The Best Music Books of 2020

Jem Aswad
·12 min read

In a year filled with things we didn’t want to think about, there were few more indulgent escapes than music books. Thanks to everyone who took the trouble to write and publish them, in a year when record and book stores were closed and, worst of all, music fans were deprived of concerts and will be for at least several months to come — a feeling that, as one friend described it today, “is like being deprived of an essential nutrient.” But like live albums and livestreams, books brought us at least a little closer to the sensations we miss so much. Every “best of” list is incomplete and it would be impossible to cover every worthy book, so with apologies to the ones we didn’t get to — particularly Rob Halford and Dave Mustaine, whose omission here is not a metal snub! — in no particular order, here are The Best Music Books of 2020 That We Managed to Procure and Actually Finish Reading…

(Note: The irony of music writers reviewing books about music is not lost on these music writers…)

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“Can’t Slow Down: How 1984 Became Pop’s Blockbuster Year” by Michaelangelo Matos — The veteran music writer, New Yorker critic and author of the excellent dance-music tome “The Underground Is Massive” turns his formidable attention to a year that he quite convincingly argues marked the beginning of the music megastar. As expected, Prince, Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, Tina Turner and, er, Huey Lewis dominate the stage, but Matos delves just as expertly into the burgeoning rap, indie-rock and dance music scenes, as well as country, technology, the business (this was the year affordable CDs first began to appear) and lots more. It’s an informed and witty although rather completist read — to use a period-appropriate metaphor, it’s a bit like digging through every single bin in a record store — but there’s volumes of information and perspectives even for those of us who were there.

“More Myself” by Alicia Keys with Michelle Burford — Like many memoirs, this unexpectedly engaging tome is most interesting when focused on Keys’ early years in New York’s rough and tumble Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood and the trials of navigating her initial fame, which was challenging even for a young woman raised in New York City in the ‘80s. Keys is candid and New York tough throughout (fun fact: she first met her husband, producer Swizz Beatz, when she was 14 but didn’t connect with him until many years later), although her humility begins to feel a bit forced as she reaches superstardom — but then again, it’s probably pretty hard not to flex when you’re a 15-time Grammy winner describing a private lunch at the White House with Bono and President Obama.

“Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass” by Lana Del Rey — The leap from song to text is a tricky one, even for one of the funniest and most clever lyricists working today. Although Del Rey’s self-serious side grabs the wheel for much of her first book of poetry, her wit and dry perspective shine; her Kodachrome-style photos and typewritten fonts (along with vintage shots and artwork by others) bring a visual dimension that helps to compensate for the initial disconnect of experiencing her words without melody.

“They Just Seem a Little Weird: How Kiss, Cheap Trick, Aerosmith, and Starz Remade Rock and Roll” by Doug Brod — What’s better than a terrific rock biography? Four terrific rock biographies packed into one, with nothing lost in the headbanging whiplash of going back and forth between a quartet of individually and collectively fascinating bands. For anyone who lived through the ascent of flamboyant guitar music in the 1970s or has a residual fondness for these monsters of rock that continued to thrive into the ’80s and beyond, there could scarcely be a more entertaining read than “They Just Seem a Little Weird,” an absorbing first book by former Spin magazine editor Doug Brod. At first it might seem like a conceit to continually be finding the connections between Aerosmith, Cheap Trick and the rather less heralded Starz, but Brod easily makes a case that these groups are united not just in their frequent intersections but in having influenced rock for a lifetime to come. It’s a music nerd’s biographical delight: less childhood backstories or sordid marital tales, and lots more about which Kiss album really represented shark-jumping or discussion about why Steven Tyler looked down on Gene Simmons’ rival outfit and Joe Perry didn’t. There’s a deep level of reporting by Brod that results in one amusing or trenchant detail after another, as he brings the funny and, more importantly, brings the fondness. (Read Variety’s excerpt from Brod’s book here.) — Chris Willman

“Total F*cking Godhead: The Biography of Chris Cornell” by Corbin Reiff — One of the defining rock singers of his generation, the late Chris Cornell rarely got the sort of literary attention bestowed on his Seattle contemporary Kurt Cobain, and Reiff’s exhaustively researched tome does yeoman’s work to fill that void. Tracing Cornell’s life from a quiet, Beatles-worshipping kid through his time as the shirtless demigod frontman of Soundgarden, his divisive second act in supergroup Audioslave, and his sadly truncated tenure as a rock and roll elder statesman, Reiff gives the singer his due as both an artist and a man, and several scenes depicted here — Cornell’s sudden discovery of his higher vocal register, his odd couple friendship with Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood, his Forrest Gump-like ability to show up at one watershed moment in musical history after another — feel ready-made for screenplay treatment. — Andrew Barker

“Looking to Get Lost: Adventures in Music & Writing” by Peter Guralnick — At 500-plus pages, this hefty missive from one of the true masters of this genre plays to all of his strengths: a series of deeply knowledgeable and heartfelt profiles, portraits and perspectives on some of the greatest musicians of the past 75 years, ranging from Ray Charles and Johnny Cash to Howlin Wolf and Eric Clapton. It unfolds like a series of New Yorker articles — with Guralnick at the wheel, all you need to do is sit back and enjoy the ride.

“D’Angelo’s Voodoo” by Faith A. Pennick — The high-water mark of the neo-soul movement, D’Angelo’s sophomore album turned him into a true superstar at the dawn of the current millennium, but it also set a standard that he would struggle for years to live up to — a follow-up album would not emerge for 14 years — and earned him the sort of fame that he would soon discover he had no interest in maintaining. Pennick’s book for Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series tackles the album from a multitude of angles — some scholarly, some personal — and her chapter-length dissection of the infamous music video for “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” offers an insightful, all-too-rare exploration of the damage that body-image issues and objectification can wreak on male stars, too. — Andrew Barker

“Sing Backwards and Weep” by Mark Lanegan — Out of all the music books released this horrible year, it’s hard to imagine one making a reader’s jaw drop more often than this harrowing memoir from the former Queens of the Stone Age vocalist who, to quote the book blurb, “within less than a decade would rise to fame as the frontman of the Screaming Trees and then fall from grace as a low-level crack dealer and homeless heroin addict.” To hear him tell it, Lanegan was a truly horrible person, a hustler, petty criminal and alcoholic from elementary school on. While the Trees were one of the more feted bands of the era — the less familiar will be drawn in by drug-addled cameos from Lanegan’s close friends like Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley and others — his bad behavior became more aimed at himself. He’s said that “writing this book was probably the most unpleasant thing I’ve ever done” — and although that’s quite a statement considering some of the events in “Sing Backwards,” it’s also hard to look away.

“The Velvet Underground Experience” by Christian Fevret and Carole Mirabello / “My Week Beats Your Year: Encounters With Lou Reed” by Michael Heath and Pat Thomas — The history of the Velvets and Reed is thoroughly trodden ground, and these beautifully rendered collections wisely don’t try to reinvent that wheel. Instead, the VU book is a gorgeous reproduction of the English-language catalog from a 2016 exhibit, filled with rare photos of the band and other ephemeralia, while the Reed tome is a collection of the notoriously cantankerous bard’s most infamous interviews, illustrated with period photos and summarized by the title of one of its closing chapters, “‘People Are Really Stupid’: A Lifetime of Pain With Rock’s Mr. Angry.’”

Jimmy Page: The Anthology” by Jimmy Page — This lavish tome, which is approximately the size and weight of a tombstone, is essentially a companion to the Led Zeppelin founder’s equally lavish 2010 “Autobiography.” He’s dug deep into his vast personal archives and photographed hundreds of items for this follow-up: guitars and stage outfits to memos and diary pages and receipts and loads of other stuff, photographed in pristine detail. While the accompanying text glosses over the less-flattering points of his history (his long heroin addiction and youthful paramours aren’t mentioned), even casual Zeppelin fans will find the photos from this well-curated archive dump dive fascinating.

“There Was a Time: James Brown, the Chitlin’ Circuit and Me” by Alan Leeds — Publicist, DJ, tour manager and more, Leeds has had a close-up view of Brown, Prince, D’Angelo and others. As the title says, this book focuses on his years with Brown, and while there are countless fascinating scenes and anecdotes, the main impression is of what a horrible boss the Hardest Working Man in Show Business was: When Leeds was a DJ, Brown sweet-talked him like a silver-tongued devil — but their relationship changed completely the minute Leeds became an employee. Geniuses are often not nice people — especially ones who overcame the daunting and degrading obstacles that Brown did — and Leeds managed to retain his admiration and respect for the man, even when he was being a total asshole.

“Time Between: My Life as a Byrd, Burrito Brother and Beyond” by Chris Hillman — Probably due to his unassuming nature, Hillman is one of rock’s overlooked giants of the ‘60s — an original Byrd, a pioneer in merging country and rock with that band and the Flying Burrito Brothers, cowriter of “So You Wanna Be a Rock and Roll Star” and one of the greatest rock bassists in history. To a degree, that unassuming nature — or maybe just 50-plus years of hindsight — also sometimes makes this book a bit of an anti-“Behind the Music”: Whether or not he indulged, you sometimes long for more sex, drugs and rock and roll, or at least a bit more dishing: “Wait, tell me more about hanging out with the Beatles! What other crazy things did Gram Parsons do? What else do you remember about Altamont?!” Still, it’s fascinating to read about his view from slightly out of the spotlight as countless memorable characters drift in and out of his life.

“One Last Song: Conversations on Life, Death and Music” by Mike Ayers — It’s hard to imagine a more grim musical topic, especially in the year of COVID, than one’s dying moment. But Ayers got a wide range of musicians — from Andre 3000 and Sonny Rollins to Phoebe Bridgers and Wanda Jackson — to weigh in on which song would be the one they’d like to be the last one they hear before they die. Considering the context, it’s an unexpectedly uplifting read.

“Utopia Avenue” by David Mitchell — It’s not often that novels cross into authentic music writing, but the latest from the ambitious author of such works as “Cloud Atlas” and “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet” has turned his gaze to a fictional rock band (bearing the book’s title) in 1960s Swinging London. While Mitchell’s greatest strengths — voice and a slightly supernatural plot — are very much present here, it does at times feel like it’s trying a bit too hard to launch a BBC or HBO miniseries, with the jolly jocularity of a band’s “chemistry” and fictional hammy cameos from everyone from David Bowie and Syd Barrett to John Lennon and Joni Mitchell. He’s done his homework and evokes the zeal, excess and language of the era, but while such easter eggs may delight the more casual reader, they often as not induce an eye-roll from snobs like us. It’s a compelling story if you don’t mind a little extra cheese.

“Music by Max Steiner: The Epic Life of Hollywood’s Most Influential Composer” by Steven C. Smith — A film music career couldn’t get any fuller than Steiner’s three-decade run at the top, and a chronicling of it couldn’t get any better than Smith’s second book. His first, 1991’s “A Heart at Fire’s Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann,” helped precipitate a huge uptick of interest in that once neglected, now deified film composer. He gives Steiner the same exhaustive biographical treatment here, and differences between the two greats are immediately apparent. While Herrmann could be said to have something close to a signature style with his Hitch films, Steiner was an unparalleled journeyman who could (and did) do anything orchestral, from “King Kong,” “Casablanca” and “Gone With the Wind” to “A Summer Place.” Smith makes the case, which maybe should be but isn’t always obvious, that Steiner’s brilliant versatility shouldn’t be held against him. The other big difference? That Steiner was funny as hell, which means this “Epic Life” is filled with a surprising number of laughs… even if Smith’s ultimate intent is to show that, beneath his dishy, jolly surface, Steiner was just as much the tortured artist. You don’t have to be a film score buff — although, given Smith’s mastery of describing the composing art, it doesn’t hurt! — to become transfixed by this golden-age-of-Hollywood slice of life. (Read Variety’s interview with Smith here.) — Chris Willman

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