The past 12 months saw publishing react to some of the changes within both music and broader culture itself.
As a result, our bookshelves have scarcely been so exciting, with authors emerging from all facets of society to tackle music in fresh, interesting, and vital ways.
A few Clash writers gathered to nominate their favourite music books from the last 12 months, and the list moves from fiction to folk, studies of grime to highly personal memoir, underlining just how exciting music writing can be.
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John Niven - Kill 'Em All (As picked by Clarke Geddes)
The eagerly anticipated follow up to 2008's cult classic 'Kill Your Friends' saw Scotland's king of dry wit, John Niven, deliver another hilariously dark, yet far more current novel. Set a decade after the heady, beak-filled debauchery of Britpop portrayed in Kill Your Friends, Kill 'Em All sees main character Stelfox return as a Simon Cowell-esque Jet Setter faced with all manner of problems.
Yet unsurprisingly, trolling people on twitter is order of the day. He is now a multimillionaire thanks to a TV talent show, and the results are expectantly guffaw-inducing. Niven’s many years of experience in the music industry are used as both mockery and magic, as he delivered a satire on the business, Trump, reality television and much more; we were glad to see the return of Stelfox in 2018.
Rob Young and Irmin Schmidt - All Gates Open; The Story of Can (As picked by Fergal Kinney)
Despite the staggering reach of their influence, the story of CAN had until this year remained as enigmatic as the hypnotic and elusive music they produced in their 11 year lifespan. All Gates Open aimed to correct this, bringing together Wire writer Rob Young (author of the towering English folk study Electric Eden) and CAN founder/keyboard player Irmin Schmidt.
The first half of the book is Young’s biography of the CAN project – a close reading of the historical context from which the band emerged, the theoretical commitments that underpinned their experiments, and the definitive account of their glorious flowering. CAN were committed bohemians, but there’s remarkably little hedonism here – there was work to be done. What continues to astound and to move about the msuic of CAN is the overwhelming sense of total possibility.
A new music, one that borrowed from but pushed to transcend from the following: minimalism, pop, classical, free jazz, funk, psyhcadelia, rock, the event-garde. The second half of the book, Schmidt’s section, is an unorthodox collage of diaries, interviews and various miscellany.
It’s often rewarding, often patchy – there’s interviews with Bobby Gillespie, Geoff Barrow, Nick Kent and a cross-purposes conversation with the late Mark E Smith which manages to take in the Israel and Palestine conflict, the rise of craft beer and virtually nothing about CAN.
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Shirley Collins - All In The Downs (As picked by Fergal Kinney)
When Shirley Collins, the English folk singer and song collector, found out about her husband’s infidelity, the repercussions would stretch to this day. It was the late 1970s when her marriage broke down, and the subsequent collapse in confidence would trigger a rare vocal condition that forced her into exile from her life’s work.
After 30 years away from singing, Shirley Collins returned in 2016 with the excellent ‘Lodestar’ and is now making up for lost time, publishing her memoir All In The Downs. All In The Downs is the story of a working class woman navigating an intensely patriarchal folk community. Her strength of character and humour is startling, and to this reader inspiring.
Rather than settling scores, Collins’ prose instead sparkles with cheery ambivalence about folk’s leading lights (Dylan? Rude for smoking a joint in a club toilet. Ewan MacColl? Lech). The real literary strength of the book, however, is Collins’ marrying of her beloved Sussex Downs countryside with shifts and mysteries in her own life. The Downs call out to her, even offering ghostly apparitions.
As well as this, Collins is a wonderfully readable musicologist. Her first-hand account of the 60s’ folk revival is definitive. Reaching further back, a chapter that celebrates three 19th century women who pioneered English song collecting is revelatory social history. Collins’ guiding philosophy is to sing in a plain, unaffected way – devoid of ego and becoming a conduit for generations’ past. This is something explored in the book’s introduction by fan and friend Stewart Lee.
At odds with the folk tradition is our idea of what a great artist should look like and do – someone who means it, man – All In The Downs is a welcome corrective.
Brett Anderson – Coal Black Mornings (As picked by Robin Murray)
Waspish of wit and rakish of demeanour, Brett Anderson was always a cut above most of his contemporaries. News of the Suede frontman’s memoirs, then, sent fans in a tizzy – literate, outspoken, and explicitly honest, what emerges is a highly un-rock ‘n’ roll but incredibly gripping tale.
Eager to avoid the usual ‘coke and gold discs’ memoir, as he puts it, Coal Black Mornings presents “a snotty, sniffy, slightly maudlin sort of boy raised on Salad Cream and milky tea and cheap meat”.
Combined with Suede’s recent acclaimed run of re-energised, reinvigorated, and highly challenging records, Coal Black Mornings finds Brett Anderson working at the full stretch of his creativity. Warm, emotional, and addictive, it was one of this year’s more unexpected page-turners.
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Stuart Cosgrove – Harlem ‘69 (As picked by Robin Murray)
Scottish writer Stuart Cosgrove brings his soulful study to a close with the final part of his acclaimed trilogy. Harlem ’69 finds America on the brink of a new decade, fresh upheaval, and exciting new sounds, with soul and R&B splintering into the raw, stripped down power of funk.
As with preview books Detroit ’67 and Memphis ’68 the author flits between expert discography details and a wider sociological sweep, forever retaining a highly personal approach to the music itself. King Curtis, Aretha Frankin, and doomed icon Donny Hathaway all star, as soul faces up to its social conscience, and the creative demands of the decade’s demise.
Titled ‘The Future Of Soul’ it up-ends numerous preconceptions, finding fresh space within such iconic material. While the soul songbook might be the cornerstone of today’s retro nostalgia, Stuart Cosgrove places these musicians as the groundbreaking futurists their audience knew them as, perpetually living on the edge and pushing musical and social boundaries.
Dan Hancox – Inner City Pressure (As picked by Robin Murray)
The paucity of books on grime’s sound, culture, and evolution was overthrown in 2018, with a number of authors releasing work that vastly expanded its representation on the nation’s bookshelves.
Dan Hancox has been following, raving, and writing about grime since the genre’s inception, and his study Inner City Pressure is a landmark work in its field. Weaving together personal reminiscence with fresh interviews and near endless insight, the book studies grime’s emergence from the collapse of UKG, the generation shift that produced a wave of relentlessly innovative producers, MCs, and DJs.
Following grime through its fallow years, the final chapters offer new perspective’s on the sound’s second wind, tracing the emergence of figures like Stormzy, as well as its renewed energy and heightened position within broader aspects of youth culture. A relentlessly inspiring work, Dan Hancox writes with the energy of the music itself.
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DJ Target - Grime Kids (As picked by Emma Finamore)
DJ Target is the perfect person to write this story. He’s been a part of grime since its inception, and he bridges its many divides: he was a part of seminal crew Pay As U Go Cartel and also Roll Deep, who hailed grime’s first ‘pop phase’; he’s mates with both Wiley and Dizzee; he’s a fan as well as a participant.
With Grime Kids, Target gives us a first-hand, authentic account of some of the most exciting times in contemporary UK music, all very much in his own voice. Readers snatch a peek into the ‘irl’, community-led nature of grime in the early days (a young Dizzee first coming to Target’s place because he’s heard he has a great vinyl collection, and ends up meeting Wiley in that very bedroom), as well as the exhilarating rise of garage and its evolution into grime, and how it felt to be a kid from an East London council block creating something that would change the world.
The book’s structure is innovative, too, taking the form of subjects (eg ‘Dubplate Culture’) rather than running in a linear narrative, and ends on the sort of positive high only a true fan - with no beef in the game - could write. Above all, it’ll make you wish you’d been there from the beginning, just like Target.
Questlove - Creative Quest (As picked by Grant Brydon)
Questlove’s most recent intervention into my own life occurred last Summer, through his latest book, Creative Quest, while I was juggling a number of deadlines - including our Summer issue - with a relocation to London.
During that stressful time, Questlove’s voice was with me at all times, mentoring me through the process. As a result I’ve recommended the book - my own copy is scribbled in, underlined and heavily annotated - to almost everyone that I’ve had a remotely creative conversation with since, and it’s easily the most influential book I’ve read all year.
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