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10 Best Music Books of 2015

From the stage to the page: The year’s best memoirs, oral histories and more.

From the stage to the page: The year's best memoirs, oral histories and more.

The year’s best music reads included open books on a roots-rocker, a dance icon, a punk poet and a rap pioneer; not to mention deep looks at everything from the Vietnam war to the current EDM explosion.

By Charles Aaron, Tobias Carroll, Richard Gehr and Andy Greene.

10. ‘Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South,’ by Charles L. Hughes

In writing this narrative of a massive amount of music that emerged from the South in the 1960s and 1970s, Charles L. Hughes has taken on a formidable task, encompassing an abundance of musical history and challenging several predictable narratives. Over the course of this book, he touches on the growth of Stax Records, the birth of Southern rock, how country music became associated with political conservatism and the ways in which a trip to Muscle Shoals could jumpstart many a career. Certain musicians who found interesting ways to bring country and soul together — notably, Jerry “Swamp Dogg” Williams, are rendered with particular vividness. T.C.

9. ‘Diary of a Madman: The Geto Boys, Life, Death, and the Roots of Southern Rap’ by Brad “Scarface” Jordan

Given Brad Jordan’s horrific early life, it’s doubly troubling that his music with the Geto Boys as rapper Scarface was tarred as too extreme and a danger to kids by Christian moralists. He’d experienced real danger — and it wasn’t in a work of art. The accounts of abuse, neglect, depression and death in this remarkable collaboration with veteran hip-hop journalist Benjamin Meadows-Ingram seethe with honesty — the book is written as a plainspoken headslap, no self-pity, with Jordan’s personal struggles always tied to larger, institutional issues, race-based or otherwise. His friendship with Rap-A-Lot records founder and Houston rap-scene mentor James Prince is even more wrenching because of Jordan’s respect for the man that he feels betrayed him. By the end of this immensely readable book, you may not be convinced that Scarface is one of the best producers in the game (as he does), but you’ll never forget that he’s one of the best storytellers. C.A.

8. ‘Don’t Suck, Don’t Die: Giving Up Vic Chesnutt’ by Kristin Hersh

The music made by the late Vic Chesnutt was evocative, haunting and often heartbreaking. Kristin Hersh’s book about the singer-songwriter shares all of these qualities. It isn’t a traditional biography: Hersh and Chesnutt were frequent tourmates, and the book serves as a document of their lengthy, sometimes fractious friendship. “Warts and all” doesn’t really do justice to how Chesnutt is rendered: The version encountered here is unpredictable, occasionally offensive, capable of making stunning art and often infuriating to those around him. It’s a book that gives a tremendous sense of what friendship with such a person was like, for good and for bad, and leaves the reader feeling his absence even more once the book has ended. T.C.

7. ‘How to Be a Man (And Other Illusions)’ by Duff McKagan

Like a rock & roll Rick Steves, Guns N’ Roses bassist and dutiful blogger Duff McKagan shares his secrets for surviving trips around the globe in the engaging follow-up to his 2012 memoir It’s So Easy (And Other Lies). But as its title suggests, How to Be a Man is more than just a travelogue. The martial arts enthusiast also gives dudes tips on getting their shit together. Like always put family first and try to age gracefully. McKagan’s chapters on approaching his 50th birthday are inspiring in their transparency, as he celebrates rather than dreads the milestone. Whether he’s detailing the superfandom he shares for the Seattle Seahawks with Alice in Chains’ Jerry Cantrell, rattling off a list of albums every man should own (Sabbath’s Paranoid, Bowie’s Diamond Dogs) or laying down the Number One rule of hotel cohabitation (don’t poop in the room), McKagan is an unfailingly gracious — and entertaining — guide. He even gives ardent Guns N’ Roses fans their fix, recalling the joy and terror of a brief 2014 reunion with Axl Rose. J.H.

6. ‘Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl: A Memoir’ by Carrie Brownstein

The memoir of Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein’s reads like an origin story: how a young woman living in Washington State slowly discovered punk rock and the community that surrounded it, eventually becoming one-third one of the most vital rock bands in recent decades. The memoir’s focus is almost entirely on Brownstein’s time in the band, which means it cycles through numerous musical scenes, from the Olympia punk underground to the larger indie rock world of the 1990s to the trio’s time touring with Pearl Jam in the mid-Aughts. T.C.

5. ‘I’ll Never Write My Memoirs’ by Grace Jones

Grace Jones embodied an archetype — the imperious butch-femme shapeshifter and bitingly outspoken pop virtuoso — so revolutionary that it was destined to be pitifully simulated (sorry, Gaga). She’s also notorious for her stiletto barbs at perceived lessers. But to diminish this memoir (told to English pop theorizer/provocateur Paul Morley) as a shadefest would be lazy and false. While Ms. Jones chronicles her transformation from “Beverly of Church Jamaica” to “Grace of Club America,” she’s lovingly earnest, cherishing Paradise Garage escapades with Keith Haring and shouting out undervalued musical legends (Nicky Siano, Frankie Crocker, the Compass Point All-Stars reggae dream team, producer Trevor Horn). At times, the tale of her fruitful yet pained partnership with photographer Jean-Paul Goude grinds on, but her passion for a career in fashion, music, visual art and film — despite racism, sexism and the AIDS plague — is bracing. Then there are the juicy bits; for instance: “Shaving my head led directly to my first orgasm.” C.A.

4. ‘Petty: The Biography’ by Warren Zanes

There’s no shortage of Tom Petty books on the market, including Paul Zollo’s stellar Conversations With Tom Petty and the singer’s own authorized oral history Runnin’ Down a Dream. But it wasn’t until longtime friend (and Del Fuegos guitarist) Warren Zanes sat down with Petty that he decided to tell the whole story, including the childhood abuse he suffered at the hands of his father and the late Nineties heroin addiction that nearly killed him. The resulting book is the definitive account of Tom Petty’s entire life and career. Zanes even convinced original Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch, who has remained almost completely silent since leaving the band in 1994, to open up about his tumultuous time in the group. The drummer holds back little, even lashing out at Petty for skipping the funeral of Heartbreakers bassist Howie Epstein, but he also expressed deep regret for his own failings as a bandmate. Who knows how Zanes managed to get these guys to reveal so much about painful chapters from their past, but let’s hope this his first of many rock biographies. A.G.

3. ‘Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink’ by Elvis Costello

Elvis Costello may not write the book everyday, but when he does, it’s a 688-page whopper of frequently fascinating and sometimes regretful self-regard. The emotional focus is on his troubled relationship with his late musician father, and like Dylan in his Chronicles, Costello jumps around, recalling hallmark recordings, punk-era road stories, bittersweet flings, lyric epiphanies and meetings with remarkable musical idols. He can wax loquacious about figures like Allen Toussaint yet employ brevity to devastating effect, such as pillorying the Attractions’ bassist in a couple of searing throw-away lines or distilling a 16-year marriage to a single page. R.G.

2. ‘The Underground Is Massive: How Electronic Dance Music Conquered America’ by Michaelangelo Matos

A long-overdue history, as well as a meticulous WTF account, The Underground Is Massive easily fulfills its title’s premise. But the skin-tingling buzz in Michaelangelo Matos’ 400-page tome comes from his reporting on the Eighties and Nineties parties and raves that helped, along with the Internet, to unite tiny pockets of fanatics in towns and cities across the vastness of North America. (Full disclosure: I am quoted occasionally in the book.) Matos airlifts you into thrillingly chaotic scenes, including brutal police raids, and provides just enough context, via the recurring voices of Moby, Richie Hawtin, promoters Disco Donnie and Pasquale Rotella, DJ true believer Tommie Sunshine, and others. He also generously tracks EDM’s more recent capitalist carnival, calling Daft Punk at Coachella in 2006, viewed by millions on YouTube, a “Beatles on Ed Sullivan” moment. C.A.

1. ‘We Gotta Get Outta This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War’ by Doug Bradley and Craig Werner

Doug Bradley and Craig Werner’s account of music’s connection to the Vietnam War is intimate and deeply informative, with a scope that encompasses both the war itself and the way that music has helped raise awareness of veterans’ issues long after its end. We Gotta Get Out of This Place gives the reader a good sense of how the popularity of different songs and styles waxed and waned over the years, as the mood of the war changed. It also gives plenty of space for extended first-person narratives (dubbed “Solos”) offering a diverse array of viewpoints, including many from veterans who found themselves in anti-war camps, those who felt more conflicted about the anti-war movement, and musicians like Country Joe McDonald and James Brown. Nuanced and frequently moving. T.C.