The music event of the season isn’t a surprise-release hip-hop album or a pop diva’s Max Martin-produced single. It isn’t even music. It’s a book — specifically, Born to Run, the $10 million memoir from that tireless torchbearer of rock, Bruce Springsteen (at press time, not yet available for review). Like “farewell” tours and covers albums, autobiographies have always proved reliable earners in sunset-years musicians’ product lines, but nowadays they’re more than just dependably tawdry airport purchases. Turns out: Rock stars can write! (Fans weren’t necessarily sure they could even read.)
The Boss follows in the motorcycle-boot-clad footsteps of such celebrated belle-lettrists as Keith Richards, Patti Smith and Bob Dylan, whose Chronicles, Volume One kicked off the high-advance, high-reward boomer lit-ra-ture boom and tops Billboard’s ranking of our favorite music books of all time. Of course, there’s more to building the ultimate library than tony tell-alls: Read on for the very best business tomes, historical surveys and critical reckonings, plus enough sex, drugs and financial profligacy to shock even Motley Crue (see No. 16).
Contributing writers: Frank DiGiacomo, Gavin Edwards, Jim Farber, Lizzy Goodman, David Hinckley, Maura Johnson, Dorian Lynskey, Rebecca Milzoff, Jody Rosen, Gene Santoro, Rob Tannenbaum. Guest writers noted below.
100. Hamilton: The Revolution
Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter, 2016
Don’t call it a libretto. This doorstop of a volume features every lyric and line of dialogue in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s groundbreaking musical, but it also gives a comprehensive account of the show’s backstory, creation, and production, amounting to Miranda’s Cliff’s Notes guide to his show’s ideas and themes.
99. Kill Your Friends
John Niven, 2008
Former A&R man Niven’s first novel doesn’t so much mock the nineties music business as set fire to it. Niven mixes his experiences in the UK industry during its final-days-of-Rome period with the satirical ultraviolence of American Psycho. His lead character eviscerates every talentless young band, and clueless exec, that comes his way, creating a story of brilliant savagery.
98. You Never Give Me Your Money: The Beatles After the Breakup
Peter Doggett, 2011
Many books have chronicled the financial battles of The Beatles, both with their business associates and between themselves. But no other work has the devilish detail of Doggett’s. In surprisingly clear language, he traces every dollar, offering an account that’s by turns hilarious and depressing as it shows how money changed everything for the Fab Four.
97. This Is Your Brain on Music
Daniel Levitin, 2007
Ever wonder why a song lingers long enough to feel like an integral part of your life? Levitin, both a record producer and a neuroscientist, studied the human brain and discovered how it breaks songs down into sound patterns, as well as how those patterns affect our emotions. In his surprisingly readable prose, we learn about all the ways music has affected us, how it aided in our evolution and even how it ensured our survival as a species.
96. Bob Dylan: An Intimate Biography
Anthony Scaduto, 1971
Suzanne Vega on the impact this biography had on her:
I was 11 years old when this book came out. I had just started playing guitar, pressing my fingers to the fretboard, working on my callouses and cutting my fingernails. I didn’t write my first song for another three years, but I loved songwriters, particularly Dylan and The Beatles. This was Dylan’s first bio and I ate it up. I learned about Gerdes Folk City, where Dylan got started and where, nine years later, I got my own first break when I was booked for a Sunday afternoon matinee show. And I never looked back!
95. The Disco Files 1973-1978: New York’s Underground, Week by Week
Vince Aletti, 2009
Aletti started writing about disco at its start, in 1973. This book — indispensable thanks to its methodical documentation of thousands of forgotten classics by lesser-known names — collects his pioneering coverage, principally chronicled in his weekly column for the trade publication Record World.
94. The Music of Black Americans: A History
Eileen Southern, 1971
Southern was the first black woman to be appointed a full tenured professor at Harvard, and her book is a towering work of scholarship, drawing on memoirs, ledgers, slave advertisements in newspapers and other sources to reconstruct the history of African-American music-making from 1619 to the age of hip-hop. A musicologist, Southern is strong on both music and the history behind it, expertly shaping a story of exile, oppression and resistance.
93. The Rap Yearbook
Shea Serrano, 2015
One of the best kinds of music books: a delightful argument-starter by a witty, informed writer that you can’t put down even when you want to hurl it across the room. The premise is simple: Serrano chooses the most important rap song from each year since 1979, then subjects it to an obsessively close read, complete with history, footnotes, “style mapping,” and other musical metrics.
92. The Recording Angel: Music, Records and Culture from Aristotle to Zappa
Evan Eisenberg, 1987
Music has existed for millennia, but recorded sound only arrived with Thomas Edison in the late 19th century. How did the advent of records change music? It’s a huge, thorny question, and Eisenberg’s book remains the classic treatment. He approaches his subject from both philosophical and psychological standpoints, probing the difference between communal and private listening, examining the ways records function as commodities, and explaining how people define themselves by the records they listen to.
91. Tunesmith: Inside the Art of Songwriting
Jimmy Webb, 1998
Webb offers a master course in how to write a song. It’s fascinating to follow his unusual approach, and the book excels because it describes, in meticulous detail, the thought patterns of a guy who writes entirely outside the box.
90. Rod: The Autobiography
Rod Stewart, 2012
Stewart knows what his readers want and he delivers it. From seven solid pages on his hairstyle and its maintenance to an explanation of the Faces’ technique for getting drunk off a single can of beer, Stewart’s self-deprecating memoir is ceaselessly entertaining.
89. How Music Got Free
Stephen Witt, 2015
Business journalist Witt turns a tangled story about money and technology into a page-turner by zooming in on three key players — the tech disruptor, the mogul and the pirate. Without realizing it, that trio helped upend the principle of paying for music. With methodical reporting and subtle, sardonic humor, Witt explains exactly how it all played out while implying that, one way or another, the collapse of the old system was inevitable.
88. The Love Song of Jonny Valentine: A Novel
Teddy Wayne, 2014
It would be a cheap stunt for someone to pen a snide satire about a contemporary teen idol. Teddy Wayne has done nothing of the sort with his novel about an eleven year old who’s a clear Justin Bieber stand-in. Wayne uses the young Valentine as his narrator, letting us feel from the inside what it’s like to deal with pressures many grown-up pop stars never learn to handle. It’s a sympathetic portrait, but also a knowing one, with one eye towards the machinations of pop stardom, the other on the flawed souls themselves.
87. Yesterdays: Popular Song in America
Charles Hamm, 1979
Hamm’s groundbreaking 1983 study did what previous generations of musicologists regarded as beneath their dignity: It lavished the kind of scrupulous scholarly attention previously reserved for Mozart and Beethoven on several centuries of American popular song. Hamm is no rock critic (the book’s weakest section is the one devoted to 1970s and 80s rock and pop), but it’d be hard to find a book that better captures the rich tradition of American songwriting.
86. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America
Tricia Rose, 1994
In one of the first academic books on hip-hop, and still one of the finest, Rose places rap in its historical framework, framing hip hop as a technologically-advanced folk music which emerged from the ruins of post-industrial New York. In 2016, the book’s handwringing about rap’s relationship to pop can sound dated, but Rose’s scholarship stands up, as does her insistence that the genre rates as late-20th-century America’s greatest art form.
85. My Cross to Bear
Gregg Allman, 2012
Gregg Allman may have a gruff image, but he pours his heart and soul out to co-writer Alan Light for this autobiography. Allman’s uncommonly emotional book traces a pain that began with the murder of his father and escalated with the early losses of brother Duane, then of bassist Berry Oakley just one year later. Besides shedding light on The Allman Brothers’ creative process, the book finds new nuance in Duane’s tragically short life.
84. One Nation Under a Groove: Motown and American Culture
Gerald Early, 1995
Motown’s shrewd founder Berry Gordy used the drive toward desegregation in the ‘60s as his highway to the huge white market. To get there, he walked tricky lines: Early contends that the crossover brand of soul Gordy shaped was “neither bleached nor blackened,” and though Motown produced a long string of hits, Gordy ruled his music factory like Henry Ford, keeping Motown’s musicians and writers anonymous, setting up schools to adapt his acts for middle-class white venues, and suppressing ideas he didn’t like. Yet, as the author beautifully illuminates, the music became immortal.
83. Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs
John Lydon with Keith and Kent Zimmerman, 1993
Lydon — aka Johnny Rotten, lead singer of the Sex Pistols — tells his life story as a series of hilarious rants, while settling numerous scores with the living and the dead. Like the band he fronted, his memoir is raw, unfocused, self-contradictory, passionate, and scathingly funny.
82. Trouble Boys: The True Story of The Replacements
Bob Mehr, 2016
“God, what a mess/on the ladder of success,” Paul Westerberg sang on The Replacements’ “Bastards of Young.” Mehr’s deeply researched chronicle of Minneapolis’s most revered fuck-ups reveals how they lived up to those lyrics again and again. Like the band’s best albums, Trouble Boys careens from snotty comedy to poignant moments of introspection, thanks to the participation of Westerberg and bassist Tommy Stinson. It’s an apt elegy for one of rock’s most incorrigible bands.
81. X-Ray: The Unauthorized Autobiography
Ray Davies, 1994
Ray Davies loves to write songs from the perspective of eccentric characters. So it’s no surprise he gave his autobiography an uncommon structure: Davies frames it as an interview with his older self, conducted by a young man working for a sinister conglomerate (a stand-in for the music biz). What a great way to both take sly digs at the industry and give the autobiographical form a fresh twist.
80. Girl in a Band: A Memoir
Kim Gordon, 2015
For close to forty years, Kim Gordon was seen as a sphinx: from her emergence on the late ’70s New York art scene, to her part in Sonic Youth, as well as her role as one half of the most iconic couple in indie rock, she remained aloof. Amazingly, her memoir turned out to be one of the most revealing ever written by a rock star. She opens up about her life without sullying a persona that continues to beguile.
79. Running With the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music
Robert Walser, 1993
Musicologist Walser goes beyond heavy-metal cliche to analyze the lyrical, musical, and sociopolitical themes running through this much-maligned genre. That he admits a soft spot for metal doesn’t stop him from offering worthy critiques of the genre’s excesses and foibles.
78. Finishing the Hat; Look, I Made a Hat
Stephen Sondheim, 2010; 2011
The master of contemporary musical theater dissects his career’s work over these two volumes stuffed with his complete annotated lyrics, incisive self-analysis (he never loved his lyrics for West Side Story’s “Maria”), meditations on the creative process (his meticulous devotion to rhyming structure) and vivid anecdotes (how the now iconic “Rose’s Turn” from Gypsy came to be). The result could have easily become tiresome to any but the most devoted of theater nerds, but Sondheim achieves the total opposite: a rare and lively peek into the joyful, obsessive, tortured imagination of a brilliant creator that any songwriter could learn from.
77. Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography
Jimmy McDonough, 2002
Young has written two memoirs, and neither is as good as McDonough’s biography: like Young himself, the book is powerful, poetic, and given to rambling. McDonough’s belief that Young was squandering his talent at the time of his interviews (the nineties) creates more tension than is common between biographer and subject, and luckily, that conflict brings out the best in Young.
76. Subculture: The Meaning of Style
Dick Hebdige, 1979
These days, courses in pop culture as specific as “Beyonce Studies” abound at liberal arts colleges. So it’s difficult to remember that such things barely existed before U.K.-born cultural theorist Hebdige wrote this book. It applied the analytical sociology of Karl Marx and the poetic semiotics of Roland Barthes to British youth culture movements like the Mods, teddy boys, punks and skinheads. Their habits and fashions weren’t just blind rebellion, Hebdige argues, but spoke to the social contradictions around them. It’s a mindset we now take for granted, but in “Subculture” you feel its birth pangs.
75. Visions of Jazz
Gary Giddins, 1998
This anthology of writings by the celebrated jazz critic—most of which first appeared in the Village Voice—fully delivers on its title, offering a panoramic view of 100 years of jazz and pop. Giddins is both a great writer and a cranky one, and it’s hard to find smarter, or more loving, portraits of canonical figures than those offered here.
74. Noise: The Political Economy of Music
Jacques Attali, 1985
This celebrated treatise by French economist Jacques Attali isn’t exactly a beach read, but those who have the fortitude to read it through will be rewarded with a scrupulous Marxist analysis, taking in the epic sweep of centuries, from musical “pre-history” to the advent of recording technology and beyond.
73. Last Night a DJ Saved My Life
Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton, 1999
The DJ functions as “dance music’s most important figure,” the authors of this tome argue. To establish that, they profile those who’ve captivated crowds with music they spin, from Reginald Fessenden playing Handel’s “Largo” over the radio airwaves on Christmas Eve 1906 through the 21st century’s top electronic innovators. While the book touches on the DJ’s radio presence, its focus falls on colorful characters of the clubs, from those who presided over parties in Jamaica to the women who burst into the booth’s boys’ club.
72. Rock She Wrote: Women Write About Rock, Pop, and Rap
Evelyn McDonnell and Ann Powers (eds.), 2014
Like shooting elephants on the veldt or smoking cigars in the parlor, rock has often been considered something the boys do while the girls scream and faint. This compilation of some 30 articles and essays by female writers confirms what should have been clear all along: Women don’t just know rock, they see things men don’t.
71. Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality
John Darnielle, 2008
The Mountain Goats frontman’s unorthodox contribution to the 33 1/3 series of books about classic albums takes the form of journal entries written by a fictional, institutionalized teenager to his therapist (who confiscated his Black Sabbath tapes). The haunting novella succeeds as both fiction and music criticism, elucidating Sabbath, the moral panic of the ’80s, and the way the right album at the right time can feel truer than life.
70. Eminent Hipsters
Donald Fagen, 2013
Whether sharing essays on his culture heroes (mostly musicians and science-fiction writers) or a cranky tour diary, Fagen arises as bitter, literate and funny as hell. His grouchy tone serves as a defense mechanism, but, now and then, he drops the facade to write with painful honesty about life’s sorrows.
69. Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl: A Memoir
Carrie Brownstein, 2015
Most rock stars mythologize their past; Brownstein proves an exception. In her heartbreakingly candid memoir, she goes deep on everything from her mother’s anorexia to the excruciating death of a pet, with insightful stops on riot grrrl culture and the grit of touring, showing that sometimes the more truth you tell, the more powerful you become.
68. Deep Blues: A Musical and Cultural History of the Mississippi Delta
Robert Palmer, 1982
A Southerner himself, Palmer tells much of the blues story through the journey of Muddy Waters, who began as an acoustic Delta guitarist, then got famous for plugging that guitar into an amplifier, in the process helping to create ‘50s Chicago blues. Palmer weaves it all into a rich, broad narrative of 20th century America.
67. Last Train to Memphis; Careless Love
Peter Guralnick, 1995; 1999
Refreshingly free of axe-grinding and hype, Guralnick’s two massive tomes detonate myth after myth in the Elvis saga. The author drills deep into the cultural and personal history which informed Elvis’ life, offering views both unforeseen and revealing. With great insight, he guides us through Elvis’ family life, girl friends, buddies, and hangers-on, along the way unpacking his hidden ambitions and fears. By age 24 — at Vol. 1’s finish — The King is at his peak; Vol. 2 offers lots of post-Army surprises, along with a fresh wealth of other revelations.
Maybe it was inevitable that the man who turned self-involvement into high art would pen one of the most absorbing, and entertaining, autobiographies. Already a literary and witty lyricist, Morrissey extends his ruthlessly arch sense of language to over 500 pages of prose that, like the star himself, is maddening and exquisite, screwy and profound.
65. Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove
?Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and Ben Greenman, 2013
Call it a meta-autobiography. Questlove’s book includes lists of his favorite albums, emails between the cowriter and the editor, plus fact-checking footnotes from the Roots’ co-manager. But the best part isn’t those stylistic flourishes, or even the insane anecdote about roller-skating with Prince: it’s the love story at the book’s core about a Philadelphia kid smitten with sound.
64: Straight Life: The Story of Art Pepper
Art Pepper, 1994
Alto saxophonist Pepper’s merchant-seaman father and teen runaway mother were alcoholics. Pepper got hooked on drugs in his twenties, when he rivaled fellow user Charlie Parker in jazz polls, then spiraled deeper into addiction. Once methadone “cured” him in the 1970s, he sustained a genuine comeback. Postwar jazz heroin addicts long ago became a cliché, but Pepper brings that netherworld into uncommon focus.
63. Positively 4th Street
David Hajdu, 2001
Every star needs a mentor – even Bob Dylan. Hajdu’s invaluable book whisks us back to the early ‘60s Greenwich Village folk scene, when Dylan was busy riding the coat-tails of Joan Baez (at the time, a far bigger star), adding to the mix Baez’s singing sister Mimi and her writer husband Richard Farina. The foursome form a clique that’s both artistically rich and intensely competitive, and the book vividly evokes their striving.
Oliver Sacks, 2007
Throughout his career, neurologist Sachs chronicled the unpredictable cognitive effects music could have on otherwise unreachable patients. He uses 29 case studies here to compose a tone poem on the theme. A conductor with total amnesia recalls music with complete accuracy; patients with Tourette’s and Parkinson’s find their symptoms relieved by music and dance; and, most bizarrely, a man struck by lightning develops an instant talent for playing the piano. For Sacks, each patient teaches a unique lesson about how music helps define humanity.
61. Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984
Simon Reynolds, 2005
For British music critic Reynolds, punk was the musically regressive precursor to the real revolution found in the music that followed in its wake. Postpunk served up catnip to critics, with its arty provocations, political theory and Top 40 subversions; Reynolds particularly delights in big thinkers like Gang of Four and Scritti Politti. Inevitably diffuse, Rip It Up coheres around its embrace of music with limitless possibility.
60. The Death of Rhythm and Blues
Nelson George, 1988
During the 1960s, integration aimed to make all Americans equal under the law, but author George shows how the particular “integration” of black rhythm and blues into the larger music industry had some disastrous effects, including destroying a social milieu that had been, in its own way, self-sustaining, and rendering black musicians second-class citizens while many ancillary businesses which drew on black music culture withered.
59. I Want My MTV
Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum, 2011
Robotic new wavers, mascaraed New Romantics, spandexed heavy metalers, not to mention Michael Jackson and Madonna: All these forces helped make spectacle as crucial to pop as sound during the 1980s. The reason? MTV. Marks and Tannenbaum’s delectable oral history, narrated by everyone from network execs and VJs to Stevie Nicks and Sir Mix-A-Lot captures MTV’s glory days, offering countless tales of video shoot excesses as well as a serious accounting of how MTV changed attitudes about music, sexuality, race and even mullet haircuts.
Ed Note: Co-author Craig Marks is the executive editor of Billboard.
58. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock
Nick Logan and Bob Woffinden
It’s not only the enthusiasm, and the economy, of the prose which helps this encyclopedia nail the excitement of classic rock. The kaleidoscopic layout of album covers and other images makes for a reference book that rocks.
57. Cash: The Autobiography
Johnny Cash, 1997
Johnny Cash the memoirist is like Johnny Cash the singer-songwriter – a straight-shooting poet who simply presents the facts, pleasant or painful, self-aggrandizing or self-indicting. The result is a tale so packed with “violence, tragedy, addiction,” hard-won wisdom and great music, you’ll want to swallow it in one sitting.
56. Frank: The Voice; Sinatra: The Chairman
James Kaplan, 2010; 2015
Previous works tipped too often towards hagiography or character assassination, but in his gargantuan, cradle-to-grave biography (1700 pages over two volumes) Kaplan avoids those pitfalls while unspooling the Sinatra saga and homing in on the central issue: the mystery of Sinatra’s otherworldly voice, which communicated “things that white popular singers had never come close to.”
55. The Dark Stuff: Selected Writings on Rock Music
Nick Kent, 1994
In the early ’70s, as a young Oxford University drop out, Kent spent several months in Detroit as an apprentice to the late great Lester Bangs at Creem magazine. As Kent writes, Bangs always insisted that “in rock’n’roll it wasn’t the winners but the losers who made for the most compelling stories.” The nineteen portraits included in this collection focus on some of rock’s most undeniable winners — from Keith Richards to Morrissey — but Kent writes about them with a refreshing lack of romanticism, as if they are, if hardly losers, at least outsiders.
54. Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans
Louis Armstrong, 1954
Armstrong’s voice leaps off the page with the same verve, originality, self-awareness, warmth, and humor as his trumpet playing. This remarkable autobiography doubles as an acute and colorful cultural history of both jazz and 1900s New Orleans, spanning young Louis’ days as a street urchin instilled with his mother’s values, his discovery of his instrument, and the first crest of his massive success.
53. Tune In: The Beatles: All These Years, Vol. 1
Mark Lewisohn, 2013
At 932 pages, Lewisohn’s tome contains so many details on business matters, it requires a two-page preface on the British monetary system before 1971. Despite its girth, it tells the story of the Beatles only through 1962 and the release of their first single. Luckily, Lewisohn’s biography isn’t just exhaustive — it’s compelling.
52. Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class
Eric Lott, 1993
It is an uncomfortable fact that the roots of American popular music can be traced to the 19th century minstrel show, where white performers sang and danced their way through virulently racist spectacles while “blacked up” in masks of burnt cork. Lott’s landmark study offers the best overview of this fascinating and disturbing cornerstone of our cultural heritage, probing the social and economic history of the minstrelsy industry while excavating the psychology behind it.
51. Really the Blues
Mezz Mezzrow, 1964
Clarinetist and saxophonist Mezzrow was a minor jazz musician (and major pot head) who moved in the circles of Louis Armstrong and Sidney Becket. Born Milton Mesirow to white Jewish parents , he’s best known for his reverse-racial passing act: he proclaimed himself a “voluntary Negro,” and became immersed in the black jazz demimonde. Really The Blues stands as a classic about the fault lines of music and race that continue to define cultural debates in the 21st century.
50. Boys in the Trees: A Memoir
Carly Simon, 2015
Carly Rae Jepsen on her namesake’s vivid memoir:
My parents named me after Carly Simon, and I grew up listening to her ex-husband James Taylor. I have always been fascinated by their world, and I was curious about what a female artist at the time went through. This book provides detailed insight into Carly’s life; I found it fascinating that when she was younger, she had a stutter, and she began to sing because it was easier to communicate when she put words to a melody.
49. All You Need to Know About the Music Business
Donald S. Passman, 1991
Listen up, kids with a dream and a guitar: If you think you can leave the boring stuff like contracts and marketing to someone else, you’ll likely spend the rest of your career confined to YouTube. Passman explains in clear, simple terms (updated now through nine editions) why the boring stuff matters.
48. Howling at the Moon: The Odyssey of a Monstrous Mogul in an Age of Excess
Walter Yetnikoff with David Ritz, 2004
“After her third orgasm, Jackie O. looked at me with a mixture of gratitude and awe.” That apocryphal tale begins Yetnikoff’s memoir, yet its true stories prove even wilder. As president of CBS Records during its ’70s and ’80s boom years, he presided over an empire that included Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Barbra Streisand. He has the war stories to prove it, but what makes Howling at the Moon such a blast is Yetnikoff himself, a Brooklyn-born bootstrapper who rose to the summit (and had a lot of sex- and booze-fueled fun while he was at it).
47. Christgau’s Record Guide: Rock Albums of the ’70s
Robert Christgau, 1981
Christgau is a master of compression, vacuum-packing erudition and insight into thousands of terse record reviews. His ’70s collection offers a fantastic primer on rock and soul’s most fruitful decade. Whether or not you share Christgau’s passion for Al Green’s “Let’s Get Married” or his disdain for all things Eagles, you’ll love his pith and wit.
46. Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye
David Ritz, 1985
Ritz isn’t just Gaye’s biographer — he was also the singer’s friend, confidante and, on “Sexual Healing,” his collaborator (Ritz co-wrote the lyrics for that 1981 comeback smash). In this insightful chronicle, he connects the dots between Gaye’s life and his art.
45. Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever
Will Hermes, 2011
Between 1973 and 1977, New York was an un-air-conditioned subway train packed with musical geniuses. Hermes’ book inhales the humid atmosphere of a time that spawned stars as diverse as Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen, DJ Kool Herc, Laurie Anderson and Eddie Palmieri, capturing a moment when multiple genres were having simultaneous revolutions.
44. Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age
Steve Knopper, 2009
While the record business muddled through its early-21st-century hangover, Steve Knopper wrote an incisive look at the mistakes that set the industry up to falter. Hindsight may be 20/20, but Knopper’s meticulous recounting of the music business’ errors — beginning in the post-disco bust years and ending with iTunes’ ascent — lays out a clear case for what the higher-ups missed while celebrating their successes.
43. Rock Dreams
Guy Peellaert and Nik Cohn, 1973
When it was published, in 1973, Rock Dreams was marketed as “rock’n’roll for your eyes.” It more than lived up to the hype in the photorealist images of the late Belgian artist Peellaert, who, with writer Nik Cohn, imagined Jim Morrison cruising a gay bar, The Stones in sexy drag and Tina Turner approaching a microphone as an eager lover would a man’s member (among other trippy scenes). Taken together, Cohn’s prose and Peellaert’s visuals blur the lines between kitsch, porn and art.
42. Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout
Laura Jane Grace, 2016
Joan Jett on the Against Me! frontperson’s no-holds-barred memoir:
Laura Jane Grace shows great bravery diving into every detail of a story seldom told, with the advantage of having kept journals documenting everything she went through, from childhood to the beginnings of her band. Capturing the pain and struggle, self-doubt and lack of support she experienced, Grace provides a valuable starting point for a conversation to broaden the understanding of, and empathy for, trans people.
41. How Music Works
David Byrne, 2012
The polymath, nerd hero and Talking Heads singer didn’t want to write an “aging rocker bio”; instead he penned this lively and wide-ranging collection of essays, addressing everything from the finances of a recent solo album to his evolution as a live performer and music’s intersection with technology.
40. The One: The Life and Music of James Brown
RJ Smith, 2012
The title references Brown’s nickname of “Soul Brother No. 1” as well as the near-messianic status he achieved at the height of his fame; it also refers to Brown’s signature rhythmic innovation, accenting the first beat in the bar, a shift that transformed music across the globe. Smith’s biography is the first to take in Brown’s full measure, dealing with the many contradictions of a hounded life.
39. Hammer of the Gods: The Led Zeppelin Saga
Stephen Davis, 1986
This enjoyably seamy book is most famous for the details of the notorious “shark incident,” in which the members of Led Zeppelin allegedly caught a mud shark and used pieces of it to pleasure a groupie (how, and if, such events actually went down will likely always be a mystery). Still, as a collection of rock myths, Hammer hasn’t been surpassed.
38. Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste
Carl Wilson, 2007
“Why,” asks Wilson, “do each of us hate some songs … that millions upon millions of other people adore?” That’s the question behind Wilson’s short-but-deep treatise for the 33 1/3 series, which spirals from a reconsideration of Dion’s critically reviled oeuvre to ponder the thorniest questions of aesthetics, taste and class politics. Roping in theory and history, the story of musical schmaltz and the writings of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, Let’s Talk About Love is a witty, humane testament to open-mindedness and finding pleasure in unlikely places.
37. Yes I Can: The Story of Sammy Davis Jr.
Sammy Davis Jr. and Jane and Burt Boyar, 1965
Vaudeville hoofer, lounge-circuit crooner, Vegas headliner, Rat Pack fixture, self-described “one-eyed Negro Jew”: Sammy Davis Jr. wasn’t just an entertainer par excellence, he was a one-man summary of American showbiz. Yes I Can is a rollicking celeb tell-all, but it’s also a piercing meditation on race in America.
36. Blues People: Negro Music in White America
Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka), 1963
Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones) made his literary reputation with plays, but this study of blues and jazz and their African roots might be his greatest work: a survey of everything from slave songs to Charlie Parker in support of a thesis that’s as self-evident now as it was provocative when it was first published.
35. Follow the Music: The Life and High Times of Elektra Records in the Great Years of American Pop Culture
Jac Holzman and Gavan Daws, 1998
Judy Collins on Jac Holzman’s saga of his label’s rise:
Telling the story of how he built Elektra Records into one of the pinnacle labels of the ’60s, Holzman follows the great artists he signed — from singers like Josh White and Jean Ritchie to rock groups like Queen and The Doors to the classical artists on his Nonesuch Records (he signed me to Elektra in 1961) — while also dealing with his life as a brilliant entrepreneur. Jac’s taste was impeccable, his ear for talent legendary, and his deeply researched, wonderfully readable book tells the story of an era — the magical musical mystery that was the 1960s.
34. Sound Effects: Youth, Leisure and the Politics of Rock ’n’ Roll
Simon Frith, 1981
While most academic books on rock culture treat it as something remote, British sociologist Frith writes passionately about the music that obsesses him. Along the way, he considers it as a ritual of youth and a commodity, as well as a marker of gender and class. Instead of dwelling on rock’s creators, Frith provides insight into how music functions in people’s lives.
33. Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural North Dakota
Chuck Klosterman, 2001
Klosterman is the guy at the end of the bar who’s smart enough, and opinionated enough, to argue both sides of any debate; he’s also funny enough that you’re happy to let him do so. His concerns have expanded over the course of nine books, but it all starts here, with his close study of hair metal, fired by vivid scenes of Klosterman as a short-haired teenager besotted with Motley Crue.
32. The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century
Alex Ross, 2007
As music critic for The New Yorker, Ross explicates today’s classical sounds to a mass audience on a weekly basis. In his examination of new music’s history and its present, he takes a longer view, elegantly embedding the genre within the political and cultural happenings of the past hundred years, whether he’s examining the relationship of mid-century German composers to the Third Reich or dissecting the influence of Stockhausen and Sibelius on The Beatles. The result could hardly be more comprehensive.
31. Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys
Viv Albertine, 2014
Artist-producer Dave Stewart on an unsung punk pioneer:
In her raw memoir, Slits guitarist and songwriter Viv Albertine guides readers through the debris of her relationships and the demise of her band, offering a close look at her life in London, the people around her in the British punk scene — some of whom totally reshaped music culture without realizing it at the time — and her own survival of those years.
Jay Z, 2011
The annotated Hova: Jay Z wrote two books in one with Decoded: an autobiographical romp from his rearing in the rough projects of Queens to his rise to the pinnacle of hip-hop and pop; and a detailed deconstruction of his lyrics, annotating 36 key songs (with footnotes!). The result offers one of the most authoritative cases ever made for rap as gripping poetry.
29. Our Band Could Be Your LIfe: Scenes From the American Indie Underground, 1981-1991
Michael Azerrad, 2001
Many have argued in favor of the democratizing force of the Internet for music, but reading these 13 profiles of bands from the Reagan-era underground could make you reconsider. Because bands like The Butthole Surfers, The Replacements and Big Black had zero hope of being embraced by the mainstream industry, they were forced to find another path to success. Cue the “countercultural underground railroad,” as Azerrad calls it, a vast network of independent labels, distributors, radio stations and press who helped make those bands known. Consider this a necessary record of the scene that gave rise to the ’90s alternative-culture boom.
28. Bound for Glory
Woody Guthrie, 1976
The prose is purple, and as for the accuracy of the events recorded in Woody Guthrie’s autobiography… well, let’s just say it’s far from pristine. But like the great folk singer’s songs, Bound for Glory weaves facts, folklore and fancy, embellishing the truth of Guthrie’s hardscabble Oklahoma childhood and itinerant, freight-car-hopping adulthood with a flair that is equal parts Paul Bunyan and John Steinbeck.
27. Catch a Fire: The Life of Bob Marley
Timothy White, 1983
Spearhead’s Michael Franti on an in-depth look at the reggae godfather:
Catch a Fire offers the rare, actually in-the-know context for Bob Marley’s life and for his struggles: The author knew Bob, so he has access to plenty of information you won’t find anywhere else. There are great anecdotes about where particular songs came from, as well as explorations of Bob’s relationship with his band, The Wailers, and with his label chief, Chris Blackwell. As a whole, the book offers any reggae fan a deeper understanding of the cultural, social and political relevance of this classic music.
26. Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time
Rob Sheffield, 2007
This moving memoir by Rolling Stone contributor Sheffield captures the depth of the music geek’s equivalent of a love letter — the mixtape — while covering the evolution of Sheffield’s relationship with his first wife, Renée. Sheffield’s giddy writing about pop is tempered by the gravity of his story, from a courtship defined by a mutual love of music to Renée’s sudden death. Ultimately he crafts a heartrending tale about how deeply love and music can intertwine.
25. Lady Sings the Blues
Billie Holiday with William Dufty, 1956
Untangling the threads of mythology and obfuscation in Billie Holiday’s celebrated autobiography has spawned an entire cottage industry of fact-checkers and debunkers. But Lady Sings the Blues remains an essential testimonial, narrating Holiday’s turbulent life and offering penetrating insights into the glory of her art. If the book is fuzzy on some facts, it ably captures Holiday’s voice — smart, funny, morose and blunt.
24. Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: The Work of a Legendary Critic: Rock ’n’ Roll as Literature and Literature as Rock ’n’ Roll
Lester Bangs, 1987
The only rock critic to be memorably portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman and honored with multiple anthologies (in spite of a too-early death at 33, after years of unchecked vices), Bangs loved the “mellifluous bursts of unarguable affirmation” in punk music, and yowling noise of all kinds. This collection, compiled by his friend Greil Marcus, focuses on Bangs’ writing for the ornery magazine Creem, where he emulated the Beats in his overstuffed sentences and rampaging paragraphs.
23. Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music
Ellen Willis, 2011
In the early years of male-dominated rock criticism, one byline carried special weight: Ellen Willis, who wrote The New Yorker’s first pop column (which ran between 1968 and 1975). In her best pieces, Willis held the era’s rock stars accountable for their sins (narcissism, hypocrisy, chauvinism) while celebrating their decadence and reveling in the primal beauty of their music. Later, she became an influential feminist thinker and cultural critic, but in this collection you see her voice emerging.
22. The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory
John Seabrook, 2015
Scoring a pop hit today isn’t just an art, it’s a science — one Seabrook breaks down to its elements with striking clarity, explicating everything from the special density of hooks necessary to score a modern smash (one every seven seconds) to the “bliss point,” that nagging hook which, like the salt in a snack, makes the consumer ravenous for more. Tracing addictive pop to its ’90s Swedish beginnings, Seabrook tells the stories of producers like Max Martin and Dr. Luke, who have ensured that stars such as Katy Perry and Britney Spears stay on the charts.
21. Miles: The Autobiography
Miles Davis with Quincy Troupe, 1989
Witty, hilarious, pugnacious and profane, Davis’ singular voice leaps from each sentence of his autobiography. The vivid language and no-holds-barred accounts of the trumpeter’s drug use and mistreatment of women made the book controversial, but there’s no denying that Davis and collaborator Troupe achieve an estimable task here: capturing the half-century of jazz that Davis stood astride, and opening a window onto the restless mind of a man who, by his own accurate estimation, “changed music five or six times.”
20. The Mansion on the Hill: Dylan, Young, Geffen, Springsteen and the Head-On Collision of Rock and Commerce
Fred Goodman, 1997
Wordy title notwithstanding, Goodman’s book finds a pithy narrative in the stories of the savvy managers and label chiefs who found a way to turn a once politicized, still idealized music into a marketing juggernaut.
19. Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon — and the Journey of a Generation
Sheila Weller, 2008
In her three-way biography, Weller illuminates both the art and the inner lives of the icons she examines, showing how their paths intersected within a culture they helped create. Girls hits a rare high-low balance, dishing up tantalizing gossip while soberly analyzing the stars’ complex roles as women and as creators.
18. The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock and Roll
Charlie Gillett, 1970
Gillett’s history of early rock’n’roll not only tells great stories — it makes a convincing case for why this music, and those stories, mattered. Even during the rise of serious music journalism, early rock‘n’roll was often dismissed as ephemeral, a view that Gillett dissects and dismantles with impressive precision, particularly in the too often overlooked genre of urban rhythm and blues. Sometimes it takes a Brit to point out what’s right under the American’s nose.
17. Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians
Peter Guralnick, 1979
Ex J. Geils frontman Peter Wolf on a compelling chronicle of roots pioneers:
Lost Highway had a great influence on my musical development, and it has remained important to me throughout my life. It’s about my musical heroes and, as Guralnick writes, “people whose stories have not often been told.” Though it was published in the late ’70s, the portraits of Elvis, Bobby “Blue” Bland and more have a timeless quality that will continue to be meaningful to any music fan.
16. The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band
Motley Crue with Neil Strauss, 2001
There’s very little of their checkered past that Vince Neil and the boys aren’t game to share here: learning how to snort lines of ants with Ozzy Osbourne, getting into fistfights with Guns N’ Roses, screwing anything that moves (along with a few things that don’t, like burritos). Heedless of the consequences of their bad behavior, the Crue leave behind a trail of death and destruction while somehow still managing to become one of the world’s biggest bands.
15. Beneath the Underdog: His World as Composed by Mingus
Charles Mingus, 1971
Mingus was one of jazz’s true weirdos, a titanically gifted bassist and composer who moved to a rhythm all his own, both musically and figuratively. It’s no surprise that his autobiography is far from traditional: Beneath the Underdog is an expressionistic, poetic, hilarious and strange book, inflamed by Mingus’ intellectual and musical iconoclasm as well as his anger.
14. Ego Trip’s Big Book of Racism!
Sacha Jenkins, Elliott Wilson, Chairman Jefferson Mao, Gabriel Alvarez and Brent Rollins, 2002
Long before BuzzFeed popularized list-making, the polyglot editors of Ego Trip explored the intersection of race and culture in their acerbic ’90s rap magazine. This collage-like book gorges on refreshingly wiseass lists, like “10 Blacks That Blacks Should Be Ashamed Of,” “All Star Albinos,” “7 Movies You Should Never See With a Middle Eastern Date” and more.
13. England’s Dreaming: The Sex Pistols and Punk Rock
Jon Savage, 1991
Combining a participant’s first-hand insight with a historian’s diligence and objectivity, Savage draws on hundreds of hours of interviews to not only chronicle The Sex Pistols’ breakneck rise and fall, but also to offer a vivid portrait of the troubled, exhausted country that spawned a historically explosive group of malcontents.
12. I’m With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie
Pamela Des Barres, 1987
“I showed my affection for the opposite sex in those days by giving them head, and I was very popular indeed,” Des Barres candidly writes. Intimate details like those pepper the groupie superstar’s saucy memoir of her liaisons with rock’s A-listers, including Mick Jagger, Jimmy Page and Jim Morrison (plus one genre-line-crossing night with Waylon Jennings). Sure, there are blow jobs and mescaline galore, but there’s also a core of innocence and faith; ultimately she conveys the joy of growing up a genuine music fan.
11. Nowhere to Run: The Story of Soul Music
Gerri Hirshey, 1984
In her giddy ode to the first artists “to make black music popular music worldwide,” Hirshey describes the triumphs, woes and mammoth personalities of everyone from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins to Aretha Franklin — there’s even a rare interview with Michael Jackson. In tandem with lionizing these trailblazers, she examines how they helped establish Motown and Stax as the most cherished American labels of the boomer generation.
10. Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk
Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain, 1996
The subtitle could well have been Sex, Skag and the Seventies. In encouraging the founding generation of punk rockers to share insights, air grudges and recount debauchery, McNeil and McCain end up re-creating the bedlam of a typical punk gig circa 1976. Amid hookups, fights, overdoses and deaths, Richard Hell of Television spots the unifying quality among the era’s greatest punk bands: “The whole thrust was to be as shocking and obnoxious and moronic as you possibly could.”
9. High Fidelity
Nick Hornby, 1995
The definitive anthropological study of the rock fanboy, Hornby’s classic novel manages to both affectionately mock and earnestly romanticize that role. In letting us tag along for Rob Fleming’s journey — in which he wrestles with the realization that the most important thing in life may not be the perfect top 10 list — Hornby reveals something key about the difference between being a fan and being a fanatic. By sticking close to the advice of the rock’n’roll heroes he so worships (e.g., “love is all you need”), Rob learns to make room in his life for something other than his record collection.
8. Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation
Jeff Chang, 2005
There are other histories of hip-hop, but none that devote long sections to Jamaican politics, Bronx gang wars, black suburbia and the Los Angeles Police Department. Chang digs deep into the lives of some key players — DJ Kool Herc, Public Enemy, N.W.A — using their stories to strengthen his mission: unearthing the social, political, economic and geographical roots of a cultural revolution.
7. Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties
Ian MacDonald, 1994
A fantastic fusion of musicology, criticism and cultural history, Revolution tells The Beatles’ story in dozens of short essays, one for each recording the group released. MacDonald is a close listener and a great stylist, able to distill what he hears into prose with poetic precision.
6. Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ’n’ Roll Music
Greil Marcus, 1975
Our greatest living scholar of popular music, Greil Marcus has steadily grown more prolific, averaging a book a year for the past decade. Yet, more than three decades on, his first remains the bible of rock criticism. Ostensibly an appreciation of a handful of musical misfits (Sly Stone, Randy Newman, The Band), it ends up revealing the architecture of American culture itself.
5. Just Kids
Patti Smith, 2010
Smith’s first memoir, of her life in New York with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe during the late ’60s and early ’70s, draws a searingly personal story out of a thoroughly documented era, rendering its exhilaration and heartbreak with eagle-eyed objectivity and the unforced beauty of a steadfast poet.
4. Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams
Nick Tosches, 1992
Some say Dean Martin was the coolest guy ever, so it’s fitting that the definitive book about him comes from one of the 20th century’s sharpest biographers. Nick Tosches finds in Martin an underrated skill set, but also a malleability that no one, perhaps not even his pal Frank Sinatra, knew. Even if the book provides no conclusive answer to what made Martin tick, by its end you’ll feel utterly immersed in the singer’s mind.
Keith Richards, 2010
There are nearly as many reasons why Life has become the gold standard for rock autobiographies as there are pages in the book (576). From the opening scene, in which Richards and his crew fling baggies of drugs out of their car windows with the cops in hot pursuit, to every gory detail of the Anita Pallenberg/Brian Jones/Marianne Faithfull/Mick Jagger love pentagon — all told in Richards’ engagingly amiable voice — there’s simply no more satisfying musical memoir ever written. Beyond the gossip, Richards makes clear that the true source of his power comes from his awe for music itself.
2. Hit Men: Power Brokers and Fast Money Inside the Music Business
Fredric Dannen, 1990
These days, plenty of record executives seem like bland middle managers. But for decades the industry was run by characters, con men and criminals, all of whom are thoroughly documented in this dishy book. It offers a guided tour of the seamier aspects of the promotion business, bolstered by substantial interviews with everyone from still-robust titan David Geffen to convicted felon Morris Levy. Even so, it’s an anonymous vp who sums up the industry’s ethos best: “I didn’t steal enough.”
1. Chronicles, Volume One
Bob Dylan, 2004
Concentrating on his hungry years amid New York’s rich early-’60s folk scene, Dylan lends a romantic glow to the city’s smoky clubs and their colorful inhabitants, like Dave Von Ronk, Richie Havens and Tiny Tim, hailing the poets who first ignited his lust for words — Byron, Shelley, Poe — along the way. Later, he highlights two lesser-known but pivotal albums: New Morning, which captured Dylan’s need for family and privacy, and Oh Mercy, possibly his wisest work. Those seeking anecdotes about his best-known songs will go wanting, though Dylan die-hards hold out hope for the two sequel memoirs Dylan promises in the future. In the meantime, he offers hosannas to musical inspirations obvious (Robert Johnson) and less so (Brecht & Weill), told in prose that, true to Dylan’s wily image, is by turns sincere and flip, insightful and evasive. Given his aloof nature and exalted stature, it’s all revelatory.