Another summer is upon us, and with that comes plenty of time for self-care, especially the mental challenge kind. (No, not like that.) There’s stacks of books to be read, from saucy beach reads to in-depth nonfiction dives, plus that weird sci-fi graphic novel your niece gave you. For something a little sweeter, we’ve rounded up our favorite music books, old and new, to help you study up on records, criticism, and personal voyages worth learning about.
Forget about wowing your next party guests with crazy stories. Slip in anecdotes from some of the best music novels around and they will be far more impressed. So give yourself a break and crack open a new book. Don’t be surprised if you want to put a record on, too. These are stuffed with songs you’ll be eager to hear as soon as you start the first chapter.
1. The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic
by Jessica Hopper
Feminism isn’t about helping women get to where they need to be; it’s about shining the light on women who are already at the top but denied their praise. Jessica Hopper is the no-mercy writer behind countless music essays, reviews, and thinkpieces that have shaped the last two decades. When you read through The Pitchfork Review editor-in-chief’s collection of grade A rock criticism, don’t be surprised if you find yourself wondering how the book’s title is true — and how many other female authors are right in line behind her.
by David Byrne
Talking Heads are to music as dancing is to children. The band’s contributions to the field illuminate emotions in a way that often escape us. So when frontman David Byrne writes about the advent of recording technology and the way in which we listen to music, it should come as no surprise that the resulting explorations float between buoyant ebullience and provocative ponderings. The cover may be sleek minimalism, but prepare for some heavier breakdowns. Byrne prowls through the cultural and physical context of music in a way contemporary books have yet to try.
by Amanda Petrusich
Forget about the trend status of vinyl today and look into the truly quirky subculture surrounding 78rpms. As critic and teacher Amanda Petrusich meticulously details, the obsessive hunt for the world’s rarest 78rpm records is a hobby with an expensive receipt given the fragile 10-inch shellac discs are nearly impossible to find. Collector or not, you will get wrapped up in the nitpicky world from page one — especially when you find out a particular record sold on ebay for $37,100.
4. Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey
by Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton
When Reginald Fessenden became the first person to play a record over the radio back in 1906, everything changed. While most radio stations today cue up mp3s, club scenes around the world still whip out wax to get sweat beading on the crowds’ foreheads, and Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton pay homage to history’s greats in this classic book. Slip through the ’60s, check out the disco scene, and read up on hip-hop in a thorough, approachable read on the everlasting role of DJing.
5. Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music
by Ellen Willis
The New Yorker’s first-ever popular music critic was the one in only Ellen Willis. Hired in 1968, she went on to become a cult classic and cultural commentary pioneer whose work still holds true today. For Willis, discussing music isn’t just about the originality and cultural impact of works by David Bowie or The Who; it’s about how the music makes you feel, and why you’re so compelled to share it with those you love immediately after hearing it.
6. Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove
Get punch drunk with ?uestlove’s equally doozy memoir for a rowdy tale of love, music, and late-night storytelling. The Roots drummer is well known for his extensive music knowledge. As such, his memoir goes into detail about the lates and greats from black art and pop culture, most of which information is related with engrossing details that don’t alienate casual listeners. Of course the Late Night with Jimmy Fallon bandleader knows how to entertain as well as he does educate. We think he keeps all that knowledge stored in his fro.
7. Rock She Wrote: Women Write About Rock, Pop, and Rap
edited by Evelyn McDonnell and Ann Powers
The old, white male may have the loudest voice, but the young, colored female has the sharpest words. In Rock She Wrote, NPR’s Ann Powers and author Evelyn McDonnell collect a sampling of vibrant, powerful, and subversive texts written by some of the industry’s most powerful women. There’s Patti Smith beside Lisa Jones and Kim Gordon next to Gerri Hirshey, stacking words against words for a beach read that will have you too engrossed to ever leave the shade of your umbrella.
by Kim Gordon
Sonic Youth bassist, vocalist, and all-around badass Kim Gordon is more than an icon; she’s a role model for musicians around the world striving to be effortlessly cool with unabating talent. Her new memoir tracks candid stories about her suburban childhood, run-ins with mental illness, and the frail threads of her marriage with Thurston Moore. Even the toughest humans have a soft core, and Gordon articulates her with beautiful prose.
by Stuart David
Belle and Sebastian are the twee band that shook — and continues to shake — the music world. In his brand new memoir, frontman Stuart David opens up about his beginning days in the band, life in Glasgow, and the highs and lows that come with doubly dark songwriting in the guise of carefree melodies. Pour yourself a cup of tea and forget about the price. It’s worth it, but you didn’t need us, or Stuart, to tell you that.
by John Lydon
Johnny Rotten is but a name to most millenials, but the rest of us know John Lydon as the icon he was — Sex Pistols’ loose cannon of fireball punk. In his second memoir, Lydon talks televised anarchy, the hidden elegance of his personality, and plenty of self-righteous independence. Best of all, he defies his own stereotype by getting personal, talking at length about his memory loss and early coma.