November 6, 2012 at 10:39 am

Interview: ’33 and 1/3′ Books Are Exactly What Music Needs

33 and one third lovelessHey, look, some band released an album. Why should you care? Maybe you shouldn’t, but sometimes you do.

If this happens to you, this whole “caring about an album a lot” thing, the 33 1/3  series of books from Bloomsbury (see also: the blog) can be an invaluable resource. These small books detail the stories behind many of history’s most legendary albums. The series is still going strong, 86 books in.

In this lucky age, when music fans can hear just about anything ever recorded in seconds, these books provide deep context that is too often missing. They should probably be apps.

Eliot Van Buskirk, Evolver.fm: How did the idea for the 33 and 1/3 series come about?

David Barker, Bloomsbury Publishing: I published a series called “Continuum Contemporaries” back in the late ’90s / early ’00s — they were short critical guides to contemporary works of fiction. The works covered had a good range, including White Teeth, The Secret History, Underworld, Paradise, Infinite Jest, and even the early Harry Potter books, and the books all followed the same, rigid five-chapter structure that I came up with. And all were written by scholars in the field of Contemporary Fiction. It occurred to me one day that it might be equally (OK, perhaps more) fun to try a similar series with albums — the difference being that I’d find authors from many other fields (not just academia) and that I’d give the authors as much freedom as possible to approach their chosen subject.

Evolver.fm: I can’t think of any other resource that goes this deep about each album. Do you feel like these books are filling a hole that exists in our culture — that people don’t “dive deep” into albums they care about as much, because they are so distracted by everything, and there is simply so much coming at us these days that we don’t feel like we have time to integrate a specific piece of art deep within ourselves the way we used to? Or is it just me?

Barker: No, I think that’s a very good point. I see comments online all the time along the lines of “Oh, nobody’s made a fully coherent album since (fill in the blank, usually something like Arcade Fire’s Funeral, or Neutral Milk Hotel)…” but plenty of artists are still making coherent works of art using the album format, in the same way that plenty of writers are still making coherent works of fiction using the novel format. The format of delivery may change, but for making a certain kind of creative statement, an album is still a lovely form. We are distracted, on the whole — and to some people the very idea of reading a whole book about one album is faintly ridiculous. But on the other hand, for hardcore music lovers, what could be more fun than spending a few hours with an author who genuinely understands — and can articulate — your love of a great album?

Evolver.fm: Who are the writers, how do you find them, and how are albums selected for inclusion?

Barker: It started out by me contacting people who I thought might want to write interesting books about interesting records, back in 2002. I reached out to writers, musicians, broadcasters, all sorts. A lot said they were too busy, but enough people were excited enough to want to try it, and word spread from there. Within 18 months of the series starting, I was starting to receive more than one email every day from somebody wanting to write one of these books — and it was around then that I started formulating the idea for the open call for proposals, which is how we’ve signed up projects since 2006 (or around then). During the last call we received almost 500 proposals over the six-week window, and somehow whittled that down to 18, and those are the ones we’ll be publishing in the next couple of years. It’s a tough process, but ultimately we’re looking for projects that have a real spark to them, and that promise to tell a story, or spin an argument, in a compelling way. (And also, of course, we’re trying to pick books that might sell…)

Evolver.fm: I noticed that the top sellers are about Neutral Milk Hotel, Celine Dion, The Rolling Stones, Radiohead, and The Kinks. That’s a fairly broad range. Why do you think the top two are about a somewhat cult favorite and one of the most mainstream artists of all time?

Barker: The top two are slightly freakish examples of the series, really. The success of the Neutral Milk Hotel book is due to the author, Kim Cooper, writing a very well-researched, affectionate portrait of a group of musicians — and a scene — that simply hadn’t been documented at that point. It’s helped, of course, by Jeff Mangum having been somewhat reclusive for most of the book’s life — so really, if you’re a new fan of the band and want to know more about them, this is the one place to read the story. As for the Celine Dion book, that’s just an astoundingly good piece of cultural criticism, examining the concepts of good taste and bad taste — and doing so with such warmth and humour and wisdom that it’s almost impossible to read the book and end up not loving it and telling your friends to read it. (It does not, as far as we know, sell to many actual fans of Celine’s music.)

Evolver.fm: When I saw 33 and 1/3 pop up in my Facebook feed after a friend liked it, I was immediately transported back to how much I loved the My Bloody Valentine Loveless edition. I also realized that I would love to have an app version of these, with the audio included, so I could read them on the subway, plane, or wherever, as I listened. You could even add interviews, etc… What do you think, is there an app on the way? Would you consider approaching the bands/labels about that?

Barker: There isn’t anything like that on the way, unfortunately, although it’s a great idea and I’d love to see the series expanded in that way. We have limited resources, though. Curating and running the series is something I do almost entirely in my spare time, as I have many more “grown up” jobs to get done for Continuum (which is now Bloomsbury). And while we’re looking to get much more creative in the digital realm with our publishing content, the series profile doesn’t fit too neatly with the wider goals of the company, so I’m never going to be able to persuade anyone to invest enough money to make a good app feasible.

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Here’s the full list of 33 1/3 books, which currently comprises some 86 albums. If you see one of your favorites listed here, we heartily recommend picking it up. If you don’t, propose a book.

Dusty in Memphis- Dusty Springfield 1969 Warren Zanes
Forever Changes -Love 1967 Andrew Hultkrans
Harvest -Neil Young 1972 Sam Inglis
Meat Is Murder- The Smiths 1985 Joe Pernice
The Piper at the Gates of Dawn- Pink Floyd 1967 John Cavanagh
ABBA Gold: Greatest Hits -ABBA 1992 Elisabeth Vincentelli
Electric Ladyland -The Jimi Hendrix Experience 1968 John Perry
Unknown Pleasures- Joy Division 1979 Chris Ott
10 Sign “☮” the Times - Prince 1987 Michaelangelo Matos
11 The Velvet Underground & Nico - The Velvet Underground 1967 Joe Harvard
12 Let It Be -The Beatles 1970 Steve Matteo
13 Live at the Apollo -James Brown 1963 Douglas Wolk
14 Aqualung-Jethro Tull 1971 Allan Moore
15 OK Computer-Radiohead 1997 Dai Griffiths
16 Let It Be -The Replacements 1984 Colin Meloy
17 Led Zeppelin IV -Led Zeppelin 1971 Erik Davis
18 Exile on Main St. -The Rolling Stones 1972 Bill Janovitz
19 Pet Sounds - The Beach Boys 1966 Jim Fusilli
20 Ramones- Ramones 1976 Nicholas Rombes
21 Armed Forces -Elvis Costello 1979 Franklin Bruno
22 Murmur- R.E.M. 1983 J. Niimi
23 Grace - Jeff Buckley 1994 Daphne Brooks
24 Endtroducing….. -DJ Shadow 1996 Eliot Wilder
25 Kick Out the Jams - MC5 1969 Don McLeese
26 Low - David Bowie 1977 Hugo Wilcken
27 Born in the U.S.A. -Bruce Springsteen 1984 Geoffrey Himes
28 Music from Big Pink -The Band 1968 John Niven
29 In the Aeroplane over the Sea- Neutral Milk Hotel 1998 Kim Cooper
30 Paul’s Boutique -Beastie Boys 1989 Dan Le Roy
31 Doolittle - Pixies 1989 Ben Sisario
32 There’s a Riot Goin’ On -Sly and the Family Stone 1971 Miles Marshall Lewis
33 The Stone Roses -The Stone Roses 1989 Alex Green
34 In Utero-Nirvana 1993 Gillian G. Gaar
35 Highway 61 Revisited -Bob Dylan 1965 Mark Polizzotti
36 Loveless -My Bloody Valentine 1991 Mike McGonigal
37 The Who Sell Out -The Who 1967 John Dougan
38 Bee Thousand - Guided by Voices 1994 Marc Woodworth
39 Daydream Nation -Sonic Youth 1988 Matthew Stearns
40 Court and Spark -Joni Mitchell 1974 Sean Nelson
41 Use Your Illusion I and II -Guns N’ Roses 1991 Eric Weisbard
42 Songs in the Key of Life-Stevie Wonder 1976 Zeth Lundy
43 The Notorious Byrd Brothers -The Byrds 1968 Ric Menck
44 Trout Mask Replica -Captain Beefheart 1969 Kevin Courrier
45 Double Nickels on the Dime -Minutemen 1984 Michael T. Fournier
46 Aja -Steely Dan 1977 Don Breithaupt
47 People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm - A Tribe Called Quest 1990 Shawn Taylor
48 Rid of Me -PJ Harvey 1993 Kate Schatz
49 Achtung Baby -U2 1991 Stephen Catanzarite
50 If You’re Feeling Sinister - Belle & Sebastian 1996 Scott Plagenhoef
51 Pink Moon -Nick Drake 1972 Amanda Petrusich
52 Let’s Talk About Love -Celine Dion 1997 Carl Wilson
53 Swordfishtrombones -Tom Waits 1983 David Smay
54 20 Jazz Funk Greats - Throbbing Gristle 1979 Drew Daniel
55 Horses -Patti Smith 1975 Philip Shaw
56 Master of Reality -Black Sabbath 1971 John Darnielle
57 Reign in Blood - Slayer 1986 D.X. Ferris
58 Shoot Out the Lights -Richard and Linda Thompson 1982 Hayden Childs
59 Gentlemen -The Afghan Whigs 1993 Bob Gendron
60 Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash -The Pogues 1985 Jeffery T. Roesgen
61 The Gilded Palace of Sin - The Flying Burrito Brothers 1969 Bob Proehl
62 Pink Flag -Wire 1977 Wilson Neate
63 XO - Elliott Smith 1998 Mathew Lemay
64 Illmatic -Nas 1994 Matthew Gasteier
65 Radio City - Big Star 1974 Bruce Eaton
66 One Step Beyond… - Madness 1979 Terry Edwards
67 Another Green World - Brian Eno 1975 Geeta Dayal
68 Zaireeka The Flaming Lips- 1997 Mark Richardson
69 69 Love Songs -The Magnetic Fields 1999 LD Beghtol
70 Facing Future - Israel Kamakawiwo’ole 1993 Dan Kois
71 It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back -Public Enemy 1988 Christopher R. Weingarten
72 Wowee Zowee -Pavement 1995 Bryan Charles
73 Highway to Hell- AC/DC 1979 Joe Bonomo
74 Song Cycle -Van Dyke Parks 1968 Richard Henderson
75 Spiderland - Slint 1991 Scott Tennent
76 Kid A - Radiohead 2000 Marvin Lin
77 Tusk - Fleetwood Mac 1979 Rob Trucks
78 Pretty Hate Machine Nine Inch Nails 1989 Daphne Carr
79 Chocolate and Cheese Ween 1994 Hank Shteamer
80 American Recordings Johnny Cash 1994 Tony Tost
81 Some Girls The Rolling Stones 1978 Cyrus Patell
82 You’re Living All Over Me Dinosaur Jr. 1987 Nick Attfield
83 Marquee Moon Television 1977 Bryan Waterman
84 Amazing Grace Aretha Franklin 1972 Aaron Cohen
85 Dummy Portishead 1994 RJ Wheaton
86 Fear of Music Talking Heads 1979 Jonathan Lethem
  • Deserona

    Compucircuit 0.008 m/s by Ray Buttigieg/Cykx