Music: Open ears and minds break down the walls of sound
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.
Arts & Ents blogs
Owen Howells is a DJ/producer who grew up in Australia but was born in the UK. He came back to the U...
Fancy seeing a play about serial killers? How about inviting a funeral director into your home for a...
There are a good many moments in the second episode of this psychological thriller that deserve refl...
Liam Gallagher slams Daft Punk: 'I could have written Get Lucky in an hour'
Archaeologists uncover nearly 5,000 cave paintings in Burgos, Mexico
After 61 films, including The Hangover Part III, Heather Graham admits she still likes to boogie
Lord of the Sings: Sir Christopher Lee, 91, to release heavy metal album
Film review: The Hangover Part III - it tries hard to be funny but fails to raise a solitary guffaw
- 1 Pope Francis: Being an atheist is alright as long as you do good
- 2 What, let gays get married? We must be bonkers
- 3 'Something passed underneath us, quite close': Airbus A320 has close encounter with UFO
- 4 Lord of the Sings: Sir Christopher Lee, 91, to release heavy metal album
- 5 Two bailed after arrest over Woolwich attack Twitter comments
BMF is the UK’s biggest and best loved outdoor fitness classes
Find out what The Independent's resident travel expert has to say about one of the most beautiful small cities in the world
Nook is donating eReaders to volunteers at high-need schools and participating in exclusive events throughout the campaign.
Get the latest on The Evening Standard's campaign to get London's children reading.
Win anything from gadgets to five-star holidays on our competitions and offers page.