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What we learned from 2016's best music books

Del Cowie

It's hard not to look back at 2016 and see the year in music as one of incalculable loss. The deaths of iconic musicians such as David Bowie, Prince and Leonard Cohen amongst the passing of countless other critical contributors makes looking at the musical year in memoriam very grim. However, this reality only heightens the importance of documenting and recording musical legacies.

Whether memoirs, historical retellings of scenes and movements or big ideas for our current zeitgeist, the following books have continued to contribute to our understanding of music's role in popular culture. CBC Music staff delved into the pages to look at some of the most interesting things we gleaned from reading about music this year.

1. The Last Waltz wasn't supposed to be the Band's last dance

Robbie Robertson’s memoir, Testimony (Penguin Random House), reads like cinema verite look at the golden age of rock n’ roll, from its roots in the Deep South to it’s golden era. Whether it was Woodstock, Dylan’s electric tour or just the general spirit that was guiding the era, Robertson had a front row seat. That said, one of the really interesting things in his book is the insight he gives into the Band, from their beginnings to their end. In fact, as he writes, the Last Waltz, their famous final concert, wasn’t really supposed to be the Band’s last dance. Robertson imagined it as a farewell to their touring life, but a beginning to a studio-only life, not unlike the Beatles, who quit touring in 1966 to focus on making some of the greatest studio albums ever recorded. That wasn’t to be, however, as Robertson would soon learn. He had booked studio time in California to finish up the suite that concluded the album, plus some cuts off their next album, Islands, but no one showed up. “I had to read the writing on the wall,” he recalls in Testimony. Islands was the last studio album released by the group’s original lineup. — Jesse Kinos-Goodin (@JesseKG)

2. Brian Wilson is 'cool' with playing 'Brian Wilson' by the Barenaked Ladies

In his book I Am Brian Wilson, co-authored with Ben Greenman (Penguin Random House), Wilson writes that performing the Barenaked Ladies’ “Brian Wilson” was the “strangest song” his band played when he did a solo tour with Paul Simon. Wilson had been unaware of the song’s existence before his band members brought it to his attention. In a bit of a meta moment in the book, Wilson describes the song as "about a guy who is trying to write a song and can’t and he compares himself to me when I was under the treatment of Dr. Landy." Wilson appears to give the song his blessing, saying, "I was cool with playing the song if we did a good job." — Del Cowie (@vibesandstuff)

3. Musical genres are becoming increasingly meaningless to our listening patterns

In his book Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), former New York Times music critic Ben Ratliff acknowledges the rapid and paradigm-shifting change that has led to the unprecedented reality of having unlimited music available to us whenever we want, and proposes ways to navigate the sonic cornucopia. Ratliff eschews traditional genre tags for music as well as algorithm-fuelled streaming playlists as guides for listening, suggesting the new reality should yield different listening habits that draw on thematic connections instead.

With Every Song Ever, Ratliff devotes a chapter each to 20 concepts and themes — including speed, repetition, sadness and intimacy — and applies them to music, cutting across musical styles and eras in a wilful disregard of the restrictions of genre categories. In Ratliff’s world, there are tangible sonic connections between the mixtapes of late Houston hip-hop pioneer DJ Screw and doom metal. Consequently, the book positions itself as a thought-provoking guide to navigate the rapidly evolving ways we listen to music today. — DC

4. There are scientifically proven reasons why some people sing badly

There is actual scientific proof that someone can be tone-deaf. Toronto author Tim Falconer, who has been diagnosed as being tone-deaf, discussed his book Bad Singer: The Surprising Science of Tone Deafness and How we Hear Music (House of Anansi) with Shelagh Rogers on CBC Radio's The Next Chapter.

"A lot of people who sing badly say, 'Oh, I'm tone deaf.' But there are a lot of reasons why people sing badly. There is a scientific condition called congenital amusia, which only 2.5 per cent of the population has. I'm in a very small group of people. Amusia really has three parts. Perception — that's hearing; production — that's singing; and memory. Basically I have a really hard time hearing small differences in pitch and an even harder time reproducing small differences in pitch. It's really a condition about the brain pathway, between the temporal lobe and the frontal lobe. The analogy I like to use is roads: a musician has an interstate between those two lobes; I've got a little two-lane highway where I can't go very fast so the information travelling between those two parts of the brain doesn't move efficiently, it's not well organized and it's not working as well." — DC

5. Bruce Springsteen was a complete cheapskate when it came to making one of his classic albums

Nebraska is easily one of Springsteen’s darkest albums, a collection of stories about criminals, murderers and never-do-wells. In his book Born to Run (Simon and Schuster Canada), Springsteen says the album was inspired by Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, gothic writer Flannery O’Connor and the “quiet violence of the films of Terrence Malick,” as well as the 1955 film noir The Night of the Hunter. Frustrated at spending all his money on studio time — and wanting higher-quality demos — Springsteen bought a four-track Japanese Tascam 144 cassette recorder and put together the demos that would become Nebraska in his bedroom, using two tracks for vocals and guitar, the other two for backing vocals, an extra guitar or a tambourine.

“On four tracks, that’s all you could do,” he writes. After bringing the full band in to record the songs and listening back, “I realized I’d succeeded in doing nothing but damaging what I’d created,” he writes. “I pulled out the original cassette I’d been carrying around in my jeans pocket and said, ‘This is it.'” The cost of that now classic album: $1,000. — JKG

6. Joel Plaskett did not steal a song from Sloan's Chris Murphy — honest

In Josh O' Kane's Nowhere with You: The East Coast Anthems of Joel Plaskett, The Emergency and Thrush Hermit (ECW Press), Plaskett's "Love This Town" from his is traced back to sessions for Sloan's Action Pact and Plaskett's Truthfully Truthfully, when Plaskett and Sloan's Chris Murphy embarked on a 2003 road trip together to Joshua Tree National Park in California. The two musicians played each other demos that they were working on, including a Murphy song that Plaskett liked with the refrain "I love this town." Plaskett's "Love this Town" would appear on his 2005 album La De Da, yet according to O'Kane, while Plaskett readily admits to being influenced by Murphy, he honestly does not remember the Murphy song (which was later extensively rewritten for 2008's Parallel Pact as “All I Am Is All You’re Not.”)

“You don’t really know, when you’re writing songs, where you’re channelling stuff from,” Plaskett says. “I’m not saying I stole the song. I didn’t. I wrote it. I think of that song as a shameless Al Tuck ripoff, to be honest.” For the record, Murphy is totally fine with the fact that the two songwriters unwittingly inspired each other. Yet Murphy's trademark sarcasm can't resist gently ribbing Plaskett. “Whenever I saw him next,” he says, “I was like, ‘Hey, I like your song. And I liked it even better when it was my song.’” — DC

7. The 'real' James Brown complicates the musician's already complex legacy

In Kill 'Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul (Penguin Random House Canada), National Book Award winner James McBride embarks on a quest to find the "real" James Brown beyond portrayals of the mythical iconic figure. In Brown's adopted hometown Augusta, Ga., McBride finds a statue, an arena and a street dedicated to the musician, but he contends "there's not a wisp of James Brown in this place."

Instead, it's in Barnwell County, S.C., where interactions between blacks and whites are underscored by a racially tinged "buzz" where the late Brown is "a living, breathing thing," according to McBride. Yet interestingly, he writes of Barnwell County, "There is not a single marker for James Brown in this place, they say. No spot to commemorate his birth, no building named after him, no school, no library, no statue, no nothing. And even when they do name something after him, or celebrate him in the state legislature or some such thing, it doesn't matter." — DC

8. It's Haruki freaking Murakami — and you're invited

Reading about music comes with its challenges; it’s not for nothing someone once said that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” What’s great about Absolutely on Music by Haruki Murakami and Seiji Ozawa (Penguin Random House) is that it is not, in fact, writing about music. It’s talking about music. Not only that, it’s one of the world’s most beloved novelists talking about music with one of the world’s top orchestra conductors. You feel like you’re eavesdropping on a conversation — and if, at times, it gets a little esoteric, you don’t mind so much because it’s still Haruki freaking Murakami asking the questions. And offering rice balls or soda pop to Seiji Ozawa when they need a break. You end up feeling like you’re curled up in an armchair across the coffee table from two creative giants.

Murakami coaxes colourful memories from Ozawa of his days as a penniless student conductor in New York City — and in the next breath, he hilariously puts Ozawa on the spot, asking him about the minutiae of recordings Ozawa made 30 years ago that he obviously hasn’t thought about in about that long. (It turns out Murakami is a music nut who listens obsessively to classical music on vinyl — who knew?) Ozawa’s responses bring the world of classical music to life, from the outward life of parties in Vienna and summer festivals in Switzerland, to the inward life: how to get that flute passage in a Brahms symphony to sound perfectly smooth. And all the while Murakami and Ozawa make you feel like you belong in that armchair across the table, no matter how well you know the music they’re discussing. Plus, there’s a whole chapter on Glenn Gould, so really, you can’t go wrong. — Paolo Pietropaolo (@paolopp)

9.The Hamilton phenomenon (in small part due to Hugh Laurie), is showing no signs of slowing down any time soon

I have never met a casual Hamilton fan. If you're like me and have been obsessively listening to the original cast recording over the past year, then Hamilton: The Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter (Hachette) is meant for you. Fans affectionately call it the Hamiltome. The volume is full of behind-the-scenes images and stories, photos from the performance, sketches of creator Miranda's notebooks and, the best part for my money: annotated lyrics to all the songs.

The liner notes are a window into Miranda’s musical genius, where he cites references, points out musical theatre jokes, and also name-drops. One of my favourite tidbits is in reference to the song “You’ll Be Back,” which, if you know the show, is the crowd-pleasing, British invasion-inspired, deranged break-up song King George (Jonathan Groff on the soundtrack) delivers to his “sweet, submissive subjects.” Turns out House actor Hugh Laurie was the one who gave Mirande the suggestion to use the phrase “You’ll Be Back.” It rattled around in Miranda’s brain, and then while walking with his wife on their honeymoon, he composed the song in his head, without a piano. —Jeanette Cabral (@JeanetteCabral)

10. While David Mancuso is now gone, his legacy continues

While David Mancuso's death in November didn't generate the same amount of attention as Bowie, Cohen or Prince, his impact on popular culture is hardly negligible. Mancuso's Loft parties in 1970s New York were genuinely inclusive spaces for the LGBTQ community and people of colour — and the antithesis of the stratifying Studio 54 scene.

In an excerpt from his new book, Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor, 1980-1983 (Duke University Press), renowned dance music historian and professor Tim Lawrence zeroes in on the influence that Mancuso wields today on the modern nightclub experience. Lawrence writes, "Thinking of himself not as a DJ but as a party host who happened to select music, Mancuso pioneered the practice of weaving together records according to their lyrical messages as well as their instrumental grooves, forging a narrative arc of acid intensity as the songs harmonized across the course of a night. He also expanded the sonic range of the New York dance floor by selecting records such as 'City, Country, City' by War, 'I'm a Man' by Chicago, 'Girl You Need a Change of Mind' by Eddie Kendricks and 'Soul Makossa' by Manu Dibango, which introduced Latin, African, rock, gospel, breakbeat and even country elements while bedding an aesthetic that favored explorative records that reached dramatic crescendos. Admirers went on to model the Tenth Floor, the Gallery, Flamingo, 12 West, the Soho Place, Reade Street, and the Paradise Garage after Mancuso's party, making it the most influential of the 1970s." — DC

11. Lita Ford was (rightfully) afraid of Sid Vicious

In her memoir Living Like a Runaway, former Runaways guitarist Lita Ford talks about living on a houseboat in London to further their music career. The period was disastrous, as it was supposed to yield new music but instead their assigned producer was too scared of the band's drug-fuelled antics. Even worse, the Sex Pistols lived nearby, and when Sid Vicious was on the boat, Ford was genuinely afraid of him. In an excerpt Ford writes, "Sid was in torn clothing with writing on his shirt. His hair was short and going in every direction possible. He was bleeding from where he had carved words and people's names in his arms and chest. What a mess. He just kept yelling that I'd ripped him off. 'I didn't rip you off,' I told him. 'Are you crazy?' He pointed to my necklace. 'That!' he said. 'That's my necklace.' 'No, it's not,' I told him. 'I've had this forever.' He did have a similar necklace, and he probably lost his. I was nervous as hell because he was not in his right mind." Just over a month later, Sid Vicious was arrested for the death of his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen. — DC

12. Bif Naked is the only Canadian in her family

Bif Naked has always been a unique figure within the Canadian music industry and her memoir, I, Bificus — which traces her musical career and life, including her struggle with breast cancer — indicates that her story was different from the very beginning. Bif Naked's parents were civil rights activists from the U.S. (although her father gave up his citizenship to become Canadian) who travelled to India as missionaries. While they were there, they adopted one local Indian child, Bif's sister Shireen. Soon after that happened, an intermediary for diplomats from Canada, with a pregnant teenage daughter, approached them. The baby, Bif Naked, was handed over to her parents initially in India with no paperwork. In an excerpt she writes, "They were trying to find a suitable couple willing to adopt this Canadian child. As my dad tells it, he said, 'Sure, if nobody else wants the baby we'll take it. (At this point in the story my father always laughs.).' This meant Bif Naked had a unique role in her family. She writes, 'I was the lone Canadian in the family. My parents made a point my entire life of introducing me to anyone and everyone as their 'Canuck.'" — DC

13. How Laura Jane Grace chose her name

In Laura Jane Grace's memoir, Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock's Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout (Hachette), the lead singer of Against Me! not only describes the pressures of being in a punk band dealing with success, but also how she wrestled with gender dysphoria before finally accepting the need to transition. In this excerpt, after detailing the uneasy yet necessary coming out to her wife and bandmates, Grace describes how she chose her name. She arrives at her decision after bonding with singer-songwriter Cory Branan on tour over their daughters. “She’s my little Jane,” he said in his Mississippi accent. I liked it. I had told (my wife) Heather and the band [that] I wanted to be called Laura, after my great-grandmother; the name my mother always told me she would’ve named me if I were born a girl. I also had the idea to take my mother’s maiden name, Grace, in place of Gabel. And now I’d found a middle name: Laura Jane Grace." — DC

14. Music is still magical

Phonogram (Image Comics) is a comic for a different kind of nerd. Since its first issue in 2006, writer Kieron Gillen and artist Jamie McKelvie have been exploring their premise that music is literally magical in increasingly complex and subtle narratives. Where other comics might draw on a whole universe of superhero mythology as its canon, Phonogram draws instead on the records of Blur, Kenickie and the Pipettes, interpreting them as holy texts for an ill-defined, underground community of occultists.

If that sounds a little abstruse, it is. But if there’s a concrete lesson to take from this year’s third and final volume of Phonogram (Phonogram, vol. 3: The Immaterial Girl), it’s that the singles, albums and music videos that become cultural touchstones — for gigantic mainstream publics as well as for tiny nerdy enclaves — contain inexhaustible layers of concealed meaning. Music is magic. Literally or not. — Matthew Parsons (@mjrparsons)

More to explore:

CBC Books: Bif Naked on the 8 books that changed her life

q: How Sebastian Bach went from heavy-metal frontman to beloved character on The Gilmore Girls