I would have a special fondness for Continuum Books' 33 1/3 series ($9.95 each) of monographs on classic rock albums, even if I hadn't contributed a volume published in April of last year. With 28 books in the series so far, and an avalanche more on the way, it's the longest-lived and most remarkable series compendium in all of rock writing, and it shows no signs of slowing down. In 2005, three of its number stood above the pack.
Musician, critic, and SW contributor Franklin Bruno's Armed Forces tackles Elvis Costello's widely loved 1979 album alphabetically by topic, a smart way to circle around the book's true subject, the infamous "Columbus incident," when Costello uttered racial epithets in a stupid, drunken attempt to rile singer Bonnie Bramlett at a hotel bar. Australian novelist Hugo Wilcken's book on David Bowie's 1977 Low examines the album in light of Bowie's prior work, the contemporaneous albums he produced for Iggy Pop, and those of producer Brian Eno, as well as Bowie's film The Man Who Fell to Earth, a still from which the album's cover image was taken. (The Man Who Fell to Earth has just been issued in a deluxe edition from the Criterion Collection, $39.95.) And Eliot Wilder, a Boston writer and musician, delves into DJ Shadow's 1996 Endtroducing . . . by checking the source: Of the book's 100 pages, 80 are devoted to an extensive Q&A session with Shadow (born Josh Davis) himself—luckily for us, an open, thoughtful talker.
A more broad-brushed version of rock history is on display in Spin: 20 Years of Alternative Music, edited by Will Hermes with Sia Michel (Three Rivers Press, $19.95). Lavishly designed and featuring a clutch of mostly well-written essays on most of the major artists and scenes that have come on Spin's watch, the real prize of the book is the generous number of excerpts from the magazine's history, including John Leland (who contributes a new foreword for the book) interrogating Public Enemy's Chuck D shortly after PE released the coruscating "Bring the Noise," a song that Chuck flat-out admits was written partly about Leland himself. It doesn't atomize the rest of the book, but it comes close.
A friendlier bunch of Q&A's can be found in Studs Terkel's And They All Sang (New Press, $25.95). Terkel concentrates mostly on classical, opera, jazz, and folk artists. Then there are terrific exchanges with the eccentric John Jacob Niles; the steely Lil Hardin Armstrong; Keith Jarrett, a notoriously tough interview who Terkel renders a kitten; and Pete Seeger (Terkel wisely gets out of his way).
Rock lore has long dictated that when the Velvet Underground came along, no one knew what to make of them. But the evidence has never been proffered as plainly as in All Yesterday's Parties: The Velvet Underground in Print 1966–1970, edited by Clinton Heylin (Da Capo, $26), a compendium of period articles. Much of the first half of the book consists of pieces in which the Velvets take third- or fourth-banana status, as one of many parts in Andy Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable traveling troupe; it's only later that the band, having shed Warhol as manager, takes center stage. Even then, the hippie-fied underground press isn't quite sure what to make of them; the best pieces are extended interviews with Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison.
The Velvets' 1970 demise is one of the starting points for George Gimarc's astounding Punk Diary: The Ultimate Trainspotter's Guide to Underground Rock, 1970–1982 (Backbeat, $24.95). Welding together Gimarc's prior books Punk Diary and Post-Punk Diary, the book is structured as, you guessed it, a day-by-day overview of which punk and post-punk luminary did what, where, when, and with whom. Take, at random, July 17, 1980. Released that day: Joy Division's Closer, the Lines' six-song Cool Snap! EP, and Dexy's Midnight Runners' Searching for the Young Soul Rebels. There were also plans afoot for a film about Sid Vicious (one would finally appear six years later: Sid and Nancy); in London, Manchester, and Birmingham that night, shows were headlined by Dexy's, Damned, Tempole Tudor, Clock DVA, Delta 5 and Modern English, Artery, and the Photos. If you have any interest in the subject at all, this is one amazingly effective time waster, and Gimarc's research is unimpeachable.
Still, the most fun to be had with any music writing is in arguing with it, and no music book this season will get your blood pumping like The Rough Guide Book of Playlists (Rough Guides, $9.99), a 272-page, pocket-sized volume that will start more disagreements than most books three times its size. With more than 500 playlists covering an enormous range of styles, there's still lots of room for quibbles: Why does Bob Dylan get four separate playlists while Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Marvin Gaye (for starters) only get one apiece? Why do most of the playlists only have 10 songs each instead of enough to fill a CD-R? Why is the Prince one so damn boring and predictable, and why does it stop in 1988? Where are all the [insert your favorite sub- sub-subgenres here] playlists? In other words, it's stimulating and infuriating in equal measure—like all the best lists.