Pareles was born in Connecticut. He played jazz flute and piano, and graduated from Yale University with a degree in music. He began working as a music critic in 1977.
In the 1970s, he was an associate editor of Crawdaddy!, where he published his first works (outside school publications); and in the 1980s, an associate editor at Rolling Stone and the music editor at The Village Voice. He started contributing to The Times in 1982. He reviews popular music in the arts section of The Times.