18 Must-Read Books for Music Lovers
If you’re a music lover, there’s no doubt you consume music books as voraciously as you do streaming services, vinyl and concert tickets (and maybe even music-related artwork). While you’re busy making epic new playlists for all your summer parties, make sure to put these essential music books — spanning pop, hip hop, jazz , punk, country and classic rock — on your must-read list for the summer. After all, if we’ve learned anything from watching VH1 the past two decades, it’s that the stories behind the music are just as interesting as the songs themselves.
1. Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys. A Memoir ($21): Well, the title already has us interested. In this memoir, the guitarist and songwriter of the groundbreaking punk band The Slits gives insight into life as a pre-Riot Grrrl female musician in 1970s London.
2. Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove ($19): He’s the Roots’ drummer, Jimmy Fallon bandleader and master Tweet writer. However you know Questlove, this meandering memoir is a fascinating account of his early years in Philly, his many celebrity run-ins and his philosophies on music and culture.
3. How It Feels to Be Free: Black Women Entertainers and the Civil Rights Movement ($26): Take a look at what it meant to be an African-American performer in the ’60s through this exploration of controversial (and legendary) jazz artists Nina Simone and Lena Horne, and several other groundbreaking African-American music, TV and film stars whose lives intersected during the tumultuous Civil Rights Movement.
4. Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation ($13): This hip-hop history book traces the music — and how its politics, community and effect on American culture has evolved alongside it — all the way back to its early roots in ’60s Jamaica, and its birth in the Bronx in the ’70s. This is a must-read for anyone who is as interested in the cultural implications of hip-hop as they are in the records.
5. Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe ($11): Bobbie Gentry’s 1967 song “Ode to Billie Joe,” a sultry, frank ballad about teenage suicide, knocked the Beatles off the charts and made her a superstar. Murtha’s book, part of Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series, delves into the captivatingly mysterious tune and explores Gentry’s disappearance from public life in the early ’80s.
6. Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story ($14): For three weeks, Klosterman embarked on a 6,000-mile-plus road trip visiting some of music’s most famous (and morbid) death sites, such as the swamp where Lynyrd Skynyrd’s plane went down and the location of Kurt Cobain’s suicide. Along the way, he has a lot of revelations about love, life, music and death. Oh, and he eats a lot of Cracker Barrel.
7. Lady Sings the Blues ($11): Who better to tell Holiday’s story than the jazz singer herself? This autobiography (reissued for its 50th anniversary) is a no-holds-barred look at her experiences with poverty, fame, racism and the heroin addiction that ultimately ended her life at age 44.
8. Songbook ($12): Here, the High Fidelity and About a Boy author compiles and analyzes the songs that have shaped his life — from Nelly Furtado’s “I’m Like a Bird” to Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” — in a sort of literary mixtape that will have you pondering your own musical loves.
9. Just Kids ($9): Via profound prose, larger-than-life artist Smith brings to light her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in late ’60s/early ’70s Chelsea.
10. This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession ($9): Ever wonder why you’re attracted to certain sounds, or why the music of your teenage years always hit you on such an emotional level? This book explains the theories behind it all.
11. Wonderful Tonight: George Harrison, Eric Clapton and Me ($11): Boyd married George Harrison right when Beatle-mania had first hit. Her behind-the-scenes look at the ascent of the four lads from Liverpool, as well as her own experience as a model in ’60s-era London and her later marriage to Harrison’s friend Eric Clapton (she’s the Layla in “Layla”), prove that fame isn’t always glamorous — nor is it always fun.
12. Elvis and Me ($8): You could spend a lifetime — or at least a summer — reading Elvis books. But this one, written by his ex-wife Priscilla, goes beyond the rumors and gives a warts-and-all account of their odd relationship and The King’s drug dependencies, idiosyncrasies and insecurities.
13. Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Pop Music from Bill Haley to Beyoncé ($23): Who run the world? Pop stars. Stanley traces the history of catchy music from 1954 through Bey and J’s 2003 hit “Crazy in Love.”
14. Girl in a Band: A Memoir ($19): She’s not just Thurston Moore’s former other half — Gordon is a visual artist, a mom, a feminist trailblazer, a fashion icon and a pillar of the post-punk music world. She finally opens up about all of it (as well as Sonic Youth’s early days) in this must-read memoir.
15. I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon ($13): This biography (which the “Werewolves of London” singer had implored his ex-wife Crystal to write, including “even the awful, ugly parts”), pieces together journal entries, anecdotes and exhaustive interviews with Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne and more, painting a cohesive picture of a chaotic, philandering man.
16. There Goes Gravity: A Life in Rock and Roll ($11): Robinson, a legendary music journalist, has spent four decades with the likes of David Bowie, John Lennon and Led Zeppelin. And she did it all as one of the only women in a predominantly male industry, which makes her stories even more fascinating.
17. The History of Rock and Roll in 10 Songs ($21): Bypassing the usual subjects, the Lipstick Traces author and renowned cultural critic chronicles the history of rock through a series of heartfelt essays on songs by artists like Joy Division and Etta James.
18. Cassette from My Ex: Stories and Soundtracks of Lost Loves ($1): It used to be that a mixtape was the way to a girl’s (or guy’s) heart. In this compilation, six musicians and writers tell the love stories behind the (painstakingly curated) cassettes of their youth.
What are your favorite music books? Will you be putting any of these on your summer reading list?