10 Books for the *REAL* Music Fan on your Holiday Shopping List

Got a music fan on your holiday shopping list? We’re not talking about someone who only listens to the radio in the car and, even then, spends half of their time talking on their cell phone. We’re talking about someone who – like the name of this blog – eats, sleeps, and drinks music, someone who isn’t afraid to do a little bit of genre-jumping and who, after being introduced to an artist or a scene, seeks out reference material to learn more about the songs they’re hearing and the people who brought them to fruition. If so, we’ve got a few books for you.

Now, mind you, this isn’t intended to be a comprehensive list, as most obviously evidenced by the fact that neither Keith Richards’ Life nor Jay-Z’s Decoded are anywhere to be found, not to mention Justin Bieber’s scintillating story, First Step 2 Forever. All we’re trying to do is offer up some suggestions based on what we’ve seen, read, and gotten excited about over the course of 2010. And now that you know that, read on…

1. John Lennon: Life is What Happens, by John Borack

Beatles-related coffee-table books are practically a literary industry unto themselves, but John Borack’s contribution to the field is one of the best to come down the pipeline in quite some time, offering a blend of photographs, album covers, movie posters, memorabilia and minutiae from throughout John Lennon’s career while interspersing the visual presentation with text.

Some of it comes courtesy of the author himself, who provides a more thorough history of Lennon’s life and times than you might expect; given the eye candy with which he’s surrounded his words, Borack could’ve gone the simple route, but rest assured that this is no rote history. Beyond his contributions, there are quotes from Lennon himself, of course, both from his lyrics and his interviews, but there are also comments from various musicians, DJs, and others who have been affected by Lennon’s work throughout the years.

You’d be right to hesitate and think to yourself, “Do I really need another big-arse book about John Lennon and the Beatles?” In this case, though, you probably do.

2. Fab: An Intimate Life of Paul McCartney, by Howard Sounes

Ah, but do you need another big-arse book about Paul McCartney and the Beatles? Fortunately, in the case of Howard Sounes’s Fab, you’re not looking at a coffee-table volume but, rather, a proper biography. Sure, Barry Miles would seem to have the upper hand on McCartney bios, given that his contribution, Many Years from Now, was actually authorized by Macca himself, but with the 200+ interviews done by Sounes, the fact that he wasn’t working directly with his subject means that you’ll probably end up learning a few things that Sir Paul probably would prefer that you hadn’t. Given that Sounes manages to tackle both the highs and the lows of McCartney’s career while neither rhapsodizing nor crucifying the man, it’s no surprise that the reviews for Fab have been, well, fab.

3. Talking to Girls About Duran Duran: One Young Man’s Quest for True Love and a Cooler Haircut, by Rob Sheffield

I mean this in the best possible way and intend absolutely no disrespect to Rob Sheffield, but…I totally could’ve written this book. And so, for that matter, could my fellow Bullz-Eye editor, David Medsker. Even though this book may not mirror either of our lives precisely, it contains enough universal truths about growing up in the 1980s and the soundtrack of the era that the experience of reading it proves at various times to be heartwarming and heartbreaking but – fortunately – with a whole lot of hilarity also thrown into the mix. Covering everything from Duran Duran and Depeche Mode to Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock and Def Leppard, it may be Sheffield’s memoir, but a lot of it is our lives, too. You’ll probably find it contains a bit of yours as well, even if you weren’t even yet born when the ’80s ended (man, did you just hear that really loud collective sigh from all of the thirty- and fortysomethings?)…and if you’re like David and I, it’ll probably make you want to write your own book. But until after you curse Sheffield for having written his first.

4. A Wizard, A True Star: Todd Rundgren in the Studio, by Paul Myers

Paul Myers may have made his biggest literary splash – or certainly his most high profile, anyway – by penning Barenaked Ladies’ authorized biography, Public Stunts, Private Stories, but it’s his passion projects which have proven the most educational for music-bio aficionados.

2007 brought us his examination of the British blues scene of the 1960s as viewed through the kaleidoscope of Long John Baldry’s career (It Ain’t Easy: Long John Baldry and the Birth of the British Blues). Now, Myers has set his sights on a more mainstream musical figure…although, really, when someone inspires his followers to declare, “Todd is God,” doesn’t that by definition mean that they have a cult following?

But I digress.

With A Wizard, A True Star, Myers attempts the daunting task of exploring Rundgren’s work behind the board, as it were, exploring in great detail the albums that he’s produced over the years, including Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell, the New York Dolls’ self-titled album, XTC’s Skylarking, and, as the cliche goes, many, many more. Researched and written with the participation and cooperation of Rundgren himself, Myers also draws upon exclusive new interviews with Robbie Robertson, Patti Smith, XTC, Sparks, Daryl Hall and John Oates, Meat Loaf, Jim Steinman, Cheap Trick, Grand Funk, The Psychedelic Furs, The Tubes, Steve Hillage, and the members of Utopia.

If you’re a Rundgren fan and didn’t already know what you wanted for Christmas before reading this, I think it’s fair to say that you do now.

5. Husker Du: The Story of the Noise-Pop Pioneers Who Launched Modern Rock, by Andrew Earles

In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I have yet to pick up a copy of this book, but while I’m not necessarily expecting it to top Michael Azerrad’s look at the band in Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991, the idea of someone putting together a full-fledged history of the work that Bob Mould, Grant Hart, and Greg Norton did together has me excited enough that I feel like I should at least spread the word about it.

Here’s the official description of the book:

Taking their name from a popular Danish children’s board game, Bob Mould, Grant Hart, and Greg Norton formed Hüsker Dü in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1979 as a wildly cathartic outfit fueled by a cocktail of volume and velocity. Author Andrew Earles examines how Hüsker Dü became the first hardcore band to marry pop melodies with psychedelic influences and ear-shattering volume, and in the process become one of the most influential rock bands of the 1980s indie underground. Earles also explores how the Twin Cities music scene, the creative and competitive dynamic between Mould and Hart, and their personal lives all contributed to the band’s incredible canon and messy demise. Few bands from the American indie movement did more than Hüsker Dü to inform the alternative rock styles that breached the mainstream in the 1990s. Here, finally, is the story behind their brilliance.

Hey, it certainly sounds good. Whichever one of us gets it first, meet back here and let the other know how it is, deal?

Read the rest of this entry »

  

Johnny Cash: American VI: Ain’t No Grave


RIYL: Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson

“There ain’t no grave that can hold my body down.” So sings the Man in Black on the opening track of what we are assured is truly the final entry in his series of his Rick Rubin-helmed American Recordings albums. It’s been six years since his death, yet if there’s anyone you could believe would make good on such a lyric, it’s Johnny Cash. In that brief interim between losing his beloved wife, June Carter Cash, and losing his own battle against the health issues which had plagued him for several years, Cash entered the studio and cut the material on both this album and its predecessor (American V: A Hundred Highways), but while the sessions may have given him the opportunity to provide his own musical epitaph, listening to material like “I Don’t Hurt Anymore” and “Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound” serves first and foremost to reopen the old wound left by Cash’s demise. Only after getting past the sense of loss can one truly begin to appreciate American VI…and trust me when I tell you that it’s liable to take you a few spins to reach that point.

The stomping arrangement of the opening track, “Ain’t No Grave,” is immediately reminiscent of “God’s Gonna Cut You Down,” from American V, but it’s hard to argue with any song which could still give the ailing, mourning Cash the chance to come across as rebellious. From there, it’s into the only contemporary cover on the collection: Sheryl Crow’s “Redemption Day,” which becomes far more ominous and foreboding when being sung by a man who knows his days are numbered. Not that Cash himself was concerned about the inevitable: his take on Kris Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times” shows a man who was aware of how little time he had left on this planet. (“Don’t look so sad / I know it’s over / But life goes on / And this old world / Will keep on turning.”)

How Johnny Cash greeted the Grim Reaper

At 10 songs and a run time of just under 33 minutes, American VI is a succinct album…but, then, the best epitaphs are. It was a wise decision to save the more maudlin songs from Cash’s final sessions until several years after his death, as releasing them too quickly after his passing would’ve made them seem like a cheap stunt. In its current context, the record at least feels like the farewell that Cash almost certainly intended it to be, and it will no doubt inspire many a toast in his memory, particularly during the surprising yet somehow perfect closer, “Aloha Oe.” Unfortunately, however, it is so thoroughly defined as a farewell that it’s unlikely to earn the same number of repeat spins as the albums which preceded it. – (American Recordings / Lost Highway 2010)

Johnny Cash’s official website
Click to buy American VI: Ain’t No Grave from Amazon

  

21st Century Breakdown: R. David Smola’s Best Albums of the Decade

The 2000’s weren’t great for breaking new and exciting artists but some established folks sure put out some good material. The Purple one returned to make his best record in a long time and a metal specialist put out a mellower, kinder disc with compelling results. One of the best characters the music business has ever produced created an incredible record about saying goodbye with grace and dignity; he pulled it off with a little help from his friends. In our final final installment of our series on the best of the 2000s, here are the ten best releases from the most recent decade:

1. Warren Zevon: The Wind (2003)
Zevon was a ridiculously clever songwriter and half the time you couldn’t tell if he was making fun of you while you found him clever or not. He was intelligent, witty and knew how to construct a great song. Faced with terminal cancer, he willed himself to complete the album and see it completed (in direct contrast to his doctors’ orders). It was more than a simple swan song; it was a graceful and bittersweet conclusion to his life and underrated career. An all-star cast of cameos (Bruce Springsteen, Dwight Yoakam, Don Henley and Tommy Shaw, to name a few) really enriched the material. “Keep Me in Your Heart” is the sweetest, most haunting ballad ever written and a further demonstration of the class and dignity of the artist.

2. Aimee Mann: Bachelor No. 2 or The Last Remains of the Dodo (2000)
No one quite knows how to tell someone to fuck off as intellectually as she can. The fact that she had to rescue the album from the record company just like Wilco had to rescue Yankee Foxtrot Hotel makes this album even more satisfying. She always comes up with strong material but this record is perfect. Several tracks appeared on the “Magnolia” soundtrack. The rest of the material is sharp, melodic, catchy and full of unmistakable and brilliant Aimee Mann lyrics.

3. Sugarland: Twice the Speed of Life (2004)
A flawless country record with incredible pop crossover appeal. Jennifer Nettles establishes herself as a tremendous front woman and the material is top notch. There isn’t one wasted track. “Baby Girl” is a tremendous tune because the story feels authentic and the ballad “Just Might (Make Me Believe)” is Nettles at her best as she sings the hell out of it.

4. Johnny Cash: American IV – The Man Comes Around (2002)
As Cash is dying, Rick Rubin gets one more gem out of him, including the haunting version of “Hurt” in which Cash clearly steals the song away from Trent Reznor. Guest appearances by Fiona Apple, Don Henley and Nick Cave really enhance this marvelous record of Cash covering other artists and re-interpreting a few of his own. I suppose, off the top of your head, you would figure that Johnny and Nine Inch Nails, or Johnny and Depeche Mode would be silly, but you would be wrong. This is the best of the four American Recording records, but the other three are terrific also.

5. System of a Down: Mezmorize/Hypnotize (2005)
The three previous records indicated how good SOAD could be, but these two records realized all that potential and to this point is the pinnacle of their work. Angry, assaultive, and full of noise and tempo changes, these two records leave you exhausted and your ears begging for both mercy and for more. Serj Tankian and Daron Malakian blend their voices perfectly similarly to the way that Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell did in Alice in Chains. Serj is clearly the lead, but Daron (like Jerry) adds an intense layer of complementary harmony and occasional leads. Serj’s solo record is very good (Elect the Dead) and Scars on Broadway (Malakian’s band) had some solid moments, but I believe the whole is better than the sum of the parts. The parts have put out some compelling stuff: bring back System of a Down.

6. Cathy Richardson: Delusions of Grandeur(2006)
Now that she is a member of Jefferson Starship and busy touring with her own band, I wonder if she will have time to produce any more records under her name. This is an incredible work of art, from the songwriting to the soulful vocal performance to the album packaging. It is exquisite and her talent is overwhelming. It was my favorite record of 2006 and belongs on this list as one of the best of the decade. Her ability to move seamlessly through genres and sound equally at home and competent is unique. “Overwhelmed” is an absolute gem and a perfect example that Ms. Richardson knows exactly how to use that extraordinary vocal talent. “Ain’t No Home” is flawless laid back soul which much like the rest of the record sharply expresses the pain of loneliness. This is a great record, period.

7. Devin Townsend: Ki (2009)
Talk about a change-up. Townsend has been the songwriter, shredder and lead screamer for Metal monsters Strapping Young Lad, sang lead for Vai (the one album band project for guitar God, Steve Vai) and produced some fascinatingly heavy records under his own name and the Deven Townsend Band. After taking a break from touring and writing to clean up and recharge, Towsned’s first record in a four-record cycle is mellow, engaging, beautiful and melodic. Many of those adjectives shocked Townsend enthusiasts, but the man has depth. Ki is an incredible record which shows that the man can write very interesting introspective stuff and sing, yes, he can sing. Ki adds to the amazing range of a gifted musician. His sense of purpose in following his own muse, not what is expected, is a necessity that the music industry desperately needs.

8. Prince: 3121 (2006)
The little purple fellow finally put out a record that was worthy of his royal name. Yes, he borrows heavily from himself, but he funks the heck out of the album and it is a fabulous addition to his accomplished catalog. Most of his records after Purple Rain featured excellent tracks, but no record is as consistent as this one. He turns up the volume on the bottom end and really lets it fly. It took a long time to get to 3121, but it was well worth the wait.

9. The Mob: The Mob (2005)
There is something exhilarating when a band comes out of nowhere (unfortunately they’re most likely a one-off) and produces a spectacular melodic hard rock record that no one saw coming (and probably no one outside of Europe heard much). This super group made up of shredder Reb Beach (Winger, Dokken, Whitesnake), Dug (yep he changed his name) Pinnick (King’s X) on vocals, keyboardist Timothy Drury and drummer Kelly Keagy (Night Ranger), was produced by Kip Winger. The music is tight, the production is pristine and the songs are memorable. “The Magic” is a great power ballad and the best thing sung by Kelly Keagy (his only lead on the record) since “Sister Christian”.

10. Richard Marx and Matt Scannell: Duo (2008)
I am going to catch hell for this, but the ’80s ballad schlockster and the lead voice and songwriter of Vertical Horizon combine for an absolutely gorgeous recording of nine previous hits and one original. The production on this is clear; every strum on the guitar and vocal harmony is treat for the ear. Their voices blend naturally and the material sounds fresh and revitalized by these simple but elegant arrangements on acoustic guitars and occasional piano.

Honorable mentions certainly can be passed out to the following which just missed out on the top ten:

2000
XTC: Wasp Star: Apple Venus Volume 2
Nik Kershaw: To Be Frank

2002
Maroon 5: Songs About Jane

2003
Switchfoot: The Beautiful Letdown

2004
Incubus: A Crow Left of The Murder,
Green Day: American Idiot
Tears for Fears: Everybody Loves a Happy Ending
Bowling For Soup: A Hangover You Don’t Deserve

2005
Glenn Hughes: Soul Mover

2006
Queensryche: Operation: Mindcrime II

2009
Heaven & Hell: The Devil You Know

  

Kris Kristofferson: Closer to the Bone


RIYL: Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings

Like his old buddy Johnny Cash before him, Kris Kristofferson’s autumn years are seeing a beautiful, stripped-back recording renaissance. Following up 2006’s This Old Road with that album’s producer, Don Was, Kris has delivered a dozen mostly drum-free tunes (the exceptions being “Let the Walls Come Down” and his cool tribute to Cash, “Good Morning John”) with the aid of acoustic guitar, harmonica, and not a heck of a lot else, giving the feel of a private living room performance. In fact, at the beginning of the song Kris wrote for his kids, “From Here to Forever,” you can hear his breaths so clearly, the effect is almost as if Kris is breathing right in your ear. While most of the record sticks close to family, friends, love and loss, the cherry on top of Closer to the Bone is “the first whole song” Kris ever wrote, at age 11, called “I Hate Your Ugly Face.” It’s every bit as funny as the title would suggest, and an eerily prescient indicator of all the greatness that was soon to come. (New West 2009)

Kris Kristofferson MySpace page

  

Jace Everett: Red Revelations

Jace Everett is billed as a singer/songwriter, and he is one, yes. But since singer/songwriter has become a genre that usually implies a single person with a guitar or piano, it’s probably more accurate to just call Everett a rocker in the Americana vein. Everett is best known for being the dude behind the song “Bad Things,” which is the opening theme for HBO’s “True Blood” (and this album’s closing track), so the guy already had somewhat of a launching pad for his career. Which brings us to Everett’s new (and third) album, Red Revelations, a serviceable collection of tube amplifier- and Fender guitar-charged rock songs. At various times, Everett channels Elvis and Johnny Cash and Mellencamp and Springsteen, but most closely resembles Chris Isaak, and while the songs are rocking and entertaining enough, it’s not likely that you’re going to be humming most of them a few minutes later. And Everett also drops into that Elvis “Thank you, thank you very much” lower register a bit too often than he needs to. Regardless, there are a few standouts, like the upbeat “More to Life (Cmon, Cmon),” which has gang harmonies that give the track a Huey Lewis & the News feel, and “Little Black Dress,” which features some pretty slick guitar work. (Weston Boys 2009)

Jace Everett MySpace Page

  

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