If you are looking for the perfect holiday gift for someone who is both a music fan and a voracious reader, then a music-related book will certainly satisfy that need and more. This past year ushered in a slew of interesting titles, ranging from the 20th anniversary of a groundbreaking hip-hop album; to downtown New York City’s cultural peak during the ’60s and ’70s; to biographies about the Man in Black and a pioneering L.A. rap group. Here is a list of recommended books to consider for the resident music and pop culture nerd we all know and love.
There Was a Light, Rich Tupica
Exactly 40 years ago this month, Chris Bell, the co-founder of the now-legendary Memphis power pop band Big Star, died in a car crash at the age of 27. Bell was a talented singer, songwriter and producer who played a huge role in the sound of Big Star’s brilliant debut album, 1972’s #1 Record, which unfortunately never hit it big commercially. When he left the band, Bell recorded his own songs, most of which went unrecognized and later posthumously released. Rich Tupica’s There Was a Light is the first oral biography devoted to Bell, featuring numerous interviews with his former bandmates, colleagues, friends, and family. They all paint an in-depth and heartbreaking portrait of a troubled yet brilliant musician who never got the recognition he deserved during his lifetime.
The Only Girl, Robin Green
In the TV industry, Robin Green and her husband Mitchell Burgess are best known as the co-writers for the iconic series The Sopranos and the creators of the long-running CBS drama Blue Bloods. But long before her foray into television, Green forged a trailblazing path as a writer for Rolling Stone in the early 1970s—she was the only woman to have her name on the magazine’s masthead at the time. In her recent memoir The Only Girl, Green reflects on that formative and freewheeling period in her life, detailing anecdotes from her initial job interview with Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner, to some of her interesting assignments that included her meeting David Cassidy, Robert Kennedy Jr., and Dennis Hopper. In addition to her recollections of Rolling Stone‘s dominant personalities such as Wenner and Hunter S. Thompson, Green also gives voice to the magazine’s unsung female staffers like Sarah Lazin and Harriet Fier, all of whom played a pivotal role in the publication’s growth and success.
This year marked a special milestone for one of the greatest albums of all time: it was 20 years ago that Lauryn Hill’s debut record, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, was released. A groundbreaking mix of hip-hop and soul, Miseducation was a huge hit for the former Fugee, earning her several Grammy Awards including Album of the Year–the album by a hip-hop artist to earn that honor. The record’s importance and legacy is spotlighted in She Begat This: 20 Years of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill by Joan Morgan who writes in her intro: “It was one if those rare times that a black woman was speaking and the worked had sense enough to listen.”
Why the Beach Boys Matter, Tom Smucker; Why the Ramones Matter, Donna Gaines
If the long-running popular 33 1/3 music book series mainly concentrates on particular rock albums and their significance, then the brand new Music Matters series focuses on musicians in the context of their entire careers. Edited by veteran music critic Evelyn McDonnell, the Music Matters books both argue for and champion a particular artist’s body of work and his or her impact on the culture. You won’t get any arguments regarding the artist subjects for the first two books of the new series: Why the Beach Boys Matter by Tom Smucker and Why the Ramones Matter by Donna Gaines. Future installments of the series will include books on Karen Carpenter, Patti Smith, the B-52s, and Solange.
The Downtown Pop Underground, Kembrew McLeod
One of the interesting aspects of Kembrew McLeod’s previous 33 1/3 book, Parallel Lines (about Blondie’s 1978 breakthrough record of the same name), is how it provides a glimpse into New York City’s downtown cultural scene of the ’60s and ’70s that contributed to the birth of punk. This bohemian period in the Big Apple’s history included avant garde filmmakers like Jonas Mekas; the music of the Velvet Underground; the pop art of Andy Warhol; cutting-edge underground theater and performance art; and venues such as Max’s Kansas City and the Mercer Arts Center. McLeod’s new book, The Downtown Pop Underground, is a further extension of the points the author made in Parallel Lines, and features interviews with the key players from that era, including Debbie Harry, Chris Stein, Patti Smith, Lenny Kaye, Jonas Mekas, Lou Reed, Lisa Persky, and Ed Sanders.
Night Moves, Jessica Hopper
While not strictly a music book per se, music is one running theme in Jessica Hopper’s recent memoir, Night Moves, a collection of diaristic entries that chronicle her experiences in Chicago from the 2000s. Hopper, a music journalist and author of The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, offers cutting and somewhat humorous vignettes that describe her hanging out at the clubs and seeing shows; bike riding around the city; and being out with friends at parties. In her words, seemingly normal everyday things take on a colorful and lively turn. Through Night Moves, readers will discover how her literary style developed.
Point of View, Chris Stein
In addition to co-founding Blondie with singer Deborah Harry, guitarist Chris Stein is a longtime photographer who has taken pictures ever since he was a child. His latest photo book, Point of View, the sequel to his 2014 collection Negative, offers a fascinating glimpse of New York during the 1970s and early 1980s in its pre-gentrified and gritty glory: broken-down buildings, Times Square porno theaters, subway graffiti, as well as both ordinary and colorful characters. Famous people such as David Bowie, the Ramones, William Burroughs and Debbie Harry make appearances in the book. All in all, Point of View is a visual tribute to the old Big Apple we still long for.
Even 15 years after his death, Johnny Cash’s influence still towers both in music and pop culture, and the proof comes in the many books written about the country music legend. But what makes this latest one, Johnny Cash: The Life & Legacy of the Main in Black (published by Smithsonian Books) so unqiue is that it tells the story of the artist accompanied by over 100 pieces of archival material (most of them previously unseen), directly from the Cash family archives. Expertly written by the esteemed music journalist Alan Light, this biography provides accompanied by these revealing objects and images add further insight into Cash’s music, popularity and spiritual mission.
Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968, Ryan Walsh
Another album celebrated a musical milestone this year: Van Morrison’s classic and eloquent record Astral Weeks was released exactly 50 years ago. It was recorded in New York City, but the music can be traced back to when Morrison was living and performing in the Boston/Cambridge, Massachusetts area for most of 1968. That somewhat little-known fact forms the basis of Ryan Walsh’s Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968, which looks back at Morrison’s connection to the city and how that influenced the creation of that masterpiece. In addition, Walsh, who is a musician himself, also delves into Boston’s countercultural history during that period that included Mel Lyman, the musician who founded the Fort Hill Community cult; the Velvet Underground’s numerous performances at the Boston Tea Party club; James Brown’s pivotal concert in Boston in the aftermath of Martin Luther King’s assassination; and the crimes of the Boston Strangler.
Parental Discretion Is Advised, Gerrick Kennedy
In its brief lifetime, N.W.A. recorded only two albums but left an important and controversial mark in the history of hip-hop music. The Los Angeles gangsta rap group’s lineup was a legendary one that included Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, MC Ren and DJ Yella. Its 1988 debut, Straight Outta Compton, remains one of the most influential rap albums of all time, exploring subjects like gang violence, racism and police brutality — not to mention sex and misogyny — in shocking and uncompromising terms. N.W.A.’s extraordinary and turbulent story is told in Los Angeles Times writer Gerrick Kennedy’ book, Parental Discretion Is Advised, now published in paperback. It documents the group’s rise, implosion and legacy—as well as the hugely successful solo careers of Dre and Cube, and the West Coast rap scene of the late ’80s and early ’90s.
ABBA: The Complete Recording Sessions, Carl Magnus Palm
Though this 1994 book was revised and re-published last year, ABBA: The Complete Recording Sessions is still relevant thanks to the recent news that the hugely successful Swedish pop group were reuniting to work on some new material for the first time in 35 years—along with the recent release of the film Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. Written by noted ABBA historian Carl Magnus Palm, The Complete Recording Sessions is a massive compendium that details every ABBA track and album recorded in the studio, spanning the members’ pre-ABBA years in the 1960s, to 2014 archival release Live at Wembley Stadium. This title is strictly for die-hard fans; but even if you’re not, The Complete Recording Sessions is a fascinating account of how those great hits were made.
Other recent music books of note:
Lou Reed: A Life by Anthony DeCurtis (now available in paperback)
My Love Story by Tina Turner
Women Who Rock edited by Evelyn McDonnell
The Hard Stuff by Wayne Kramer (a memoir by the guitarist of MC5)
Heavy Duty: Days and Nights in Judas Priest by K.K. Downing (an autobiography from the former Judas Priest guitarist)