The Biographical Dictionary of Popular Music: From Adele to Ziggy, the Real A to Z of Rock and Pop


The Biographical Dictionary of Popular Music is an incredible and opinionated collection of celebrated cultural critic Dylan Jones’s thoughts on more than 350 of the most important artists around the world—alive and dead, big and small, at length and in brief. This A to Z reference is the true musical heir to David Thomson’s seminal The New Biographical Dictionary of Popular Film. Jones writes entertainingly about bands that have inspired, bedeviled, and fascinated him...

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The Biographical Dictionary of Popular Music: From Adele to Ziggy, the Real A to Z of Rock and Pop

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The Biographical Dictionary of Popular Music is an incredible and opinionated collection of celebrated cultural critic Dylan Jones’s thoughts on more than 350 of the most important artists around the world—alive and dead, big and small, at length and in brief. This A to Z reference is the true musical heir to David Thomson’s seminal The New Biographical Dictionary of Popular Film. Jones writes entertainingly about bands that have inspired, bedeviled, and fascinated him over the years.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"A perfect gift for the discerning fanboy in your life."—People

"In his new Biographical Dictionary of Popular Music, Jones has a way to make you smile even when he's taking apart one of your favorite acts, to make you think whether he's celebrating a band or dismissing one."—Salon

"Agree with him or not, Jones' biting criticism makes for lively reading."—The San Francisco Chronicle

"Amazing, brilliant, and absolutely compelling...a knockout."—David Thomson, author of A Biographical Dictionary of Film

"Reference tome? Not so much. Great fun? Absolutely....Perfect for any music lover’s nightstand."—Booklist

“Dylan Jones’ guide to popular music is entertaining, amusing and informative….this is your chance to learn everything there is to know about the music industry.”—Vogue UK

“Whether you’re into rock, indie or good old pop music, this biographical dictionary seems to cover every corner when it comes to modern music….A real musical journey!”—The Star (London)

“Amiably opinionated, funny and revealing, this is a knowingly subjective A-Z of the artists Jones fancies.”—The Daily Telegraph (London)

Kirkus Reviews
Not the comprehensive reference the title promises, but a long-winded volume of music criticism by journalist Jones (When Ziggy Played Guitar: David Bowie and Four Minutes that Shook the World, 2012, etc.), editor of the U.K. version of GQ. The author has written a number of books about music and musicians, mostly of the rock variety. Coming-of-age just about when punk and new wave livened up the music scene in Britain and around the world, Jones shows off his intricate familiarity, particularly with London scenesters from ABC to X-Ray Spex. His tastes, though, seem to have grown more conservative and a bit broader to encompass some jazz, hip-hop and schmaltzy pop. "Like many critics, I tend to have an aversion to any hysterical celebration of the new and the fashionable," writes Jones in the opening of his entry on Gary Numan, "often choosing to be contrary just for the hell of it." This self-conscious awareness of how his words will be taken continues throughout the book, which is not so much a biographical dictionary of popular music as an autobiographical dictionary about pop music's relationship to Jones. The hapless buyer who takes the title seriously and expects a reference book will learn this, and only this, about Crosby, Stills & Nash: "A varnished log cabin." The next entry, for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, reads in its entirety, "A varnished log cabin with an unvarnished door." On Genesis: " ‘The Carpet Crawlers' and ‘Los Endos' are officially the two Genesis songs you're allowed to like." Jones is witty and enjoyable enough in small doses, but the book is filled with odd choices. One of the longest entries is on actress Shirley MacLaine, who gets 13 pages, while Aretha Franklin receives no mention (other than brief appearances in the entries on Michael Hutchence and Dave Stewart). Some choice nuggets hidden among an uneven "reference" book.
Library Journal
While it is by no means a reference classic, this title is a mocking, lively read. Music journalist Jones (Jim Morrison: Dark Star) has created a hefty book with more than 350 entries, some rewritten excerpts and others based on the author's actual interviews. The book is as much about Jones as his subject, not relying on facts and details but rather offering coverage that is shamelessly biased. As he comments in the introduction, "there are dozens of music encyclopedias and many cleverly written […] They're obsessively objective and pathologically comprehensive [whereas] this book is idiosyncratic and opinionated tempered with a bit of objectivity." From Abba to Zappa, the author tracks down his own previous experiences, delving into a variety of artists both legendary and obscure, showcasing his familiarity with many of the entertainers, especially the British ones. The work is chock full of cunning observations, e.g., he quips that, "Hall and Oates had an image problem…Hall looked like a market town hairdresser and Oates Super Mario's smaller brother." The book covers a wide range of topics including Sinatra, Dean Martin, spa music, singing in the shower, funeral music, successful bands with terrible names, and much more. Entry length varies, with George Harrison receiving one and a half pages, Shirley MacLaine garnering 13, and Keith Richard meriting a wordy 23. (Does Shirley MacLaine actually belong in this book?) Perhaps the disproportion is part of the charm. The ebook version offers hyperlinks to the artists' pages on iTunes. Though at times the book drags with meandering passages and banal trivia that is more autobiographical than biographical, the work is undeniably entertaining. VERDICT While libraries will want to maintain more objective comprehensive resources in their music collections, this title could be considered an optional purchase offering humorous material and clever but subjective cultural analysis.—Bobbie Wrinkle, McCracken Cty. P.L., Paducah, KY
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781250031860
  • Publisher: Picador
  • Publication date: 10/30/2012
  • Pages: 912
  • Sales rank: 944,152
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.80 (d)

Meet the Author

DYLAN JONES is the editor in chief of British GQ, where he has won the BSME Editor of the Year Award seven times during his tenure and was recognized for the Innovation/Brand-Building Initiative of the Year award for the annual GQ Men of the Year Awards. Jones has a weekly column in The Mail on Sunday’s magazine supplement and writes regularly for The Spectator. His other works include Jim Morrison: Dark Star; Paul Smith: True Brit; and iPod, Therefore I Am.

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Read an Excerpt



As the foundation of Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side” glides across the stereo, a loop that immediately sounds as though it should come with its very own Lava Lamp, we hear Q-Tip and Phife Dawg shuffle into the picture, gibbering away as though they were in The Goon Show. And suddenly – as if from nowhere – “Can I Kick It?” is in full view. A Tribe Called Quest’s jazz-rap fusions can still play all night, moving from hotel lobby to shebeen to the iPad with ease, and you can dip in and out of their tunes without any great shock to the system. With laid back loops involving Cannonball Adderley, Roy Ayres, the Average White Band, and the Rotary Connection, unperturbing dynamics and the kind of restrained vocals usually associated with the coffee house, ATCQ invented a new kind of hip-hop, a decade after the first kind.

“Nothing was touching Tribe, nothing,” said Pharell Williams of these exponents of jazz-hop fusion, and for a while he was right. There was no boasting with Tribe, and as one critic succinctly put it, they “heralded the advent of a generation of intellectual, philosophical, sociological rappers that investigated the condition of the African-American soul rather than the street epics of gangsters.” Didn’t they just.

Hip-hop had embarked on a lexical inflation game in which each particular sub-genre of gangster rap had to be bigger, badder and more aggressive than the one before, whereas ATCQ were content to roll everything back, turn down the volume and allow things to take their natural course. Perhaps assuming there were many who thought rap was morally and culturally non-nutrient, Tribe created a bouillabaisse that was rich in content, rich in diversity, and diverse in delivery.

Out of Queens they came, all goatees and whispers, a central part of the Native Tongues Posse (a collective that also included De La Soul), surfing a wave of fresh alt hip-hop, determined to mix it up, elegantly fusing rap with jazz and getting justly rich in the process. Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and Jarobi White launched themselves in 1985, and in their first incarnation lasted until 1998. Their first album, People’s Instinctive Travels & The Paths Of Rhythm, was similar to De La Soul’s Three Feet High And Rising in that it celebrated its own eclecticism, not just musically, but lyrically, too, referencing safe sex and vegetarianism, and appearing unembarrassed about having a sense of humour – not something you find often with gangster rap. One reviewer said that record was, “So sweet and lyrical, so user-friendly, you could play it in the background when you’re reading Proust.” This was hip-hop moving from the foreground to the background, from upstage to downstage, from the dancehall to the gallery. With People’s Instinctive Travels & The Paths Of Rhythm, hip-hop crossed the Rubicon of enforced recognition – you no longer had to pay attention to it, you could just listen to it passively. Hip-hop had left the classroom.

As you can see in the award-winning documentary Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels Of A Tribe Called Quest (which kick-started its critical victory lap by winning the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature at the Los Angeles Film Festival), ATCQ fell apart acrimoniously, rather unnecessarily soiling their reputation as one of the most important founding fathers of modern hip-hop.

The iTunes algorithms seem to have produced the right rankings here, and they click with my personal choices: “Can You Kick It?” (obviously, predictably), “Bonita Applebum” from People’s Instinctive Travels & The Paths Of Rhythm, and “Electric Relaxation” from Midnight Marauders.

They have their detractors, too. “ATCQ?” said a friend of mine, when asked. “Like yoga, Starbucks, Banksy, camping, political prisoners, hummus, and Facebook – they’re just more stuff white people like.”


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