From BTS to Dolly Parton: the 2020 books that tell the stories of some of music's biggest names

This year saw the release of a number of titles that pull back the curtain on the music industry

While many of us missed hearing live music this year, artists both current and classic took their talents from stage to page.

This year saw the release of a number of eclectic and insightful music memoirs, biographies and studies that pulled back the curtain on all aspects of the industry, from cynical manoeuvres that explore the creation of a mega-boyband to the organic song-writing process itself.

Here are 10 of the best music books released in 2020:

1. ‘Bring That Beat Back: How Sampling Built Hip-Hop’ by Nate Patrin

US music journalist Nate Patrin does a fine job of explaining the convoluted and precise art of hip-hop sampling. He explores the art form, in which hooks or melodic lines from disparate songs are taken and sonically reconstituted into another track, across four decades.

From New York's Grandmaster Flash and Prince Paul to Los Angeles's Dr Dre, Patrin breaks down seminal works and how a freewheeling approach shaped the mentality of future stars and hip-hop moguls to come.

2.‘Can’t Slow Down: How 1984 Became Pop’s Blockbuster Year’ by Michaelangelo Matos

If you scan the charts in 1984, you would find the usual suspects at the top: Madonna, Prince, Bruce Springsteen and Huey Lewis and The News.

But as seasoned music critic Michaelangelo Matos explains in his acclaimed book, there was something deeper at play. On the music front, the promise of technology started to fulfil, with the hip-hop and dance scenes bubbling underground, while production of CDs also skyrocketed. More than a time capsule, Matos's infectious book offers a fascinating insight into how music arrived to where it is today.

3. 'Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics’ by Dolly Parton with Robert K Oermann

As comprehensive as it is laidback, Parton's memoir is more than your standard chronological trip through her six-decade career.

Parton talks of weaving her life story through 175 songs, and provides wonderful insights on the writing of classic hits Jolene and I Will Always Love You. While a pleasant read and full of archival photos, it really comes to life in the audio version, in which a giggling Parton regales us with a seemingly endless catalogue of fantastic stories.

4.‘Indian Sun: The Life and Music of Ravi Shankar' by Oliver Craske

Written with the cooperation of his estate, this is as close as you will get to an official biography of the Indian maestro's life.

Craske delves into Shankar's astonishing eight-decade career that saw him straddling western pop culture, the serious business of being a classical music composer and the pseudo representation of not only his homeland, but  South East Asia's rich music tradition. Fortunately, Craske's approach is not all rose tinted. As well as Shankar's famed Woodstock performance, he paints a picture of Shankar as an intense workaholic whose successes was laced with deep self-doubt born from a traumatic and lonely childhood. This is a great entry point into one of the 21st century's most influential music figures.

5. 'Larger Than Life: A History of Boy Bands from NKOTB to BTS' by Maria Sherman

If we can learn anything from the blockbuster success of K-pop act BTS over the last two years, it's that boybands are serious business. This is the message behind Sherman’s debut book.

Picking off from the South Korean music juggernaut's present success, she winds back the years to explore six decades of boybands and some of the industry lessons that remain prescient today. From the Backstreet Boys and New Kids on the Block to The Jackson 5 and The Beatles, Sherman digs into the brilliant marketing campaigns and well calibrated songs, as well as their ability to tap into the obsessive world of fandom.

6. 'Music by Max Steiner: The Epic Life of Hollywood’s Most Influential Composer' by Steven Smith

You may not initially know the name, but you would have heard his work or effect.

It is hard to imagine modern film music without the Austrian American composer Max Steiner, who is credited as one of the architects of the art form. Steven Smith traces his six-decade career in film and some of the unforgettable musical backdrops to classic films like Casablanca, Gone with The Wind and King Kong. The book features interviews with film score maestros John Williams (Star Wars and Indiana Jones films) and Danny Elfman (Batman and The Simpsons) who credit Steiner for inventing a musical language for film.

7. ‘Nobody Ever Asked Me About The Girls: Women, Music and Fame’ by Lisa Robinson

Sick of friends wanting to hear stories about male musicians she interviewed, veteran music journalist Lisa Robinson writes about the great female artists she met over the decades.

Thankfully, the book is more than just name dropping anecdotes. She looks at how fame, both instant and delayed, affected the lives of generations of female stars from Tina Turner and Sade to Rihanna and Adele.

8. ‘One Last Song: Conversations on Life, Death and Music' by Mike Ayers

Not so much a book but a collection of poignant conversations with musicians on the question: what is the last song you would like to hear before you die?

Ayers selects 30 deep thinking artists, all of which belong to the indie and alternative rock genre, to provide their ultimate tracks and reasoning. From Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips and Lucinda Williams, to Sam Beam of Iron and Wine, the conversations not only provide insights into the art of song writing, but are, at times, life affirming as well.

9. ‘Nick Cave: Stranger Than Kindness’ by Nick Cave

The Australian singer's latest collection of essays, lyrics and personal memoirs centre on the creative process. Curated by Cave, this hodgepodge collection is at once brilliantly descriptive and hazy.

This is a good thing: it shows Cave's literary journey was not a straight road to excellence, but rather, one full of creative potholes and cul-de-sacs. That said, even when Cave's muse is sputtering, it remains a joy to behold.

10. ‘The Meaning of Mariah Carey', Mariah Carey with Michaela Angela Davis

Pop music diva Mariah Carey shattered expectations with a memoir delving into the cynical machinations of the music industry and her rags-to-riches journey.

In the process, she provides insight into her well publicised rivalry with Jennifer Lopez (she doesn’t rate her as a singer) and her secret recording of an unreleased grunge album in the 1990s as a reaction to the confectionary pop music she producing at the time.


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