Music: Open ears and minds break down the walls of sound

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The Independent Culture

The folk who commission music titles have begun to catch up with the state of our ears. Music lovers who switch happily between Bach and Björk, Miles and Monteverdi, still find that most books – like the industry – stumble along under the burden of primitive genre divisions. At last, 2008 saw two majestic works that herald a new eclecticism. The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century by New Yorker critic Alex Ross (Fourth Estate, £20) ranks as my non-fiction book of the year. Erudite but engaging, written with flair and passion, it traces the fate of composition from Mahler and Strauss through Ellington and Sibelius to the Velvet Underground. Ross has a dazzling grasp of the dialectics of taste, technology and society. Björk herself (the latest of his genre-bending heroes) lauds him on the cover – and rightly so.

Tim Blanning in The Triumph of Music (Allen Lane, £25) begins in 1700, arranges his survey around themes – from venues and audiences to romantic icons like Beethoven or Eric Clapton – but ends up singing from many of the same scores as Ross. He, too, moves with effortless assurance between forms and modes, gliding, say, from Parsifal to John Coltrane with a melismatic ease.

One key icon of the new pluralism is John Adams, the all-American maestro who learnt how to heal the rift between the Berg-and-Schoenberg modernism he studied by day and the Beatles and Beach Boys he thrilled to at night. His memoir Hallelujah Junction (Faber, £18.99) tells an uplifting tale of frontiers crossed and prejudice routed. As for books with more traditional harmonies, John Lucas's Thomas Beecham: An Obsession with Music (Boydell, £25) did more than portray a charismatic conductor in all his rogueish glory. Via Beecham's career as mover and shaker, Lucas shows how Britain, the "land without music" (as the German insult went) began to mount the podium with pride.

Among pop biographies, Philip Norman's John Lennon (HarperCollins, £25) stood tousled head and shoulders above the rest. Norman uncurls his sleuth's curiosity over 850 addictive pages to present a pivotal 20th-century life. His band may not have been "bigger than Jesus", but millions needed Lennon as poet, prophet, pilgrim – and as victim.

After Norman's mighty concept album, Mark Oliver Everett's Things the Grandchildren Should Know (Little, Brown, £14.99) reads like a quirky indie set. Yet the Eels' frontman breaks the pop-memoir mould thanks to winningly neurotic stories of a rocky childhood with a genius-scientist dad and a self-subverting career. Shoe-gazing was never such fun. Among other memoirs, A Freewheelin' Time by Bob Dylan's Greenwich Village-era partner Suze Rotolo (Aurum, £16.99) shines not so much for its musical insight as for a warm portrait of the New York folk/arts scene of the early 1960s. So close-knit, even parochial, to its inner circle, it changed the sound and mind of the century.