Caught by the River

Music Book Reader Bulletin

Andy Childs | 15th December 2011

Da Capo Best Music Writing 2011
Guest Editor : Alex Ross, Da Capo Press 336 pages Paperback

Reviewed by Andy Childs.

Now in its 12th year, the Da Capo Best Music Writing series of anthologies has established itself as an annual imperative for anyone passionate and concerned about the standard of writing about contemporary music. Each volume is guest-edited and each contains around thirty essays, on a wide range of music, that were published the previous year in, it should be noted, non-music and mostly U.S. publications and web-sites. So this year’s edition is edited by The New Yorker’s formidably erudite writer on classical music Alex Ross and contains pieces as diverse as Geoffrey O’Brien on Duke Ellington (from The New York Review of Books), classical pianist Jeremy Denk’s amusing struggle with cliched programme notes and the age-old problem of trying to describe what music actually sounds like (from his blog Think Denk), an intriguing article on Hendrik Weber, aka Pantha du Prince, and the creation of his Black Noise album for Rough Trade by Philip Sherburne (from Groove Magazine), Franklin Bruno on the renowned husband and wife country music songwriting team Felice & Boudleaux Bryant (Oxford American), Joe Hagan on Nina Simone (The Believer), Justin Davidson’s provocative opening piece on Beethoven’s Third Symphony (New York Magazine), and a marvellously concise encapsulation of the crossroads that both Miles Davis and Neil Young were separately at when they shared the bill at the Fillmore East on March 6 and 7 1970 by Nate Chinen (At Length – great web-site by the way).

These are my own favourite essays, largely because they reflect my own taste in music and talk to me in a way that draws me in and sends me hurrying off to find the appropriate music. There are other worthy and interesting pieces – on the mysterious disappearance of the legendary Parliament/Funkadelic mothership, a brief history of the vocoder, James Wood on Keith Moon/Glenn Gould, and a lovely tribute to jazz pianist Fred Hersch by David Hajdu (from The New York Times). There are also other inclusions that left me cold for one reason or another. Vanessa Grigoriadis’ examination of the rise of the Lady Gaga phenomenon didn’t exactly persuade me that I should listen more closely to her music than I already have (hardly at all) and Jonathan Bogart’s attempt to validate the music of Ke$ha just seemed plain daft and a waste of time to me which perhaps proves Alex Ross’ point in his introduction to this book when he says that “on certain sunny days, music does make the people come together, but nearly as often it seems to tear them apart. The most popular artists can also be the most lustily hated”. His intention in compiling this volume was “to bring in as many different worlds as possible – more than we were finally able to accommodate….what excited us were pieces that led the reader into an unfamiliar realm or marked new paths on well-trod (sic) ground – pieces that assumed no prior knowledge, only a spark of curiosity”. Not perhaps the recipe for a comfortable or cohesive read (not a particularly humorous one either) and this is not a book to try and digest from cover to cover, but one to dip in and out of. Whether it represents the very best music journalism of 2010 is impossible to judge and probably irrelevant; what it proves most importantly, and what every volume of this series has proven since its inception, is that intelligent, incisive, intensely engaging and timeless writing about music does exist out there but that it’s widely dispersed and sometimes difficult to locate. Da Capo do an invaluable job in regularly reminding us of that.

P.S. If you like this volume you will probably want to search out the other eleven. They all still seem to be available at Amazon and I particularly recommend Best Music Writing 2000 (guest-edited by Peter Guralnick), 2001 (Nick Hornby), 2003 (Matt Groening), 2007 (Robert Christgau) and 2009 (Greil Marcus).

Some Interesting New & Forthcoming Titles
Music From The True Vine by Bill C.Malone (University of North Carolina Press) (reviewed next month)
Fings Ain’t What They Used T’ Be : The Lionel Bart Story by David & Caroline Stafford (Omnibus Press)
Listen, Whitey! : The Sights and Sounds of Black Power 1965-1975 by Pat Thomas (Fantagraphics Books) (Feb 2012).
Out of the Vinyl Deeps : Ellen Willis on Rock Music (University of Minnesota Press) (Apr 2011)
Byrds : Requiem for the Timeless Vol.1 by Johnny Rogan (Rogan House) (Dec 2011)
Everything Is An Afterthought : The Life & Writings of Paul Nelson by Kevin Avery (Fantagraphics) (Dec 2011)
The Doors by Greil Marcus (Faber) (Jan 2012)
All the Mad Men : Barrett, Bowie, Drake, the Floyd, The Kinks, The Who and the Journey to the Dark Side of English Rock by Clinton Heylin (Constable) (Feb 2012)

Previous bulletins can be found HERE and the Music Book Reader lives HERE.