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10 Best Music Books of 2016

From the stage to the page: The year’s best memoirs, essay collections and more

Top 10 Music Books

Read our list of the 10 best music books of 2016, featuring memoirs, essay collections and more.

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.

Slim Harpo: Blues King Bee of Baton Rouge, 'Martin Hawkins'

‘Slim Harpo: Blues King Bee of Baton Rouge,’ by Martin Hawkins

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.

'Not Dead Yet: The Memoir,' Phil Collins

‘Not Dead Yet: The Memoir,’ by Phil Collins

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.

'Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America,' Jesse Jarnow

‘Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America,’ by Jesse Jarnow

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.

Homeward Bound: The Life of Paul Simon,' Peter Ames Carlin

‘Homeward Bound: The Life of Paul Simon,’ by Peter Ames Carlin

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.

'Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty,'

‘Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty,’ by Ben Ratliff

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.