Lester Bangs? Only the most famous music critic ever. Chronicles: Volume One ? Who hasn’t read that? David Byrne’s How Music Works , which hits shelves today? Well, now we’re getting somewhere. Obviously, we’re joking — both Bangs’ criticism and Dylan’s autobiography are fantastic and essential — but today we thought we’d put together a list of books just a little further from the beaten path, and likely to score you some serious points with your resident music snob. But of course, everyone’s tastes (and snobberies) run differently, and this is by no means a complete list of the best books on music out there. With that in mind, click through to check out our choices, and let us know what you’d add in the comments.
How Music Works , David Byrne
In this very cool book on the “everything” of music, the mega-talented Talking Heads frontman sounds off on everything from his own extensive experiences to the way technology has shaped music to bird-song and opera to the purpose of music itself. As he writes in the premise, “I am moved by more music now than I have ever been. Trying to see it from a wider and deeper perspective only makes it more clear that the lake itself is wider and deeper than we thought.” This book will help you take the plunge.
Azerrad takes us through a decade in 13 bands who were essential to the life of post-punk, pre-grunge American indie rock, and as he explains it, made way for the genre-busting Nirvana and modern music in general. Sure to impress that certain kind of 1980s-college-rock-was-the-only-rock snob (or any Sonic Youth purist).
Swenson is the reigning authority on the New Orleans music scene, and in his newest book, he paints an intimate portrait of the after Katrina with an insider’s eye, arguing that some artists’ best work has emerged post-deluge, which the venerable Allen Toussaint called “not only a drowning but a baptism.” Engrossing even to those who know nothing about the scene, and a veritable must for the jazz fans in your life.
Silence: Lectures and Writings , John Cage
Okay, so this one might skew towards the pretentious, but isn’t that pretty much what appealing to snobs all about? The father of experimental music’s 1961 book has been inarguably influential to composers everywhere, and contains some insight as to his own worldview and intentions. Read it quietly.
Rip It Up: The Black Experience in Rock ‘N’ Roll , Kandia Crazy Horse
All of her other merits aside, a name like Kandia Crazy Horse is bound to impress. But this book by the funky queen of the Southern Rock scene is a merit that really shouldn’t be set aside, an essential read filled with interviews and original essays that pick apart the racial politics of rock.
Master of Reality , John Darnielle
Really, it’s a full case of these 33 1/3 books that would impress the most completely, and this isn’t even the most obscure volume we could have chosen, but hey — a novella by the hyper-literary John Darnielle about Black Sabbath? That’s brilliant from every angle.
A Whore Just Like the Rest: The Music Writings of Richard Meltzer , Richard Meltzer
Like Bangs, Meltzer is a legend of rock criticism, but he’s a little bit lesser known and quite a bit more difficult, so he’s likely to score you a few extra points. And with funny, juicy, rip-roaring writing on everything from psychedelia to jazz to rock, Meltzer will probably change your life in the process.
Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, Legs McNeil & Gillian McCain
Every good music snob needs at least a cursory knowledge of punk, and who better to explain it all than the likes of Iggy Pop, Danny Fields, Dee Dee and Joey Ramone, and their contemporaries? Chock full of interviews, you’ll be spouting off quotes and trivia for weeks.
Face it: there’s nothing like an in-depth book on a single niche piece of electronics to start any snob’s heart a-buzzing.
Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music , Ellen Willis
The New Yorker’s first ever popular music critic, Willis is another under-appreciated legend in the world of music journalism. But — in a move your resident snob may or may not approve of — she more or less quit writing about music in 1975, feeling that it had lost its teeth and not wanting to spend her time tearing it down. However, her years of writing, collected in this book, are essential, and should be read by every music fan, snob or no.