Like most of the songs on the radio these days, most of the books about music that land prime placement are pure fluff. This season’s most hyped tomes include Kurt Cobain’s Journals (an ethically questionable release) and Bill Wyman’s tales of life as a Rolling Stone. But there are books out that provide history, analysis, and cultural context. You just have to look.

The New York Times Essential Library: Jazz, a Critic’s Guide to the 100 Most Important Recordings

by Ben Ratliff

(Times Books/Henry Holt)

Every year brings a new crop of jazz guides, most sharing the same conventional wisdom about the same “essential” records. But New York Times critic Ben Ratliff refuses to temper his own aesthetic leanings to fit the critical consensus. The results may rankle: his decision to include recordings by four Latin American artists (Chano Pozo, Eddie Palmieri, Moacir Santos, and Machito) and only two by Europeans (Django Reinhardt and Evan Parker) should start as many arguments as his contention that the European free-improvisation ethos has led to a dead end creatively.

But Ratliff’s use of the telling detail to convey a larger point is illuminating even if you disagree with his judgments: instead of writing generalized portraits of chosen artists and albums, he begins his discussion of each individual’s career with a close-up, then pulls back to reveal more–his essay on Count Basie’s The Complete Atomic Basie expands from a close analysis of the pianist’s style to describe how Basie inadvertently created a musical blueprint for high school and college big bands to come. Ratliff also excels at connecting the dots, tracing an unexpected common thread from Dave Brubeck to Cecil Taylor and uncovering stylistic affinities between the Mahavishnu Orchestra and current metal bands Candiria and the Dillinger Escape Plan. His musical analysis is smart yet accessible, and he writes with disarming directness. A good introduction for the jazz novice that will also inform and provoke connoisseurs.

The Cartoon Music Book

Edited by Daniel Goldmark and Yuval Taylor

(A Cappella)

Music has been in cartoons since the mid-1920s, when Fleischer Studios urged audiences to follow the bouncing ball, but only in the last few decades have cartoon sound tracks been recognized as imaginative and entertaining pieces of music in their own right. Improv stars like John Zorn and Eugene Chadbourne were early aficionados, incorporating into their own work the quick-cut aesthetic that drove Warner Brothers cartoons. Zorn also sang the praises of Carl Stalling, the man behind the loopy pastiches in Warners’ “Merrie Melodies,” and served as production consultant for the first of the two volumes of music released in the 90s that belatedly secured Stalling’s reputation as an innovative composer.

This handy anthology collects interviews with Stalling, Zorn, and composers like Hoyt Curtin (who wrote the music for Hanna-Barbera faves like The Flintstones and The Jetsons) and Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh (Rugrats, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse), as well as original and reprinted essays. The inconsistent tone of the selections can be jarring–the academic slant of John Corbett’s article on cartoon music as avant-garde art couldn’t be more different than the breeziness with which Roctober editor Jake Austen discusses rock ‘n’ roll cartoons–but the book ably outlines the breadth of emerging scholarship in this field.

Yes Yes Y’all: The Experience Music Project Oral History of Hip-Hop’s First Decade

by Jim Fricke and Charlie Ahearn

(Da Capo)

The posturing that afflicts so much of modern hip-hop makes it easy to forget its roots as the low-budget party music that powered informal and illegal throwdowns in New York City parks. This colorful book, which grew out of a series of filmed interviews that were part of an exhibit at Seattle’s Experience Music Project, is a fitting testimony to the culture’s scrappy beginnings. EMP’s Jim Fricke and filmmaker Charlie Ahearn (the guy who made Wild Style, the first hip-hop film) spoke in depth with nearly all of early hip-hop’s surviving practitioners and dug up scads of evocative photos and party flyers as well. Stringing together informative chunks of oral history, they create a coherent and lively narrative that follows hip-hop from its inception in the early 70s to its first attempts to cross over in the early 80s, when big business changed it forever. The book is entertaining and invaluable, though I wish more of the stories offered as much economic and social context as the section on the 1977 New York City blackout–several DJs who’d been drawing power from a lamppost thought they’d caused a bunch of streetlights to blow. The blackout, which resulted in mass looting, was a godsend for the poor, according to many of the subjects. “You’d see people with bikes and all kinds of shit they never had,” says DJ Grandmaster Caz. “Someone said, ‘God made Christmas for Black people.'”

Bright Balkan Morning: Romani Lives and the Power of Music in Greek Macedonia

by Charles and Angeliki Keil and Dick Blau


Charles Keil was one of the first ethnomusicologists to bring passion and accessibility to an otherwise dry field, and he can write about Chicago blues and Nigeria’s Tiv music (to choose just two examples) with equal style and wit. In his latest work he and his Greek wife Angeliki explore Romany–aka Gypsy–music and its integral role in the culture of Greek Macedonia, specifically in the town of Iraklia, a stronghold for zurna players. (The zurna is a double-reed instrument that sounds similar to a bagpipe, and it first captivated Keil, as he explains in the preface, in 1964 in Athens on the way to his wedding.) Dick Blau’s gorgeous black-and-white photos–portraits, urban landscapes, and shots of social gatherings–provide a strong sense of place, and Keil seamlessly works first-person testimonials into his own carefully researched history and ethnography. (This oversize volume also includes a CD of field recordings compiled by Steven Feld, available separately through Smithsonian/ Folkways as Bells & Winter Festivals of Greek Macedonia.) Although the book focuses on a very specific tradition, its examination of the Romany people also highlights the complexities of ethnic identity in general and the relationship between ritual and sound.