Reading music

One critic’s take on the best music books of 2021


For almost a decade, starting in 2008, I wrote an annual feature for Boulder Weekly detailing 10 great new albums for readers to check out. Nowadays, with the popularity of Spotify, YouTube and other online outlets as 24/7, year-round ways to discover new music, a year-end music list seems downright ancient and useless. This year, as not just a pointer but also a gift-idea resource, I’m here to share some remarkable music books that were released in 2021.

Firstly, though, because 2020 was the year that seemed to last a decade and featured some amazing books you probably missed while you were, you know, trying to stay alive, I want to make sure to give a nod to Do What You Want. It put a magnifying glass to one of the most respected, intelligent and influential bands in American rock history—hardcore pioneers Bad Religion. Written by the band and Jim Ruland, Do What You Want is a rollicking tale of an ’80s underground success that made badass, empowering punk music and made guitarist Brett Gurewitz a millionaire many times over when Epitaph, the tiny label he started to put out Bad Religion records, scored massive mainstream hits by the Offspring and Rancid.

Read Do What You Want if you’re interested in a crucial 15-year period of punk-rock history, but—maybe more importantly—read it if you’re an aspiring musician who wants a precious roadmap to D.I.Y. success.

Levon, Sandra B. Tooze’s frontier-like trip through the fascinating life of Levon Helm and the Band, is another must-read from 2020 that you probably missed when you were worrying a certain fascistic dumbass would stay in office and a COVID-19 vaccine might never arrive.

As for 2021, I’m almost embarrassed to say this but the most entertaining book I’ve read this year is Nöthin’ But a Good Time: The Uncensored History of the ’80s Hard Rock Explosion. I’ve been a big fan of oral histories ever since 1996’s mighty Please Kill Me gave us all an x-ray of punk music all the way back to the Velvet Underground, and Nöthin’ But a Good Time does a similarly illuminating and addictive job of wrangling nearly every musician, manager and groupie associated with ’80s glam-rock and letting them tell the story of hair-metal in their own words.

Even if Nirvana thankfully did murder it, and even if you don’t want to admit that part of you loved it, the era of hair-metal owning MTV and pop radio did happen, people. We might as well have fun reading about it as a sort of a musical enema, and Nöthin’ But a Good Time has every wonderful, trashy, stupid detail you can imagine—told by the stupid and talented, or stupidly talented, real-life characters themselves, from David Lee Roth and Ozzy Osbourne to Bret Michaels and Dee Snider.

Similarly, Raising Hell—a 2020 book you probably missed—collects raucous and sometimes rancid backstage tales from heavy-metal heroes including Pantera’s Phil Anselmo, Anthrax’s Scott Ian and many others. It’s not a linear history of a genre but rather a filthy tornado through sex, violence, hotel carnage, drug abuse and a lot more—told by those who’ve lived it and somehow survived.

Enjoying books about music is not just about embracing tales of debauchery, of course, and longtime New Yorker and New York Times critic Kelefa Sanneh’s sprawling new Major Labels is the ultimate in intellectual, microscopic musical geekdom. If, like me, you take things “an inch wide and a mile deep” (as the saying goes) when you take an interest in them, you will adore Sanneh’s intricate exploration of seven musical genres and their journeys from approximately the late 1960s to the present. Sanneh is an incredible writer and researcher, and his life as an African American equally passionate about punk as he is about Diana Ross makes him a unique, brilliant choice to give an encyclopedic history of modern popular music.

Whereas Major Labels, released this fall, is Sanneh’s debut as an author, Bob Spitz’s 2021 opus Led Zeppelin is just the latest in the former Bruce Springsteen and Elton John manager’s literary cannonballs into the careers of music legends. Like Spitz’s successful efforts to leave no stone unturned in the researching of his now-classic biographies of Bob Dylan and the Beatles, the gorgeously written Led Zeppelin contains so much previously hidden history that even the most obsessive fan might feel overinformed after the 575th page about the band known for winning over virtually every fan and almost zero critics.

For a lighter read, the brisk, ebullient Chronicling Stankonia finds Regina N. Bradley deftly spinning tales of hip hop’s rise in the American south, with OutKast the chief protagonist. I read this on a plane with the group’s landmark Stankonia album on repeat and felt such a feverish interest and almost bashful astonishment that I still have the Frontier Airlines safety instructions jammed into my copy as a bookmark. Changes: An Oral History of Tupac is another relatively short, enlightening, fast-burning 2021 music book that I highly recommend reading while in flight with a hip-hop soundtrack blasting in your headphones.

Another exciting, and much-needed, oral history released in 2021 is Decoding “Despacito”; it features a gigantic list of musical heavyweights, from Carlos Vives to Enrique Iglesias, telling the history of Latin music from 1970 through today.

Elsewhere, Dave Grohl’s The Storyteller has sold so many copies this year that I almost don’t want to mention it except to say that yes, I loved it and everyone who likes music and music history should read it as soon as possible. I feel more inclined, however, to point you toward the amazing A History of Music For Children, which finds Mary Richards and David Schweitzer explaining the evolution of music from birds and ancient civilizations all the way to Billie Eilish. The beautifully written and illustrated book, which is smart enough to mention David’s harp and hip enough to link it to Leonard Cohen, is colorfully geared toward kids but every page is worth a read for music-curious adults, too.

Bandleader, drummer, DJ and podcaster Questlove’s sprightly Music Is History may have a cartoonish cover not unlike A History of Music’s, but don’t be fooled—it’s a highly personal, rebellious and eloquent plunge into one musical genius’ 50 years of fandom and sometimes fiery feelings on America and its music.

Finally, if you’re looking for the perfect mixture of music history, hot-button opinions and salacious storytelling, pick up the outspoken Stevie Van Zandt’s new memoir Unrequited Infatuations. The longtime Bruce Springsteen guitarist, actor (The Sopranos, The Irishman, etc.) and DJ is notoriously active on Twitter and Unrequited Infatuations gives him the space to tell the tale, not unlike Dave Grohl in The Storyteller, of a suburban kid who ended up being a veritable Forrest Gump of the entertainment industry, his talent and personality unexpectedly touching nearly every corner of the world.

More than anything, I hope you’ll give yourself the gift of turning off your phone for a long while and digging into a book about music you love, or just music you’ve always wanted to know more about. And if you’re feeling like the last two years have been so overwhelming that you need to check out before checking one of these books out, crank up “Sad But True” as Metallica’s self-titled album turns 30 years old and flip through elite rock photographer Ross Halfin’s stunning new hardcover The Black Album In Black & White.


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