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Best music books of 2021

Six of Jay Gabler's favorite music books of 2021.
Six of Jay Gabler's favorite music books of 2021.Jay Gabler/MPR
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by Jay Gabler

December 30, 2021

From moving memoirs to fascinating essays, 2021 saw a wealth of riches for music-loving bookworms. Here are my ten favorite titles we covered for The Current’s Rock and Roll Book Club.

10. Where the Devil Don't Stay: Traveling the South with the Drive-By Truckers

Stephen Deusner’s place-rooted history of this restless Americana band helps bring the South into focus. What does it mean to be a Southern rock band when you’re actively seeking to challenge the narrative of white supremacy that’s historically flavored the genre?

9. Levon: From Down in the Delta to the Birth of the Band and Beyond

A lot of music biographies round the bases and fill out the facts without giving you a sense of who the artists actually were as human beings. Sandra B. Tooze’s book is a happy exception, making a vivid argument for Levon Helm as the Band’s heartbeat as well as its soul.

8. Broken Horses

Of course Brandi Carlile’s memoir is excellent. Broken Horses is squarely in her tradition of candor and courage. “Her book will inspire a new generation of women in music,” I wrote in my April review, “and will be particularly meaningful for her fellow LGBTQ artists. She renders her life story with the eloquence and sincerity that will be very familiar to any fans who've followed her extraordinary career as a singer-songwriter.”

7. 33⅓: Duran Duran’s Rio

Even more so than Stephen Davis’s band biography that came out around the same time, Annie Zaleski’s 33⅓ book about Duran Duran’s Rio establishes the importance of a significant band who were unfairly dismissed in their prime. It’s not their fault they were born beautiful.

6. Why Solange Matters

This University of Texas Press series has a strong premise, and among its titles released to date none has done a better job of fulfilling its mandate than Stephanie Phillips’s tribute to this dynamic artist. “Solange,” Phillips writes, “truly is the embodiment of Black girl freedom that Black women spend a lifetime striving to achieve.”

5. Changes: An Oral History of Tupac Shakur

The words “oral history” tend to inspire a sense of dread among those of us who’ve read a lot of them: too often, they’re unreadable info dumps. In this case, though, Sheldon Pearce has crafted an intimate portrait of a hip-hop icon as seen by those who knew him best: wildly creative, inspiring yet imperfect, a work in process. “If young folks could connect not to who Tupac was but the process that he was going through,” says scholar Mark Anthony Neal in Changes, “that would actually bring them closer to who he is.”

4. Woody Guthrie: Songs and Art * Words and Wisdom

I opened this book with modest expectations, and closed it with a transformed understanding of who Woody Guthrie was. Edited with love and precision by Guthrie’s daughter Nora and scholar Robert Santelli, Songs and Art * Words and Wisdom takes a 360-degree look at a fascinating American life and a profoundly influential artist.

3. The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music

Dave Grohl found absolutely the right theme for his memoir, which is full of fantastic stories told by a guy who remains almost absurdly relatable despite being one of the world’s biggest rock stars. Fortunately, it seems that every time something like being told by the Secret Service not to pee in the White House bushes (“there are people in the bushes”) happened, Grohl knew to squirrel it away for the book he’d write someday.

2. A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance

Acclaimed writer Hanif Abdurraquib hit a new high with this wide-ranging, impassioned reflection on African American music, dance, and other forms of performance. To touch on just a few topics, he highlights the pathos of a blackface performance at Ronald Reagan’s inauguration; the complexities of Whitney Houston’s mixed reception at the Soul Train Music Awards; and the joy of Don Cornelius making a rare personal appearance in the Soul Train line. It’s an essential read about art, race, and American life.

1. Crying in H Mart

In a deflating year for the music community, which came roaring back to life only to find itself enduring another tide of Covid cancellations, Michelle Zauner brought a spark of life and hope - ironically, with a book about mourning as well as with her luminous new album aptly titled Jubilee. Crying in H Mart became a breakout success as the year’s most acclaimed memoir, a piercing reflection on Zauner’s relationship with her late mother.

In an April interview, Zauner told me: “I actually turned in the book with very little reference to my my relationship to music. And then on the second revision, I realized it was really something I needed to wade into, and I'm really happy that I did because I feel like I was honestly able to like forgive myself in a big way. I feel like I was like kind of a difficult teen. And part of that was like my real love for [music]. And it feels like this kind of weirdly full circle bittersweet, serendipitous thing that I sort of found this space of belonging, on my own terms in the music world. And I think that that's a lot of what the book is ultimately, really about.”

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Upcoming Rock and Roll Book Club Picks

Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Thursday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

January 6: The Motherlode: 100+ Women Who Made Hip-Hop by Clover Hope

January 13: Lightning Striking: Ten Transformative Moments in Rock and Roll by Lenny Kaye (the Patti Smith Group)

January 20: The Work by Scott Hutchison (Frightened Rabbit)

January 27: Led Zeppelin: The Biography by Bob Spitz