Here you will find a growing list of books about music that I think you might enjoy. I provide further thoughts and descriptions of certain titles further below but for the sake concision see directly below for a list of the books. (Links to purchase the books and/or additional information about the books are embedded. But the links won’t point to Amazon because I’d like to ensure the survival of independent vendors. “What else could I do? No Apologies.”)
- Mystery Train: Images of American Rock’n’Roll Music by Greil Marcus
- Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes From the American Underground by Michael Azerrad
- Please Kill Me! The Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain
- Love Goes to Buildings on Fire by Will Hermes
- 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die by Tom Moon (a life-long read)
- The History of the Blues by Francis Davis (currently reading)
- The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century by Alex Ross (currently reading)
Music and Science
- This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel J. Levitin
…more verbiage on books
Mystery Train: Images of American Rock’n’Roll Music by Greil Marcus
If there were an ur-text on “rock criticism”, Marcus’ Mystery Train would likely be on the short list, if not the benchmark against which all other books about the popular music form known as Rock’n’Roll would (or should be) judged. This is a brilliant written series of essays on musicians (the Band, Sly and the Family Stone, Randy Newman, Elvis Presley) who both helped shape the discourse of contemporary music and produced a body of work reflecting the then cultural consciousness of their times. Marcus’ genius is not simply in illustrating the unique aspects of each of the artists’ legacies, but in drawing the connections between the singular artists and the communities of which they were apart, sought to capture and were responded to.
Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes From the American Underground by Michael Azerrad
If you grew up listening to late 80s/early 90s College Radio and feverishly followed MTV’s 120 minutes, then this is the quintessential back story of the bands and movement that helped spawn a generation of DIY/Indie-minded rock bands that reshaped mainstream and commercial music as we know it. But, more than anything, this book is about the passion for music that builds community and embraces the outsiders in us all. Each of the artists profiled in this book from the Minutemen to Sonic Youth to Fugazi, all share one common trait: they put the music and those that loved it before their own ego and desire to be rock-stars and, in turn, became true stars because they inspired a generation of kids to stop talking and start rocking.
Love Goes to Buildings on Fire by Will Hermes
One could argue that this a compendium of sorts to Please Kill Me, insofar as it explores the deeper roots and wider riverbeds of the New York City music scene of the 1970s. However, this book is so much more. Perhaps the easiest way of describing this book is to say it is a love letter to the vibrant and diverse music scene that pervaded New York City from downtown to uptown between the years of 1973 to 1977. Told in a quasi-chronological historical narrative of the players and scenes that re-shaped, Rock, Jazz, and Salsa music as well as telling the origins of rap and hip-hop music and the disco-club culture, this book exudes with love for the music of that era and what a fecund era it was. From the story of two latter-day folk-rock poets (Patti Smith and Springsteen) to a kid obsessed with creating a monster music system (Grandmaster Flash) to classically-trained but experimentally included composers (Steve Reich and Philip Glass), 70s NY was a place of great diversity and inter-mixing of musical genres that helped redefine various strains of American music for years to come.
Please Kill Me! The Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain
No words can really describe what an engrossing at times difficult and slightly jaw-dropping read this book is. If the title doesn’t clarify, then let me just be clear, this isn’t a series of observations or essays by the “writers” instead it’s deftly curated series of quotes and excerpts from the musicians, producers, and participants in the history of “punk” starting with the Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol’s Factory to the somewhat bitter end of the movement. Personally, I think this should be required reading for all adolescents, a sort of “now you’ve been warned”.