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Publisher's Summary

One of Oprah Daily's 20 Favorite Books of 2021 • Selected as one of Pitchfork's Best Music Books of the Year

“One of the best books of its kind in decades.” (The Wall Street Journal)

An epic achievement and a huge delight, the entire history of popular music over the past 50 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.

©2021 Kelefa Sanneh (P)2021 Penguin Audio

Critic Reviews

Vox's Top Fall Books Not to Miss • A holiday gift guide pick from The Boston Globe, Mental Floss, and Paste

Major Labels [is] ecumenical and all-embracing. . . . [Sanneh] has a subtle and flexible style, and great powers of distillation. . . . The best thing about Sanneh may be that he subtly makes you question your beliefs.”New York Times 

“Sanneh brings a contagious zeal for genres and cross-fertilizations to artists and records that are now playlists for an increasingly diverse America.”—Oprah Daily  

“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.”Wall Street Journal 

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Pure Pleasure Cultural History

I was surprised upon finishing this listen that it was 19 hours long. The time slipped right by as I found myself absorbed in this book's brisk histories. What they lack in comprehensive depth they make up for in clarity and pacing. The chapters on genres I knew little about were as interesting as the ones on genres I know well (played those chapters at double speed). I found myself pausing to call up Spotify to listen to various milestone recordings raised in the narrative. While listeners versed in the genres under discussion might notice some of the leaps that such a broad discussion has to make, skipping over crucial bands (no St. Etienne in the discussion of UK 90s dance culture bummed me out) that does not take away from the pleasure of this work -- its stranger-than-fiction origin stories and the music it will point the listener to along the way.

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Humbling

I can’t tell which of the genres would be the least favorite of the author. The genres that I knew well were covered as completely as I would have wished them to be. By extension, those that I knew less about seemed equally dense, and as carefully detailed. As I am a music fanatic with 8,000 vinyl records; decades of club, wedding, and radio DJing experience; and managed a record store for many years, I still only felt confident in two or three of the genres. As such, I am humbled and amazed at how much time must have been spent working through all seven genres. Bravo, and my sincerest thanks!

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A fascinating experience

I was hooked from the very first sentence. This book was thoroughly researched, expansive, and engaging. The author did a brilliant job reading it as well.

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my favorite listen in a long time

very fun and informative, especially in this format as I was tempted to pause at times and go listen to songs and artists being discussed.

Kelefa has a great critical style of presenting arguments and thoughts in a very casual and disarming way. I learned a lot about genres I had no interest in, some I still wont listen to but even then I found the information and stories behind those genres engaging to listen to.

this is a book ill be recommending to people for the foreseeable future.