Essential music books

Don’t bore us, get to the chorus! Journalism, memoir, tales of debauchery and genius: the music world has given us more than its fair share of brilliant books from all corners of popular culture. Here are some of our favourites – regardless of your tolerance for particular genres or artists, these books will get you right in the aurals.

Monolithic Undertow, by Harry Sword

A history and celebration of all things drone-related, from the subterranean rumblings in below-ground churches to the days-long ‘happenings’ of the New York scene, right up to the punishing, face-melting assault of the modern drone scene.

It’ll have you reaching for the expensive headphones and the easy chair (if you ever left it),

Sing Backwards and Weep, by Mark Lanegan

Caustic, messy, chaotic and extremely, morbidly entertaining memoir of grunge excess from one of the defining voices of the early ’90s. Motivated seemingly by revenge and an unparalelled self-destructive streak, Lanegan’s tales of fights, overdoses and worse (much worse) are horrifyingly compelling.

Lady Sings The Blues, by Billie Holliday

Effortlessly and irresistibly readable, this is Billie in her own words – lyrical and dynamic. The details of her early life are best enjoyed with some knowledge of her music, but even if you’re coming to it cold you’ll be entranced.

Rip It Up and Start Again, by Simon Reynolds

Landmark text from alternative music’s friendly academic uncle, the great Simon Reynolds. From the Orange Juice song of the title, this scene-defining account of the post-punk years and the myriad associated artists, all considered with Reynolds’ honed and exacting approach.

Chamber Music: About The Wu-Tang (In 36 Pieces), by Will Ashon

Exploratory and psychedelic summary of one of hip-hop’s greatest albums. The angles from which Ashon examines this legendary record can sometimes seem wilfully obtuse, but the connections he makes are genuinely mind-altering. Music writing as it should be: interrogate, contextualise, enthuse, entertain.

A Little Devil In America, by Hanif Abdurraqib

A poet’s approach to music criticism, an essayist with a romantic’s sensibility: Abdurraqib is a one-off. This mingling of life-writing, music history and a barnstorming celebration of black excellence is gorgeous, entertaining and exhaustive. Topics include Chewbacca’s blackness, why Beyonce can never be a support act, and the restorative effects of a good game of spades.

Meet Me In The Bathroom, by Lizzie Goodman

Thrillingly (or depressingly), we are now of an age where the music of our youth is starting to be documented in wonderful books like this – the splendidly entertaining urtext account of the pre-indie landfill scene of the early 2000s, told by those who lived through it (and then probably threw up on it).

Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl, by Carrie Brownstein

Even if you’re not a fan of Sleater-Kinney and the altrock explosion of the 90s, this heartfelt and exquisitely written memoir of life on the road foregrounds the personal. No tiring deconstructions of the hits, just the ennui and toil of being in a band that got a little bit bigger than expected and – crucially – what happens to a rock star after the band winds down.

Why Karen Carpenter Matters, by Karen Tongson

Was Karen Carpenter a queer icon? Karen Tongson makes a persuasive case, arguing that Karen’s work was misunderstood, underappreciated and restricted by those around her. This is the story of Karen Carpenter and The Carpenters, but also of Karen Tongson’s life and the significance Karen had for queer kids, immigrants and outsiders. I read this knowing very little about Karen or The Carpenters, but thoroughly enjoyed it in its own right.

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