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Top 21 Music Books of the Last Year

Mar 31, 2017
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With 2016 now well in the rearview mirror, it is high time to revisit the plethora of music-related books that were released last year. Below you will find a Top 21, with three additional special mentions. It is not meant to be exhaustive. Rather, it is an idiosyncratic list based on books this Book Editor read during 2016. I attempted to read as many of the relevant titles as possible (as well as many of the less relevant ones), but even so, I’m sure there are some glaring omissions. So, while you may take issue with titles left off this list, know it was not an intentional slight, rather more of a casualty of time. Should you read on, view this as something of a personal Best Of list, as extensive as possible with weaknesses understood. Now I best start playing catch up on 2017. By Frank Valish (Under the Radar’s Book Reviews Editor)


Bruce Springsteen

Born to Run

Simon & Schuster

Bruce Springsteen’s memoir is a monster of a book. Topping out at over 500 pages, it is not your typical rock and roll autobiography. But then again, Springsteen was never your typical rock and roll star. Born to Run details his life from childhood through his ’70s stardom, ’80s superstardom, and latter day resurgence. The book is incredibly comprehensive and detailed. The Boss tells his story leaving no stone unturned. His prose can tend toward the heavy-handed at times but it’s not enough to be to the book’s detriment. And despite its length, Born to Run never becomes a slog. What is remarkable in Springsteen’s narrative is the degree to which he probes his own past for reasons of self-discovery. The insight he seeks and ultimately finds here is unlike that of most rock bios you will read—insight into his own musical and artistic process, insight into his success and its effects on him, insight into his personality, and insight into how he became the person he has become. For all his fame and fortune, Springsteen’s story is a coming of age tale and reads like an engaging novel. Ultimately, and this is another reason the book is so successful, one doesn’t even have to be a Springsteen fan (or really even overly familiar with his work) in order to enjoy Born to Run. One wishes all musicians who undertake the task of writing their memoirs would do it so brilliantly and with such purpose.

By Frank Valish


Phil Collins

Not Dead Yet: The Memoir

Crown Archetype

A couple years ago, when Phil Collins announced he would be releasing a memoir, the news was met with rapt anticipation. Finally, the story of Genesis would be told by the drummer/frontman who lived through it all. At long last, the story of one of the greatest solo pop success stories of the 1980s would be illuminated. And the character who had so publicly retreated from the spotlight amid a string of personal struggles and health setbacks that compromised his ability to continue drumming would step out of the shadow and tell his tale. Not Dead Yet is a remarkably candid telling of Collins’ life, the ups and the downs, featuring some deep examination of his own personal failures, which led to three marriages and more than a bit of heartache. Collins looks in depth at his time in Genesis and his solo career is recounted in detail. Self-deprecating to the end, Collins provides in Not Dead Yet a clear picture of the man behind the music and an immensely satisfying read.

By Frank Valish


Jack Hamilton

Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination

Harvard University Press

With Just Around Midnight, scholar, critic, and Assistant professor of American Studies and Media Studies at University of Virginia Jack Hamilton examines the question of how and why rock and roll, so influenced by and steeped in music that grew out of the blues tradition of black artists became co-opted and eventually know as a largely white phenomenon. His is a pithy, well-researched study. It is academic but does not read as such. Rather, Just Around Midnight is in some measure the untold story of rock and roll. Chapters discuss parallels between Sam Cooke and Bob Dylan, Motown’s influence on the Beatles (and vice versa), what became known as soul music, how Jimi Hendrix stood out in a rock and roll that at the time was becoming more and more “defined” by white artists, and the complicated racial history of The Rolling Stones. Hamilton’s astute analysis, using in parts studious research, musical analysis, and race theory, exposes rock and roll history and the question of how rock and roll became greatly, yet illegitimately, defined as a largely white music, while music such as soul and blues became defined as black. But more than just this, the book dissects the interrelation of rock and roll with its black forebears, and the mutual and cross-cultural influence that too often is not given credit. It’s a story that cuts across not just music but culture, race, and the complicated nature of perception, definition, and authenticity. A necessary read.

By Frank Valish


Rich Cohen

The Sun & The Moon & The Rolling Stones

Spiegel & Grau

Rich Cohen has been a lifelong Rolling Stones obsessive. As a journalist, he traveled with the Stones on the band’s 1994 Voodoo Lounge world tour, but he idolized the men long before and long after his time with the band. And for all the Rolling Stones books on the market (and there are a ton), The Sun & The Moon rises above most. Yes, Cohen’s time with the band granted him exclusive personal access, which adds color and perspective to his text. But, more importantly, Cohen’s devotion to his subjects lends a certain authenticity to his biography. In fact, The Sun & The Moon is much more than a traditional biography. While it spans the band’s history, it does not pretend to be exhaustively comprehensive. What it does do is lend perspective. It presents The Rolling Stones—Mick, Keith, Charlie, Ronnie, and all the ex-players—in a personal light. The Stones are presented here with a human touch, as people not as gods or as caricatures. It’s for these reasons that The Sun & The Moon & The Rolling Stones is essential reading for any Rolling Stones fan.

By Frank Valish


Lol Tolhurst

Cured: The Tale of Two Imaginary Boys

Da Capo

Lol Tolhurst’s autobiography is the antithesis of the salacious rock star bio. The Cure drummer’s tale explores his life in and out of The Cure. His band-related tales stick to the music and his enduring friendship with Cure frontman Robert Smith. There are numerous Cure-related anecdotes, and Cured is an enlightening journey through the early years of The Cure. And when Tolhurst finally does fall prey to alcohol, which ends his time with the band, it causes hurt and soul searching. In time, he gets clean and ultimately makes amends with his childhood friend and bandmate Smith. As such, Cured is more than just a rock bio. It’s a story about redemption, reconciliation, and lifelong friendship.

By Frank Valish


Joel Selvin

Altamont: The Rolling Stones, The Hell’s Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day

Dey St.

Joel Selvin\‘s Altamont is the definitive account of the free festival at California\‘s Altamont Speedway in 1969, from its conception as a conclusion to the Stones\’ 1969 US tour to the courtroom drama that found Hells Angel Alan Passaro acquitted in the murder of Meredith Hunter. To tell the tale, Selvin interviewed over a hundred individuals, including musicians who played at the concert, members of the medical staff, Hells Angels, police, and fans who bore witness to the tragedies of the day. Selvin’s telling of the concert itself makes one feel like one is there, engulfed in darkness and danger. And by the book\‘s end, Selvin wraps things up by putting the event in context, of its place in the \‘60s, of the hippie dream (or end of it), and of the Rolling Stones\’ career. He brilliantly sums up what Altamont meant, the lessons it taught, and the reasons it was fated to disaster from the jump—a rock bio, a suspense thriller, and a murder mystery all in one.

By Frank Valish


Brian Wilson with Ben Greenman

I Am Brian Wilson: A Memoir

Da Capo

Brian Wilson\‘s memoir is an unconventional but fascinating read. Through it, Wilson details his time with The Beach Boys, his disturbing history with his father, and his days with live-in therapist, Dr. Eugene Landy, who mistreated him in the \‘70s and \‘80s. But most of all, I Am Brian Wilson chronicles his undying love of music. Music and mental illness are the main themes of Wilson’s story, a circuitous read where Wilson often jumps among decades and albums at his whim (that said, his discussions of Pet Sounds and the initial SMiLE sessions are remarkably linear and complete). Ultimately, while Wilson’s tale may not be your run-of-the-mill musician autobiography, it gives a fascinating view into the brilliant and sometimes troubled mind of a true genius of American music.

By Frank Valish


Jeff Gold

Total Chaos: The Story of The Stooges/As Told By Iggy Pop

Third Man Books

Total Chaos is several books in one. It’s a beautiful, oversized coffee table book filled with photographs, memorabilia, and various historical ephemera documenting the career of The Stooges. It is also a Stooges history, as told by lead Stooge Iggy Pop himself, via long-form interview with Gold and his cohort Johan Kugelberg, collectors who spent two days at Pop’s Miami home confronting him with memorabilia and getting his story. And lastly, it is a tribute of sorts, concluding with essays and interviews from famous Stooges faithful like Josh Homme, Dave Grohl, Johnny Marr, and Joan Jett. Total Chaos is a stunning book, part archive, part history, and all labor of love. You’ll spend hour upon hour getting lost in it.

By Frank Valish


Mike Love with James S. Hirsch

Good Vibrations: My Life as a Beach Boy

Blue Rider

Mike Love, fairly or not, is one of the most maligned characters in the mythology of The Beach Boys. With Good Vibrations, he attempts to set the record straight. Across 424 pages, Love provides his history of The Beach Boys, for better or for worse. Unlike fellow Beach Boy Brian Wilson’s memoir, Love’s tale is linear and cohesive. He details his time with the band from day one and his up and down relationship with Wilson. He is sure to document the difficulties he had with songwriting credits and the lawsuit that followed, and he chronicles the ill-fated 2012 reunion tour. Good Vibrations is satisfying in many regards, its main omission being the short shrift given to post-Pet Sounds albums, which have risen to cult status among many fans. (

By Frank Valish


Keith Morris with Jim Ruland

My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor

Da Capo

As a founding member of both Black Flag and Circle Jerks, Keith Morris lived West coast punk from its inception, and with his current project OFF!, he has reinvigorated the form for a new generation of fans. With My Damage, he tells his story in a frenetic, conversational style that makes for engaging reading. His tales of his early days of punk and the inception of Black Flag and Circle Jerks are fascinating, and he pulls no punches in describing the chaotic nature of his lifestyle at the time. Throughout My Damage, Morris comes off as eminently likeable as one imagines him to be. Reading it makes you feel like you’re with him, along for the ride.

By Frank Valish


Lita Ford

Living Like a Runaway: A Memoir

Dey St.

In Living Like a Runaway, hard rocker Lita Ford details her life in and out of rock and roll, from her start in The Runaways in the 1970s to her more recent day resurgence with \‘80s metal nostalgia. Ford has in anecdotes in spades, and Living Like a Runaway is chock full of them. She details her time in The Runaways and her relationship with creepy svengali Kim Fowley. She talks about her struggles being managed by Sharon Osbourne. And for all her dalliances, she is not very lucky in love. For the most part, Ford\‘s tale is a lighthearted one. The book is a fast-paced read and never bogs down. Much like a \‘80s guitar solo, there\‘s a lot of wild in here and not a ton of gravity. But it sure is a fun read.

By Frank Valish


Andrew Matheson

Sick on You: The Disastrous Story of The Hollywood Brats, The Greatest Band You’ve Never Heard Of

Blue Rider

Sick on You tells the story of London\‘s The Hollywood Brats, a New York Dolls-esque punk outfit that lasted from 1971-1975 mostly in obscurity before fading away just before their big break. Matheson was the frontman of said group and tells his story here with self-deprecating humor to spare. Matheson dreamt big, but things didn\‘t go as planned. He gets close to his dreams, being heralded by the likes of Keith Moon and partying at the Penthouse Club\‘s Christmas soiree, and one is almost happy for him, if one didn\‘t already know how it was all going to end. In some ways, Matheson\‘s story is all of ours: a tale of dreaming big and settling for reality.

By Frank Valish


Sebastian Bach

18 and Life on Skid Row

Dey St.

Former Skid Row frontman Sebastian Bach has had, by all measure, a fun-filled life in rock and roll. In 18 and Life, he tells his story, and while the book rarely (if ever) finds Bach introspective on past mistakes, it does bring the dirt. 18 and Life is a salacious, tell-all tale of the best of Bach’s excesses, partying with rock stars and living it up. And while you may not exactly find Bach a better man at the story’s end, his over-the-top, balls-out attitude is more than a bit endearing.

By Frank Valish


Marc Myers

Anatomy of a Song: The Oral History of 45 Iconic Hits That Changes Rock, R&B and Pop

Grove Press

Anatomy of a Song grew out of Marc Myers\’ columns for The Wall Street Journal where he interviews artists about their work, exploring the intimate details behind the creation of a classic song. Myers has attempted with his book to in essence deconstruct the history of the popular song, cherry picking 45 classics to examine, presented chronologically, from Lloyd Price\‘s \“Lawdy Miss Clawdy\” in 1952 to R.E.M.\‘s \“Losing My Religion\” in 1991. Though purporting to document music\‘s history through 45 tracks spanning genres and decades can seem like oversimplification, Myers\’ explorations dig to the heart of the artists, their motivations, and their creative processes. One hopes that Myers someday releases a Volume 2. One could read his columns all day.

By Frank Valish


Bettye Kronstad

Perfect Day: An Intimate Portrait of Life with Lou Reed


Bettye Kronstad was with Lou Reed from the end of his time in The Velvet Underground through his 1973 album Berlin, as girlfriend, wife, and co-conspirator. Perfect Day is a dispiriting portrait of Reed, drunk or drugged most of the time, verbally abusive, and physically aggressive. Kronstad’s is the portrait of an addict. Kronstad details her five years with Reed, through his creation of Berlin, and while her time with the artist never seems particularly blissful, her account is a unique perspective on an artist so loved and admired.

By Frank Valish


Jeff Apter

Tragedy: The Ballad of the Bee Gees


Jeff Apter’s Bee Gees biography closely explores the intertwined lives of Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb, as well as that of their younger brother, ’70s pop star Andy. The book is separated into three sections, allowing for the author to follow the brothers’ story from their early years as Beatles-esque pop tunesmiths (“Beginnings”) through their second-act disco heyday (“Fever”), to their final years, following the deaths of Maurice, Robin, and Andy, leaving Barry to soldier on alone (“Tragedy”). Along with success, the story of the brothers Gibb is rife with suffering, and Apter details it all with matter-of-fact objectivity. There is no new research or interviews to lend the tale a sense of the present; nevertheless, Apter’s is a well-constructed biography that highlights the dizzying highs and mortifying lows of a band whose success defined a generation (or perhaps two). What it lacks in emotionality, it makes up for with valuable comprehensiveness and detail.

By Frank Valish


Johnny Marr

Set the Boy Free

Dey St.

Johnny Marr, most famous for his role as guitarist for The Smiths, brings the totality of his musical career to light in Set the Boy Free. It might be argued that his time with The Smiths is of the most interest to the majority of those who will pick up the book, but Marr’s intent clearly seems to be to prove that he is more than just the former Smiths’ guitarist. Topping out at almost 450 pages, Set the Boy is comprehensive, and The Smiths makes up only of a fraction of these pages. Through it, Marr largely sticks to the facts. There is not a whole lot of introspection or insight, especially in areas like the breakup of the The Smiths. If you have been thrilled with Marr’s career from the Smiths through the present in equal measure, Set the Boy Free might be for you. If it’s Smiths’ dirt you’re looking for, look elsewhere.

By Frank Valish


Peter Mills

The Monkees, Head, and the 60s


Peter Mills is a scholar, and The Monkees, Head, and the 60s is very much a scholarly work. The book is broken into sections chronicling The Monkees\’ history from different perspectives-pre-band, the television show, live performances, recorded music, post-band history, and of course, Head. Mills attacks Head from multiple angles, and for just shy of 100 pages, he picks the film apart, scene by scene. The book is not for lay fans; a modicum of background knowledge is assumed. Mills examines his subjects with a critical eye, and his book rewards study, the same sort of study that it\‘s obvious Mills put into its writing.

By Frank Valish


Mary Renshaw, John Darcy, and Gabby Darcy

Live Wire: Bon Scott: A Memoir by Three People Who Knew Him Best

Trafalgar Square

Live Wire is a very specific sort of memoir, a story about the late AC/DC frontman as told by three people who were closest to him in the early days. John Darcy was the roadie for Scott\‘s first band, The Valentines. Gabby Darcy ingratiated herself to Scott during the days and later married John Darcy. Mary Renshaw met Scott in 1967 and was a close friend until the end of Scott\‘s life. Much of what makes Live Wire so interesting is the chronicling of Scott\‘s early days, from co-fronting The Valentines in 1967 to joining Fraternity in 1970 and finally moving on to front AC/DC in 1974. Each chapter is told by a different author, and all the anecdotes are personal. Apart from the alcohol consumption and various hijinks, Scott comes across as fun loving, loyal, incredibly personable, and simply a good friend. The friendships he forged with the three authors endured through the height of AC/DC\‘s first wave of fame, and even at the end, Scott seems to be as humble and as nice of a guy as he was in the beginning.

By Frank Valish


Steven Blush with Paul Rachman and Tony Mann

Lost Rockers: Broken Dreams and Crashed Careers


Lost Rockers chronicles the stories of 19 musicians who never truly hit the big time. In each case, the artist nearly struck big, was associated with famous names, played with big stars, or performed/wrote songs that are recognizable hits for other artists. But for whatever reason, these 19 artists never became household names. Evie Sands recorded \“Angel of the Morning\” before it became a hit for Merrilee Rush. Chris Robison promoted a pro-LGBTQ image well before it was widely accepted. Pat Briggs almost became the next Marilyn Manson. Each artist suffers from his or her own particular bad luck. They span genres and decades, and all with a different mode of downfall. In its untold stories, Lost Rockers is a scintillating read.

By Frank Valish


Kier-La Janisse and Paul Corupe, Eds.

Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s

Fab Press

Satanic Panic is a “music book” only in part, but it deserves mention. It compiles 20 essays and interviews by writers examining different facets of the worry over everything occult and “satanic” in the 1980s. Beginning with an examination of the later-discredited 1980 “memoir” Michelle Remembers, which stirred fear over supposed satanic ritual abuse, Satanic Panic goes on to cover all grounds of the Satanic scare of the ’80s. Topics include role playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, film, heavy metal, Geraldo Rivera’s 1988 Devil Worship TV special, the PMRC hearings, MTV, and many others. By the end of the book, you’ll know for sure whether there really was something to be scared of in the ’80s.

By Frank Valish

Jess Rotter

I\'m Bored

Hat and Beard

Special Mentions:
While not about music as such, I’m Bored deserves special mention here. Its author/illustrator Jess Rotter has done fantastic work over the years for Light in the Attic reissues, Angel Olsen, Other Music, and more recently Cat Stevens’ tour merchandise and reissued vinyl, among many others. Her artwork is not only unrivaled in its vibrancy, expressiveness, and emotionality, but also cuts at the core of what it means to be human. There is endless searching, questioning, introspection, observation, and growth. I’m Bored is a pocket-sized collection of artwork that gets at the best of these with a whimsical touch that always brings out a smile, showcasing the silver lining in even the most questionable of times. I’m Bored is soul searching at its most fun, and essential for any bookshelf.

By Frank Valish

Corey Mead

Angelic Music: The Story of Ben Franklin’s Glass Armonica

Simon & Schuster

Angelic Music is the story of the instrument Ben Franklin invented in 1761, a series of glass bowls stacked on their sides along a rotating spindle, the bowls to be rubbed by wet fingers, thus producing a haunting sound. The glass armonica was thought to heal illness or drive people insane. Famous composers wrote for it. Marie Antoinette played it. Franz Mesmer hypnotized with it. Angelic Music follows this peculiar instrument from his pre-Franklin origins through its rise, subsequent downfall, and niche resurgence. It brings back a history largely forgotten to time.

By Frank Valish

Candy Leonard

Beatleness: How the Beatles and Their Fans Remade the World


With Beatleness, sociologist and first generation Beatles fan Candy Leonard examines the phenomenon of The Beatles from a fan’s perspective. She liberally quotes from fans who were there at the time. She examines how the phenomenon caused a generational gap and altered how a generation of children viewed the world outside their insulated home environs. She discusses how The Beatles’ artistic development outpaced the chronological age development of the 5-10 year olds who watched them on The Ed Sullivan Show. And as such, Beatleness provides a unique context and an alternative to the slew of Beatles books out there.

By Frank Valish


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April 10th 2017

My preffer is ther first:

Bruce Springsteen
Born to Run

Go Bruce!!

Happy Room Play
April 24th 2017

Super post! Really nice info, thank you!

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November 25th 2017

Sebastian Bach! Thumbs up for 80s hair metal.

April 2nd 2018

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