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Best books of 2020: Pop music


The Meaning of Mariah Carey, by Mariah Carey, with Michaela Angela Davis, Pan Macmillan, RRP£20, 368 pages

“There was a time in my early childhood when I didn’t believe I was worthy of being alive.” In Carey’s memoir, the stereotype of the flouncy diva fades. Instead, we get an unexpectedly powerful portrait, laced with dry wit, of unhappy childhood, dysfunctional marriage and music as an escape.

Small Hours: The Long Night of John Martyn, by Graeme Thomson, Omnibus, RRP£20, 256 pages

“Can’t get enough of sweet cocaine,” Martyn sang on his breakthrough album, 1973’s Solid Air. Creativity and self-destruction were yoked together in the singer-songwriter, whose life is sensitively told by Thomson. No romance of the suffering artist here; rather, a careful portrait of a gifted but difficult individual.

How to Write One Song, by Jeff Tweedy, Faber, RRP£10.99, 176 pages

Wilco frontman Tweedy follows up his entertaining memoir Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back) with a brief guide to songwriting. The tone is more self-help than technical: “In the end, learning how to write songs is, in large part, about teaching yourself to fail and being OK with it.”

Kick It: A Social History of the Drum Kit, by Matt Brennan, Oxford University Press, RRP£19.99, 392 pages

Brennan opens his percussive history with a hunt for the oldest drummer joke, leading to a 16th-century treatise in which the bashing of drummers is likened to coppersmiths. Kick It proceeds to foil the gags with an incisive argument for the drum kit’s recognition as a revolutionary musical invention.

Best Books of the Year 2020

All this week, FT writers and critics share their favourites. Some highlights are:

Monday: Business by Andrew Hill
Tuesday: Economics by Martin Wolf
Wednesday: Politics by Gideon Rachman
Thursday: History by Tony Barber
Friday: Critics’ choice
Saturday: Crime by Barry Forshaw

Cuba: Music and Revolution, compiled by Gilles Peterson and Stuart Baker, Soul Jazz Books, RRP£35, 216 pages

Cuba: Music and Revolution is a picture book dedicated to album cover art from Cuba since the 1950s, tracking the island’s role as a musical and political crucible. Covering the rise of styles such as salsa and Latin jazz, it makes ingenious use of record sleeves as a record of history.

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