My Favorite Music Books
Hey everyone. I have a 3,000-word Patreon piece coming out next Friday about The Blood Brothers that I am very excited about. In the meantime, I’ve been thinking a lot about one of my favorite things about writing about music: reading other people writing about music. Music writing is interesting because there’s such a careful balance of the personal and the critical; there are those writers whose faculties tip into one side more than the other, obviously, but I often find that my favorite music writing happens when the writer is trying to do one thing and the other— accidentally or otherwise— peeks through when you least expect it. That being said, there’s a really wide variety of kinds of writing about music that you can do. I wanted to talk about some of my favorite books that plumb those depths.
Our Band Could Be Your Life by Michael Azerrad. I’ve got pretty much no choice but to start with what’s probably my favorite book on music ever written. There’s a very good chance that without this book, you wouldn’t be reading this very newsletter. No matter how long I’ve been writing about music, I don’t know that I’m ever going to stop feeling like I’m ripping off Azerrad’s writing (badly, I might add). His strength, more than anything else, is as a historian, but that sense of warm matter-of-fact pervades his prose about the music as well. He’s crystal-clear, poetic when he needs to be, and never too sentimental. This book is 21 years old and still feels just as vital as it ever did.
Go Ahead In the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest by Hanif Abdurraqib. The first time I read this book, I ripped through it hungrily in a matter of hours. The subject matter— focused mainly around the legendary jazz-rap group A Tribe Called Quest, broadly an exploration of 90s hip-hop, and really both are used as frameworks for all sorts of interesting memories and musings— was compelling on its face, but upon future rereads, it became rapidly apparent that Abdurraqib’s prose was what kept me coming back. The key is how conversational he is. He writes like you’re already friends, like you already know what he’s talking about; that’s a very sneaky way of making it extremely digestible as he feeds you boatloads of information. This is especially refreshing since a lot of books published about hip-hop tend to be dry and clinical even when they aren’t explicitly academic (see Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop). Even if you’re like me and this text is exploring an era of rap you’re already very familiar with, I guarantee there are enough historical tidbits and flashes of insight to warrant picking this one up. Rigorously researched and casually accessible, fascinating and thoughtfully written. Abdurraqib has several other books (including some great essay collections— his pieces on The Wonder Years and My Chemical Romance are all-timers), but this is the material of his that I return to most often.
Everybody Hurts by Leslie Simon & Trevor Kelley; Wish You Were Here by Leslie Simon. I am grouping these two together because they really feel like extensions of each other, but also because they somehow manage to be extremely funny and extremely accurate taxonomies of a very specific point in time. Now that we’re 15 years removed, these books are really showing their age in the very snark-heavy prose style and subject matter (not to mention the Rob Dobi illustrations), but given that it’s leavened with a significant amount of affection, I would say that snark was exactly the right approach someone needed to take to write about the Youth Culture of the time. There are some jokes in these books that still make me laugh. I know they look like out-of-touch examinations of the MTVmo Age, but both secretly go really, really deep. (The Chicago band family tree and the Long Island chapter in Wish You Were Here attest to that.)
New Brunswick, New Jersey, Goodbye by Ronen Kauffman. The genre of “punk musician writes nostalgic autobiography that doubles as a snapshot of a pre-internet scene and era that is now lost forever” is incredibly saturated, but this is one of my personal favorites for how granular it is, and how much it appeals to my interests specifically. This book focuses mainly on the mid-late 90s New Jersey hardcore scene, and in addition to introducing me to historically important, incredibly overlooked bands like try.fail.try and the Degenerics, there are some really interesting tidbits here about big bands like Thursday, Saves the Day, and Lifetime as well. Kauffman isn’t the most technically accomplished writer, but he is compulsively readable and this book is positively filled to the brim with intriguing and funny anecdotes. I mostly read this book hanging out in my grandma’s living room and that seems like the perfect conditions for this sort of cozy read.
Burning Fight by Brian Peterson. This book, for a long time, was the only valid examination of the 90s hardcore scene. Back when everything was marketed towards boomer nostalgia rather than Gen X nostalgia, the best tome on hardcore history was Stephen Blush’s American Hardcore, which put a hard and fast cap on hardcore at 1986, and that was dispiriting for obvious reasons. This book is a very straightforward oral history, but what made it special was the people and era it made an effort to showcase, and it will always stick with me because of that. One thing I find very amusing about it is that the personalities come through very strongly; this book always made me assume that Jes from Coalesce was a total freak, but I think that might be because he clearly answered questions via email rather than in person. Apologies for the lack of a link; unfortunately, this book seems to currently be out of print, and the cheapest it’s going for is $45 used on Amazon.
Post by Eric Grubbs. The best way I can describe this book is “Our Band Could Be Your Life for the 90s and early 2000s.” It does a phenomenal job of analyzing exactly how that era of music developed and the endlessly intriguing way it impacted 2000s popular music and culture. What’s most interesting about this book is that I don’t think it was written with the backing of a book deal, which means that all the research and interviews were done completely independently and out of love; I can’t think of a better metaphor for what this era of music is like. On the fundamental writing level, Grubbs is studious and meticulous without ever getting too “in the weeds”; in other words, he does a great job of sweating the small stuff without ever making you feel like he’s sweating the small stuff. And his descriptions of the music itself just make you want to put the records on immediately.
Ego Trip’s Book of Rap Lists. If you’ve never heard of Ego Trip magazine, it was a 90s rap magazine that also went to painstaking lengths to examine underground culture of all stripes, including punk/hardcore, skating, and graffiti; this is probably owing to the work of editor Sacha Jenkins, a stalwart historian of pretty much all New York counterculture in addition to a bitingly funny authorial voice. This book, obviously, is predominantly focused on rap, and like the magazine itself, it is as exhaustive as it is unique and funny. The staff of Ego Trip is one of the most knowledgeable to ever do it, and they get In the Weeds on this one. The tagline on the back— “Ego Trip’s Book of Rap Lists is more popular than racism!”— is all you need to know about this book’s irreverent, caustic, and loving tone.
From the Graveyard of the Arousal Industry by Justin Pearson. Last but not least, I’d like to highlight the memoirs of Swing Kids/Locust/Three One G madman Justin Pearson. In terms of subject matter, this is basically the West Coast hardcore version of New Brunswick New Jersey Goodbye, but it’s elevated by Pearson’s prose, which is as lucid as it is revealing. There’s no shortage of fascinating historical detritus here— including the very beginning of the book, about the Halloween murder of Pearson’s father, and a particularly funny passage detailing Circle Takes the Square’s attempts to get signed to Pearson’s label by lighting a baggie of dog shit on fire on his porch— and even if you aren’t a huge fan of his music, it’s an illuminating, funny, and breezy read.
That’s it for this round. I had to resist including compilations of perszines here, or else I would have spent wayyy too long talking about Al Burian’s Burn Collector, which is my personal favorite zine of all time. Hopefully you find something of value here, and I hope everyone is having a wonderful week. I’ll see you next time with way too many words about The Blood Brothers.
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