Best music books of 2021

Sinéad O’Connor’s extraordinary memoir, the untold story of 90s Dancehall and a portrait in song from Paul McCartney are among the releases hitting the high notes

Rememberings by Sinéad O’Connor

Sinéad O’Connor (Sandycove)
The singer-songwriter has a genuinely incredible story to tell – by the time she found fame, she had already experienced harrowing abuse at the hands of her mother, visitations from Jesus, a spell in a home for girls with behavioural problems, the failure of her ambition to become a priest and life as a strippergram. But what’s really striking about Rememberings is how she tells it: O’Connor is a great prose writer, even if she insists she isn’t (the piano in her grandmother’s house sounds “like the ghost bells of a sunken ship”). What could entirely understandably have been a book filled with bitterness and regret turns out to be suffused with humour and forgiveness.

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

Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres
Kelefa Sanneh (Canongate)
“I’m always a bit puzzled when a musician is praised for transcending genre,” states New Yorker writer Sanneh in the introduction to Major Labels. “What’s so great about that?” The line sums up his exploration of musical tribalism: intriguing, controversial, personal. You don’t have to agree with his view about the importance of genres – rock, r’n’b, country and hip-hop among them – to find the book fascinating: his opinions are provocative. He posits that the Dixie Chicks got worse, not better, when they stopped caring about the conservative country establishment. And the story of his own progress through the US punk scene might have made a book in itself. Whether you view it as a rallying call or a eulogy in a world where everyone seems to like “a bit of everything”, it’s a unique and absorbing read.

Nina Simone’s Gum by Warren Ellis

Nina Simone’s Gum
Warren Ellis (Faber)
Most music biographies follow a well-worn pattern: that of Warren EllisNick Cave’s luxuriantly bearded foil in the Bad Seeds – does not. Ostensibly about Ellis stealing some gum that Nina Simone spat out during a performance at the Cave-curated Meltdown festival in 1999, and his subsequent treatment of it as a kind of holy relic, it winds a gloriously idiosyncratic path through his life and passions, from the mechanics of busking, to his love of Emily Dickinson and the Greek éntekhno singer Arleta. Ellis marshals his scattershot approach with intelligence and charm: you feel as if you’ve spent time in the company of a particularly perceptive raconteur.

Run the Riddim- The Untold Story Oof 90s Dancehall

Run the Riddim: The Untold Story of 90s Dancehall
Marvin Sparks (No Long Stories)
Sparks – a self-styled “lifelong dancehall student” – spent 10 years researching and writing his history of Jamaica’s most successful and influential musical export since reggae’s commercial heyday. The Jamaican music industry is always fertile ground for writers – it massively punches above its weight in terms of importance and doesn’t adhere to the usual rules. This account is as insightful and revelatory as its title suggests, shining light on a wildly creative, volatile and occasionally hugely controversial genre and the culture that surrounds it. You’re left wondering why no one has written this book before, and why Sparks had to publish it himself.

Lyrics- 1956 to the Present by Paul McCartney

Lyrics: 1956 to the Present
Paul McCartney (Allen Lane)
The first line in the former Beatle’s introduction to his two-volume collected lyrics posits the book as a kind of alternative autobiography. It’s a canny move, enabling McCartney to talk, often illuminatingly, about his life – he’s particularly good on his childhood in Liverpool – while skirting over anything he doesn’t want to discuss, not least his second marriage to the vilified Heather Mills. So the holes in the story gape, and the sense that we’re never going to get a full picture of McCartney the man lingers, but once you immerse yourself in the books themselves, with their plethora of beautiful photographs and collected ephemera, it scarcely matters.

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Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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