When we read about music, we listen to the music we read about. A good red wine in the glass, or a good cup of coffee and the music playing in the background. The artist’s catalogue (and bootlegs) should be available to us, so that when we read about a concert or a record, we can listen to exactly that music when reading. It is not always possible, but very often it is. We need to set the mood.
We don’t look at the year of release when we buy music books, but we do buy interesting new releases.
We’ve plowed through about 40 books about music this year between us, most of them old books about music history (blues, country or certain albums), these are The Five Best Music Books of 2015:
Bob Dylan All the Songs: The Story Behind Every Track
Written by Philippe Margotin and Jean-Michel Guesdon
Bob Dylan: All the Songs focuses on Dylan’s creative process and his organic, unencumbered style of recording. It is the only book to tell the stories, many unfamiliar even to his most fervent fans, behind all the 492 songs he released. Organized chronologically by album, Margotin and Guesdon recount the details that led to the composition of Dylan’s recorded songs, what went on in the recording studio, what instruments he used, and behind-the-scenes account of the great artists that Dylan worked with.
Written by Patti Smith
M Train begins in the tiny Greenwich Village café where Smith goes every morning for black coffee, ruminates on the world as it is and the world as it was, and writes in her notebook. Through prose that shifts fluidly between dreams and reality, past and present, and across a landscape of creative aspirations and inspirations, we travel to Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul in Mexico; to a meeting of an Arctic explorer’s society in Berlin; to a ramshackle seaside bungalow in New York’s Far Rockaway that Smith acquires just before Hurricane Sandy hits; and to the graves of Genet, Plath, Rimbaud, and Mishima.
Woven throughout are reflections on the writer’s craft and on artistic creation. Here, too, are singular memories of Smith’s life in Michigan and the irremediable loss of her husband, Fred Sonic Smith. She is a good author, a great artist in many fields.
Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South
Written by Charles L. Hughes
In the sound of the 1960s and 1970s, nothing symbolized the rift between black and white America better than the seemingly divided genres of country and soul. Yet the music emerged from the same songwriters, musicians, and producers in the recording studios of Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee, and Muscle Shoals, Alabama–what Charles L. Hughes calls the “country-soul triangle.” In legendary studios like Stax and FAME, integrated groups of musicians like Booker T. and the MGs and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section produced music that both challenged and reconfirmed racial divisions in the United States. Working with artists from Aretha Franklin to Willie Nelson, these musicians became crucial contributors to the era’s popular music and internationally recognized symbols of American racial politics in the turbulent years of civil rights protests, Black Power, and white backlash.
Hughes offers a provocative reinterpretation of this key moment in American popular music and challenges the conventional wisdom about the racial politics of southern studios and the music that emerged from them. Drawing on interviews and rarely used archives, Hughes brings to life the daily world of session musicians, producers, and songwriters at the heart of the country and soul scenes. In doing so, he shows how the country-soul triangle gave birth to new ways of thinking about music, race, labor, and the South in this pivotal period.
Essential for music history buffs.
Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink (Deluxe Kindle Edition with Audio/Video)
Written by Elvis Costello
The memoir provides readers with a master’s catalogue of a lifetime of great music. Costello reveals the process behind writing and recording legendary albums like My Aim Is True, This Year’s Model, Armed Forces, Almost Blue, Imperial Bedroom, and King of America. He tells the detailed stories, experiences, and emotions behind such beloved songs as “Alison,” “Accidents Will Happen,” “Watching the Detectives,” “Oliver’s Army,” “Welcome to the Working Week,” “Radio Radio,” “Shipbuilding,” and “Veronica,” the last of which is one of a number of songs revealed to connect to the lives of the previous generations of his family.
Costello recounts his collaborations with George Jones, Chet Baker, and T Bone Burnett, and writes about Allen Toussaint’s inspiring return to work after the disasters following Hurricane Katrina. He describes writing songs with Paul McCartney, the Brodsky Quartet, Burt Bacharach, and The Roots during moments of intense personal crisis and profound sorrow. He shares curious experiences in the company of The Clash, Tony Bennett, The Specials, Van Morrison, and Aretha Franklin; writing songs for Solomon Burke and Johnny Cash; and touring with Bob Dylan; along with his appreciation of the records of Frank Sinatra, David Bowie, David Ackles, and almost everything on the Tamla Motown label.
The Deluxe kindle edition features two hundred additional photos and images, including more from Costello’s original lyrics notebooks and a selection of his family’s most intriguing documents and vintage photographs. Pages from his father’s scrapbooks from the early ‘50s Merseyside jazz scene are contrasted with a ledger of set lists and meager fees from the author’s early musical partnership in Rusty on the Liverpool club scene and other mementoes from Costello’s musical apprenticeship. There are numerous candid shots of the artist and his collaborators, both on stage and behind the scenes, along with a touching collection of signatures, mostly dedicated to the young Declan MacManus in his autograph book from the 1960s. Over an hour of excerpts from the audio edition are also featured, including several wonderful anecdotes that were ultimately omitted from the book. These additions serve to enrich the story of an incredible life in music, phenomenally well told. This is the one to get!
Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll
Written by Peter Guralnick
Rock ‘n’ roll was born in rural Alabama, 1923, in the form of Sam Phillips, the youngest son of a large family living in a remote colony called the Lovelace Community. His father had a gift for farming, which was brought to an end by the Depression. His mother picked guitar and showed the kind of forbearance that allowed her to name her son after the doctor who delivered him drunk and then had to be put to bed himself. And yet from these unprepossessing origins, in 1951 Phillips made what is widely considered to be the first rock ‘n’ roll record, Ike Turner and Jackie Brenston’s ‘Rocket 88’.
Just two years later a shy eighteen-year-old kid with sideburns, fresh out of high school, wandered into his recording studio to make a record ‘for his mother’, secretly hoping that it might somehow get him noticed. His name was Elvis Presley. Elvis’s success, and the subsequent triumph of rock ‘n’ roll, was initially propelled to an almost astonishing degree by a limited number of releases by Carl ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis – all from this tiny, one-man label.
An engaging mix of biography and anecdote, Peter Guralnick’s book brilliantly recreates one shining moment in the history of popular culture. And Sam Phillips was the man who brought it all about.
Another essential read for music history buffs.
– Egil & Hallgeir