By the end of every year, I end up with a stack of new books about music so tall I end up needing more bookshelves. It’s a fun way to learn more about the subject I love most, and also a good way to prevent Boulder Weekly readers from wasting money on bookshelves, because I’m here again to share some of the year’s best music writing, whittling it down to a few exciting titles you can purchase as holiday gifts for your friends and family, or even yourself.
Firstly, whenever Bob Dylan publishes a book it’s not just news — it’s a cultural event. This time, with The Philosophy of Modern Song, it’s also brilliant, weird, incisive and insightful cultural criticism. Dylan’s beautifully written and illustrated third book (after 1967’s directionless novel Tarantula and 2004’s autobiographical Chronicles, Volume 1) finds him digging deep into several dozen songs spanning about 100 years and many genres — and his funny, dark, intellectual brain shines through.
Dylan, now 81 years old, is one of just a few living, working, still-relevant American artists with one foot still in the old, strange America Guillermo Del Toro portrayed in Nightmare Alley. Sure, he concludes The Philosophy of Modern Song with a Buddhist-tinged paragraph on how “music transcends time by living within it, just as reincarnation allows us to transcend life by living it again,” but he also — when given the chance to describe something as banal as the Eagles’ “Witchy Woman” — descends into carnival poetry.
Dylan profoundly opines on blues, soul, country, bluegrass and even The Clash in the book. He also gets memorably carried away taking on the persona of the narrator in Elvis Costello’s “Pump It Up”: “What about that little she goat that won’t go away? You want to maim and mangle her. You want to see her in agony, and you want to blow this whole thing up until it’s swollen, where you’ll run your hands all over and squeeze it till it collapses.”
A little more gentle is this year’s captivating Charlie Watts biography, Charlie’s Good Tonight. The British writer Paul Sexton was working on the book with Watts before the legendary Rolling Stones drummer passed away; thus, in addition to forewords by both Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Charlie’s Good Tonight features details and quotes that are unprecedented regarding Watts, notably because the drummer’s sister agreed to be interviewed for the first time ever. Watts, with unmatched class in rock history, led a truly charmed life — and the combination of boundless access and strong writing makes Sexton’s book a must-read.
On a totally different level, J. Aizlewood’s Radiohead: Life in a Glass House is a can’t-put-down tome about a band that rarely provides access to journalists — and Radiohead did not speak with Aizlewood for his book. On the surface, Life in a Glass House sounded awful to me, essentially a fan book that traces every step, musical and personal, Thom Yorke and Co. have taken since they were born.
Aizlewood even refers to Radiohead’s band members by first name throughout the rich book. While that and other elements are creepy or at least off-putting, I recommend listening to Radiohead’s albums in sequence while reading Life in a Glass House and taking a deep dive into the English group’s history — from the engineering and songwriting intricacies of every track to the lives of each member. It’s an inch wide and a mile deep, as they say.
Another writer who did not have access to the artist he wrote a lengthy book about was the ubiquitous Steven Hyden, author of an entertaining 2022 book about Pearl Jam called Long Road. However, Hyden made the choice not to interview anyone from Pearl Jam while writing Long Road because, as he writes in its introduction, “a book composed of Pearl Jam’s thoughts on Pearl Jam has already been written [and] I suspect I will enjoy analyzing and explaining Pearl Jam’s legacy more than they would.”
Long Road is up to the task of explaining one of the most fascinating careers in rock history — a group that reached the very top of mainstream success when it debuted and then, the polar opposite of the Grateful Dead, became a cult sensation by beginning to take musical and ethical cues from Fugazi rather than Aerosmith.
The British author and TV producer-director Alex Harvey tackles another of the most fascinating and unpredictable careers in American popular-music history in his 2022 book about Tom Waits — specifically Waits’ upbringing in Southern California and rise to cult fame and critical, if not much commercial, success in Los Angeles in the 1970’s.
Harvey’s book, Song Noir, is as reverential as Radiohead: Life in a Glass House but rooted in a more academic worldview. It delves astutely — like Aizlewood and Hyden, without access to his subject — into the first decade of Waits’ career with encyclopedic focus. Harvey puts a microscope to every song Waits recorded during the 1970s and early 1980s, before leaving Los Angeles, but he also eloquently relates Waits to his heroes Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski; explains Waits’ complex relationship with his father, and with Rickie Lee Jones; and makes Los Angeles itself a character in the Song Noir, because the persona Waits invented for himself in the 1970s is forever married to the City of Angels.
The only 2022 book by a musician I read was Patti Smith’s A Book of Days. If Kim Kardashian or Grimes had announced a book collection a whole year of their Instagram photos, I may have literally puked at the news, but everything Patti Smith does is poetry. I believe she is one of our greatest living Americans, and every cell in her body was made to create poetry — which is what not only the descriptions of her photos in A Book of Days are but a lot of the photos themselves. You could read this book in a few hours, but Smith’s captions could take a lifetime to appreciate.
Finally, for some simple fun — through a book that will keep being fun as long as you have it around — check out the coffee-table creation Rock on Film, a collection of essays on movies about or featuring popular music, from A Hard Day’s Night to Singles to Straight Outta Compton. I’ve been thinking Rock On Film would be a great way to continue getting my 12-year-old into music, by checking each film in the lengthy book off as we watch them together. If we get halfway through by the time I’m Keith Richards’ age, I’ll be pleased.
Less daunting is looking at Tom Sheehan’s gorgeous Pictures of You, a collection of photographs Sheehan has taken of The Cure since the early ’80s. Part beautiful coffee-table book and part biography, Pictures of You traces the intriguing career of Robert Smith and his bandmates from eccentric English pop band to deep, dark legends of truly original rock ‘n’ roll. It’s worth a flip-through just for late-80’s photos of Smith with J. Mascis, and Smith in a full soccer get-up, but Sheehan’s writing makes Pictures of You more than a flip-through.
Looking for more books for the music lover in your life? Check out last year’s list here.