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The 11 Best Music Books of 2021

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Crying in H Mart

By Michelle Zauner


Finding the Raga: An Improvisation on Indian Music

By Amit Chaudhuri

Amit Chaudhuri has led many lives. The novelist, essayist, professor, and musician has spent time in London, Bombay, and Calcutta, and has studied North Indian classical music and American folk alike. Growing up, he learned guitar and aspired to Western pop stardom until he met his mother’s Indian classical music teacher. Chaudhuri’s latest book, Finding the Raga, uses nonlinear writing techniques to mirror the slipperiness of his identity. He jumps between continents, years, and schools of philosophy, weaving together his personal story with music theory, analyses on the differences between Western and South Asian music, and general musings on the act of listening.

The writing is rife with charming anecdotes—he likens the tone of Bob Dylan’s aloof lyricism in “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” to the yearning of Bhakti devotional poetry, and ruminates on how the world sounded different living on the third story of an apartment rather than the 12th—but it can also get heady. Closely following his stream of consciousness, Chaudhuri’s writing is rewarding for his attention to detail—the precision with which he recalls his mother’s singing voice, the care he takes to explain the linguistic history of the word “khayal”—and his insight as someone from two cultures. Finding the Raga will leave you eager to listen in the way its author does: generous while drawing meaning from every single element of a song. –Vrinda Jagota

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Finding the Raga: An Improvisation on Indian Music

By Amit Chaudhuri


In Defense of Ska

By Aaron Carnes

All roads lead to ska. Or at least that’s what Santa Cruz alt-weekly editor Aaron Carnes argues with In Defense of Ska, an oral history that connects everyone from Dan Deacon to Danny Elfman to the much-maligned musical movement. Through more than 150 interviews, Carnes sketches ska’s vast landscape, from its roots in Jamaican pop music of the late 1950s through its cultural nadir in the fedora-clad “third wave” of the ’90s, recounting the ups and downs of dozens of bands fighting to be more than a punchline.

For fans of the genre, the book contains intimate insights from ska legends like original Specials member Jerry Dammers and Operation Ivy drummer Dave Mello. But for the uninitiated (or ska skeptics), it offers a larger narrative about the importance of maintaining local music scenes. The stories Carnes recounts—musicians who sold their instruments to stay afloat, gigs that became battlegrounds between Nazi skinheads and anti-racist punks, groups that never left their hometown but inspired countless others to form their own bands—aren’t unique to ska, and perhaps that’s the point. In Defense of Ska is a lovingly written defense of a vibrant, diverse musical underground that stayed afloat against all odds. It hardly takes a love of Skankin’ Pickle to appreciate this tenacity, but those who keep an open mind might just find a new favorite band along the way. –Arielle Gordon

In Defense of Ska

By Aaron Carnes


Last Chance Texaco: Chronicles of an American Troubadour

By Rickie Lee Jones

Like a good folk song, Rickie Lee Jones’ autobiography rambles and repeats itself, tells a story and lodges in your head. The 67-year-old songwriter can swing from novelistic details from childhood to grand musings on existence that read like aphorisms. “Life is a locomotive,” she writes, “and as long as you watch it from a distance it takes a long time to go by.” With a focus on her early career, Last Chance Texaco is at its most riveting when Jones seems to stop time, giving line-by-line insight into her creative process. In other passages, she analyzes her formative years at the Troubadour in the late ’70s and the relationships that formed around its scene of young, West Hollywood songwriters like Tom Waits and Little Feat’s Lowell George. “Do women have an impact on men or is it only the other way around?” she asks, reckoning with the myth of the male genius and the female muse, and repositioning her influence among a generation of artists. With captivating prose and exquisitely rendered scenes that stick in your memory, Last Chance Texaco sets the record straight. –Sam Sodomsky

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Last Chance Texaco

By Rickie Lee Jones


Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound

By Daphne A. Brooks

Yale professor Daphne A. Brooks’ third book is a sweeping survey of Black women’s contributions to music history and a rigorous mapping of their lives as intellectuals. From Bessie Smith to Beyoncé, Brooks issues a monumental corrective to how Black women are “too rarely held as makers of rare sounds deemed deserving of excavation and long study,” and dares us to imagine a culture that puts Black women at its “full-stop center.” The recordings of Abbey Lincoln, Lauryn Hill, and Janelle Monáe are theorized as works of criticism. The early Black feminist cultural writings of Pauline Hopkins and author Zora Neale Hurston are meticulously contextualized, and one chapter explores the possible influence of playwright Lorraine Hansberry on groundbreaking feminist music critic Ellen Willis. Brooks’ goal is to put Black studies in conversation with music journalism, to interrogate how notions of genius are entangled with access to archives, knowledge, and power. She draws influence from the radical archival imagination of Saidiya Hartman as well as the time-traveling secret-history making of Greil Marcus, and she also interviews her own mother—all in the name of a positively revolutionary “critical re-attunement.” –Jenn Pelly

Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound

By Daphne A. Brooks


Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres

By Kelefa Sanneh

If you’re constantly Wikipedia-ing the difference between hard rock, prog rock, and acid rock, or you’ve pondered the shift from pop music (as in popular music generally) to pop music (as in Katy Perry and Madonna), then Kelefa Sanneh’s Major Labels is the book for you. Sanneh, a New Yorker staff writer, was the New York Times’ pop critic between 2000 and 2008, where he wrote the definitive piece against rockism. In Major Labels, he leverages his wide-ranging musical expertise and personal history to map out the last half-century of American and British music through the development of seven genres—rock, R&B, country, punk, hip-hop, dance, and pop. Some might find the focus on genre silly at a time when streaming platforms promise a “genre-less” experience, and young people surf seamlessly from country-rap to reggaeton, but Spotify hasn’t vanquished classifications so much as created its own set. By charting many of the splits, detours, and consolidations that have shaped musical identity thus far, Major Labels prepares us to navigate new tide changes. “Ever since the sixties, music has been a means of self-identification,” Sanneh observes, “a way for young people, in particular, to show that they aren’t like everyone else.” As long as that remains true, we’ll always have musical tribes. –Cat Zhang



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