2021 in Review: The Best Music Books of the Year

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In the first part of our 2021 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 the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, the Doors, Jimi Hendrix 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.

Artist-Related

The Beatles Get Back, by the Beatles
The companion to Peter Jackson’s documentary film features photos from Ethan A. Russell and Linda McCartney (including the book’s cover photo), plus hundreds of previously unpublished images of film frames from the original 16mm footage as directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg and shot by the camera crew.

Beast: John Bonham and the Rise of Led Zeppelin, by C.M. Cushins
The first-ever bio of the Led Zeppelin drummer chronicles the band’s ascent from a spinoff of the Yardbirds to the most successful rock group in the world, with Bonham—considered by many to be rock’s all-time greatest drummer—powering it from behind.

Carpenters—The Musical Legacy, by Mike Cidoni Lennox and Chris May, with Richard Carpenter
With candor, heart and humor, Richard Carpenter—whose sister Karen was the duo’s singer—sheds new light on the Carpenters’ trials and triumphs, work that remains the gold standard for melodic pop.

Set the Night on Fire: Living, Dying, and Playing Guitar With the Doors, by Robby Krieger with Jeff Alulis
Set the Night on Fire, the memoir of the Doors’ guitarist, is packed with never-before-told stories from the band’s most vital years, and offers a fresh perspective on the most infamous moments of their career.

Gina Schock and Kathy Valentine (Photo: Gina Schock)

Made in Hollywood: All Access with the Go-Go’s, by Gina Schock
The book is the Go-Go’s’ drummer’s personal account of the band, which includes a treasure trove of photographs and memorabilia collected over the course of her 40-year career. “I truly had no idea that I was to become the Go-Go’s archivist,” said Schock in a press release. “I’ve always loved photography, so taking photos of the band was a natural process.”

All Things Must Pass Away: Harrison, Clapton, and Other Assorted Love Songs, by Kenneth Womack and Jason Kruppa
The book explores the legends’ musical and personal collaboration, friendship and rivalry. Close attention is devoted to the climax of their shared musicianship—the November 1970 releases of Harrison’s emancipatory statement in the wake of the Beatles, All Things Must Pass, and Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, Clapton’s impassioned reimagining of his art via Derek and the Dominos.

Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child, by Harvey Kubernik and Kenneth Kubernik
The book includes previously unpublished excerpts from interviews with the recording, producing and engineering principals from throughout Hendrix’s career, with a focus on his music.

Last Chance Texaco: Chronicles of an American Troubadour, by Rickie Lee Jones
With candor and lyricism, Jones takes us on the journey of her life: from her nomadic childhood as the granddaughter of vaudevillian performers, to her father’s abandonment of the family and her years as a teenage runaway, her beginnings at L.A.’s Troubadour club, to her tumultuous relationship with Tom Waits, her battle with drugs, and longevity as a woman in rock and roll.

Led Zeppelin—The Biography, by Bob Spitz
From Ann Wilson’s cover blurb: “Bob Spitz shows Led Zeppelin as the iconoclasts they were, grinding the self-consciousness of rock ’n’ roll in the ’70s into submission without a backward glance. Infamous stories from the road, tales of excess, dominance, and ego are balanced by the band’s insatiable desire for heat and beauty.”

Paul McCartney—The Lyrics, by Paul McCartney
The career-spanning book tells the stories of 154 of his songs, sharing his songwriting process on classics from the Beatles through Wings and into his solo years. The song lyrics are presented with a treasure trove of material from McCartney’s personal archive—drafts, letters, photographs, etc.

Mellencamp, by Paul Rees
The biography features in-depth interviews with John Mellencamp’s friends, family and colleagues, and explores everything from the founding of Farm Aid to his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Self-portrait in a Plaza Hotel mirror (Photo: © Graham Nash)

A Life in Focus: The Photography of Graham Nash, by Graham Nash
The singer-songwriter offers an extensive, curated collection of personal photographs and artistic stills. The volume presents these images alongside Nash’s own reflections, telling the story behind the pictures and giving insight into his life.

Sympathy for the Drummer: Why Charlie Watts Matters, by Mike Edison
The author tells a tale of respect and satisfaction that goes far beyond drums, drumming and the Rolling Stones, ripping apart the history of rock ’n’ roll, and celebrating 60 years of cultural upheaval.

Related: Which books did we recommend in 2020?

Non-Artist-Related

Fillmore East—The Venue That Changed Music Forever, by Frank Mastropolo
The oral history of the NYC landmark features 200 performance photos, posters, letters, buttons, contracts and memorabilia, many never before published. Interviews with 19 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees are included.

Hollywood Eden: Electric Guitars, Fast Cars, and the Myth of the California Paradise, by Joel Selvin
Hollywood Eden is the story of a group of young artists and musicians who came together at the dawn of the 1960s to create the lasting myth of the California dream. The book focuses on the early careers of artists like the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, Nancy Sinatra and the Mamas and the Papas.

A Pig’s Tale—The Underground Story of the Legendary Bootleg Record Label, by Ralph Sutherland and Harold Sherrick
The book tells the story of Trade Mark of Quality, the first bootleg record label of its kind, spawning many later imitators. The authors have compiled every known piece of data on the discography of TMQ, enough to discern, in detail, a true TMQ bootleg from one of its inevitable and many copycats.

Rock Concert: An Oral History as Told by the Artists, Backstage Insiders, and Fans Who Were There, by Marc Myers
The author presents a “360-degree account of live rock’s emergence by weaving together ground-breaking stories from those who were on stage, in the wings, behind the scenes, and in the audience,” says a press release.

And don’t forget about these additional bios and memoirs, also released in 2021, arranged alphabetically by subject. (Click the book title for our earlier coverage.)

My Life in Dire Straits: The Inside Story of One of the Biggest Bands in Rock History, by John Illsley (Mark Knopfler, foreword)

The Storyteller—Tales of Life and Music, by Dave Grohl

Have a Little Faith: The John Hiatt Story, by Michael Elliott

King of the Blues: The Rise and Reign of B.B. King, by Daniel de Visé

All or Nothing: The Story of Steve Marriott, by Simon Spence

Willie Nelson’s Letters to America, by Willie Nelson with Turk Pipkin

Rememberings, by Sinead O’Connor

Cloud Nine: Memoirs of a Record Producer, by Richard Perry

The Rolling Stones Unzipped, by Anthony DeCurtis

Beeswing: Losing My Way and Finding My Voice 1967-1975, by Richard Thompson

Unrequited Infatuations: A Memoir, by Stevie Van Zandt

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Best Classic Bands Staff
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