, carrying boxes of hand-drawn and self-painted album sleeves for his Saturn label records. The inventiveness of handcrafted covers, in league with the kaleidoscopic free jazz and quirky parade music within each sleeve, is what makes Chris Reisman’s colorful catalog so awesome. Like finding art aficionados clinging to their Banksys, hunting down Ra collectors with pieces of Saturn as their own is as much fun as seeing the tribal cartoon cover art (executed by Sun or whoever happened into the communal Ra House in Philly) and listening to the merry, experimental music. Editor-writer Reisman, Ra archaeological excavator Irwin Chusid, and fellow scholars John Corbett and Glenn Jones write about the “outsider” aesthetic of Ra’s album art and music within each sleeve, and pen playful essays about their hero. With that, “Sun Ra: Art on Saturn” is a true treasure, a jazzbo’s necessity and a joy to behold. — Amorosi

“Charlie’s Good Tonight: The Authorized Biography of Charlie Watts” — Paul Sexton
For longtime followers of the Rolling Stones, the concept of a Charlie Watts biography is almost comical: Unlike the band’s frontline, he doggedly avoided the spotlight, hated interviews and was renowned for short, terse comments even to his friends — combined with the vast number of books about the band, it’s not exactly ideal biographical fodder. But Sexton has been writing about the Stones for decades and had a solid relationship with Watts, who died last year at 80, and here manages to keep the spotlight on a man who steadfastly avoided it, focusing on his near-peerless musicianship, his love of home and family, his obsessive fashion sense (he even designed a fabric pattern) and collections of everything from horses to American Civil War regalia, and of course his retiring but extremely gentlemanly personality. — Aswad