5 Essential Books on Music

Categories: Columns

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Photo courtesy Jonathan Patrick

No list concerning music books could ever be definitive. There's simply far too many writers, artists and genres one could choose to explore: everything from the better autobiographies (say, Bob Dylan's Chronicles or Miles Davis' Miles) and top tier hip-hop books (like Book of Rap Lists) to jazz guides (The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings) and theory-heavy gems (Celine Dion's Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste).

However, there's no question that the following five picks are anything short of essential reading, especially for those of us for whom music is more than just a casual means of entertainment. These are books that have followed me for years, works that I return to time and time again. It's my sincerest hope that you find as much inspiration in these words as I have.

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Photo courtesy Jonathan Patrick

Generation Ecstasy/ Energy Flash - Simon Reynolds

Generation Ecstasy (or Energy Flash as it's called across the pond) is the book on dance music. Almost academically detailed, Generation Ecstasy traces modern house/techno/rave to their origins in disco, Kraftwerk, funk and beyond. Specifically, the book outlines the role MDMA played in the history of these musics, and how experience, not meaning, is the key to understanding how they function: "For the critic [electronic dance music] requires a shift of emphasis, so that you no longer ask what the music 'means' but how it works...Where rock relates an experience (autobiographical of imaginary), rave constructs an experience." Purchase here

Further reading: Blissed Out and Retromania


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Photo courtesy Jonathan Patrick

Words and Music - Paul Morley

Certainly one of the more unorthodox books on music, Words and Music, by famed NME rock critic and musician Paul Morley, is a highly personal, narrative-style work that re-imagines the history of music as a surreal tale of magic cities, record lists and immortal personas. The prose is purple but not pretentious (well, mostly not), the story is deliciously illogical and exhilarating, and the historical content is as vast as it is unbiased: classical, hip hop, radio pop, rock, metal, jazz and blues all find a place. While it's certainly not the most organized treatment (rather, it's atypically non-linear), its approach is unquestionably one of the most fascinating. Here, Morley makes a strong case that the only way to tackle the paradoxical nature of music is by drawing new paradoxes of your own. Who thought John Cage, Missy Elliot and Elvis Presley could all get along so well? Purchase here

Further reading: Ask: The Chatter of Pop


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Photo courtesy Jonathan Patrick

Ocean of Sound - David Toop

Following his in-depth discourse on hip-hop (Rap Attack), essayist/artist David Toop widened his scope with the devastating Ocean of Sound. A web of interviews, memories and surgical analysis, Ocean of Sound is musicology scholarship masked as accessible criticism. Though the content is vast, Toop pays special attention to left field visionaries like Claude Debussy, Joe Meek and Sun Ra. Especially rewarding are Toop's interviews with dub legend Lee "Scratch" Perry and film/sound auteur David Lynch. Here, Toop shows why he's one of the most brilliant minds in music today. Purchase here

Further reading: Haunted Weather

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