Monday, March 30, 2015

The Top 20 Music Books of All Time

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”Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” – Martin Mull

This quotation has been attributed to a variety of people, including musicians Frank Zappa, Elvis Costello, Thelonious Monk, and Laurie Anderson, but according to, the line first appeared in the magazine Time Barrier Express in the September-October 1979. Gary Sperrazza references th quotation, crediting it to actor/comedian Martin Mull.

Regardless of who said it first, the point is clear. Music cannot be broken down and explained in written form. It is an aural experience which is meant to be heard. So why post a list of the best music books of all time? Music goes beyond the listening experience. It envelops social history and science and our fascination with the lives of the people who create the music. Those experiences can be analyzed, critiqued, and discussed in written form – and twenty of the most popular versions of that are introduced here in this blog post. If that doesn’t cut it for you, then seek these tomes out via audiobooks. I’ll leave it to the architects to address dancing.

1. Chronicles Vol. 1 - Bob Dylan (2004)

Dylan’s autobiography eschews a convential, chronological format opting for a disjointed tale which skips over many highlights in favor of more personal revelations.

2. Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991 - Michael Azerrad (2001)

Azerrad profiles the history of the rock music in the 1980s which owed a debt to punk rock and its DIY ethos.

3. Life - Keith Richards with James Fox (2010)

Some have proclaimed that if the world is ever annihilated, all that will remain will be the cock roaches and Keith Richards, survivor extraordinaire and legendary guitarist of the Rolling Stones. Luckily for us mortals, he’s left us this candid, conversational glimpse into his roller coaster life.

4. Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties - Ian MacDonald (1994)

Amazon called this chronogical assessment of every one of the Fab Four’s songs the “Bible of the Beatles.”

5. Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 - Simon Reynolds (2006)

Reynolds’ book travels some of the same ground as Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life in dissecting some of the bands who grew out of the punk rock movement of the 1970s.

6. Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation - Jeff Chang (2005) “In a post-civil rights era rapidly transformed by deindustrialization and globalization, hip-hop gave voiceless youths a chance to address these seismic changes and…crystallized a multiracial generation's worldview, and forever transformed politics and culture.”

7. England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond - Jon Savage (1991) “The ultimate book on punk…Savage brings to life the sensational story of the meteoric rise and rapid implosion of the Pistols through layers of rich detail, exclusive interviews, and rare photographs.”

8. The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band - Motley Crue with Neil Strauss (2001)

Rolling Stone magazine’s Joe Levy: “The most detailed account of the awesome pleasures and perils of rock & roll stardom I have ever read. It is completely compelling and utterly revolting.”

9. Hammer of the Gods: Led Zeppelin Unauthorized - Stephen Davis (1985) Led Zeppelin’s “tours were legendary, their lives were exalted—and in an era well known for sex and drugs, the mighty Zeppelin set an unattainable standard of excess and mythos for any band that tried to follow them…A spellbinding, electrifying, no-holds-barred classic of rock 'n' roll history.”

10. Just Kids - Patti Smith (2010) “The legendary American artist offers a never-before-seen glimpse of her remarkable relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in the epochal days of New York City and the Chelsea Hotel in the late sixties and seventies.”

11. The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century - Alex Ross (2007) “In this sweeping and dramatic narrative, Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker, weaves together…an astonishing history of the twentieth century as told through its music.”

12. Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung - Lester Bangs (1987) “The wild and brilliant writings of Lester Bangs--the most outrageous and popular rock critic of the 1970s.”

13. Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey - Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton (1999) “The first comprehensive history of the disc jockey, a figure who has become a powerful force shaping the music industry…The inside story on some of music’s most memorable moments…A lively and entertaining account of musical history and some of the most legendary parties of the century.”

14. How Music Works - David Byrne (2012) “Drawing on his work over the years with Talking Heads, Brian Eno, and myriad collaborators—along with journeys to Wagnerian opera houses, African villages, and anywhere music exists—Byrne shows how music emerges from cultural circumstance as much as individual creativity. It is his magnum opus, and an impassioned argument about music’s liberating, life-affirming power.”

15. This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession - Daniel J. Levitin (2006) “This groundbreaking union of art and science…explores the connection between music - its performance, its composition, how we listen to it, why we enjoy it - and the human brain.”

16. Slash: The Autobiography - Slash with Anthony Bozza (2007) “Slash tells…how the legendary band Guns N' Roses came together, how they wrote the music that defined an era…and, ultimately, how it all fell apart. Slash is a window into the world of the notoriously private guitarist and a front seat on the roller-coaster ride that was one of history's greatest rock 'n' roll machines, always on the edge of self-destruction, even at the pinnacle of its success.”

17. The Last Party: Britpop, Blair and the Demise of English Rock - John Harris (2003) “Beginning in 1994 and closing in the first months of 1998, the UK passed through a cultural moment as distinct and as celebrated as any since the war. Founded on rock music, celebrity, boom-time economics and fleeting political optimism - this was 'Cool Britannia'. The Last Party charts the rise and fall of the Britpop movement.”

18. Scar Tissue - Anthony Kiedis with Larry Stoman (2004) “The Red Hot Chili Peppers, against all odds, have become one of the most successful bands in the world. Though the band has gone through many incarnations, Anthony Kiedis, the group's lyricist and dynamic lead singer, has been there for the whole roller-coaster ride. Kiedis shares a compelling story about the price of success and excess…a story that could only have come out of the world of rock.”

19. Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music - Greg Milner (2009) “Milner takes us through the major breakthroughs and glorious failures in the art and science of recording…From Les Paul to Phil Spector to King Tubby, from vinyl to pirated CDs to iPods, Milner pulls apart musical history to answer a crucial question: Should a recording document reality as faithfully as possible, or should it improve upon or somehow transcend the music it records? The answers he uncovers will change the very way we think about music.”

20. Wonderland Avenue: Tales of Glamour and Excess - Danny Sugerman (1989)

Memoir of Doors’ publicist Danny Sugerman. “Excessive, scandalous, comic, cautionary and horrifying, it chronicles the 60s dream gone-to-rot and the early life of a Hollywood Wild Child who was just brilliant at being bad.”

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Friday, March 27, 2015

50 years ago: The Supremes hit #1 with “Stop! In the Name of Love”

Stop! In the Name of Love

The Supremes

Writer(s): Brian Holland/Lamont Dozier/Eddie Holland (see lyrics here)

Released: February 8, 1965

First Charted: February 20, 1965

Peak: 12 US, 11 CB, 11 GR, 11 HR, 2 RB, 7 UK, 3 CN, 42 AU, 1 DF (Click for codes to charts.)

Sales (in millions): 1.0 US, 0.12 UK, 1.12 world (includes US + UK)

Airplay/Streaming (in millions): 2.0 radio, 10.9 video, 104.52 streaming


Click on award for more details.

About the Song:

This song grew out of an argument between Lamont Dozier – one of the songwriters – and his girlfriend. She was about to head out the door when he yelled “stop, in the name of love!,” a slight variation of the phrase “stop, in the name of the law.” TB It broke the tension and they both starting laughing over the silliness of the line. TC

Of course, Dozier was one-third of the famed Holland-Dozier-Holland writing team at Motown. They crafted many of Motown’s biggest hits, but were more associated with the Supremes than any other act. “’Stop!’ moves with the grace of HDH’s greatest productions.” DM Initially, the Supremes – Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballad – thought the song was “insufficiently feminine, too forthright.” TC Once in the studio, however, they had fun with it. TC

As for the signature choreography, they were making a live appearance before having the moves for the song worked out. Moments before they went on stage, they worked with Motown head honcho Berry Gordy and a couple of the members of the Temptations to come up with the moves – in the mens’ room! SJ

The song became the trio’s fourth #1 out of five consecutive chart-toppers. In fact, they amassed a dozen #1 songs from 1964 through the end of the decade, giving them more trips to the top than any other American act in the 1960s. It also made them the most successful Motown act of the decade. TB


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First posted 4/15/2020; last updated 4/2/2023.

Today in Music (1965): Roger Miller “King of the Road” hit #1 on the country chart

King of the Road

Roger Miller

Writer(s): Roger Miller (see lyrics here)

Released: January 1965

First Charted: January 29, 1965

Peak: 4 BB, 3 CB, 2 GR, 4 HR, 110 AC, 15 CW, 11 UK, 3 CN, 7 AU, 3 DF (Click for codes to charts.)

Sales (in millions): 1.0 US, 0.2 UK

Airplay/Streaming (in millions): 3.0 radio, 24.7 video, 84.05 streaming


Click on award for more details.

About the Song:

Roger Miller was born in Texas in 1936. He left school after eighth grade to become a ranch hand. When he joined the Army in 1956, he became friends with Bill Anderson, a future country songwriter. In 1958, Miller launched his singing career with “City Lights,” a song written by Anderson. In 1960, Miller landed his first top-10 country hit with “When Two Worlds Collide,” which he co-wrote with Anderson. SS

By 1964, Miller had moved to California where he made multiple appearances on television to showcase “his light, amiable style.” SS After switching to Smash Records, he “began a string of hits with the clever, goofy ‘Dang Me.’ The high point of his hot streak was ‘King of the Road.’” SS

Glenda West, a family friend of Miller’s, said he wrote the song on the back of a credit card application. She said he got stuck after writing one verse but finished the song after seeing a picture of a hobo at an airport. TC It is “country music storytelling at its most brilliantly incisive, sketching character, situation and narrative in the minimum number of words with maximum effect.” SS Merle Travis, himself a country songwriting legend, said, “I’d have to rate him higher than Hank Williams.” SS

Author Toby Creswell called the song “the layabouts’ national anthem” TC that is “a good-natured update of Huckleberry Finn.” TC “King of the Road” drew strongly from Miller’s life experiences about growing up in poverty and leading a gypsy lifestyle after his discharge from the Army. It dpecited his “hard-scrabble lifestyle with warmth and humor, its flavorful narrative matched by an engaging melodyand lazy finger-snapping rhythm.” SS


First posted 1/31/2024.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly released

To Pimp a Butterfly

Kendrick Lamar

Released: March 15, 2015

Peak: 12 US, 11 UK, 11 CN, 11 AU

Sales (in millions): 1.05 US, 0.30 UK, 1.61 world (includes US and UK)

Genre: rap


(Click for codes to charts.)
  1. Wesley’s Theory (with George Clinton & Thundercat) [4:47]
  2. For Free? (Interlude) [2:10]
  3. King Kunta [3:54] (3/24/15, #58 US, 20 RB, 56 UK, 52 CN, 32 AU, sales: 1.0 m)
  4. Institutionalized (with Bilal, Anna Wise, & Snoop Dogg) [4:31]
  5. These Walls (with Bilal, Anna Wise, & Thundercat) [5:00] (10/13/15, #94 US, 34 RB)
  6. U [4:28]
  7. Alright [3:39] (6/30/15, #81 US, 24 RB, sales: 1.0 m)
  8. For Sale? (Interlude) [4:51]
  9. Momma [4:43]
  10. Hood Politics [4:52]
  11. How Much a Dollar Cost (with James Fauntleroy & Ronald Isley) [4:21]
  12. Complexion (A Zulu Love) (with Rapsody) [4:23]
  13. The Blacker the Berry [5:28] (2/9/15, #66 US, 25 RB, 83 UK, sales: 0.5 m)
  14. You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said) [4:01]
  15. i [5:36] (9/16/14, #39 US, 11 RB, 20 UK, 61 CN, 48 AU, sales: 1.0 m)
  16. Mortal Man [12:07]

Total Running Time: 78:51


4.539 out of 5.00 (average of 14 ratings)

Quotable: Lamar is “expanding the boundaries of the hip-hop empire and daring other aspirants to the throne – yes, even Kanye, even Jay – to play catch-up.” – Kyle Anderson, Entertainment Weekly


(Click on award to learn more).

About the Album:

Kendrick Lamar emerged with his debut album, Section 80, in 2011. While it only peaked at #113 on the Billboard album chart, his sophomore effort, Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City, exploded, peaking at #2 and being certified 3x platinum. It proved Lamar was “hip-hop’s boldest visionary” RS’20 so when it came time to release his third album “people expected greatness from him.” RS’20 He didn’t disappoint. To Pimp a Butterfly “arrived with the force of a sledgehammer.” RB It was a platinum-seller which debuted at 31 and gave him his fourth top-40 pop hit (i). The album featured executive producing from Dr. Dre and guest spots from George Clinton, Ronald Isley, Snoop Dogg, and others.

On Butterfly, Lamar is “expanding the boundaries of the hip-hop empire and daring other aspirants to the throne – yes, even Kanye, even Jay – to play catch-up.” KA the album incorporates “throwback soul, churning jazz, Sly Stone-style riot funk, front-porch blues, and highly politcized spoken word.” KA It was “a sprawling, ambitious portrait of America and his dangerous place in it,” RS’20 serving “as a whistle-stop tour through the history of black music in America.” RB Lamar said, “I pride myself on writing now rather than rapping. My passion is bringing storylines around and constructing a full body of work, rather than just a 16-bar verse.’” RS’20

Terrace Martin, a producer who worked on the abum, said “there wasn’t a conscious discussion of incorporating different genres while making the album, but an ongoing mediation of racial politics and black culture experience influenced the music.” WF Producer Mark “Sounwave” Spears said “It’s a unique sound…Every producer I’ve ever met was sending me stuff [for the album], but there was a one-in-a-million chance you could send a beat that actually fit what we were doing.’ As Lamar said when the album was released.” RS’20

Butterfly samples everyone from Michael Jackson to Sufjan Stevens. Alright sampled Ernie Isley’s “psychedelic, phased and distorted guitar riff” WF from the Isley Brothers’ “That Lady.” Lamar visited the Isleys personally to get permission to use it. WK The song became a modern day “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “a Black Lives Matter anthem” RS’20 that was “a “rallying cry at Black Lives Matter demonstrations.” RB Lamar told NPR, “four hundred years ago, as slaves, we prayed and sang joyful songs to stay level-headed with what was going on…We still need that music to heal. And I think that ‘Alright’ is definitely one of those records.” RB

On Mortal Man, Lamar even used parts of an interview with late rapper Tupac Shakur to create an imagined dialogue. That song and For Free? represented a merger of jazz and rap, blending “the fluidity of live jazz performance with Lamar’s stream-of-conscious lyrics.” WF Lamar incorporated the work of jazz musicians such as pianist Robert Glasper and bassist Stephen Bruner (known as Thundercat) throughout the album. The approach faced some resistance from the hip-hop world that “expected the hard-core, minimal aesthetic of drum machine ‘boom-bap’ patterns.” WF

Lamar told MTV he “started the album already knowing what I wanted to talk about, just based off the idea of feeling like you’re being pimped and manuevered in the industry.” RB Overall, the album is a “thematically rich project which surveyed a crumbling society and all of its grotesque, systematic ills” RB as Lamar explores depression, institutional discrimination, and racial inequality. WK

After a visit to historic sites in South Africa, including Nelson Mandela’s former jail cell, Lamar was inspired to delve into a variety of themes regarding African-American culture. He said, “I felt like I belonged in Africa. I saw all the things that I wasn’t taught Probably one of the hardest things to do it is put [together] a concept on how beautiful a place it can be, and tell a person this while they’re still in the ghettos of Compton. I wanted to put that experience in the music.” WK

One such example is King Kunta, which has “a lyrical narrative that references Kunta Kinte, a latter-18th century slave character from Alex Haley’s 1976 novel Roots.” WF Lamar “takes in the whole sweep of African American heartbreak, from the Middle Passage to the hood, from Richard Pryor to P-Funk. ‘You take a black kid out of Compton and put him in the limelight, and you find answers about yourself you never knew you were searching for.” RS’20

Another serious-minded song is How Much a Dollar Cost, “a haunting meditation on mortality, set to a Radiohead piano loop.” RS’20 However, “for every flag-planting fireball like the thumping ‘King Kunta’ or galvanizing The Blacker the Berry, there are pauses for affairs of both the heart (the dreamy Complexion (A Zulu Love)) and parts located somewhere south of it (see: cheeky sex jam These Walls).” JA

The album received widespread accaim, including 11 Grammy nominations, including Album of the Year. It won Rap Album of the Year. Rolling Stone, Spin, and Village Voice all ranked it the best album of the year. In retrospect, Lamar-collaborator Kamasi Washington said of the album, it “changed music…It meant that intellectually stimulating music doesn’t have to be underground.” RB

Review Sources:

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First posted 8/17/2020; last updated 3/5/2024.