Six books a music lover should read

Music, of all art forms, is uniquely connected to memory. It’s woven into the fabric of everyday life: Think of the mixtape you made for your first crush, the pop star whose posters were plastered in your teenage bedroom, the album that got you through your divorce, and the jam band that followed their cross-country tour. They all provide tantalizing insights into your past – and your present -.

No wonder then that it is the best personal music writing. The writer can turn herself into a post, breaking down its subject, allowing us to see its components. Why does this song move me? She asks. Why is this band important to me? And most importantly: Why should we care? Being able to answer this last question can distinguish a good critic from a great one.

In which 1995 article Musical criticism and musical meaning, wrote musician and philosopher Patricia Herzog, “for an interpretive translation to bear conviction, must be based on intense appreciation—indeed, on love.” These six books brilliantly explore what the songs we cherish (and in one illuminating case, hate) reveal about us.


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University of Texas Press

Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to a Tribe Called QuestWritten by Hanif Abdel Raqib

Abd al-Raqib’s musical writings prove that criticism and notes are inexhaustible. his articles collections, little devil in america And the They can’t kill us until they kill usLook as closely at the productions of artists including Aretha Franklin, ScHoolboy Q, Don Shirley and Carly Rae Jepsen as they do with the author himself. Go ahead in the rain, a homage to pioneering hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest, is another shining example of this distinctive approach. As a “certainly weird” teen in the early ’90s who was forever attached to his Walkman, Abdul Raqeb fell in love with the group—especially founding member Five Dog—because he felt “that they, too, were walking a fine line of weirdness.” Even in his most introspective state, Abd al-Raqib embraces nostalgia without giving in to it, honoring the fan base experience as he is questioned. The book Ultimate Elegy: A Tribe Called Quest collapsed in 1998, and Phife Dawg passed away in 2016, after the band reunited to record their first new album in 18 years. “A group like A Tribe Called Quest will never exist again,” Abdel Raqeb wrote. with Go ahead in the rainhe was able to celebrate their accomplishments and “put them to rest”.


Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of TasteAnd the by Carl Wilson

At the start of this pivotal entry in Bloomsbury’s 33-book series (each focusing on one disc), Wilson—a critic and somewhat insatiable music lover—declares his dislike for Quebec pop singer Celine Dion. The book, he says, is an “experiment” intended to answer questions about taste, fans, and popularity using Dion’s 1997 album. Let’s talk about love as a case study. Wilson attempts to reveal the reasons for the savior’s remarkable popularity, mining philosophy, sociology, history, and his own Canadian roots. He talks to die-hard Dionne fans and even attends a presentation of her Las Vegas residency, a “multimedia extravaganza” that “convinced a few tears” from the newly divorced writer. Dion’s allure proved more complex than expected, and his investigative lines led him, by the end of the book, to examine the purpose of music criticism itself. Wilson doesn’t quite come across as a Dion convert, but he does admit that her widespread appeal is not only valid, but valuable. He concludes, “There are many ways to love music.”


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Nina Simone chewing gumWritten by Warren Ellis

In 1999, Australian musician Warren Ellis attended a show by Nina Simone. After the show, he crept onto the stage and passed a piece of gum that Simon had stuck to Steinway’s bottom. Twenty years later, Ellis’ obsession with such waste has led to the emergence of these multimedia memoirs, which blend text and images to glorify everyday objects and experiences that are “metaphysical”. In it, he recounts how he took Simon’s gum with him for a ride, wrapped it in the towel she used to wipe her forehead during the concert – a “portable shrine” – before storing it in his attic for safekeeping, and finally, making a cast of it for posterity. He describes the concert with pious enthusiasm – it was a “miracle”, “communion”, a “religious experience”. He is self-aware enough to know that his devotion is strange, but not self-aware enough to make it stifle the joy it brings him. In a screen capture and reproduced text exchange from 2019 with his friend and longtime collaborator Nick Cave, Ellis reveals that he kept the chewing gum. How replies: “You worry me sometimes.” “Haha,” Warren writes. “I think I am.”


Cover I had to think of a way to survive
University of Texas Press

I had to think of a way to survive: about trauma, perseverance, and Dolly PartonWritten by Lynn Melnick

During what she calls “the worst year of my life,” poet Melnick went to Dollywood, Dolly Parton’s theme park, Tennessee. Her journey prompted her to write I had to think of a way to survive, a memoir that puts her harrowing story into conversation with Barton’s biography—and photography. Across 21 chapters, each cleverly connected to a different song (the book’s structure alone makes it worth picking), Melnick, who claims himself as a “Dolly fan,” chronicles a life marred by drug addiction, domestic violence, and sexual assault. Along the way, she views Barton as a role model for resilience, drawing lessons from her nearly six-decade career and from interviews. It also unpacks the tensions in Parton’s hyper-feminist character, leading to a broader consideration of women’s self-determination. The writer writes with notable vulnerabilities and candor but ensures that the painful memories she often talks about do not cloud her critical outlook. She navigates gracefully between the records of confession and analysis, her prose is sharp and full of heart.


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My Pinupby Hilton Als

Ales’ ambivalence toward Prince’s changing personality drives these meager memoirs about aura, authorship, and originality. As a young man in the early ’80s, Alice admired how the singer-songwriter embodies the anomaly of black with his feminine, gender-bending prowess, and was fascinated by the way Prince mocked the rules of race, gender, and gender. To reproduce black music in his image. So he experienced a sense of betrayal on albums like 1999 And the purple rain, Prince took to tailored suits and poppy hooks. Ales writes, “It was like a bride who left me at the altar of difference to embrace the awaited.” “Can my curious heart let any of this go and be forgiven?” The parasitic relationship that Als has with Prince is a rich site for study, both on a personal level (what does it mean to feel hurt by someone you don’t know?) and a political relationship (what does it mean to give one person so much representational power?). This intrusion is finally shattered when Als is sent to meet his idol during Prince’s 2004 Musicology a tour. Here, the conflicting and complex sentiments of the book reach their climax. While they were meeting, on a whim, Prince asked Ales to write a book with him; object. “I couldn’t look at Prince,” he writes. “And I can’t look away.”


Cover of Why Solange Matters
University of Texas Press

Why Solange MattersAnd the by Stephanie Phillips

In this part of the Texas Press University’s Music Matters series, Phillips makes a compelling case for singer-songwriter Solange as one of our most important historians and their ambitions for black femininity. Phillips, a musician who plays in the black feminist punk band Big Joanie, draws heavily from her own experience navigating mostly white music spaces to trace Solange’s fraught history with – and radically challenging – the music industry. Phillips is of England and the daughter of Jamaican immigrants, which helps her illustrate Solange’s influence outside America on women across the black diaspora. Phillips analysis, for example, for When I get home, Solange’s complete poem to her hometown of Houston, shows how the artist takes advantage of and transcends cultural specificity. But it is especially appreciated for Solange’s third album “zeitgeist-shifting”, seat at the tableWhich, Phillips says, “felt like it was written especially for me” when I first heard it. She wrote, across the Atlantic, “Solange gave me space to learn to love…my eccentric black girl.”


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