Even the most cursory glance cast toward our archive of articles or Twitter feed reveals just how diverse and wide-ranging the Albumism staff’s musical tastes are. Scroll through on any given day and you’re likely to find De La Soul next to Kacey Musgraves juxtaposed with The Spice Girls adjacent to Led Zeppelin followed by Solange nearby Miles Davis preceded by Massive Attack alongside Tori Amos sharing space with Stevie Wonder. And so on, and so on.
But while our stable of scribes diverge with respect to the artists, albums, and songs we each cover on a regular basis, we are 100% united in our dual, insatiable passions for music and the written word. Hence why we are delighted to share our picks for the fifty music-themed books that we consider essential reading. We fully recognize that this fantastic fifty only scratches the surface of the amazing music literature to be found out there, but we hope that this list—divided into five parts for easier reading—serves as a solid primer for you, our readers, to explore further and read much, much more.
Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life
Steve Almond | 2010 | Buy
Selected by Sarah Paolantonio
Steve Almond has published nine books of fiction and nonfiction, but the one that left the biggest impression on me is 2010’s Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life. Drawn in by its title and convinced by the blurbs from Aimee Mann and Dan Bern, Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life is a mashup memoir. Its narrative is relatable and unique. Almond declares himself a Drooling Fanatic and takes himself as a character to the extreme. Between his time as a local music journalist and superfan, Almond catalogs his opinions, interviews, and mix CDs with humor, ease, and devotion.
He lists those he considers to be rock & roll’s biggest assholes (from Ted Nugent to Madonna), the problems a music snob encounters while looking for love, fanatical experiences, rock’s religious freaks, a survey of prog rock’s lyricism, and so on. Almond’s fandom is an innate chemical inside him. His stories and memories detail what it is to truly love music more than life itself. Almond’s passion and fidelity are unmatched, yet his story is relatable. Every music critic can and will write a book like this, and I’d read them all. We’re all fans and that’s where the fun is.
Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana
Michael Azerrad | 1993 | Buy
Selected by Sarah Paolantonio
Michael Azerrad’s Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana was published just six months before the death of Kurt Cobain, in 1993. Azerrad spent close time with the band, their friends and family. Containing photos and quotes from Kurt, Krist, Dave, and Courtney, Come As You Are is the definitive biography of Nirvana.
Azerrad is a journalist and editor whose work has appeared in SPIN, Rolling Stone, Billboard, and many other publications that have since closed their doors. Some say Nirvana was one of the last great bands of the old music industry: breaking records and making millions. But their lasting impression was left on how artists heard rock music through fuzzy bass and “heavy pop sludge.” Perception was everything to Kurt, which is why he’s no longer with us. He wrote in his journal, “I’d rather be dead than cool.” A cautionary tale of success and fame, The Story of Nirvana moves away from Kurt Cobain as an overblown memory and makes him human again.
Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: The Work of a Legendary Critic - Rock 'N' Roll as Literature and Literature as Rock 'N' Roll
Lester Bangs | 2001 | Buy
Selected by Steven Ovadia
Lester Bangs wrote about music for Rolling Stone and Creem magazines, amongst other outlets, in the 1970s and 1980s. He never got particularly famous or respected in the way the more serious rock music critics like Greil Marcus and Robert Christgau did, although Bangs was played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous and does get a shout-out in R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)." Psychotic Reactions is a 1988 anthology of Bangs' work, edited by the aforementioned Marcus.
The reason Bangs' work is still beloved, 36 years after his death-by-accidental-overdose, and the reason it wound up anthologized, is due to his passion for music, which is apparent in every sentence of everything he ever wrote. Bangs loved music and his prose practically reeks of that affection. If Jack Kerouac's Dean Moriarty had been obsessed by loud rock & roll and consumed by Lou Reed, you would have Bangs.
But the reason Bangs isn't as well-known as he could have been is because he got caught up in his persona as the drunken contrarian. His work could often seem more about performing to expectations and it weighed on him. So instead of writing about new bands, much of the book is Bangs recording his altercations with Reed and documenting his love of cough medicine. Bangs is almost like the modern reality show character, trapped in a prison of beloved villainy. And Bangs wanted to escape that prison. You can tell in his obituary of John Lennon, which is primarily about seeing Lennon as a man and nothing more. Bangs is writing about himself in an incredibly thin-veiled way.
But the book is amazing because Bangs wore his heart on his sleeve in a way that music writers, myself included, just don't do anymore. Everyone wants to be smart and cool. No one wants to seem too much like a fan, even though fandom is what drives the best music writing. We're not scientists listening to new tracks in our lab coats, empirically establishing the value of an artist and their work. We're people responding to the work of other people, with the best of it all happening on an emotional level. Bangs knew that and it's why his writing still resonates today. We use the term fanboy/fangirl pejoratively, but Bangs showed why fandom can make for the strongest writing.
Revelations: There’s A Light After The Lime
Mason “Ma$e” Betha | 2001 | Buy
Selected by Daryl McIntosh
When Ma$e abruptly retired from rap in 1999, insight into the reasons behind his decision were sparse. Initially there was just a brief and seemingly impromptu call-in interview with Funkmaster Flex of New York City’s Hot 97, and the rap game was left with an open void to fill, as it said goodbye to one of hip-hop’s most popular personalities and top selling artists. With just a two-year absence, hip-hop had already begun to see many duplicates of the baby-faced, slow-paced emcee, who finally took the more methodical approach to explaining his musical departure.
In his book Revelations, Ma$e provided some of the back story of his departure from the music business, along with some autobiographical details of his entire Harlem experience. Ma$e, explained some of his personal grief, and his religious conversion which led to him relocating to Georgia, continuing his education, and studying to become a Christian pastor.
In almost two decades since the release of Ma$e’s book, he has resurfaced several times in the world of hip-hop, most recently in 2018, where he rekindled a feud with former collaborator and childhood friend Cam’Ron. The long hiatus and brief returns to music leave many fans confused and increasingly disinterested, but Revelations is still a good read that explores the early years of one the ‘90s most impactful hip-hop artists and the enigma of his exit during the height of his career.
Up-Tight: The Velvet Underground Story
Victor Bockris & Gerard Malanga | 2009 | Buy
Selected by Sarah Paolantonio
If there’s one band whose recorded repertoire was relatively narrow but left the biggest impression on musicians, critics and fans nonetheless, it’s The Velvet Underground. A lot has been written about them but there’s one definitive book published in 1983 to turn to: Up-Tight: The Velvet Underground Story. It’s an oral history of the band compiled from interviews with the original four, reviews from everyone by Lester Bangs to Lenny Kaye, and reports from papers across High Times to New Musical Express, Melody Maker, and New York Rocker.
Authored by Andy Warhol (among others), biographer Victor Bockris and poet and original Exploding Plastic Inevitable member Gerard Malanga, Up-Tight revisits the growth of The Velvets and their sound from their own point of view. If you ever wondered what it was like to hang around The Factory in its metallic walls era where The Velvet Underground practiced for the art world, you need Up-Tight. “As of late we play indoors,” Lou Reed said in 1966, “so we have to be the weather.”
Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey
Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton | 1999 | Buy
Selected by Terry Nelson
Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton’s Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey is the best and most comprehensive study of the history of the DJ. The authors take us from the origins of the DJ in the early 1900s all the way through to the climax of the 20th century. They also explore how this American art form grew internationally while placing its fingerprints on many different genres, cultures and generations. For anyone remotely interested in music, Last Night a DJ Saved My Life is a must read. From House Music to Reggae to Northern Soul, there is one common truth: the DJ is king.
Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl: A Memoir
Carrie Brownstein | 2015 | Buy
Selected by Justin Chadwick
A few decades before her small-screen career took flight with the idiosyncratically brilliant sketch comedy show Portlandia, Carrie Brownstein earned her way to indie-rock prominence as the co-founder and guitarist/vocalist of the acclaimed trio Sleater-Kinney. In her memoir full of self-deprecating candor and wry wit, Brownstein relives how her fascination with live performance as a young girl ultimately set her on the path to devoting her career to making music and redefining her identity through song.
“Sleater-Kinney was my family, the longest relationship I had ever been in,” Brownstein explains. “It held my secrets, my bones; it was in my veins. It had saved my life countless times, it still loved me when I was terrible to it. It might have been the first unconditional love I’d ever know.”
Cash: The Autobiography
Johnny Cash | 2003 | Buy
Selected by Justin Chadwick
Despite contemporary country music’s increasingly glossy sheen, the history of the genre is littered with those who fell victim to the darker, more destructive tendencies of life in the spotlight. And few artists experienced such epic highs and sobering lows throughout his prolific career than Johnny Cash.
In his second autobiography following 1975’s Man in Black, Cash applies his penchant for clear, unembellished narrative to convey the vicissitudes of his life story in stark yet stirring terms. From the torment his manipulative father caused him from an early age through adulthood, to his struggles with drug & alcohol addiction, to finding redemption through his faith and love for June Carter Cash, Cash is a captivating portrait of a true American hero.
Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation
Jeff Chang | 2005 | Buy
Selected by Sarah Paolantonio
Jeff Chang’s first book Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation is a must-read for anyone curious or in need of a textbook about the beginnings of hip-hop. The newest American music genre, now in its fifth decade (Chang begins in 1968), has a history tied up in American racial politics, economics, and geography. Chang guides us through hip-hop’s beginning with gangs in the Bronx, to Africa and back with Afrika Bambaataa, segregation in the 1980s, N.W.A and Ice Cube’s legacy, and the creation of the magazine The Source and the genre’s commercialization.
Published in 2005, this book is already more than a decade old. It’s dated compared to the new sub-genres the Internet has helped birth in hip-hop. Even still, we all begin somewhere. Anyone who wants to understand where one of the most popular genres in the world (if not the most popular) came from, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop provides this service. DJ Kool Herc even wrote the introduction, so you know you can’t go wrong.
The Country Blues
Samuel B. Charters | 1959 | Buy
Selected by Patrick Corcoran
It might be somewhat of a stretch to suggest that Samuel Charters’ 1959 book The Country Blues is the most important musical book of the 20th Century. But it does make a pretty compelling case. Published in 1959 after years of travelling the southern states of the USA, Charters’ book was the first academic insight into the uniquely American art form of the blues.
That it came courtesy of a white man was utterly predictable and that it is filled with the epithets of the time (“colored,” “negroes”) is dispiriting, but neither of these factors detract from its impact. This legitimization of the art form in academic circles had a huge impact on white interest in the blues, which in turn birthed and fed the love that blossomed in English hearts for this fundamental expression of black identity. There simply isn’t a British Invasion without this book and accompanying album.
Focusing on several blues artists such as Lightning Hopkins, Leroy Carr and Big Bill Broonzy, it unpicked the black American experience through the exploration of their lives and their penmanship, while bringing all of them to greater prominence in ways that were unimaginable up to that point. The Country Blues set an entire genre alight and fanned the flames for future growth that would explode throughout the western world.