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Despite reports that the publishing industry is retracting and there are fewer books that people “care” about each year, 2017 was a robust year in books on another industry repeatedly written off as collapsed: music. This year saw the release of a number of amazing memoirs and biographies, and music histories and compendiums of criticism. These 10 books were the best about music released this year. You’ll find books by and about country music, a music magazine, live music, underground heroes, and, well, the Beatles.
And, while you're at it, don't forget to check out the book we wrote this year.
Corbin Reiff’s debut book is something of a Quixotic pursuit; he tries to pick the best concert in every year from 1960-2016. The remarkable part of this book is that he manages to do so: he picks concerts that define an era, say something about the artist and the time they were performing, and tell the story of popular music through live shows of the last nearly 60 years. It’s a great book to pick up and debate with and about.
It was a good year in biographies/memoirs of underground rock stars, with a big tome on Lou Reed and Hole drummer Patty Schemel’s warts-and-all tale of grunge, but founding Television member Richard Lloyd makes this list for its witty, and sometimes acerbic, remembrances of CBGB, and deep discussions on his approach to the guitar. It makes clear how virtually every member of seminal NYC punk bands has a book in them.
The lack of respect for women in country music has been a hot topic for the past couple years, as women are increasingly unable to have a significant voice on the charts with all the bro country guys running around like a replaceable, never ending army. This book won’t change that, but it’s a book that brings the ladies to the front of country music, with incredible essays about Brenda Lee, Wanda Jackson, Rita Coolidge and even Taylor Swift, this book is about the importance of women in country music and the stories they tell in their songs, and about us.
Veteran rock critic and NPR contributor Ann Powers delivers a powerhouse survey of the history of American music through the music different generations used as fuel for getting nasty. Starting in New Orleans in the 1800s and up through when rock and roll concerts were decried as veritable orgies. Through the course of the book you learn a lot about how music became the premiere carnal art form in American art, not that it came easily.
It was another strong year for the 33 ⅓ series, which published a diverse range of books again this year. There were a couple standouts this year—Jenn Pelly’s book on the Raincoats and Patrick Rivers and William Fulton on Camp Lo, among them—but the one that changed how I thought about an album most was Andrew Barker’s book on Pharcyde’s Bizarre Ride II. The book traces the album’s fitful creation through its release, and shows how five guys who were never as good apart as they were together could shine so bright on a single album.
I thought it was impossible that there could be yet another book about the Beatles that 1) was worth reading and 2) provided some new insight, but Rob Sheffield’s sensational Dreaming The Beatles fits both bills by not making the book about the Beatles, really. It’s about how we define ourselves in relation to the Beatles. With sections on the group’s solo material to the women they chose to love, this is a rarity in 2017: an insightful book about a band that has had literal libraries written about them.
A genuine New York Times bestseller, this autobiography of Gucci Mane is a glimpse into the mind of the most influential rapper of the ’00s. His style, slang, and specific artistry—he recorded in huge bursts and flooded the market with mixtapes—has been replicated by virtually every Atlanta rapper since the second term of George W. Bush. Mane tells his story in pretty linear fashion—how he went from drug slinging kid to street rapper to major label artist to federal prison to out again—but the small details and stories of his contemporaries and how he wrote his biggest hits are the highlight of this book.
It was a great year for soul biographies, with a great volume on Wilson Pickett also coming out this year. But the best music biography of 2017 is this book on Otis Redding. As noted in the intro chapter here, Otis sat for one interview in his life, so establishing the facts of Redding’s life is relatively accomplishable via interview, but knowing his inner-workings, his thoughts, or motivations is basically impossible. So instead, Gould focuses on giving the most comprehensive look at Redding’s life, from details on his childhood to his plane crash to recording details on his legendary Stax recordings.
The story around this book threatened to overshadow the book itself: After hiring and firing multiple writers over the years, Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner commissioned reporter/writer Joe Hagan to write his definitive biography timed with this year’s 50th anniversary of his magazine. Wenner imagined he’d get the Woodrow Wilson-esque presidential biography he’d envisioned would be his due since he was a boy—he saved all his personal correspondence for most of his life—and Hagan delivered the only book he realistically could: one that emphasizes the sex and the drugs alongside the rock and roll. Wenner didn’t see the book till it rolled off the press, and went about disowning it, refusing to appear alongside Hagan at events and counterprogramming against it (the timing of a much more fawning HBO documentary seemed weirdly timed).
Hagan’s book, though, is an amazing read about how the ambition of one man could lead to so many different cultural shifts, from youth being able to define themselves by the music they listen to, to advertisers preying on that fact, to general celebrity becoming, and eventually overtaking, the old idea of “stardom.” Wenner might have been an egomaniac, reformed drug addict and general crazy person, but it was his triumph that made Rolling Stone what it is. Hagan’s book doesn’t pretend Wenner was a saint, or even that good of a person, and because of that, this book has lionized him as the king he thinks he is, even if he can’t tell.
Immediately establishing itself as the ’00s version of Please Kill Me, Lizzy Goodman’s Meet Me In The Bathroom is a sprawling oral history of New York City rock music from roughly 2000 to 2009, which encompasses the stories of basically every significant rock band of the Aughts, from the Strokes, Interpol, Kings of Leon, LCD Soundsystem, the Killers, Grizzly Bear, the National, and on and on and on and on. It’s a stunning achievement and one of the best books of 2017, regardless of genre. It’s too hard to pick favorite anecdotes here—though Kings Of Leon remembering calling Carlos D from Interpol a “mortician” made me spray Coke out of my nose both times I read the book this year—because the book spills every conceivable cup of tea telling the story of all the bands here. That Goodman got everyone to tell every story and somehow turned it into this book is a feat to be appreciated.
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.
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