The one tenet that seemed to unite the music industry leaders, journalists, and historians who authored the following books is that music is a healer as much as it is a mirror to society. In the wake of 2020, after the global pandemic and the protests following the murder of George Floyd, all of these titles were particularly attuned to the way the entertainment business amplifies social and economic injustice, leading to the disenfranchisement of whole genres, styles, and eras of music. These authors presented unflinching new portraits of household names like Whitney Houston, Notorious B.I.G., and Nipsey Hussle. They excavated the beginnings of hip-hop in Atlanta, women (specifically Black women) in country music, the Chicago ’90s underground scene, British heavy metal, and so much more. The following 17 titles delighted, educated, and surprised us, but most of all, they transformed the way we listen to music. Broken down into unordered categories, here are SPIN‘s recommendations for the best music books in 2022:
Music History — But This Time With Women
Shine Bright: A Very Personal History of Black Women in Pop
By Danyel Smith
Award-winning journalist Danyel Smith has released an impressive blend of cultural commentary, history, and personal memoir with Shine Bright. Smith highlights how Black women’s voices have been completely erased from their role as the foundation of the pop music we know and love today. Smith’s opening line, “My love of music is intense,” is a promise to the reader. She gives back the credit where it’s deserved in discussing some of the most powerful Black female pop artists (Diana Ross, Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin, and Janet Jackson, among other icons) who were leaders in the roadmap of music. Through weaving her own personal connections to music with the rise of these legends, she creates space for Black women to shine in their power. “And the connections in music, like a map in murky times,” Smith claims, “comfort a girl who is finally telling her own stories with the kind of passion and rigor she has been telling the stories of others.”
This Woman’s Work: Essays on Music
Curated by Sinéad Gleeson and Kim Gordon
Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon and author Sinéad Gleeson team up to compile an innovative collection of essays on women and the incredible power that can come from establishing their credibility in the music industry. From personal reflections on meeting a favorite artist, cultural criticism on a specific genre, to an interview with an elite drummer, the conversation about the role of women in music appreciation is vast. One of the standout essays, “Double-Digit Jukebox: An Essay in Eight Mixes” by Leslie Jamison, details the mixtapes Jamison makes in order to impress men in her life. Ranging from funny, heartfelt, and hostile, these essays serve to shatter the glass ceiling against a male-dominated industry.
Her Country: How the Women of Country Music Became the Success They Were Never Supposed to Be
By Marissa R. Moss
In the late ’90s, the country music industry was proud of songs written and performed by women, with artists like Shania Twain, LeAnn Rimes, and Faith Hill frequently heard blasting from radio speakers and celebrated at award shows. In the decades since, this same industry has somehow regressed. Women “enter a system rigged against them.” But these same women also have the power to “transform the genre in their wake.” And if the barrier has already been built against women in general, imagine how much higher BIPOC women have to climb to be taken seriously. Award-winning journalist Marissa R. Moss investigates the journey of Maren Morris, Mickey Guyton, and Kacey Musgraves as groundbreakers in an industry where women have always needed to shout to be heard.
Genre-Specific Deep Dives
In the Chicago ’90s underground indie scene, a mashup of inventive sonic experiments began to unfold. “[P]unk, indie rock, industrial dance, house music, country, and jazz were largely segregated into their own separate scenes and venues” during the late ’80s, according to Patrick Monaghan, but in the ’90s “those scenes began to collaborate and merge.” kranky co-founder Bruce Adams provides behind-the-scenes insight on the Windy City’s music labels (with Touch & Go and Wax Trax! leading the charge) and how they contributed to the meteoric rise of Gen X stars such as Liz Phair, Nirvana, and Smashing Pumpkins. The widespread support of labels in encouraging artists, along with Chicago’s “combination of wholesale distribution and infrastructure” made the city unique — O’Hare Airport ensured worldwide reach for records. If nothing else, this book nurtures our sense of nostalgia for a tremendous decade of music, especially in kranky’s pursuit to “release music that transcended the moment,” and reminds us of simpler, pre-Internet times where radio airplay, touring, and fanzines heavily influenced the success of music’s breakout stars.
Black Country Music: Listening for Revolutions
By Francesca T. Royster
English professor and writer Francesca T. Royster addresses the dismissal that Black country music artists and fans feel within this community, combining memoir writing with journalism as she focuses on specific Black artists helping to create space in a genre that appears too willing to neglect its own roots. She compares the experience of a Black person proudly acknowledging their love for country to that of a queer person coming out. Royster writes about taking banjo lessons to enhance her own connection to the roots of Black music, reminding the reader of how this African instrument is a “source of creative sustenance for Black people.” In Black Country Music, the featured artists are sometimes surprising (Tina Turner, Beyoncé), but in sharing their efforts in the genre, the Black community can reclaim country music as part of their present.
The Come Up: An Oral History of the Rise of Hip-Hop
By Jonathan Abrams
Journalist Jonathan Abrams has created a masterpiece in book form. After conducting over 300 interviews over the course of three years, Abrams has accomplished the incredible feat of detailing the rise of hip-hop straight from the creators of the genre themselves. The history spans decades, detailing the evolution of Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash in the Bronx during the 1970s, the scope of talent that compromised Wu-Tang Clan, and Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer Prize for Music for his album DAMN. in 2018, signaling that the genre is finally being taken seriously as a true art form. It’s a celebration of the stories passed down from the pioneers who constructed an entirely new culture of music.
By Michael Hann
After hundreds of hours of interviews, journalist Michael Hann has compiled an impressive oral history of one of music’s most underrated movements, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM). The rise of this “starburst” genre included over 500 scrappy, lo-fi bands immersed in the power of presentation. Their unbridled enthusiasm resulted in hilarious hijinks, from permanent scars thanks to amateur stage pyrotechnics, mid-performance shutdowns from angry Bingo players next door at the social club, and gigs to a single audience member and his dog who shared a pint and bag of crisps. Hann’s interviews proved that at the core of metal was its heart despite the incredible influence of journalism on a band’s reputation at the time. The lineup of artists discussed (Diamond Head, Saxon, Iron Maiden, Samson, Black Sabbath, Def Leppard, and numerous others) could only survive thanks to praise from Sounds and Kerrang! magazines or Friday night radio shows. But no matter each individual band’s expiration date, every metal musician since owes a debt to these groups. Phil Alexander, Kerrang! editor, believed, “It’s the spark of enthusiasm that lies at the heart of NWOBHM that is the most overarchingly important element of it to me. Because it kind of shapes an attitude that says: these people are real, these people will be your heroes, you will identify that, and as a result of that you will also do things yourself.”
By Joe Coscarelli
New York Times music reporter Joe Coscarelli covers the boundary-pushing brilliance of rap’s domination in Atlanta in Rap Capital. Although this story mentions events from the late 1970s to present day and highlights an array of influential artists, Coscarelli focuses on the past decade as a true transformation in the genre. As we witness the evolution of Atlanta into an innovative, resourceful, and experimental city, we are reminded of the musical pioneers who took their opportunity to thrive. From Outkast creating their own unique style, ad libs in trap music from Jeezy and Gucci Mane, the rise of Migos, Lil Baby’s origin story, mumble rap, mixtapes, and the support from Drake in championing it all, Atlanta has not only held its own power, but found salvation from oppression in rising above the rest. “[L]ocal rappers have routinely exploded the expectations of what a young Black man from little or nothing could hope to achieve in the broader American consciousness. Largely through music, the city has become a conveyor belt of exceptions.” It’s time for the rest of the country to give Atlanta hip-hop artists the long overdue appreciation they deserve.
Incredible Legacies of Fallen Icons
It Was All a Dream: Biggie and the World That Made Him
By Justin Tinsley
The Notorious B.I.G., born in Brooklyn as Christopher Wallace, would have celebrated his 50th birthday this year, and in It Was All a Dream, Justin Tinsley takes on the enormous task of honoring Biggie’s legacy and celebrating his artistic genius. Despite his solid relationship with an overprotective Jamaican mother, Biggie still manages to escape from under her watchful eye to leave the security of his stoop and begin drug dealing. By compiling interviews of those who knew Biggie best, this biography is a comprehensive story of a man who was both a product of his environment (feeding into feuds with Tupac and East/West rivalry), but also completely unique in his character and ability to create. This book is bittersweet — we are transported to a time when rap legends were creating an entirely new genre of hip-hop, but due to violence and other obstacles, realized only a sliver of their potential.
Most Dope: The Extraordinary Life of Mac Miller
By Paul Cantor
Most Dope introduces us to Malcolm James McCormick, the real person behind the stage persona of the late artist Mac Miller. Journalist Paul Cantor explores Mac’s family dynamics and includes a fascinating history of the city of Pittsburgh, with mentions of famous immigrants, explorers, and its industry boom, to represent a “legacy of achievement” in the place that helped catapult Mac into fame. We have the opportunity to witness artistic genius along with the challenges of touring and the cost of being in the public eye. It’s a gentle and admiring exploration of the art Mac Miller created, only made that much more tragic in light of his 2018 death from a drug overdose.
The Marathon Don’t Stop: Life and Times of Nipsey Hussle
By Rob Kenner
There are artists, and then there are extraordinary artists. As a master of intellect, community, and dedication, Nipsey Hussle was a truly prolific figure in hip-hop. Not only was the word tattooed on his face, but the proof was in his ability “to make powerful music” while being able “to extract wealth from a system that was designed to exploit content creators.” In The Marathon Don’t Stop, Rob Kenner seeks to provide a history of the music mogul’s life, as well as the rise of L.A.’s gang culture where he was raised. Gang prevalence meant that it was easy for Nipsey to become a member of the Rollin’ 60s Neighborhood Crips before transitioning full-time to music and nurturing his craft of thought-provoking lyricism. The most striking passages are when Nipsey traveled to his father’s homeland of Eritrea to reconnect with his ancestry, trips during which he gained a profound sense of appreciation for connection with others. These trips inspired him to establish a neighborhood community in Crenshaw led by self-empowerment and activism back at home. Hussle’s 2019 murder was senseless and gut-wrenching, but his profound legacy lives on as “the Marathon continues.”
Didn’t We Almost Have It All: In Defense of Whitney Houston
By Gerrick D. Kennedy
In his tribute to the otherworldly voice of Whitney Houston and her astonishing career, cultural critic Gerrick D. Kennedy reflects on his personal admiration of the artist both as a fan and, later, a journalist who just so happened to see her at the Beverly Hilton ballroom 48 hours before her death. Kennedy was there on assignment to discuss Clive Davis’ Annual Pre-Grammy Gala, anticipated to be Houston’s comeback performance. In discussing her rise to fame, Kennedy allows readers to gain valuable insight into Houston’s struggles with addiction, double-consciousness as she grappled with her Blackness in a white-dominated industry, a toxic marriage, the lack of acceptance around her sexual identity and same-sex relationship with Robyn Crawford, and the pressures of living up to expectations. Kennedy reminds us that while our views on mental health and addiction have progressed, we were too quick to judge and too late to help Whitney. “Her story had become too familiar, a cycle of tragedy in an industry that seemed unconcerned with breaking it,” Kennedy writes. “The double standard has always been clear … Men are celebrated for what they accomplish, regardless of how perverse their transgressions are, while women are roundly punished for theirs, and unfortunately, we lost Whitney before we learned to be better.”
By Dan Charnas
J Dilla was an extraordinary hip-hop producer who fundamentally changed the way that music is understood and performed. Born as James DeWitt Yancey in Detroit, the home of Motown, he carried the energy of his city with him “both in terms of his artistic sophistication and his money mindset.” Writer, producer, and professor, Dan Charnas, weaves together a tapestry of hardship, resilience, and mastery in sharing J Dilla’s story. Dilla grew up with a father who was also a struggling artist, but who loved to tap out time on Dilla’s belly as a small child. In adulthood, Dilla’s thoughtful demeanor and knack for experimentation transformed musical rhythm from the standard straight time or swing time into a combination of both, now coined as Dilla Time. The tragedy is the short time we had J Dilla here to create and inspire – he passed away at 32 from a rare blood disease. And while he was a Grammy-nominated producer who collaborated with artists such as Common, Erykah Badu, and Questlove, Dilla’s premature death cut short his incredible body of work. But his legacy lives on. Today his musical genius is taught in university courses, and his sense of time in music has filtered through nearly every other musical genre. Charnas’ Dilla Time continues to elevate J Dilla’s legacy in transforming the sound of popular music by reinventing rhythm.
Something For The Fans
Stereogum writer Tom Breihan has written The Number Ones based on his much-loved column of the same name. Breihan embarks on the impressive task of examining Billboard #1 hits based on their cultural revolution in music. Whether it’s a change in cultural or political conversation, a technological shift, or sudden leaps into the unknown, the pop hits featured “marked new moments in pop-music evolution – the ones that immediately made the previous weeks’ hits sound like relics.” As we span across decades, we witness the development of Motown and brilliance of The Supremes through “Where Did Our Love Go,” the late 90’s boom of teen-pop dominating TRL thanks to Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time” and the emergence of Auto-Tune as a common song feature because of T-Pain’s “Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin’) (Featuring Yung Joc).” And when the 20 selected songs have this diverse of a range, from the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” to Soulja Boy Tell’em’s “Crank That (Soulja Boy),” we know there is bound to be an intriguing backstory to each song’s rise to chart-topping glory.
Music journalist Steve Baltin believes in “two essential ingredients for an anthem. The first is timelessness. The second, and even more important, is universality.” Anthems We Love dares to put the guilty pleasures and pop schlock everyone loves on the same shelf as the greats. He doesn’t argue that these are the best songs ever, but instead that they carry meaning and have stood the test of time. Each song is described with unique anecdotes about its origin, its evolution, and in what TV shows or movies it has been featured. For the most immersive experience, open Spotify and play each song as you read about it. Any book that manages to successfully bring together TLC, Bob Marley, The Doors, and Linkin Park in the same conversation about music deserves our attention.
By Kaitlyn Tiffany
In 2014, a sixteen-year-old was brought to the emergency room for shortness of breath. The cause was slightly collapsed lungs after hours of blissful screaming at a One Direction concert in Dallas, Texas the night before. “Screaming Your Lungs Out” became a published paper in the Journal of Emergency Medicine three years later as the world adjusted to the insurmountable power of pop star fandom. Culture writer, Kaitlyn Tiffany, uncovers the rise of the modern fangirl, and while she gives the occasional shoutout to Taylor Swift, The Beatles, Justin Bieber, and Bruce Springsteen, the true MVP of this book is One Direction. An admitted One Direction fangirl herself, Tiffany explores her own discovery of the boy band at nineteen and the community of followers who flock to the internet to detail every update on each member’s outfit choice, relationship status, or current location. A fangirl’s identity is found through their devotion and Tumblr is the most important platform to present their findings. But through Tiffany’s breakdown of authentic stanning for our favorite artists, she also offers a warning: “Online fandom can be progressive, and it can also be reactionary; it can foster creativity, and it can also smooth away individuality; it can create new tools and compel fascinating action just as easily as it can provide the dull, repetitive skills required for activities like media manipulation and harassment.” Her book serves as a reminder of the power we hold as dedicated fans to our favorite artists, and that we need to walk a careful line to avoid abusing that power.
The Music Never Stops: What Putting on 10,000 Shows Has Taught Me About Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Magic
By Peter Shapiro
Peter Shapiro is known as the most influential concert promoter of his generation, and his incredible book, The Music Never Stops, uses 50 epic concert experiences to encapsulate the 100,000 hours he has put into his business. As the former owner of the legendary Wetlands venue to the orchestrator of Grateful Dead’s fiftieth anniversary tour, Shapiro has figured out the secrets (despite the occasional weather mishap) to curating a concert experience worthy of the most loyal fans. From flying across the country to meet with an artist for a five minute chat, to brown bag cash deals of $50,000 with Robert Plant to play a gig, to his friendships with household names like Jimmy Fallon, Shapiro has an arsenal of stories about nearly every artist of the past few decades. But the beauty of his storytelling is in his clear admiration of every artist, no matter the scale of their star power. Among the mightier names in the industry such as Bob Dylan, U2, and the Grateful Dead, Shapiro holds equal respect for bands like Dispatch, Guster, and Dawes. In his concert retellings, it’s obvious he is just like us: a true fan who cannot believe his luck in attending the shows of brilliant artists who inspire him. Despite his humility, Shapiro is clearly the best at what he does, and the relationships he’s forged are a testament to his character. He continues “to have the passion for it” and is “still searching for magic.” And if you are willing to believe in a little bit of magic alongside him, Shapiro may just be able to ensure a perfectly timed rainbow appears during your next concert experience.
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