Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Psychobabble’s Twenty Five Greatest Albums of 1968

After a year of bold and ambitious statements—Sgt. Pepper’s, Forever Changes, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn—the LP was firmly established as Rock’s most meaningful art form. As psychedelia waned over the course of 1968, groups stopped falling over each other to prove they were the artiest artists of all and just settled into making mature, strong work. This does not mean that wacko experimentation drained out of Rock completely, and Nico, Jimi Hendrix, and The Monkees—yes, The Monkees—made some of the strangest albums of the sixties in ’68. However, the dominant theme of the year was the anti-freak show “back to the roots” trend that Dylan initiated with his rustic John Wesley Harding at the end of the previous year. With its statements of crazed imagination and sober traditionalism, 1968 was one of Rock’s most schizophrenic years. The albums it produced are some of its very, very best. Here are 25.

25. Once Upon a Dream by The Rascals

Following the Sgt. Pepper’s phenomenon, every band in late ‘67/early ’68 was expected to whip up their own psychedelic freak-fest. To The Rascals’ credit, they did not sacrifice their blue-eyed-soul strengths for over-reaching artiness even as Once Upon a Dream expands their sound with the usual post-Pepper trappings (weird sound effects, tape experiments, orchestrations, sitars, trippy segues). While this was The Rascals’ first album to lack major hits (the groovy “It’s Wonderful” barely poked its head into the top twenty), it hangs together as a complete listening experience better than any of their earlier records even though it’s their most eclectic release yet. There’s a little rustic blues (“Easy Rollin’”), a little urban blues (“Singing’ the Blues Too Long”), a little New Orleans soul (“I’m Gonna Love You”), a little snaky Rock & Roll with jazz aspirations (“Please Love Me”), a lot of Brian Wilson-style orchestral grandeur (“Rainy Day”; “My Hawaii”, the title track), and a rare raga rocker that delivers the raga and the Rock in equal proportions (“Bells/Sattva”). These disparate elements all add up to a minor masterpiece that should delight fans of the cosmic and the earthbound alike.

24. The United States of America by The United States of America

The United States of America might be the most psychedelic album I’ve ever heard. Everything is layered with thick coats of spacey noise and experimental tape loops and filtered through various distortion and phasing effects. With an exotic line-up consisting of violin, synthesizer, harpsichord, calliope, fretless bass, an assortment of percussion, and the ultra-cool voice of Dorothy Moskowitz, The United States of America forgot to add one integral element of all psych—and all Rock— albums: the electric guitar. The complete absence of six-string may be the most radical quality of The United States of America, but like all great psych efforts, the songs are more important than any unconventional instrumentation or swathes of freaky effects. The United States of America is loaded with great numbers that leap into all the various nooks of the psychedelic fun house. There’s floaty, Floydian atmospherics (“The American Metaphysical Circus”, the astonishing A.A. Milne adaptation “Cloud Song”), free-form freak outs (“Hard Coming Love”, which features a distorted violin every bit as raunchy as Hendrix’s axe), bracing energy rushes (“The Garden of Earthly Delights”), jaunty music-hall goofs (the defiantly weird “I Won’t Leave My Wooden Wife for You, Sugar”), pseudo Gregorian chants (“Where Is Yesterday”), and avant garde epics (“The American Way of Love (Part I-III)”. There is so much to dazzle the ear on The United States of America that it can probably be heard hundreds of times before revealing all of its intricate and outrageous layers.

23. Move by The Move

Delivering childlike, sing-songy tunes with the vivid, pop-art explosiveness of the early Who, The Move released three of the greatest singles of 1967, but were slow to produce their first album. Finally appearing in March of 1968, Move included both sides of their previous two UK hits (“Flowers in the Rain”/ “[Here We Go Round] The Lemon Tree” and “Fire Brigade”/“Walk Upon the Water”), a handful of newly recorded originals, and a triad of covers. The covers range from red-hot (a rendition of Eddie Cochran’s “Weekend”) to inessential (a too-faithful version of Moby Grape’s “Hey Grandma”) to bloody awful (the schlock-o-la standard “Zing Went the Strings of My Heart”), but the rest of the new recordings are worthy of sitting alongside the hits. “Yellow Rainbow” and “Useless Information” have all the melodiousness and Mod ferocity of the Move’s best singles. The baroque ballad “Mist on a Monday Morning” may be less electrifying, but its overwrought arrangement of harpsichords, strings, and woodwinds makes it as spectacularly unsubtle as the rockers. “Cherry Blossom Clinic” mashes such orchestral elements together with electric instruments for a heady, bursting-with-color climax. When The Move began recording albums properly, they veered more into epic-length, indulgent experimentation (their next album, Shazam, features an 8-minute long remake of “Cherry Blossom Clinic” that incorporates a bizarre medley of classical pieces by Dukas, Bach, and Tchaikovsky), leaving the stitched-together Move as one of their few long-players to indicate what a great singles act The Move were.

22. First Lady of Immediate by P. P. Arnold

Pat Arnold was opening for The Rolling Stones as an Ikette in the Ike and Tina Turner Review when she struck up a friendship with Mick Jagger. Jealous Ike gave Pat her pink slip, but The Stones’ savvy manager, Andrew “Loog” Oldham, quickly signed her up to his Immediate Records. As P.P. Arnold, she released “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright”, a smooth bubblegum soul production that was equal parts Phil Spector and Motown, but the record’s real gem—and the real indicator of the Arnold agenda— was the flipside “Life Is Nothing”, a moody, acoustic ballad with tasteful strings, more reminiscent of The Beatles than anything Aretha Franklin would have cut. That’s what really set P.P. Arnold apart from her soul peers: she essentially transformed British pop numbers into achingly soulful work outs every time she layered on her cracked rasp. What P.P. Arnold was doing was not dissimilar from the records of her label mates, Small Faces, so when she eventually started recording with them it was a match made in Northern Soul Nirvana. She shreds her vocal cords beyond the call of duty on her greatest record, which was written by Small Faces Steve Marriott and Ronnie Lane and saddled with the laughably dated title “(If You Think You’re) Groovy”, though her most famous was the definitive reading of Rod Stewart’s “The First Cut Is the Deepest”. Such singles hooked The First Lady of Immediate, though all twelve tracks do their job in making it a flawless soul-pop debut… and “Am I Still Dreaming” would have inspired Spiro Agnew to leap off his ass and do the pony.

21. Tomorrow by Tomorrow 

Tomorrow stormed onto the scene with the single “My White Bicycle”, dropped their sole album, and peddled off to oblivion, allowing Steve Howe to co-found Yes and drummer John “Twink” Adler to hook up with The Pretty Things. Tomorrow made some extraordinary music during a career that lasted a little over a year (well, longer if you count the period they worked as a mod band called The In Crowd). They had much of the character, humor, and energy of groups like The Move and The Creation, and in Steve Howe they had an instrumental ringer few other bands possessed; his sitar playing on the spring-loaded “Real Life Permanent Dreams” shreds. However, Tomorrow were less about proggy showboating than they were about whipping up witty pop songs such as “My White Bicycle”, “Shy Boy”, and "The Incredible Journey of Timothy Chase” and jazzing them up with all manner of delightful lysergic garnishes. Occasionally such over-indulgences get the better of the music, as it does on the kitchen sink-containing “Revolution”, but that teensy bump does no real damage to an absolutely wonderful record.

20. A Saucerful of Secrets by Pink Floyd

Pink Floyd is one of the few groups that didn’t allow the loss of its key member to impede its career. While I personally think the band never again achieved the artistic heights of the Syd Barrett-period, they certainly became more successful than ever when Roger Waters was at the helm. A Saucerful of Secrets marks that transition of power as Barrett faded into the shadows and Waters commenced his rise to power. No single member of the group is in command yet on A Saucerful of Secrets, and the results are shockingly good considering how strongly Barrett dominated The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Each member of Pink Floyd makes his presence felt, both instrumentally (particularly Rick Wright) and compositionally. At this point Wright seems like he might be Barrett’s most logical successor, because his songs “Remember a Day” and “See Saw” do the best job of recapturing Barrett’s childlike whimsy. Vocally, Rick is also a dead ringer for Syd. However, it is Roger Waters who takes the band farthest into challenging territory with two defining wooshes of space-rock—“Let There Be More Light” and “Set Your Controls for the Heart of the Sun”—and the crazed Sgt. Pepper’s parody “Corporal Clegg”. The entire group (new boy David Gilmour included) collaborated on the extended, experimental title track, which established the somewhat meandering path the band would take on their next few albums, but Barrett manages to have the last word with his shattered “Jugband Blues”, the final song on the album and the final song he’d ever place on a Pink Floyd record.

19. Music from Big Pink by The Band (1968)

In 1968, Bob Dylan’s backing band got together at a house (aka: “Big Pink”) in Saugerties, New York, and wrote a batch of songs that developed upon the mystic Americana themes of Dylan’s own John Wesley Harding. The resulting album introduced The Band as a group far less generic than their name suggests. Garth Hudson’s shimmering, creepy organ fills, Robbie Robertson’s tortured guitar lines, and Levon Helms’s heavy yet funky drum work blend into a totally unique, totally recognizable brew. And there certainly is no equivalent to the group’s ramshackle harmonies—three voices singing together beautifully, yet each one rough and distinct. That seemingly offhand approach runs through every performance on Music from Big Pink, but the songs, though unconventional, are crafted with great care. There is one marvelously interpreted traditional number (“Long Black Veil”), and Dylan lends a helping compositional hand to three achingly powerful tracks (“Tears of Rage”, “This Wheel’s on Fire”, and “I Shall Be Released”). Otherwise The Band does just fine on their own with incredible material like “Caledonia Mission”, “We Can Talk”, “Chest Fever”, and the glorious anthem “The Weight”. Listening to Music from Big Pink is a haunting experience—like strolling through an abandoned frontier-era home inhabited by the ghosts of those who once lived there.

18. Head by The Monkees

After the “Monkees” TV series was canceled early in 1968, co-creator Bob Rafelson was determined to put the final nail in the project’s coffin with a withering film called Head. Cynical, imaginative, experimental, and often baffling, Head was a major flop—opening and closing in the same weekend—and essentially accomplished what Rafelson set out to do. It has since grown into a major cult favorite, as have The Monkees themselves. Spat upon during their own era for being inauthentic, the true story of the group reveals a quartet of surprisingly talented guys struggling to break free of their bubblegum image. This is the central theme of the Head film, and its accompanying soundtrack proves just how musically innovative The Monkees could be. Half of the album consists of weird and witty sound collages, which co-screenwriter Jack Nicholson stitched together from the film’s dialogue. The rest comprises the six original songs featured in the film, which are among the best the group ever recorded. Davy Jones perhaps doesn’t interpret Harry Nilsson’s “Daddy’s Song” with adequate nuance, but “Porpoise Song” is resplendent in gravitas and arguably The Monkees’ greatest single; a swooping, soaring psychedelic masterpiece (sadly, though, its fabulous coda is trimmed off the album version). Mike Nesmith’s “Circle Sky” is as exciting as rock and roll gets (and contrary to popular opinion, I will forever contend that this propulsive studio version massacres the film’s live version on which Micky Dolenz’s drum fills keep tripping up the beat). Peter Tork delivers his two best songs with the whirling-dervish “Can You Dig It?” and the punky rocker “Long Title: Do I Have to Do This All Over Again?” Micky gives an extraordinarily sensitive performance on the lovely, wistful ballad “As We Go Along”, featuring Neil Young on guitar. Had the album contained another six songs of this quality, it probably would sit a lot further up this list. As it stands, it feels a bit more like an EP than a proper album. However, as far as avant-garde EP/LPs recorded by rapidly disintegrating pre-fabricated pop stars go, Head is most definitely the best.

17. Crown of Creation by Jefferson Airplane

Jefferson Airplane had only been making records for two years when they released Crown of Creation, but they sound like a completely different band here than they did on their debut. While Jefferson Airplane Takes Off was mainly a showcase for Marty Balin’s romantic folk rock, Crown of Creation is a tour de force for each member of the group. It is also the group’s darkest, creepiest, and most cynical album. Still, one might be surprised to learn that the freakish “Lather”, which Grave Slick wrote about her aging boyfriend Spencer Dryden, was intended to be affectionate. She had no such intentions when composing “Greasy Heart”, a blood-drawing screed against a vain society girl and her self-deluded artist boyfriend. Her version of David Crosby’s “Triad” is an eerie number about a threesome that Crosby desperately wanted The Byrds to release, but McGuinn would have no part of it. Paul Kantner’s similar sounding “In Time’ addresses a less complex romantic relationship but with more poetic imagery. He also comes up with the classic agit-prop title track, which stands as one of his best songs and one of the most devastating examples of Jack Casady’s prowess on his fuzzed-out bass guitar. Jorma Kaukonen contributes two snaky (and pretty similar) mid-tempo rockers with “Star Track” and “Ice Cream Phoenix”. Meanwhile, Marty Balin delivers two of his best songs with the ominous “Share a Little Joke” and the grooving “If You Feel”. Spencer Dryden out-weirds the song he inspired with a brief instrumental called “Chushingura”, which you should only listen to in the dark if you want to terrify yourself. Nearly as frightening is “House at Pooneil Corners”, the apocalyptic monstrosity that closes this queasily brilliant album.

16. Wheels of Fire by Cream

Like George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, Wheels of Fire is an album that can only be fully valued if certain parts are ignored. All Things Must Pass is a phenomenal double album that happens to include a 100% disposable bonus record containing a few boring jams. Wheels of Fire is Cream’s most brilliant studio album, but it also happens to include a live disc that displays some of their worst tendencies. The live portion is not a complete wash out (unlike the bonus disc on Harrison’s album). “Crossroads”, which has been mercifully edited down from its original length, is a chugging little blues triumph, but only the most masochist listener will sit through all 17:39 of Ginger Baker’s drum solo. Baker more than atones for the punishment he doles out on “Toad” with his contributions to the studio half of Wheels of Fire. He comes into his own as a writer on “Passing the Time”, which splits time between a magically starry verse and a ferocious mid-song vamp. His odd “Pressed Rat and Wart Hog” makes nice use of his off key vocals and his off key sense of Wind-in-the-Willows whimsy. He also supplies my favorite moment on the album, which occurs at precisely 4:22 into “White Room”. Notice how the bass drum suddenly gets ridiculously loud. I love that. I also love the rest of the song, which is dramatic and absurd and beautiful and powerful in equal measure. “As You Said” is just beautiful, finding Cream in rare unplugged mode and Jack Bruce’s tenor at its most spine tingling. The halting “Politician” is both funky and awkward and one of the wriest heavy blues assaults on vinyl. Really, every number on the studio half of Wheels of Fire is superb. The group had never put together such inventive arrangements and certainly never played better; Bruce and Baker’s bass/drum interplay is as frenzied as their personal relationship. The playing on the live side is equally strong, but with the songs at a minimum, it’s best left in its sleeve.

15. Nazz by Nazz (1968)

Like The Left Banke, Nazz was one of the first and best anglophile groups. But while The Left Banke mainly drew on the lighter British invaders, such as The Kinks and The Zombies, Nazz were influenced by those types of groups and harder rockers, such as Yardbirds, Cream, and The Who. Both styles are present in all their schizophrenic glory on Nazz’s debut album. On one end of the spectrum is moody pop such as “See What You Can Be”, “Crowded”, “If That’s the Way You Feel”, and “Hello, It’s Me” (which would later become a huge hit when Nazz guitarist/chief songwriter Todd Rundgren went solo in the ’70s). On the other end are the acid-rockers: “Back of My Mind”, “When I Get My Plane”, “Wildwood Blues”, and “Lemming Song”. These songs are more generic than the lighter ones, but their power is still flooring. The record’s best and best known moment grafts the two disparate styles together; “Open My Eyes” is among the last great psych singles of the ’60s, nearly functioning as a 2:45 compendium of everything great about that decade’s music: the Beach Boys harmonies, a purposeful riff ripped from The Who, some groovy Magical Mystery Tour phasing, and all the youthful energy of the best garage bands. Nazz is a little inconsistent, but the first retro-’60s record released before the decade was even over, it’s a constant delight.

14. The Left Banke Too by The Left Banke

The Left Banke may be the greatest one-hit wonders ever (well, two-hit wonders if you count “Pretty Ballerina”, which made the Top Twenty in 1966 but has received little love on oldies radio since). “Walk Away Renee” is one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful singles ever, and basically everything else the group recorded was a proto-shoe-gaze anglophile-pop classic of almost similar value. The Left Banke had their own Brian Wilson-style genius in the form of Michael Brown, although he had basically departed the band by the time they recorded their second album, The Left Banke Too. Still, evidence of his work is present in “Desiree”, a magnificent single that actually manages to up the angst level of “Walk Away Renee” while also laying down a spiraling, intense, borderline prog riff. Even without Brown in the fold, the rest of the group was capable of creating an album’s worth of intricate baroque pop. “Dark is the Bark” and “My Friend Today” (which features a young Steven Tyler on backing vocals) are spectacular specimens of pitch-black gloom-pop. Much of the rest of the album is more lighthearted but nearly as good. “In the Morning Light”, “Nice to See You”, and “Sing Little Bird Sing” shimmer. “Bryant Hotel” and “There’s Gonna Be a Storm” are wonderfully realized pieces of program music. The Left Banke Too doesn’t consistently reach the heights of the band’s first album, but that’s a high-hurdle that still doesn’t put any dings in one of the great pop albums of the late ’60s.

13. Electric Ladyland by The Jimi Hendrix Experience

A double-LP explosion of cartoon imagery and free-floating freakiness, Electric Ladyland is the most otherworldly work of art from a musician who couldn’t play “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” without it sounding like it was forged in the fires of Mercury. “Crosstown Traffic” and “House Burning Down” are cinematic, uncannily visual pieces, while none but the most acid-soaked minds could conjure visuals worthy of the suite “1983…(A Merman I Should Turn to Be) / Moon, Turn the Tides… Gently, Gently Away”. The warped baroque pop of “Burning of the Midnight Lamp” continues exploring the manic depression theme that ran through Are You Experienced?, and the title track reveals Hendrix’s surprisingly strong soul falsetto. Who knew the dude could do such a convincing Curtis Mayfield impression? Despite their ubiquity on classic rock radio, “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)” and the definitive cover of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” remain as thrilling, frightening, sexy, and intense as ever. Soon the hallucinogen consumption that inspired Hendrix to create such an untamed work of imagination would intensify conflict in the Experience, and the band would break up the following year, leaving Electric Ladyland as what may be Rock’s wildest farewell.

12. Bookends by Simon and Garfunkel

Even though everyone pretty much agrees that Bookends is a great record, it’s actually kind of a phony one. Only Side A consists of material specifically recorded for the album. Side B is a dumping ground for singles, some dating back two years. The thing is, Side A is a meticulously constructed suite of insightful songs about aging, and the singles on Side B are uniformly superb. So, Bookends may be a bit of a cheat, but it’s still far and away the best Simon and Garfunkel album. The pretentiousness that marred some of the duo’s earlier work (see “The Dangling Conversation”) is thankfully absent here. Genuine maturity and understated grace make Paul Simon’s ambitions more palatable here. “America”, “Mrs. Robinson”, “Save the Life of My Child”, “At the Zoo”, and “Fakin’ It” are veritable novels packed into three minute songs. Supremely evocative mood pieces sail the range from jolly resignation (“Punky’ Dilemma”) to mellow reflection (“Old Friends”) to utter hopelessness (“A Hazy Shade of Winter”). This is one of the most literate albums ever made; so detailed, beautifully realized, and thematically consistent that it hardly seems cobbled together at all.

11. The Marble Index by Nico (1969)

Those who loved Nico’s pretty, baroque-folk debut Chelsea Girl will be shocked to hear her eject melody almost completely and sink into the Gothic horror-scape of her second album. Nico’s wheezing harmonium and the clattering rogue’s gallery of classical and Rock instruments producer and former Velvet Underground bandmate John Cale overdubbed blend and jar against each other for a shattering sound experience. Listening to The Marble Index all the way through makes me physically anxious, like I’ve been given a heavy dose of nasty medicine. Producer Frazier Mohawk said he snipped a couple songs off the record because he feared listeners would start killing themselves if they had to hear more than a half hour of this stuff. I see his point, yet there are some incredibly beautiful things here too. Nico’s lyrics tend toward medieval despair and Poe-like creepiness, but “Ari’s Song” is a sweet lullaby to her son, albeit one sung over a disorienting backing track pierced with something that sounds like a screeching teakettle. The spare strings and vocal of “No One Is There” have a stately grace, and Nico’s multi-tracked wails toward the end of the track are exquisite. “Julius Caesar (Memento Hodie)” enchants with its woozy duet of viola and harmonium. “Frozen Warnings”, the artist’s personal favorite of her songs, is as icy as its title suggests, yet also ethereal, haunting. However “Lawns of Dawns”, “Facing the Wind”, and especially, “Evening of Light” are flat-out terrifying. Listen to The Marble Index on the most overcast day in the most forebodingly empty landscape. You’ll crap your pants.

10. Shine on Brightly by Procol Harum

It annoys me when Procol Harum gets lumped in with prog-rock bands, but even I’ll admit that Shine on Brightly makes a pretty good case for such an argument. Side B houses Rock’s first multi-sectional, 17-minute, time-signature defying monolith. What sets “In Held Twas in I” apart from all of the Yes and Genesis epics that followed is its absurd sense of humor. “In Held Twas in I” was a parody of prog-rock’s ridiculous pretensions before prog-rock really even existed. Procol Harum always had a sort of clairvoyance, though. After all, their first album anticipated Goth rock by a decade. While not superior to Procol Harum, Shine on Brightly is more varied. Shades of the band’s debut are apparent in the swirling organs and panoramic drumming of “Quite Rightly So” and the title track, but “Wish Me Well” is a ragged blues number, “Skip Softly (My Moonbeams)” is a sort of nightmarish polka-out-of-bounds, and “Magdalene (My Regal Zonophone)” is a regal portent of the kind of material that would feature on A Salty Dog. The humor that infuses “In Held Twas in I” is present throughout the entire album, whether in the coda of “Skip Softly (My Moonbeams)” or the voices-imitating-horns on “Magdalene” or in the zaniest lyrics Keith Reid ever composed. If all prog rock was as lighthearted and self-effacing as this, the genre would have an entirely different reputation.

9. Friends by The Beach Boys

The Beach Boys went through a weird period after SMiLE, the masterpiece Brian Wilson promised would follow Pet Sounds and didn’t materialize in its own time. Perhaps as a reaction to the failure of what would have been an elaborately produced magnum opus, the band released Smiley Smile and Wild Honey, two sparsely produced, demo-like albums. With Friends The Beach Boys started getting back on track even though the songs retain the off-hand simplicity of their previous two albums. While far from the density of the Pet Sounds/SMiLE era, the arrangements are more intricate and varied than those on Smiley Smile or Wild Honey. The Beach Boys augment their lush harmonies with organ, bells, strings, jazzy guitar, various harmonicas, woodwinds, brass, ukulele, and apparently anything else they (and the studio musicians who did the bulk of the instrumental work) could get their hands on. The group sounds completely refreshed after their recent troubles, and though some of the material is slight, all of it sounds as gorgeous as their best work. And much of the material is great: the warm and wonderful title track, the fantastic boss nova “Busy Doin’ Nothin’”, and “Little Bird” (which revealed Dennis Wilson as a gifted writer and singer) are among the Beach Boys’ finest post-Pet Sounds songs. While not to everyone’s taste, the final track, “Transcendental Meditation”, is also solid evidence that The Beach Boys could get just as far out as they did in the SMiLE days, grinding out a chunk of avant garde jazz that lays waste to the album’s reputation for nonstop twee lightness.

8. Music in a Doll’s House by Family

Perhaps no album better summarized 1968’s schizophrenia than Music in a Doll’s House. It is as down-home as Music from Big Pink, as eclectic as “The White Album,” as progressive as Shine On Brightly, as concise and tune-packed as Village Green Preservation Society. There’s little outside of Family’s orbit on their striking debut disc. Mellotron-infused grandeur, Raga Rock, slinky British blues, militaristic psychedelia, mood pieces both anxious and ethereal. It’s all interpreted by a crack band and a singer like no other. Roger Chapman’s vibrato will shatter every champagne flute in your bar. That voice is a bit of an acquired taste, but do your best to acquire it and become addicted to this strange and evocative disc. No matter how strange the sounds get, Dave Mason’s organic production keeps the whole thing grounded, so no matter which untraveled corridor Family is exploring, the vibe never turns pretentious or inaccessible. That production helps Music in a Doll’s House hang together smoothly despite its variety, and short link tracks are utilized nicely to keep the proceedings flowing. A powerful listening experience when taken as a whole, the album is also treasury of marvelous individual songs. “Mellowing Grey”, “Never Like This”, “Winter”, “The Chase”, “Me My Friend”, and “Peace of Mind” are among the most intoxicating creations in a year of intoxicating creations.

7. Odessey and Oracle by The Zombies

The Zombies were responsible for two of the greatest singles of 1964 (“She’s Not There” and “Tell Her No”), but they’d basically been forgotten by 1967. With their commercial prospects at an end, The Zombies decided to make one final album before breaking up. The band may not have realized it, but they were about to record the most enduring work of their brief career. Odessey and Oracle is a masterpiece of baroque British pop, achieving a marvelous spectrum of colors and styles over the course of its slight 35 minutes. Some of the jazzy soulfulness of the group’s early hits is present in the album’s most famous track, “Time of the Season”, which would become a huge posthumous hit in 1969. The prevailing sounds of Odessey and Oracle are dense, soaring harmonies, glistening piano lines, Mellotron, and exotic percussion. The lyrics can be quite imaginative: Rod Argent’s “Care of Cell 44” conveys the euphoria of a man whose sweetheart is finally being released from prison; Chris White’s “Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914)” is an intense, haunted portrait of the First World War. Most of the others are love songs, but they are some of pop’s finest. No matter the message, nearly every track on Odessey and Oracle is a miniature work of art. Every band should go out on a note as high as this.

6. Ogden’s Nutgone Flake by Small Faces

In a post-Sgt. Pepper world, no one was immune to gratuitous experimentation, not even the Cockney good-ol’ lads in Small Faces. True to form, their experiments are just as humorous, boozy, and hard-hitting as their early R&B interpretations, making Ogden’s Nutgone Flake one of Rock’s least-pretentious concept albums. Side A is made up of unrelated tracks, each one played and sung with typical gusto, whether they are bone-crushing Rockers or chipper music hall treats. Only the side-closing “Lazy Sunday” finds the band expanding on its basic sound, but the embellishments are perfectly chosen and placed sound effects that enhance the picturesque lyrics rather than draw attention to themselves. The real experimentation takes place on Side B, which is a suite of songs that tell the utterly nonsensical story of a goofball’s attempt to find the missing portion of the half moon. Here’s where Small Faces get crazy, dipping their tiny toes into pseudo-Renaissance folk (“Happiness Stan”), fanciful British psychedelia (“The Hungry Intruder”), and barroom sing-a-longs (“Happy Days Toy Town”)…while still leaving room to rock their socks off on the Hendrixy “Rollin’ Over”. The individual episodes of Happiness Stan’s Saga are linked by comedian Stanley Unwin’s spoken pieces, which are as ludicrous as they are uproarious.

5. Astral Weeks by Van Morrison

It’s pretty astonishing that Van Morrison is still making records, because few artists seem less cut out for the record industry than him. Following his first solo hit, “Brown Eyed Girl”, Morrison sat back in horror as producer Bert Berns took his strange, fluid songs and tried to mold them into pop hits. There was no way that cracked pieces like “He Ain’t Give You None” and “T.B. Sheets” (the sweaty tale of a man’s attempt to flee a loved one’s deathbed) could have ended up as anything less than bizarre. Morrison longed to dispense with Rock instrumentation altogether and make a record steeped in acoustic jazz, folk, and blues, a statement entirely personal and unique. There are all sorts of legends about how Astral Weeks was recorded, but the truth is that it was laid down live in the studio over the course of three sessions in the autumn of 1968. Really, the record could not have been made any other way, as the musicians are so clearly playing off of each other and, more importantly, following Morrison’s every dynamic move and soulful whim. Even with Richard Davis’s miraculous stand-up bass playing and John Payne’s magically capricious fluting, the greatest instrument on Astral Weeks is Morrison’s voice, as brassy and full-blooded as Miles Davis’s trumpet. Even when he whispers, which he often does on this record, Morrison sings with torrential power and rich emotion. When he cuts loose— holy shit—step back and get stunned. Just as extraordinary are Morrison’s poetic lyrics, which explore life from childhood through death, emphasizing the significance of romance, sex, desire, and bemused confusion along the way. Van Morrison would make many more great records throughout his career, but never one as transcendent as Astral Weeks.

4. The Beatles by The Beatles

As if The Beatles hadn’t already earned their crown as popular music’s ultimate group, they followed their triumphant Sgt. Pepper with the single greatest encapsulation of popular music ever blasted onto four sides of vinyl. Some have described The Beatles (a.k.a.: “The White Album”)—very accurately— as an encyclopedia of popular music. The Beatles didn’t set out to achieve this self-consciously. They just happened to dig a wide variety of sounds and wrote a titanic wealth of songs during their retreat in India. There was major debate regarding whether or not to put out The Beatles as a double-album. Most of the group favored the double; producer George Martin fought for a single (and, to this day, he still thinks they should have pruned it). Fortunately, the band won out, because The Beatles wouldn’t be The Beatles if it didn’t include all of the zany toss-offs and gimmick songs that make it so fascinatingly sprawling, delightfully indulgent, and deliriously diverse. Nearly every type of existing pop subgenre is present on this 30-track crazy quilt: straight Rock & Roll, surf, psychedelia, hard rock, ska, flamenco, doo-wop, chamber pop, folk, baroque, Country & Western, blues, heavy metal, jazz, soul, musique concrète, and Hollywood schmaltz. If rap was around in 1968, they would have had Ringo beat boxing and Lennon free styling about his smack habit. The Beatles wouldn’t be so enduring if it was nothing more than an exercise in variety. So many of the Fabs’ greatest songs are here (“Happiness is a Warm Gun”, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except For Me and My Monkey”; “Long, Long, Long”, “Cry Baby Cry”, “Dear Prudence”; “Glass Onion”, “Martha My Dear”) scattered amongst the meat and potatoes are nutso experiments and parodies such as “Wild Honey Pie”, “Piggies”, “Goodnight”, “Rocky Racoon”, “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill”, and “Revolution 9”, which is hated by many Beatle fans, but provides The Beatles with its necessary (and really scary) climax. The Beatles released albums that were more consistently strong than their eponymous magnum opus, but the inconsistencies of The Beatles make it all the more enthralling and enveloping.

3. Beggars Banquet by The Rolling Stones

Beggars Banquet isn’t my favorite Rolling Stones album (see my 1967 list for that), but it is their best. Everything that made the Stones great is on full display here: their cynicism, their greasy rhythms and filthy funk, their willingness to get ugly, their reverence for country and Delta blues, their uncanny ability to strike seemingly authentic poses, and their often unpraised way with words. Beggars Banquet may be best known as the album that returned the Stones to solid earth after their cosmic experiments on Their Satanic Majesties Request, but they were smart enough to retain many of the most interesting details that adorned their unfairly maligned psychedelic masterwork. “Street Fighting Man” is such a thrashing rocker that listeners often miss the droning sitar, tamboura, and shehnai in its coda—not to mention the fact that an acoustic, rather than electric, guitar drives the rhythm. Mellotron is still amply used, but in the more organic settings of “Jigsaw Puzzle”, “Stray Cat Blues”, and “Factory Girl”. Beggars Banquet is the most rustic and raw of the Stones’ albums, its songs rooted in country, blues, folk, and basic Rock. Often, Jagger does an unabashed Dylan impersonation in obvious tribute to John Wesley Harding, the album that sent groups scrambling back to their acoustic guitars in early '68. Funnily, Mick Jagger decided that the best way to match the Stones’ newly stripped-down sound was to recast himself as some sort of working-class everyman. The idea of one of Rock’s most decadent studs trying to impersonate Joe Blow is absurd on paper, yet it’s impossible not to be moved by his tribute to the faceless crowd on “Salt of the Earth” and the grimy romance he describes on “Factory Girl”, or marvel at his delirious portrait of societal collapse on “Jigsaw Puzzle”, or feel every bit of the poor boy angst and powerlessness he expresses on “Street Fighting Man”. Perhaps the only way the egomaniacal Jagger could balance such lowly masquerades was to embody the Devil, himself. “Sympathy For the Devil” may be Rock’s greatest historical portrait. Jagger certainly never wrote a better lyric. Every aspect of the song is working for it, from its voodoo frenzy of percussion to Keith Richards’s jittery bass line to his guitar solo, which he slashes out like a stiletto-wielding hooligan. Jagger wields his cock on “Parachute Woman” and the jail-bate fantasy of “Stray Cat Blues”, carving out the sleazy direction the Stones would take through the rest of their career. They would never make music this compelling, fear-inducing, and infectious again.

2. S.F. Sorrow by The Pretty Things  

Holy shit. Abbey Road in 1967? The Beatles were working on reshaping popular music for good with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Next door, Pink Floyd were recording The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, the album that would define space Rock and launch the cult of Syd. Down the hall, The Pretty Things were getting started on the first LP-length Rock Opera. The Pretties’ masterpiece would be ignored upon release, leaving The Who to scoop up the glory the following year when they released their splashy saga of a deaf, dumb, and blind boy. Good for The Who, but it’s a shame for The Pretty Things, who’d have to wait years for an unjustly small cult to develop and appreciate their intricate and innovative work. S.F. Sorrow follows its title character from birth through a traumatic life marked by his experiences in World War II and the tragic death of his girlfriend on to his own death. Like Tommy, Sorrow works best as a collection of individual songs. As such, it is stunning. In their early days, The Pretty Things were one of the loudest, most raucous R&B bands going. They utilized all of that grit and power even when creating psychedelia. Their harmonies are flawless, more lush than those of almost any other group. Dick Taylor’s guitar stings and Twink’s drumming is stormy, whipping up such power on “She Said Good Morning”, “Balloon Burning”, and “Old Man Going” you’ll feel like you’ve been kicked in the face. “Private Sorrow” and “Death” will spook you out, “Trust” and “I See You” will elevate the hairs on your neck. “Bracelets of Fingers” combines all of these qualities into a mini-symphony. It’s sad that S.F. Sorrow wasn’t the massive hit it deserved to be, but being a Rock geek wouldn’t be half as much fun if there weren’t obscure nuggets like it to dig out and cherish.

1. The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society by The Kinks

The greatest works of art transport the appreciator to fully realized, finely detailed, perfectly inhabitable worlds, whether they’re the films of Kubrick and Lynch, the literature of Poe and Melville, or The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society. Each remarkable song is like a visit to a different nook of the Welsh coastal community Ray Davies conjures like a wizard of imagery, characterization, and pathos. Stop at a café to catch up with an old friend with whom you sadly no longer have anything in common. Hurry down to the Main Street drag strip to see tough but sensitive biker Johnny Thunder racing his motorcycle through town. Then it’s on to the abandoned train yard to look nostalgically upon the rusting last of the steam-powered trains. Watch the sunset while sitting by the river side, but be sure to make it home before dark, lest you get lost in the woods and have a puzzling encounter with the mystical Phenomenal Cat or fall prey to local broomstick-rider Wicked Annabella (you may want to pay Monica a visit under her streetlamp if you’re looking for some after hours thrills, though). All the while, the Big Sky hovers overhead, unconcerned with those dashing about the world like trivial ants. Davies captures all of these wonderfully drawn settings and characters perfectly in brief songs economically arranged and absurdly tuneful. The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society is a perfect album, and one that would cause its chief creator as much joy and disappointment as he expresses in its songs. Ray Davies long prepared the album, imagining it as his own solo debut. Recording began back in 1966 when The Kinks were still a fairly commercial property on both sides of the Atlantic, having scored a big hit with “Sunny Afternoon” recently. By the time Village Green emerged as a Kinks record in late ’68, The Kinks had basically been forgotten in both America and England. The album was almost unanimously ignored by record buyers and the press, but a small and vocal minority cottoned to its enchantments. Over the years the cult grew and grew, and The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society is now widely regarded as an impeccable example of British pop and one of the greatest albums of all time. The first time I heard it I was struck with the uncanny sensation that I’d been listening to it my entire life. This is quite appropriate considering the album’s timelessness and fixation on nostalgia. The Kinks rarely fell victim to the trends of their day, and though there are traces of 1968 on the album (the heavy blues of “The Last of the Steam Powered Trains”, the wisps of psychedelia on “Sitting By the Riverside” and the bizarre “Phenomenal Cat”, touches of Raga Rock on “Big Sky”, the fuzzed out Acid Rock of “Wicked Annabella”), it still sounds as though it could have been recorded yesterday—or, say, 1868. The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society is not as flashy as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or as tumultuous as Beggars Banquet, but many who have gone out of their way to hear it regard it as the finest album ever made for its own peculiarly Kinky reasons.

18 More Great Albums from 1968
The Birds, The Bees, & The Monkees by The Monkees
Bonnie and Clyde by Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot
Creedence Clearwater Revival by Creedence Clearwater Revival
Crimson and Clover by Tommy James and the Shondells

The Hurdy Gurdy Man by Donovan
Kafunta by P.P. Arnold
Montage by Montage
The Natch’l Blues by Taj Mahal
The Notorious Byrd Brothers by The Byrds
Os Mutantes by Mutantes
Present Tense by Sagittarius
Reflections by The Supremes
Suddenly One Summer by J.K. & Co.
Sweetheart of the Rodeo by The Byrds
Truth by Jeff Beck
Waiting for the Sun by The Doors
Wee Tam by The Incredible String Band
White Light/White Heat by The Velvet Underground
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