So you got tired of reading brief (or not so brief) descriptions of new releases and all the musings of why the reviewer loves it or hates it. Where are all those background elements and facts? Where’s the cultural, social, or even political elements? And that includes everything else you might not be aware of concerning Childish Gambino’s “This is America,” for example, you don’t live in America at all?
Maybe the ‘old fashioned’ rock critics have further retreated into the online fringes of their personal websites and academic research, even further than they did last year. But luckily, they are still writing books. That is, if they are still around, and those that unfortunately are not, have, along with those that still are, written some damn good ones that might provide quite a few insights and background information that will not only throw a new light on a genre or artist that needs further exploring, but can make a connection with all the musical trends and new artists and put them in a completely different context.
Maybe the ‘old fashioned’ rock critics have further retreated into the online fringes of their personal websites and academic research, even further than they did last year.
Yes, what follows is a list of personal favorites, but it is just a brief reference to just a section of what is available as a good music book reading. Rummaging through a bookstore for new or old books of music writings is a sensation in itself, but if you can’t get away from your mobile or iPad/tablet, most of these will probably be available in the electronic format. Modern time magic, I guess…
Old Faves and Raves
Late Lester Bangs is probably the first name that comes to mind when piercing, observant rock criticism is concerned, but it seems his books are currently collecting dust somewhere, even though they have not lost any of their relevance. Two titles jump to the top of the list there, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, edited by Greil Marcus (another must-read author), and Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader.
Another author not among us anymore that deserves more readers is British author Ian McDonald, whose Revolution in the Head is certainly one of the best overall analyses of The Beatles. Here, let us not forget Paul Williams, the former editor of Crawdaddy, who wrote more than twenty books, where The Map: Rediscovering Rock and Roll: A Journey might be a perfect start.
Some of the ‘old faves’ are luckily still around and writing, the aforementioned Greil Marcus among them. One of the most, if not the most authoratitative sources on Bob Dylan…
Some of the ‘old faves’ are luckily still around and writing, the aforementioned Greil Marcus among them. One of the most, if not the most authoratitative sources on Bob Dylan, with Mystery Train: Images of America, Invisible Republic and Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of The Twentieth Century, all ranking among the must reads.
Still writing and still going strong is Robert Christgau, one of the rare ‘old school’ critics who doesn’t shy away from hip-hop. Any of his decade record guides: Any Old Way You Choose It: Rock and Other Pop Music, 1967-1973 (his first), or Is It Still Good to Ya? Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967-2017, his most recent, will do.
Nick Kent and Charles Shaar Murray, former colleagues of McDonald from the heyday of the “New Musical Express” weekly, can also be listed among must-reads. Kent’s The Dark Stuff: Selected Writings on Rock Music, 1972-1995 and Murray’s Shots From The Hip are good starts for the two.
New Writings and Background Facts
Another special mention should go to Simon Frith, an author who devotes particular attention to all the social aspects of modern music. He’s got quite a few titles to chose from, but Performing Rites: On The Value of Popular Music and Music for Pleasure: Essays in the Sociology of Pop are great starts.
Personally, one of the most valuable reads among the recent books is the look into Soul music by Stuart Cosgrove. He has written a trilogy of books on the subject – Detroit 67: The Year That Changed Soul, Memphis 68: The Tragedy of Southern Soul, and still to be published in 2019, Harlem 69: The Future of Soul. The first two volumes are absolutely captivating reads that can be read as musical, social, cultural, and political analyses all together.
Background information and in-depth research are essential to good music books and Barney Hoskyns and Jon Savage can always be close to the top of the list in that respect. Hoskyns’ Hotel California: Singer-Songwriters and Cocaine Cowboys in the L.A Canyons, 1967-1976, was devoted a two-part BBC TV documentary, while Savage wrote one of the ultimate books on punk – England’s Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock.