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21 Great Books About Music From 2015

You’re in for some great reading, whether you want to explore the history of hip-hop and EDM, learn about how music piracy exploded in the '00s, or read memoirs by female rock legends.

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1. How Music Got Free by Stephen Witt

Viking/Penguin Random House

Stephen Witt’s masterfully reported book tells the story of exactly how music piracy worked in the ‘00s, tracing the rise and fall of the people who created peer-to-peer communities, the competition between gangs of rival pirate groups to leak hot records before anyone else, and a CD manufacturing plant employee who was the source of a staggering number of high-profile album leaks.

2. Real Life Rock by Greil Marcus

Yale University Press

This book collects all of music critic legend Greil Marcus's "Real Life Rock Top Ten" columns published between 1986 and 2014 in the Village Voice, Artforum, Salon, City Pages, Interview, and The Believer. This is a truly amazing body of work, with Marcus delivering insightful thoughts on a wide range of topics, including books, movies, art shows, concerts, spam emails, and, more than anything else, music. This is essential reading for anyone interested in critical writing.

3. The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic by Jessica Hopper

Featherproof Books

The title is not a lie, which is pretty depressing. This book collects Jessica Hopper's work over the past decade or so, including essential pieces about the misogyny of the emo scene in the early 2000s, the way the public mostly ignored R. Kelly's alleged sex abuse scandals, and how indie musicians have survived by teaming up with the ad world.

4. Schubert's Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession by Ian Bostridge

Knopf

Ian Bostridge’s book is a comprehensive interpretation of Franz Schubert’s Winterreise, delving into the song cycle’s literary, historical, and psychological themes. Bostridge is a scholar, but also an accomplished singer with an intimate knowledge of the work in question, having performed the piece over 100 times.

5. The Rap Year Book by Shea Serrano and Arturo Torres

Abrams Image

Shea Serrano, illustrator Arturo Torres, and a who’s who of guest rap critics tell the story of hip-hop’s evolution by writing about the most crucial rap song of each year from 1979 through 2014. It’s smart, funny, and highly contentious.

6. Here She Comes Now: Women in Music Who Have Changed Our Lives, edited by Jeff Gordinier and Marc Weingarten

Rare Bird

The editors of this book may be men, but this is a book entirely comprised of thoughtful essays about iconic female musicians by talented women such as Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Susan Choi, Rosie Schaap, Kate Christensen, and Elissa Schappell.

7. Freedom of Choice by Evie Nagy

33 1/3

Evie Nagy’s meticulously researched book about Devo’s third album features brand new interviews with the surviving members of the group, and tells the story of how one of rock’s strangest bands broke through to the mainstream.

8. The Underground Is Massive by Michaelangelo Matos

Dey St

Michaelangelo Matos’s book is the definitive history of electronic dance music, tracing a lineage from ‘80s house and techno to rave music in the ‘90s and the massively successful EDM of the ’00s. Matos’s history is just as much about the artists as the social scenes built around the music, as well as the drugs notoriously associated with the culture.

9. The Birth of Rock and Roll by Jim Linderman

Dust-to-Digital

This coffee table book features images from Jim Linderman’s extensive collection of photographs from the early history of rock ’n’ roll in the 1930s and ‘40s, as music rooted in gospel and vaudeville took new forms at after-hours clubs and juke joints.

10. Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon

Dey St.

Sonic Youth bassist and feminist punk icon Kim Gordon has always been known as an aloof type, but her memoir is surprisingly open and often rather blunt in how she discusses her varied career in the arts, offers dismissive words about artists like Lana Del Rey and Courtney Love, and details the painful dissolution of her long marriage to bandmate Thurston Moore.

11. MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson by Steve Knopper

Scribner

Michael Jackson's story is well known, but journalist Steve Knopper's meticulously researched book avoids sensationalism and hyperbole to create a rich, fair-minded portrait of Jackson and his unique artistry.

12. Ola Belle Reed and Southern Mountain Music on the Mason-Dixon Line

Dust-to-Digital

This book and double-CD set examines the life and music of Ola Belle Reed, an Appalachian folk musician with a deep repertoire of ballads, minstrel songs, and country standards. The book tells Reed’s story and lays out a history of how communities from the Blue Ridge Mountains migrated toward the Mason-Dixon Line just before World War II.

13. Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein

Riverhead Books/Penguin Random House

Carrie Brownstein may be more famous as an actor in Portlandia and Transparent these days, but that’s barely mentioned in her first memoir, which almost exclusively focuses on her early life and her career with the iconic punk band Sleater-Kinney. Brownstein, who has some experience as a critic, is at her best when she’s dissecting the music made by herself and others, and offers some of the most insightful critical writing ever published on the topic of her bandmates Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss.

14. The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory by John Seabrook

W. W. Norton & Company

John Seabrook, a staff writer at the New Yorker, explores the creative methods behind the creation of contemporary pop hits, and his reporting offers insight into how expert producers like Max Martin, Ester Dean, and Stargate create music with major stars like Britney Spears, Katy Perry, and Rihanna.

15. Back to the Fifties by Michael D. Dwyer

Oxford University Press

Mike Dwyer’s book makes a case for a continuous cycle of nostalgia in American culture that began in the 1980s, as the conservatism of the Reagan years and postmodern art movements resulted in an a cultural obsession with — and historical revision of — the 1950s in film and music.

16. I'll Never Write My Memoirs by Grace Jones

Simon & Schuster

Grace Jones' memoir is exactly as frank and fabulous as you'd hope, particularly when she's telling stories about her glamorous life as a Studio 54 regular in the '70s and a leftfield pop star in the '80s.

17. Censorship Now!! by Ian F. Svenonius

Akashic Books

Ian Svenonius is best known as the frontman of bands like the Make-Up and Nation of Ulyssses, but he’s also a brilliant cultural critic with a talent for coming up with the hottest takes you’ll ever read. In this collection, Svenonius makes compelling arguments in favor of censorship and hoarding books and records, amid polemics against Apple and Ikea, the yuppification of indie rock, and the shaving of pubic hair.

18. Good Night and Good Riddance by David Cavanagh

Faber

David Cavanagh’s book tells the story of John Peel, the British radio DJ who may be the single most influential tastemaker in the history of the UK, and, really, the world at large.

19. Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink by Elvis Costello

Blue Rider Press/Penguin Random House

Reading Elvis Costello's memoir — or better yet, listening to the audiobook version, which he reads himself — is like living out a fantasy of having him regale you with stories about his life and career over many, many drinks. Costello is just as witty and thoughtful as you'd expect, but his stories often follow surprising tangents.

20. Dylan Goes Electric! by Elijah Wald

Dey St

There is no shortage of books about Bob Dylan, and plenty of writing about the pivotal moment he “went electric” at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, but Elijah Wald’s heavily researched book manages to offer new information and unique insight into the social context of this controversial moment in music history.

21. Selling Digital Music, Formatting Culture by Jeremy Wade Morris

University of California Press

Jeremy Wade Morris, an academic from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, tells the story of how recorded music transitioned from CDs to digital files, and how the market — and music itself — responded to this shift.

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