The best music reads of 2012
From Will Oldham to thrash metal: Four music heads weigh in on their favorite reads of the year
As 2012 wraps, four connoisseurs of music-related pulp — CL Music Editor Chad Radford, Andrew Rieger of Athens band Elf Power, Glen Thrasher of A Cappella Books, and music writer Will Stephenson — weigh in on their favorite music reads of the year.
Will Oldham on Bonnie "Prince" Billy edited by Alan Licht. Singer, songwriter, actor Will Oldham discusses his artistic processes in great detail in a 400-page Q&A between Oldham and longtime friend and collaborator Alan Licht.
Oldham speaks frankly on topics ranging from songwriting and recording to touring and acting, culminating in a captivating and insightful read. He seems to have enjoyed acting at an early age, especially his role as a child preacher in John Sayles' critically acclaimed 1987 film Matewan. But over time, he grew increasingly disillusioned with the lack of personal creativity that acting allows, and his reaction to that rigidity has been a shaping force in how he's conducted his musical career.
Ever spontaneous in his creative endeavors, Oldham regularly changes collaborators and the names of his projects (Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Palace Brothers, etc.), and avoids over-rehearsing to keep the players on a more intuitive musical path. Oldham rarely keeps the same musicians in his band for long; often the band recording with him on a particular album is different from the subsequent touring group. Although he says he would be perfectly happy spending his time writing and recording songs, he admits that he continues to tour solely as a means to make money, allowing him to continue his more solitary writing pursuits.Oldham also spends some time discussing his inspirations: The Misfits, R. Kelly, PJ Harvey, Big Black, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, and Roy Harper are all praised as influences on his craft, and his life in general. He recalls moments such as acting as a cop in R. Kelly's "Trapped in the Closet" video, singing with the Mekons, and recording a version of his song "I See a Darkness" with Johnny Cash as "the three classic dreams-come-true moments" in his life.
He also discusses each of his albums in chronological order, touching on everything from the musicians he collaborated with, recording techniques, and how external factors such as his father's death affected his creative process both lyrically and practically. The book offers a glimpse into this mysterious and enigmatic artist's methods in ways that appeal to diehards, casual fans, and even those who aren't familiar with Oldham's work. W.W. Norton & Company. $16.95. 400 pp.
I'm Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons. This biography of the great singer/songwriter was by far the best music-related book of the year, and honestly it's good mostly because its subject is so undeniably fascinating. Ecco. $27.99. 576 pp.
The John Lennon Letters edited by Hunter Davies. This collection of every note, postcard, and letter that could be found by the eccentric Beatle is a greater work of art than of literature. It's fascinating to read what John has to say about pretty much anything, and the reproduction of the original items turns this into a visually stunning art book. Little, Brown and Company. $29.99. 400 pp.
Punk: An Aesthetic edited by Johan Kugelberg. Another beautiful collection of images that doesn't require much reading. It will look great sitting around the house. Do people still have coffee tables? Rizzoli. $55. 352 pp.
Waging Heavy Peace by Neil Young. Much like Cohen, Neil Young cannot help but be interesting, and this book is written in the words of the man himself. Blue Rider Press. $30. 512 pp.
Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division by Peter Hook. Joy Division bassist Peter Hook's remembrance of the iconic British band. I went back and forth on this because it's not very well written. But in the end, I chose this because the strength of the subject matter rises above the weak writing. It Books. $27.99. 416 pp.
Fear of Music by Jonathan Lethem. The MacArthur Genius Grant-winning novelist of literary/genre fiction hybrids such as Motherless Brooklyn and the Fortress of Solitude has always been up-front about his cultural obsessions, having previously penned essays on topics like Dylan, Philip K. Dick, and a whole book on John Carpenter's They Live. His latest, an unusually high-profile entry into Continuum's 33 1/3 series, is a book-length riff on Talking Heads' 1979 fan favorite Fear of Music. Foregoing interviews with the band or, for the most part, any research at all, he instead aims for a Geoff Dyer-esque blend of memoir and free-form, autodidact scholarship, an approach that feels right even when the result occasionally borders on aimless prose poetry. A single chapter can find digressive rants on Hugo Ball and Al Green, which are appropriate for a record this ambitious. Continuum. $12.95. 160 pp.
The One: The Life and Music of James Brown by RJ Smith. One of the greatest assets of this essential new book on James Brown, is its striking portrait of the old, weird South, a lost, stranger-than-fiction universe of hoodoo magic, bleary-eyed moonshine runs, and Little Richard in drag. This is the context for Brown's rise, from his years as a janitor, prison-yard baseball player, and scrap-heap drummer; from doing splits at the front of the stage mid-song to surreptitiously pick up loose change, to his reign as one of the linchpins of late 20th-century popular music as the Godfather of Soul and a handful of other genres. Gotham. $18. 464 pp.
Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge by Mark Yarm. A sad and hilarious look at grunge — Seattle's punk-metal hybrid of the late '80s/early '90s that we all came to know, love, and, in some cases, revile. Through ruminations on the life, times, and music of Mudhoney, Tad, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and more, the triumphs and tragedies of the era are brought into full view. Three Rivers Press. $15. 592 pp.
Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever by Will Hermes. New York City circa '73-'77 is a heavily mined era, but Hermes offers a different take on history by delving into the loft jazz scene, Latin music, and various other communal happenings of the times. His writing style and knowledge of everything from the salsa world's adaptation of the Who's "Tommy" ("Hommy"), to Bronx party rockers DJs Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa, to Philip Glass' days as a taxi driver is absolutely impeccable. Faber and Faber, Inc. $16. 384 pp.
Murder In The Front Row: Shots From the Bay Area Thrash Metal Epicenter by Harald Oimoen and Brian Lew: D.R.I. bass player Oimoen takes the lead on this journey into the Bay Area's thrash metal scene of the early '80s — a criminally overlooked era in American music. Really, this book is all about the photography, capturing Slayer, Megadeth, Metallica, and dozens of others during their whiplash formative years. It also captures some of the greatest back bends ever caught on film. Serious Pulitzer material. Bazillion Points. $39.95. 272 pp.
Will Oldham on Bonnie 'Prince' Billy edited by Alan Licht. This long chain of Q&As between Oldham and Alan Licht sheds light on everything that anyone could possibly want to know about the man behind Bonnie "Prince" Billy, making it virtually impossible for me to land another interview with him ever again. W.W. Norton & Company. $16.95. 400 pp.
We Got Power!: Hardcore Punk Scenes from 1980s Southern California by David Markey and Jordan Schwartz: A rich chronicle of a fanzine that captured a first-hand look at the beginnings of American hardcore from the perspective of two kids in L.A. who walked the walk. Their writings, and more specifically their photos of burgeoning cultural forces, such as Black Flag, Suicidal Tendencies, Social Distortion, the Minutemen, and more, coupled with scenes of the decaying urban environment of the times are absolutely stunning. Bazillion Points. $39.95. 288 pp.