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The Best Music Books of 2012

Reading © anaken2012. Image via Shutterstock.

This year's best books about music include thought-provoking reads on how music works, in-depth histories of the underground, and soul-searching autobiographies from legendary (and not-so-legendary) performers.

Book: Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock

Author: Jesse Jarnow

Publisher: Gotham / Penguin


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Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock
Jesse Jarnow

Big Day Coming is a fact-laden treasure trove that takes place in a magical world where music is as essential as breathing -- that is to say, Hoboken, New Jersey. Jarnow gets every detail a fan of Yo La Tengo could want: Ira and Georgia’s first time meeting (at a Feelies show, natch), their first poster, where they played their weekly softball games. Even more important is what Jarnow's band-friendly biography does with these particulars, culled from old Melody Makers and original interviews: makes the case for Yo La Tengo being the one steadying force in the decades of indie rock glory and bullshit, equally ready to blow minds in the age of zines and MP3s. Even if you can’t tell your Hubley from your Kaplan, big day coming shows how far an unending love of music and a nice attitude can get you. David Grossman

Book: Black Metal: Beyond the Darkness

Author: Tom Howells (Editor)

Publisher: Black Dog


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Black Metal: Beyond the Darkness
Tom Howells

Black metal's theatrics and theories have become notorious since a raft of second wave bands lit a bonfire under the genre in the early '90s. However, black metal has never remained static, and Black Metal: Beyond the Darkness set out to explore the genre’s stylistic experimentations and varying ideologies. The multi-authored volume was immaculately presented, with archival, newly commissioned, and testimonial essays uncloaking black metal’s often misrepresentative myths. Personal recollections reaffirmed the genre’s importance in supporting an alternate worldview, emphasizing the distinct philosophic importance of black metal for fans and artists alike. Underground labels, bands, the genre’s art, aesthetics and the marketing of black metal were all investigated, and Black Metal… made for a dynamic snapshot of a genre often criticized for being wholly negative. Sure, not every significant band or theme was covered, but Black Metal… was a magnificent primer for a scene replete with the differing artistic expressions that have transformed black metal without forgetting its foundational roots. Craig Hayes

Book: The Book of Drugs: A Memoir

Author: Mike Doughty

Publisher: Da Capo


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The Book of Drugs: A Memoir
Mike Doughty

Mike Doughty has stories. Lots of them. Many of those stories are ones he had been reluctant to tell, but in The Book of Drugs he lets it all out. However, his memoir isn't typical fare. His book contains no chapters, it just runs from one anecdote to the next, in roughly chronological order. So the readers see Mike as a kid, growing up on military bases around the world, then struggling in New York City, and, eventually, stumbling into creating the '90s alt-rock band Soul Coughing. Since the book came out, much has been written about Doughty's in-print evisceration of the band that made him famous, but reading it for yourself really brings it home. The contempt Doughty feels for the other three guys in Soul Coughing is kind of amazing. But he explains exactly why he feels that way from the big (forcing him to split songwriting royalties when he wrote all the songs), to the smallish (bassist Sebastian Steinberg had a habit of merely pretending to chip in money for meals). You'd think that would be the harrowing part of the story, but no, Doughty became a hardcore heroin addict along the way. Of course, he eventually got clean and managed to make a solo career for himself and traveled to exotic places around the world, so the book isn't all darkness and vitriol. The Book of Drugs isn't always an easy read, and Doughty isn't the smoothest storyteller around, but the book is unusual in its construction and an unfiltered look into the life and outlook of a fascinating musician. Chris Conaton

Book: The Encyclopedia of Country Music: Second Edition

Author: The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

Publisher: Oxford University Press


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The Encyclopedia of Country Music: Second Edition
The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

This second edition comes 14 years after its predecessor, enough of a gap to demonstrate how country music and the climate surrounding country music has changed and, indeed, how the record industry has evolved as well. In the post-iTunes, Napster, and Dot Com boom and bust world, attitudes, tastes, styles, and reflections have all changed and those revolutions are represented in the pages of this exhaustive and authoritative volume. This volume is great fun as it leaves virtually no stone unturned in the terrain it explores. Sidemen such as David Briggs, who has worked with Neil Young, B.B. King, Dolly Parton, Ernest Tubb, Alabama, and James Burton are present as one might expect, given their ubiquity on sessions and the influence they have continued to hold over future generations of country musicians. But lesser known figures, such as Dr. John Brinkley, also emerge. A fiction writer could not have created someone as colorful and controversial as Brinkley, and it’s difficult to call to mind a character equally eccentric in the annals of rock ‘n’ roll. As a tool for scholars, researchers, and obsessives this volume will be hard to improve upon; it’s authoritative, easy to access, easy to read, and captivating. I read a few of the sections in strict alphabetical order -- moving from the A section all the way through C before switching, at random, to the Rs, then the Hs, then back to the Ds, with little sense of fatigue in any of those endeavors. Jedd Beaudoin

Book: Erewhon Calling: Experimental Sound in New Zealand

Author: Bruce Russell (editor)

Publisher: CMR/Audio Foundation


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Erewhon Calling: Experimental Sound in New Zealand
Bruce Russell (editor)

Fans of nonconformist music will already be well aware of the influence New Zealand's experimental and non-traditional music scenes have had on the culture and sound of global underground music. However, Erewhon Calling… was the first compendium to honor NZ’s experimental music legacy as well as its current depth. Edited by the Dead C's Bruce Russell, the book perfectly captured the sound of "the edge of the world broadcasting back". Highlighting the DIY ingenuity and energy of NZ’s outsider artistic endeavors, Erewhon Calling… surveyed an array of audio adventurers -- the book’s 40-plus contributors coming from a raft of scenes, including noise, electronica, musique concrete, drone, sound installation, field recording, and various unclassifiable mish-mashes. Filled with an extensive collection of anecdotes, artworks, and essays, Erewhon Calling… emphasized the connections between NZ’s offbeat artists; allowing the artists to speak for themselves in whatever format they chose mirrored the eccentric attraction of experimental music. Craig Hayes

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