2020 might’ve been a shitter on a fair few fronts, but we did have plenty of time indoors to get our noses in a good book. Tick off a few Christmas presents with these – the best music books of the year.
Glitter Up the Dark: How Pop Broke the Binary by Sasha Geffen
This exploration of queerness and pop is ridiculously comprehensive. Spanning from the homoerotic undertones of bands like The Beatles and the androgyny of glam rock to present-day artists such as Janelle Monae, Perfume Genius and SOPHIE – taking in grunge, disco, post-punk and hip-hop along the way – Sasha Geffen’s examination of gender ambiguity’s relationship to artistic reinvention is a fascinating read. You’ll never listen to classic genre-staples in the same way again.
Buy it for: Yourself – and then lend it to every pop diehard you know.
The Meaning of Mariah Carey by Mariah Carey
There are a lot of rumours about Mariah Carey and her supposed diva tendencies: she ‘doesn’t do’ stairs, and it was once claimed that she’ll only enter a restaurant if they play her own music. Not all of these gossipy tidbits are true: in 2018 for instance, Mariah set The Guardian straight on the idea that she only bathes in very expensive mineral water (she actually bathes in cold milk, fyi). And her autobiography The Meaning of Mariah Carey is well worth reading for its humorous takes on its author’s ‘extra-ness’ alone. Besides that, it’s a feast of surprising anecdotes and surprisingly honest: giving a proper insight into a passionate and misunderstood artist so often written off as ‘the pop diva’.
Buy it for: Your friend who doesn’t ‘do’ public transport.
Remain in Love: Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, Tina by Chris Frantz
The true influence of Talking Heads’ drummer Chris Frantz often lingers in the formidable shadow of David Byrne and his whacking great shoulder-pads – but truthfully, the influential new-wave group might not exist without him. A driving force behind the band moving to New York, Frantz also brought bassist Tina Weymouth (now his wife) into the Talking Heads fold, hired bandmate Jerry Harrison and co-wrote many of their biggest hits. And the musician’s new memoir tells Chris Frantz’s side of the story. Despite the personal tension between Talking Heads’ drummer and vocalist, ‘Remain in Love…’ is largely rooted in the joy of the band’s carefree, creative exploration instead – with plenty of choice anecdotes about everyone from Mick Jagger to Patti Smith along the way.
Buy it for: The mate who spontaneously brought a drum kit during Lockdown 1.0.
Nobody Ever Asked Me About The Girls: Women, Music and Fame by Liz Robinson
American music journalist Liz Robinson has grilled a hell of a lot of mega-star musicians over the course of half a century in the game, writing for the likes of NME, Rolling Stone, and Vanity Fair. Mostly, curious people tend to ask her about the famous men she’s met over the years: in response, she’s written Nobody Ever Asked Me about the Girls. It features contributions from a truly staggering array of icons that Robinson has spoken to over the years, jumbled up according to topic and woven throughout. Just a small sample of the many interviews: Joni Mitchell, Stevie Nicks, Tina Turner, Beyonce, Rihanna, Taylor Swift, Adele, Joan Jett and Courtney Love. Blimey.
Buy it for: Your feminist cousin.
The Velvet Rope by Ayanna Dozier
Named after the rotation speed of a vinyl LP, each instalment of the 33 ⅓ book series focuses on a different album in deliciously nerdy depth – ranging from cult albums like ‘The Velvet Underground & Nico’ and Joy Division’s ‘Unknown Pleasures’ to brilliant curveballs: ABBA’s greatest hits compilation, Dusty Springfield, and DJ Shadow all feature in the series. Seven new volumes joined the 33 ⅓ club in 2020, and Ayanna Dozier’s appraisal of ‘The Velvet Rope’ by Janet Jackson is especially intriguing.
Frankly exploring sexual experimentation, candid about depression and addressing the effects of the internet and social networking, ‘The Velvet Rope’ was a revolutionary pop record way back in 1997 when it first came out – and blending together personal insights, black feminist theory and a closer look at Jackson’s own story and creative process, this is the weighty critical reevaluation it deserves.
Buy it for: Your mate who bagged front row at Janet’s Glastonbury set last summer.
Bring That Beat Back: How Sampling Built Hip-Hop
Sampling is an enormous force in music – and the genre of hip-hop pioneered it. Digging deep into the record crates of early DJs and focusing on Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, Prince Paul, Dr Dre and Madlib in forensic depth, Nate Patrin delves into its pick’n’mix artistry, and also contextualises the spiralling popularity of sampling against a rush of nostalgia in the later 20th century, which arguably continues to influence the greats today.
Buy it for: The pal who taught themselves Ableton during lockdown.
C.A.L.M by Jehnny Beth
Definitely a present to hide from more prudish family members, this brilliantly lewd short story collection isn’t for the faint of heart: with absurdist fables about everything from BDSM and kink to smelly glory holes. A deliciously smutty stocking filler, sure, but what on earth does it have to do with music? Well, it’s the debut novel from Savages’ vocalist Jehnny Beth, who puts E L James and Fifty Shades of Grey to shame.
Don’t buy it for: your granny.
She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs by Sarah Smarsh
Journalist and essayist Sarah Smarsh grew up in Kansas, and with her 2018 memoir Heartland she took down classist misconceptions that the mainstream US media often held towards working class voters around the time of Trump’s election. And in her new book, a celebration of country icon Dolly Parton, Smarsh explores how this same mischaracterisation is a fixture in the Tennessee artist’s career. Meanwhile, Dolly Parton has become known as a champion of gender equality, an outspoken ally to the LGBTQ+ community, and a formidable business woman – recently, she also voiced her support for Black Lives Matter. Part biography, part lyrical study, She Come By It Natural is ultimately a celebration of an icon.
Buy it for: Somebody with flaming locks of auburn hair, ivory skin and eyes of emerald green.
Girls Against God by Jenny Hval
A fun little tid-bit of indie Christmas cracker trivia for you – Norwegian artist Jenny Hval used to be in an atmospheric goth metal band called Shellyz Raven. Though grating riffs have gradually given way to her solo experimentation, her spooky beginnings make sense in the context of her equally accomplished work as an author – and this year, her third novel Girls Against God has been translated into English. Brilliantly weird, it features a coven of witches cursing Oslo and the painter Edvard Munch joining a ’90s heavy metal band – served up with a helping of magic and feminism.
Buy it for: Your nearest and dearest horror buff.
Sing Backwards and Weep by Mark Lanegan
Darkly funny and brutally harrowing, the new memoir from singer Mark Lanegan – a solo star, but also well-known for grunge band Screaming Trees and various collaborations with Queens of the Stone Age – doesn’t shy away from depicting its author in plain and often unflattering light. As autobiographies go, its eye-poppingly honest, detailing Lanegan’s struggles with drug addiction and substance abuse, and his deepest regrets. He doesn’t hold back, as we found when we interviewed him about it.
Buy it for: Your flannel-clad cousin who secretly wants to live in ’90s Seattle.
Liberation through Hearing by Richard Russell
London indie label XL has arguably shaped the sonic landscape of the noughties: they’ve released everything from pop powerhouse Adele to Dizzee Rascal’s ‘Boy In Da Corner’ – while also giving a home to artists like Arca, Yaeji and King Krule. And Liberation Through Hearing, by owner and in-house producer Richard Russell, tells the whole story of the influential label, from behind the scenes.
Buy it for: Your entrepreneurial sibling.
John & Yoko/Plastic Ono Band by John Lennon and Yoko Ono
Attention, Beatles stans – you might want to get your hands on this new coffee table volume dedicated to John Lennon’s first post-band project with Yoko Ono. Crammed with interviews, previously unseen photographs and handwritten lyrics from ‘Plastic Ono Band’ it’s a fittingly in-depth tribute as the album turns 50.
Buy it for: Your Beatle-mad flatmate.
The Butterfly Effect by Marcus J Moore
21st century rap artists don’t get much more influential than Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar. He was the first mainstream artist to collect the prestigious Pulitzer Prize, and each of his albums is a masterpiece woven with jazz and soul. In other words, it’s high time he got his own biography. Enter The Butterfly Effect, an examination of Lamar’s genius and cultural importance.
Buy it for: Your ahead-of-the-curve friend who lent you ‘Section.80’ (if you know, you know).
Any Night of the Week: A DIY History of Toronto Music by Jonny Dovercourt
This niche potted history of Toronto’s thriving DIY scene covers a lot of ground: from the fertile indie scene that birthed Broken Social Scene to its history of hip-hop beyond the city’s biggest rap star Drake. Written by Jonny Dovercourt, who co-founded the long-running Toronto concert series Wavelength, it’s a celebration of a city that has given us so many musical greats, but sometimes doesn’t get the credit they deserve.
Buy it for: Your mate who only listens to cassettes.
Violet Bent Backwards Over The Grass by Lana Del Rey
The musician’s fascinating poetry collection is a smorgasbord or morbid imagery, oh-so-Californian landscapes and and even references to her acclaimed 2019 album ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell!‘ There was an accompanying audiobook with music from Jack Antonoff, too. Yes: audiobooks are now cool.
Buy it for: The English Lit. grad in your life.
Spike Jonze: Beastie Boys by Spike Jonze
Hip-hop trailblazers Beastie Boys and influential film director Spike Jonze have a long history of collaboration, and as a companion to his documentary about the group, and filmmaker has also released a photo book. It follows Beastie Boys’ journey through the eyes of a creative partner and friend, with moments such as their Lollapalooza appearance and filming the music video for ‘Sabotage’ among around 200 previously unseen photographs. One for the superfans.
Buy it for: Anyone who loved Jonze’s recent doc Beastie Boys Story.
Nick Cave: Stranger Than Kindness by Nick Cave
A carefully curated collection of artwork, handwritten lyrics, photographs, personal possessions, and essays, Stranger Than Kindness is a proper deep-dive into the story and creative processes of Nick Cave – baritone-voiced Australian goth icon, and a prolific writer, poet and screenwriter. Better still, it was pieced together by the man himself.
Buy it for: Your sister’s goth boyfriend. He’s a tough nut to crack, but this should do the trick.
Larger Than Life: A History of Boy Bands from NKOTB to BTS by Maria Sherman
Boy bands often get an unfair rep – often, such derogatory framing serves as a way to talk down to the young teenage girls who loyally followed the likes of One Direction, N*Sync, New Kids on the Block, Backstreet Boys and Jonas Brothers. Here, Maria Sherman pays proper, weighty attention to their complicated history, examining everything from accidental homoeroticism and the internet’s love of ‘shipping’ various band members (imagining their in lurve) to the very first boy bands in the early ’90s.
Buy it for: BTS stans and Directioners.
Sweet Dreams: From Club Culture to Style Culture, the Story of the New Romantics by Dylan Jones
Think of ’80s music, and you’ll immediately picture garish eyeshadow, heavily-backcombed quiffs and gaudy synths – all staples of the New Romantic movement which was sweeping the UK back in the day. And journalist Dylan Jones’ giant oral history of the genre looks in-depth at London’s influential Blitz club (where Boy George was once a cloakroom attendant) through to bands like Roxy Music, Spandau Ballet, and Duran Duran gripping the culture.
Buy it for: Your uncle whose sported the same hairsprayed quiff since 1981.
Believe in Magic: Heavenly Records by Robin Turner and Paul Kelly
The beloved British label Heavenly Records – home to King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard, Manic Street Preachers and Saint Etienne over the years – turns 30 this year, and to celebrate, Robin Turner and Paul Kelly have compiled an entire book to its story. As well as the record label, much attention is given to London clubnight The Heavenly Social (founded by Turner and the label’s Jeff Barrett) where Chemical Brothers rose to prominence when they were still known as Dust Brothers.
Buy it for: The auntie who won’t stop banging on about the Hacienda glory days.