Every year around this time, I take a few minutes and reflect on the notable books that have shaped conversations about culture or that have revealed fresh insights on subjects about which we thought little else could be said. I am not a huge fan of rating books or albums numerically, as if to signal that one book is the best of the year. Such numerical lists are inherently flawed since today’s number one book could be tomorrow’s number five or number ten, but we make them anyway, and even I consider first few books I mention here indispensable to anyone whose lives revolve around music. Still, I prefer to call my column this week “Notable Books of 2018” since each of these books contributes to an ongoing conversation about music, with some of them changing that conversation or redirecting it dramatically. If there are notable books for you from 2018 that you don’t see on this list, please share them in the comments.
Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyoncé, Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl (Black Dog & Leventhal), edited by Evelyn McDonnell. Women Who Rock is required reading for all of us, for it encourages us to look beyond our musical circles, to listen to those we have far too often placed at the margins of those circles, and to bring those we have marginalized into our circles, embracing them and empowering them as they have for so long empowered us.
Playing Changes: Jazz for a New Century (Pantheon), Nate Chinen. Chinen’s new history of jazz runs fluidly up and down every measure of jazz’s evolution from the late 20th century to the present, riffing on measure after measure of jazz musicians’ soulful, dynamic, and energetic flights across the boundaries of traditional jazz and into new territories into which the artists bring some of the notes sung in those older landscapes with them.
Memphis Rent Party: The Blues, Rock & Soul in Music’s Hometown (Bloomsbury), Robert Gordon. Gordon so brings to life his subjects that the best way to experience this book is to quote from almost every page. Each interview or essay, and Gordon’s introductions to them, brilliantly shines, illuminating the corners and the shadows where blues, soul, and rock have lived, and live, in Memphis. In his own way, Gordon comes to us as a priest of words, inviting us to sit down at a feast he’s prepared, delivering to us the elements of this mystical, magical communion of music that turns the earthly moments around us into an indescribable moment when nothing around us any longer looks the same.
Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back): A Memoir of Recording and Discording with Wilco, Etc. (Dutton), Jeff Tweedy. Tweedy is a raconteur, and his disarming presence, his nonchalance (he’s going to tell these stories, and if you want to come along for the ride, that’s fine; if not, that’s your choice), his ability to draw us in with his wink-and-a-nod humor, and his way with a story invite us into his world and keep us listening as he reveals the insights he wants to share about his life, his family, and his music.
Creative Quest, (Ecco), Questlove — Drummer, bandleader, and culinary entrepreneur Questlove follows his own peripatetic creative genius to address these and other questions by focusing on models of creativity such as George Clinton, David Byrne, D’Angelo, and others. Questlove’s gently rambling, affectionate style encourages openness, reflection, discovery, and experimentation. Imaginative and provocative, Creative Quest opens doors and windows to our ongoing journeys into creativity.
Paul Simon: The Life (Simon & Schuster), Robert Hilburn. Hilburn offers a sprawling, sparkling narrative of a songwriter who has shaped the canon of popular music with his inventive, sometimes playful, and discerning poetry. Simon emerges from Hilburn’s absorbing biography as a restless genius, always tinkering with songs, listening intently to all kinds of music to find new and interesting combinations, continually evolving as a songwriter.
Been So Long: My Life and Music (St. Martin’s), Jorma Kaukonen. Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna guitarist Kaukonen sits down to tell the stories of his life and music in this entertaining autobiography. Kaukonen’s illuminating stories and lilting prose carry us on a lyrical journey through the hills and valleys of a man who is one of the five best guitarists playing today.
Imagine (Grand Central), John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Drawing on conversations with the photographers, musicians, and producers involved in the making of Lennon and Ono’s album Imagine in 1971, Ono provides this beautifully illustrated chronicle with exclusive, never-before-seen photographs and artwork. The book follows the album song by song, providing rich details and intimate images not only of the recording process for each song, but also of Lennon and Ono’s evolving relationship.
The Only Girl: My Life and Times on the Masthead of Rolling Stone (Little, Brown), Robin Green. The power of The Only Girl lies in Green’s willingness to acknowledge the vulnerability she feels early in her career, her willingness to share her struggles and triumphs of making her way, finding her voice, and her embrace of her hero Joan Didion’s words in Green’s own writing: “People tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.” Green’s fierce honesty and her way with a story makes The Only Girl an electrifying read.
Novel Sounds: Southern Fiction in the Age of Rock and Roll (Columbia), Florence Dore. In the tradition of great music and cultural criticism, Dore richly explores the writings of Southern writers like William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and William Styron, among others, alongside the music of Bessie Smith, Lead Belly, and Bob Dylan, among others, uncovering the deep lineage between rock and Southern literature.
Other notable books:
Bing Crosby: Swinging on a Star: The War Years, 1940-1946 (Little, Brown), Gary Giddins
Country Music U.S.A. (Texas), Bill C. Malone and Tracey E.W. Laird
Bird on a Blade (Texas), Rosanne Cash and Dan Rizzie
Bill Monroe: The Life and Music of the Blue Grass Man (Illinois), Tom Ewing
Is It Still Good to Ya? (Duke), Robert Christgau
Thanks a Lot, Mr. Kibblewhite: My Story (Holt), Roger Daltrey
My Own Devices: True Stories from the Road on Music, Science, and Senseless Love (Dutton), Dessa
Night Moves (Texas), Jessica Hopper
Waiting to Derail: Ryan Adams and Whiskeytown, Alt-Country’s Brilliant Wreck (Skyhorse), Thomas O’Keefe with Joe Oestreich
Wasn’t That a Time: The Weavers, the Blacklist, and the Battle for the Soul of America (Da Capo), Jesse Jarnow
From Macon to Jacksonville: More Conversations in Southern Rock (Mercer), William Michael Smith
The Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, the MC5 & My Life of Impossibilities (Da Capo), Wayne Kramer
Making Music American: 1917 and the Transformation of Culture (Oxford), E. Douglas Bomberger
The Honky Tonk on the Left: Progressive Thought in Country Music (Massachussetts), edited by Mark Allan Jackson
Country Comes to Town: The Music Industry and the Transformation of Nashville (Massachsetts), Jeremy Hill
Nashville Songwriter, Vol. II: The Inside Stories behind Country Music’s Greatest Hits (Music Square Media), Jake Brown
Joni on Joni: Inteviews and Encounters with Joni Mitchell (Chicago Review Press), edited by Susan Whitall
John Hartford’s Mammoth Collection of Fiddle Tunes (StuffWorks Press Inc.), Complied and narrated by Matt Combs, Katie Hartford, and Greg Reish
There Was a Light: The Cosmic History of Chris Bell and the Rise of Big Star (HoZac Books), Rich Tupica
Bring It On Home: Peter Grant, Led Zeppelin, and Beyond — The Story of Rock’s Greatest Manager (Da Capo), Mark Blake
Why Should the Devil Have all the Good Music? Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock (Convergent), Gregory Alan Thornbury
A Spy in the House of Loud: New York Songs and Stories (Texas), Chris Stamey
The Blue Sky Boys (Mississippi), Dick Spottswood
Bluegrass Generation: A Memoir (Illinois), Neil V. Rosenberg
A&R Pioneers: Architects of American Roots Music on Record (Vanderbilt), Brian Ward and Patrick Huber
Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 (Penguin), Ryan Walsh
Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock (Dey St.), Steven Hyden
Johnny Cash: The Life and Legacy of the Man in Black (Smithsonian), Alan Light
That Thin, Wild Mercury Sound (Chicago Review Press), Daryl Sanders
My Love Story (Atria), Tina Turner
Anything for a Hit (Da Capo), Dorothy Carvello
Slowhand: The Life and Music of Eric Clapton (Little, Brown), Philip Norman
Homeplace: A Southern Town, a Country Legend, and the Last Days of a Mountaintop Honky-Tonk (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), John Lingan
The Life I’ve Picked (Chicago Review Press), John McEuen
Voices: How a Great Singer Can Change Your Life (Counterpoint), Nick Coleman