Monday, January 3, 2011

Psychobabble's Twenty One Greatest Albums of 1966

Before 1966 the 45 was Rock & Roll’s defining medium. Aside from notable exceptions courtesy of Dylan and The Beatles, LPs were second-class citizens cobbling together recent hits, stray originals, and a heaping helping of cover versions. By the end of ’65, long players such as Rubber Soul, Highway 61 Revisited, and My Generation had created a don’t-look-back situation. Albums would now be labored over with the same level of care and invention as singles, and a pleasantly surprising number of artists were up to the task of supplying an LP’s worth of strong originals. Some made the transition with less ease, but with ample promise they’d make classics in the near future. So fabulous Rock & Roll albums were plentiful for the first time in 1966, and the year still looks like a landmark one for LPs today. Here are twenty-one of the most fabulous landmarks.

21. Daydream by The Lovin Spoonful
By 1966 most bands had finally slowed down the breakneck release schedules more common in the earlier years of Rock & Roll, sweating over masterpieces such as Pet Sounds and Revolver. The Lovin’ Spoonful arrived to the game a bit late and had to make up for lost time. Consequently, ’66 was their most insanely prolific year. The band put out four LPs during the 12-month period between November of ’65 and November of ’66. Released just a few months after Do You Believe in Magic, Daydream is not quite as uniformly spectacular, but the well-known songs— the good timing title track and , the dreamy “Didn’t Want to Have to Do It”, the astoundingly powerful and astoundingly delicate “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice”, and the fuzzy, funky “Jug Band Music”—are among the group’s best recordings. Less essential perhaps, “There She Is” is still a damn good rocker, “It’s Not True” is a slinky blueprint for the future classic “Nashville Cats”, and Warm baby” shimmers with John Sebastian’s autoharp scrapes. The moving “Butchies Tune” is the album’s greatest hidden gem... at least it was until it was used to wonderful effect on an episode of “Mad Men”.

20. Red Rubber Ball by The Cyrkle

The major beats of The Cyrkle’s career were limited to 1966. That year they toured with The Beatles during the Fabs’ final live performances, released their sole hit singles, and recorded their sole two albums. The second of these, Neon, was not released until 1967, by which time The Cyrkle were basically forgotten. The first, released in ’66, housed the hits while dishing up a wonderfully varied banquet of mid-60s pop styles that bridged the gap between the bubblegum of the Paul Simon-penned “Red Rubber Ball” and the tougher, more psychedelic “Turn Down Day”. Those two hits are the album’s best, particularly “Turn Down Day”, which flaunts superb interplay between the bass guitar and the sitar, and presages summer of love sentiments by half a year. Red Rubber Ball offers plenty of other first-rate tracks in the Eastern (“Cry”), breezy Brit-pop (“Why Can’t You Give Me What I Want”, “Baby You’re Free”), ), garage (“There’s a Fire in the Fireplace”), and moody Mersey ballad (“How Can I Leave Her”) styles that scream the spirit of ‘66. “Big Little Woman”, which bears a truly terrible lyric, and a too cute version of the Rock & Roll standard “Boney Moronie” are the only substandard numbers on a record that sums up the breadth of ‘66 quite nicely.

19. For Certain Because… by The Hollies

Although they’re primarily remembered as a top-notch singles act, The Hollies did manage to put together a few strong albums during their mid-60s salad days. The best of these might be For Certain Because…, which catches the band after they’d developed into strong writers of their own material yet before they started overreaching in vain attempts to compete with their more progressive peers. So The Hollies present an eclectic bag of material well within their abilities, storming into the room with the assaultively cheerful “What’s Wrong With the Way I Live?” before cascading into the trippy waltz “Pay You Back With Interest”. Elsewhere, there are mildly exotic and thoroughly groovy numbers like “Tell Me to My Face” and “Stop, Stop, Stop”, a hit single about a guy who gets so horny in a strip club that he has to be dragged out by security! As is the case with every Hollies album, there is one unbearably corny track (“High Classed”), but the rest of For Certain Because… is among the class of ‘66’s finest pop.

18. The Seeds by The Seeds
They couldn’t claim a string of international hits, but The Seeds were LA garage rock royalty, and sitting on the throne was yowling, howling spaceman Sky Saxon. He and his horde—rippling electric pianist Daryl Hooper, fuzz-faced guitarist Jan Savage, and slamming drummer Rick Andridge—spun out two-chord songs simple as nursery rhymes and monstrous as Grimms’ fairy tales. Their eponymous debut is a work of pure excitement, and though they’ve been accused of recording the same song over-and-over, there’s enough blood running through The Seeds to make it a killer record in the Ramones-vein. In fact, tracks such as the single-minded “Pushin’ Too Hard”, the mesmeric noise “Evil Hoodoo”, and the chanting “No Escape” are as punk as anything The Ramones and their brethren did a decade later. The debut single “Can’t Seem to Make You Mine” contrasts the prevailing speed and stomp with a dreamy pace, but it also has Saxon’s most intense vocal as he erupts into anguished primal screams. I wonder if John Lennon was listening. 

17. Yardbirds (aka: Roger the Engineer) by The Yardbirds
As influential as The Yardbirds are, they only released one official studio album in their UK homeland. Their debut Five Live Yardbirds was a live album (duh), and For Your Love and Having a Rave Up were both US-only singles compilations. The group finally released a proper album in 1966, and Yardbirds (known informally as “Roger the Engineer” because of guitarist Chris Dreja’s cover illustration of, errr, Roger the Engineer) is a powerful showcase for Jeff Beck’s innovative guitar work and the group’s swinging blues and Eastern exotica. The album’s most spectacular melding of both these influences can be heard on The Yardbirds’ final hit single, “Over, Under, Sideways, Down”, but “Lost Woman”, “He’s Always There”, and “Rack My Mind” are nearly as exciting. “Ever Since the World Began” and “Turn to Earth” (later covered by Al “Time Passages” Stewart) find The Yardbirds at their most ominous. Still, the album feels transitional in the same way a lot of ’66 LPs do. Mainly a singles band, The Yardbirds couldn’t come up with quite enough material for a masterpiece. The instrumentals “The Nazz are Blue”, “Hot House of Ormagarishid”, and “Jeff’s Boogie” (an uncredited cover of Chuck Berrys Guitar Boogie) are all fun but not tremendously substantial. Beck left shortly after making The Yardbirds, leaving the group in the hands of Jimmy Page, who led it through its most uninspired period before stripping it down and rebuilding it into The New Yardbirds, the Huns we now all know and love as those twelve-sided die rollers, Led Zeppelin.

16. The Monkees by The Monkees

The Monkees received a ton of guff for being lightweight, ersatz Beatles tossed together to cash-in on the success of A Hard Day’s Night with maximum cynicism. As they developed— writing, producing, and performing on their records with greater frequency and confidence— those criticisms were largely invalidated even if the Rock press refused to acknowledge it. Such jerks! Jerky as those too-hip jerks may be, it’s tough to deny that a lot of those gripes ring true on the first Monkees album. Says I: so what? “Music supervisor” Don Kirshner’s goal was to sell records, not establish The Monkees as artists. Yet Kirshner wasn’t the utter villain history suggests. He did allow Monkee Mike Nesmith, who had yet to become a proven hit songwriter (his first smash, The Stone Poney’s “Different Drum”, was still a long way off), to write and produce two tracks, even though he demanded one of them be written in collaboration with Gerry Goffin and Carol King. The result of that reluctant union was “Sweet Young Thing”, a truly far-out fusion of thumping garage rock and wild zydeco that sounded utterly unlike anything in the charts. Nesmith’s solo composition, the joyous Tex-Mex rave-up “Papa Gene’s Blues”, was nearly as unique. The rest of The Monkees is more conventional, although quite a bit manages to transcend the group’s bubblegum image. “Saturday’s Child” is surprisingly heavy and “Tomorrow’s Gonna Be Another Day” is a pretty convincingly bluesy garage rocker. “Let’s Dance On”, a transparent clone of “Twist and Shout”, falls short as a composition but simply cooks as a performance. Even a few of the more bubblegummy numbers take relatively daring chances, such as “Take a Giant Step”, with its mid-song psychedelic freak-out, “This Just Doesn’t Seem to Be My Day”, with its jarring shifts into discordant Turk-Rock and chamber music, and “Last Train to Clarksville”, a jangler about being shipped off to Vietnam that became The Monkees’ first massive hit before their TV show even debuted. The rest of the album is either unbearably sappy or corny, keeping The Monkees from being the great debut it might have been if Kirshner had selected a different track line up.

15. Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme by Simon and Garfunkle

Simon & Garfunkle started moving away from barebones acoustic guitars/vocals arrangements on their second album, Sounds of Silence, and completed their trip from folk to folk-rock on Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme. Still there’s much less Rock in their folk-rock than there is in Dylan or The Byrds. Aside from the bouncy, gnarly “Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine” and the embarrassingly clueless Dylan-gone-electric spoof “A Simple Desultory Philippic (or How I Was Robert McNamara'd into Submission)”, this is a delicate record, though one that often confronts somber subject matter. This is true of the two tracks that have aged the poorest: “7 O’Clock News/Silent Night”, which superimposes the grimmest mid-60s headlines over the famed Christmas carol with heavy-handed irony, and “The Dangling Conversation”, a minor hit that surveys the communication breakdown between a pair of pretentious intellectuals, falling hopelessly into its own pit of pretentiousness in the process. Dopey as it is, “The Dangling Conversation” remains an exquisitely arranged and sung track with the aural expansiveness that is in plentiful supply throughout the record, imbuing “Homeward Bound” and the gorgeous, show-stopping “For Emily, Wherever I May Fine Her” with their cinematic auras of travel through open spaces. Conversely, the candlelit “Scarborough Fair/Canticle” couldn’t sound more intimate. Elsewhere Simon & Garfunkle get taut and neurotic (“Patterns”), lighthearted and mildly fruity (“The 59th Street Bridge Song [Feelin’ Groovy]”), and heart racing (“Poem on the Underground Wall”, which conveys the thrill of spraying graffiti in a New York subway wonderfully). Everything hangs together due to the duo’s consistently expressive and graceful harmonies and the equally intricate arrangements they helped concoct.

14. Fresh Cream by Cream

From that first booming note that opens “I Feel Free”, Fresh Cream makes good on Cream’s status as the premier British blues/psych super group. More consistent and cohesive than the more celebrated Disraeli Gears, Fresh Cream displays the trio before they became weighed down with heavy metal lethargy. This does not mean that Cream wasn’t already pretty heavy on their debut, but the weightiest material, such as “Sleepy Time Time” and “Spoonful”, is too bluesy to mistake for metal. The strolling blues “Four Until Late”, however, is handled with a decidedly light touch, and a jittery, speed-freak version of Muddy Waters’s “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” doesn’t even have bass. Any indication that “I’m So Glad” was a traditional-style blues number in Skip James’s hands is stripped away in Cream’s effervescent reading of the song. Cream rarely got as poppy as they did on “N.S.U.”, “Dreaming”, “Sweet Wine”, and “I Feel Free”, a marvelous single buoyed by Jack Bruce’s serene tenor harmonies floating over a hardworking rhythm section. Ginger Baker’s “Toad” is a boring drum solo (is there any other kind?), but the rest of the album makes for a fresh listen.

13. The Spirit of 67 by Paul Revere and the Raiders

For some reason, time seems to have forgotten Paul Revere and the Raiders even though they were huge in the 60s and put out some of the era’s toughest pop singles. Yet one rarely hears them ranked alongside similar groups like the Turtles, or even the Monkees, these days. That’s a shame because Revere and the Raiders were not only responsible for rough and ready singles like “Hungry”, “The Great Airplane Strike”, and “Good Things”, which sports harmonies worthy of the Beach Boys, but they also recorded some of the era’s best albums. All of the aforementioned hits are included on the New Year-anticipating The Spirit of 67, a delectably diverse platter that also flaunts the band’s ability to craft tongue-in-cheek parodies of Scott Walker-esque melodrama (“All About Her”, “Oh! To Be a Man”), raga rock (“Why? Why? Why?”, “1001 Arabian Nights”), and “Eleanor Rigby”-inspired chamber pop (“Undecided Man”). Naturally, they also belt out plenty of the bluesy pop that was their forté on “Louise”, “In My Community”, and “Our Candidate”. Revolver for wiseasses.

12. Fifth Dimension by The Byrds

Fifth Dimension is hit and miss, but the hits are so strong that the album still ranks as one of The Byrds’ best. A year before Pink Floyd's The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, The Byrds’ essentially invented “space rock” with “8 Miles High”, a science fiction tale often mistaken for a drug song. Chris Hillman’s bass line is a mighty launch pad for the wild flurry of John Coltrane-inspired noodling Roger McGuinn discharges from his twelve string. The harmonies are among The Byrd’s most ethereal and forceful. This is one of the most exciting Rock songs ever recorded, and guarantees that Fifth Dimension. would have been a classic even if the other ten tracks were turds. Indeed, there are a couple of throwaway instrumentals that drag down side B, but “I See You”, another frenetic track along the lines of “8 Miles High”, the swirling “5D (Fifth Dimension)”, and the delightfully goofy bluegrass “Mr. Spaceman” are classics. The latter two tracks continue McGuinn’s fascination with space travel that would continue on The Byrds’ next two albums. Their first album without a single Dylan song, Fifth Dimension makes room for The Byrds to spin out their two best traditional folk covers: “Wild Mountain Thyme”, which features a glorious string arrangement, and “John Riley”. The stark “I Come and Stand at Every Door” sets a haunting poem about Hiroshima to The Byrds’ distinctive backbeat. The group’s version of “Hey Joe (Where You Gonna Go)”, which features more of McGuinn’s crazy guitar picking and an overdose of cowbell, may also be the only non-Hendrix version of this way-too-covered song that doesn’t feel totally redundant. Well done, Byrds!

11. Small Faces by Small Faces

Is it totally disrespectful to say that white, elfin Brit Steve Marriott was among the best soul singers of his generation? Anyone who thinks so should probably give a listen to the debut album by Small Faces, because his frenzied reading of “Shake” ranks right up with Otis Redding’s and even Wilson Pickett may have taken a step back after hearing Marriott rant and rave on “Come on Children” or “You Need Loving” or “E Too D”. Astonishingly, the mighty-voiced Marriott often sounds in danger of being overwhelmed by the bludgeoning, surging rhythms of his own guitar thrashing and the rest of the band. The big UK hit “Sha La La La Lee” and “Sorry She’s Mine” point toward the poppier path on which Small Faces would soon embark, but even those tracks are pretty wild. Perhaps no group was ever as simultaneously heavy and swinging as Small Faces were on their first record. Incidentally, Steve Marriott and Ronnie Lane committed a bit of petty pilfering when they snatched Muddy Waters’s “You Need Love”, revamped it, retitled it “You Need Loving”, and credited themselves as its songwriters. Jimmy Page and Robert Plant further confused matters when they stole “You Need Loving”, retitled it “Whole Lotta Love”, credited themselves as its songwriters, and had more success with it than either Muddy Waters or Small Faces. Poor Muddy.

10. Hums of the Lovin’ Spoonful by The Lovin Spoonful

Psychedelia was already pretty pervasive by the time Hums of the Lovin’ Spoonful was released in late ’66, but Moonshine seems to be the drug of choice when The Spoonful dig into a bluesy, backwoods groove on “Voodoo in My Basement” or strike up their good-timin’ country shuffle on “Darlin’ Companion”. Hums of the Lovin’ Spoonful is downright radical in its refusal to play into the trends of its time. “Henry Thomas”— a wacky ode to a cat led by slide-whistle, Ozark harp, and banjo— and the Grand Ole Opry celebratin’ “Nashville Cats” would have sounded like bizarre parodies on a Beatles or Stones record, but they sound perfectly sincere here. There’s a moment in “Full Measure” where the group slyly suggests they’re about to drift off into a lysergic improv. Psych! They expeditiously slam back into the song’s stately, earthy rhythm, barely missing a beat. The Spoonful drifts toward more contemporary territory on the mysterious, wispy “Coconut Grove” and “Summer in the City”, which is smartly held for the end as it shatters the album’s rural tranquility with its sweaty urban paranoia. Hums of the Lovin’ Spoonful may have sounded strangely quaint when it was released, but considering the retreat to rustic simplicity that would immediately follow the end of psychedelia when Dylan released John Wesley Harding a year later, it’s both behind and ahead of its time, and brilliantly conceived anyway you shake it.

9. Sunshine Superman by Donovan

Sunshine Superman is Donovan’s most consistently enchanting album, and one of the few 60s pop albums to really explore India music outside of a single token number. The prevailing sound is one of chiming acoustic guitars, sitars, harpsichords, strings, and stand-up bass; a sort of chamber jazz raga rock record. Donovan never leans too heavily on his precious tendencies, as he did too often on his post-‘66 records, and nearly every song is a gem. “Legend of a Girl Child Linda” is much too long, but “Three Kingfishers” and “Guinevere” are two of Donovan’s most mysterious forays into raga folk, while “Ferris Wheel” and “The Fat Angel” are two of his most pleasing. “Bert’s Blues” lays the groundwork for Donovan’s jazziest album, Mellow Yellow. The mega-hit “Sunshine Superman” is a marvelous and disarmingly adult pop song percolating with neat guitar swells supplied by Jimmy Page. “Season of the Witch” is among Donovan’s best songs: a sinister, snaky, seductive incantation of troubled times to come.

8. The Otis Redding Dictionary of Soul: Complete and Unbelievable by Otis Redding
That title may be unwieldy, but it doesn’t lie. The Otis Redding Dictionary of Soul: Complete and Unbelievable doesn’t get the respect that Otis Blue receives, but I think it’s a superior album. First of all, we get a much wider selection of Redding originals, and each one is fabulous, whether he’s in ranting-and-raving mode (“Sweet Lorene”, “She Put the Hurt On Me”), in sweet-pleading mode (“Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa [Sad Song], “My Lover’s Prayer”), or somewhere in between (“I’m Sick Y’all”). Considering how strong and plentiful Redding’s own songs are, it’s pretty amazing that his incredible interpretations aren’t totally overshadowed, and his versions of “Tennessee Waltz” and the hoary old standard “Try a Little Tenderness”, which he infused with gravity and intensity the Ray Noble Orchestra never imagined, are two of the most unlikely and astonishing covers by Redding or anyone else. As he did with the Stones’ “Satisfaction” on Otis Blue, Redding once again takes on the British Invasion, completely revolutionizing The Beatles’ “Day Tripper” by dispensing of most the song’s recognizable elements. The unmistakable riff is only hinted at during the chorus, if you could even call it a chorus. Lennon and McCartney’s melody and lyric are essentially exorcised to allow Otis ample room to stretch out across an extended, primordially funky vamp. This is a great, great album; complete and unbelievable for sure.

7. Love by Love

Take the Stones’ back beat, layer on an attitudinal garage rock vocal topped off with some Byrdy twelve-string guitars, and you have the ace formula for Love’s first album. Love is not as experimental as the music the L.A. band would soon create; it’s just a fucking great garage/folk rock record. The band never sounds limited by their basic guitar/bass/drums line up. The variety of styles and tones Love strikes on their debut is outstanding, whether it’s bullish (“Can’t Explain”, “My Flash On You”), sensitive (“Message to Pretty”, “Softly to Me”), brave and determined (“No Matter What You Do”, “You I’ll Be Following”), or sparse and doomy (“Mushroom Clouds”, “Signed D.C.”). Indeed, Arthur Lee’s penchant for morose, morbid meditations is already present on Love, as is his tendency to approach universal topics by addressing his friends by name. The subject of the withered anti-smack tale “Signed D.C.” is Lee’s pal, Don Conka. He never had a problem calling out his friends on their drug use after tumbling over the chemical ledge himself. At the same time this is a far less insular record than Forever Changes or even Da Capo. Love even tackle a couple of covers here, including yet another version of “Hey Joe”, and far more significantly, a nervy arrangement of the Bacharach/David number “My Little Red Book”, which would deservedly become a garage band standard.

6. Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan

The great irony of Bob Dylan’s career is that when he tried to escape that “voice of his generation” tag by ditching his acoustic guitar for an electric and writing bafflingly cryptic lyrics, he only broadened his legend. Blonde on Blonde is the apex of his mid-60s electric period, which alienated his folkie purist followers but won him legions of new rock fans. This is a sprawling double-album’s worth of stoned poetry, giddy giggling, pseudo-profundities, cynical love songs, and sheer nonsense. Despite his too cool to care pose, Dylan was clearly embittered when his old fans deserted him (see “Positively 4th Street”), but on Blonde on Blonde he really does seem to be past the point of caring about anything at all. Case in point: “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”, a defiantly sloppy jam. Still, Blonde on Blonde is much more than a free-for-all or a middle finger to fair-weather fans. Many of Dylan’s finest songs are scattered throughout the two records—there’s the hypnotically beautiful and lyrically dense “Visions of Johanna”, the jocular “I Want You” (a brilliant parody of love songs), the weary (and rather misogynistic) “Just Like a Woman”, the endlessly layered “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again”, the musically lovely and lyrically hilarious Beatles-parody “4th Time Around”, and the fabulous rocker “Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)”. Not everything on the album is as strong as these tracks. A couple of the blues numbers are comparatively slight and “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, which takes up an entire side of the album, is not nearly as interesting an epic as “Desolation Row”, but Blonde on Blonde is still a towering testament to Dylan’s abilities as a not-so-straightforward rocker.

5. Face to Face by The Kinks

The butterflies that swath its cover are the perfect metaphor for Face to Face. This is the album on which The Kinks fully metamorphosed from purveyors of primitive garage rock to subtle scrutinizers of British culture and the human condition. Only “I’ll Remember” (which is lovely) and “You’re Looking Fine” (which is mediocre, although it somehow became a Kinks concert staple for many, many years) sound as though they could have been on an earlier record, and indeed, both were recorded the previous year. The new Kinks combined elegant pop with music hall camp, and every Brit from The Beatles to The Stones was quick to cop their sound. Ray Davies’s masterly ability to express disdain, admiration, humor, and wistfulness simultaneously is on full display in so many of the trenchant yet pithy character sketches that populate Face to Face: “Sunny Afternoon”, with its layabout antihero, “Rosey Won’t You Please Come Home”, a sad tale of teenage rebellion from the parents’ point of view (more than six months before The Beatles pulled the same trick on “She’s Leaving Home”, mind you), “Session Man”, “Dandy”, “Most Exclusive Residence For Sale”. It’s unfortunate that the Powers That Be at Pye records were not far-sighted enough to allow Davies to execute Face to Face exactly as he originally intended, which would have involved using sound effects to link the tracks, but stray remnants of this concept pop up on vividly visual numbers such as “Party Line”, “Rainy Day in June” and “Holiday in Waikiki”. Face to Face was the first link in a chain of albums that established The Kinks as the most unashamedly British rock group of their era, and we probably wouldn’t have bands like Pulp, Blur, and The La’s without it.

4. A Quick One by The Who

The Who's non-songwriting triad were nearly bankrupt by the time the band got around to cutting their sophomore album. Manager Kit Lambert’s solution was to commission two songs each from Daltrey, Entwistle, and Moon  to provide the guys with a little extra revenue. The results of this move could have been disastrous. Instead, Moon turned out two infectiously wacky numbers—the bracing Beach Boys-homage/Beatles parody “I Need You” and an insane instrumental polka called “Cobwebs and Strange”. Daltrey was only capable of completing a single song, but “See Me Way” is a rolling little Buddy Holly-influenced tune that is all the sweeter for its brevity. The real shocker (in more ways than one) was John Entwistle, who emerged as a writer with great flair and genuine originality. The bassist’s macabre wit and monstrous riffing come to the fore on the indelible “Boris the Spider” and the criminally underrated (and, as far as I’m concerned, superior) “Whiskey Man”. Still, Townshend was tasked with filling out the rest of the record but only had three completed numbers on hand. The best of these was the power-pop defining “So Sad About Us”. Once again, Lambert came up with a stroke of genius: he commanded Townshend to string together a few of his unfinished songs and create rock’s first suite and its first long-form story. The rewards of “A Quick One, While He’s Away” would be far reaching, not only providing The Who with their greatest live vehicle, but establishing seeds that would blossom into the rock opera that would make them superstars. It also happens to be a thrilling nine-minute ride, full of dirty schoolboy humor and concluding with a fittingly operatic volley of harmonies that provides the most spellbinding moment in the entire Who discography.

3. Aftermath by The Rolling Stones

Aftermath is The Rolling Stones’ fascinating journey toward self-actualization. By late 1965, the pop world had changed to the point where a group could no longer subsist on covering other artists’ material, which meant that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards not only had to prove that they could write an album’s worth of strong originals, but they had to hack out a definitive sound for their band, as well. Their first shot was an assortment of dark folk songs—occasionally interrupted by psychotic rockers like “19th Nervous Breakdown” and “Think”—but Decca Records refused to release the album due to its “sacrilegious” title, Could You Walk On Water? During the long period spent negotiating a release with their priggish label, The Stones continued recording, rethought the track listing, and finally settled on a record they would put out as Aftermath (as in the “aftermath” of the Could You Walk On Water? debacle). The record is sprawling and eclectic. There are remnants of the early Stones rock and blues influences on “Doncha Bother Me”, “Goin’ Home”, “It’s Not Easy”, and “Flight 505”, a rollicking number about a plane crash. “Lady Jane”, “Mother’s Little Helper”, and “I Am Waiting” find them exploring morbid English folk music with thoroughly intriguing results. “Under My Thumb”, “Out of Time” and “Stupid Girl” are Motown-style soul numbers that further darkened The Stones image with their nasty misogyny. “High and Dry” is pure corn-pone C&W. At its oddest, Aftermath finds the Stones aping Roy Orbison melodrama (“Take It or Leave It”) and Beach Boys honky-pop (“What to Do”). All the while Brian Jones keeps things interesting by tossing marimbas, dulcimer, and a variety of keyboards and percussion into the mix. Such fate-to-the-wind eclecticism shows that The Stones had found their sound: a fluid reworking of the popular sounds of their time filtered through a dark sensibility and grounded with a rock-solid swing and Mick Jagger’s iconic poses. On Aftermath, The Rolling Stones became The Rolling Stones.

2. Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys

This may be blasphemy, but in some ways, I always felt like Pet Sounds was a consolation prize to Beach Boys fans who wished that SMiLE would receive a proper release. Yes, yes, yes, Pet Sounds is an absolutely beautiful album with some of the greatest pop music ever made, but I’d rather be placing SMiLE at the top of this list than Pet Sounds in the runner-up spot. The version of SMiLE that Brian Wilson released in 2004 (and the unbelievable “Purple Chick” mix of the original tapes made by a brilliant fan) reminds us that SMiLE most certainly would have been The Beach Boys’ masterpiece. Still, Pet Sounds is a worthy album to call their masterpiece in its stead. It is the most sincerely romantic pop album of the 60s. Tony Asher did an impeccable job of translating Brian Wilson’s innocent yet complex yearnings into the finest lyrics on any Beach Boys album; lyrics that are far more emotionally engaging than the surreal poems Van Dyke Parks composed for SMiLE. As special as its words are, Pet Sounds earned its legendary status because of Brian Wilson’s production and his incomparably sensitive singing. With the rest of The Beach Boys on tour while he laid down the backing tracks and the abundance of lead vocals, Pet Sounds really does play more like a Brian Wilson solo album than a Beach Boys one, and considering how unsupportive of his vision the rest of the group was, it’s almost vulgar to give them credit for this gorgeous record. Still, Carl Wilson’s lead on “God Only Knows” may be the single greatest vocal ever captured on a ballad, and Mike Love lends some much needed punk-ass attitude to “That’s Not Me”, “Sloop John B.” and “Here Today”. The group’s harmonies are incredible throughout the record, but that has more to do with Brian’s choral arrangements than the particular qualities of the guys’ voices; he probably could have gotten a bunch of tracheotomy patients singing like a choir of sparrows.

1. Revolver by The Beatles

The innocent joy of Beatlemania grew weary as far back as Beatles For Sale, but it positively curdles on Revolver. The Beatles’ greatest album is also their most disillusioned. Lennon’s hallucinogenic experiments find him unable to pull himself out of bed on “I’m Only Sleeping”, questioning his sanity on “She Said She Said”, experiencing delusions of grandeur on “And Your Bird Can Sing”, singing the praises of his dealer on “Doctor Robert”, and plummeting into madness on “Tomorrow Never Knows”. A pre-spiritual George Harrison laments his dwindling bankroll on “Taxman” before confessing his inability to communicate on “I Want to Tell You”. His “Love You To”, a tribute to free love, contains an incongruous lyric (“There’s people standing ‘round who’ll screw you in the ground, they’ll fill you in with all their sins, you’ll see”) that is the bitterest in any Beatle song. Ever the romantic, McCartney provides a couple of moments of genuine light (“Good Day Sunshine” and “Here, There, and Everywhere”), but spends much of the record in similar disorder: elegizing a dead relationship on “For No One” and turning paranoiac and obsessive on “Got to Get You Into My Life”. “Eleanor Rigby”, which eschews romantic themes, altogether, is a grim account of profound loneliness and death. Even the merry “Yellow Submarine” is nothing if not an escapist fantasy. Its cynicism supplies additional layers of complexity to Revolver, but what makes the album wonderful is its combination of perfect songwriting, energetic musicianship, and unbridled experimentation. Unlike the handful of tracks on Sgt. Pepper’s that are relatively inconsequential when separated from the album’s overall concept, every song on Revolver stands on its own. The album overflows with moments that are integral to Beatle lore and launched an endless parade of imitations: the octave-hopping bass line of “Taxman”, the slashing string octet on “Eleanor Rigby”, the backward guitar lines on “I’m Only Sleeping”, the full Indian orchestration of “Love You To”, the languid warmth of “Here, There, and Everywhere”, the sound-effects and sing-a-long choruses of “Yellow Submarine”, the creepy-crawling guitars and wild drumming on “She Said, She Said”, the euphoric refrains of “Good Day Sunshine”, the ecstatic harmonizing and intricate riffing on “And Your Bird Can Sing”, the morose waltz of “For No One”, the filthy guitar lick and funky backbeat of “Doctor Robert”, the off-kilter piano line on “I Want to Tell You”, the chunky brass on “Got to Get You Into My Life”, the orgy of tape loops on “Tomorrow Never Knows”. Revolver is The Beatles at their least self-consciously experimental, and hearing them create such incredible music is so thrilling that it’s easy to miss how demented these songs are. The cover’s damn creepy too.

10 More Great Albums from 1966

The Blue Things by The Blue Things
Jefferson Airplane Takes Off by Jefferson Airplane
Midnight Ride by Paul Revere and the Raiders
96 Tears by Question Mark and the Mysterians
Dirty Water by The Standells
Them Again by Them
Turn On by The Music Machine
Wild is the Wind by Nina Simone
The Supremes Sing Holland/Dozier/Holland by The Supremes
You Baby/Let Me Be by The Turtles
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