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10 Best Music Books of 2014

From the stage to the page: The year’s best biographies, rock crit, photo essays and more

Billy Idol's 'Dancing With Myself' and Sean Madigan Hoen's 'Songs Only You Know'

In 2014, the rock star tell-all autobiography train rolled on with Jimmy Page, Joe Perry, Carlos Santana, Mick Fleetwood, George Clinton, Paul Stanley and Billy Idol among others all getting their turn. But some of the years best books were the stories you didn't already know, including a great alternate history from Greil Marcus and a closer look at a post-punk pioneer.

'Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys.,' by Viv Albertine
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‘Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys.,’ by Viv Albertine

If Viv Albertine's memoir had only focused on the broadest outlines of her life — her six years as the guitarist in influential post-punk band the Slits, her return after a decades-long absence — this would have been fascinating enough. But Albertine's approach is far closer, pushing past candor into the uncomfortably honest. Some of this memoir involves talk of romantic liaisons in the heady days of London's late-Seventies punk scene, but there's also a harrowing account of her struggle with cancer and grapplings with suburban isolation decades later. A fully realized portrait of its author. By Tobias Carroll

'Songs Only You Know: A Memoir,' by Sean Madigan Hoen
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‘Songs Only You Know: A Memoir,’ by Sean Madigan Hoen

"My bandmates saw me at my most inspired, screaming every pain I had access to," Sean Madigan Hoen writes in his gritty, gripping punk-rock memoir, "though I had told them next to nothing of where I'd come from." Hoen, it turns out, had plenty to scream about — a father addicted to crack, a sister consumed by depression, his own feelings of alienation, helplessness, adolescent angst; if his former band, Detroit art-core self-immolators Thoughts of Ionesco, was his young-adult self's cathartic outlet, Songs Only You Know is his older, wiser reevaluation, no less vein-bulgingly visceral but infinitely more nuanced and poetic. It's funny at times, always brutally honest; a half-healed bruise, tender and multi-colored. Few books convey the fever-pitch intensity of youth with such vividness and so little glamorization, or as deeply explore the heartbreaking complexity of family — both those we're born into and the ones we choose. By Brandon Geist

'Dancing With Myself' by Billy Idol
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‘Dancing With Myself’ by Billy Idol

In his self-penned memoir, Billy Idol fleshes out his charmed life with an even mix of thrilling tales of sex, drugs and rock & roll. The singer is refreshingly candid about his heavy heroin addiction in the Eighties, a regrettable Rolling Stone cover story interview when he got too drunk and yelled at the writer, an unrequited threesome that landed him in court on sexual deviancy charges and the harrowing motorcycle accident that stymied his acting career (he says he'd tried out for the T-1000 in Terminator 2 but lost the role due to a limp). He also recounts some of the weird stories behind some of his greatest hits — "Dancing With Myself" was inspired by a Tokyo disco where people stared at themselves in mirrors and "Rebel Yell" was named after a whiskey he drank once with the Rolling Stones. He also writes about his post-drugs fallout in such a heartfelt way that he almost makes a case for reconsidering Cyberpunk. By Kory Grow

'Glow: The Autobiography of Rick James,' by Rick James with David Ritz
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‘Glow: The Autobiography of Rick James,’ by Rick James with David Ritz

Those looking simply for stories of sexual and pharmaceutical excess can re-read Mötley Crüe's The Dirt. In Glow, Rick James' posthumously published autobiography with author David Ritz, the funk pioneer surprisingly eschews repetitive freaky tales for a deeper look at an insane life. Sure, there are unflinching looks at the singer's crack binges and violent behavior — an already unbridled id made worse by the death of James' mother — but it's the lesser-known adventures that make this essential reading for those only familiar with James' dark side. A mob-connected dancer mom who smuggled James into the club as a child to see Miles Davis; a chance encounter with future members of the Band, who saved a teenage James from getting his ass kicked; a headache that prevented the musician from hanging out with people who would be murdered by the Manson Family that night. Any hack can make a lost weekend enthralling, James and Ritz can make the history of "Super Freak"'s four-note descending bass line as intriguing as a pipe-filled motel-room breakdown. By Jason Newman

'Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin,' by David Ritz
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‘Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin,’ by David Ritz

Back in 1999, David Ritz helped Aretha Franklin write her memoirs, sanitized enough to be allowed into an operating room. This year, he issued Respect, his uncensored 520-page biography of the Queen of Soul, and it's clearly the book he's been preparing to write his whole life. It's stuffed full with revealing interviews from Franklin's family, her musical collaborators and subjects of Ritz's other books, from Smokey Robinson to B.B. King. MVP interview: the saucy Etta James. ("Who wants to admit that you're praising the Lord at the 8 p.m. service and servicing some drop-dead gorgeous hunk of a singer an hour later?") Knowing the details of Franklin's complicated, sometimes painful life — starting with the two sons she had at ages 12 and 14 — helps deepen an appreciation of the pain and passion that fueled her music. By Gavin Edwards

'Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story,' By Rick Bragg
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‘Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story,’ By Rick Bragg

"He did not need a song to make him inappropriate. Jerry Lee Lewis had always been inappropriate, and being a little bit famous did not change it; you can paint a barn white a thousand times, but that won't make it a house." In this gripping biography, Pulitzer winner Rick Bragg tells the story of rock legend Jerry Lee Lewis with the full force of history, poetry and two years of exclusive interviews with the Killer himself. Bragg grounds his story in the texture and tradition of the South, but when he tells the epic tale of the creation of "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," he captures Lewis's divine madness. Reading the saga of rock's piano pioneer, you will likely agree: "It was like any life, really, but with the dull parts taken out." G.E.

'The History of Rock 'n' Roll in Ten Songs,' by Greil Marcus
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‘The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs,’ by Greil Marcus

Greil Marcus carved his stern visage into rock criticism's Mount Rushmore decades ago, but he won't rest on his laurels — and he won't let rock & roll either. And so he kicks off this ferociously cerebral and warmly empathetic super-listicle with a monster sentence that reels off lots of critically acclaimed musicians — it takes, like, five pages — and by the time you've gotten from the beginning (Chuck Berry) to the end (Jay Z), his intent is clear: Forget all of this. Rest assured the 10 songs he picks from there will surprise, and/or amuse, and/or enrage and undoubtedly challenge you: They span from Joy Division (as filtered through that goofy Ian Curtis biopic) to Phil Spector (as filtered through Amy Winehouse) to Etta James (as insufficiently filtered through Beyoncé) and beyond. Whether he's talking Buddy Holly or Cyndi Lauper, Robert Johnson or the Flamin' Groovies, Marcus writes with a philosopher's zeal and a superfan's joy, drawing connections between artists and eras and solar systems you'd never even imagined. It's revisionist history of the best and most necessary kind. By Rob Harvilla

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