Playlist: The Rebels and Revolutionaries of Sound

  • James Rhodes
  • Candlewick, 2019

James Rhodes’ book Playlist: The Rebels and Revolutionaries of Sound offers an exuberant discussion of some of the biggest classical composers — Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, et al. — and positions them as we position the biggest names in music today. As evidence for his argument, Rhodes has compiled a Spotify playlist with two standout compositions from each composer, performed by star musicians (including Rhodes himself).

In addition, the physical presentation of the text is heady, almost psychedelic, using riotous colour, collage, and overprinting to radically refresh familiar representations of the composers. The typography is bold and directive. Even the book’s dimensions recall the size of vinyl record albums — slyly suggesting the meeting of the classic and the contemporary. It’s an astonishing package for upper elementary and junior high readers.

The text itself is well built, with a fabulous reach. Rhodes drops names from many styles of current popular music, encouraging readers to discard stereotypes and understand the composers as outliers in their own historical moments. Rhodes treats each composer compactly; the discussion is supported by a glossary and an index. But the standout component of this book is the playlist itself, supported by Rhodes’ passionate unpacking of what listeners are hearing. These selections offer fabulous opportunities for music education. Students can connect sounds and rhythms to their own listening backgrounds and preferences; students may also be launched into voluntarily listening to more classical music when they realize how often its themes and motifs appear in today’s soundscape. Even if readers disagree with Rhodes’ selections or interpretations, the very discussion will help to demystify music that can be life-changing.

I am thoroughly impressed by Playlist. Kudos to the author and the publisher. This is a valuable book for a generation that needs cultural anchors. Be sure to add it to your school or community library.