2019 in Review: The Best Music Books of the Year

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In the first part of our 2019 holiday gift guide, we looked at the best of the year’s reissues, boxed sets and historical collections.

For the second part, we put on our reading glasses and dug in to the year’s best books for fans of classic rock and related music. The first segment of our survey is devoted to memoirs and biographies (arranged alphabetically by subject), including important new books on Janis Joplin, CSN&Y, Elton John, Debbie Harry and others. The second part is a guide to new books on various music-related topics, arranged by title.

There are no rankings for these titles because they’re all worthy.

All of these are available as physical books (you know, with paper and ink); many are also downloadable digitally.

Part three of our annual holiday gift guide will cover the best newly recorded albums by classic rockers and the fourth and final part will look at new Christmas recordings

Artist-Related

Solid State: The Story of Abbey Road and the End of the Beatles, by Kenneth Womack
The book is described as ” “the most definitive account yet of the writing, recording, mixing, and reception of Abbey Road.” It “focuses on the dynamics between John, Paul, George, Ringo and producer George Martin and his team of engineers, who set aside (for the most part) the tensions and conflicts that had arisen on previous albums to create a work that boasted an innovative (and, among some fans and critics, controversial) studio-bound sound that prominently included the new Moog synthesizer, among other novelties.

Hard to Handle: The Life and Death of the Black Crowes—A Memoir, by Steve Gorman with Steven Hyden
Drummer Gorman was a founding member of the band, and thus uniquely positioned to tell the story of the Black Crowes’ rise and eventual decay. A press release noted that the story focuses on the animosity “between Chris and Rich Robinson—the angriest brothers in rock and roll, with all due respect to Oasis and the Kinks.”

Guitar King—Michael Bloomfield’s Life in the Blues, by David Dann
Sad but true that most of today’s younger fans have probably never heard of the blues-rock guitar innovator—and tragic figure—whose sizzling licks enlivened recordings by Dylan, Paul Butterfield and others. This nearly 800-page bio is not the first on Bloomfield but it is the most comprehensive.

Jeff Buckley: His Own Voice, Edited by Mary Guibert and David Browne
The coffee-table hardcover is more scrapbook than bio, including handwritten notes, lyrics, journal entries, lists and what-not—lots to look at. The book provides plenty of new insights into the artist and brings his work to life anew.

Good Lovin’: My Life As A Rascal, by Gene Cornish
The title is self-explanatory: the Rascals’ guitarist, a founding member of one of the greatest of American ’60s bands, tells his story. Of course he delves into the hit songs, and there are the requisite tales of the ups and downs of rock star life.

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young: The Wild, Definitive Saga of Rock’s Greatest Supergroup, by David Browne
Even if you’ve been following their story since they formed a half-century ago, you’ll come away from this bio with new knowledge and appreciation—both of the music and the complicated humans behind it. Exhaustively researched, the book skillfully and affectionately ties together the labyrinthine paths taken together and apart by the quartet, warts and all.

Acid for the Children: A Memoir, by Flea
The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ bassist and co-founder tells his often sordid tale in vivid detail, “complete with all the dizzying highs and the gutter lows you’d want from an L.A. street rat turned world famous rock star,” according to a promo blurb.

Face It: A Memoir, by Debbie Harry
One of the reigning female figures of the punk/new wave explosion, Debbie Harry went from playing the grimy little CBGB to turning out a string of chart-topping hits. Her story focuses on all of that, of course, along with detailing the harrowing experiences she endured along the way and since. One excerpt: “My Blondie character was an inflatable doll but with a dark, provocative, aggressive side. I was playing it up yet I was very serious.”

Time Is Tight: My Life, Note by Note, by Booker T. Jones
Booker T. and the MG’s were ubiquitous in the ’60s, an integrated soul band that not only found fame on their own but supplied the backing for such Stax Records stars as Otis Redding and Sam and Dave. Yet many who bought their records knew little about the people who made it. Finally, their leader sheds light on what was happening behind the scenes in Memphis.

Janis: Her Life and Music, by Holly George-Warren
It’s astounding that nearly 50 years after her death at 27, there is still so much about Janis Joplin left to tell. George-Warren is not close to being the first to write a Janis bio, but she has dug deeper than anyone before. Even if you’ve been a fan since those heady days when she roamed the planet, you will learn new facts and gain new insights on nearly every page of this absorbing work.

Read our review of Janis

Me, by Elton John
The title spells it out. This is all about him, by him, and that means you get his perspective and you can take it or leave it. Much of what John discusses has been common knowledge for decades (and was recently brought to the screen in Rocketman), but there’s no denying that he’s entertaining, whether recalling his friendships with the royals, his upbringing, his own  marriage and fatherhood, or the music that remains as popular as ever.

Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson, by Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow
When the first compilations of the influential blues pioneer’s music began appearing in the ’60s, almost nothing was known about Robert Johnson’s life. Various bios have since opened up windows, but no one has presented this comprehensive a story before. The authors have, over decades, done a near-miraculous job of discovering just who this mysterious figure was.

Cruel to Be Kind: The Life and Music of Nick Lowe, by Will Birch
Biographer Birch is himself a musician, leader of the popular power pop group the Records. His look into the life and music of the British singer-songwriter-producer is lovingly constructed and, while it is unauthorized, serves as the most definitive word yet on this underrated talent.

Blues from Laurel Canyon: My Life as a Bluesman, by John Mayall with Joel Melver
The word blues appears in both the title and subtitle, leaving no doubts about how the British singer-songwriter-musician sees his role over the past five-plus decades. Yes, he helped introduce such giants as Eric, Clapton, Peter Green, Mick Taylor, Mick Fleetwood and others, but there’s a lot more to his story, which he tells in a candid manner here.

That’s the Bag I’m In: The Life, Music and Mystery of Fred Neil, by Peter Lee Neff
Even if you don’t recognize his name, you probably know his songs. He wrote “Everybody’s Talkin’,” made famous by Harry Nilsson, “The Other Side of This Life” (Jefferson Airplane, Lovin’ Spoonful), “The Dophins” (Tim Buckley, Linda Ronstadt) and many more. His story is fascinating in its own right.

The Beautiful Ones, by Prince
Part memoir, part scrapbook, The Beautiful Ones was hand-written by the artist and was left unfinished when he died. Thanks to Dan Piepenbring, an editor for The Paris Review, with whom Prince had been in talks about collaborating, the project was brought to fruition as what Piepenbring describes as “a handbook for the brilliant community…a radical call for collective ownership, for black creativity.”

Can’t Give it Away on Seventh Avenue—The Rolling Stones and New York City, by Christopher McKittrick
Yes, yes, of course they’re British, but they’ve had a special relationship with NYC since the wild days of the British Invasion. The author takes a different approach to the Stones, examining the give-and-take between them and the city. Have they been influenced by New York or has New York influenced them? The correct answer is yes.

Related: Our Q-and-A with the author of the Stones book

Texas Flood: The Inside Story of Stevie Ray Vaughan, by Alan Paul and Andy Aledort
From the press materials: “Texas Flood provides the unadulterated truth about Stevie Ray Vaughan from those who knew him best: his brother Jimmie, his Double Trouble bandmates Tommy Shannon, Chris Layton and Reese Wynans, and many other close friends, family members, girlfriends, fellow musicians, managers and crew members.” Long overdue.

Non-Artist-Related

1973: Rock at the Crossroads, by Andrew Grant Jackson
The pre-release promo material describes the book as “a fascinating account of the music and epic social change of 1973, a defining year for David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, Pink Floyd, Elton John, the Rolling Stones, Eagles, Elvis Presley, and the former members of the Beatles.” And that just scratches the surface.

The Age of Anxiety, by Pete Townshend
We don’t usually recommend works of fiction in our year-end music gift guides, but when it’s the first novel written by Pete Townshend, that gets our curiosity going. According to the promo hype, the book “explores the anxiety of modern life and madness in a story that stretches across two generations of a London family, their lovers, collaborators, and friends.”

The History of Rock & Roll, Volume 2: 1964-1977: The Beatles, the Stones, and the Rise of Classic Rock, by Ed Ward
Over a stretch lasting roughly 14 years, we went from the British Invasion through psychedelia, soul, the singer-songwriter onslaught, all the way to the dawn of punk. In this second volume of his history of rock, the veteran music author follows the saga as some of the most creative artists of all time just kept it coming nonstop.

The Specialty Records Story, by Billy Vera
The record label that gave us Lloyd Price, Percy Mayfield, Larry Williams and, most of all, Little Richard was the creation of one man, Art Rupe, who (as of this writing) is still with us at age 102. Vera, a hit recording artist himself, outlines the history of the foundational R&B/rock ’n’ roll/gospel/jazz label.

The Wichita Lineman: Searching in the Sun For the World’s Greatest Unfinished Song, by Dylan Jones
There aren’t many books wrapped around a single song (Dave Marsh’s “Louie Louie” tome comes to mind), but if there’s a song rich enough to withstand the scrutiny, it’s Jimmy Webb’s 1968 tour de force, “Wichita Lineman.” The author approaches the song and the songwriter—and the singer who made it famous, Glen Campbell—from numerous angles, taking a side look at the culture that birthed it along the way.

Related: Our exclusive excerpt from The Wichita Lineman book

Woodstock 50th Anniversary: Back to Yasgur’s Farm, by Mike Greenblatt
The author offers “a dazzling and compelling front-row seat to the most important concert in rock history, an implausible happening filled with trials and triumphs that defined a generation.” What sets this account apart from many others is that the author was there, one of the half-million in that field taking it all in. He even admits to having taken the dreaded “brown acid.”

Related: Our 2018 guide includes books on Eric Clapton, Tina Turner, Tom Petty and more

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