The Best Music Books of 2018

Courtesy Photos; Design by Quinton McMillan


From the death of classic rock to the innovations in modern jazz, the steady shifts in musical trends have provided inspiration for some of 2018’s best books on music. Several of the year’s most intrepid authors took deep dives into the works of great acts like Paul Simon, Van Morrison and The Band, while stars like MC5’s Wayne Kramer and the Beastie Boys told their tales as only they can. These are the latest tomes to make the stories behind the songs sing.

10. Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century by Nate Chinen

So much writing about jazz focuses on the past. So it’s especially helpful that critic Nate Chinen decided to examine instead the most forward-thinking jazz stars of today. Included are key twenty-first century artists like Kamasi Washington, Esperanza Spalding, Jason Moran, Robert Glasper and the insanely prolific Brad Mehuldau. In fine detail, Chinen illuminates how, collectively, they’re burning down the borders between hip-hop, R&B and earlier modes of jazz to forge something fresh. (Pantheon)

9. Beastie Boys Book by Michael Diamond and Adam Horovitz

Like their music, this joint book by the two living Beastie Boys offers a kaleidoscope of howling asides, honking jokes and heartfelt revelations -- the group’s late member Adam Yauch is movingly evoked. The authors made sure to add other smart voices to the mix, too, including critic Luc Sante, novelist Colson Whitehead and journalist Ada Calhoun. At a sprawling 600 pages, the book is both all over the place and right on target. (Spiegel & Grau)

8. Voices: How A Great Singer Can Change Your Life by Nick Coleman

What makes a singer brilliant? Nick Coleman beautifully articulates the criteria in Voices. Using examples from Little Richard’s psycho-sexual yelps to Aretha Franklin’s holy cries to Joni Mitchell’s too-close-for-comfort disclosures, Coleman shows the effect a great voice can have the ear, brain and heart. It helps that he’s a ravishing and witty stylist. He also has a poignant story of his own to tell: Coleman is totally deaf in one ear and suffers from in-and-out loss in the other. If anything, however, those challenges seem to have only amplified his awareness of humanity’s purest means of expression. (Counterpoint)

7. The Hard Stuff: Dope, Crime, the MC5, and My Life of Impossibilities by Wayne Kramer

Wayne Kramer, leader of the incendiary proto-punk band MC5, made his autobiography as much a sociology study as a rock memoir. Attuned to the politics that fueled his band, Kramer unpacks issues like the divisions between race and class, the internecine battles on the left in the ‘60s, the ripple effects of multi-generational sexual abuse and the need for prison reform. That may sound ponderous, but Kramer grounds those issues in the gritty realities of his life. It’s a rich portrait, capturing a flawed man in a fractious time. (Da Capo Press)

6. The Girl in The Back: A Female Drummer's Life with Bowie, Blondie, and the '70s Rock Scene by Laura Davis-Chanin

Apparently, no one who had a role in the prime era of punk has an insignificant story to tell -- no matter how obscure the teller may be. Laura Davis-Chanin was hardly the most promising star on that seminal scene. Her band, The Student Teachers, never even recorded a full album. Yet the drummer’s story has fascinating connections to Bowie, Blondie and the whole revolutionary milieu of New York rock in the ‘70s. Just a teenager at the time, Davis-Chanin’s naivete offers a fresh view of a scene often viewed through more jaundiced eyes. What’s more, she brings a refreshing female perspective to the history of punk. (Backbeat Books)

5. Truth, Lies & Hearsay: A Memoir of a Musical Life In and Out of Rock and Roll by John Simon

One of the great producers of ‘60s rock, folk and jazz, John Simon oversaw the following albums in 1968 alone: Cheap Thrills by Big Brother and Janis Joplin; Songs of Leonard Cohen by Leonard Cohen; The Child Is Father to the Man by Blood, Sweat & Tears; parts of Bookends by Simon & Garfunkel; and all of The Band’s Music from Big Pink. His role in The Band was particularly crucial, and some of the most fascinating portions in his book detail its creation. Throughout, Simon strikes a tone that’s droll and engaging. (Independently published)

4. Paul Simon: The Life by Robert Hilburn

Readers often cast a wary eye on authorized biographies -- and for good reason. “Authorized” is usually code for “sanitized.” But while it’s true that Bob Hillburn’s weighty tome on Paul Simon takes a glorified view of its subject, the author uncovered plenty of great material in return. Simon offers rare insight into his songwriting process and his life. You’ll understand more than you ever did about his issues with Art Garfunkel as well as his most abiding motivations. How wonderful to have a master of song explain -- in as much as he can -- the magic of his own sound. (Simon & Schuster)

3. Heavy Duty: Days and Nights Inside Judas Priest by K.K. Downing with Mark Eglington

Everything about Judas Priest -- from their leathery look to their tandem guitar attack -- suggests uniformity and cooperation. But according to founding axeman K.K. Downing, the story behind the studs and chrome struck precisely the opposite chord. His frank book paints a portrait of an utterly dysfunctional band, with his main villains being co-lead guitarist Glenn Tipton and the group’s management team. At the same time, Downing doesn’t let himself off the hook, revealing how he enabled much of the miscommunication. It’s a story told with the energy and edginess of thrash. (Da Capo Press)

2. Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 by Ryan H. Walsh

Many a writer has aimed to unlock the mystery of Van Morrison’s abstract, early masterpiece, Astral Weeks. But no one before Ryan Walsh thought to center the investigation in the time and place of the album’s inspiration: Boston’s teeming music scene in 1968. Such an oblique angle may sound like a dubious premise for a whole book. Yet, miraculously, Walsh wound up making his case -- and a highly animated one at that. Along the way, his eccentric yarn involves not only Van and his music but a crazy cult leader, a mob boss and a pioneer of experimental television. The result must be read to be believed. (Penguin Press)

1. Twilight of the Gods by Steven Hyden

Classic rock is dying -- literally. Stalwart artists, from Prince to Tom Petty to David Bowie, left us in the last few years. And each week, it seems, another rock God announces his or her absolute no-kidding-this-time farewell tour. (See: Everyone from Bob Seger to Paul Simon to Elton John). Music critic Steven Hyden uses that context to peek behind the forces that elevated classic rock to such heights to begin with. In laugh-out-loud prose, Hyden simultaneously lampoons and lionizes the assumptions and pretensions behind the great rock canon. In an age when poptimism has overtaken the old rockist view of music, Hyden balances those two views with great insight and piercing wit. (Dey Street)