BOOKS OF THE YEAR

Reading for pleasure? Our writers choose the titles they most admired and enjoyed this year; on the next few pages, a wide range of ideas about what to give this Christmas
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The Independent Culture
Would you take career advice from a man who was sacked from the Beatles just before they became the most famous foursome on the planet? Such is the cruel question which haunts and taunts Pete Best, who not only suffered the indignity of being ousted by Ringo Starr, but also ended up working in a Liverpool employment centre.

Now the Beatles' bandwagon is back at top speed he has made sure, this time round, to reserve a berth. Hence his memoir, The Best Years of the Beatles (Headline pounds 19.99), which is less valuable for its text than for its fab photos of the teenage John, Paul and George larking around in leather. Bill Harry, Best's ghostwriter, coined the term "Merseybeat", but his transcription of interviews with the Man Who Wouldn't Be Ringo is fairly dreary. And despite his claims of a comeback, Besty's one rock- star achievement since those fab days has been to call his daughters Beba and Bonita, names worthy of the Geldofs.

If Philip Norman is to be believed, the Beatles would never have existed without Buddy Holly. For that matter, neither would computers, space travel or frozen yoghurt. The best-selling rock biographer adores Holly and his music, and it is the resultant appreciation and painstaking research that make Buddy the Biography (Macmillan pounds 16.99) a touching, almost exemplary work.

The author is at his best when evoking 1950s America, and teenage life in pre-rock Britain, "a world utterly without style". The supporting cast appear vividly before us, but the book has a Buddy-shaped hole in the middle. The boy from Lubbock, Texas, is an outline, a ghostly presence we never quite get to know. Still, maybe this is because he was only 22 when he died, which makes his achievements even more remarkable.

Paul Williams is at least as devoted to the subject of his collection of essays. Sadly, he is not as skilled or as disciplined. Bob Dylan: Watching the River Flow (Omnibus pounds 9.95) is a book for Dylan obsessives who want long, rambling, didactic letters from someone even more obsessive than they are.

Williams's book and the two below support the theory that contemporary American rock writing, like contemporary American rock, is not as good as the British stuff. Jim Derogatis's Kaleidoscope Eyes (4th Estate pounds 12.99) is a pseudo-scholarly guide to psychedelic rock in all its forms, which fails to evoke the strangeness of an LSD trip, or the thrills of exploration and experimentation which course through the related genre. The first problem is Derogatis's flat prose, which relies for colour on quotes from other critics. The second is his equally uninspired structuring: his potted (as it were) histories of psychedelic bands give no feeling of how, like, everything connects together, man (which is supposed to be what psychedelia is all about).

The punning jacket photograph on Rock Bottom: Dark Moments in Music Babylon (Little, Brown pounds 16.99), showing Axl Rose warming his hands on a model's buttocks, could fool you into thinking that this book by Pamela Des Barres, known for her kiss-and-tell classic Groupie, is a racy orgy of rock'n'roll hedonism. It's not. Instead, it comprises short biographies, prosaically written and lazily researched, of rock stars who have nothing in common except that they came to a bad end. What, after all, has the drug death of Keith Moon got to do with the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly? Like Derogatis, Des Barres presents one artist per morbid chapter, offering no thesis, no cross-referencing, no moral. She has sunk from groupie to ghoul.

The kind of book I hoped Rock Bottom would be is one that has the same Axl Rose photograph on the cover: Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy (Hodder pounds 9.99), a fat anthology edited by Dylan Jones. He sets out its manifesto as follows: "It's all very well getting in a tizzy over the `validity' of David Bowie's Station to Station, but what kind of drugs was he taking when he recorded it? And whose drugs?" This may not be everyone's definition of good rock journalism, but it's certainly a fun one, and most of the 40 articles in this compendium of debauchery are as entertaining as the sight of a car splashing down in a swimming pool. A must for anyone who likes their sex and drugs and rock'n'roll in that order.

Anticipating David Bowie's 50th birthday, there are two commendable biographies, Bowie: Loving the Alien by Christopher Sandford (Little, Brown pounds 16.99), and Living on the Brink (Century pounds 16.99) by George Tremlett, who benefits from having conducted several long interviews with the dilettante at the beginning of his career.

The rest of the season's publications are about Oasis. Take Me There by Paul Mathur (Bloomsbury pounds 12.99) gives the details of the foul-mouthed pop pasticheurs' rise. Oasis. Definitely. by Tim Abbot (Pavilion pounds 14.99), formerly MD of Creation Records, gives you the photos, favouring small, personal, behind-the-scenes gurning shots over anything iconic or artistic.

By far the most gripping of the bunch - if a tad pretentious - is Oasis: What's the Story? by Ian Robertson (Blake pounds 9.99), a freewheeling autobiographical novella by the band's ex-tour manager and security manager. It's a hilarious and horrific This Is Spinal Tap meets Fear and Loathing In Manchester And London, and it paints a more convincing, lurid picture of life in the Oasis camp than any other book so far.

Robertson's SAS experience little prepared him for the job of guarding the band from coke-dealers, media whores and Paula Yates. It prepared him even less for the job of guarding the band from themselves. Liam Gallagher comes across as an impossible, explosive schizophrenic, a man so wholly possessed by rock'n'roll mythology that he threatens to sack his rhythm guitarist for taking a bath: "Baths are for poofs! Oasis, right, don't have baths!" Rock journalism anthologists take note: this scene deserves many a reprint.

The Year's Five Best

2 Rock She Wrote (ed Evelyn McDonnell and Ann Powers, Plexus pounds 12.99). Refreshing upending of the traditional rock canon.

2 Waiting For the Sun by Barney Hoskyns (Viking pounds 20). All you'll ever need to know about LA men and women.

2 Psychotic Reactions and Carburettor Dung by Lester Bangs (Serpent's Tail pounds 11.99). The legendary pop apostle's greatest hits. But he shouldn't be forgiven for the imitators he spawned.

2 I Was a Teenage Sex Pistol by Glen Matlock with Peter Silverton (Virgin pounds 9.99). Does he realise how much of a stooge he depicts himself as?

2 Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Legs McNeil & Gillian McCain (Little, Brown pounds 18.99). Repulsive, fascinating eavesdroppings tell the whole gory story from an American point of view.

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