It’s been a bad year for—well, for most things. But it’s been a good year for books about music, and here are five that’ll introduce you to music you’ll be glad you heard and that’ll teach you something new about the music you think you already know.
Look closely and you’ll see that most of these books originated with university presses. But none are written for an exclusively academic audience—they’re either the work of journalists or critics, or of academics who’ve already written plenty for a broader readership.
Geffen (Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, NPR) sorts through more than a half-century of pop history, from the Beatles’ shaggy-haired “woo”s through the more explicitly genderfluid electronic music of today, uncovering how performers—some world famous, some creating within smaller scenes—have consistently upended gender conventions.
This University of Virginia historian’s study of the college town that gave the world the B-52s and R.E.M. is part memoir, part ethnography, and part celebration of a cultural ideal. Hale looks at how Athens redefined the idea of a regional music scene, allowed for looser definitions of gender and sexuality, negotiated art and commerce, and ducked the question of race.
That grand title sets up a challenging project that Lordi, a professor at Vanderbilt who’s also written for the New Yorker and NPR. never shirks from—what is soul, that oft-invoked but definition-evading element of African-American culture, and how is it enacted through performance? Few cultural theorists listen to music this well or joyfully; few critics place their judgments and pleasures within as persuasive a theoretical framework.
Grandmaster Flash reconfiguring the past through his selection of breaks. Prince Paul expanding the possibilities of hip-hop production. Dr. Dre’s move toward live instrumentation. Madlib creating an underground world of his own. Focusing on the work of these four figures, Patrin (a former City Pages staffer and contributor who’s also written regularly for Pitchfork and Stereogum) synthesizes an incredible amount of information as he uncovers nuances in a story you might think you already know by heart. Essential.
The brightly colored illustrations and irreverent tone let you know that Sherman has no interest in seeking validation of a genre she adores from arbiters of respectability. Instead, she proves that criticism that can thoughtfully speak the language of pop fans and that a true history of a pop phenomenon should also be entertaining. And funny.