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10 Best Contemporary Books That Blend Music and Personal Narrative

Music and writing are both deeply personal but meant to be shared, as seen in these 10 best contemporary books that blend music and personal narrative.

All writing is personal, but conventional wisdom says incorporating first-person narrative into music history and criticism diminishes a writer’s authority. However, in the last decade, many authors have proven the opposite, highlighting personal stories and biases as part of their critiques and contextualization. Such choices have resulted in exciting and promising directions for music writing and creative nonfiction.

This article ranks ten books, all published in the last decade, that blend first-person narrative accounts with music writing. They’re ranked not only for their quality but also the uniqueness of the writing, and the blend of genres also count.

The focus is less on collections of criticism than on books with more sustained personal storytelling, including memoirs, histories, and essay anthologies. Many of the titles are written or edited by women, people of color, and/or LGBTQ people. All deserve your attention.

10. Your Song Changed My Life by Bob Boilen

William Morrow (2016)

The host of NPR Music’s All Songs Considered, Bob Boilen, is a passionate music obsessive. In Your Song Changed My Life, he writes of interviews and encounters with dozens of musicians, asking each of them to pick the song that changed their life. Incorporating plenty of personal reflection, Your Song Changed My Life offers wistful storytelling that makes the entries fun, sweet, and earnest. 

Boilen delights in musicians’ unexpected favorites, like when the British electronic singer James Blake chooses soul artist Sam Cooke’s “Trouble Blues”. A sizable contingent of the musicians interviewed are NPR-approved alternative music heroes, including Carrie Brownstein, St. Vincent, Jeff Tweedy, Conor Oberst, and Lucinda Williams. Compared to other books on this list, Your Song Changed My Life‘s narratives about music and its histories, especially regarding musical progress, are more conventional, so it is the least challenging book on this list. However, it’s still a very enjoyable ode to music’s transformative effects and the unconventional moments when music matters the most.

See also: David Chiu’s interview with Bob Boilen about Your Song Changed My Life.

9. Why Karen Carpenter Matters by Karen Tongson

University of Texas Press (2019)

A fascinating exploration of the meanings of 1970s pop icon Karen Carpenter and her work, Why Karen Carpenter Matters, will take many readers by surprise. Named after Carpenter, author Karen Tongson makes it clear that the book is not an all-encompassing guide to what Carpenter means to so many; it is personal, but the directions and risks the book takes make the angles that much more surprising.

Tongson examines Carpenter’s importance to immigrants, especially those from the Philippines, the queer resonances in her voice and public image, her well-known struggles with anorexia, and her unacknowledged role in the birth of soft rock. I loved the discussion of the Carpenters’ famous overdubbed vocal harmonies and the analysis of their underappreciated “Goodbye to Love” as their quintessential recording. This is an unusually illuminating personal analysis of a music artist.

8. Black Country Music: Listening for Revolutions by Francesca T. Royster

University of Texas Press (2022)

Less a historical survey than an exploration of the topic as a Black, queer, and female fan and scholar, this book is nonetheless crucial for studying country music. Black Country Music is the first book on its topic written by a Black author, but Francesca T. Royster’s prose deserves consideration regardless of this book’s novelty. It is well-researched as well as sensuous and personal, and the insights about artists ranging from Lil Nas X and Rhiannon Giddens to Tina Turner and Beyoncé are incisive. 

Her personal stories about growing up listening to country music and the “bro intimacies” she observed from fraternity brothers and, later, country superstar Darius Rucker enhance the book. One of the most valuable aspects of Black Country Music is that it offers many questions for readers to ponder and explore for further learning and listening. This work is strong and adds much to the study of country music, race, and American music.

7. Love for Sale: Pop Music in America by David Hajdu

Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2016)

Given the obvious self-involvement in critic David Hajdu’s text, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. Love for Sale is an unconventional history with strong insights throughout. From its discomfort with the term “popular music” to the focus on trends over genres or artists, Hajdu’s book gratefully admits to his biases while writing brilliantly on American popular music. 

The personal anecdotes work well in the context of the narrative, and I appreciated his even-handed approach to different trends, including when I thought that he was blatantly wrong. This is more of a personally informed history than a historically based memoir, and as such, it is very strong.

See also Simon Warner’s interview with David Hajdu upon the publication of Positively Fourth Street.

6. Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres by Kelefa Sanneh

Penguin (2021)

Critic Kelefa Sanneh’s love letter to the “genrefication” of popular music in the past half-century is brilliantly written, nuanced, and original. More comprehensive and detailed than Hajdu’s book and more generous towards a wider range of music, Major Labels is especially useful for the connections it draws within and between genres. Sanneh’s stories on his relationship with music make this one of the most idiosyncratic but ambitious music history books I’ve ever read. 

The chapter on punk has the greatest amount of personal narrative, but other chapters, especially the chapter on rock, benefit from the weaving of the personal with the bigger picture of rock history. Sanneh’s chapters about hip-hop and dance music are full of revelatory insights that run contrary to most music historians and critics. Generally, the freshness of Sanneh’s perspectives outweighs my issues with his genre definitions (see here). Major Labels is a very strong music history book that benefits from its use of personal narrative; you can feel Sanneh’s genuine love for popular music on every page.

5. Long Players: Writers on the Albums That Shaped Them edited by Tom Gatti

Bloomsbury (2021)

Despite its conventional premise, this anthology of short columns is one of the more surprising contemporary books about music I’ve read. Journalist Tom Gatti asked dozens of writers about the albums that mean the most to them, and despite the columns’ brevity, this book is more insightful about listening journeys than Your Song Changed My Life. Because the focus is on music’s significance to literary figures, the prose is especially noteworthy. Long Players also covers a wider range of music, including classical and dance music, than a typical “best music of all time” book.

Gatti’s introduction highlights the history of the album as a form. The rest of the book doesn’t focus as much on that history, but some columns contrast different periods of listening with the digital age. Many of the writers mention geographic, as well as historical, settings to situate their albums of choice. Even in short columns, the prose can be devastating, including those by Marlon James, David Mitchell, and Ben Okri. I was delighted by the layers uncovered in albums that have been widely analyzed, including classics by Miles Davis, Joni Mitchell, and Van Morrison.

4. Woman Walk the Line: How the Women in Country Music Changed Our Lives edited by Holly Gleason

University of Texas Press (2017)

Today country music often gets associated with cis-hetero white men, so editor Holly Gleason’s claim that country “is many ways women’s music,” is controversial. However, Gleason and other contributors to this anthology prove this claim with a strong collection of personal essays on the one woman in country music each writer selects who means the most to her. Many of the contributors are musicians, journalists, or industry insiders, including multiple writers who met their favorite women in country. 

The essays in Woman Walk the Line are multidimensional, living, breathing cases for the importance of each of these female country artists, including aurally and visually. As an edited anthology of multiple authors, this book is surprisingly cohesive. Woman Walk the Line is neither a reflection of a canon nor an attempt at erecting a new one. In fact, I especially appreciated the essays on less canonized figures, including Lil Hardin, Hazel Dickens, and Terri Clark, as well as the longer pieces on Patty Loveless and Tanya Tucker. 

See also John Paul’s article, “‘Woman Walk the Line’ Is a Love Letter to Country Music Past”.

3. Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest by Hanif Abdurraqib

University of Texas Press (2019)

In Go Ahead in the Rain, the eminent cultural critic Hanif Abdurraqib celebrates what he calls the greatest rap group of all time, expertly blending personal reflection with some of the most insightful writing I’ve seen on the evolution of hip-hop into a brilliantly cohesive whole. 

Abdurraqib’s authority on and passion for the music is obvious, including his history as an early fan of A Tribe Called Quest. Illuminating the times and contexts of the group, from their first album to the aftermath of the death of member Phife Dawg and the 2016 US presidential election, Abdurraqib’s analysis of grief, authenticity, and the political content of hip-hop stand out, and the letters he writes to the group’s members highlight his evolving compassion and empathy for the group’s struggles.

See also Kyle Cochran’s article, “‘Go Ahead in the Rain’ Artfully Melds the Many Parts of a Tribe Called Quest’s Backstory”.

2. I’ve Had to Think Up a Way to Survive: On Trauma, Persistence, and Dolly Parton by Lynn Melnick

University of Texas Press (2022)

I’ve Had to Think Up a Way to Survive is the best pure memoir and one of the most cohesive books on this list. Poet Lynn Melnick does not fit the stereotype of a Dolly Parton fan, yet her writing is exceptionally insightful about details, including trauma, privilege, rape culture, and the significance of Parton in American culture. Melnick’s language and analysis are luminous and sharp throughout as she writes about Parton’s significance to her as a fellow survivor of abuse. 

Melnick’s is one of the best music books I’ve read that wrestles with complexity and seeming contradiction. She juxtaposes Parton’s status as a trauma survivor with her heavily objectified image in a larger rape culture. Organizing the chapters by reflections on individual songs, Melnick writes about abuse, abortion, and breakups in a very well-researched book that made my appreciation for Parton even stronger.

1. Shine Bright: A Very Personal History of Black Women in Pop by Danyel Smith

Roc Lit 101 (2022)

In Shine Bright, critic and editor Danyel Smith writes one of the most inventive memoirs and music history books I’ve read. The deft blending of genres is a delight, and I love the combination of personal revelations, in-depth examination of Black female pop artists, and anecdotal storytelling. In fact, Shine Bright is the most inventive, ambitious, and impassioned book on this list for its blending of forms and genres. 

The chapters often focus on the obstacles that Black women, including Smith as a journalist, have faced in the music industry. While Shine Bright is not a straightforward or linear history, I came away with a much greater appreciation of its topic, not to mention the desire to listen and relisten to the artists featured. Smith gives Black women in pop the credit that they have long been denied, which alone would make it essential, but as a memoir informed by history, Shine Bright is first-rate. All authors here are invested in their subjects, but Smith’s passion and love of music shines brightest.