Review

Da Capo Best Music Writing 2001: The Year's Finest Writing on Rock, Pop, Jazz, Country, and More

by Nick Hornby



Some wise observer once said that "writing about music is like
dancing about architecture." In other words, how could one possibly
recreate in plain, boring text the feeling and imagination of a
Jimi Hendrix solo, the frenetic chord changes of Charlie Parker's
sax, or the eerie, high-lonesome voice of Ralph Stanley? The best
kind of music journalism doesn't even attempt that. Instead, it
tries to illuminate the side of an artist or their work unexplored
by the standard "rock interview." Or it sheds light on a musical
trend and perhaps its impact outside of the listener's
headphones.

"You will find lots of stuff trying to explain why music matters,
what does it means, where it --- and the impulse to make it ---
comes from," writes Hornby in his introduction. And the man would
know, being the author of HIGH FIDELITY, one of the best
music-related novels ever written.

This book is --- thankfully --- not a collection of puff-piece
profiles on today's hot artists who are already being booked for
the 2005 season of VH-1's "Where Are They Now?" show. While some
pieces (all published in 2000) do concentrate on a specific
musician live or dead (Neil Young, Eminem, Django Reinhardt, Jeff
Buckley, Sleater-Kinney, Billie Holiday), others explore themes and
topics ranging from Napster, Arab rappers, and record promoters of
yesteryear to a bluegrass festival and a side-splitting, all-too
true "Rock Snob's Dictionary."

But if one had to pick just a handful of superlative entries, they
would include Bill Buford's examination of Lucinda Williams and her
relationship with loss (easily the most insightful piece ever done
on the performer) and Rian Malan's exhaustive investigation in the
story of Solomon Linda, the South African Zulu tribesman who
composed the melody for what we now recognize as "The Lion Sleeps
Tonight" --- 15 notes that went on to make millions over decades
for white record company execs but nothing for Linda's family, who
could not even afford a tombstone for his grave. In the course of
writing the piece, Malan even became involved as an unofficial
ambassador for Linda's family, with heartening results.

Other outstanding pieces include wry musician Robbie Fulk's account
of his income tax audit, Gilbert Garcia's sniffing out of Home
Shopping Network mega-selling Esteben's questionable guitar
lineage, and Greil Marcus's profile of Johnny Cash as he faces the
end of his life.

One of the anthology's best aspects is the sheer breadth of writers
and sources included. The scribes include some of the biggest names
in rock journalism, but also non-music writers, novelists,
performers, and even one die-hard fan. Likewise, the material is
culled not just from the usual suspects (Rolling Stone, Village
Voice
) but unlikely sources as well, from web sites and The
Oxford American
to a slew of cities' alternative newsweeklies
--- the forum that arguably produces the best music writing in
general today.

Interestingly, some of the pieces even turn the table around to
explore the role of the rock critic, an idea first presented in the
introduction. In Lori Robertson's "Golden Oldies," she expertly
poses the question of the validity of today's rock critics (mostly
middle-aged white guys) trying to explain, interpret and accurately
cover new music and bands meant for people half their age and
younger. She even interviews many of the same critics who have
pieces elsewhere in this book. And then there's Jim DeRogatis ---
no fan of the band Third Eye Blind --- conducting a tense,
riveting, and hilarious battle of words with that band's singer,
Stephen Jenkins. As they bicker back and forth in the piece printed
as a transcript, it shows how one man can create music with the
same level of passion that another can detest it.

The book's only faults are its lack of any pictures and its size
--- it's too short! There could easily be twice as many pieces, but
Hornby at least includes a list of other "suggested readings."
Maybe it's a nod to the punk rock ethic (where have you gone, Joey
Ramone?) that brevity is often better than bloatedness.

Reviewed by Bob Ruggiero on January 21, 2011

Da Capo Best Music Writing 2001: The Year's Finest Writing on Rock, Pop, Jazz, Country, and More
by Nick Hornby

  • Publication Date: November 30, -0001
  • Genres: Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 364 pages
  • Publisher: Da Capo
  • ISBN-10: 0306810662
  • ISBN-13: 9780306810664