Rock and Roll Book Club: Best music books of 2019


Some of the best music books of 2019.
Some of the best music books of 2019. (Jay Gabler/MPR)

2019 saw some truly groundbreaking books by and about musicians. Among those we covered on The Current's Rock and Roll Book Club, here are my ten favorites. Click on the title of each to read my full review.

10. Jon Savage: This Searing Light, the Sun and Everything Else

Jon Savage was there in the beginning, and he's here now to close the book on the short-lived but influential Manchester band. Compiling interview material from a 2007 documentary, This Searing Light is a definitive history and an apt tribute to the late Ian Curtis. For Joy Division's many ardent fans, it doesn't get any better than this.

9. Elton John: Me

Don't crack Me expecting to read much about Elton John's music, but if you want to know what drag name he gave to Rod Stewart, reader, you're in luck. As John continues what he calls his goodbye tour, the miraculously sprightly 72-year-old has spooned out the dish on everyone from the Queen Mother to Freddie Mercury. It's absolutely delightful.

8. Jonathan Scott: The Vinyl Frontier: The Story of the Voyager Golden Record

"Think about how bad this record could have been," writes Jonathan Scott in his fascinating history of the most distantly-distributed musical recording ever made. The Voyager Golden Record was the product of an attempt to capture the entire sweep of the human experience in an audio recording — with sound-encoded images as a bonus. The Beatles priced themselves off the record, Jefferson Starship's attempt to donate their music for free was rebuffed, and the lone rock slot went to Chuck Berry. Not a bad pick, Bill Nye. Wait, the Science Guy? Yep. Read the book.

7. C.M. Kushins: Nothing's Bad Luck: The Lives of Warren Zevon

As befits a biography of one of music's most famously witty stars, Nothing's Bad Luck has more great lines per chapter than any other rock book in 2019. "I better die quick so they'll give me a Grammy nomination," quipped Warren Zevon as he readied his 2003 swan song The Wind. Sure enough, he finally got his first nods, and now he also has a biography worthy of his enormous gifts and significant shortcomings. C.M. Kushins's book unfolds like a Warren Zevon song: undeniably catchy, certainly odd, and ultimately moving.

6. Holly George-Warren: Janis: Her Life and Music

It's hard to believe there could truly be a "definitive" biography of such a complex, pivotal figure as Janis Joplin — but Holly George-Warren has come about as close to that mark as anyone ever could. Janis boasts unmatched context, priceless excerpts from the letters Joplin sent home to her parents, and insights from collaborators like Kris Kristofferson, whose "freedom's just another word" lyric resonated so strongly with the singer. "You may be free," he said, evoking the metaphor of a double-edged sword, "but it can be painful to be that free."

5. Hanif Abdurraqib, Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest

Press notes correctly describe Go Ahead in the Rain as "the first serious look at A Tribe Called Quest" at book length, but the beauty of Hanif Abdurraqib's trim volume is that it doesn't try to be definitive. Instead, Abdurraqib embraces the subjectivity of his fandom, putting the seminal hip-hop duo into context via his own experiences coming of age along with the genre. There's a lot of critical insight into this first great book about ATCQ, one that hopefully won't be the last but will endure regardless.

4. Liz Phair, Horror Stories

In her unconventional memoir, Liz Phair opens up about "my deepest self" with a fascinating — and, yes, often chilling — series of stories about everything from scary spiders to toxic masculinity. The result is as genuine and gripping as her best music, an important statement from one of the key voices of her generation.

3. Morris Day, On Time: A Princely Life in Funk

Morris Day's memoir is structured as an extended conversation with Prince, which sounds strange...and of course it is strange, but no stranger than the essential experience of reaching music stardom inside the orbit of one of the most famously gifted, mercurial artists of his generation. Starting with his childhood in North Minneapolis (Prince tells him to hurry it up) and culminating with a touching final meeting at Paisley Park, On Time is an essential read from an artist who's occupied a persona for so long, it's become hard for fans to tell where "Morris Day" ends and Morris Day begins.

2. Prince, The Beautiful Ones

It was hard to know what to expect from the published version of Prince's memoir, given that the author was only able to write a few dozen pages before his untimely death. Collaborator Dan Piepenbring and publisher Spiegel & Grau rose to the challenge with a thoughtfully curated, beautifully designed volume that puts Prince's poignant words in the context of how and why they were created. Intimate photos and a first treatment of the semi-autobiographical Purple Rain story round out the book this priceless material deserved.

1. Tegan and Sara, High School

"Guess what book you reviewed that I'm reading right now and telling all my friends about?" said The Current's Morning Show producer Anna Weggel to me recently. "It's amazing." Folks, she's not wrong. Tegan and Sara's memoir comprises dual musical coming-of-age stories, a chronicle of growing up twinned, and an involving look back at what it meant for the emerging indie stars to discover their identities as gay women. You couldn't make a story like this up, and they didn't have to. Nor do you have to be a fan of their music to be fascinated with this deeply human book.

Upcoming Rock and Roll Book Club picks

Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Wednesday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

Dec. 25: No feature due to holiday programming

Jan. 1: No feature due to holiday programming

Jan. 8: Ashes to Ashes: The Songs of David Bowie 1976-2016 by Chris O'Leary

Jan. 15: When the Stones Came to Town: Rock 'n' Roll Photos from the 1970s by Fred Case with Eric Dregni

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