No list concerning music books could ever be definitive. There's simply far too many writers, artists and genres one could choose to explore: everything from the better autobiographies (say, Bob Dylan's Chronicles or Miles Davis' Miles) and top tier hip-hop books (like Book of Rap Lists) to jazz guides (The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings) and theory-heavy gems (Celine Dion's Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste).
However, there's no question that the following five picks are anything short of essential reading, especially for those of us for whom music is more than just a casual means of entertainment. These are books that have followed me for years, works that I return to time and time again. It's my sincerest hope that you find as much inspiration in these words as I have.
Generation Ecstasy/ Energy Flash - Simon Reynolds
Generation Ecstasy (or Energy Flash as it's called across the pond) is the book on dance music. Almost academically detailed, Generation Ecstasy traces modern house/techno/rave to their origins in disco, Kraftwerk, funk and beyond. Specifically, the book outlines the role MDMA played in the history of these musics, and how experience, not meaning, is the key to understanding how they function: "For the critic [electronic dance music] requires a shift of emphasis, so that you no longer ask what the music 'means' but how it works...Where rock relates an experience (autobiographical of imaginary), rave constructs an experience." Purchase here
Words and Music - Paul Morley Certainly one of the more unorthodox books on music, Words and Music, by famed NME rock critic and musician Paul Morley, is a highly personal, narrative-style work that re-imagines the history of music as a surreal tale of magic cities, record lists and immortal personas. The prose is purple but not pretentious (well, mostly not), the story is deliciously illogical and exhilarating, and the historical content is as vast as it is unbiased: classical, hip hop, radio pop, rock, metal, jazz and blues all find a place. While it's certainly not the most organized treatment (rather, it's atypically non-linear), its approach is unquestionably one of the most fascinating. Here, Morley makes a strong case that the only way to tackle the paradoxical nature of music is by drawing new paradoxes of your own. Who thought John Cage, Missy Elliot and Elvis Presley could all get along so well? Purchase here
Further reading: Ask: The Chatter of Pop
Ocean of Sound - David Toop
Following his in-depth discourse on hip-hop (Rap Attack), essayist/artist David Toop widened his scope with the devastating Ocean of Sound. A web of interviews, memories and surgical analysis, Ocean of Sound is musicology scholarship masked as accessible criticism. Though the content is vast, Toop pays special attention to left field visionaries like Claude Debussy, Joe Meek and Sun Ra. Especially rewarding are Toop's interviews with dub legend Lee "Scratch" Perry and film/sound auteur David Lynch. Here, Toop shows why he's one of the most brilliant minds in music today. Purchase here
Further reading: Haunted Weather
Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader - Lester Bangs (Edited by John Morthland)
As arguably the greatest music journalist of all time, Lester Bangs transcended the music critic label; he more closely resembled literary figures like Bukowski and Hunter S. Thompson than he did other critics. With an uncompromising contempt for received opinion and shotgun-like prose, he forever etched his name across the minds of would-be music writers and musicians alike. Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung gets all the credit, but Mainlines is actually the better collection.
While the former contains some of the late critic's best interviews and live reviews, the latter sees Bangs' addressing a far richer spectrum of musicians. Iconoclasts including Brian Eno, David Byrne, Bob Dylan, John Lydon, Patti Smith, Captain Beefheart and Miles Davis all receive the infamous Bangs' chopping block treatment. Highlights include the masterful unwinding of Nico's Marble Index, a surprisingly intimate interview with Captain Beefheart and a frightening consideration of Davis' dark electronic period. Purchase here
Further reading: Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung
The Big Book of Woe - Woebot (foreword by Simon Reynolds)
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The godfather of all music bloggers, Woebot (real name: Matthew Ingram) remains one of the most prolific and original voices to rise from music criticism. During the latter half of the '00s, the writer/musician's one-man blog rivaled every print and non-print magazine on the planet. In fact, at the time, his knowledge and rare ability to connect referential dots was matched only by his contemporary, friend and defacto chief of pop criticism Simon Reynolds.
After a white-hot run lasting nearly a decade, Woebot hung it up, subsequently deleting his catalog of writing in its entirety. For years, his seminal writings were lost; impossibly, not one online avenue led back to his copy. It had vanished. Later, Ingram became something of a critical darling in British experimental music, releasing a series of art-heavy recordings that revealed a unique sonic voice as well. In 2013, a thousand prayers were answered when Ingram collected, edited and released his deleted postings as a voluminous Amazon ebook: The Big Book of Woe.
Highly readable, witty and exhaustive in its breadth, The Big Book of Woe is, in so many ways, the music geek's bible, discussing everything from 'ardkore and musique concrete to prog, post-punk and avant-garde jazz. At roughly 1,000 pages, The Big Book of Woe is not only one of the most comprehensive tomes available, but also one of the most economically satisfying. Purchase here
Further reading: Check out Woebot's brilliant top 100 list here