The epic scope and forensic attention to detail of Dan Charnas's The Big Payback (New American Library, £15.99) make it a landmark history of the industrialisation of rap – not only the most compelling pop publication of the year, but also one of the best books ever written about hip hop.
Elevating the hustlers and idealists and radio programmers of a nascent musical infrastructure to their rightful place at the creative forefront, this is an encyclopaedic work of reference that reads like a really good thriller.
The excellently named Preston Lauterbach's densely researched yet marvellously vivid The Chitlin Circuit and the Road to Rock 'n' Roll (WW Norton, £20) paints on a smaller canvas. But Lauterbach's depiction of "the numbers racket, hair straighteners, multiple murders, human catastrophe ... and a real female who could screw a lightbulb into herself – and turn it on" is as pungent as you would hope of the inside story of a showbiz backwater named after a pig's entrails.
Nile Rodgers's consistently exhilarating Le Freak (Sphere, £20) is the funkiest of this year's memoirs, charting a sure narrative course from a childhood of Dickensian poignancy among jazz-loving New York junkies to the decadent heyday of Studio 54 and beyond. Meanwhile, Shaun Ryder's Twisting My Melon (Transworld, £18.99) makes a good fist of maintaining the reader's sympathy for a Salfordian artful dodger who steals money from girl's handbags ... with his toes.
Ryder's reckless (not to say bizarrely prehensile) walk on the wild side has an unexpectedly happy ending. But Mark Yarm's oral history of grunge, Everybody Loves Our Town (Faber, £16.99), collapses into moral chaos – a junkie malaise to which Roy Wilkinson's Do It For Your Mum (Rough Trade, £13.50), a heartwarming family saga by the former manager of the outdoorsy indie rockers British Sea Power, makes a very suitable antidote.
Mother, Brother, Lover: Selected Lyrics by Jarvis Cocker (Faber, £14.99) is – like its author – slim but stylishly presented, and elegantly resolves the problem of how to typeset song words so they don't look as if they're pretending to be poetry. It's just a shame that Jarvis couldn't have put a bit more work into the commentary. With a modest fraction of the elbow grease Stephen Sondheim put into his second volume of brutally waspish annotations, Look I Made a Hat (Virgin, £35), the Pulp singer could have had a classic on his hands. I especially like the bit where Sondheim "giggles inwardly" on learning that Philip Glass has co-written a libretto in Sanskrit, only to concede after seeing it that this is "the best possible language" for an opera.
Listen to This by The New Yorker's counterpoint sage Alex Ross (Fourth Estate, £10.99) makes more sense as a paperback than it did in hard covers, but this follow-up smorgasbord inevitably lacks the thrilling historical cohesion of its superb predecessor, The Rest is Noise. Colin Grant's I&I: The Natural Mystics (Cape, £20), on the other hand, does a scholarly and thoroughly readable job of placing Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer in their proper socio-historic and spiritual contexts. Last, and most fabulously, Chantal Regnault's amazingly suave photos in Voguing and the House Ballroom Scene of New York City 1989-92 (Soul Jazz, £25) make Lady Gaga's dead-eyed stylistic appropriations seem as feeble as Pat Boone's anaemic cover versions of Little Richard.