I have quite the thing with (not for) music books. Basically, I can’t read one without eventually getting royally pissed off about some stray unneeded inclusion or irregularity or overwhelming example of intolerant ignorance towards fans/artists. This is all the odder considering that I own like seven of them. I mean, I usually don’t start frothing at the mouth, but there’s just always something that will ruin my experience reading a music book, whether it’s an overload of encyclopedic information about something that nobody needs to ever know (not even a fan who’s willing to shell out money to read about the subject) or a fawning, doe-eyed style of writing that pressures the reader to the point where they feel like they must like this shit, as portrayed in David Browne’s not-particularly-reader-friendly Goodbye 20th Century, which casts Sonic Youth as The Most Important Band Ever; you can feel Browne practically breathing with anticipation as his narrative moves from Sister to Daydream Nation to Goo, foaming at the mouth to describe yet another Endurable Classic. Like, there’s a reason the book skims over the band’s later period at a feverish pace, instead of abrasively embracing these album’s shortcomings, which would have ultimately been more interesting. And I even like Sonic Youth, like a lot.
Point is, music books are usually cumbersome, bloated, and tiresome, and often irk me in some way or another. But I keep buying them. Like, incessantly. The two I’ve bought most recently are different, in a sense, than Goodbye 20th Century or others of that ilk, as those are basically novel-length summarizations of every aspect of the band’s career and personal life, which ends up reading like little more than dressed-up Wikipedia pages. No, my most recent acquisitions in this uncomely world of literature are The Pitchfork 500 (a chorus of groans sounds) and The Wire Primers: A Guide to Modern Music. The former is a collection of 500 soundoffs of what the popular webzine believes to be the “greatest 500 songs from punk to present”, while the latter is a collection of articles from a popular feature in the well-regarded periodical, which is unfortunately published in England and hard to find in backwards-ass Indiana (typing this, I’m all the more frustrated that I don’t have a subscription). Also, both are essentially more among the reference side of things compared to trying to create something that runs smoothly as a novel, which I figured would be more helpful for me.
This is because I’ve decided that why I buy music books can essentially be boiled down and condensed into one little nugget: I want to learn stuff about the music (man). About how it was composed, about what ideas were circling in the artist’s head, about what drugs he/she was using at time. I fervently subscribe to the belief of “minding one’s business”, so, ultimately, I really don’t care about personal details or divorces; I especially don’t care about wild party exploits, since I go to school and hear that shit all the time anyways. But, as far as the composition and creation in music that I’m already interested in goes, I’m pretty much all ears, which is why these two books work so much for me: they get to the point. They don’t futz around, so to speak.
But I’m also glad I bought both of these so closely together (Pfork 500 last month, Wire Primers last Wednesday), as both have their merits, and both have flaws that could significantly cripple their stature for me personally if I didn’t have another reference to switch to in a flash. As such, they correspond and work quite well together when reading both at the same time. The Wire Primers is narrowly my favorite of the two, but this is a truly personal kind of thing: I’ve clicked through Pitchfork (the website) often enough since learning of its existence a couple years or so ago, and I’ve been accustom to the kind of shit they like, making much of their selections in their book obvious and regurgitated.
Now, a ninja break in flow: for those unaccustomed, The Wire is a weird sort of magazine, one that forgoes many popular trends to focus entirely on avant-garde trends in music (and not the Sputnik avant-garde; the writers’ knowledge runs a little deeper than Kayo Dot and Sonic Youth). It also treats artists like Kode9 and Ornette Coleman and Mark E. Smith like rock-stars. You can probably imagine why I’d think this book is more than just the bee’s knees: it’s a hotbed of info about stuff that I really don’t know much about, and concerns artists that could hardly get a more thorough, in-depth look anywhere else, considering anywhere else probably hasn’t heard of Captain Beefheart or Morton Feldman. Thus, it’s a new world of various shit to learn about and explore. Of numerous articles of great value (the ones concerning The Fall and that whole unwieldy musical genre called “noise” rein in their imposing subjects and form concise, informative articles; they’re excellent starting points for their subjects), the dubstep chapter is ultimately the most impressive: it takes a wildly shifting genre, one that’s become increasingly difficult to pin down to begin with, and forms a roadmap that touches on major points of reference without skimming over some of the more obscure material. It’s something that should be referred to closely and often if you have any interest in the genre; it also helps significantly that the book catalogs only in-print material, easily attainable at your local Amazon.
The Pitchfork 500’s issues with predictability have been aforementioned, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a worthy read. Its constant and seemingly endless manageable soundoffs provide great, quick reading, but only if you can get past the trademarked sardonic and somewhat uppity tone. Such shouldn’t put you off too much, hopefully: there is a aggregation of information to be found here, especially within the book’s opening chapters (as the Pfork 500 runs chronologically from the mid-70’s to present day), which detail the webzine’s less-tread appreciation for obvious artists like David Bowie and Talking Heads, as well as more obscure artists such as ESG and Glenn Branca. The book’s subjects never quite reach Wire levels of anonymity, which is why the Pfork 500 is such a handy companion to its more mature cousin: its more recognizable names (it isn’t afraid to touch on popular artists like Jay-Z with the same pretentiousness it would Scott Walker, which makes for entertaining reading, even if the writing’s a little overblown) offer a counterpoint to when The Wire Primers’ mess of experimentalism becomes too off-putting or overwhelming. Both sadly are rather sparse in design, but Pfork 500 at least looks like it was printed sometime after 1929; it even has color!
Despite my appreciation for both books, and how interesting and informative and ultimately fun they were both to read, I find my faith in music books still not restored. Considering both are essentially compilations of magazine articles (which The Wire Primers actually is, of course), it’s not all that reassuring that these are probably the two music books I’ve enjoyed the most, as far as in-depth journalism about a subject goes: it’s still unlikely, at least at this point, that I’ll ever find a full-length, narrative-led music book that fully tickles my fancy. But forget my qualms with those matters: if you’ve ever heard of or even quite possibly mildly enjoyed any the artists I’ve shamefully name-dropped Greer-style thus far, you should probably run to your nearest Borders and get The Wire Primers and the Pitchfork 500 (unless you already hate Pitchfork; this won’t help to change your mind). Now.