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20 Best Music Books of 2013

Morrissey’s Wildean memoir, an exhaustive Beatles tome, Questlove’s meta-level writing and more of the year’s top reads

If you're a fan of both rock and reading, 2013 had much to offer. Some of the year's best music books centered around big-name artists, like Mark Lewisohn's insanely detailed Beatles bio Tune In, as well as cantankerous autobiographies from both Morrissey and Steely Dan's grump-in-chief Donald Fagen. But great reads came from all corners — from Joe Mansfield's coffee table book on classic drum machines (essential gawking for music-gear fetishists), to Rob Sheffield's brilliant memoir-cum-karaoke-treatise Turn Around Bright Eyes, to the terrific heavy metal history Louder Than Hell, a classic tale of sex, drugs and Satan that'll thrill even non-headbangers. Read on for our top 20.

By Jon Dolan, Colin Fleming, Will Hermes, and Christian Hoard

‘Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division’ by Peter Hook

Joy Division books are frequently overseen by the two-headed beast of Gloom and Doom, but bassist Peter Hook hit upon something not normally associated with the almost mythic Ian Curtis and crew: rampant piss-taking humor. Producer Martin Hannett insists upon taking apart drummer Stephen Morris' kit because he hears squeaking springs no one else does, inventing a new drum sound in the process. It's all a bit like falling ass-backwards into genius.

‘I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became an Icon’ by Touré

From RS writer Touré, a compulsively readable book in which everyone from bandmates to "musicologists" – officialdom! – to Bible scholars weighs in on all things Prince. Oh yeah, and some girlfriends. Toure's biggest Prince-centric point though is just how mutable race – and race in music – can be. The chameleonic Purple One has more than a little Dylan inside of him, and it's a gas to see one layer of the man feed into another.

‘Beat Box: A Drum Machine Obsession’ by Joe Mansfield

Where once were Strats and Les Pauls are now 808s and DMXs – the 1980s beat engines whose synthetic kick-drum, cymbal and hand-clap sounds define modern pop. These circuit boxes get fetish photo treatment alongside older and odder ones in this tech-geek-porn coffee-table book. Mansfield, an indie hip-hop producer, offers a casual overview of a folk instrument's evolution. The included sound-file link can launch the motivated on their own beat-sleuthing. Or better yet, beatmaking.

‘Days That I’ll Remember: Spending time with John Lennon and Yoko Ono’ by Jonathan Cott

Cott did the first and last major Rolling Stone interviews with John Lennon, the final session coming just a few days before the Beatle's death in 1980. Here, he provides full transcripts of all of his conversations with both Lennon and Yoko Ono, as well as recollections of his time with the couple. Sad, sweet, revealing.

‘Groove Music: The Art And Culture of the Hip Hop DJ’ by Mark Katz

A serious-minded history of hip-hop's beat architects, from Kool Herc and Grand Wizzard Theodore, to the turntablists of the 1990s, to the modern-day battle culture of the 21st century, complete with digital vinyl emulators and DJ Hero. The web component adds sound to text, illuminating how yesterday's cut chemists laid the bricks for today's beatmaking kingpins.

‘Legends, Icons & Rebels: Music that Changed the World’ by Robbie Robertson, Jim Guerinot, Sebastian Robertson, and Jared Levine

From co-author Robbie Robertson, a beautifully illustrated kids' book about adult music – 27 rock and pre-rock pioneers, ranging from Billie Holiday to Bob Dylan. Robertson adds insight and personal stories, and if your child ends up getting into even one of these legends, this is well worth the price.

‘Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop’ by Bob Stanley

English musician and ex-rock journalist Bob Stanley (a member of the great art-pop band Saint Etienne) gives us an ambitious, idiosyncratic history of pop music from the Fifties to the 2000s, in which the Sweet gets as much love as Dylan, and ABBA and the Sex Pistols are held in equal regard. Yeah Yeah Yeah is a poptimist epic full of imagination and fresh insight.

‘Johnny Cash: The Life’ by Robert Hilburn

Hillburn, who spent decades as the chief pop music critic and music editor for the Los Angeles Times, gives us a thorough and insightful biography of the Man in Black. Authoritative on every era of Cash's music and life, it's the definitive account of a truly mythic hero in American music and culture.

‘Outlaw: Waylon, Willie, Kris and the Renegades of Nashville’ by Michael Streissguth

The story of how a scraggly bunch of outliers upended Music City and the pomaded sound of country music in the Sixties and Seventies. Sure, it centers on Texans Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson. But Johnny Cash, Dylan and a posse of wildcat songwriters and industry types were equally key, as Streissguth makes clear. So vivid, you can almost smell the whiskey and Mexican weed.

‘Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew Up And Tried To Be A Pop Star’ by Tracy Thorn

From post-punk folkie to jazz-pop sophisticate to titular avant-disco queen to stay-at-home mom and Twitter heroine, Tracy Thorn can now add ace memoirist to her CV. At core it's a double love story: One with life partner (and half of their duo Everything But The Girl) Ben Watt, the other with music. Unpacking the absurdities of a pop life with indie-rock integrity, feminist/humanist smarts, and writing chops, Thorn will be your new best friend by page 10.

‘Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter’ by Alyn Shipton

Harry Nilsson was one of the most talented songwriters of the early Seventies, a close friend of John Lennon and a tragic example of massive talent burned out by a self-destructive streak that bordered on nihilism. British writer Alyn Shipton understands the music and gets inside the troubled life, bringing insight and detail to the story of a richly paradoxical figure.

‘I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp’ by Richard Hell

From nice Kentucky boy to founding member of Television, Hell embodied the CBGB's moment (the sex, the drugs, the torn T-shirts) and his vivid, no-holds-barred recollection of that brief, gritty golden age is essential reading for punk rock obsessives.

‘You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me’ by Nathan Rabin

Think you have a music obsession? Rabin hit the road with the Phish army, and, just to go to the opposite end of the spectrum, the Insane Clown Posse's "Juggalos." Comedy, inevitably, ensues but, what do you know, so does commonality. And that very human need to belong to something outside of one's self. Weird, definitely. But touching, even more so.

‘Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion’ by Robert Gordon

A virtual soul music origin story unto itself, Memphis's Stax label made the pop charts of the Sixties and Seventies feel like a down-home fish fry. We get a glimpse of Otis Redding standing in the wings, scared to follow Sam and Dave onstage, and then transforming, in the space of a second, into one mother of a performer. Props go to the Stax house band, which as a unit stirred foundations and inspired awe on most of the label's hits.

‘Eminent Hipsters’ by Donald Fagen

In this memoir, Steely Dan singer and first-class grump Donald Fagen disses everything from the Sixties' counterculture to Steely Dan fans, providing brilliant insights along the way. The result is a slim, satisfying and hilariously cranky book.

‘Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove’ by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and Ben Greenman

Questlove loves writing about music – just check out his liner notes for the Roots' albums. Equal parts cultural critic and memoirist, he can't resist riffing on every milestone he achieves, and thumbing through these pages is like hanging out with the chattiest music nerd you know. Rich Nichols, the Roots' sarcastic manager, gets in a few nice lines, but the joy of this book is getting to live in Questlove's jam-packed, restless brain for a while.

Morrissey Autobiography

‘Autobiography’ by Morrissey

He dishes out some wit, he gripes; some bon mots, some bitching. Something worthy of Wilde, some whinging. That's the pattern of Morrissey's long-awaited autobiography. You'll cackle, you'll get pissed, you'll say, "screw this, I can skip this section," only to jump into another that makes your evening. Moz may be a nutter, but he's a smart nutter.

‘Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal’ by Jon Wiederhorn and Katherine Turman

Come home and roost, metalheads: to the tune of 250 plus interviews with the likes of Anthrax, Metallica, Black Sabbath, Slayer, Judas Priest, Pantera, White Zombie, and Slipnot. And if Louder Than Hell's celebration of all things maximum volume were not enough, it also offers whole journey into what's tantamount to a way of life. And that devil's horn thing? You've probably been doing it wrong. Who knew.

‘Tune In: The Beatles: All These Years Vol. 1’ by Mark Lewisohn

Never mind that epic, multivolume studies are generally reserved for stuff like the rise and fall of Rome: the Beatles were bound to get this sort of treatment at some point, so here's a chance to rock out at max length. Tune In runs 932 pages and ends before Please Please Me is in the can. We see, in glorious detail, how the Beatles lived in each other's pockets, fucked in front of each other, and forged an "us against the world" union.

‘Turn Around Bright Eyes’ by Rob Sheffield

Turn Around Bright Eyes is a memoir about "the rituals of love and karaoke" – a tale of how belting out shaky versions of "Total Eclipse of the Heart," "Say My Name" and countless other songs helped a widowed pop-culture addict find true love again. Sheffield, a Rolling Stone contributing editor, brilliantly balances personal history and first-rate rock criticism; the Beatles chapter – about how picking a favorite Beatles song is a matter of supreme importance, and how John Lennon and Paul McCartney's shared sorrow helped shape some of the greatest music ever – manages, no small feat, to say something fresh about that band. Oh, and the book is hilarious, too.

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