The best music books of 2017

Richard Williams tunes in to Peggy Seeger’s folk revival, David Bowie’s meeting with Lou Reed, and the poetry of Bob Dylan

Peggy Seeger is the woman who inspired Ewan MacColl to write “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, a breakthrough hit for Roberta Flack in 1972 and subsequently a fixture in the repertoire of countless other singers. That, however, was just about least of the claims that could be made on behalf of the daughter of Charles Seeger, a musicologist, and Ruth Porter Crawford, a classical composer, and the half-sister – younger by 16 years – of Pete Seeger, who would become a founding father of the folk music revival.

Born in New York City in 1935, Peggy was pretty much a one-woman folk revival herself. A fine singer and an accomplished practitioner of the banjo, the guitar, the autoharp, the dulcimer and the concertina, she absorbed a ...

Testimony by Robbie Robertson review – Bob Dylan’s buddy and the Band

Dylan’s one-time best friend and Martin Scorsese’s creative partner tells of music, drugs and self-destructionIn his early years, Bob Dylan always seemed to need a confidant, an accomplice, a sidekick. These semi-famous figures, silhouetted against the penumbra of his growing celebrity, included Victor Maymudes, his tour manager and protector during the rapid ascent to fame in the early 1960s, and Bob Neuwirth, a fellow graduate from the folk clubs, with whom he perfected the art of the slashing verbal putdown, as immortalised in DA Pennebaker’s documentary film of Dylan’s 1965 British tour, Don’t Look Back. But when the singer returned to Britain in 1966, his new best friend was someone capable of making a serious contribution to the development of his music. In Robbie Robertson, Dylan found the perfect buddy on every level – for a while, at least. As the guitarist with the rock’n’roll band that came ...

The best music books of 2016

David Bowie entertains, the Beach Boys give good vibrations, but it’s a life of James Brown that has soul James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, died from heart failure 10 years ago this Christmas Day, aged 73, long past his prime and latterly notorious for problems with drugs, wives and the police. He was a contradictory figure who fined his musicians for unshined shoes and missed cues but insisted that his statue on Main Street in Augusta, Georgia, should not be on a plinth but have its feet on the ground. Born dirt poor in South Carolina and brought up by an aunt in a house that appears to have functioned as a brothel, Brown spent his early years hustling on the streets. Aged 20 he joined a vocal group called the Famous Flames and over the next three decades he became a pivotal figure in the development of pop ...

Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen to Music Now by Ben Ratliff review – embrace the pleasures of streaming

A music lovers guide to the compensations of digital listening, from shuffle settings to SpotifyIt was in the days when a particular jazz radio station consistently failed to back-announce many of the tracks it played that I began to consider the possibility that I had spent my entire life listening to recorded music in the wrong way. That interesting record that had already started when I tuned in? It would forever remain a mystery. I couldn’t go out and buy it, or fit it neatly into the organogram of musical evolution that all serious fans carry around in their heads. So I learned to relinquish the lifelong urge to fit every piece of music into an ever-expanding taxonomy. Suddenly stripped of context, the music was just there to be appreciated for itself, in the moment, in the way we apprehend it before knowledge sets up filters to shape our responses. For a member of ...

The best music books of 2015

Eye-openers from Grace Jones and Jon Savage, but for sheer, sharp entertainment, no one beats Tom Jones

There are bigger books and more concise books, and books edited by people capable of spotting mistakes like references to a rock’n’roll classic called “Linda Lou” (it was “Linda Lu”, as any fule kno). But there might not be another book in this year’s crop that portrays so sharply and entertainingly the life of a true star as Tom Jones’s autobiography.

Over the Top and Back (Michael Joseph), written with Giles Smith, is good value on the singer’s early experience of life among the teddy boys and petticoated girls of Pontypridd, his reluctance to go down the pit, and fatherhood at 17. It frolics through the 60s, when “It’s Not Unusual” positioned Jones somewhere between two ...

Sinatra: The Chairman by James Kaplan review – a 360-degree portrait

Four marriages, countless affairs, links with the mob ... volume two of a landmark biography finds the singer’s later life at odds with his art

For a reminder of the best and worst of Frank Sinatra, look no further than the recording of a concert he gave at Carnegie Hall in the spring of 1974, shortly after emerging, at the age of 58, from a brief “retirement”. A medley of three ballads – “Last Night When We Were Young”, “Violets for Your Furs” and “Here’s That Rainy Day” – is prefaced by a clumsy, cheesy, self-regarding monologue drawing the sort of sycophantic laughter and applause to which he had long become accustomed. Then he gets down to the business of bringing a great seriousness to bear on the trilogy of peerless songs, each an established part of his repertoire, reaffirming all the qualities of technique and interpretation that had made him the greatest male interpreter of ...

Two Hours: The Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon by Ed Caesar – review

What will it take for a runner to break the magical barrier? A superb new writer weighs up the genetic and cultural considerations

This year’s Tour de France has presented its vast audience with the unprecedented sight of a black African rider, Daniel Teklehaimanot, wearing the polka-dot jersey awarded to the best performer in the mountains. Amid the buzz of excitement, some have wondered whether the 26-year-old Eritrean’s achievement is the early warning of a full-scale takeover. Will Eritrea become to cycling, a sport long dominated by European riders, what Jamaica is to sprinting and Kenya to marathon running?

Kenya’s assumption of primacy in men’s long-distance running can be said to have begun in 1983, when Joseph Nzau won the Chicago marathon. Since then the big events – New York, London, Berlin, the Olympics – have been dominated by Paul Kipkoech, Samuel Wanjiru, Paul Tergat and others. Of ...