The 33⅓ series revolutionized the music book. If you’re not familiar with the format, it’s a pocket-sized book series (usually just a little bigger than a CD case), that gives an author free rein to crystallize their favourite albums’ spot in the canon and cut to the quick of what fans want to know: How the album was made, what the principals thought, what the producers contributed, how fans reacted, what else happened while it was made.
In a world where analysis of any kind seems increasingly scarce — but especially music analysis — it’s no surprise that fans of vinyl records and physical media are so drawn to the deep wells of scrutiny and ideas made available by 33⅓. These are basically longer-form liner notes that we spend hours obsessing over. After reading every available volume in 2014, Slate’s Stephanie Burt said of the series, “I’ve learned more than I thought I could learn, and sometimes more than I wanted to learn, about acts I loved and acts I learned to enjoy, acts I discovered and acts I still loathe (sorry, Ween fans).”
No note is left unturned in the quest to discover the intent, feeling, and meaning of each track and how that divine alliance of songs forms the album. Getting beyond the headline act, 33⅓ books often give you a closer look, giving credit to collaborators (there are always many, even when it appears otherwise) who otherwise escape the spotlight, especially studio engineers.
The series was founded in 2003 by editor David Barker and published by Continuum. At the time, Continuum was focusing on philosophers. Barker, a music obsessive, thought the concept would be great applied to albums. As the series started to saunter from its academic roots and adopt more creative interpretations, the future wasn’t looking so bright. Bloomsbury, buoyed by the huge success of Harry Potter, acquired Continuum in 2010 and took it from there.
The series has stuck with its academic ethos. As with most music writing these days, it’s a passion pursuit rather than an economic one. While in the early days the going rate for a 33⅓ volume was $2,000 per book, as author Daphne Carr — who wrote the volume on Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine — put it, “the standard rate is zero dollars, all of which is paid immediately.” In a turn of art imitating art, authors are compensated with royalties, which might not be much, unless it’s picked up by a professor for coursework.
Being anything but strict and prescriptive in the rules for the series, 33⅓ takes the opposite approach, allowing the books to be as creative, experimental, and groundbreaking as their subject matter. It’s allowed music writing to evolve in a way that it couldn’t have otherwise. Some volumes are straight musical analysis; OK Computer’s volume is written by a musicologist at Oxford University and takes quite an academic slant, while the dissection of REM’s Murmur offers linguistic analysis.
Others take heavy strains of personal narrative. Sign O’ The Times takes you on a journey through the author’s personal relationship with the album. Even more tangential is Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey To The End Of Taste. The much talked-about meta-study delves into the status of musical judgement, the history of kitsch, “bad taste,” and the history of Quebec to boot.
Some of the more interesting takes on the 33⅓ imprint put a fictional character or narrator between themselves and the subject. The volume on Band’s Music In The Big Pink from John Niven has been dubbed a “factional novella.” It retells the story of how the album came together through the eyes of the fictional Greg Keltner. Other fictionalized takes include PJ Harvey’s Rid Of Me: A Story, which is a series of short stories by Kate Schatz. Mountain Goats frontman John Darnielle, a former psychiatric nurse, employs therapy notes to retell a character’s love of Ozzy Osbourne in his 33⅓ volume on Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality.
Their 135-book (and growing) catalog is diverse, starting with Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis and covering albums from Sly And The Family Stone, A Tribe Called Quest, Tori Amos, and The Magnetic Fields, to name a few. While more mainstream and already celebrated albums do get a look in, it’s as much about celebrating the underground and giving a voice to the subcultures that don’t necessarily generate the same kind of online traffic as Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj. 33⅓ gives us deeper access to the unsung heroes of modern and alternative landscapes, like My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth, LCD Soundsystem, J Dilla, and Ween.
While many fear that as the pervasiveness of the album declines, a book series like 33⅓ is also under threat. The volume on Talking Heads’ Fear of Music by Jonathan Letham was slated to be the last volume back in 2012, but series editors Ally-Jane Grossan and Barker continue to rally for it. “Just imagine trying to explain Sleater-Kinney to a room full of British publishers who have just concluded a discussion of the potential market for a linguistics monograph on the semiotics of Che Guevara.” Well, I know which I’d rather read.
If anything, the book series is more important than ever in an attention-deficit world, forcing the reader to slow down and think about the album as a whole — the nuances in each song and the work that goes into producing art (both album and book). For a younger generation who perhaps has less appreciation for the album as a cohesive format or understanding of why it should be embraced, it’s a key education piece, and way to communicate with future generations.