Wednesday, April 25, 2007

A New 10 Volume Encyclopedia of Popular Music

Colin Larkin’s Encylopedia of Popular Music is a welcome new addition to our department’s reference desk. This is the 4th edition of a reference book that was originally published as the Guiness Encyclopedia of Popular Music in 1992. The current edition is consists of 8.5 million words published in 10 volumes and includes thousands of entries about singers, songwriters, musical groups, producers, genres, styles, and record labels. In the entries for recording artists, the author has also included an album discography and rating for those albums.

Today many popular music fans have come to rely upon websites like the Wikipedia and Allmusic for information about their favorite bands and musicians. It’s a fair question to ask why they should go to the trouble of visiting the library to consult a weighty reference tome. One reason is that while both of those websites can be very good at covering the most recent popular music, their coverage of earlier time periods can be spotty and unreliable. Another reason is Encyclopedia of Popular Music has a consistent prose style and editorial tone – unlike the Wikipedia, a collectively written source whose entries lack a consistent format or style. Of course, web-based sites will continue to have the one important advantage that they are current and up-to-date.

One suspects that the creators of web articles consult a work like the Encyclopedia of Popular Music because of its size and thoroughness. The author has gone to pains to find birth and death dates and places of most artists. While the source is heavy on Anglo-American pop and rock it also includes many artists from the worlds of jazz, folk, blues and musical theater.

The author is from the United Kingdom and although he rejects the characterization of his work as anglophile, there is a British outlook to the work, not so much in its range of coverage as in its outlook and evaluation of musicians. Writing a favorable article about the San Francisco band American Music Club, he describes them as “one of their country’s most undervalued bands.” In an entry on the Bay Area rapper Paris he cites the artist’s political views, discusses the creation of several recordings and involvement with other recording artists. He also mentions the rapper’s work as a stockbroker (a detail not found in the Wikipedia article on him).

One can always quibble with the coverage of any reference work. For instance, why include one important Bay Area indy band Erase Errata yet omit Deerhoof, another well-known local band? Irregardless of any minor shortcomings, the Encyclopedia of Popular Music is a remarkable reference source that will reward its readers for many years to come.

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