A Few Good Books: The Best Books of 2017
It’s the time of year again when we look back and try to remember some of the books we’ve read and some of the music we’ve heard that has made an impression on us or somehow stayed for more than a moment in our memories.
There have been few big music books this year — no books on the order of last year’s Springsteen memoir. The one exception might be Joe Hagan’s prosaic biography of Jann Wenner, Sticky Fingers (Knopf). The publisher embargoed the book, a signal that it thought the book contained some controversial material that it didn’t want to get out to the press. Embargoes are marketing tools, though, calculated to create interest in the book and to, in the best of plans, ratchet up pre-orders and sales. In the case of Sticky Fingers, however, Wenner himself pre-empted interest in the book by discussing publicly his desire to sell Rolling Stone. Sticky Fingers turned out not to be worth the wait, for it’s a bloated book about a bloated man. The other disappointing book of the year was Jimmy Webb’s The Cake and the Rain: A Memoir (St. Martin’s). His magical touch in songwriting doesn’t carry over to his prose, which is often flat. He should have listened to the advice Hal Blaine gave him long ago: “just stick with music.”
In spite of these high-profile flops, there were a number of very good music books published this year that raised significant questions about the history of music—or maybe better, that raised questions about the ways that the traditional history of music has been told—and that collected some excellent writing about various genres of music. There are some real gems in this long list of books, and there’s a book for every taste here. It’s also fair to say that readers will return to many of these books for pleasure and profit far beyond the end of 2017.
1. Ann Powers, Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black & White, Body and Soul in American Music (Dey St.)—NPR’s Powers re-writes the history of American popular music with a depth and breadth that is unequaled. She examines the traditional narrative of this history and, focusing on the themes of her subtitle, finds that traditional narrative lacking. Every music writer must now engage with Powers and her work.
2. Jonathan Lethem and Kevin Dettmar, eds. Shake It Up: Great American Writing on Rock and Pop from Elvis to Jay Z (Library of America)—This is an excellent collection of selections from some of the most important music critics and historians of our time. This collection illustrates the enduring value of music criticism.
3. David Yaffe, Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell (FSG)—Mitchell has not yet written a memoir, but she talked at length to Yaffe, and this biography may be the closest we ever get to a memoir. If you love Joni Mitchell, you’ll love this biography.
4. Ben Greenman, Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex, God & Genius in the Music of Prince (Henry Holt)—New Yorker writer Greenman gives us a portrait of Prince and his music from the perspective of a fan, and his writing is engaging and his narrative is absorbing. It’s the best Prince book of the year.
5. Loudon Wainwright III, Liner Notes: On Parents & Children, Exes & Excess, Death & Decay, & a Few of My Other Favorite Things (Blue Rider)—Wainwright is funny, self-deprecating, poignantly insightful, and this is the best memoir of the year. He weaves tales of his own life with lyrics of his songs and columns from his father Loudon Wainwright, Jr., a columnist for Life magazine.
6. Michael Nesmith, Infinite Tuesday: An Autobiographical Riff (Crown Archetype)—Nesmith plays few good riffs in this memoir, revealing the quick wit of his genius with a crystalline candor and delivering a tuneful score of the harmonies and melodies of his life.
7. Patti Smith, Devotion (Yale)—Smith sandwiches her short story called “Devotion” between two short chapters on the quality of devotion and desire that writing requires. Her book offers a glimpse into her practice of the writing craft.
8. Wanda Jackson, Every Night is Saturday Night (BMG)—Jackson tells her story to writer Scott Bomar in this crackling good tale of the first woman of rockabilly; Jackson’s memoir is every bit as exciting has her music.
9. Holly Gleason, ed. Woman Walk the Line: How the Women in Country Music Changed Our Lives (University of Texas)—The 27 essays collected in this volume reflect on the ways that a woman artist in country music has moved the writers. “Every last one of the women celebrated in these essays stirred the writers, in many ways changing their lives forever,” writes Gleason.
10. Diana Finlay Hendricks, Delbert McClinton: One of the Fortunate Few (Texas A&M)—McClinton gave Hendricks full access so that this compulsively readable biography is more like a memoir of McClinton, a musician’s musician.
This list offers a good start, and here are plenty of other titles that you’ll enjoy as the year turns.
Anthony DeCurtis, Lou Reed: A Life (Little, Brown)
Peggy Seeger, First Time Ever: A Memoir (Faber & Faber)
Jim Dickinson, I’m Just Dead, I’m Not Gone (Mississippi)
Jonathan Gould, Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life (Crown Archetype)
Radney Foster, To See the Stars (Working Title Farm Press)
Bill Malone, Sing Me Back Home: Southern Roots and Country Music (Oklahoma)
Nicholas Jennings, Lightfoot (Viking)
John Prine, Beyond Words (Oh Boy)
Charlie McCoy, Fifty Cents and a Box Top: The Creative Life of a Nashville Session Musician (West Virginia)
Adam Gussow, Beyond the Crossroads: The Devil and the Blues Tradition (UNC)
Zeke Schein with Poppy Z. Brite, Portrait of a Phantom: The Story of Robert Johnson’s Lost Photograph (Pelican)
Adam Sobsey, Chrissie Hynde: A Musical Biography (Texas)
Billy Bragg, Roots, Radicals, and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World (Faber & Faber)
John Oates, Change of Seasons (St. Martin’s)
Jean R. Freedman, Peggy Seeger: A Life of Music, Love, and Politics (Illinois)
Rob Sheffield, Dreaming the Beatles: The Love Story of One Band and the Whole World (Dey St.)
Sarah Creech, The Whole Way Home: A Novel (William Morrow)
Todd Mayfield, Traveling Soul: The Life of Curtis Mayfield (Chicago Review Press)
Adam Bradley, The Poetry of Pop (Yale)
Michael Scott Cain, The Americana Revolution: From Country and Blues Roots to the Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons, and Beyond (Rowman & Littlefield)
Timothy Gray, It’s Just the Normal Noises: Marcus, Guralnick, No Depression, and the Mystery of Americana Music (Iowa)
Travis D. Stimeling, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Country Music (Oxford)
Peter Cooper, Johnny’s Cash & Charley’s Pride: Lasting Legends and Untold Adventures in Country Music (Spring House)
Norbert Putnam, Music Lessons: Volume 1 (Thimbleton House Media)
Andrew Greer and Randy Cox, ed. Winds of Heaven, Stuff of Earth: Spiritual Conversations Inspired by the Life & Lyrics of Rich Mullins (Worthy)
Lee Wilson, All I Have to Do is Dream: The Boudleaux & Felice Bryant Story (Two Creeks Press)
Barbara Martin Stephens, Don’t Give Your Heart to a Rambler: My Life with Jimmy Martin, the King of Bluegrass (Illinois)
Barney Hoskyns, ed. Joni: An Anthology (Picador)
Pamela Des Barres, Let It Bleed: How to Write a Rockin’ Memoir (Tarcher Putnam)
Katey Sagal, Grace Notes: My Recollections (Gallery)
Dar Williams, What I Found in a Thousand Towns: A Traveling Musician’s Guide to Rebuilding America’s Communities—One Coffee Shop, Dog Run, & Open-Mike Night at a Time (Basic Books)
Andrea Swensson, Got to Be Something Here: The Rise of the Minneapolis Sound (Minnesota)
Richard F. Thomas, Why Bob Dylan Matters (Dey St.)
Roger Steffens, So Much Things to Say: An Oral History of Bob Marley (Norton)
Elaine M. Hayes, Queen of Bebop: The Musical Lives of Sarah Vaughan (Ecco)
Steven Davis, Gold Dust Woman: The Biography of Stevie Nicks (St. Martin’s)
Will Friedwald, The Great Jazz and Pop Vocal Albums (Pantheon)
Ray Padgett, Cover Me: The Stories Behind the Greatest Cover Songs of All Time (Sterling)