The 11 best music books of 2021

Read our profile of Michelle Zauner

Crying in H Mart

By Michelle Zauner


Finding the Raga: An Improvisation on Indian Music

By Amit Chaudhuric

Amit Chaudhuri has lived many lives. The novelist, essayist, professor and musician has spent time in London, Bombay and Calcutta, studying both North Indian classical music and American folk. Growing up, he learned guitar and aspired to western pop stardom until he met his mother’s Indian classical music teacher. Chaudhuri’s latest book, Finding the Raga, uses nonlinear writing techniques to reflect the smoothness of its identity. He jumps between continents, years and schools of philosophy, interweaving his personal story with music theory, analyzing the differences between Western and South Asian music and general musings about listening.

The writing is full of charming anecdotes – he compares the tone of Bob Dylan’s aloof lyricism in “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” to Bhakti’s longing for devotional poetry, and ponders how the world sounded different from living on the third story of an apartment rather than the 12th, but it can also get boisterous. Chaudhuri’s writing closely follows his stream of consciousness and is rewarded for his attention to detail – the precision with which he remembers his mother’s singing voice, the care he takes to explain the linguistic history of the word ‘khayal’ – and his insight as someone from two cultures. Finding the Raga will get you excited to listen the way the author does: generously as you extract meaning from every single element of a song. –Vrinda Jagota

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Finding the Raga: An Improvisation on Indian Music

By Amit Chaudhuric


In defense of Ska

By Aaron Carnes

All roads lead to ska. Or at least that’s what Santa Cruz’s alt-weekly editor Aaron Carnes is arguing about In defense of Ska, an oral history connecting everyone from Dan Deacon to Danny Elfman to the much-maligned musical movement. Through more than 150 interviews, Carnes traces the vast landscape of ska, from its roots in Jamaican pop music of the late 1950s to its cultural nadir in the fedora-clad “third wave” of the 1990s, telling the ups and downs of dozens of bands fighting to be more than a punch line.

For fans of the genre, the book features intimate insights from ska legends such as original Specials member Jerry Dammers and Operation Ivy drummer Dave Mello. But for the uninitiated (or ska skeptics), it offers a bigger story about the importance of preserving local music scenes. The stories Carnes tells—musicians who sold their instruments to survive, performances that became the battleground between Nazi skinheads and anti-racist punks, groups that never left their hometowns but inspired countless others to form their own bands—are not unique to ska, and maybe that’s the point. In defense of Ska is a lovingly written defense of a vibrant, diverse musical underground that has floated against all odds. It hardly takes a love for Skankin’ Pickle to appreciate this tenacity, but those who keep an open mind might find a new favorite band along the way. —Arielle Gordon

In defense of Ska

By Aaron Carnes


Last Chance Texaco: Chronicles of an American Troubadour

By Rickie Lee Jones

When a good folk song wanders and repeats, Rickie Lee Jones’ autobiography tells a story and gets stuck in your head. The 67-year-old songwriter can swing from childhood romance details to grandiose musings about existence that read like aphorisms. “Life is a locomotive,” she writes, “and as long as you look at it from a distance, it takes a long time to pass.” With a focus on her early career, Last Chance Texaco is most compelling when Jones seems to stop time and provides insight, line by line, into her creative process. In other passages, she analyzes her formative years with the Troubadour in the late 1970s and the relationships that developed around the scene with young West Hollywood songwriters such as Tom Waits and Lowell George of Little Feat. “Do women influence men or is it just the other way around?” she asks, bearing in mind the myth of the male genius and female muse, and repositioning her influence among a generation of artists. With captivating prose and beautifully rendered scenes that will stay in your memory, Last Chance Texaco set the record straight. —Sam Sodomsky

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Last Chance Texaco

By Rickie Lee Jones


Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound

By Daphne A. Brooks

The third book by Yale professor Daphne A. Brooks is a comprehensive survey of black women’s contributions to music history and a meticulous mapping of their lives as intellectuals. From Bessie Smith to Beyoncé, Brooks makes a monumental correction to the way black women are “too seldom regarded as makers of rare sounds deemed deserving of digs and lengthy study,” challenging us to imagine a culture those black women at her “full stop center.” The recordings of Abbey Lincoln, Lauryn Hill and Janelle Monáe are theorized as works of criticism, the early black feminist cultural writings of Pauline Hopkins and author Zora Neale Hurston are meticulously contextualized, and a chapter examines playwright Lorraine Hansberry’s possible influence on the pioneering feminist music critic Ellen Willis, Brooks’ goal is to bring Black studies into conversation with music journalism, to explore how notions of genius intertwine with archive access, knowledge and power, drawing influence from Saidiya Hartman’s radical archival imagination and the time-traveling secret history of Greil Marcus, and she also interviews her own mother – all in the name of a positively revolutionary “critical realignment.” –Jenn Pelly

Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound

By Daphne A. Brooks


Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres

By Kelefa Sanneh

If you’ve been constantly searching Wikipedia for the difference between hard rock, prog rock and acid rock, or have thought about the shift from pop music (as in popular music in general) to pop music (as in Katy Perry and Madonna), Kelefa Sanneh’s big labels is the book for you. Sanne, a New Yorker staff writer, was the New York Times‘ pop critic between 2000 and 2008, where he wrote the definitive piece against rockism. In big labels, he uses his broad musical expertise and personal history to chart the last half century of American and British music through the development of seven genres: rock, R&B, country, punk, hip-hop, dance and pop. Some may find the focus on genre silly at a time when streaming platforms promise a “genreless” experience and young people surf seamlessly from country rap to reggaeton, but Spotify hasn’t conquered classifications so much as creating its own set. By mapping many of the splits, detours and consolidations that have shaped musical identity thus far, big labels prepares us to navigate new tidal changes. “Since the 1960s, music has been a means of self-identification,” notes Sanneh, “especially for young people a way to show that they are not like everyone else.” As long as that continues, we will always have musical tribes. –Kat Zhang

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