Music historian Elijah Wald wrote in 2009, “This is an exciting time to be writing about popular music,” and many books have proven this true in the past decade. Whether or not they sold well, some made readers reconsider what they thought they knew about different genres, eras, and trends in popular music.
Organized alphabetically by the author’s last name, what follows is a selection of ten music books published between 2007 and 2017 that challenge fans to think more critically and listen more carefully. The focus is on books of music history and criticism, rather than of, for example, biography or memoir.
These are multiple works of genre history and works tackling important issues of race, class, and gender. All challenge dominant narratives of music and make for refreshing reads. I welcome suggestions for books that also deserve to be here, but this list serves as a solid starting point for those interested in exploring contemporary scholarship and criticism on music.
David Byrne, How Music Works
Most famous for his music with Talking Heads, David Byrne is a brilliant thinker whose relentless insight into how, why, and in what contexts music functions make this book a joy to read for music fans and geeks looking for something new. His thesis is that context creates and impacts music more than individual talent does, and he gives plentiful examples of how this principle has worked in his own life. The account of the recording of the Talking Heads masterpiece, Remain in Light, is one of many highlights in this book, along with his overviews of technological, business, and local scene issues on music.
Byrne offers well-considered remedies for different problems in contemporary music, including ones involving access to making music and compensation for musicians. Though first published in 2012, How Music Works was revised in 2017 with a new chapter on digital curation.
Read more about How Music Works on PopMatters here.
Jack Hamilton, Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination
(Harvard University Press, 2016)
As Jack Hamilton makes clear in this exceptionally perceptive work, the most common way to talk about race in rock music is to not talk about it at all. This 2016 book is the first monograph on how the racially hybrid “rock ‘n’ roll” shifted to predominantly white “rock”. Tracing this musical and discursive shift in the ’60s, Hamilton uses primary texts, including music journalism, of the time to a much greater extent than previous writing on the topic, and some highlights of his analysis include discussions of the connections between the Beatles and Motown, analysis of constructions of authenticity in rock and folk discourses, and an assessment of race in early rock criticism.
Hamilton’s text is bold, sophisticated, and brilliant. For anyone looking for a book challenging conventional narratives of music history, this is a fantastic candidate.
Read more about Just Around Midnight on PopMatters here.
Jessica Hopper, The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic
Sharp, irreverent, smart, and fittingly contemporary, Jessica Hopper’s style makes this anthology a delight to read. She stresses the necessity of collections like this, though she acknowledges the title may be somewhat misleading. This 2015 book is a necessary corrective to the male-dominated world of rock criticism, which can appear apolitical and more interested in aesthetic judgment than in its implications. Hopper is having none of that. Titles like “Emo: Where the Girls Aren’t” and “How Selling Out Saved Indie Rock” hint at the depth of reportage and analysis here, and for such a concise volume, The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic covers a lot of ground with wit and complexity.
Other highlights include an oral history of Hole’s landmark album, Live Through This, and a chilling dialogue about R. Kelly with journalist and critic Jim DeRogatis.
Read more about The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic on PopMatters here.
Nadine Hubbs, Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music
(University of California Press, 2014)
There are several scholars doing groundbreaking work on country music and issues of class, gender, and race — Diane Pecknold and Pamela Fox come to mind — but I doubt that anyone in the field has produced a work as refreshing and surprising as this 2014 book. Partly about the perception of the white working class as the perpetual bigot class, partly about reading country music in terms of progressive politics (particularly with gender and sexuality), this book is worth reading regardless of one’s political persuasion.
Hubbs’ rediscovery and reading of an underground anti-homophobia track by Outlaw Country artist David Allan Coe, “Fuck Aneta Briant” [sic], makes the book essential by itself, but her ruminations on taste and differing class values are also well worth considering.
If you’ve never questioned why anyone would say they listen to “anything but country”, this book is invaluable.
Karl Hagstrom Miller, Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow
(Duke University Press, 2010)
All works on this list upend different assumptions about music, but Karl Hagstrom Miller digs deeper than most to investigate the very constructions of genres like country, folk, blues, and pop. Why do we consider certain forms, styles, and genres more “authentic” than others? Miller finds answers in his investigation of the folkloric paradigm, emerging in the late 19th century in academic circles just as the Jim Crow system of legal segregation was becoming entrenched in the American South. The folkloric paradigm emphasized — unlike the previously dominant minstrelsy paradigm — that black music came from black bodies and white music came from white bodies — today a seemingly self-evident assumption that nonetheless involved much policing of different styles, performances, and bodies in the service of segregation.
If you’re interested in how different perceptions of music — such as its racial identities — become naturalized, read this book.
Read more about Segregating Sound on PopMatters here.
Marc Myers, Why Jazz Happened
(University of California Press, 2012)
While the title may appear misleading — journalist Myers concentrates the ten main chapters on jazz from the early ’40s to the early ’70s — this brilliant, concise social history adds a stunning amount of new information and interpretations to the sizable literature on jazz history. Focusing on changes in the music business, race relations, technology, and more, Myers’ absorbing chronicle never loses sight of how these shifts impacted the music, and his interviews with jazz legends like Sonny Rollins, Dave Brubeck, and others help make this book essential. Among the many revelatory points: his accounts of the development of the long-playing album (LP) and of jazz’s relationship to ’60s pop songwriters like Burt Bacharach prove especially intriguing.
Though some may lament the lack of discussion of key recordings of the time, what’s here is so fascinating that I didn’t miss the conventional landmarks from most jazz history narratives.
Read more about Why Jazz Happened on PopMatters here.
Ann Powers, Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black & White, Body and Soul in American Music
(Dey Street, 2017)
This exceptionally well-researched 2017 book brilliantly connects different forms of American music, using sex as a thematic starting point. Powers has done more than most critics to make sure that gender is discussed in popular music discourses, and her readings of the erotic dimensions of classic gospel music and of the connections between technology and sex in 21st century pop prove especially well considered and revelatory. The quotations and sources that Powers digs up to focus on, for example, Florence Mills and other under-the-radar figures yield exemplary scholarship, as well as deeply informed criticism.
Reading figures from Bowie to Beyoncé and beyond, this book’s insights represent some of the most necessary work being done in music writing today.
Read more about Good Booty on PopMatters here.
Tricia Rose, The Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop — and Why It Matters
As Tricia Rose — author of the classic scholarly work on hip-hop persuasively argues, the polarized conversation around commercial hip-hop misses important opportunities for complex critique and dialogue. The bulk of this brilliant book focuses on ten debates that impede critical discussions about commercial hip-hop and surrounding issues such as racism, sexism, and poverty. The debates come from both outspoken critics (“hip-hop causes violence”) and defenders (“there are bitches and hoes”), and Rose skewers all of them with exemplary nuance.
Towards the book’s end, Rose offers resources for a progressive engagement with contemporary hip-hop that moves beyond the hip-hop wars, and throughout she makes a strong case as to the effects that hip-hop and its surrounding debates on many, especially African American youth and women.
Elijah Wald, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music
(Oxford University Press, 2009)
Despite the ever-misleading title — as others have written, the subtitle reflects the text more accurately — Elijah Wald’s social, cultural, and musical history from 1890 to 1970 upends many assumptions that writers have made about American popular music. The emphasis is on what was popular, rather than what critics think was important, and Wald expertly documents the period’s popular music with an eye for the big picture. In one key example, Wald chronicles the contributions of popular bandleader Paul Whiteman, called “King of Jazz” in his day, and decisively proves Whiteman’s contributions are worth discussing.
Concise but comprehensive, Wald’s book emphasizes the differences between history and criticism, especially with the dominance of rock and jazz on both, and the world of popular music discourse is better off when this book’s ideas enter the discussion.
Read more about How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll on PopMatters here.
Carl Wilson, Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste
(33 1/3, 2011)
This timely exploration of why we hate the music we hate has been justifiably acclaimed in a wide range of circles, prompting a revised and expanded edition several years after its 2007 publication. Though this is supposed to be a book about Celine Dion’s 1997 album, Let’s Talk About Love, Wilson’s productive attempts at a new kind of criticism, emphasizing both context and personal narrative, offer readers a new way of thinking about even the most (seemingly) mundane forms of popular music.
Though some may find his style hipper-than-thou, this book is anything but glib: Wilson’s research around taste, sentimentality, and the global appeal of Dion make this funny, trenchant work essential reading.
Read more about Let’s Talk About Love on PopMatters here.