Being able to easily cue up a song just as you’re reading about it is a small, modern joy, and it’s one we took full advantage of in 2020. In a year largely bereft of live music or even social lives, there was plenty of time to curl up with a good book and the music described therein. What follows is a selection of Pitchfork staffers’ favorite music books this year; a few blurbs may seem familiar to readers, as they are excerpted from past Book Club entries.
Check out all of Pitchfork’s 2020 wrap-up coverage here.
Balearic: Historia oral de la cultura de club en Ibiza
By Luis Costa and Christian Len
Just 50 years ago, many Ibizan homes lacked telephones, running water, and even electricity. How, then, did this rocky Mediterranean island become a central hub in global electronic music—and then a playground for the super rich? Balearic, a Spanish-language oral history of clubbing on the White Isle, tells the story in fascinating detail. Luis Costa and Christian Len assemble their tale from scores of interviews with club founders, DJs, and insiders, taking us from the earliest ad-hoc music bars of the 1950s to the present day’s super-clubs and mega-yachts. Their unifying thread is the tension between freedom and excess (we learn that Ibiza was an unlikely bastion of libertinism in the darkest days of Franco’s reign), between experimentation and exploitation. What began as a multi-sensory wonderland where you might hear Manuel Göttsching’s kosmische masterpiece E2-E4 in full while tripping on LSD in a nightclub swimming pool has turned into a shrink-wrapped, third-rate facsimile of licentiousness—a capitalist hellscape of VIP lists, ketamine, and all-night, undifferentiated oonce-oonce. But that duality is essential to Ibiza’s identity, argues DJ Harvey, who is widely recognized as carrying on the spirit of the island’s hedonism and its musical adventurousness. “We need the tree-huggers, the multi-millionaire club owners, and also the olive growers,” he says at one point in Balearic. “It’s like a machine, a pleasure machine, and if you took away any of its parts, it would stop working.” –Philip Sherburne
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Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll
By Maureen Mahon
Amid the rehashed hero worship and shoddy sourcing of countless tomes on classic rock, Black Diamond Queens emerges as a rare gem. Penned by NYU professor and scholar Maureen Mahon, this meticulously researched book is a key entry in the ongoing record-correction of 20th-century popular music history, one that recenters women, and most crucially, women of color. Discerning listeners have long understood that rock’n’roll was the result of white artists playing Black styles of music. But rarely has the “official record” acknowledged that there would quite literally be no Elvis without Big Mama Thornton, for whom Leiber and Stoller originally wrote “Hound Dog,” and whose rollicking vocal performance is its own form of authorship; Thornton isn’t even in the Rock Hall.
Mahon focuses on a handful of Black women vocalists from rock’s founding through Tina Turner’s 1984 blockbuster Private Dancer, with a strong middle chapter about three countercultural figures who could have inspired the racially transgressive Rolling Stones hit “Brown Sugar” (Devon Wilson, Marsha Hunt, Claudia Lennear). She reframes their stories, and the stories of other pioneering Black women, by emphasizing the autonomy they did have, and how they wielded it within a culture that prized white men’s instrumental virtuosity and thrived on Black stereotypes. So many worthy parties are given their roses, from the many backup singers that helped English rockers access gospel authenticity to the misunderstood genre challengers like LaBelle and Betty Davis to the influential but overlooked girl group the Shirelles. The collective telling of their stories and achievements, within an intersectional feminist framework, is the kind of illuminating scholarship that rock really needs. –Jillian Mapes
Can’t Slow Down: How 1984 Became Pop’s Blockbuster Year
By Michaelangelo Matos
It was the year that Prince raised the stakes for pop auteurs with Purple Rain, that Madonna scandalized with her wedding-themed performance of “Like a Virgin” at the first VMAs, and that Michael Jackson’s Thriller ended its record-breaking 37-week reign at the top of the album chart. In Can’t Slow Down, veteran music writer Michaelangelo Matos investigates why 1984 was such an explosive year for pop, ditching the intensive interviews that shaped The Underground Is Massive, his 2015 history of electronic dance music, for deep archival research. He glimpses at the backstage motives and controversies of artists from R.E.M. to Run-DMC to Lionel Richie, while also exploring the era’s technological shifts—a shiny new format called the CD, the rise of home recordings—and political tensions. The book feels like an ensemble television show, prioritizing shifting perspectives over a tightly-organized narrative. It’s informative, entertaining, and fully immersive. –Cat Zhang
Fangirls: Scenes From Modern Music Culture
By Hannah Ewens
In Fangirls, British music journalist and VICE UK editor Hannah Ewens rejects the narrative that her titular subjects are obsessive, hysterical, or unhinged—terms that critics have thrown at female music fans since pop’s advent, and that have been used to deride all sorts of passionate women for centuries before that. Ewens speaks with Directioners, Little Monsters, Beyhive members, and aging Beatlemaniacs about their camaraderie with fellow fans and devotion to their chosen musicians; the book’s most moving chapter features Arianators who drew empowerment from their peers after surviving the 2017 bombing of Ariana Grande’s Manchester concert. Ewens also interviews musicians like Laura Jane Grace of Against Me! and Shirley Manson of Garbage about their experiences with fan culture, as both the adorer and the adored. As a proud fangirl herself, the author approaches her subjects with empathy, validating the importance of these self-made communities. –Quinn Moreland
Girls Against God
By Jenny Hval
The second novel from Norwegian musician Jenny Hval begins with a young woman’s fascination with black metal. Its prose is as severe, irreverent, and holistically negative as black metal itself, a genre notorious for its corpse paint and church burnings as well as its seething, irreducible sound. Hval is steeped in the traditions of autofiction and the theoretical novel; she once wrote a song in response to Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick. As her “provincial goth” protagonist joins bands and embarks on adventures, she is, like Kathy Acker or Valerie Solanas before her, obsessed with hate—her attempt at psychologically incinerating the corruption of the world around her. The plot aspires toward an “escape route from structure and rhetoric,” and makes room for thrilling observations on art, magic, and rebirth. “I want to take part in a chaos of collective energy,” Hval writes. “I want to be in a band.” –Jenn Pelly
Glitter Up the Dark: How Pop Music Broke the Binary
By Sasha Geffen
In Glitter Up the Dark, Colorado-based critic and Pitchfork contributor Sasha Geffen dismantles the myth of gender experimentation as an anomaly throughout music history by tracing a lineage from blues icons Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, who sang thinly-veiled lesbian lyrics nearly a century ago, to the present wave of internet-based iconoclasts like Arca and SOPHIE. The timeline is peppered with queer, trans, and gender-subverting artists who ruptured the rules of the binary, ranging from the mega-mainstream (Prince, pop culture’s patron saint of gender mindfuckery) to the underground (proto-punk pioneer Jayne County). The book speaks to pop music’s effect on future generations of norm-breaking artists, but also on public perceptions of gender and its engagement with race and class politics. It’s an essential contribution to the modern music-book canon, made all the more intimate in Geffen’s hands. (Read the rest of our Pitchfork Book Club entry on Glitter Up the Dark.) –Eric Torres
How to Write One Song: Loving the Things We Create and How They Love Us Back
By Jeff Tweedy
“Songs are mysterious. Where the fuck do they come from?” asks Jeff Tweedy in the opening lines of his second book. The Wilco frontman elucidates his process in this compact collection of anecdotes and advice, with the humble goal of shepherding a single tune to completion. Rather than dwelling on the mechanics of music theory, How to Write One Song offers strategies and good-natured encouragement for passing creative roadblocks like self-doubt, difficulty finding inspiration, and unwillingness to indulge ideas. These are nourishing lessons, equally applicable to someone picking up a guitar for the first time or a musician with many records under their belt. There’s creative potential within us all, Tweedy suggests; sometimes we just need a little help unlocking it. –Quinn Moreland
Kim Gordon: No Icon
By Kim Gordon
“Being referred to as an ‘icon,’ blah blah blah. What does that even mean?” asks Kim Gordon in her new book, which collects never-before-seen photographs, artworks, handwritten lyrics, and more ephemera from the experimental rock luminary’s life. Witness the bassist-vocalist-guitarist wielding a shotgun and mean-mugging in a still from Sonic Youth’s “Death Valley ’69” video in 1985; beaming beside Sofia Coppola at a fashion show in 1998; performing beneath towering Renaissance paintings in the Louvre in 2019. Gordon may continue to protest her icon status, but this book’s blazing imagery proves she’ll always qualify. –Eric Torres
Liberation Through Hearing: Rap, Rave & the Rise of XL Recordings
By Richard Russell
In 1994, at age 23, a rap- and rave-loving high school graduate from suburban London found himself the boss of a fledgling UK indie label, XL Recordings. In the quarter-century since, Richard Russell has overseen game-changing releases by M.I.A., Radiohead, Adele, and many others, as well as produced the landmark final albums of luminaries Gil Scott-Heron and Bobby Womack. Russell’s memoir, Liberation Through Hearing, recounts this illustrious career with lucid prose and the meticulous detail of a crate-digging music fan. There are memorable cameos from Eazy-E, Rick Rubin, and Madonna, and Russell candidly details his missed opportunity to discover Aphex Twin. But more than juicy industry anecdotes, it’s the author’s introspection about his own life—including an Orthodox Jewish upbringing, struggles with mental health, and a debilitating 2013 bout of neurological illness—that makes the book as resonant as the classic albums Russell has helped to release. The book is peppered with philosophical bon mots about how to find creative and financial freedom through a life in sound, from both the author and his collaborators. Gil Scott-Heron offers a comment about working with Russell that doubles as sage advice for everyday existence: “All the dreams you show up in are not your own.” –Marc Hogan
Maybe the People Would Be the Times
By Luc Sante
Luc Sante makes me feel ashamed: for using Spotify and air conditioning, for paying $20 to attend a warehouse party where a creep whispered to me about Xi Jinping. In his second essay collection, the Belgian-born, New York-bred critic writes so rapturously about his generation that every successive one droops in its wake. His peers are the rascals who came of age in ’70s and ’80s Manhattan: brazen and foolish, whirling boldly at the “very forefront of Now.” All of recent history is available for the taking, in the form of old records piled on the street; Jamaican music lopes “twenty-block miles faster than taxis.” “I wanted to speak the beautiful language of my time,” Sante announces in the epigraph, plucking words from Baudelaire.