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12 Contemporary Books That Will Have You Rethinking Music History

The best contemporary music books on this list are specific and sweeping, creating new narratives that challenge dominant orthodoxy on music and its histories.

This list evaluates 12 of the most ambitious music history books from the last decade, ranked for quality and the degree to which they reveal and uncover new facts and interpretations. These music books often survey genres, themes, and/or music more broadly, though some are more successful than others.

The best books on this list are both specific and sweeping, using a particular lens to uncover larger issues. In addition, several of these books focus on gender and sexuality, all pointing to new directions in which music scholars, critics, and historians can point to the field. The focus here is on books that attempt to tell, retell, and/or create new narratives that challenge dominant orthodoxy on music and its histories.

12. The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs

Greil Marcus

Yale University Press, 2014

This is a nonlinear history of rock ‘n’ roll based on songs illuminating the genre’s key ideas or themes. The idea was a great one, and Marcus is one of our most important and brilliant critics and intellectuals. Unfortunately, not one of the generally incisive essays in The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs answers the question, how do these songs illuminate the history of rock ‘n’ roll? In addition to not addressing that conspicuous gap, Marcus’ book sometimes reads like a middle-aged straight white male music critic raving about the good old days (that never existed), especially when contrasting Etta James with Beyoncé. So, while The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs is worth reading, it’s more insightful than it is useful for the field of music history.

Ted Gioia: Music: A Subversive History (2019) | cover

11. Music: A Subversive History

Ted Gioia

Basic Books, 2019

I really wanted to love Gioia’s book. Music: A Subversive History contains useful interpretations for the field of music history about music’s connections to such unseemly matters as murder, sex, and trance, but it is so hung up on its own supposedly subversive interpretations that it fails to recognize how it’s points are not subversive at all.

Gioia fails to realize that subversion is contextual, and in the field of music history, a focus on supposedly colorblind universalism, as opposed to the differences between music cultures, reinforces dominant (white) ethnocentrism while ignoring, well, most of the world’s music. In addition, Gioia dismissing the previous four decades of music as lacking innovation is blatantly wrong and frankly lazy.

The narrative that Gioia, an eminent scholar on jazz and blues, paints here is seductive, but it is also unendingly condescending to other interpretations that might subvert dominant ideas and norms. Music: A Subversive History‘s focus on the functional uses of music—more than the development of chords, harmony, and so forth—makes it more accessible to the average reader. However, it’s unfortunate that many who read it without knowing much about music history will find it to be subversive.

See also Chadwick Jenkins’ essay, “Music History, the Conspiracy Theory: On Ted Gioia’s Music: A Subversive History”

10. Love for Sale: Pop Music in America

David Hajdu

Picador, 2016

Here, with Hajdu’s book, is where the books on this list start getting good. Love for Sale is not as comprehensive as some, but it is one of the most accessible, witty, and insightful histories of American music that I have read. Love for Sale is one of several books on this list that includes personal history as part of the narrative. Despite moments when Hajdu sounds more like a critic than a historian, particularly regarding his views on contemporary pop and trends like Auto-Tune, the book manages to reveal much more about its subject than I anticipated. Hajdu’s research is excellent, and Love for Sale is more ideal for a general reader of American music and pop music than most others I’ve seen, including those above.

9. The Story of Music: From Babylon to the Beatles: How Music Shaped Civilization

Howard Goodall

Chatto & Windus / Vintage, 2013

While not the most absorbing narrative compared to Ted Gioia’s above book, The Story of Music is a better book because it feels more inviting to further listening, rather than obnoxiously snobbish, in its admitted didacticism. Goodall focuses on the development of music over time, especially European classical forms, and on formal characteristics like notation, harmony, and tuning systems. There is some social history and some international and non-Eurocentric coverage, including of Latin rhythms in jazz and classical and pop collaborations. For a condensed version of all of music history, this book does an excellent job.

8. Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres

Kelefa Sanneh

Penguin, 2021

In Major Labels, Sanneh focuses on the last half-century of popular music by tracing and connecting developments in rock, R&B, country, punk, rap, dance, and pop. The best thing about this book is its enthusiasm and openness to a wide range of music, infusing the reader with the joy of discovery. Sanneh is one of the best music writers I’ve ever read; his descriptions of songs and artists are impeccable, and his extensive use of sources in the music press is unique and illuminating. Given the instability and overlap of genres, however, Major Label‘s “literally generic” framework isn’t always convincing.

Describing Black pop artists, including Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston, as R&B because of their race–and not really tracing the development of pop, instead tracing the development of the philosophy of poptimism in the chapter on pop–undermines the virtues of a generic approach. In addition, no matter how much it sounds like common sense to define country music as white music for white people, ignoring issues of class and other racial groups’ involvement with country, scholars like Francesca T. Royster, Nadine Hubbs, and Diane Pecknold are rightly redefining that perception of country music.

So, while Sanneh’s focus on definitions is justified, Major Labels is both brilliant for its unique insights and frustrating for its re-inscription of dominant ideas about some genres. Like Hajdu’s Love for Sale, Major Labels is accessible and personal, but especially noteworthy, the prose is stellar.

See also Robert Loss’ essay, “No Apologies: A Critique of the Rockist v. Poptimist Paradigm”

7. Country Music: An Illustrated History

Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns

Knopf, 2019

Duncan and Burns’ work may be the best available survey on country music and its history because it tells a mostly convincing, though flawed, narrative without getting distracted by purism—which makes sense for a genre that was never pure. Duncan and Burns mostly made up for Burns’s disastrous Jazz documentary, which included glaring inaccuracies and very few commentators, with their surprisingly strong Country Music series. This companion book, though not the same without the music playing, betters the film by including crucial figures that the film overlooks, including Hank Snow and Don Williams.

Although Country Music and the miniseries often focus more on certain musicians’ lives than on the music and the business, they nonetheless do an admirable job of painting a broader picture of country music and its history than most people—whether country purists or radio programmers—would want. However, it’s not as progressive as it would like to think it is, as its limited focus on race leaves much to be desired, especially when compared to the scholarship of Francesca T. Royster, whose book Black Country Music: Listening for Revolutions, was recently released. That said, Country Music‘s interviews with the likes of Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, and other giants of the genre make this a must-read, including for the archival photographs.

A recent list calls this the best book on country music ever, and it’s easy to see why. Despite being less comprehensive than Bill C. Malone’s landmark Country Music USA (reissued with coauthor Tracey E. W. Laird in 2018 for its 50th anniversary), Duncan and Burns’ Country Music may be as solid a survey of the genre as we’re ever going to get, even though it ends in the mid-1990s.

Bob Stanley: Yeah! Yeah! Yeah (2013) | cover

6. Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! The Story of Pop Music from Bill Haley to Beyoncé

Bob Stanley

W.W. Norton, 2013

It may shock some that I rank Stanley’s Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! ahead of Sanneh’s Major Labels, but Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! is often more comprehensive, encyclopedic, opinionated, and inclusive than the more beautifully written book from Sanneh. Like Major Labels, however, Stanley’s book brims with the joy of discovery for all kinds of popular music, and Stanley, a British musician from the band Saint Etienne, manages to upend most clichés about music from a half-century while focusing more on the UK than a typical Americanist music text. There is a greater discussion of issues in class as well.

Many will disagree with Stanley’s assessments, including his notable lack of praise for the Clash. A weak point of Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! is frequent comments on artists’ physical appearance, but overall, this is a unique and strong survey of a half-century of music that educates and inspires with its love of pop. Stanley also recently released a prequel of sorts, Let’s Do It: The Birth of Pop, that looks promising as well.

5. David Bowie Made Me Gay: 100 Years of LGBT Music

Darryl W. Bullock

Abrams, 2017

With an eye-catching title and some of the most impressive music history research of the last decade, Bullock creates an exceptionally useful text for highlighting LGBT contributions across music history of the last century. Although sometimes the book is gossipy, that quality can make David Bowie Made Me Gay more fun to read than a more dry, typical music history text.

Though some might find his “dishing” on musicians’ personal lives distracting, Bullock nonetheless reveals a plethora of new names, facts, interpretations, recordings, and other documents that add to the world’s understanding of music history. Bullock examines LGBT contributions in everything from ragtime to punk, electronica to country, and especially towards the end, his focus on transnational LGBT political issues and music gratefully works to decenter the U.S. and UK from how music history is often told.

See Megan Volpert’s review, “‘David Bowie Made Me Gay’ Raises the Question, How Do We Define LGBT Music?”

4. Shine Bright: A Very Personal History of Black Women in Pop

Danyel Smith

Rock Lit 101, 2022

Smith’s Shine Bright is more autobiographical and less scholarly than, for example, such excellent books as Maureen Mahon’s 2020 survey, Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll, or Daphne A. Brooks’ 2021 book on archives of Black female creativity, Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound. However, Shine Bright is more important because it examines a wider range of music artists – from opera giant Leontyne Price to Mariah Carey, as well as less recognized artists like Marilyn McCoo and Jody Watley. Shine Bright is a larger investigation into how Black women in pop music, broadly defined, are often underappreciated and exploited, with their disproportionate contributions to the world’s culture overlooked. 

Smith’s research on the political economy of the music business highlights areas of culture that aren’t always discussed in journalism or scholarship. While Shine Bright is not as cohesive as a standard music history book, it is simultaneously more useful, joyous, and heartbreaking, as Smith weaves in her life story in ways that will make readers respond and want to engage more with the music and musicians she writes about. Smith convincingly shows why American music is built on the work of Black women. The audiobook of Smith reading Shine Bright enhances the experience and is well worth listening to.

3. Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black & White, Body and Soul in American Music

Ann Powers

Dey Street, 2017

Powers is easily one of the most important music writers of the last few decades, and in 2017 she published the best contemporary survey text on music history. This history of sex and American music is one of the most authoritative books on the importance of music I have ever read. Powers combines cultural history with sharp criticism, and the balance between criticism and history is a big part of why Good Booty ranks high on this list.

Though Powers is exceptionally insightful about well-known giants like Madonna and David Bowie, it is her uncovering of the roles of overlooked figures in gospel music and early pop that push Good Booty ahead of most in terms of its research. Powers’ focus on race as key in the history of sex and American music is critical, and her focus on geographic specificity makes it all the more significant for American Cultural Studies.

American music, Powers argues, is the primary medium through which we experience the erotic in the US. Many people view the study of music history as a boring buzzkill, but Good Booty is anything but that, adding to the joy and pleasure of great music.

See David Chiu’s review, “Ann Power’s ‘Good Booty’ and the Connection Between Eroticism and Popular Music”.

2. The Meaning of Soul:
Black Music and Resilience since the 1960s

Emily J. Lordi

Duke University Press, 2020

Though in some ways more an aesthetic survey than history, Lordi’s The Meaning of Soul may be the most important, game-changing book on soul—the music, the concept, and its history—ever published.

“Soul” is a famously amorphous term, but Lordi defines soul logic as resilience from struggle and argues for the late ’60s and early ‘70s, a time when women and queer people held greater dominance in the genre, as the peak period of soul music. This focus deviates from every other author on soul I’ve ever read, from Nelson George to Peter Guralnick to Mark Anthony Neal, and Lordi’s readings of practices like falsetto vocals and false endings show soul logic at work in a range of music across eras.

In The Meaning of Soul’s conclusion, Lordi’s use of what she calls Afropresentism, as opposed to Afrofuturism, also deviates from contemporary thinkers and helps recenter soul logic in current times. Put simply, The Meaning of Soul is essential.

1. Glitter Up the Dark: How Pop Music Broke the Binary

Sasha Geffen

University of Texas Press, 2020

Geffen’s 2020 book is a gem. Glitter Up the Dark chronicles and argues for pop music’s critical role in disrupting dominant gender expressions and norms. Their arguments about the music of the last 60 years—from the Beatles to Prince and David Bowie to Frank Ocean and Perfume Genius—are revelatory. The gender binary, they argue, is not simply worth breaking; it has always been broken.

Geffen’s arguments about music and the body, the voice, and machines from recording technology through the internet age, disrupt conventional wisdom on music history and healing. Indeed, by the end, Geffen creates one of the most helpful and useful things a writer can give: hope for a more inclusive future.

Anyone interested in gender would benefit from reading Glitter Up the Dark, and music obsessives can find a plethora of new interpretations of music history as well. Ultimately, that is what the best music books can do.