The most difficult thing about writing about music is that music is often intensely personal. Like most art, it is made to be consumed and, hopefully, appreciated by the public. To be someone's favourite something must be a fulfilling and validating thing, and a primary concern for many musicians working popular music. To write about music, one must not only engage with something they have strong feelings about, but also engage with something that means an awful lot to someone else. Walking that line while also being informative and entertaining is a delicate thing. And there has been no greater demonstration of this walk than 33 1/3, Bloomsbury's essay series on important albums.
The best thing about 33 1/3 is the sheer diversity in albums across it's 135+ titles, which includes canonised favourites Kid A by Radiohead and Highway 64 Revisited by Bob Dylan, alongside Hangin' Tough by New Kids on the Block. Every title is written by a different author, each of who brings a wealth of experience and insight to their writing. Hey, even you could submit!
This variety of authors helps to create a wonderful diversity in writing styles and concerns. In his 2006 essay on the Pixies' Doolittle, Ben Sisario pieces together a classic music bio, weaving in gonzo-style interviews with the band alongside a fact-filled recount of the recording process. On a different tip is Scott Plagenhoef's 2007 essay on Belle & Sebastian's If You're Feeling Sinister, which marries the traditional album recap with a screed on internet fandom (that reads as marvellously quaint to my 2019 eyes).
Perhaps the most compelling so far has been Rien Fertel's 2018 contribution about Drive-By Truckers' 2001 album Southern Rock Opera. I listened to the album for the first time as I was reading the essay, an experience that helped me contextualise an album that is dense, referential and colloquial. Fertel's exploration of the album turns into a wider exploration of Southern American identity, Sweet Home Alabama and the rock n roll myth. It was everything these books should be: a celebration of, and induction into, an album and the band who made it.
The beauty of the series is the freedom that each writer is given to explore their chosen album (including a whole bunch of entries that are fictionalised, with John Darnielle's 2008 Master of Reality piece being a shining example). For someone like myself – eternally interested in the stories and myths around artists, albums and genres – these pocket-sized essays are essential (and will be a never-ending source of birthday presents).
Where to start …
… or just browse the list for your favourite album. I’m sure it’ll be great.
Hal Parker Langley