IoS Books of the Year 2012: Pop music

Some heavyweight rockers are lined up to compete for your attention this Christmas. Just remember, size isn't everything

The promotion of the common good has not been a goal with which Keith Richards' career has traditionally been associated. But the success of the guitarist's ghost-written 2010 memoir Life has inadvertently contributed to this year's unparalleled bonanza for lovers of books written about – and even by – gnarled rock behemoths.

There are a couple of stinkers to get out of the way first. Philip Norman's Mick Jagger (HarperCollins, £20) takes up the playground cudgels on behalf of its subject's genitals, criticising Richards' famously dismissive assessment of his bandmate's penile dimensions on the bizarre grounds of "'todger' being a children's word, more commonly used by little girls". While Norman's dreary and brazenly recycled Jagger apologia is perhaps a book too far from the author on this subject, Pete Townshend's Who I Am (HarperCollins, £20) is an agonisingly overwrought misfire at a target – himself – that the author was only ever going to get one shot at.

Townshend and numerous sympathetic editors have plainly sweated blood, to create a book which turns out to be even harder work to read than it was to write. The more improvisatory (to use a nice word for "making it up as he goes along") framework of Neil Young's luminously self-penned Waging Heavy Peace (Penguin, £25) comes as a blessed relief by contrast. Alternating reams of heroically tedious mechanical detail about cars, model trains, and digital sound reproduction systems with flashes of dazzling zen insight ("Don't worry man," Neil consoles the distraught driver of a freshly incinerated tour-bus, "it's only a thing"), Waging Heavy Peace gives us a more complete understanding of what it must be like to live in Neil Young's head than we might have wished for.

The perfect balance of braggadocio and self-deprecation which the ghost writer Giles Smith maintains throughout Rod: The Autobiography (Century, £20) make this remorselessly entertaining volume a deserving winner of 2012's big beast sweepstakes. Philip Norman may not enjoy the scene in which Rod and Ronnie Wood are scheduled to join uber-groupie Cynthia Albritton's plaster-cast pantheon, then take one look at the priapic memorials left behind by Jimi Hendrix and Eric Burdon and decide that discretion is the better part of phallocentricity – but everyone else will.

For those seeking respite from a world in which sixty- and seventy-something multimillionaires discuss the great happiness they have found with their most recent partners, the Gossip vocalist Beth Ditto's slim and incident-packed (if ultimately slightly sketchy) Coal To Diamonds (Simon & Schuster, £14.99) offers the perfect tonic. It won't be such a restorative read for Arkansas tourist board employees, though, as the nightmarish landscape of routinised domestic abuse from which this ebullient character emerged suggests that the bible belt is something children get beaten with.

The former Crass associate Little Annie (aka Annie "Anxiety" Bandez) supplies a more fully realised diva memoir in her well-written and intermittently eye-popping You Can't Sing The Blues While Drinking Milk (Tin Angel, £14.99), but the year's most meticulous, elegant and satisfying rock book is Sylvie Simmons' I'm Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen (Cape, £20). With free run of Lubricious Len's abundant archive and access to interviewees from every phase of his peripatetic existence – as well as direct testimony from the man himself – Simmons tracks Cohen's contradictory odyssey from wealthy teenage hypnotist persuading the maid to undress, to fast-living poetic prodigy, to self-styled Cuban revolutionary, to Canadian TV talking head, to buddhist monk, to idolised showbiz ham.

The novelist Matt Thorne's impishly encyclopedic Prince (Faber, £18.99) brings similarly alert senses to bear in pursuit of a far less accommodating quarry, tenderly stripping back the layers of purple finery to reveal the quaking nerd within. David Byrne's digressive theoretical bunfight How Music Works (Canongate, £20), on the other hand, reads like a monologue by a funkily professorial Fast Show character – but not in a good way. Those fascinated by the nuts and bolts processes of how the music they love turned out the way it did will find much, much more to chew on in How Soon Is Now? (Faber, £17.99), Richard King's lucid and waspish anatomy of indie's raddled body politic.

In the gift-book paddock, Noel Hawks and Jah Floyd's richly detailed Reggae Going International 1967-1976 (Jamaican Recordings, £17.99) has the best before-and-after photo I have ever seen, while Al Fingers' Clarks In Jamaica (One Love Books, £30) turns the unlikely love affair between the Caribbean's music aristocracy and a no-nonsense Somerset-based shoe brand into an essential primer of post-colonial cool. Last, and perhaps most, Julian Cope's sumptuously mock snakeskin-bound Copendium (Faber, £30) is an object lesson in how to turn a slew of largely pre-existing material (the shamanic rock-crit screeds of Cope's superb Head Heritage website) into an artefact which is not so much alluring, as downright irresistible.

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