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Books of the year 2013: Music


The music publishing event of the year was undoubtedly Morrissey's Autobiography (Penguin, £8.99), which is as verbose and vindictive as you'd expect, though rather less droll than might be hoped. Effectively the story of how a plucky, fragile flower bloomed despite the weed-killer antagonism of a cabal of authority figures, it catalogues the merest, most insignificant of slights in exhausting detail and endemically overwritten prose. His legendary lyrical wit seems entirely absent from metaphors like the "swarm of misery" gripping Manchester, and the "drooled gruel face" – of a headmaster, naturally – although his total recall of arcane corners of '60s/'70s telly and pop-culture kitsch is impressive. But sadly, celebration of The Smiths seems to matter less here than subsequent recriminations over their dissolution.

Personally, I much preferred Tracey Thorn's acutely observed Bedsit Disco Queen (Virago, £16.99), a vivid memoir of how music helped a young woman find herself in the ferment of post-punk creativity. It's full of unsentimental, unashamed recollections – I like the part where she and partner Ben Watt are being chased across the Ponte Vecchio by Florentine fans chanting "Matt Bianco!", and Watt turns round to angrily confront them, "We are NOT fucking Matt Bianco!". But it's better-written than Mozzer's book, and more insightful: early on, Thorn confronts the conundrum of her shyness, noting, "I wanted to be heard without having to be heard – or perhaps more specifically, without having to be looked at" – an observation sharper than any of Morrissey's florid aperçus.

Donald Fagen's Eminent Hipsters (Jonathan Cape, £16.99) is an excellent, albeit slim, collection of essays about the Steely Dan singer's formative teenage influences as "a subterranean in gestation with a real nasty case of otherness": hipster DJ/raconteurs like Jean Shepherd and Mort Fega; the ambitious escapism of sci-fi stories by Philip K Dick, AE Van Vogt and Alfred Bester; and jazz, jazz, jazz, soaked up as a child watching Miles, Trane and Mingus at the Village Vanguard. Most impressive of all is "The Cortic-Thalamic Pause: Growing Up Sci-Fi", a scholarly account of the influence of Count Korzybski's philosophy of "General Semantics" on three generations of sci-fi writers and personal-development therapists.

The Beatles industry is well-served with three chunky books. The Beatles BBC Archives 1962-1970 by Kevin Howlett (BBC, £45) collates transcripts of interviews, recollections of Auntie's engineers and producers who worked with the Fabs, and a wealth of unseen documents and evocative photos, in a weighty hardback packaged in a facsimile tape-box. Leslie Woodhead's How The Beatles Rocked The Kremlin (Bloomsbury, £12.99) offers a fascinating confirmation that it was pop culture, rather than political culture, that really brought down communism.

But the real landmark Beatle-book (in all senses) is All These Years: The Beatles Tune In (Little Brown, £30), the first volume of Mark Lewisohn's definitive biography, a whopping tome that takes nearly 950 pages to get to "Love Me Do". It's an exercise in forensic detail, skilfully applied: you're there with them in the club, the studio, the back room and the bedroom, peering over John and Paul's shoulders as they take their first baby-steps on the road to becoming the world's most successful songwriters, and eating late-night bacon butties in Rory Storm's mum's kitchen. And there's context in abundance, from familial forebears to fellow-travellers: who knew that "Love Me Do" was released the very same day as The Beach Boys' "Surfin' Safari"? Or that that same day, while The Beatles were playing Nuneaton, Dylan was headlining a hootenanny at New York's Town Hall? (The Stones, for their part, were playing to two people in North Cheam).

From the microcosmic to the macrocosmic: Bob Stanley's Yeah Yeah Yeah (Faber & Faber, £20) attempts to cram the entire history of Anglo-American pop into 776 pages, through a series of thematic essays outlining individual genres and movements, from the first UK pop chart in 1952 to the cusp of the millennium, when digitisation effectively spelt the end of pop as an artefact obsession. It's well-written, cogently argued, mostly accurate (though Steve Miller is not Canadian), and deliberately provocative, though Stanley's broad-brush approach inevitably leaves gaping holes in some parts of the story, while his innate fan's obsessions mean some obscure contributions are painted in rather greater detail than they merit. But it's his story, so that's fine.

Similarly macrocosmic is Jon Wiederhorn and Katherine Turman's Louder Than Hell (Harper Collins, $32.50), the "definitive oral history of metal", which uses the participants' own words to detail the various sub-genre splinters – thrash-metal, death-metal, prog-metal, industrial metal, straight-edge, etc. It's useful in illuminating the how and the why of events, and frank in confronting heavy-metal controversies, such as Rob Halford's homosexuality, the murder of former Pantera guitarist Dimebag Darrell Abbott, and the ghastly atrocities of Scandinavian black metal (final score: two suicides, three murders, seven church burnings), which probably reached its nadir when Mayhem guitarist Euronymous used a photo of a bandmate's shotgun suicide as an album cover. (Few mourned when Euronymous was subsequently killed by another musician).

A similar oral-history approach is employed in Starting At Zero "by" Jimi Hendrix (Bloomsbury £18.99), which uses old interview quotes and letters to create an "autobiography" of sorts, though not in the same sense as Suggs's That Close (Quercus, £20), in which the beloved entertainer shows himself unafraid of sticking his thumbs behind his braces and giving it the full cockney-sparrer.

Elsewhere, biographies sprouted in all directions, including William Todd Schulz's Torment Saint: The Life Of Elliott Smith (Bloomsbury, £14.99), a glimpse into the widespread depression of the last two decades; Terry Teachout's thorough Duke Ellington life story, Duke (Robson, £25); Mick Wall's grandiosely-titled Black Sabbath biography Symptom of the Universe (Orion, £20); Paul Rees's dutiful Robert Plant: A Life (Harper Collins, £20); and the first volume of Paul Brannigan and Ian Winwood's Birth School Metallica Death (Faber & Faber, £20).

The best was Robert Hilburn's exhaustive Johnny Cash: The Life (W&N, £20), a nearly 700-page examination of the Mount Rushmore of 20th-century American music, which traces the singer's good/bad behavioural dichotomy to the dying words of his brother Jack, fatally injured in a woodworking accident, describing a river leading in one direction to darkness, in the other to light. Compared to that, Brendan Jay Sullivan's Rivington Was Ours (Harper Collins $16.99), a chatty, insider's account of Lady Gaga's rise, seems as trivial as you'd expect. By contrast, John Higgs's The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band Who Burned a Million Pounds (Phoenix, £9.99) succeeds by ignoring music for much of the story, in favour of the group's philosophical and psycho-geographical underpinnings in discordianism, situationism, art and magic. Sometimes, the music is just a means to an end – in their case, a million-quid bonfire that Higgs suggests may be "a magical act that forged the 21st century". Well, maybe...