Our picks for the year's best music reads include three memoirs from Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, the biography of one of the underground's most combustible bands and a guide to navigating music itself.
From the earliest days of the E Street Band, it was apparent that Bruce Springsteen was a master storyteller, often stopping concerts for 10-minute stretches while he captivated audiences with anecdotes about his childhood and troubled relationship with his father. This year he finally delivered on his promise to stretch those tales out into a proper book about his whole life. Written without the aid of a ghostwriter, Born To Run is every bit as epic as Springsteen's most grandiose songs. He reveals details about the mental illness that plagued his father for decades and talks candidly about his own depression that caused him tremendous pain in recent years. He also goes deep into the making of key songs and albums (though oddly leaving out any mention of 1992's Human Touch). It's destined to join Keith Richards' Life as one of the great rock memoirs. A.G.
Twenty-three years ago the Band drummer Levon Helm published This Wheel's on Fire, a memoir that seemed designed to air out his many beefs with Band guitarist Robbie Robertson. With Helm now four years gone, Robertson is finally having his say. Reading Testimony alone, one would think that Robertson and Helm were lifelong buddies, even if the drummer's drinking and drug use briefly drove a wedge between them. That's because Robertson ends his book with The Last Waltz in 1976, wisely going nowhere near the Band's dispute over money and credit that raged for decades after their fabled final show. But Testimony wasn't written to settle scores or re-litigate old fights: It was written to give the first truly in-depth look at the Band's history. Bob Dylan fans will love the blow-by-blow account of the mythical electric tour of 1965 and 1966, but equally captivating is the Band's pre-history playing an endless series of one night stands with rockabilly icon Ronnie Hawkins. Robertson seems to have a photographic memory, recreating moments from 1963 with amazing detail. Whatever side you take in the Helm/Robertson dispute, this is essential reading. A.G.
They never had a Gold record, but the saga of the Replacements is the stuff of deeply compelling drama: A great band emerges from Minneapolis, slowly amasses a dedicated following and proves to be their own worst enemy. Between their contrarian mentality, the inter-band tensions and their epic consumption of alcohol (among other things), the group's reputation became almost as notable as their music. Bob Mehr's biography of the group is comprehensive, giving a sense of the personalities that comprised the band and the music that influenced them, as well as powerfully recounting the tragic story of founding guitarist Bob Stinson. There are memorable appearances along the way: Bob Mould, Peter Buck and a wonderfully surreal Barbra Streisand cameo. T.C.
Writing about a figure that already has countless words dedicated to her, singer/writer Alina Simone gives us a fuller, weirder and more interesting overview of Madonna than we may have thought possible. By exploring Madonna's hometown of Bay City, Michigan, Madonnaland looks at the world that created the performer, the town that she left behind and the people whose lives she has changed. It's the way Simone presents her story that's most riveting, whether it's looking at idiosyncratic figures from the pop star's home state (Question Mark and the Mysterians; forgotten and collector-beloved band Flying Wedge) or her own journey from pop music fandom to indie rock. J.D.
A Rolling Stone contributor, Greg Tate's ferocious, slang-tinged salvos and deep-rooted historical analysis have inspired readers and intimidated colleagues for decades. This sequel to the 1992 collection Flyboy in the Buttermilk felt particularly acute in the context of 2016's nonstop stream of racial horror, whether Tate is delineating visual artist Kara Walker's unflinching slavery-era silhouettes or eulogizing Richard Pryor and Michael Jackson: "The real question of the hour is, How many other Black American men born in Gary in 1958 lived to see their 24th birthday in 1982, the year Thriller broke the world open louder than a cobalt bomb and remade Black American success in Michael's before-and-after image?" M.M.
The Louisiana singer and harp player Slim Harpo was a rara avis among black deep-South bluesmen in 1966: a crossover star whose lyrically coy, rhythmically slinky Number One R&B single "Baby Scratch My Back" also crashed the Top 20 on Billboard's pop chart in the late winter of that year. But Harpo – born James Moore in a western parish of Baton Rouge – was no one-hit wonder. Starting with "I'm a King Bee" in 1957, he cut a series of bayou-blues classics that not only made him a regional star but reverberated in electric-R&B Britain where Harpo's unique blend of swampy-R&B crawl, sleepy vocal magnetism and crafty, minimalist melodies were a foundation text for the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, the Kinks, Van Morrison's Them and the early Moody Blues (who named themselves after a Harpo instrumental). Moore died only four years after "Baby Scratch My Back," at 46, of a heart attack, leaving few interviews and a scattered press-clips trail. Yet this biography by the British blues scholar Martin Hawkins is a passionate, encyclopedic triumph, bringing the enigmatic Harpo to life and tracing his remarkable mainstream ascension – from the rich central-Louisiana blues scene to gigs at the Fillmore East – with deep local research and detailed portraits of the singer's peers, sidemen and record-business associates. Everything you need to know about Harpo is here. It is also everything there is to know. D.F.
If the title of memoir Not Dead Yet didn't make it clear, Phil Collins has never been afraid to poke fun at himself. He knows that 1980s hits like "Sussudio" and "One More Night" are pretty much the complete opposite of cool and hip, and he knows that he'll forever be known as the guy that divorced his wife by fax machine and wrote "In the Air Tonight" after witnessing a murder. (Those last two things are completely untrue, but it barely matters at this point.) But he also knows there's a huge army of Genesis and Collins solo fans dying to know every detail of his incredible life, and he serves it all up with incredible candor. Collins explains how he hit rock bottom after his wife left him in the mid-2000s and took their young kids with her. He eventually winds up a sad drunk forcibly sent to a rehab center after nearly dying of pancreatitis. The book nearly wraps up on that grim note, but thankfully he cleans up, re-marries his third wife, moves back in with the kids and begins plotting a comeback tour that begins next year. It will hopefully provide a happy next chapter of an unexpectedly sad and difficult life. A.G.
Music, history and psychopharmacology blend together in Heads, wherein Rolling Stone contributor Jesse Jarnow describes in colorful and scrupulously researched detail how psychedelic music fused with actual psychedelics to create a ceaselessly regenerating "hip economy" that persists to this day. Jarnow focuses on the Grateful Dead, whose Acid Tests-rooted sounds provided the alembic for a chaotically, and sometimes neurologically, connected network of fans, tape traders and LSD distributors. He draws a map of demimonde contingencies spreading from San Francisco to the verdant hills of Vermont, stopping along the way to contemplate the Brotherhood of Eternal Light, Terrence and Dennis McKenna, artist Keith Haring, a Columbia fraternity that used LSD in its hazing ritual, the Spinners cult of ecstatic dancers, DJ David Mancuso's LSD-fueled Manhattan loft parties and countless other major and minor manifestations of psychedelics in the land of the freaks. It's a head trip and then some. R.G.
How acute is the first-ever serious attempt at a Paul Simon biography? So acute that it begins in court: The Queens-born singer-songwriter has long been one of the most litigious men in rock. Not to mention one of the most secretive: Simon did not sit for any interviews with the book's Portland-based author. It hardly matters: Homeward Bound delves into nearly every aspect of Simon's public life with serious reporting chops and rare psychological insight. The result is genuinely sympathetic toward its subject while refusing to let him off the hook, whether outlining how Simon's little-told early music-biz career shaped his hard-nosed deal-making (before "The Sounds of Silence" took off he took a stab at becoming a teen-pop impresario), or chronicling his deeply passive-aggressive friendship with Art Garfunkel (like when Paul informed his partner he'd re-cut their reunion album as a solo release, then immediately extended an invitation to his wedding). M.M.
Traversing his music collection as though he were listening again for the very first time, former New York Times music critic Ben Ratliff not only tells you what to listen to but, more importantly, how to listen to it. In an era when a huge chunk of everything ever recorded is available to listeners via the cloud, Ratliff suggests a score of sometimes-idiosyncratic strategies to stimulate "encounter[s] with civilizations other than your own." In addition to drawing out new possibilities from such familiar touchstones as repetition, quiet, improvisation and virtuosity, Ratliff riffs adroitly on the "transmission" of extreme emotion in Sufi music, the "linking" of composers such as Henry Threadgill with listeners like yourself, and the subtle rhythmic "discrepancies" in the drumming of Japan's OOIOO, whose grooves "sound the way a three-legged dog looks when running." R.G.