The only thing harder than keeping up with the weekly deluge of new music in 2018 was trying to keep up with music books. It felt like every month saw the release of 10 to 12 worthwhile reads, from Tina Turner’s memoir to books by A&R folks and everywhere in between. This list is of the 10 most worth reading that I also read this year — by my count I read more than 40 — so apologies to anything I couldn’t get to that also rules. There are books about Van Morrison, classic rock, Memphis, Lauryn Hill and Christian rock below, so don’t think there’s not a range.
This book is set in an unconventional place: namely, Boston in 1968, where Van Morrison is hanging out, gearing up to record his masterpiece, Astral Weeks. Elsewhere in Boston, James Brown has quelled a riot following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and a variety of other performers, artists and charlatans circle the zeitgeist. It adds up to an interesting picture of a time and place, and while I’m not sure I’m sold on Boston serving as some spiritual force on Morrison’s album, I am convinced this is an amazing way to tell a slab of history: focus on one year, and one city, and you’re sure to shake out some amazing stories.
Lauryn Hill’s Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill — one of the most misunderstood and misguidedly critiqued classic albums of the modern canon — turned 20 this summer, and Joan Morgan’s short but sensational She Begat This was the only tribute you needed to read. Morgan dissects the album both in its time and today, attempting to explain how Lauryn from the block made a masterpiece before tuning out and dropping out of the fame industrial complex. This is like a long liner notes essay, with divergences to all the right places. A must-read for anyone who likes rap, Lauryn or Miseducation.
Robert Gordon’s books about Muddy Waters and Stax Records are ur-texts for writers writing about either subject, as the Memphis writer gives you everything you could possibly want to know about either, written with a well of direct knowledge and experience. Gordon’s collection on subjects in and around Memphis — Memphis Rent Party — captures that feeling of a person who knows everything about something kindly telling you everything you need to know, this time on subjects ranging from Jeff Buckley (who Gordon hung around with in Memphis before he died there in 1997) and Cat Power (who recorded The Greatest in Memphis with the remnants of the Hi Records band), to Alex Chilton and Furry Lewis (two iconoclasts who called Memphis home). Gordon shows the importance of place in writing about music, as sometimes the locale the music comes from is as equally important as the people making it.
The lionization of Jeff Buckley is hard to understand for those of us who were not woke to his charms in 1997 when he died, but this book — written by his manager Dave Lory and writer Jim Irvin — gives the complete story of Jeff Buckley, with insight and humor, and illuminated why he was such a magnetic artist. Lory managed Buckley on the road when he was playing to basically empty rooms, up through when he’d play the best concert halls of Europe. The book opens with some oral history, before becoming a musical version of Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, where two men learn everything there is to know about someone during a series of road trips. This book made me spend three weeks buried in Buckley’s catalog, and I think I get it now.
Thanks to Boomer Exceptionalism™, I thought I knew everything there was to know about the Rolling Stones’ disastrous Altamont concert; it signaled the end of innocence and free love or whatever. But Saul Austerlitz’s book transcends basically every other account of Altamont in an underutilized material: gold old-fashioned reporter’s shoe leather. He talks to dozens of people who were there, and even interviews the family and friends of Meredith Hunter, the young man who was murdered by Hell’s Angels (who Austerlitz also talks to) while the Stones’ played. He also examines the role the Grateful Dead had in both recommending the Angels as security, and not playing Altamont when maybe the local boys could have calmed the crowd. This is the definitive book about Altamont, which doesn’t mean there won’t be 100 more. But I don’t think any will be better than this.
This book is for people convinced jazz stopped sometime during the Reagan administration; Nate Chinen’s a N.Y. Times jazz writer, and here he gives a survey of jazz of the 21st century, with pieces on Roy Harper, Kamasi Washington and more. The book makes a compelling case for jazz in the 21st century being as important and searching as the “classic” jazz from the ’50s-’70s, and how jazz has become part of the building blocks of hip-hop and other genres.
This book about the Grateful Dead starts where you least expect it to: After Jerry Garcia’s death put the future of the band in limbo. It covers every intra-band squabble, from the years they all hated each other, to the years Mickey hated Bill, and Bob hated Phil and any combination of such. It culminates with the band’s recent reunion concerts at Soldier Field in Chicago, and showcases exactly how much tightrope walking and business squabbles it takes to keep a legacy band afloat, and exactly how John Mayer ended up in the Dead.
The 33 ⅓ book series is old reliable when it comes to music books; every year there’s at least one in the series that is 100 percent totally essential. This year’s best 33 ⅓ is Rachel Lee Rubin’s Okie From Muskogee, a well-researched and argued book about outlaw country legend Merle Haggard’s misunderstood classic Okie From Muskogee. Rubin examines how the album could serve as fodder for both the political right and the left, while Haggard’s own politics remained unexamined. Country albums deserve more book-length treatments, and this is a good place to start.
At some point, maybe in another 30 years, people won’t care about classic rock anymore; the radio format will cease to exist and teenagers won’t smoke bowls to “Immigrant Song” in the back of a Vanagon. But what about now, in these twilight years, when classic rock legends are still alive, their impact on the culture is getting slowly erased, and the best young folks can muster is Greta Van Fleet? Hyden’s Twilight of the Gods tries to reckon with classic rock bands in both seeing what they’re like now, the impact they had on what you hear on the radio — the sections on listening to classic rock radio in the Midwest will be intimately familiar to anyone reared out here — and what their legacies ultimately will be. If you still care about what the symbols mean on Zeppelin IV, you need to read this book.
This book, about Larry Norman, the oft-controversial originator of Christian rock, is nothing short of revelatory; not just in the thorough examination of Norman’s life, warts and all — he’s an important figure, but also kind of a jerk — but in the way it dissects the ways that Christian rock both evolved, devolved and lost its way in the time since Norman sang the the song this book takes its title from. Norman saw Christian rock as non-judgemental, a safe space for freaks of all stripes to learn the word via good tunes. That Christian rock became bland, preaching-to-the-converted version it ended up being filled him with dread and anger; he ends up like a failed apostle here, realizing his vision has become warped. I had next to no idea about him or his genre before reading this, and I won’t say I’ve bought tons of Norman albums off Discogs, but it at least made me curious, like all great music books should.
Andrew Winistorfer is Senior Director of Music and Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard, The Story of Willie Nelson, Miles Davis: The Electric Years and The Story of Waylon Jennings. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.