Tuned In To Music

Reflections from a lifetime

Review: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music (5th Concise Edition), Colin Larkin, ed.

It has over 3000 entries, 1600 pages, weighs a little under 6 pounds and is priced at $39.95.  And this is the concise edition.  The full blown version of “The Encyclopedia of epmPopular Music”, currently in its 4th edition, is 10 volumes with over 2700 entries, almost 9000 pages and is priced at just under $1300.  The concise edition is a rich and useful source of information which makes it a shame that the complete edition is priced for libraries and not for individuals who don’t have very deep pockets.  The complete edition is also made available online for a fee.  I have taken out a monthly subscription and will offer a review after I’ve had sufficient time to work with it.  The comments that follow refer to the concise edition only.

The EPM purports to cover all forms of popular music including jazz, folk, latin. etc.  While many of the major names in these fields have entries, coverage is heavily weighted in favor of rock and pop and all of their subdivisions.  The vast majority of entries are for musicians and bands although some producers (e.g., Phil Spector), industry executives (e.g., Ahmet Ertgun), and recording engineers (e.g., Tom Dowd) are also covered.  I’ve found no entries for record labels or genres of music and no lists of any kind (e.g., awards, “best albums” etc.).  Coverage is deep although somewhat idiosyncratic and there are some surprising omissions.  For example, Orson a pop/rock band out of California with one album to their name (they have recently released a second album in the UK) has an entry and Modest Mouse with five albums, four E.P.s and two compilation discs does not.  Coverage is also surprisingly up-to-date considering this is a print resource and the massive scope of the EPM’s subject matter.  For example there are entries for such recently popular bands as Arctic Monkeys and Arcade Fire.

Entries typically begin with biographical information on the artist or band members including birth and, if applicable death, dates and locations and birth names if different from the artist’s stage name.  Prior and/or subsequent band info is often given which can be very useful especially for band members who may not be as well known as the stars.  The artist’s career is summarized and their music is characterized in terms of genre and approach.  Information is often given on top-charting singles and albums for both US and UK charts.  Entries include seperate lists of albums and compilations and many entries also give references for further reading which I find particularly useful.  In addition, some entries also include lists of DVD/Videos and in some cases films.

Reference works for something like the world of popular music face a difficult problem when it comes to critically evaluating their subject matter.  On the one hand, an exhaustive list of credits and nothing else for each artist makes for inordinately boring reading.  The book may serve as an important resource but no one is going to spend any time reading it as opposed to looking things up in it.  On the other hand, a markedly opinionated survey loses all value as an encyclopedia and becomes more of a music review source than an information source.  The EPM seems to strike a very happy medium here.  Although the emphasis is clearly on providing information, most entries are mildly evaluative with a tendency toward saying something nice rather than expressing discontent.  It makes the entries readable and enjoyable without being overly contentious. 

Albums are also rated with a star system that reflects the editors’ view of the place of each album within the artist’s body of work.  In other words, the editors think “Sgt. Pepper’s” (5 stars) is a better album than “Magical Mystery Tour” (4 stars) but are not making any claims about the relative worth of the Beatles albums in comparison with James Brown’s “Live at the Apollo” (5 stars) and “Live at the Apollo Vol. 2” (4 stars).   Although many people seem to like them, I generally pay almost no attention to these sorts of things as I think opinions (including my own) of popular creative works like music are of little value to anyone other than the person who holds them unless you take the time and effort to calibrate your tastes to those of the person expressing the opinion.  The reasons why I (for example) like or dislike this or that artist or album may be useful information to someone interested in the same kind of music; that I simply like this or like it more than that is of no value to anyone but me.

Names that appear in an entry that also have entries of their own are formatted with a bold typeface that is very useful in saving you the time of looking up something you found interesting in one entry only to find it doesn’t have an entry of it’s own.  The book also includes an extensive index of both entries (again presented in bold) and names that appear in the text but do not have seperate entries.  Again, this is a very useful component of the book.

Finally, the EPM seems to me to have something of a mild UK slant in that slightly more attention is given to second-line bands and musicians that were more important in the UK than the US.  As a music listener in the US, I find this a strength because it provides a source of information about a world of music that is more difficult for me to get.  Listeners who have nationalistic prejudices about music may not find it so.

The EPM’s great strength is also it’s great weakness.  It’s coverage, at least of the rock and pop genres, is so good that it comes as an unpleasant surprise when something you want to follow up on isn’t there.  It’s especially annoying knowing that the information you want is probably in the complete edition which is so expensive it’s beyond consideration.  Shame that; I’d buy the complete edition in a heartbeat if it was more (a lot more) reasonably priced.  Maybe the online version will do, we’ll see.  In the meantime, if you’re the kind of person who likes looking something up in a well-written encyclopedia and then losing yourself for hours as one thing leads to another, the EPM is strongly recommended.

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03/12/2008 - Posted by | book reviews, music

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