Questlove’s memoir is basically like listening to the world’s smartest, coolest music nerd hold court for hours on end. He fills you in on his backstory, but he’s so deep into music that pretty much every moment in his life is connected to an insight into the music of the moment, or his experiences with some of the greatest musicians of the past three decades. You need this book if just to read his hilarious anecdote about going ice skating with Prince.
Autobiography is exactly what you’d want from a Morrissey memoir — page after page of florid language, pithy wit, and merciless bile directed at pretty much everyone who has ever wronged him. The best surprise of the book is realizing how much love and respect he has for the musicianship of his former bandmates in The Smiths. The same cannot be said for Rough Trade founder Geoff Travis, who he slags at every opportunity, to the point that it seems like a running joke.
3. Sounds Like London: 100 Years of Black Music in the Capital by Lloyd Bradley
Lloyd Bradley tells the rich, complicated story of black music in England in Sounds Like London, starting with jazz in the World War I era on through blues, reggae, R&B, and hip-hop. It’s a remarkably thorough book, and sheds light on dozens of obscure but hugely influential artists.
Full disclosure: Rob Sheffield is a friend of mine. But if you read his third book, Turn Around Bright Eyes, or either of the two memoirs that preceded it, you will come away feeling like Rob is your friend too. The book alternates between Rob’s funny and insightful observations about karaoke and the story of his romance with his second wife, a karaoke-loving goth scientist named Ally. Rob’s voice is so casual and effortlessly witty that he constantly leaves you feeling blind-sided by the moments when he’s either blowing your mind with a new way of thinking about artists like Neil Diamond or Rod Stewart, or making you tear up with some of the most moving arguments in favor of being a devoted husband you’re ever going to read.
Mark Kurlansky uses the Motown classic “Dancing in the Street” as the focal point for a wide-ranging story about the Civil Rights movement in the summer of 1964. It might seem like a simple song about dancing, but Kurlansky unpacks its subtext and examines its context in ways that reveal it to be one of the most culturally important songs of its era.
6. Everything’s Coming Up Profits: The Golden Age of Industrial Musicals by Steve Young and Sport Murphy
Steve Young and Sport Murphy’s book is a celebration of musicals written and produced exclusively for corporations and designed to serve as internal propaganda to boost morale among employees. It’s often hilarious — a lot of these musicals are completely absurd — but also a fascinating glimpse into the bizarre excesses of American companies during prosperous times.
Neil Powell’s fascinating biography of the legendary composer Benjamin Britten reveals the troubled personal life of a man who was best known for his consummate professionalism and composure. Powell examines Britten’s body of work while shedding light on his personal struggles and life as a closeted gay man.
Bob Stanley’s massive, ambitious Yeah Yeah Yeah tells the story of modern pop from the introduction of the first British pop chart in 1952 on through the mid-’90s, covering a number of cultural sea changes along the way. Stanley gives a lot of space to the major icons, but also gives plenty of attention to the bubblegum acts, novelty hits, and flash-in-the-pan artists who define the pop sensibility.
The rivalry of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones through the ’60s may seem like a tired topic, but it’s fresh and compelling in the hands of John McMillian. He peels away a lot of the conventional wisdom around the Beatles/Stones dichotomy and reveals the ways the actual lives of the bands differed from their images, and how much the bands and their managers played off each other to establish their brands.
Alan Light’s book tells the long, complicated story of “Hallelujah,” a song by Leonard Cohen that unexpectedly grew to become a modern standard. Light digs deep into the song’s history, with a special emphasis on Jeff Buckley, the musician who arguably created the definitive version of the song.
Bun B and Shea Serrano’s coloring book full of playful illustrations of rap stars is both a fun novelty and a genuinely heartfelt tribute to the larger than life personas of hip-hop culture. You may want to buy two copies — one to color, and one to keep fresh and new.
Richard Hell’s memoir is a vivid look back on the storied New York punk scene of the late ’70s and early ’80s. The book is full of first-hand details about the CBGB era, but it’s at its best when Hell is simply telling you incredible stories about his wild youth.
William Todd Schultz’s rigorously researched biography of the late Elliott Smith offers the deepest, most informative look into the singer-songwriter’s tortured life. The book also examines the mystery of his death by a stab wound to the chest, which many suspect to be foul play rather than a suicide.
14. Creation Stories: Riots, Raves, and Running A Label by Alan McGee
Creation Records founder Alan McGee tells his story of his label’s heyday in this memoir, touching on his role in the success of classic British alt-rock bands like My Bloody Valentine, Ride, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Primal Scream, and Oasis. It’s an incredible behind-the-scenes account of one of the most creative and hedonistic eras of British rock culture.