Scribes Sounding Off: Best Music Books of 2009

I wanted to put this list together toot sweet so that our readers might have some perfect last minute choices as gifts for music fans this holiday season. Even in a speedy age of instant cheerleading and grousing, the old-fashioned music biography or history lesson or consumer guide (or more contemporary mixture of autobiography and criticism) can bring deep stimulating comfort Internet browsing can’t quite offer. So here is the mix-tape assortment of rock-write reads that range from essential pop knowledge to comfy in the listener’s easy chair hoot as the preferred soundtrack streams or throbs in the background.

anothergreenworld

First off, I would recommend picking up three of this year’s 33 1/3 series, the dapper little books perfect for pockets or purses whilst riding mass transit or waiting for the show to start. Continuum, the publisher of these small but jam-packed with fact and fascination jewels lucked out with Geeta Dayal’s scientific yet sublime study of the origins of ambient via Brian Eno’s Another Green World. Go back in time to the mid-70s as Eno works intuitively with a range of frustrated but inspired musicians in the studio to cross boundaries of proto-punk and progressive rock, and break them all up for the Faustian bargain of electronica and world music into pop. Also, Terry Edwards’ One Step Beyond, about the amazing pop thrills of the first Madness album and the mirthful British ska milieu that spawned it (and it helped jump) is a bracing read, whether you’re in skinhead braces or not. Wilson Neate’s Pink Flag, about how doo-wop loving/avant-garde avatars like BE helped bands like album subject Wire clash the cathartic sound of brittle rock with the accidental energy of post-modern art. Pink Flag is by a writer as close-to-the-band as Edwards’ is in his study of his pals Suggs and such, and is as vivid in the aesthetic details as Dayal’s brilliant peak into the 24-track mind of her subject, and so may actually be my rock book of the year, period. Pick these all up in multiple stacks for everyone on your music-loving shopping list; if they’re smart and have good taste, you won’t go wrong with the whole lot.

vagabondholes

Vagabond Holes, edited by Chris Coughran and Niall Lucy is a long, lush love letter to a not very well known Australian band called The Triffids, and their leader David McComb. If I wasn’t so enamored with the band’s heartbreakingly poignant songs, occasionally brutally performed yet perfect post-punk pop from the 80s (respectfully reissued by Domino a couple years back), its placement on this list would be a mystery. McComb was raised religiously but had a viciously keen mind and a self-abusive nature that flowed naturally into his bass-driven nocturnes about nature’s beauty and cruelty and the unkindness we show ourselves. Vagabond Holes is a multi-author rave from Robert Forster, Steve Kilbey, Nick Cave, Martyn Casey, and other down under punk poets KEXP listeners have probably adored as much as they did McComb and his confessional skills. (Pink Flag author Neate is here, too, which means he helps tie with himself for two of my most beloved 2009 books.)

bestmusicwriting

Best Music Writing 2009 edited by Daphne Carr, and guest edited by Greil Marcus, shows a primary series selector working overtime to sweep through the rants and raves of magazines and blogs, and a rightfully-esteemed author as struck with the high quality of what was found for this as I am. I also share Marcus’ thrill at Jody Rosen’s piece in here about the discovery of a song recorded twenty years before Edison invented the first “boom box,” a cover of “Au Claire de la Lune” from 1860 by a Parisian typesetter. Rosen does a superb job relating the thrill and drama of such a discovery. At the other end of the time tunnel in this year’s edition of BMW are several razor-wire shreds from Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein, who has become one of the very best rock critics on NPR’s Monitor Mix. Also: excellent material from Wax Poetics, underground writer J. Bennett, Oxford American, and Pitchfork. If you know someone who reads all the websites but needs a place to start with the pubs, and will still be dipping back into it years from now, this edition serves both needs up.

robertpalmer

Blues & Chaos: The Music Writing of Robert Palmer, edited by Anthony DeCurtis, is possibly the most necessary single-author, long overdue anthology since Psychotic Reactions by a certain Mr. Bangs. But Palmer is no lonely gonzo gabber, even if his own end was similarly tragic. He was known for extremely well-crafted biographies and reports on the primitive sources and powerful mojo of the musical counter-culture since the earliest days of Rolling Stone. I am not into all the 60s artists doted on (yet so perfectly detailed), but the several-article Morocco experience (including its pure rock roots trance music) extrapolation featuring fascinating interviews with William Burroughs and others is worth buying this alone. If you really want to be inspired to write about the music you love, are looking to immerse yourself in a very creative singular critical voice, and figure out how the ontological essence of the blues crept into North American pop and birthed the bastard of rock and roll, this is yer book.

hereosandvillians

Heroes And Villians: Essays On Music, Movies, Comics, and Culture is by David Hadju, who wrote about the Greenwich Village scene stuck to Dylan’s boot-heels a few decades back, and a study of how comics threatened the post-WW2 establishment (Positively 4th Street and Ten-Cent Plague) in both precise, wide-screen ways. This is a less ambitious collection, but inherently harkens back to a time when cultural literacy meant knowing and appreciating more than the latest album or hottest film. Hadju is an older critic, and is as hilarious when describing the inept “punk” of Fall Out Boy as he is astute when analyzing what My Space has done to pop (non-touring bands blowing up big). Touchstones and mentors like Will Eisner, Ray Charles, Harry Partch, and The White Stripes all get tight miniatures of the weight of their glory, by a guy who collects it all and values it properly. This is a wonderful mix and match for a music and comics fan especially, and definitely for those with wide tastes in pop and a hunger for history.

eatingthedinosaur

Eating The Dinosaur by Chuck Klosterman is my favorite book by the jolly, jabbing jester-author since his autobiographical breakthrough, Fargo Rock City. It’s somehow more relaxed and more ambitious than his previous works, railing and picking on passed along notions in pop culture. He still works the lovable cad angle pretty hard, and further takes loving pins to plumped-up rock snobbery, rattling the prim cages of those who believe in the imminent destruction of instruments on-stage as a sign of authenticity, and can’t get over the mighty (?) Rivers Cuomo. Purchase this for the crushing juxtaposition of Kurt Cobain with the ATF-fueled decimation of the cult in Waco, Texas, around the same time. Don’t care if you never want to read another article on Nirvana (though I more than sympathize), and don’t know if most even remember the Branch Davidian destruction -- but this is crucial risk-taking, salt-cut journalism. It might be the best overview of the pop apocalypse as is listed here, and burns brightly beyond even the other great works of self-deprecation sort of about Mad Men, Werner Herzog, and FAIL. (Also: If you’re really wondering whether you should keep caring about Klosterman, after so many similar pop culture compilations of self, I think this might be the one book of his you’ll keep when the eve of destruction comes to your home town. He’s worked his own peculiar riff up into something finally glorious.)

Also, in brief:

Heavy Rotation, Edited by Peter Terzian. A very literary view of people’s favorite albums, and pushes along the notion that sometimes other types of writers should do more writing about music than those who have fallen into the groove. ABBA bootlegs in India, whether or not Fugazi stays fresh as you grow up. High point: John Jeremiah Sullivan’s “American Primitive Vol. ll,” which could easy have been in Best Music Writing 2009 (though the author already is otherwise anyways).

How The Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘N’ Roll by Elijah Wald: Basically the academic side of Seattle’s own EMP Pop Conference squeezed breathlessly into a single (Tom Waits-strongly endorsed) book, dense with facts about popular music from the days of the cake-eaters to the end of soul crossover, by a single very bright and challenging author. (Without being accompanied by the performance art, Meat Loaf ironic appreciation, and sex with auto-tune papers, as at the annual event in April where the author often appears.)

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