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When I walk around listening to music, the world feels far away. Everywhere I go, I look for long, stretched out corridors I can do this in at least once everyday. I walk and sway and dance to the melody of what I’m listening to. The tune coming out of my earphones and filling my mind is a welcome escape, a safe haven and a museum of wonder.
Music has been a way to feel connected to the world beyond my existence. This comes in the form of singing in the car too. Some of my favourite memories with my people are singing loud in an off-key voice or humming soothingly while staring out the window. Sometimes, we feel like islands that only come together in the waves of a familiar sound flowing between us.
Lending music to words also increases their impact. A lot of lyrics end up casually scribbled or earnestly penned in my many, many notebooks. However, music’s most defining quality, for me, is that it isn’t always something I have to ponder. It is something I can simply rejoice in or be comforted by even without actively listening.
Everything that music means to me has led me to wanting to read about it. So here’s a list of diverse and brilliant nonfiction books about music.
They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib
Hanif Abdurraqib is a spoken word poet and a cultural critic. This book is a collection of essays that talk about what music has meant to him as a Black Muslim living in America.
In one of my favourite lyric essays titled “Defiance, Ohio Is the Name of a Band,” he writes,
“And the band with the cello and the band with the banjo strings stood thick and heavy in the air
No one seemed to mind
It’s like if we all try hard enough in the same room
Everyone can remember what it is to lose somebody at the same time”
That line brings out the solidarity and togetherness that music can bring even without having to lend each other words for it. All of his essays are insightful and written in a rhythm entirely his own.
Also check out his more recent essay collection about music, A Little Devil in America: In Praise of Black Performance.
How Music Got Free: A Story of Obsession and Invention by Stephen Witt
If you’ve lived through the era when you had to buy or borrow a CD to listen to an album, you would probably appreciate this book more than people who haven’t. Stephen Witt credits the journey of music becoming free largely to three people. The first is Karlheinz Brandenburg, a German engineer who developed the MP3 method for data compression. He also credits Doug Morris, the music executive who cornered the rap music industry in the 2000s. And last but not the least, he credits Dell Glover, a factory worker who leaked nearly two thousand albums over the course of a decade. He interweaves a narrative with these men, the pirated websites that uploaded this music, and the listeners who witnessed this revolution.
Larger Than Life: A History of Boy Bands from NKOTB to BTS by Maria Sherman
Whether you love boy bands or love to hate them, you can’t deny that they’re a significant part of the musical landscape. In this brilliantly illustrated book about boy bands, Maria Sherman begins with their history highlighting The Beatles, the Jackson 5, and more. She also explores more recent beloved bands like New Kids on the Block, Backstreet Boys, One Direction, and BTS. The book ends with insights into the future of boy bands.
Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time by Rob Sheffield
Rob Sheffield is a music critic and a contributor and editor for Rolling Stone. He talks about how his love for rock music led to meeting his first wife, Renee. They nurtured their love and built their life together. However, Renee suddenly passed away five years into their marriage from a pulmonary embolism.
In this memoir, Rob Sheffield writes, “Every mixtape tells a story. Put them together, and they add up to the story of life.”
This is exactly what he tries to do. These mixtapes range from them courting each other, going on road trips, and doing dishes to him mourning her loss. Pick this up if you’re looking for a heartfelt memoir that leads you to moving music.
Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001-2011 by Lizzy Goodman
If “Meet Me In The Bathroom” reminded you of the song by The Strokes, that’s because it is exactly what this book is named after. Journalist Lizzy Goodman wrote this oral history based on about 200 original interviews with James Murphy, Julian Casablancas, Karen O, Ezra Koenig, and many other musicians. She also draws on the experiences of journalists, photographers, music executives, groupies, and anyone with their own insight to offer about the rock n’ roll scene in NYC in the first decade of the 2000s. If you’re not sold yet about reading this book, watch the interesting interview below to help make up your mind.
One Love by Cedelia Marley
This adorable picture book is an illustrated version of Bob Marley’s song of the same name. It had me singing “One love, one heart, let’s get together and feel alright” while looking at vibrant, diverse representation. If that sounds as cute to you as it was for me, you should check this out!
Just Kids by Patti Smith
This classic doesn’t need too much introduction. It explores the journey of Patti Smith, a singer who was influential in the punk rock movement in New York City with her album Horses. In this memoir, she explores her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe set in the late ’60s and ’70s. It’s an enjoyable read even for people who aren’t familiar with her music or work.
CAN’T STOP WON’T STOP: A HISTORY OF THE HIP-HOP GENERATION BY JEFF CHANG
Jeff Chang is a historian and music critic who also served as the executive director of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford. This book uses hip-hop as a lens through which Black American culture of the ’60s and ’70s is examined and celebrated. Watch the author talk about the Black freedom struggle and his aim of writing this book in the interview below.
For more interesting music recs, check out 50 Must-Read Books About Music and our Music Archives.