x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

This year's best music books and DVDs

Whether seeking your own entertainment or good gift options, we round up this year's best books and DVDs on music.

Life

Keith Richards

(W&N)

The title is a blank slate, but placed in context of the cover - the craggy Rolling Stones guitarist touching flame to cigarette, skull-ring gleaming malevolently on his finger - it's a reminder that Keith Richards has lived on closer terms with the Reaper than most.

Is it all here? Well, mostly: thanks to Richards's massive drug intake throughout the 1970s, a fair few anecdotes have to be coloured in by those around him, with Richards present in body but not in mind. Still, as he points out in chapter two, "for many years I slept, on average, twice a week… this means that I have been conscious for at least three lifetimes." Life, while ghostwritten by the journalist James Fox, captures Richards' voice brilliantly: you can almost hear the throaty chuckle as he relates packed early shows around Ealing and Richmond, or hair-raising drugs busts in rural Arkansas.

He is remarkably - almost viciously - candid about bandmates past and present: the death of Brian Jones in 1969 is dismissed as if a grim inevitability, while Mick Jagger is depicted as egotistical and aloof. There is a darkness here that is sometimes unpalatable, but as a tale of life lived at full tilt, Life is remarkable.

 

Listen to This

Alex Ross

(Fourth Estate)

In The Rest Is Noise, The New Yorker music critic Alex Ross turned a scholarly eye to the history of 20th-century classical music. A big topic, but its de facto sequel, Listen to This, attempts a task that is positively Herculean by comparison.

Here, Ross attempts to hear the music of the last century through new ears - ears that do not recognise the boundaries of "high" or "low" culture, which recognise terms such as "classical" or "pop" as limiting genre signifiers, and that seek new ways of experiencing 100 years of recorded sound.

The more lazy analysis might have it that classical music is a moribund form, but here, Ross paints 20th-century composers as a sort of galvanising force, injecting new ideas into the system - ideas that would gradually permeate into the mainstream,through Bob Dylan, Björk, Radiohead or any one of a thousand different channels.

To his immense credit, Ross avoids falling into the trap of adopting dry, musicological terms: the stuff of arrangement and composition sits next to, and is deftly interwoven with social, political and technological factors, resulting in a history that sings on the page.

 

Decoded

Jay-Z

(Virgin Books)

The life and times of the New York hip-hop legend Jay-Z have already been so comprehensively picked over in verse that it was questionable what use a memoir could be: what better way to hear about the young Sean Carter's days hustling in the Marcy projects than to hit play on Reasonable Doubt? The appeal of Decoded, though, is it offers more than straight recollections. Artfully laid out, with full-colour pictures and lyric sheets that run the gamut of his career, complete with footnotes delving into cadence and allusion, trivia and minutiae, it's coffee table-friendly, but with content to match the production values. Carter's early history is told well, but it's his musings on hip-hop - in particular, his convincing defence of the hustle as a manifestation of "the ultimate human story", a black ghetto realisation of the American dream - that offers some of Decoded's most compelling passages. Later musings on Obama, Hurricane Katrina and Oasis's Noel Gallagher - who memorably opined that hip-hop was "wrong" for the Glastonbury festival - offer more familiar insight, but as a complete package, there's enough to Decoded to recommend it to everyone from hardcore fans to rap neophytes.

 

Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music

Rob Young

(Faber and Faber)

Another of the year's ambitious histories comes with Electric Eden, which sees Rob Young, editor-at-large of Wire magazine, piece together a sprawling, far-sighted chronology of 20th-century folk music in the British Isles.

Young's reading of what constitutes folk music is a broad one. The main body of the book deals with the folk-rock movement of the 1960s and 1970s, the likes of Nick Drake, Bert Jansch, Fairport Convention and Comus, but his assertion that English folk is a manifestation of "visionary" music, fuelled by dreams both nostalgic and utopian, sends roots and branches out into unexpected areas, from the occultist Aleister Crowley and The Wicker Man to experimental musicians such as Coil and Aphex Twin. Of particular intrigue are chapters on the likes of Cecil Sharp and Lucy Broadwood, early 20th-century archivists who set out to document Britain's oral folk heritage. The book will probably charm and bewilder folk purists in equal measure: at times, such is Young's questing nature it feels like he is unwilling to identify properly his quarry. But then, Electric Eden is a lot about the thrill of the chase, and that in itself is more than enough.

 

Loops: Writing and Music Vol.2

(Faber & Faber/Domino)

Domino Records' Loops series, when it appeared in 2009, offered something increasingly rare in the field of rock journalism: a home for long-form writing about music that consciously avoided the popular pitfalls of the form, vapid trend-chasing and fogeyish nostalgia, in favour of something more heavyweight. Volume 2, a 200-page journal that arrived in the middle of 2010, is not without its faults: a thinkpiece on the life of Michael Jackson by the veteran music scribe Paul Morley says little of interest that has not appeared in earlier accounts, and takes around 50 pages to do so. Elsewhere, though, the approach offers up some gold. Owen Hatherley's So Much to Answer For: Post Punk Urbanism In Manchester analyses the role of Manchester's brutalist, post-war architecture on the aesthetic of Joy Division and their Factory Records contemporaries, while Dan Franklin's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Fast is a spirited, evocative potted history of the Birmingham grindcore band Napalm Death that's extremely readable, even if you find the music unpalatable. There is levity, too, in the shape of an apology note from "Rubbish Raver", a dance music writer who loved the music but always had a hard time with the parties and the late nights.