Scribes Sounding Off: 2008’s Best Books About Popular Music (And Not So Popular Music, And Even One Book About Classical Music)

by Chris Estey

Here is a list of ideal yet uncommon music-related books that came out in the past twelve months. These are in no particular order, as they all are fairly diverse in content and intention.

Best Music Writing 2008: Nelson George Guest Editor, Daphne Carr, Series Editor

It isn’t just the title of this annual (duh) series that makes it spring to mind as one of the better values in tomes about tunes. Carr must spend the entire year in a state of near exhaustion rustling up the right amount of pop coverage balanced with soul histories juxtaposed with avant-rock biographies; all this and more. Selected from sophisticated literary magazines and websites (Oxford American, Salon), the better stuff from the music business-feasted glossies (Vibe, Mojo); punk rock zines (Eaves of Ass) to the major dailies (LA and New York Times); and even political (The Nation) and fashion (Vanity Fair) monthlies too. I have been waiting for Nelson George to be able to help Carr in this series since it began, as his Hip Hop America was one of the first truly and still great books on the subject; and he is one of my favorite Village Voice writers. (His introduction title is “God In the Vinyl”; oh yeah.) I don’t know who decides what goes in and what doesn’t, but I adore a recurrent anthology timeless and contemporary enough to stack Jeff Sharlett’s heartbreaking ode to a Weaver (subtitled “The Embattled Lee Hayes”) with Brandon Perkins crackling metaphysical analysis of the Wu-Tang Clan (“Widdling Down Infinity”). Since reading this volume, I’ve found myself quoting passages of Clive Thompson’s “Sex, Drugs and Updating Your Blog” to friends in bands (it’s interesting to note the argument that any kind of success in the music business now pretty much hinges on deliberate artist-fan relationship, and Thompson shows how singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton does it as a full time job) and telling people to sample Carl Wilson’s extraordinary 33 1/3 revelations (see below) by reviewing its related screed, “The Trouble With Indie Rock: It’s Not Just Race, It’s Class.” There’s enough on everything in this book to keep the intelligent and curious music fan reading all year.

Master Of Reality by John Darnielle & Let’s Talk About Love by Carl Wilson from the 33 1/3 series

Spike did a perfect job of reviewing/interviewing these books and their furiously talented authors already on this blog earlier this year; the latter has already showed up on The AV Club’s best books list in general, and I have the feeling both will find their way on similar lists elsewhere many times more. If you’re not a metalhead, but are a Mountain Goats fan, you know that Darnielle can make a narrative artful and stirring, so should give this slender fiction based on Black Sabbath’s peculiar working class on weed worldview a shot. And if you don’t even care for Darnielle’s music, don’t worry: His tale has something for all (eternally outsider) music geeks to ruminate on. As does Wilson’s, which may be my favorite book of the year, period, in its cold-stare reckoning of how we judge others by what they (and we) enjoy. (No, those “normals” may be different from “us” in really interesting ways; and it’s fascinating to consider that many of the five to seven album a year Top 40 buyer may not be that different at all from us.) Yeah, I thought the choice of album was hipster irony too -- that’s Celine Dion album, kids, from 1999, the era of what I like to call “mainframe pop,” when the Clinton largesse made us crave overly emotional pop and rock to collect our dot com boom checks by, before it all was going to get unplugged by the year zero catastrophe. When you go to buy this necessary addition to your sociological pop music analysis texts, also pick up Eric Weisbard’s 33 1/3 of Use Your Illusion l & ll, released a little earlier in 2007 and a complemental assay to the breakdown of rock commonwealth leading to our journey to the end of night with Celine (Dion). Resisting the urge to glory in the golden age grime of Appetite for Destruction shows Weisbard is looking for a fight, and he and Wilson mutually ravish and render all passed along notions about what separates pop from rock and the chumps from the cool kids.

The Rest Is Noise: Listening To The Twentieth Century by Alex Ross

This is another case of knowledge of the subject matter not being the most compulsory reason to read a book on music. I am neither a huge metal nor classical expert, and innovative and culturally sentient New Yorker classical columnist Alex Ross’s capacious and compelling summation of the sublime highs and sinister lows of the latter’s field over the past century helps edify. Learn how the fascinating inspirations behind The Rite of Spring led to the origin of the band Rites of Spring. I am only halfway joking; emo-core isn’t really covered, but how the innovative energies of fitfully dying classical music infused pop art through channels like Stravinsky, Steve Reich, and the Velvet Underground are.

I Shot A Man In Reno: A History Of Death By Murder, Suicide, etc. As Related In Popular Song by Graeme Thomson

I love songs like “Knoxville Girl” by the Louvin Brothers, “My Mind Playing Tricks On Me” by the Geto Boys, and Nick Cave’s whole “Murder Ballads” album (especially the grizzly “Stagger Lee”). For me, part of being a punk always involved collecting morbid narratives and anthems in song form no matter what the genre. Thus mainstream rock band songs like “Paint It Black” always seemed more “alternative” to me than many works over the past 30 years by bands who were “quirky” or “positive” in their age. Thomson wrote a pretty good biography of Elvis Costello’s canon recently (Complicated Shadows) but he’s much better wending his way through a wide palette of perversely mordant pop, folk, rock, and rap songs. It’s his knowledge of hip hop, as well as Goths, that makes I Shot A Man In Reno more than just a creepy bathroom read. His description of the Rolling Stones classic ode to “girls dressed in their summer clothes” shows his electric ability to craft delectable imagery with informative reporting: “Over a seasick rhumba, all minor keys and zinging sitar, we learn that the singer’s love is dead and, as a result, the whole world has been dramatically drained of color. It’s modish and flirts with the glamour of the vaguely Satanic... (but) remains at heart a thoroughly devastating and disturbing account of the impact grief can have upon an individual, the way it seeps into every corner and fundamentally changes your place in the world.” For your multi-era-spanning indie rock fan, everything from Suicide to the Killers is documented, but again it’s really great to see so many genres represented as well (and kudos to Thomson for being one of the few books to mention Rodriguez, whose death-dub folk-rap “Sugar Man” is described, right above The Stranglers’ similarly sensual and fatalistic “Golden Brown.” Dude knows the best musical death trips!).

It Still Moves: Lost Songs, Lost Highways, And The Search For The Next American Music by Amanda Petrusich

We all love the hell out of Greil Marcus, but the generation of readers who grew up listening to Americana in the wake of the 90′s No Depression rural-affectation agitation, haven’t had the high quality extrapolative tomes of their own on the subject -- till now. While the magazine itself with that loose genre tag expands into an annual semi-slick book (well worth buying too), It Still Moves is crafted by a singular author with a voice the ease of a band who are as lightly buzzed and eager to play as they are boned up well on lessons. Petrusich masterfully weaves the travels of Alan Lomax with the tribulations of Howlin’ Wolf, the revelations of the dynamic tensions that gave rise to the immortal Sun Studios legacy, gives a great genealogy of the Carter Family while heading for a Cracker Barrel for a bite, while listening to crucially reissued documents of American music like “Goodbye Babylon” along with muddled gems of the Nashville Sound in her borrowed Cadillac, until she’s back home in Brooklyn with friends channeling the sticks in their bedsits. Petrusich is a working journalist for music lovers’ salons like Paste and Pitchfork who really pours herself into what she writes, and I think people will find her investigative impulses here refreshing and rewarding.

Rebels Wit Attitude: Subversive Rock Humorists by Iain Ellis

Ellis writes on “Alternative Rock Cultures” and the topic of this book’s subtitle for the underrated and often very appealing Pop Matters website. This book is similar to I Shot A Man In Reno in that it covers the controversial subject matter of songwriters like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, The Shangri-Las, Alice Cooper, and Ice T. But it’s more general, having to do with the caustic wit of rock music, another thing that had as much to do with the creation of “alternative music” as minimalistic playing or aggressively contentious performances. At first, this made me wary of the book’s intentions -- in spite of a tenacious fixation on the inner-weirdness of the best semi-pop cult artists, it seemed like this was too wide a sweep for a topic. But this is proof that Internet writers can be just as broadly conscious and deeply inspired as rock writers for any of the major (or determinedly marginalist) mags, as the almost Lenny Bruce-like cursed careers of Gil Scott-Heron and the Modern Lovers are lovingly depicted (going down nobly, painfully). It is another far-reaching assessment of an aspect of the rock aesthetic in an age when a lot of information is already out there (say, about the sardonic, untrustworthy-narrator anthems of Randy Newman, Eminem, and black metal) but someone needs to sort out the best of the lot for purchase. And further inspiration.

Town of Mirrors: The Reassembled Imagery of Robert Pollard by Robert Pollard

Quixotic and prolific Guided By Voices leader Pollard collaborates with Seattle-based Fantagraphics to put out THE coffee table art book of the indie rock Xmas season. Pollard uses his Ohio-spawned acceptance of cruel nature and devastating industrial culture to create the kind of visual collage here which shows up in the relationships detailed in his songs as well. Most GBV fans know his input on their surreal cover art, and also that many of these pieces have been displayed in the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, so finally having a generous “best of” is a wonderful thing for both artist and publisher to do.

BOMP!: Saving The World One Record At A Time by Suzy Shaw and Mick Farren

Once upon a time underground rock was known by one label name in America: Bomp! A brilliant fanzine as well, many pages are reproduced here along with the twisted story of Greg Shaw (a writer and tastemaker way ahead of his time, and way behind it, as well, keeping the original spirit of rock alive in early punk rock sides) and his very creative pack of writers, artists, and musicians.

CREEM: America’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll Magazine edited by Robert Matheu and Brian J. Bowe

Not as happy with this as the Bomp! book, as part of the appeal of Creem is flipping through the yellowed pages of the original printings, filled with delectably sleazy 70s rock verisimilitude. BUT since this includes Bangs on The Clash and especially a long, fucked up Charles Bukowski on a 1975 Rolling Stones concert (!!!) you can’t miss with this as a nostalgic stocking stuffer for a gray-haired Teenage Head.

Other books that could easily have been included on this list will be reviewed in the next few weeks, including The Oxford American Book of Great Music Writing, Julian Cope’s Japrocksampler, and ex-Pagans frontman Mike Hudson’s Diary of a Punk.

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