Reviewing music is a walk in the park compared with reviewing books, which must be the most time-consuming occupation in entertainment apart from being parents of budding baseball players. For a similar reason, this best-music-books-of-the-year list is hardly a definitive one — there was a veritable avalanche of them released this year, utterly hopeless to keep up with. So with apologies to some of these authors for tardiness (there are a couple of late 2018 titles in here) — and to Liz Phair, Hanif Abdurraqib and others whose books I’ve heard are great but have not read yet — here are The Best Music Books of 2019 That I Managed to Procure and Actually Finish Reading…
Prince “Beautiful Ones” / “Prince and the ‘Purple Rain’ Era Studio Sessions” (by Duane Tudal) / Morris Day “My Time”
What better way to start off than with a trio of superb Prince books? The artist’s unfinished autobiography, “Beautiful Ones” (the only book this year I actually reviewed) essentially only covers his first 20 years but delivers much more than fans had any reason to expect, with a thorough recounting of the least-known period of his life along with rare photos, drawings and a reproduction of his (fastidiously neat) handwritten manuscript. The “Studio Sessions” is a Prince archivist’s dream come true, a deeply detailed and expert examination of 1983 and ’84, two pivotal years of the monumentally prolific musician’s recording sessions — and the fact that it takes nearly 600 pages to unpack just those two years should give an idea of just how prolific he was. Finally, Prince features heavily in Time frontman Morris Day’s autobiography, not just in the form of anecdotes — the pair met in middle school, worked closely together for the next decade and remained friends despite periods of estrangement — but also in occasional cameos, as Day imagines, probably with considerable accuracy, what his old friend would say at various points in the story. The conceit may feel sacrilegious to some, but if anyone has the right, it’s Day — and he’s got Prince’s hyper-confident, needling voice down, with its constant reminders of his brilliance and trash-talking of all rivals.
Elton John “Me” — As someone who reads dozens of music books every year, a handful stand out for greatness, and along with Patti Smith’s “Just Kids” and titles by Morrissey and Rod Stewart, this vastly entertaining tome is among the best autobiographies of the past decade. “Me” is everything a fan could hope for, filled with hilarious and harrowing stories of superstardom, awkwardness, late-blooming sexuality and, not least, incredible tales about other famous people, ranging from George Harrison lecturing about spirituality while cutting up lines of cocaine to the Queen — yes, the Queen — saying, as she scolded her adult nephew, gently slapping his face with each syllable: “Do (slap) not (slap) argue (slap) with (slap) me (slap) I (slap) am (slap) THE QUEEN!”
“Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly” (by Jim DeRogatis) — If there’s a single leading authority on the allegations against R. Kelly, it’s DeRogatis, who in 2000 broke the story of the sex tape that led to the singer’s trial on child-pornography charges and has doggedly continued to follow it and break new stories, even as Kelly’s reputation returned after his 2008 acquittal (and plummeted to new depths in the wake of this year’s Lifetime docuseries, “Surviving R. Kelly” and his subsequent arrest and incarceration). “Soulless” is not a fun read: It’s harrowing and horrifying, but if doubt remains about the veracity of the allegations against Kelly, it may not after finishing this book.
“All You Need to Know About the Music Business: 10th Edition” (by Donald Passman) — Ten editions in, this book, written by one of the industry’s most prominent and experienced attorneys, remains the single best one-stop for learning about the music business. Its very nature dictates that it’s hardly a page-turner, but Passman’s style is engaging and his expertise near-unimpeachable.
“Janis” (by Holly George-Warren) — As with her 2013 biography of Alex Chilton, Holly George-Warren’s latest is a masterpiece of research and reporting about a subject whose legacy has suffered from previous tomes that featured a substantial lack of both. Warren has dug so deep — interviewing childhood neighbors and high school boyfriends as well as later musical contemporaries — that at times it’s exhausting, but the overall effect is like that of a restored painting: a full portrait of Joplin emerges, one who was just as troubled and tragic as legend states, but also a deeply intelligent, educated and experienced artist whose talent was sadly overshadowed only by her insecurity.
“Music Money and Success: The Insider’s Guide to Making Money in the Music Business (Eighth Edition)” (by Jeff and Todd Brabec) — As you may have heard, music publishing is big business. And although this book covers all areas of the industry, the eighth edition by these twin-brother authors — who spent many years at Chrysalis Music Publishing and ASCAP, respectively — is the definitive book on publishing, one of the most complex, misunderstood and lucrative areas of the business. It’s not exactly bedtime reading, but any working songwriter, publisher (or music-business reporter) would be well advised to keep it in close reach.
Joni Mitchell “Morning Glory on the Vine” — Back in 1971, Joni Mitchell — an accomplished painter as well as one of the greatest songwriters of the past 50 years — assembled a book of paintings of her friends, ranging from Neil Young and Graham Nash to Judy Collins and her late former manager Elliott Roberts, printed up 100 copies and gave them away as holiday presents. Nearly 50 years later, it’s been retitled after a Young lyric (the original title was “The Christmas Book”) and combined with various still lifes and handwritten lyrics — and while it’s short on text, there are probably few documents that evoke the halcyon Laurel Canyon of those years than this lovingly compiled book, which will be familiar to anyone who spend more than a few minutes staring at Mitchell’s self-designed album covers of the era while “Ladies of the Canyon” or “Court and Spark” spun on the turntable.
“More Fun in the New World: The Unmaking and Legacy of L.A. Punk” (John Doe and Tom DeSavia) — I’m not sure whether it’s a reflection on this book, the scene it documents or myself that I enjoyed this basically-oral-history of the decline of the L.A. punk scene of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s much more than I did “Under the Big Black Sun,” the story of its rise. Musical and romantic breakups, trips to rehab, failed record deals and more make this a far less rose-colored look at the scene than its predecessor, but the lessons learned and the clear-eyed take on their new realities actually make for a more compelling read — although fans of Lizzy Goodman’s “Meet Me in the Bathroom,” a similar woah-we-were-so-crazy take on the rise of the 2000s NYC rock scene, may prefer the “Big Black Sun.”
“Jimmy Page: The Definitive Biography” (by Chris Salewicz) — The legendary Led Zeppelin guitarist is another artist whose history is clouded with rumor and hagiography, but in his case a lot of it was intentional. Be that as it may, British biographer Chris Salewicz does a solid job of separating fact from legend, going into deep detail about Page’s early session career, his years with the Yardbirds and most fascinating, Zeppelin’s salad days and sad demise (although he holds back the blade a bit when it comes to the guitarist’s well-documented predilection for young girls). Throughout, a picture emerges of Page as a deeply gifted if not necessarily always totally original musician and songwriter and astute businessman (well deserving of his nickname, “Led Wallet”), who never fully recovered from the heroin addiction that began at the height of his success and dogged more than a decade of his life.
“Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young: The Wild, Definitive Saga of Rock’s Greatest Supergroup” (by David Browne) — Even with 50 years hindsight, it’s striking to realize just how much rock history spiraled from these four extremely alpha males, who made incredible music with the Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds and the Hollies before uniting for just two significant studio albums, and then spiraled out in a tsunami of drugs, misadventure and gargantuan egos. Veteran Rolling Stone writer David Browne dug deep into the history and emerged with a definitive history of the group (although not its component parts, all of whom, fittingly enough, have received solo biographies over the years …)