Even if you’re a huge fan of music writing, it’s hard to get jazzed about the state of music criticism these days. The smart, carefully crafted album reviews and “Eureka!”-inducing behind the music pieces are too often drowned in a deluge of blurbs, highly-calibrated ratings charts, and shouting Amazon commenters. But Continuum’s 33 1/3 series of satisfyingly-sized mini-books, each devoted to a single critical consideration of a favorite album, is something to get excited about. Each installation offers a nuanced look at an album from the popular (or unpopular) canon through everything from memoir to history to fiction.
This week, Radiohead scholar and Tiny Mix Tapes editor-in-chief Marvin Lin releases his contribution to the series, on Kid A. It begins with a confession: “I FELL ASLEEP TWICE DURING MY FIRST LISTEN TO KID A.” Lin moves on to consider the making and critical reception of the album, focusing on music’s relationship with time and the politics behind listening. It’s a fantastic addition to a great collection of books. Below, a reading list of even more essential 33 1/3 offerings to date.
The challenge of 33 1/3 is to go beyond the common knowledge about an already obsessed-over album. Dayal takes the task in stride, packing in more information about Eno’s transition from glam rocker to ambient music maven than you might think possible in so short a space. The prose is elegant, the sheer scope of the work impressive, and the meditation on the source of creativity is both well done and light-handed.
Of all the entries in the 33 1/3 canon, Dan Kois’ choice was perhaps the most unusual. Israel Kamakawiwo’ole is better known on the mainland U.S. as the man behind the gentle ukelele cover of “Over the Rainbow” that appears in umpteen romantic comedies than as an innovator of popular music. But Kois proves us wrong on this count, and tackles not only Kamakawiwo’ole’s place in popular music, but also the state of pop music and culture in Hawaii, from rampant meth addiction to luaus and sugar cane.
Bonomo’s take on Highway to Hell is full of all the juicy parts on the band that would appear in any VH1 special: the fighting, the partying, and the tragic demise of Bon Scott from alcohol poisoning shortly after the album was completed. But it also takes on more elusive, less gossipy fare like the power of adolescent fandom–that drive that leads you, as a 16-year-old to plaster your walls with posters of a band and spend your meager savings on a stadium ticket. It’s a kind of love letter to the teenage rock’n’roll fan, as well as an excellent critical breakdown of the album itself.
Taking his cues from the structure of the album itself, Weingarten explains A Nation of Million through samples — bits of musical trivia, in-depth looks at the construction of the tracks, and the sources of different sonic pieces. Weingarten also places the album within a historical context, comparing the Bomb Squad to the evolution of Def Jam, Stax, and Motown. It’s a microscopic look at the album that manages not to lose sight of the larger forces of soul and R&B that shaped Public Enemy’s approach.
In the same day-long space that James Brown was recording his electric Live at the Apollo, the Cuban missile crisis began to unravel. In his book, Wolk takes a 24-inspired approach, with the tensions of the Cold War piled on top of Brown’s difficulties with his label. Wolk also shows the conflict between James Brown’s ego and his handlers stewing, and writes with the same sheer kinetic energy that Brown possessed when he galloped across the stage.
“Much of this book is about people carrying around cultural assumptions that make them assholes to millions of strangers,” Wilson writes in the introduction to Let’s Talk About Love, and he doesn’t leave you disappointed. Wilson grapples with the idea of taste–what is bad taste? who has it? who decides?–through the lens of an album he can’t stand. The result is a riveting examination of the mechanisms of taste, both cultural and economic. Nor does it glance over Dion in its pursuit of higher aims–Wilson places her in the tradition of dissident French Quebecois. We wish we could assign this book to every incoming college freshman.
The Mountain Goats’ frontman is a long-confirmed metal head, and his take on the Sabbath classic is a unique one, told through the eyes of a teenager in a mental institution. The book is written as a diary, in which the inmate, Roger, tries to explain the importance of the Sabbath tapes that have been taken away from him. (The first two pages read simply “FUCK YOU ALL GO TO HELL.”) It’s a well-written novella, and it recreates (once again) those heady years of teenage fandom, the all-consuming, all-important nature of those precious rock albums that first tickled your eardrums.
Another fictional take on a beloved album, Meat is Murder follows a Boston-based teenager in the months when the classic Smiths albums was first emerging. As with Master of Reality, if you’re looking for a Behind the Music take on the Smiths, this is not the place to get it. But if you’re looking for a sophisticated paean to the Smiths — and a glimpse back at 1980s record-collecting — then seek out this gem.
Le Roy’s approach to Paul’s Boutique veers away from the personal memoir, instead offering a comprehensive history of how the Beasties put the album together, song by song. It also looks at the B-sides of the album and the record label structure that supported — or, rather, didn’t support — the Boys. It’s an illuminating, rock-solid bit of reporting that will quell even the most feverish fans.
Weisbard’s take on th Guns’n’Roses classic is a controversial one: it has less to do with the nitty-gritty of the production values than with what it meant for the end of the blockbuster album, and the decline of stadium rock. His meditations on what makes a a guilty pleasure both guilt-inducing and pleasurable are apt. Axl fans be warned, though: this is less a valentine to the band than a begrudging note of respect. Weisbard’s canny insights on the band’s place in the metal-pop continuum make this perhaps one of the most underrated entries in the series.