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One of Oprah Daily's 20 Favorite Books of 2021 - Selected as one of Pitchfork's Best Music Books of the Year An epic achievement and a huge delight, the entire history of popular music over the past fifty years refracted through the big genres that have defined and dominated it: rock, R&B, country, punk, hip-hop, dance music, and pop Kelefa Sanneh, one of the essential voice One of Oprah Daily's 20 Favorite Books of 2021 - Selected as one of Pitchfork's Best Music Books of the Year An epic achievement and a huge delight, the entire history of popular music over the past fifty years refracted through the big genres that have defined and dominated it: rock, R&B, country, punk, hip-hop, dance music, and pop Kelefa Sanneh, one of the essential voices of our time on music and culture, has made a deep study of how popular music unites and divides us, charting the way genres become communities. In Major Labels, Sanneh distills a career's worth of knowledge about music and musicians into a brilliant and omnivorous reckoning with popular music--as an art form (actually, a bunch of art forms), as a cultural and economic force, and as a tool that we use to build our identities. He explains the history of slow jams, the genius of Shania Twain, and why rappers are always getting in trouble. Sanneh shows how these genres have been defined by the tension between mainstream and outsider, between authenticity and phoniness, between good and bad, right and wrong. Throughout, race is a powerful touchstone: just as there have always been Black audiences and white audiences, with more or less overlap depending on the moment, there has been Black music and white music, constantly mixing and separating. Sanneh debunks cherished myths, reappraises beloved heroes, and upends familiar ideas of musical greatness, arguing that sometimes, the best popular music isn't transcendent. Songs express our grudges as well as our hopes, and they are motivated by greed as well as idealism; music is a powerful tool for human connection, but also for human antagonism. This is a book about the music everyone loves, the music everyone hates, and the decades-long argument over which is which. The opposite of a modest proposal, Major Labels pays in full.


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One of Oprah Daily's 20 Favorite Books of 2021 - Selected as one of Pitchfork's Best Music Books of the Year An epic achievement and a huge delight, the entire history of popular music over the past fifty years refracted through the big genres that have defined and dominated it: rock, R&B, country, punk, hip-hop, dance music, and pop Kelefa Sanneh, one of the essential voice One of Oprah Daily's 20 Favorite Books of 2021 - Selected as one of Pitchfork's Best Music Books of the Year An epic achievement and a huge delight, the entire history of popular music over the past fifty years refracted through the big genres that have defined and dominated it: rock, R&B, country, punk, hip-hop, dance music, and pop Kelefa Sanneh, one of the essential voices of our time on music and culture, has made a deep study of how popular music unites and divides us, charting the way genres become communities. In Major Labels, Sanneh distills a career's worth of knowledge about music and musicians into a brilliant and omnivorous reckoning with popular music--as an art form (actually, a bunch of art forms), as a cultural and economic force, and as a tool that we use to build our identities. He explains the history of slow jams, the genius of Shania Twain, and why rappers are always getting in trouble. Sanneh shows how these genres have been defined by the tension between mainstream and outsider, between authenticity and phoniness, between good and bad, right and wrong. Throughout, race is a powerful touchstone: just as there have always been Black audiences and white audiences, with more or less overlap depending on the moment, there has been Black music and white music, constantly mixing and separating. Sanneh debunks cherished myths, reappraises beloved heroes, and upends familiar ideas of musical greatness, arguing that sometimes, the best popular music isn't transcendent. Songs express our grudges as well as our hopes, and they are motivated by greed as well as idealism; music is a powerful tool for human connection, but also for human antagonism. This is a book about the music everyone loves, the music everyone hates, and the decades-long argument over which is which. The opposite of a modest proposal, Major Labels pays in full.

30 review for Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres

  1. 4 out of 5

    Adam Dalva

    A must-read if you listen to music, which is to say, a must-read for virtually everyone, because Sanneh brilliantly uses genre to chart a history of music, giving roots and historical legacies for any type of song. The book teems with anecdotes, personal beats, and incisive thinking on race and sex - and gosh, it also cost me A LOT OF MONEY because I kept buying the music Sanneh was referencing. Expansive in 3 dimensions.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Natalie Nicole

    I began reading this book believing the author and I were going to have to agree to disagree. I firmly believe the idea of genres as we know them has expired, and as this book journey began Sanneh spoke to how the idea of genres developed and the tribism that came with it. I didn't disagree with the historical perspective but feared this may become a treatise on why genre can be good in uniting and helping us find common ground. While the book did explore advantages of genre, it took a much broad I began reading this book believing the author and I were going to have to agree to disagree. I firmly believe the idea of genres as we know them has expired, and as this book journey began Sanneh spoke to how the idea of genres developed and the tribism that came with it. I didn't disagree with the historical perspective but feared this may become a treatise on why genre can be good in uniting and helping us find common ground. While the book did explore advantages of genre, it took a much broader dive into how genres change over time - how jazz used to be "popular" music and as it faded from the mainstream "pop" became defined by whatever the mainstream craze drove to the top of the charts. As such, each section's foray into particular genres like R&B, Rock and Pop acknowledges that both the music and the fans in those categories have greatly shifted with time, and no less so during the digital music era. I particularly appreciated the granular look at the kind of competition and criticism each era's contemporaries faced, often on the heels of the lineage of their predecessors or successors. Listening to many of the greats who were before my time, yet whose music remains timeless, it's easy to forget who their contemporaries were or how fighting for airtime and concert venues between them sometimes shaped their view of their audience or indeed their sound. As a songwriter and musician myself, I'm struck by examining of how some of those careers were longer than expected or shorter than initially believed. The book examines not only the artists, but also the favoritism of the listeners and reviewers, and how an artist or genre mocked and criticised today can become someone's favorite tomorrow (and vice versa). Whether you're a consummate music fan and/or a music creator, there's bound to be some explorations within that you'll enjoy. Major Labels A HISTORY OF POPULAR MUSIC IN SEVEN GENRES By KELEFA SANNEH Available now #Bookstagram #Rock #R&B #Country #Pop #HipHop #Punk #Dance #Music #History #MusicMakers #KelefaSanneh #MajorLabels #NetGalley #Nonfiction #BookRec #BookReview

  3. 4 out of 5

    Peter Tillman

    This is a fascinating book, where his musical tastes and mine overlap. Which is, hrm, maybe 40% of the time? So don't take my rating too seriously -- but I always give my personal reaction to the book at hand. In this case, 2.5 stars, rounded up for a noble effort. Plus, he writes well and isn't boring. But I'm clearly not his intended audience! WSJ ran a rave review, https://www.wsj.com/articles/major-la... (Paywalled. As always, I'm happy to email a copy to non-subscribers) Excerpt: "Mr. Sanneh, This is a fascinating book, where his musical tastes and mine overlap. Which is, hrm, maybe 40% of the time? So don't take my rating too seriously -- but I always give my personal reaction to the book at hand. In this case, 2.5 stars, rounded up for a noble effort. Plus, he writes well and isn't boring. But I'm clearly not his intended audience! WSJ ran a rave review, https://www.wsj.com/articles/major-la... (Paywalled. As always, I'm happy to email a copy to non-subscribers) Excerpt: "Mr. Sanneh, a staff writer for the New Yorker, gets high marks both for his encyclopedic knowledge and his breadth of taste. He also writes like an angel, making Major Labels one of the best books of its kind in decades ... Mr. Sanneh is rightly skeptical of art that operates within a deliberately 'cramped range' that limits its ability to be 'rowdy and messy.' This sentiment is as close as this remarkably judgment-free writer comes to an overall aesthetic principle: that the only thing music has to do is be exciting ... His book succeeds for many reasons, one of which is that each encyclopedic chapter is divided into 10 or a dozen sections, each with its own subtitle: Bite-size chunks, as it were, are the only workable format for this feast. Mr. Sanneh also has a gift for zingers. " [excerpt from Book Marks website]

  4. 5 out of 5

    Laura

    As a fan of many different genres of popular music, I found this book to be fascinating. I learned many new things in each chapter, and even those chapters that were about genres that aren't necessarily my favorite, I enjoyed! Sanneh makes you think, throughout the book, about how we tend to build identities around the music we love (and consequently, the music we don't)- and I found that to be an endlessly interesting thought path to wander down. I'm still thinking about it! Lastly, I really ap As a fan of many different genres of popular music, I found this book to be fascinating. I learned many new things in each chapter, and even those chapters that were about genres that aren't necessarily my favorite, I enjoyed! Sanneh makes you think, throughout the book, about how we tend to build identities around the music we love (and consequently, the music we don't)- and I found that to be an endlessly interesting thought path to wander down. I'm still thinking about it! Lastly, I really appreciated how clearly Sanneh loves music of all different types. It comes through in his writing and I'm certain that's one of the reasons this book was so fun to read (similar to how certain teachers who are passionate about the subject they teach are more engaging and easier to learn from than those who aren't.) I thought it was wonderful that he advocated for loving music just because you love it; his explorations of hip-hop, pop, and dance music were especially illuminating in this respect. Extremely well written and a terrific read!

  5. 4 out of 5

    Cat

    probably my favorite nonfiction book that came out this year, incredibly helpful to me as a music journo and also a general consumer of music

  6. 4 out of 5

    Erik

    Kelefa Sanneh's Major Labels is a remarkable and comprehensive survey of the seven major genres of contemporary music, their origins, and their intersections. Starting with Rock and Roll, Sanneh traces the ways that the various genres of music grew out of each other and added nuance and variety to each other, as well. Rock grew out of early jazz, rhythm and blues, and gave us everything from soft rock to grunge and metal. And while rock developed into a genre dominated by white artists, Black art Kelefa Sanneh's Major Labels is a remarkable and comprehensive survey of the seven major genres of contemporary music, their origins, and their intersections. Starting with Rock and Roll, Sanneh traces the ways that the various genres of music grew out of each other and added nuance and variety to each other, as well. Rock grew out of early jazz, rhythm and blues, and gave us everything from soft rock to grunge and metal. And while rock developed into a genre dominated by white artists, Black artists made strides in Hip-Hop and R&B, but also made significant contributions in dance, where Black artists have us House and Techno. In all of this Sanneh nicely combines conversations on music history with the ways in which music and society affect each other. Sanneh is truly a master, and Major Labels is truly a masterpiece of history and cultural commentary. Sanneh manages to highlight and discuss such disparate genres as Country and Hip-Hop with care and respect, shining light on the fact that all of these genres, though they may not be of your personal taste, contribute to our general social consciousness. Yet, there was one section where I feel Sanneh faltered: the final section on Pop music. While he does a nice job discussing the history and creation of a "pop" genre, he fails at discussing pop music in the 21st century, by, for example, discussing Katy Perry more than he did Lady Gaga, the single artist who revolutionized the genre. Nonetheless, Major Labels is a masterpiece that any fan of Rock, R&B, Country, Punk, Hip-Hop, Dance, and/or Pop must read.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Kelly

    An outstanding read about the history of music through seven genres. Sanneh, a former critic for the New York Times, offers a deeply-researched, well-crafted, and utterly compelling read, even about genres that may not be familiar to those picking up the book. It's passionate about music, where the roots of each genre emerged, and, ultimately, how these genres have built from one another to create where we are musically today -- listeners who love old classics, who've reclaimed formerly criticiz An outstanding read about the history of music through seven genres. Sanneh, a former critic for the New York Times, offers a deeply-researched, well-crafted, and utterly compelling read, even about genres that may not be familiar to those picking up the book. It's passionate about music, where the roots of each genre emerged, and, ultimately, how these genres have built from one another to create where we are musically today -- listeners who love old classics, who've reclaimed formerly criticized artists, and able to find what we love in the click of a button, as opposed to buying into a full album and hoping for that serendipity to happen. As much as this is about music, it's equally about criticism and what makes someone love music. What is criticism today, anyway? The insight Sanneh offers is about the changing face of music journalism, the ways in which criticism has had to shift because of the freelance model, wherein those who are predisposed to like something are given the chance to write about it; this isn't a bad thing, as a reviewer doesn't need to spend as much time learning history and context, and it's not a bad thing because it means the right listeners will find it. But it's also changed WHAT criticism is, and it's allowed for a "reclaiming" of earlier criticism, too -- just look at how Pitchfork recently decided to revise ratings they'd given older albums as they realized they were wrong. This is a book for music lovers, for those who want music history, as well as those who are eager for a perspective that isn't white and male and old: Sanneh is a Gen X Black writer and his perspective is so refreshing. I listened on audio, performed by the author, and I really do think books about music deserve to be listened to. I wasn't at all disappointed in this one and wish I could keep listening to it.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Jodi

    I cannot figure out this book's intended audience. This one bored the daylights out of me. It gives a vast, but shallow look at the history of popular music for the past fifty years. As a pop music fan this offered zero new information hence the boredom. So people like me are not the audience. Is this for new fans? Are they gonna pick up a 500-page book that only gives very brief, cursory information? Who knows. This one was a disappointment. I cannot figure out this book's intended audience. This one bored the daylights out of me. It gives a vast, but shallow look at the history of popular music for the past fifty years. As a pop music fan this offered zero new information hence the boredom. So people like me are not the audience. Is this for new fans? Are they gonna pick up a 500-page book that only gives very brief, cursory information? Who knows. This one was a disappointment.

  9. 5 out of 5

    mak

    A lot of Major Labels was truly fascinating---I loved reading about the way different genres formed and developed over time, and found Sanneh's argument regarding the meaninglessness of labels and genres in a world where music and music-making is so thoroughly collaborative to be compelling. But there are glaring omissions that I cannot overlook, especially towards the end, particularly when it came to the final chapter on pop. Sanneh's disinterest in pop is obvious. While he devotes an entire c A lot of Major Labels was truly fascinating---I loved reading about the way different genres formed and developed over time, and found Sanneh's argument regarding the meaninglessness of labels and genres in a world where music and music-making is so thoroughly collaborative to be compelling. But there are glaring omissions that I cannot overlook, especially towards the end, particularly when it came to the final chapter on pop. Sanneh's disinterest in pop is obvious. While he devotes an entire chapter to rock and delves into extensive detail about its various sub-genres (going so far as to give punk---an obsession of his young-adult years---its own chapter), the history of pop is scattered and surface-level, the 2000s and 2010s omitted altogether aside from a passing mention of Katy Perry. Instead, Sanneh spends a majority of the time defining pop in contrast to rock, ruminating on what makes music "good" or "bad," "respectable" or "disposable." Though these are interesting ideas to consider, I wish they had been explored elsewhere, and pop in its twenty-first century incarnation was investigated more thoroughly. For the most part, as promised by the title, the book does follow the journeys of seven major genres over the last fifty years, although at times it glosses over the past two decades. What becomes immediately clear, however, are the genres most beloved to Sanneh, and the questions and controversies that excite him. Occasionally he veers off and relates seemingly obscure anecdotes about people in the music industry he knew, or past articles he wrote that sparked somewhat of a debate. I don't mind the personal reflections---up to a point. After a while it begins to feel like credential-dropping; Sanneh mentions, repeatedly, the various esteemed publications he has worked at, as though to emphasize his credibility. Worse still, is his frustrating commitment to impartiality: Sanneh refuses to take a stance on moral conflicts, presenting both sides as valid, often giving the benefit of the doubt to what is blatant racism, sexism, or anti-semitism. I know this review is largely critical, but there was much of this book I did enjoy. Major Labels has exposed me to genres and musicians I had previously dismissed or knew little about, and Sanneh's passion for music is delightful and contagious. I suppose that my biggest criticism is rather telling: that I wanted even more---of pop, and of music in the modern day, to be precise. Perhaps that will be its own book. Until then, this one will have to suffice. 3.5/5

  10. 4 out of 5

    Jennifer Schultz

    Read if you: Want an entertaining, very opinionated, and rollicking journey through the last 40+ years of music. When I learned that Kelefa Sanneh is a black Gen X-er, I was doubly excited for this book. I enjoy reading books about (popular) music history, but so often, the authors are from the Boomer generation (not being anti-Boomer!) ,and give scant attention to pop/rock music post Beatles (and little regard for genres outside that). Sanneh goes beyond the Top 40 to examine country, R&B, EDM, Read if you: Want an entertaining, very opinionated, and rollicking journey through the last 40+ years of music. When I learned that Kelefa Sanneh is a black Gen X-er, I was doubly excited for this book. I enjoy reading books about (popular) music history, but so often, the authors are from the Boomer generation (not being anti-Boomer!) ,and give scant attention to pop/rock music post Beatles (and little regard for genres outside that). Sanneh goes beyond the Top 40 to examine country, R&B, EDM, punk, and rap. Of course, there will be readers that wish he had focused more on certain genres or artists. That's to be expected with books about entertainment. And there will likely be more sections that keep the reader's interest longer than others. However--this is one of the most balanced and fascinating books on modern music history that I've read in several years. Librarians/booksellers: Definitely purchase to round out your music historuy collection. Many thanks to Penguin Group and NetGalley for a digital review copy in exchange for an honest review.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Nev

    This was a great overview of different music genres and how they’ve evolved over the years. It was interesting to read about all the different subgenres within the 7 major genre categories, but also the similarities between the major genres. My favorite sections were the ones about punk, R&B, and hip hop. While I do love rock music, that one felt like it was a lot of information I was mostly already aware of. While the punk section had a lot more of the author’s opinions and experiences rather t This was a great overview of different music genres and how they’ve evolved over the years. It was interesting to read about all the different subgenres within the 7 major genre categories, but also the similarities between the major genres. My favorite sections were the ones about punk, R&B, and hip hop. While I do love rock music, that one felt like it was a lot of information I was mostly already aware of. While the punk section had a lot more of the author’s opinions and experiences rather than just a history lesson. For R&B and hip hop, I was aware of the major names but I also felt like I learned a lot about artists who I’d never heard of before. I was a little bit letdown by the section on pop music. It was more focused on how professional critics have reviewed and analyzed pop music in comparison with rock music rather than just being about pop music itself. There was obviously some commentary on the music, but I just wanted more. But all in all I had a great time reading this book.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Mark Schlatter

    I love the concept of genre. I like classifying things and realizing when they can't be classified, and I adore how works redefine what a genre is or what a new genre should be. This work is all about genre in music (as Sanneh puts it, it is "literally generic"). More importantly to me, it focuses on seven genres (rock, R&B, country, punk, hip-hop, dance, and pop) not from a music theoretical perspective, but from the perspectives of audiences and critics. That is, Sanneh discusses the genres as I love the concept of genre. I like classifying things and realizing when they can't be classified, and I adore how works redefine what a genre is or what a new genre should be. This work is all about genre in music (as Sanneh puts it, it is "literally generic"). More importantly to me, it focuses on seven genres (rock, R&B, country, punk, hip-hop, dance, and pop) not from a music theoretical perspective, but from the perspectives of audiences and critics. That is, Sanneh discusses the genres as defined by the people listening to the music. So, for example, something is rock because it shows a "rock aesthetic" (which could range from a sense of musical rebellion to a need to celebrate artists from the 1960's to a portrayal of "authenticity"), not because it was made with an electric guitar and a wah-wah pedal. And the result is seven fascinating stories about culture writ large and the minutiae of subcultures, all while covering practically every major advancement in popular music since the 1970's. So, for example, I learned about the birth of "outlaw country" with Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, the concerns about depictions of male sexuality in R&B (and the impact of those depictions on Marvin Gaye and Luther Vandross), and the amazing similarities between the Grateful Dead and the EDM movement. And while Sanneh foregrounds music criticism contemporaneous with the music, he still brings a current perspective by looking at impacts of gender and race on how the music was perceived. The result is a fascinating study of what musical genre means and how culture evolves while packed with stories that I read aloud to my wife on a regular basis. Highly recommended if you are a music or cultural analysis fan. I may end up buying this.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Lindsay

    I watched a lot of Behind the Music as a kid - probably spent way too much time parked in front of Much More Music - and this reminded me of that... but better. I was already familiar with quite a bit of the history, but really appreciated Kelefa Sanneh's nuance, his in-depth understanding of the music, and his focus on broader cultural moments, race and identity, and his own personal history as music critic. How did these genres come to be and why do they fall in and out of fashion? How do we d I watched a lot of Behind the Music as a kid - probably spent way too much time parked in front of Much More Music - and this reminded me of that... but better. I was already familiar with quite a bit of the history, but really appreciated Kelefa Sanneh's nuance, his in-depth understanding of the music, and his focus on broader cultural moments, race and identity, and his own personal history as music critic. How did these genres come to be and why do they fall in and out of fashion? How do we decide what music we like, and why do we become adamantly opposed to certain music? How do genres intersect and overlap and give rise to new music unlike anything anybody has heard before? "Human beings tend to disagree about music because human beings are disagreeable. When we complain about music what we are really complaining about is other people." Thoroughly enjoyed and the audiobook was excellent.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Nikhil Sethi

    I can't imagine how difficult it is to condense over 50 years of music history across seven genres into a single book, but somehow Sanneh manages to create an extremely educational and fascinating work that includes much of his own personal experiences as a music fan and critic. Even though our tastes don't align perfectly, I'm interested in digging into his back catalog of music reviews. I can't imagine how difficult it is to condense over 50 years of music history across seven genres into a single book, but somehow Sanneh manages to create an extremely educational and fascinating work that includes much of his own personal experiences as a music fan and critic. Even though our tastes don't align perfectly, I'm interested in digging into his back catalog of music reviews.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Phillip Johnson

    A thorough history/survey of pretty much every genre of American popular music. I didn't really learn anything because I'm a huge nerd already, but I enjoyed reading it. A thorough history/survey of pretty much every genre of American popular music. I didn't really learn anything because I'm a huge nerd already, but I enjoyed reading it.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Andrea

    This was just a lot of fun! I've been listening to more music podcasts and watching music docs recently and really appreciated this take on genre and how it overlaps and evolves. Sanneh is a New Yorker journalist and is just a year or two older than me, so our music references are the same. But where I love music, Sanneh REALLY loves music and it shows. I especially like the chapter on punk, because that's his real love and he gets excited about it. This is a lot but also not...really just the rig This was just a lot of fun! I've been listening to more music podcasts and watching music docs recently and really appreciated this take on genre and how it overlaps and evolves. Sanneh is a New Yorker journalist and is just a year or two older than me, so our music references are the same. But where I love music, Sanneh REALLY loves music and it shows. I especially like the chapter on punk, because that's his real love and he gets excited about it. This is a lot but also not...really just the right number of examples for each genre and nothing too obscure (to me). Sanneh narrates this and does a fine job. He's enthusiastic and appreciative.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Scott Walker

    Too American and my man Kelefa is clueless. After he claimed imagine dragons were the biggest rock bank of the 2010s it was hard to keep trudging on I must admit.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Robert

    If you want an education in American, non-classical music of the last 50 years, here you go. Not music theory, not the business or the production, but a thoughtful and most importantly, open minded consideration of just about every genre of music that has emerged in the last century. As a professed music snob, I found my narrow mindedness graduall eroding as I read chapters about country music and pop. I was surprised at my own pretensions, and the author's years of intelligent music criticism h If you want an education in American, non-classical music of the last 50 years, here you go. Not music theory, not the business or the production, but a thoughtful and most importantly, open minded consideration of just about every genre of music that has emerged in the last century. As a professed music snob, I found my narrow mindedness graduall eroding as I read chapters about country music and pop. I was surprised at my own pretensions, and the author's years of intelligent music criticism helped me to see things in a new light. In fact, it has to be said that a big part of this book is it's exploration of music appreciation and criticism itself. On the surface, the book is organized with a chapter for each of the big genres: one for rock, country, punk, hip-hop, r and B etc. So honestly it should really have been called 'Major Genres' but I supposed that is much less catchy. In each chapter, he gives a bit of a chronology of how that type of music came to be, where it came from, and explores what defines it and why. So it's also, inevitably, a cultural study of America (a little bit of britain but the book is unabashedly american). I personally really appreciated his own described journey to greater open-mindedness, which I think is the greatest gift of this wonderful book. I followed alone by listening to songs in each chapter, trying to hear what he means about stuff I've never heard before, and hearing it with this thoughtful ear, rather than my usual way - which is just listening to what might appeal to my own tastes - really did show me that there is much to appreciate in almost everything, academically anyway. I liked most his chapter on punk. If you only read this chapter, it would be well worth it - because that is where his teenage passion and early adult obsession lay, and he therefore has good personal stories and insight into that genre that are very lacking in the country music chapter (which, to be fair, he does appear to have learned to truly enjoy). As a music geek, I would highly recommend this book. It is smart, insightful, and has grown me as an appreciator of not just music, but perhaps necessarily then, of the people who might enjoy music that I previously poo-pooed, and therefore, I can see that this book has arguable left me as a less judgmental and better person. I can see the appreciation of popular music as suddenly much wider than I had imagined it would be for me, with the possibility of exploring and enjoying anything, while still holding my own discernments and honest passion to what just moves me in a deep way. Thank you to Kelefa Sanneh for a really excellent study - i have bought one for my music loving friend and may buy more.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Amanda

    It took a minute to get into this book and it requires a commitment, but once committed -- I loved it. Sanneh chronicles seven genres of popular music, post-Beatles, and Sanneh provides a pretty extensive history of each genre within the last fifty years. Someone like me, who pays some attention to popular music, will recognize and enjoy the history. Sanneh also delves -- heavily -- into what makes a genre a genre, paying attention to the identities and attitudes of the genre's adherents. I love It took a minute to get into this book and it requires a commitment, but once committed -- I loved it. Sanneh chronicles seven genres of popular music, post-Beatles, and Sanneh provides a pretty extensive history of each genre within the last fifty years. Someone like me, who pays some attention to popular music, will recognize and enjoy the history. Sanneh also delves -- heavily -- into what makes a genre a genre, paying attention to the identities and attitudes of the genre's adherents. I love thinking about genre and what creates one, and, as a peer of Sanneh in age, I found that his reflections and analysis of the genres felt accurate and thought-provoking. Parts of this book brought me so much joy -- just that tour through the histories of music in general was wonderful. Sanneh's essay excerpts on punk were what drew me to the book, but I enjoyed his depth and personal experiences with all of the genres. I also enjoyed thinking about the idea that when we disparage listeners of a particular genre, we are moreso disparaging the people who listen to that genre, and also thinking about the idea that we might not want to "party" with those who enjoy that genre, if that makes sense. Any music listener who can put forth the commitment to almost 500 pages of popular music history and analysis will enjoy this book.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Sam

    Doesn’t really go anywhere. Sort of like a long Wikipedia entry.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Adam

    Tremendous. Terrific. Triumphant. An absolute tour de force of music and culture writing, Major Labels spends 450 pages chronicling the last 50 years of music history across seven major genres. A celebrated music writer of considerable acclaim and influence in his own right, Sanneh brings his full range of talents and insight to the table, and the result is a masterpiece. Truly, I am astonished and taken aback by the level of depth and clarity presented in this book. At times, I was impressed that Tremendous. Terrific. Triumphant. An absolute tour de force of music and culture writing, Major Labels spends 450 pages chronicling the last 50 years of music history across seven major genres. A celebrated music writer of considerable acclaim and influence in his own right, Sanneh brings his full range of talents and insight to the table, and the result is a masterpiece. Truly, I am astonished and taken aback by the level of depth and clarity presented in this book. At times, I was impressed that Sanneh and I had come to the same conclusions about music. At other times, I was furious that his book gets to present these thoughts before my own memoir is published. And at still other times, I was bowled over by the tower of interlocking critiques of the artists, fans, and the music industry insiders he delivered - while still coming across as an intense lover of music. In fact, it’s that occasional burst of details from Sanneh’s life that helps set this book apart from others like it. While the book is not a memoir in any sense, his own story serves at different junctures as an invitation, magnet, and anchor for this innovative treatise about the past, present, and future of popular music in the Western canon. I could not recommend this book more highly to music fans who enjoy thoughtful criticism and engaging explorations of history.

  22. 5 out of 5

    James (JD) Dittes

    Major Labels is a major work that will appeal to anyone who is a fan of American music. This is a book with the scope of three: a birds-eye look at music history in the Rock/Pop era--roughly 1960 to the present; a review of music criticism over the decades; and a deeply personal reflection on the development of a music critic. Sanneh goes for the wide view on history. Fans of particular genres would be better served with more in-depth looks in other books. But the breadth of the genres he covers m Major Labels is a major work that will appeal to anyone who is a fan of American music. This is a book with the scope of three: a birds-eye look at music history in the Rock/Pop era--roughly 1960 to the present; a review of music criticism over the decades; and a deeply personal reflection on the development of a music critic. Sanneh goes for the wide view on history. Fans of particular genres would be better served with more in-depth looks in other books. But the breadth of the genres he covers makes learning possible on every page. I particularly enjoyed the chapters on rhythm & blues and dance music. I found myself taking breaks from the readings to look up songs on Spotify that Sanneh had referenced. Sanneh's review of music criticism runs deeper and serves as a connective fiber on narratives that--in the case of country, rock, and soul, span decades. At first I was taken aback when Sanneh's first-person accounts would enter the narrative, but I came to really enjoy this aspect of the writing. Sanneh shows how he identified with punk music in high school and college, and he also traces his history with hip-hop and rap music. He recounds concerts he attended, and how his impressions of artists have changed over time. This personal take adds to a rich narrative and provides useful insights into criticism. I can't recommend this book enough. I have already passed my copy along to a fellow music-lover.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Joey Valdez

    Kelefa Sanneh provides a compelling thesis at the start of Major Labels: a historical argument for the maintenance of genres in a world where artists have and continue to shirk the constraints of genre classifications in both statements of purpose and execution. That's not really what this book is. It, unfortunately, starts off to a rocky start (sincerely, no pun intended) with a brief history of the evolution of "rock" music. At first I thought my lack of interest and pleasure in reading this s Kelefa Sanneh provides a compelling thesis at the start of Major Labels: a historical argument for the maintenance of genres in a world where artists have and continue to shirk the constraints of genre classifications in both statements of purpose and execution. That's not really what this book is. It, unfortunately, starts off to a rocky start (sincerely, no pun intended) with a brief history of the evolution of "rock" music. At first I thought my lack of interest and pleasure in reading this section was because of my personal history of growing attached to music as an art form both in creation and criticism via the rock genre, making this chapter feel like little more than one step above a few Wikipedia summaries aside from some interesting conversations around the manifestation and responses to misogyny in rock music and its audiences. I give Sanneh the benefit of the doubt, though, since rock music is increasingly the least interesting popular music genre to write about, since the most interesting pieces of rock music that fit into the context of the "pure" genre's history are decades old at this point, leaving decades of discourse and little untrodden ground for interesting and novel commentary. However, the R&B chapter came with its own problems, not the least of which is the unnecessarily lengthy amount of time Sanneh dedicates to both his self-proclaimed me culpa over incorrectly predicting an uneventful future for Beyoncé and an extensive summary of the history of sexual misconduct/assault allegations against artists like R. Kelly, Michael Jackson, and Chris Brown. Maybe I'm speaking for myself here, but I would think that anyone picking up a music history book doesn't need to be caught up to speed on the most infamous scandals in contemporary music history, and it certainly does not need to take up so much space in what is supposedly a history of the R&B genre, unless one desires to consider the ugly question of why Sanneh felt that mentioning these disgusting acts of these artists are necessary in what ostensibly is cataloging a history of the genre rather some of the abusers that comprise shameful parts of its whole. This problem is exacerbated by the recognition that very little time is dedicated to discussing the contemporary artists that dominate R&B, as well as the larger conversation of why R&B is criticized for arguably functioning as a device for the exclusion of African American artists from the pop genre despite "R&B" hits checking all of the prerequisites that one would formulate for what constitutes "pop music." A similar misstep occurs in the country chapter, which somehow completely omits mention of Sturgill Simpson, one of the most prominent critics of the contemporary mainstream country music establishment and its hypocritical snubbing of recognizing the foundational figures of country music until their image can be used to garner views for the CMAs in a saccharine "In Memorium" segment. It's not like Simpson is an obscurity in the genre, either: his album A Sailor's Guide to Earth was a surpise nominee for Album of the Year at the 2017 Grammy Awards. However, I only harp on all of this to emphasize that this book disappointed me greatly for a large portion of its beginning, and redeemed itself further once it started discussing subjects that are clearly nearer and dearer to Sanneh's heart: punk music, pop music, and what it means to be a critic. If any of those topics interest you, go ahead and pick up this book and skip ahead to the punk chapter and read everything after. The dance music chapter was the best example of Sanneh living up to his promise (after all, isn't it odd that we have a genre known as "dance music?"). His final chapter is necessary reading for anyone remotely curious about music criticism. Otherwise, don't feel the need to read the whole thing. My hope is that I did it so you won't have to.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Matt Madurski

    There's a lot to like about this book. Given the depth of the material (50 years of music, discussed in seven parts by genre), the author does a terrific job addressing myriad trends and musicians with ease. The narrative never feels like he had to cram in a bunch of information to get the points across; in other words, this was an efficient cross-section of contemporary music history. I appreciated the author's inclusion of his own music experience, and how that threaded the narrative as well. I There's a lot to like about this book. Given the depth of the material (50 years of music, discussed in seven parts by genre), the author does a terrific job addressing myriad trends and musicians with ease. The narrative never feels like he had to cram in a bunch of information to get the points across; in other words, this was an efficient cross-section of contemporary music history. I appreciated the author's inclusion of his own music experience, and how that threaded the narrative as well. It added a personal depth to the discussion, and I think everyone who reads this will either relate to his experiences or be able to find their own moments as he discusses different musical genres. (I personally relate strongly to his punk rock awakening, though I never got quite as deep into the underground music of the genre as he did). If you enjoy music and ruminate on the evolution of your favorites genre over time, this will be a fun read for you. I learned a lot, not just about music itself, but the industry that distributes it. Very good, well-researched book. Five stars for sure!

  25. 4 out of 5

    Trevor Seigler

    This might be the most fun I've had reading a book about multiple genres of music in a long, long time. Insightful, exhaustive (but never exhausting), filled with anecdotes and critiques that I nod my head along to or feel inclined to investigate further, "Major Labels" is the sort of music-history book that doesn't seem to get written so much anymore. Kelefa Sanneh, formerly a pop-music critic for "The New York Times" and now a writer for The New Yorker, is just a superbly talented writer, and This might be the most fun I've had reading a book about multiple genres of music in a long, long time. Insightful, exhaustive (but never exhausting), filled with anecdotes and critiques that I nod my head along to or feel inclined to investigate further, "Major Labels" is the sort of music-history book that doesn't seem to get written so much anymore. Kelefa Sanneh, formerly a pop-music critic for "The New York Times" and now a writer for The New Yorker, is just a superbly talented writer, and his look at seven of the most important genres of music (rock, R&B, punk, hip-hop, dance, and pop) is a fantastic and entertaining journey through the history of popular music, with a profoundly astute guide.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Dave Allen

    A really interesting music history, both broad and granular. Combines the deep research and thesis-driven structure of academic inquiry with compact but evocative descriptions of sounds heard and their stylistic evolution, with just enough personal history/memoiristic writing to ground it in something specific (which nods to, in a way, how deeply people felt people's musical opinions are, in terms of both what they love and what they hate). KS, a fantastic writer I've admired for years, looks at A really interesting music history, both broad and granular. Combines the deep research and thesis-driven structure of academic inquiry with compact but evocative descriptions of sounds heard and their stylistic evolution, with just enough personal history/memoiristic writing to ground it in something specific (which nods to, in a way, how deeply people felt people's musical opinions are, in terms of both what they love and what they hate). KS, a fantastic writer I've admired for years, looks at those in the music industry who have been genre police without acting as one himself. Interesting to see Billboard charts and various songs' and artists' positions as a metric throughout - what's popular at any given time can really be illustrative, or really weird, or both!

  27. 5 out of 5

    Jamie Donovan

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. Good music books are (personally) very hard to come by. I don't particularly care for a detailed biography of individuals, nor such a broad sweep that it only mentions the artists that broke through to cultural and popular acclaim. This absolute mammoth of a book (19 hours on audible) strikes a brilliant balance - drawing the broad sweep of seven genres - whilst diving into sanneh's own history and personal favourites. I especially enjoyed the chapters on punk and dance - especially as Kelefa gr Good music books are (personally) very hard to come by. I don't particularly care for a detailed biography of individuals, nor such a broad sweep that it only mentions the artists that broke through to cultural and popular acclaim. This absolute mammoth of a book (19 hours on audible) strikes a brilliant balance - drawing the broad sweep of seven genres - whilst diving into sanneh's own history and personal favourites. I especially enjoyed the chapters on punk and dance - especially as Kelefa grew up as a black man listening to traditionally white music. I think I'll be relistening to this soon to squeeze everything out of it!

  28. 4 out of 5

    Jake

    I admit I only picked this one up because the back cover contained endorsements from Chuck Klosterman and David Letterman, and I was not disappointed. As the title indicates, Sanneh has written a wide-ranging and definitive guide to the last 50 years of music. He tells the stories of each genre in an entertaining and easy to read format where each chapter is broken down into shorter essays that flow together. I have a new list of music, artists, albums and tracks that I want to listen to after r I admit I only picked this one up because the back cover contained endorsements from Chuck Klosterman and David Letterman, and I was not disappointed. As the title indicates, Sanneh has written a wide-ranging and definitive guide to the last 50 years of music. He tells the stories of each genre in an entertaining and easy to read format where each chapter is broken down into shorter essays that flow together. I have a new list of music, artists, albums and tracks that I want to listen to after reading this one. Perfect for anyone who enjoys music, and wants to learn more about how everything is connected.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Leane

    Entertaining, thoughtful and accessible style from a music writer who knows his stuff. Especially helpful to anyone who wants to understand what the appeal is for fans of any of the 7 genres covered, but I found it most enlightening about Punk & Hip-Hop because I was least familiar with them. I will sample now with some understanding. We'll see where that goes. Sanneh covers the history of each genre without stultifying the reader with dry facts, weaving the discography with the timelines and ar Entertaining, thoughtful and accessible style from a music writer who knows his stuff. Especially helpful to anyone who wants to understand what the appeal is for fans of any of the 7 genres covered, but I found it most enlightening about Punk & Hip-Hop because I was least familiar with them. I will sample now with some understanding. We'll see where that goes. Sanneh covers the history of each genre without stultifying the reader with dry facts, weaving the discography with the timelines and artists as well as musical journalists, critics and fans (including his own anecdotes). Not for those readers searching for gossip on artists and the music business but will interest others searching for a comprehension of the changing of popular tastes and the different take on appeal between fans and critics. Very edifying.

  30. 5 out of 5

    kyle

    3.5 stars. Impeccably researched and thought-out. You find out immediately that Kelefa is a trustworthy biographer for these genres and he doesn’t make this as dry and heavy as it could be! Seriously though, what the fuck is the Pop chapter? It seemed like it was meant to be about something entirely different and then they titled it “Pop.” Anyone who is diving into this book, beware, this is a long as fuck read. I kind of marathoned it in 5 days and it felt like the only thing that occupied my fr 3.5 stars. Impeccably researched and thought-out. You find out immediately that Kelefa is a trustworthy biographer for these genres and he doesn’t make this as dry and heavy as it could be! Seriously though, what the fuck is the Pop chapter? It seemed like it was meant to be about something entirely different and then they titled it “Pop.” Anyone who is diving into this book, beware, this is a long as fuck read. I kind of marathoned it in 5 days and it felt like the only thing that occupied my free-time.

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