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The Best Music Books of 2020

Here are the must-read music books of the year — from revealing memoirs to historical deep dives, from boy bands to the blues and beyond

Photograph used in illustration by Sacha Lecca

For 2020, we’ve teamed up with Kirkus Reviews, the pre-eminent book-review publication, to create a list of the year’s best music books. The 21 titles we came up with include biographies of musicians from Wagner to Kendrick Lamar, memoirs by greats like Rob Halford and Mariah Carey, and deep-dive explorations into topics like the history of sampling, gender and pop music, and the indie-rock scene of Athens, Georgia.

Larger Than Life: A History of Boy Bands From NKOTB to BTS, Maria Sherman

Maria Sherman’s book debut accomplishes something that was long overdue: a deep dive into the history of the modern boy band. This impressive, illustrated work (that’s laid out like issues of Tiger Beat and J14) gives proper lessons on boy bands from the Beatles and the Jackson 5 to ‘NSync and BTS. Along with fascinating details on the groups, boys, and archetypes themselves, Larger Than Life also serves as a crucial text on the very nature of fandom itself, giving glory and resonance to the screaming girls who have filled stadiums for decades and made every group in Sherman’s book a phenomenon in their respective times. B.S.

The Meaning of Mariah Carey, Mariah Carey with Michaela Angela Davis

Fame, fortune, and everything that goes with it? Coming right up. Mariah Carey’s memoir is her wonderfully dishy story of her life as a star — her trials, her tribulations, her feud with Jennifer Lopez. Much of the book discusses her miserable childhood, her cruel family, and her oppressive marriage to Tommy Mottola, the Sony boss who made her famous. She reveals she made a secret grunge album in 1995, out of frustration at how tame her official pop records were. She also shares the heartwarming tale of her romance with baseball star Derek Jeter: “Just like his position on the team, our relationship was a short stop in my life.” R.S.

Glitter Up the Dark: How Pop Music Broke the Binary, Sasha Geffen

Can you see the iridescent thread that connects Big Mama Thornton’s revolutionary roar to Bikini Kill’s riotous scream? The electric undercurrent from Prince’s purple majesty to Missy Elliott’s MTV fever dreams? The mirror-image reflections of Nirvana’s subversive ambiguity and Frank Ocean’s boundaryless future? All this and more sparkle through the pages of this pocket history of pop music through the lens of gender, written by one of today’s deftest cultural critics. Sasha Geffen’s central thesis is that popular music has always been powered by transgressive ideas about identity: “The gender binary cannot really be broken because the gender binary has never been whole. It has always limped along in pieces, easily cracked by a brief foray into the historical record.” An ecstatic celebration of freedom through sound and movement, Glitter Up the Dark makes pop history feel thrillingly new. S.V.L.

Looking to Get Lost: Adventures in Music and Writing, Peter Guralnick

Over the past 50 years, music historian Peter Guralnick has written definitive books about Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke, and  Sam Phillips. His newest dips into his archives to explore lesser-known figures like Skip James, Bill Monroe, Doc Pomus, Solomon Burke, and Joe Tex. It also pulls back the curtain on Guralnick’s own career, such as the way hearing Robert Johnson as a young man left him profoundly moved, sending him on the road to decades of essential music criticism. For a man who’s devoted his entire life to exploring the music of a bygone era, his work still feels strikingly relevant. A.G.

Sing Backwards and Weep: A Memoir, Mark Lanegan

The former Screaming Trees frontman holds absolutely nothing back in this gritty accounting of his life before he got sober. In different moments in the book, he procures heroin for Kurt Cobain, shoots up with Layne Staley, and writhes on the floor from his own withdrawals. Between his drug abuse and his sex addiction, it’s easy to wonder how he lived to tell his tale — and how he remembers any of it. At each turn, Mark Lanegan comes off looking worse than any of his buddies. But his willingness to confront his demons and more than a few funny stories (such as when he put Oasis’ Liam Gallagher in his place) make the book one of the most compelling and revealing rock memoirs ever. K.G.

Confess: The Autobiography, Rob Halford

The Judas Priest frontman spent nearly three decades in the closet before he declared to the world that he was “the stately homo of heavy metal.” His autobiography details the psychological toll that hiding his true self took on him, as he contrasts life onstage as the alpha-male metal god that his fans knew with the depressed, lonely soul he was offstage, sneaking into truck stops for a few moments of pleasure and pursuing relationships via classified ads. In between, he recalls how each Judas Priest album was made and fascinating tales of his encounters with everyone from Andy Warhol to the Queen of England. The book’s mix of hilarious and heart-rending stories, when compounded with the relief he feels from finally being out of the closet, should appeal to non-headbangers just as much as Judas Priest’s “defenders of the faith.” K.G. 

The Butterfly Effect: How Kendrick Lamar Ignited the Soul of Black America, Marcus J. Moore

Kendrick Lamar is the most groundbreaking and inspiring hip-hop artist of the past decade, an innovator whose music sells millions while still reflecting a radical social and political vision. Veteran journalist Marcus J. Moore didn’t interview Lamar for this biography, but that isn’t a problem since the author keeps the focus on the rapper’s musical development while still drawing important observations from his personal life, such as how a trip to South Africa ended up inspiring the Lamar’s instant-classic 2015 album, To Pimp A Butterfly, which is ranked Number 19 on Rolling Stone‘s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. J.D.

This Isn’t Happening: Radiohead’s ‘Kid A’ and the Beginning of the 21st Century, Steven Hyden

Twenty years ago, Radiohead dropped their masterwork Kid A — an album people have loved arguing about ever since. It sounded like commercial self-destruction, but Kid A became a Number One smash; it reached Number 20 on Rolling Stone’s new poll of the all-time 500 Greatest Albums. In this brilliant book, Steven Hyden goes deep into why Kid A matters — it’s the fascinating saga of how the music turned into the symbol of a new cultural era. “This book is a detective story,” Hyden writes, and he chases the mystery of how Kid A “stopped being about the future” and “came to strongly evoke everything vital and terrifying and unknowable about now.R.S.

Can’t Slow Down: How 1984 Became Pop’s Blockbuster Year, Michaelangelo Matos

From multimillion-selling albums like Purple Rain and Born in the U.S.A. to landmark releases in indie rock (the Replacements’ Let It Be, Husker Du’s Zen Arcade) and hip hop (Run-DMC’s debut), the year normally associated with George Orwell had its share of firsts. Michaelangelo Matos’ genre-by-genre survey of a momentous year — the 1967 of the Gen X crowd — recalls a year in which pop stars, aided by record sales, MTV, and films, became as central to the culture as movie stars. And even the Olympics organizers — who closed out their summer games in L.A. with a Lionel Richie spectacle — knew it. D.B.

Resistance: A Songwriter’s Story of Hope, Change, and Courage, Tori Amos

It’s hard to believe Tori Amos has been in the music business for 40 years. After more than a dozen albums and as many tours, the vocals-and-piano powerhouse proves equally adept on the page. The voice is everything Amos fans have come to admire about her: candid, creative, political, controversial, unabashedly complex. Within her personal and professional story — from child virtuoso through career ups and downs and the death of her beloved mother — the author embeds insightful commentary on a host of relevant issues, including government oppression, sexual abuse, LGBTQ rights, and human-rights activism. E.L.

Brother Robert: Growing Up With Robert Johnson, Annye C. Anderson with Preston Lauterbach

The tale of the man who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for a mastery of the blues is one of the great legends of American popular music. When Robert Johnson went down to that Mississippi crossroads, he created a mystique that few blues musicians have been able to match. Because biographical info is so skeletal, fans should rejoice in this memoir from Johnson’s nonagenarian sister, Annye C. Anderson, who was 12 when he died. She fondly recounts stories of Johnson’s technical ability, showmanship, and musical versatility. Though compact, this book does much to pull the blues master out of the fog of myth. E.L.

My Life in the Purple Kingdom, BrownMark with Cynthia M. Uhrich

God bless BrownMark and every other musician who played for Prince. Yes, the Purple One was an important 20th-century artist, but he was also a taskmaster who was notoriously difficult to work with, whether in the studio or on tour. That makes BrownMark’s memoir all the more impressive. In addition to engagingly chronicling his own early life and musical development, he clearly lays out his role as the bassist during what was arguably Prince’s most creative and successful period: the Purple Rain era. It’s a solid portrait that ably portrays the author’s discipline and loyalty — even if he’s not afraid to take his boss to task for a host of indiscretions. E.L.

The Baddest Bitch in the Room: A Memoir, Sophia Chang

A Tribe Called Quest, RZA, D’Angelo, Q-Tip: That’s just a partial list of the hip-hop and R&B luminaries who have worked with Sophia Chang. Ever since she landed a job as the head of marketing for Atlantic Records only two years out of college, the author has embodied the claim in her memoir’s title. Her no-bullshit style and professional determination come through clearly, whether she’s discussing her Asian heritage, the countless obstacles she has faced as a woman of color in the music industry, or explaining why and how she became what Wu-Tang Clan member Method Man described as “the group’s muse.” E.L.

Me and Sister Bobbie: True Tales of the Family Band, Willie Nelson and Bobbie Nelson with David Ritz 

There’s no shortage of biographical information on the country icon, whether from one of his multiple memoirs or Joe Nick Patoski’s acclaimed 2008 portrait. But this one is unique, presenting a dual narrative from both Willie and his sister Bobbie Nelson, who is more of a mystery than her legendary brother. Nelson and Family Band fans will relish even the details they already knew, and readers just seeking a mostly uplifting family story will be pleased as well. Not that it’s all pot smoke and peace signs: The authors also dig into broken relationships (the pair have racked up seven marriages total), racism, sexism, depression, and death. E.L.

Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics, Dolly Parton with Robert K. Oermann

This is your one-stop Dolly shop. Not only does the musician offer a comprehensive retrospective of her personal and professional life, she also delivers the lyrics to more than 175 songs as well as countless intriguing nuggets certain to please any Dolly fan. It’s a beautifully produced volume that features hundreds of photos, period documents, and playful asides that capture her singular persona. Bonus: We learn more about her husband in this book than we have over the course of their 50-year marriage. If you own only one book about Dolly, this should be it. E.L.

Bring That Beat Back: How Sampling Built Hip-Hop, Nate Patrin

Curious about the genesis of all of the earworm hooks you hear across every subgenre of hip-hop? Nate Patrin has the goods. Cleverly organized around four pioneering figures in the world of sampling — Grandmaster Flash, Prince Paul, Dr. Dre, and Madlib — this musicological study is never dry, always enthusiastic and appreciative, and groundbreaking in its analysis of the art of sampling as just that: art. Featuring plenty of entertaining cultural history, this is a significant contribution to hip-hop studies. E.L.

Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music, Alex Ross

Not an opera fan? Unfamiliar with the works of Richard Wagner? Not to worry. The New Yorker’s Alex Ross is one of the best music writers in the business, and his latest is a sweeping (operatic?) history of artistic culture in the West during Wagner’s life. The German composer and his music serve as the focal points around which Ross constructs a nuanced cultural history involving a constellation of bright artistic lights, from Nietzsche and Cézanne to Baudelaire. The author doesn’t neglect Wagner’s vocal anti-Semitism, weaving in a cogent discussion of the complex, often messy interplay between art and artist. This is a spirited history of music — and art in general — amid a particularly fertile historical period. E.L.

More Myself: A Journey, Alicia Keys

For someone who’s always seemed serenely confident, Alicia Keys divulges a fair amount of behind-the-curtain chaos: her bumpy relationship with ex-boyfriend Krucial, the time she fired her mother as her assistant, and humiliating encounters with photographers and record execs who wanted to sex up her image. For all the setbacks, she’s rewarded with a one-percenter lifestyle that she manages to convey in graphic but humbling ways. Her husband, Swizz Beatz, hires the cast of House Party 2 for a Keys birthday party, and she rents out a Louis Vuitton store for Swizz’s own birthday (complete with leased “Porches and Lamborghinis” for some real-life Fast & Furious action in New York City). Next to that, her lunch with Obama and Bono is small potatoes. D.B.

Open Book, Jessica Simpson

Jessica Simpson arrived in the teen-pop TRL boom of 1999, a preacher’s daughter with a squeaky-clean image. What could go wrong? Her excellent memoir is everything you could want: she’s got tea to spill, scores to settle, life lessons to learn, John Mayer shade to share. She marries boy-band star Nick Lachey and becomes America’s sweetheart on the MTV reality show Newlyweds. After her divorce, she makes up for lost time: “I had a list of guys, and I checked every box. And all my girlfriends were jealous. They still are.” She gets real about addiction and abuse; by the end, you marvel at her hard-won wisdom. R.S.

All I Ever Wanted: A Rock ’n’ Roll Memoir, Kathy Valentine

Barely 21, Kathy Valentine joined a ragtag L.A. punk band on the verge of conquering the world: the Go-Go’s. On Christmas Day 1980, at an X concert, she meets a Go-Go in the ladies room and talks her way into the band. But the band falls apart after cranking out three great albums in four years — Valentine co-wrote hits like “Vacation” and “Head Over Heels.” All I Ever Wanted starts off with raw memories of her nightmarish Texas youth, then flips into a wild Eighties rock & roll ride. It all starts with her childhood dream: “To be in a kickass band with a gang of like-minded girls and claim the life I wanted for myself.” R.S.

Cool Town: How Athens, Georgia, Launched Alternative Music and Changed American Culture, Grace Elizabeth Hale

When you think of the best music scenes in the U.S., New Orleans, Nashville, New York, and Austin come immediately to mind — certainly not a small college town an hour from Atlanta, right? As Grace Elizabeth Hale demonstrates, Athens, home to the University of Georgia, was a pivotal spot on the American musical and cultural map from the late 1970s to the early 1990s. In addition to nurturing the careers of the B-52’s, R.E.M., Neutral Milk Hotel, and Vic Chesnutt, Athens was a hipster hotbed for writers, poets, painters, and a host of other creative types. Hale experienced it all firsthand, and Cool Town takes us there right alongside her. E.L.

From Rolling Stone US