While the music industry contracts and contracts, the music book publishing industry seems like it’s wantonly expanding every year. When I started this year-in-review project in 2017, it felt like I had to reach to get to 10 worthy music books. This year, I left some of my favorite books I read all year off this list because there was too much good to get to. While I have you, remember to buy the second Vinyl Me, Please book, The Best Record Stores In The United States, right here. Without further ado, the 10 best music books of 2019:
One of the best working writers writing personal notes, remembrances, and thoughts about the best rap group ever, in a way that reveals a lot about Tribe, what it means to its fans, and how our personal history dovetails with the things we like. At least three of the pieces here will knock you sideways for a week.
Classic rock-era biographies are literally a dime a dozen; how often do we have to hear from some band that Woodstock really ruled? But this book about CSNY was revelatory, more for how detailed it got once the group splintered — and reformed and re-splintered and reformed and re-splintered. I’ve certainly never thought, “I want a book with a blow-by-blow of the recording of Stephen Stills’ Manassas,” but this book has it, and it was sublime to read. A must-read for fans of any part of the C S N or Y.
A book about the lack of music counts as a music book, right? In this beautiful contemplation of what quiet actually is, Brox examines a number of places where silence is imposed on people — prison, a monastery, and more — and what it means to and for people to live in quiet. I definitely had some feelings about how much noise I hear everyday — music and otherwise — after this book.
A tick-tock account of the investigation into, and the eventual myriad of court cases of, the singer-turned-predator R. Kelly, this book is an essential read for anyone who still thinks it’s OK to do “Ignition (Remix)” at karaoke. It’s a harrowing book about a harrowing subject, that is still unresolved, but not for lack of trying by DeRogatis, who’s been on this story since the late-’90s.
Gioia has a bit of a reputation as being “contrarian” because of some thinkpieces he wrote a while ago about the state of music criticism, but that’s only because he cares about the form of music writing more than most. This book is like a master-thesis of his whole thing in recent years: It questions and explains the evolution of music in ways that don’t seem obvious at first, but will blow your mind once you grasp their importance. The section on how a Fisher Price record player in the ’50s might have made an entire generation of rock ’n’ rollers is especially revelatory. No better music book to argue with and scratch your head to in 2019 than this one.
This was the single funniest music book released this year, as Hindman remembers her too-strange-to-be-true story of being part of an orchestra group “playing” the songs of a performer who paid them to fake like they were playing his QVC-ready albums alongside a boombox. The guy never really gets caught; Hindman just decides there has to be more to life than fake playing shitty music, but has this amazing story to tell after as a result.
Booker T. Jones might be the most singularly important musician in soul music history, and his book attacks his varied life — in which he led the M.G.’s, produced Willie Nelson, co-wrote many songs while finding himself in California — in an unconventional way: It jumps around in time by themes, leaving a portrait of an artist who sees personal evolution as the main work of his life. Come for the Stax stories, stay for the tales of Nelson’s dank weed.
Who would have thought the story of Les Paul and Fender vying for supremacy in electric guitar design would have so much pathos, so much greed, and so many riveting tales of craftsmanship? This deserves to be a biopic, ASAP.
This novel was everywhere this year — it was part of Reese Witherspoon’s book club — and for good reason: It’s a book you devour, a book that feels like a documentary that you need to see the next scene of immediately. Telling the fake story of a fake band and their own Nico (a pretty woman forced on them, in some respects) via a fake oral history that tells of the group’s rise to fame and breakup, I read this book in a single night, staying awake to finish it because it felt disrespectful to the story to take a break. The fake story ends up more riveting than most true band histories ever end up being once the lawyers get involved. Wasn’t just one of the best music books I read this year, it’s one of the best, period.
There are more Joy Division books in the marketplace than albums they made, but Jon Savage’s oral history from this year tells a lot of behind-the-scenes stories — Savage was a music journalist when the band broke in the U.K. — and captures the excitement around the band in a way that doesn’t feel like the death march books on the band end up being. The story ends in tragedy, but there are also funny scenes of the band being 22-year-old idiots captured here along the way, too.
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.