Rock and Roll Book Club: 'The 33⅓ B-Sides' celebrates 'Beloved and Underrated Albums'

'The 33 1/3 B-Sides,' edited by Will Stockton and D. Gilson.
'The 33 1/3 B-Sides,' edited by Will Stockton and D. Gilson. (Jay Gabler/MPR)

For music fans, books in the 33⅓ series are like candy: pocket-size volumes full of insights on classic albums. The dozens of titles include Michelangelo Matos on Prince's Sign 'O' the Times ("for all the cold-hard-facts-of-life aspect of its lyrics, [the title track] doesn't seem to be straining for nobility nearly as ostentatiously as, say, U2"), Colin Meloy on the Replacements' Let It Be ("I imagined the Replacements, the four miscreants from the cover of Let It Be, practicing in a garage while he variegated characters from Lake Wobegon spouted time-honored Midwestern Lutheran wisdom in kitchens and cafes below"), and Gillian G. Gaar on Nirvana's In Utero (Steve Albini, we learn, sent Kurt Cobain a copy of PJ Harvey's Rid of Me to show him what Pachyderm Studios sounded like).

In The 33⅓ B-Sides (buy now), over 50 authors of books in the series share brief essays on the ones that got away: albums they would like to write a book about. Some of these are unabashed guilty pleasures (Cyrus R.K. Patell writes about American Idiot...not the Green Day album, but the Broadway cast recording). Some of them are obvious landmarks that, yeah, probably should have books written about them (Shawn Taylor on De La Soul Is Dead: "black whimsy is about being playfully odd"). Some are deep cuts from well-known artists (Bruce Eaton recommends a 1974 Springsteen bootleg, arguing that "his sonic story can't be fully told without a 'recording of independent origin' to fill in a vital gap"), and quite a few of them are for true musicheads only, because I work full-time at a radio station and I have 100% never heard of Guy's Guy (1988) or Von Freeman's Doin' It Right Now (1972).

Anyone who cracks the book, though, will see several albums they know and maybe even love, and will dive into those entries with ardor. I was keen to read Tara Murtha's tribute to Sinéad O'Connor's I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got, arguing that the SNL fracas unfairly derailed the career of an artist who was prescient in identifying a major nexus of abuse. That argument's certainly been made before, but say it once more for the people in the back!

I also enjoyed Susan Fast on the Cars' Candy-O, an album (like, arguably, De La Soul is Dead) that's unfairly suffered by comparison to its immediate predecessor in the band's catalog. She's articulate on the way the band ironically appropriated automotive imagery that was central to early '60s rock ("the name is not of a particular car, like a Corvette, Thunderbird, or "little deuce coupe," but of cars, generically, because after all, what does it matter?") and even writes appreciatively of the provocative Alberto Vargas cover, with a bodysuited babe lying across the hood of a Ferrari. "The girl possesses the car, which is reduced to a mere outline so that, in Vargas's characteristic style, nothing competes with her presence."

In her essay, Gina Arnold puts R.E.M.’s 1983 EP Chronic Town in context.

The number one song of the year was "Let's Get Physical" by Olivia Newton-John; other non-stop hits included "Eye of the Tiger" (Survivor), "Abracadabra" by Steve Miller, and "Hard to Say I'm Sorry" by the deathless band Chicago. Air Supply, Vangelis, REO Speedwagon, Asia Foreigner, Journey, Loverboy, the Little River Band, Christopher Cross...what more needs to be said about a year when the only tolerable song in the Billboard Top Fifty, wait, there IS no tolerable song in the top fifty if, like me, you don't care for Joan Jett.

See, all that stuff sounds pretty great to me. Maybe that would be my B-Sides essay, a tribute to Foreigner's 4.

Some of the most intriguing essays celebrate albums you can't quite believe exist, like Billy Idol's 1993 science fiction concept album Cyberpunk. ("I didn't spend the extra money for the minty OG-complete-with-floppy-disc version," writes Sean L. Maloney. Then there's the soundtrack to the 1980 Village People biopic Can't Stop the Music, a movie starring Steve Guttenberg — or, as writer Rebecca Wallwork calls him — the Gutt.

Speaking of soundtracks, Evie Nagy gives herself the easy job of praising the Pulp Fiction soundtrack (a contender in our March Music Madness bracket). Steve Matteo praises the live album, case in point the Band's Rock of Ages.

In signature 33⅓ style, each essay is highly personal, with contributors unashamedly citing their own experiences. Editors Will Stockton and D. Gilson each write an opening essay, with Stockton focusing on Prince's sprawling Emancipation — one of so many albums Prince released in 1996, the total number of his releases depends on how you decide to count them. Stockton acknowledges that objectively, yes, the album is evidence that Prince's label is right and he was releasing too much music. He also points out, though, that it was his personal introduction to Prince as a young fan, and when you don't have Sign 'O' the Times to compare it to, it's actually pretty great.

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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.

April 1: Perfect Tunes by Emily Gould (buy now)

April 8: The Ox: The Authorized Biography of the Who's John Entwistle by Paul Reese (buy now)

April 15: My Name Is Prince by Randee St. Nicholas (buy now)

April 22: All I Ever Wanted: A Rock 'n' Roll Memoir by Kathy Valentine (buy now)

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