Nightly meditations on 33 1/3

Ed Note: Boingboing's current guest blogger Gareth Branwyn writes on technology, pop and fringe culture. He is currently a Contributing Editor at Maker Media. Recent projects have included co-creating The Maker's Notebook and editing The Best of MAKE and The Best of Instructables collections. Back in the mid-80s, I used to have a little ritual I'd perform every year. I'd select a biography, autobiography, or session/musical history about The Beatles and I'd read it while listening to a housemates' pristine vinyl copy of the The Beatles Collection (from end-to-end) on a kick-ass stereo. I so loved and looked forward to each yearly immersion. Fast-forward to 2005 and a posting by David here that Boing Boing pal Erik Davis had authored a book on Led Zeppelin's fourth album, part of a series of books on iconic records, called the 33 1/3 Series. I ordered Erik's book and have been collecting the series ever since. I can't tell you how much I enjoy them and how much deeper they've taken me into the music I love so much. Each book is somewhat unique, there's no set formula, although they all focus on a single album and most tend to have a chapter or two to set up the album, a chapter for each track on the album, and then a follow-up chapter or two. The books are each about 130-140 pages, so they're a quick read -- unless you want to ritualize the experience like I do. For each title, after I buy it, I download the album onto my iPod. Every night, before bed, I listen to one of the tracks, read the chapter on that track, then I listen to the track again. It's really an amazing way of penetrating deeper into the music. Usually after I'm finished with a particular book/album, I'll obsess over that artist for awhile, tracking down and listening to their entire oeuvre, wishing there was a 33 1/3 book for each record. I just recently finished the 33 1/3 for Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica and then went off and listened to any of his records I could find. I think I understand his work (both his music and his painting) now in a way I never would have without having gone on this journey, little pocket tome in-hand. My next excursion is going to be Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures.
Forthcoming titles I'm jazzed about are Kate Bush's The Dreaming and Brian Eno's Another Green World (although it's been perpetually forthcoming -- rarely a good sign). I got so psyched after reading Erik's book, I even proposed one of my own, for Eno's Before and After Science, but the timing ended up not being right for me (especially given the labor-of-love-sized advance). One caveat about these books – the quality is very hit and miss. There seems to be a lot of latitude for the authors to step out (the whole enterprise is very passion-driven) and follow where their muse takes them. Some end up in a better place than others. But even when a title draws up short, I've still enjoyed the ride, and the books are so brief, it's not like I've invested a lot of time or money. David Barker, editor of the series, maintains a blog about 33-1/3, which you can find here.


  1. I wanted to love this series and invested in the pictured “Loveless,” as well as the “Meat is Murder” editions, but sadly felt they fell flat (say that 5 times fast.) It didn’t stop me from giving away the “69 Love Songs” and “Murmer” books to friends as gifts, but I guess I just appreciate the music umpteen times more than the way the authors oogle over it.
    Just my 2 cents…
    I don’t wanna be a stick in the mud, so suggest one that lives up?

  2. Out of curiosity, what did it say about Loveless? Waited ages for that lp after Isn’t Anything.

  3. Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste (about Cline Dion) is simply wild. The author hates her music but tries the experiment: would he like her music more if he really tried to appreciate it? (I have read it and enjoyed it immensely. But I can’t speak about the book qua Celine Dion fan…)

    Here’s a review from New York magazine (Dec 17, 2007) –>

  4. I’ve read two, “Swordfishtrombones” (which came off as a bit pretentious to me, though readable) and “Let it Be” (which I actually read just because Colin Meloy wrote it. It kicked ass).

  5. I’ve only read two and they were both terrific: Erik Davis on Led Zeppelin IV and Bob Gendron on The Afghan Whigs’s “Gentlemen.”

  6. Honestly, I don’t know how my view of the series would be different if I wasn’t listening to the music at the same time. For instance, I thought the book for Bowie’s Low was rather weak, but I enjoyed re-immersing myself in the music so much, the whole gestalt was positive. If I’d read the book alone, it’d probably would have been a big meh.

    BTW: One way of sampling the books before you buy/read them is to get the two volume set 33 1/3 Greatest Hits, which excerpt the books. A friend thoughtfully gave me these for my birthday one year. They’re a great way to try before you buy.

  7. I thought Loveless and Kim Cooper’s Neutral Milk Hotel/In the Aeroplane Over the Sea were decent enough — the former a bit more personal/experiential and the latter more retrospective/anecdotal — but my favorite thus far has been Black Sabbath/Master of Reality from Mountain Goats frontman John Darnielle, done in diary form from the perspective of a teenage psych-ward inmate.

    Without having to strike a journalistic or personal tone, Darnielle was able to give it that adolescent’s passion: it best felt like the “what does this album MEAN to you” angle that the series sort of typifies.

  8. I have a few books from the 33 and 1/3 series. The Radiohead one was boring… way to technical in an academic sense… the Pixies one was a good fast read. So, I agree that it’s hit or miss with these books depending on the author and the angle they take. Still a cool series, regardless.

  9. Guided By Voices “Bee Thousand” was a messy, wasted opportunity which was remarkable only for the anecdote that Bob recorded the vocals for “Hot Freaks” in Tobin Sprout’s garage while he was having a garage sale.

    The Aeroplane Over The Sea, Master Of Reality, and Village Green Preservation Society were all pleasant treats.

    I looked at their short list of possible upcoming books. They best put out Key Lime Pie this time. Since the series began I’ve been wondering where that book is. Seems tailored for the series.

  10. Yeah, I’ve heard such bad things about the Radiohead book, I wasn’t going to even bother. The excerpt in Greatest Hits, Volume 1 did nothing to change my mind.

    I like the volumes that have some of the personality of the author in them. Erik’s Zep book has that. The Trout Mask book has a story of how the author got a hold of the record that alone is worth the price of admission. I’ll never listen to TMR again and not invoke the amazing picture the author paints.

  11. This series needs more Elvis Costello (only one that I know of, for Armed Forces) and more hip hop (other than Beastie Boys…although DJ Shadow’s Entroducing is an out-there entry).

  12. The 33 1/3 on the Replacements Let It Be by the guy from the Decemberists is one of those that do not follow the song by song critique, but rather a wonderfully atmospheric narrative of how the album informed his formative years.

    Some are rather academic in tone (nothing wrong with that) some go behind the scenes considerably into the recording and career, and perhaps some are a bit of wank perhaps, but they are almost all worth trying out. Most are 128 pages or so, designed to be a couple of hours reading.

    Awesome series, difficult to follow as it grows, because a good portion of the planned assignments never make it to fruition. Also, they are apparently available as audio books on Audible.

  13. Curious that there’s not a single iconic album from this decade included. Is this just self-selection by potential authors? Or has there actually not been even a single one?

  14. I wanted to love this series and invested in the pictured “Loveless,” as well as the “Meat is Murder” editions, but sadly felt they fell flat (say that 5 times fast.)

    In 100% agreement with this. This series is well marketed and the size/length of the work is just right. But the content is … feh … even when it’s good. Very disposable and falls straight into the “Great Gift” niche.

    But I will say the concept has potential since in the MP3 world we live in it’s hard to have a physical connection with an album. So here’s to hoping someone takes up the concept under a different moniker and does something better.

  15. I love the one on the Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs. I love the part that’s written as a dictionary/field guide listing nearly every quirky reference that Merritt comes up with on those 3 discs including words he made up like “prowesslessnesslessness.”

    Actually had no idea that this was a whole series of books.

  16. Taken one by one the books can be interesting, taken together, the series is scary.

    It’s a formation of a canon that’s entirely western, and extremely predominantly male, white and old. (The writers and editors have a similar distribution among them.) Plus it supports the ridiculously outmoded album format as the only choice of medium.

    Do we really want the privilidged north creating our cultural canons?

  17. The edition for Gentlemen by The Afghan Whigs was a really good read but I’m biased ’cause I think they’re the greatest band in all history. If you disagree you’re wrong, pitiful and weak.

  18. @Jack
    That’s are really interesting thought – that these books offer you a connection with the album. I remember as a young person listening to vinyl, I spent so much time with the record as a physical object, the jacket, the decorated or lyric-printed inner sleeve. You certain don’t get much of that in your iTunes library. Reading these books while listening, and really listening, touches on that type of experience.

  19. Julian Bond, #18:

    Curious that there’s not a single iconic album from this decade included.

    We’re still living this decade. We won’t know which albums are really iconic until we have a few years of time and perspective.

  20. My friend gave me the 33 1/3 book for Slayer’s “Reign in Blood” for christmas and that was a good one as well, even if you aren’t a fan of heavy metal. Interesting to read about Rick Rubin’s involvement and the way he flipped between the rock and rap genres at that early stage. As a odl metalhead, all I have to say is….Slaaaayyyyeeer!

  21. The “Loveless” book could’ve been much better, but since it’s the only book written about the making of that record, I’ll take what I can get. Still, it would take a 999 pp. tome just to list all the engineers who worked on the album.

    “Village Green” was also a disappointment, but only because it’s so short. If these books were a bit longer, they might be more authoritative, but I guess brevity is the whole point with this series.

  22. This piece reminded me that I don’t yet have Endtroducing DJ Shadow on CD so I just ordered it and the book. If that works I’ll give Led Zep IV (don’t even bother, pedants) a whirl.

  23. In this series, an anonymous person on the internet strongly recommends:
    The Led Zep IV one
    The Guided By Voices one
    The Celine Dion one

    I was intensely disappointed by:
    The Sonic Youth one. Abominable.

  24. Of the few I’ve read, some have been unreadable, some simply boring and one completely, beautifully heartbreaking — John Niven’s take on The Band’s “Music From Big Pink.” It’s a novel (novella?) written as a memoir by a guy who was the group’s drug connection. A really great melding of fact and fiction that tells a bittersweet love story AND makes you want to play the record over and over and over.

  25. @24

    Do you really believe that? Did it take Nevermind 10 years to be ‘iconic’? ‘Iconic’ is relative. The reason this series doesn’t address the last decade is that the authors and/or editors are older, and thus nothing produced in the last 10 years has likely been ‘iconic’ to them, at least relative to all that awesome ‘iconic’ stuff that dropped in the 70s/80s/90s.

    The problem is perspective. I completely agree with others who are criticizing this series more for being far too “old white rocker dude” in its album choices and author choices. Not universally so, but it is definitely a valid criticism that the only hiphop records I’ve found that were covered were by white males. There is nothing wrong with that, and Paul’s Boutique and Endtroducing… are certainly incredible records. But something is definitely amiss when these are isolated outside of the context of the amazing records put out by black rap pioneers before, concurrent, and after these records were released.

    I think informing people of good music that has happened within the last 10 years is just as important as hiring some idiot who didn’t even like OK Computer to write a whole book about it.

    Personally I am waiting for a 33 1/3 about Themselves the no music. LP written from the perspective of Doseone’s cat who has just gotten out of rehab for catnip addiction.

  26. Ugh, why’d the Zeppelin book have to be 4? The entire thing is so overplayed. 1-3 or houses of the holy would have been way more interesting.

  27. I’ve read a few of these, and the ones on Neutral Milk Hotel and Celine Dion were real standouts.

    The NMH book focuses a lot on the group of friends that formed the Elephant 6 collective and the climate that lead to the creation of the album. It gives a really interesting perspective into the world of indie musicians.

    The Celine Dion book is very different from the other books, that delves more into the issues of taste and the phenomenon of the Dion love/hate relationship. As Gareth mentioned, the freedom writers have can allow some of the books to be sub-par, but in this case it goes in the opposite direction. Highly recommended.

  28. I have “Grace”, the one on Jeff Buckley. It was given to me from an ex who knew my passion for the artist. I have to say, it was really hard to read since I felt like the author was very sophmoric in her writing.

    These books are a great idea but I can see where they would fall flat for some. If you can actually be reduced to tears by a song that is sung (“Lover, You Should Have Come Over” did it to me) on an album, and the book on that album falls short, well, then you’ve got an “meh” moment. I really wanted to like and be interested by “Grace” but it pales to how I actually feel about the music.

  29. An aside: oes anyone here have any feedback on the book on Throbbing Gristle 20 Jazz Funk Greats?

    Also, I think it could be a fun exercise for bb to host some sort of “awesome record suggestion” list to facilitate and expedite (even more rapid) mutation.

  30. Good luck on Unknown Pleasures…no matter how much you read or know about Joy Division, it still sounds like aliens making music from the future (or past). And ‘Closer’ is better.

  31. They should do Malcom McLaren’s “Duck Rock” album.
    And “Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!”
    And “Helter Stupid” by Negativland

  32. @ #21 Birdseed,

    r w nt vr-nl-zng thngs bt? It’s rock and roll for chrissakes!

    That said, there certainly is a whole body of great rock and roll bands from all over the planet that do not get there due because they are not from U.S. or Britain. But trumpeting their greatness will have to be some other project, I suspect.

  33. Birdseed @21, please don’t dismiss people’s opinions just because they’re from the dominant culture.

    Remmelt @27 and Cupcake Faerie @39, please don’t dismiss people’s opinion just because they challenge the dominant culture. Also, Remmelt, don’t dismiss an awareness of racial issues as “a racism thing”, and CF, don’t insult people by using “anal” to describe their thoughts.

  34. I’d like to correct myself that there and point out that 33 1/3 did drop a book on a rap record by African Americans. ATCQ’s People’s Instinctive Movements and the Paths of Rhythm. Criticism at amazon are mixed, with apparently the author of the book giving it 3 stars. Interesting, no doubt. This is a Great album and worthy. It Is About What It Says It Is. That is, you will be dancing. If not, try adding various ingredients such as -censored-, -censored-, or especially -censored-. If not moving at all, check pulse. If alive, add more -censored-.

    There also seem to be a couple other great hiphop albums getting the treatment in (suppposedly) 2009: Illmatic and Aquemini. I’m interested in both, and definitely excited for Maggot Brains, though I will be waiting for reviews on all of them ;)

  35. @ Shawn Wolfe
    Those are all fantastic suggestions. I’d read all those. Hell, maybe I’ll WRITE those!

  36. I’m the author of the book on Brian Eno’s “Another Green World,” which will indeed be coming out in the not-so-distant future. The manuscript is sitting here on my desk. Doing a book on Eno, even a short one, was a dizzying endeavor. If you’d like to read the introduction, it was posted in full on the Continuum 33 1/3 blog, at this link:

  37. Hey, thanks for logging in, Geeta. Glad to hear the book is imminent. I’ve really been looking forward to it. I can only imagine the dizzying endeavor part, which is why I chickened out on pursuing one. Congrats on making it happen.

  38. #36. The book on 20 Jazz Funk Greats is my favorite in the series so far – best balance of personality, contextualness, and tech on how it was recorded. One of the few discussions on TG that doesn’t get hung up on “Wreckers Of Civilization!” headlines. You may know author Drew Daniel from his band Matmos.

    Also, to everyone complaining about Led Zeppelin IV being too obvious – don’t knock it until you read it. It’s freaking hilarious and a brilliant take.

  39. Thank you for that, Chris. As always, a little research is required before purchasing a 33 1/3 ;)

    I’m just getting into TG, actually. This sounds like an excellent approach vector.

  40. This looks like a really interesting series, and I look forward to checking them out. In some cases, the selection of which album to feature from a discography seems weird (guns ‘n roses “use your illusion 1&2”? Nirvana “In Utero”? U2 “Achtung Baby”?)- but that almost makes me more inclined to read the book, because for the other bands, I can completely understand the choice of album.

    @18 & @24: I’m kind of curious about this. I was born in 72, so the noughties(2000-2009) have been the decade in which I experienced my thirties. I’ve been trying to figure out whether this decade was really as devoid of personality as it has seemed to me, or whether I am just less affected by the zeitgeist as I get older.

    I don’t think it takes a decade to realize that an album deserves to be iconic- you tend to hear them and realize that you are hearing something completely new and awesome. I’ve heard a number of good albums over the last 9 years that were nice pieces of craftwork in the established style (snow patrol, coldplay, the killers, interpol, the yeah yeah yeahs, the hives, etc…) but nothing that seemed to cross that threshold.

    Actually, I’d nominate Tin Hat Trio’s book of silk, but I don’t think that they fall in the right genre for the 33 1/3 series, being more folk/jazz than anything else. Also, I think an album needs to sell a lot more copies before it qualifies. But it’s a really good album, and you should check it out if you haven’t already =D

  41. @47

    I will check out the Tin Hat Trio album if you promise to check out themselves the no music. ;) It is an album that accomplishes what you seek.

    I recommend getting it in CD format (or LP, if you can find it ;) for the included booklet. Not only is it a work of art, Doseone’s lyrics can be quite complex and understanding exactly what his catlike scat contains tends to help get over the initial shock of hearing his unique approach to vocals.

    Oh, and 33 1/3,

    I do hereby propose a treatment on Billy Idol’s Cyberpunk from the perspective of the PC they made it on, which is starting to lose it due to an out of control addiction to Kai’s Power Goo. Then Billy saves the computer’s life with his cryptic ciphers that seem allude to mystical revelations of a truly Gnostic nature. The computer then learns to use the Goo for good, embedding subliminal steganographic messages in cheesy ads for paleolithic virtual reality gear in Mondo 2000. All memes involved fail to find traction at the time, only to come into fame and notoriety almost 20 years later. Any computer that opens one of the scanned copies of Mondo attains Gnostic satari, idles down to its lowest power setting, and proceeds to Goo. Jesus climbs out of a Cray with a snorkel and fins on, and Immanentasizes the Eschaton while Billy Idol plays “Adam in Chains” on an acoustic guitar.

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