Books for audiophiles: ‘Motherlode,’ ‘Major Labels,’ ‘You’re History’

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Bennett Purser

Lots of great music books came out this year, including memoirs by artists like Sinead O’Connor and Dave Grohl, and history books on hip-hop, punk rock, and other genres. Jill Mapes and Cat Zhang from Pitchfork recently published a list of their favorites. 

Crying in H Mart” by Michelle Zauner (aka musician Japanese Breakfast)

Zauner writes about losing her mom to cancer and learning to cook Korean food. 

“The dynamic between her and her mom really reminded me of that dynamic between me and my mom. I mean, we're both Asian women,” says Cat Zhang. “And I also liked it as an account of … how difficult it is to be a musician and to try to make a living, and to try to be an artist while still having so much in your life that is really hard to deal with. And then also just the vivid descriptions of food really made my mouth salivate.”

A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance” by Hanif Abdurraqib 

This is about how Black artists’ performances are tied to American culture.

“It's very easy to read and get swept away in. It covers a lot of ground too. So I think that there's a lot to like here if you like gospel music, or you like soul music, but also if you are interested in the Rolling Stones and classic rock. And I really do think there's so much here, and part of it is about his specific perspective and the way that he writes,” says Jill Mapes.

He’s possibly the only music writer to ever win a MacArthur “Genius” grant, she adds. 

“I think his body of work over the last decade is pretty staggering. If you're historically minded and politically minded, and definitely if you're interested in thinking about music and culture through the lens of Black liberation, I think it is a really strong collection.”

The Motherlode: 100+ Women Who Made Hip-Hop” by Clover Hope

This is a mix of illustrations, essays, and interviews about women who influenced the formative days of hip-hop, plus popular artists from the 1990s to today.  

“You could get this for somebody who likes hip-hop, but you don't know how much they know. And they would have a lot of fun looking through it because there's all these little featurettes and fun little side interviews and trivia and the illustrations, of course,” says Mapes. “So it's really wonderfully written short essays, but also tons of other visual little bits, akin to looking at a magazine in some ways.” 

You’re History: The Twelve Strangest Women In Music” by Leslie Chow

This book is about the ways women in pop music have not been taken seriously by critics, including Chaka Khan, Sade and Nicki Minaj. The title comes from a 1989 song called “You’re History” by the pop band Shakespeare’s Sister. 

“Leslie Chow was really interested in … weird types of singing and the pleasure and mouthfeel of pop music that doesn't always get talked about in music criticism because maybe lyricism, or socio-political significance is more valued than texture, and tambor, and things like that,” says Zhang. 

Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres” by Kelefa Sanneh

This is about musical tribes, how fans form around them, and how the tribes change, such as R&B mutating into Indian music culture, says Zhang.

“It's a great way of thinking about the history of music, and how we are defining ourselves because music has always been such a deeply personal thing. … And we have a genre lists kind of future where artists are dabbling between different things, like we still have this inherent need to form tribes and to establish ourselves as different than other people. And so what's happening is not necessarily complete dissolution of musical tribes and identities, but rather just like regrouping of them. And so I think Sanneh really helps us understand that through his use of history, and then also personal anecdotes.”