Chistmas Books Special - Part Two: Pop Music

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The Independent Culture

It may not be piled up in the front of supermarkets alongside the oracular outpourings of pop sages Gary Barlow and Chris Moyles but, for those wishing to make a direct literary connection with music's infinite transformative power, the first book to seek out this Christmas is Shirley Collins' America: Over The Water (SAF £9.99).

The veteran British folk singer has produced an unfussy but entirely captivating memoir of the journey she made across America with the great US folklorist Alan Lomax in 1958-9. Collins' vivid reminiscences of helping to make the original field recordings which would one day end up as Moby samples or on the soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou? are fascinating enough in themselves. But the dramatic contrast between her pluckily famished memories of wartime rationing and the years of austerity which followed, and the cultural and material abundance which awaited her on the other side of the Atlantic, is the gateway to a deeper understanding of the British fascination with American blues traditions which would become the foundation stone of modern pop music.

For the young folk-singer embarking on a voyage of discovery, there was no contradiction between the undreamt of luxury of awakening to the smell of bacon, pancakes and french rolls, and the exotic allure of the music made by those who were excluded from the material benefits of the American dream. They were both part of the same adventure. Collins' description of her first encounter with the legendary (but then unknown) bluesman Fred McDowell - later to be awarded the prefix "Mississipi" - has an elemental simplicity to it: "A slight figure in dungarees and carrying a guitar appeared out of the trees and walked into a clearing."

The visionary curmudgeon Lomax also crops up in Studs Terkel's And They All Sang (Granta £15.99). Grandly subtitled "The great musicians of the 20th century talk about their music", this series of interview transcripts ranges far and wide through the 46-year history of Terkel's hour-long daily radio show on Chicago's WFMT. From Janis Joplin to Keith Jarrett, from Louis Armstrong to Woody Guthrie and from Aaron Copland to Leonard Bernstein, And They All Sang is the perfect synthesis of oral and aural history.

Though the quality of the writing could not always quite match up to the super-snappy design, Garry Mulholland's first book, This Is Uncool: The 500 Greatest Singles Since Punk And Disco, made a cogent and energetic case for the single as pop's primary medium, at the exact moment at which it was vanishing as a physical entity. The follow-up, Fear of Music: The 261 Greatest Albums Since Punk and Disco (Orion £18.99), is a slightly less satisfactory attempt to get to grips with the longer form. For those willing to be drawn into heated debate as to whether albums by Kathryn Williams or The Divine Comedy should really make that sought-after top 261 (hey, add another three zeros and then we'll talk), there is plenty to chew on here. But the alarm bells set off by Mulholland's introductory assertion that "this stuff is not rocket science" are never entirely silenced. Saying something is "not rocket science" is at once a foolish statement of the obvious (unless you are actually talking about rocket science, in which case it is a bold piece of controversy) and an arrogant assertion that while others might deem his subject to be one worthy of intellectual commitment, the author has read enough back copies of the Modern Review to know better.

And so to U2 by U2 (Harpercollins £30). The author - Daily Telegraph rock critic Neil McCormick - has long aspired to the status of U2's representative on earth, and having heroically endured 150 hours of interviews in which The Edge says things like "rock and roll is about capturing a moment", only for Larry Mullen Jr to counter with that old Dorothy Parker staple, "We are very different people with diverse personalities", he deserves to wear that mantle in perpetuity.

U2 by U2's chief competitor in the battle for space on affluent Q readers' coffee-tables is Gorillaz: Rise of the Ogre (Michael Joseph £25). Pitched midway between a graphic novel and a luxurious tour programme, this handsome if fundamentally pointless volume trawls the cutting room floor of Jamie Hewlett's design studio for every last bit of useable material, and matches it to text - "What had set out to be simply a colourful and creative caper for a series of meddling minds, had become a gigantic and global beast" - strongly reminiscent of Scooby Doo. The tube map of musical influences is a lovely piece of work, though.

Where Geoffrey Gorer's Modern Types - the template on which Tom Cox's The Lost Tribes of Pop (Portrait £9.99) appears to be based - could call upon the exquisite penmanship of Ronald Searle, Cox's collection of Observer Music Monthly columns is accompanied by cartoons so aesthetically displeasing they would make Purple Ronnie blush, while the individual entries forsake tenderness for sneering all too readily.

Balm to both the eye and the ear, R Crumb's Heroes of Blues, Jazz and Country (Abrams £10.95) collects the comics supremo's musically-inspired trading cards from the early to mid 1980s into a compact but entirely alluring volume. While Crumb's drawings of Peg Leg Howell, Memphis Minnie and Ed Patterson's Piedmont Log Rollers exult in the static quality their form dictates, the accompanying CD will knock the reader's proverbial socks off.