2016’s Best Music Books, Sort Of
Of the making of many “best-of” lists there is no end. Many magazines and newspapers have already weighed in on the best albums or the best books of the year. At best, such lists remind us of some books we might have missed, or encourage us to pick up a book we’d been thinking about reading; sometimes these lists simply give us that extra nudge to head over to our local independent bookstore to peruse a book’s pages and perhaps add it to the already towering stack of books next to our desks or our beds.
As should be clear from an earlier column about the meaninglessness of Billboard’s list of “100 greatest music books of all time,” I am not convinced that such “best-of” lists always reveal the books most worthy of our attention. If you look at some of these lists, you’ll find listed big books by recognized authors from major trade publishers; the lists contain very few titles by mid-list authors published by smaller independent publishers.
I don’t think of this as a “best-of” list this year. Very simply, here are books worthy of deep reading that will repay repeated re-readings. I do think that Tamara Saviano’s biography of Guy Clark is the best music book of the year, though, in spite of the release around the same time of the much-hyped autobiography of that guitarist from New Jersey (and for what it is—an autobiography written by a musician—it’s one of the smartest and best written of its kind). As memoirs go, Rita Coolidge’s Delta Lady reveals with brutal honesty her struggles in a rock-and-roll world that always treated women like second-class citizens. If you have never read Albert Murray’s writings on blues and jazz (especially his wonderful novel Whistle Train Guitar), you need to go to the bookstore or library and pick up either the mammoth new collection, Albert Murray: Collected Essays & Memoirs (Library of America), or Murray Talks Music: Albert Murray on Jazz and Blues (University of Minnesota).
So, here’s my list of music books from 2016—and I don’t receive and have not read every music book published this year—that I’d encourage you to seek out, pick up, and read.
Tamara Saviano, Without Getting Killed or Caught (Texas A&M)—Delivers an intimate, affectionate, sometimes sad, often hilarious, and vibrant chronicle of one of our most memorable artists; Saviano’s richly detailed prose and her vivid storytelling — along with Clark’s own lively words — create an unforgettable portrait of a songwriter whose own words live on in our hearts. It’s not too much to say that this is the best music book of the year.
Rita Coolidge, Delta Lady: A Memoir (HarperCollins)—Coolidge is cordial and welcoming in Delta Lady, inviting readers to step onto her front porch and sit down and chat with her about life. Like her songs, she hits all the right notes as she sings us and herself back home, back to the music that’s woven the colorful quilt of her life.
Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run (Simon & Schuster)—You don’t have to wade too far into the rushing river of words in Bruce Springsteen’s new, long-anticipated autobiography before his insecurities, his dreams, his longings, his desperation, and his sense of himself flood over you.
Bob Mehr, Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements (Da Capo)—A brilliant book that captures the ups and downs, the lightness and the darkness of one of rock’s most memorable bands.
Jenni Finlay and Brian T. Atkinson, Kent Finlay, Dreamer: The Musical Legacy behind Cheatham Street Warehouse (Texas A&M University Press)—Honors Kent Finlay, revealing the ways he’s influenced a holy host of songwriters and an entire cultural scene, from the cosmic cowboys heyday of the mid-1970s to the rich and diverse songwriting scene of the late 20th century.
Albert Murray, Murray Talks Music: Albert Murray on Jazz and Blues (University of Minnesota)—Gives us a glimpse into Murray’s brilliance, his refusal to seek the easy way out, his deep engagement with art, literature, and music, and his standing as one of the last great public intellectuals, willing to engage culture broadly from the perspectives of anthropology, literature, and music.
Ed Ward, The History of Rock & Roll: Volume One, 1920-1963 (Flatiron Books)—Just what you’d expect from Fresh Air‘s rock and roll historian: a thorough, detailed survey of the moments that define rock and roll; it’s the first of two volumes, ending in 1963, just before the Beatles landed in America.
Thomas Dolby, The Speed of Sound: Breaking the Barriers between Music and Technology (Flatiron Books)—Thomas Dolby’s compelling and engaging story, from “Science” to EMI regime changes to inventing the musical ringtone via his Silicon Valley company Beatnik and beyond.
Lloyd Sachs, T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit (University of Texas Press)—”T Bone Burnett conducted his first conference call with Alison Krauss and Robert Plant to discuss making an album together.” Lloyd Sachs’ opening sentence of his critical appreciation of T Bone Burnett pulls us in with a magnetic force, or, better, like a fisherman pulling in a catch that’s bigger than life.
Robbie Robertson, Testimony (Crown Archetype)—True to his presence on stage and true to his presence in the film, Robertson is a masterful and engaging storyteller who brings his genius for hitting the right note in the right place to his melodious and riveting memoir that carries him from his early days with Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks to the last waltz of the Band in 1976.
And here are some others:
Caroline Gnagy, Texas Jailhouse Music: A Prison Band History (The History Press)
Danny Alexander, Real Love, No Drama: The Music of Mary J. Blige (University of Texas Press)
Peter Ames Carlin, Homeward Bound: The Life of Paul Simon (Henry Holt)
Carole Bayer Sager, They’re Playing Our Song: A Memoir (Simon & Schuster)
Diane Pecknold and Kristine M. McCusker, ed. Country Boys and Redneck Women: New Essays in Gender and Country Music (Mississippi)
Mike Love and James S. Hirsch, Good Vibrations: My Life as a Beach Boy (Blue Rider)
Chuck Eddy, Terminated for Reasons of Taste: Other Ways to Hear Essential and Inessential Music (Duke University Press)
Jace Clayton, Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture. (FSG)
Joel Selvin, Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day. (Dey Street)
Bill Dahl, The Art of the Blues: A Visual Treasury of Black Music’s Golden Age (University of Chicago)
Elijah Wald and Bernard McMahon, American Epic: When Music Gave America Her Voice (Touchstone)
Jack Hamilton, Just around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination (Harvard)
Bill Anderson with Peter Cooper, Whisperin’ Bill Anderson: An Unprecedented Life in Country Music (University of Georgia)
Todd Mayfield and Travis Atria, Traveling Soul: The Life of Curtis Mayfield (Chicago Review Press)
Brian Wilson and Ben Greenman, I Am Brian Wilson: A Memoir (Da Capo)
Paul Youngquist, A Pure Solar World: Sun Ra and the Birth of Afrofuturism (University of Texas Press)
David Hadju, Love for Sale: Pop Music in America (FSG)
Robert J. Sheffield, Dreaming the Beatles: A Love Story of One Band and the World (Dey Street)
Steven Blush, New York Rock: From the Rise of The Velvet Underground to the Fall of CBGB (St. Martin’s)
Michael Buffalo Smith, Capricorn Rising: Conversations in Southern Rock (Mercer)
Nick Cave, Andrea Joyce, The Sick Bag Song (Canongate Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Tony Bennett, Just Getting Started (Harper)
Mark Ribowsky, Hank: The Short Life and Long Country Road of Hank Williams (Norton/Liveright)
Haruki Murakami, Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa (Knopf)
Marc Myers, Anatomy of a Song: The Oral History of 45 Iconic Hits That Changed Rock, R&B, and Pop (Grove)
Erin Duvall, Country Music Hair. (Harper Design)
Jim Walsh, Bar Yarns and Manic-Depressive Mixtapes: Jim Walsh on Music from Minneapolis to the Outer Limits (University of Minnesota)
Paul Zollo, More Songwriters on Songwriting (Da Capo)