Rock and Roll Book Club: Best music books of 2018


A selection of 2018's best music books.
A selection of 2018's best music books. (Jay Gabler/MPR)

From searing memoirs to magisterial histories, 2018 was a great year for music books. Here are my ten standouts from The Current's weekly Rock and Roll Book Club feature; click on each headline for a link to the full review.

10. Carol Tyler, Fab 4 Mania

An extraordinarily charming handwritten journal, inspired by and expanded from a diary Tyler kept when she was a Beatles-loving tween in the mid-1960s. Now that the Beatles are rock gods, the book is a welcome reminder that they were once mere mortals competing against Terry Stafford for the top of the charts; Tyler and her friends sang to drown out the sound of "Suspicion," then went back to their chewing gum wrapper chains.

9. Prince: Before the Rain

Insights and rare images from Allen Beaulieu, the photographer who worked closely with Prince in the first years of his career as a recording artist. It's poignant to see Prince relaxing and playing with bandmates who would leave his orbit within a few years, as Prince rose to superstardom after a movie that co-starred many of them.

8. Andrea Warner, Buffy Sainte-Marie: The Authorized Biography

Authorized biographies tend to be soapboxes, and by the time you finish this one, you'll want to stack all the boxes you can find underneath Sainte-Marie, a fascinating folk icon whose significance far beyond the music world remains underappreciated.

7. Gary Giddins, Bing Crosby: Swinging on a Star — The War Years, 1940-1946

The second volume of Giddins's authoritative Crosby biography arrived just in time for Der Bingle's seasonal omnipresence, but the reasons Crosby merits such a comprehensive treatment are manifest in this volume: he was a pivotal figure in American entertainment, and Giddins supplies the historical context that's essential to understanding Crosby's career.

6. Jason Heller, Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded

How has this juicy subject for a music book never been tackled before? Heller unpacks the pop-rock obsession with outer space, which peaked between "Space Oddity" (1969) and "Ashes to Ashes" (1980). The detail is fascinating, and Heller makes a plausible argument that the '70s marked a particularly utopian decade in human imaginings about space exploration.

5. Dessa, My Own Devices

"I don't think you can do a collection of true stories and make it interesting if you only make yourself look cool," Dessa told The Current's Andrea Swensson. "I don't have any interest in telling secrets for the telling of secrets' sake, but unless you make yourself vulnerable, then there's no stake. Why would someone care?"

4. Jeff Tweedy, Let's Go (So We Can Get Back)

Like Dessa, Jeff Tweedy knows how to give his fans exactly what they want from a memoir: it's honest, it's vulnerable, it's funny, it's not stupid-long. In a poignant passage, he remembers the inspiration for the song "Heavy Metal Drummer," a band he and his then-bandmates in Uncle Tupelo took in.

"Hanging out on the sidelines stock-still in thrift-store flannel and work boots watching the spandexed gyrations of our peers — these pimply kids with massive hair actually having a fun time and yet still convinced of our superiority. Based on what? Our inability to enjoy ourselves?"

Fortunately, that's a trick Tweedy has learned since.

3. Beastie Boys Book

We've been waiting a long time for this one...and boy, was the wait worth it. An epic 571-page doorstop, Beastie Boys Book reads like Ad-Rock and Mike D called in a favor from everyone they ever worked with, shared every story they could remember, and didn't say no to any ideas. It's a supreme service to their fans, and ultimately to themselves.

2. Bill C. Malone and Tracey E.W. Laird, Country Music USA (50th anniversary edition)

It's kind of a cheat to put this book on a best-of-2018 list, as it dates back half a century, but the new anniversary edition brings the story of country music up to date with just as much detail and insight as the origin story first published in 1968. Crucially, Malone and Laird don't set out to tell you what country music is: they treat the genre as a question that's being continually answered.

1. Lily Allen, My Thoughts Exactly

Music isn't just about music, and neither are the best music books. Lily Allen's memoir is astonishingly wide-ranging, given that she's still just 33. My Thoughts Exactly is as searing, uncompromising, and funny as Allen's lyrics — and fortunately, by word count it's a lot longer than the average album. It's revealing, it's honest, and it acknowledges the complexities of fame and music and love.

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