The Rest Is Noise (Alex Ross - 2007)
The Rest Is Noise has been called a work of social history rather than just music history, which is true, but what's most remarkable is how it sticks close to individual human lives, not losing them to the broad strokes. And there are recurring themes in those strokes, all the way to the end, resulting in a sense of how those individuals fit into a big picture that is decidedly opinionated but quite convincing nonetheless. This is exactly what I've been craving, especially after having read so many liner notes that fail to give any useful context. Finally here is a picture of not only how music in the 20th century developed but also who did it and why. Sometimes the 'why' was absurd, and there is a lot that is dryly funny here. The author is honest about people's contradictions, not painting anyone as more than human. Most exciting for me was seeing how ideas cross-pollinated (and repeated) across factions and genres, from the 19th century through to Brian Eno and Bjork.
Across such a long span of time, Ross couldn't include everybody, so my main frustration was wondering how he would have covered the composers he left out, especially greats like Enescu but also characters like Langgaard or Scriabin. In any case, I should have read this a long time ago, and I encourage you to read it even if you are not among the music-obsessed, since music is such a good prism for viewing the history of the 20th century.
Now I that I've read the print version I am thinking I will get the audio version and listen on my commute just to review it. Plus Alex Ross has compiled an audio guide for the book.
Note: this is adapted from my original Goodreads review.