The Best Music Books of The Decade

The new year is almost here, and with it comes a maelstrom of “End of the Year Lists.” Here on Ex-Spectator, I’ll be rolling out a few “End of the Year”/”End of the Decade” lists. Today’s list: The Best Music Books of the Aughts.

I would be lying if I said I’ve read every music book published this year, never mind this decade. However, a countless number of music-related books have passed through my fingers and eyes during this decade. Some of the literature left me unenthusiastic at best. And some books stuck with me from the first few paragraphs I read to this very moment. The following is a list of ten books and one book series of tomes to music that really resonated with me throughout the decade:

burningfightBurning Fight by Brian Peterson

For every genre that’s been declared dead, there’s a Brian Peterson ready to prove everyone wrong. Peterson gives an excellent argument and fascinating oral history for hardcore punk, a genre that Steven Blush declared “dead” by the late ‘80s in American Hardcore. Peterson gives the genre he loves so much the proper flexibility, breath and legs that it so desperately needed in our cultural conversation. After all, if hardcore “died” in the ‘80s, how did bands like Thursday and Rise Against exist and go on to Billboard popularity in the 2000s?

cantstopCan’t Stop Won’t Stop by Jeff Chang

This is, hands down, the book on hip-hop. Chang could’ve stopped at simply interviewing every important figure in hip-hop alive today and it still would’ve been an amazing feat. Fortunately, Chang goes even further, really investigating the social, political and economic forces that wrought hip-hop to show the power and potential of such an important genre. Anyone who would still consider hip-hop to be nothing but fluff after reading Can’t Stop Won’t Stop would be downright ignorant.

33andathirdContinuum’s 33 1/3 Book Series by Various Authors

This is the “surprise” entry for this list, as 33 1/3 is an ongoing series and not a singular book. However, Continuum deserves a heaping of praise for making the best book series about music around. (Sorry Da Capo.) It’s a real pleasure to see a publishing company give so many talented scribes the ability to write whatever they may please about a favorite album of their choice. It’s resulted in a diverse collection of narratives that’s only grown more over the decade. My ego may still be smarting after my last 33 1/3 proposal was turned down, but that’s only because I relish the opportunity to contribute to such a fantastic series. (I’ve got my fingers crossed that my new idea will make the cut for the next open call for proposals.)

danceofdaysDance of Days: Two Decades of Punk In The Nation’s Capital by Mark Andersen & Mark Jenkins

Dance of Days was my personal history lesson. People know about music in New York and L.A. But D.C.? I’d grown up in the same area as all so many punk, hardcore and post-hardcore pioneers, and yet it was something I never fully appreciated until I moved away from home and read Dance of Days. If it wasn’t for Andersen and Jenkins’s narrative, I would’ve never known how lucky and spoiled I was to grow up in a place were all ages shows are routine and where free benefits for important local causes are a rite of punk passage. (I still can’t believe I made it out to Fugazi’s last show in the U.S. at Fort Reno.)

girls_guide_rocking_The Girls Guide To Rocking by Jessica Hopper

Nearly every other book on this list is about history. Jessica Hopper’s Girls Guide To Rocking is the one that will really impact the future. Hopper’s talents as a writer are really on display in Girls, as she’s been able to craft a book that people of all ages will enjoy reading, not just young girls. To boot, Hopper addresses her audience as they should be addressed – like peers instead of kids being sold some shiny trinket. This is the kind of book I wish was around when I was a teen awkwardly playing turntables in a high school band that practiced once a week: I would’ve realized that my interests in performing music weren’t fruitless just because our band didn’t get any gigs. And we could’ve gotten some shows too!

modulationsModulations – A History of Electronic Music: Throbbing Words On Sound edited by Peter Shapiro

“Electronic music” might be one of the more confusing terms in modern music. (Let’s forget about emo at the moment.) It’s next to impossible to count the number of people who think electronic music consists of shirtless dudes on Ecstasy twirling day-glo sticks to repetitive, mindless music at 4 a.m., and fortunately, Modulations doesn’t even worry about those perceptions. Instead, the book dissects the very term “electronic” to explain just how indebted almost every genre of pop music has been impacted by electronic music in one way or another. From musique concrète to modern hip-hop, it’s got the world of computerized sound covered.

ourbandOur Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991 by Michael Azerrad

Think Nirvana came from nowhere? Think again. Azerrad’s thorough and profoundly engrossing look at American alternative culture in the ‘80s pinpoints 13 of the many musical acts that had a deep impact on the highly-touted Aberdeen band that broke punk in the ‘90s. Azerrad uncovers all the little foibles of many an underrated act to create a tapestry of narratives and build a rock cannon that’s been a go-to for many an “indie” musician and music critic today.

the-rest-is-noise-book-cover-alex-rossThe Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century by Alex Ross

Like most kids growing up in America in the post-boom era, I found classical music to be so perplexing, off-putting and, yes, boring. The Rest Is Noise was one of many pieces that have really changed my perception of classical music. I no longer see classical music as something foreign, but the music of passion, resistance, revolution and intimate. No, I’m not rollin’ down the street blasting Bach, but with Ross’s intimate look at the lives of many important composers and the perspectives that drove them to change their art, I’ve been able to take in the beauty and harsh qualities of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” without falling asleep.

ripitupandstartagainRip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978 – 1984 by Simon Reynolds

Like Azerrad’s Our Band and Chang’s Can’t Stop, Reynolds managed to craft an intricately-spun, gripping book about what happened to alternative music after the Sex Pistols’ media maelstrom and punk became passé in the U.K. For Reynolds, it was that point-of-no-return in punk that the genre became interesting, and Rip It Up certainly proves his point.

taqwacoresThe Taqwacores by Michael Muhammad Knight

Knight’s Taqwacores is the only novel about music on this list. Why? Well, there are certain aspects of writing creatively about the culture of music that normally don’t translate well into fiction. And yet, Knight hit it right on the mark with a tale about an imagined society of an Islamic punk rock community in Buffalo. The way Knight marries the passages of Islamic thought and punk ideology is astounding, and his keen eye for the kinds of personalities attracted to different schools of thought certainly drives the tone and nature of the book. Through the eyes of Yusuf Ali, a veritable “blank slate” in the marriage of punk and Islam, we’re introduced to a cast of characters that manage to propel the book through its loose narrative and really capture the emotion instilled within such a close-knit community.

we-owe-you-nothingWe Owe You Nothing – Punk Planet: The Collected Interviews edited by Daniel Sinker

Punk Planet ended its run as an all-things-punk zine a few years ago, and it is sorely missed. Just open up We Owe You Nothing to find out why journalism needs more intrepid writers and editors like Dan Sinker. True, Sinker and his staff got interviews with key “punk” figures, be that Ian MacKaye, Sleater-Kinney, Noam Chomsky or Ruckus Society program director Han Shan. But it’s beyond the physical evidence of an interview with important figures that made Punk Planet great. It was the content of the interviews, the way Sinker and his writers engaged their interviewees, the way they were really able to receive inspired and unique answers from a variety of influential musical and political figures. This is the kind of book that should be studied by aspiring journalists interested in all subjects, not just music alone.

Runners Up:

The Anti-Matter Anthology: A 1990s Post-Punk & Hardcore Reader by Norman Brannon

Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey In Rural North Dakota by Chuck Klosterman

Keep Your Eyes Open by Glen E. Friedman

The Rock Snob’s Dictionary by David Kamp and Steven Daly

Post: A Look At The Influence of Post-Hardcore, 1985-2007 by Eric Grubbs


2 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. Sara Libby #

    “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop” is clutch. But I will say that Tricia Rose is a big leave-out. Her two books, “Black Noise” and “The Hip-Hop Wars” are perhaps (even more than Jeff Chang’s stuff) THE seminal academic works on hip-hop.

  2. Leor Galil #

    True, Rose has written some of the key academic points on hip-hop. Unfortunately, “Black Noise” was first published in the ’90s, so it didn’t make the list by default. And, alas, I have not read “The Hip-Hop Wars,” but I’ll be sure to check it out on your recommendation!

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