Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Psychobabble’s Twenty Greatest Albums of 1969


Rock and pop hit an unimaginable peak from 1966 to 1968. It was an era of experimentation and imagination that generated such monuments as Revolver, Pet Sounds, Blonde on Blonde, The Who Sell Out, Are You Experienced, Astral Weeks, The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society, and Beggars Banquet. Like all golden ages, it wasn’t supposed to last, and when artists started feeling as though they’d worked themselves into a psychedelic corner, they decided to “return to their roots.” Beggars Banquet, Astral Weeks, and numerous other 1968 releases signaled this change in the weather, and by 1969, any band still relying on their sitars and tape loops were in danger of sounding out-of-date even as “out-of-date” became the new ethos. Acoustic folk and country, electric blues and fifties-style Rock & Roll were back in full swing with a vengeance as massive new artists such as Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Band, and Led Zeppelin got their paws dirty in these rootsy rhythms. As we shall see, experimentation was not gone completely by any means, but its spirit did seem a bit broken. Consequently, 1969 wasn’t quite as exciting a year as the three preceding it, with one foot in the rainbow spectrum of the sixties and one in the earthier tones to come in the seventies. Nevertheless, spectacular albums were still plentiful. Here are twenty of them.

20. Hard ‘n’ Heavy (with Marshmallow) by Paul Revere and the Raiders

Progressiveness and trend following were never major missions of Paul Revere and the Raiders, so their 1969 offering is still comfortingly loaded with mid-sixties signatures. Although they’ve wisely stripped off their stupid American Revolution costumes, the guys are still monkeying around like bubble gummers on the record sleeve (the decision to pose with a tank was a particularly tasteless and witless idea considering what was happening in Southeast Asia), and pushing their garage rock and light psychedelia inside of it. They’ve rarely been more indebted to the Stones than they are on the terribly titled Hard ‘n’ Heavy (with Marshmallow). The naugahyde-rough “Time After Time” is brewed in the broth of 1965’s “Satisfaction”. The sumptuous “Cinderella Sunshine” pulls out everything in the Stones-’66 trick bag: fat-bottomed fuzz bass, churchy organs, marimbas. It sounds like an Aftermath outtake, as does the “Lady Jane”-esque “Trishalana”. Of course, Mark Lindsay is not Mick Jagger, so all the hard rock sounds like it’s been sieved through a mesh of cotton candy. There are other candy and crud morsels to savor throughout Hard ‘n’ Heavy; the hard: “Money Can’t Buy Me”, “Without You”, “Ride on My Shoulder”; the marshmallowy: “Mr. Sun, Mr. Moon”, “Call on Me”. The album is not immune to flashes of limpness (“Out on the Road”, “Hard and Heavy 5 String Banjo”, “Where You Goin’ Girl”) and the idea to give it a sort of linking concept with corny comedy improvs was not good. The bits before “Time After Time” and “Without You” are particularly interminable and unfortunate since they delay the starts of two of the album’s nastiest tracks.

19. Stand! By Sly and the Family Stone

Having rolled out back-to-back potential hits on the concise and combustible Life, Sly and the Family Stone began to metamorphose on Stand! They were torn between remaining a sixties-style hit machine and transforming into a seventies-style jam band on their fourth album. The results are uneven since a couple of the jams don’t really go anywhere. “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey” is a plodding thing that doesn’t earn its incendiary title, saying nothing more insightful than that phrase, or in turn, “Don’t call me whitey, nigger,” which undercuts the song’s message since calling a white person “whitey” doesn’t cut nearly as deeply as the alternative. “Sex Machine” is a muddy instrumental that hints at what would come on There’s a Riot Going On (sans that album’s disturbing lyricism, of course), but at nearly fourteen minutes it’s a waste of vinyl. This amazing band gets an infinitely better vehicle for showing off their skills on the transcendent “I Want to Take You Higher”. The rest of Stand! continues to map out how great the Family’s shorter 45-ready songs are. The inspirational title track, the brick-hard funk “Sing a Simple Song”, the heartbeat pulse “Everyday People”, the horn-fed “You Can Make It If You Try”, and the sly, jazzy, and paranoid “Somebody’s Watching You” are some of their best tracks. Had those two jams been clipped to make room for more of this kind of material, Stand! would stand a lot higher on this list.

18. Barabajagal by Donovan

In an era defined by wild diversity, Donovan tended to make exceptionally cohesive albums from the man with a guitar folkiness of his first two albums to the Swinging London raga-folk of Sunshine Superman to the jazziness of Mellow Yellow to the spare children’s ditties of A Gift from a Flower to a Garden. With 1968’s The Hurdy Gurdy Man, he started to jumble up those sounds a bit. 1969’s Barabajagal plays even more like a showcase for everything the artist had learned than a cohesive album, particularly because the tracks he recorded with The Jeff Beck Group are so unlike the rest of the record. This means Barabajagal is kind of a jarring listen, but most of the individual tracks are great. The title track is an ecstatic slab of sleazy soul with Beck’s band jamming with white-hot intensity and Leslie Duncan and Madeline Bell’s larynx-destroying back ups pushing the whole crazed thing off the cliff. Elsewhere, we’re in more familiar Donovan territory. There’s a bit of acid rock (“Superlungs, My Supergirl”, featuring a more subdued Jeff Beck Group), a bit of fey folk (“Where is She?”), a bit of calypso (“The Love Song”), a couple more ditties for the kiddies (“I Love My Shirt”; “Happiness Runs”), some anti-war protest (“To Susan on the West Coast Waiting”), music hall (“Pamela Jo”), and one sublime Beatlesque anthem (“Atlantis”). Donovan would be back on more cohesive ground with his next album, the very good Open Road, but Barabajagal would be his last great one.



17. Stand Up by Jethro Tull

It wouldn’t be long before Jethro Tull came down with a severe case of conceptitis, winning them a devoted flock of prog heads but losing their grasp on what makes a song good. On their second album they still had that down pat, so it’s a shame Stand Up doesn’t get more attention than Aqualung or Thick as a Brick. Those who might be embarrassed to ever crank the volume on Tull’s hugest records should be informed that there isn’t a track on Stand Up longer than four and a half minutes, and the baroque pretentions are limited to an adaptation of Bach’s “Bourée in E minor”. This isn’t nearly as silly as it sounds, rhythm section Glenn Cornick and Clive Bunker toughening “Bourée’ into convincing Rock & Roll, Ian Anderson working his black magic on his flute like a squawking, squealing, huffing, puffing freak. The manic-balalaika jangling of “Fat Man” is another powerful piece of pre-Rock & Roll strangeness, but Tull keep themselves in the present for the majority of the excellent Stand Up, producing some awesome mounds of heavy blues rock (“A New Day Yesterday”, “Nothing Is Easy”, “For a Thousand Mothers”), evocative and beautiful feathers of trippy folk rock (“Jeffrey Goes to Leicester Square”, “Look into the Sun”, “We Used to Know”, “Reasons for Waiting”), and a really cool union of both (“Back to the Family”).

16. Liege & Lief by Fairport Convention

Like the early Jethro Tull, Fairport Convention balanced English folk and American Rock & Roll brilliantly, enjoying the considerable boon of Sandy Denny’s intense vocals. Some of her most powerful work can be heard on Leige & Lief, the first Fairport album to really own the band’s obsessions with all things olde tyme. Only three of the tracks are band originals. The rest are culled from a dusty songbook of English and Scottish traditional ballads. Across an invigoratingly rocked up selection of standards and band compositions, Denny belts a hearty wake-up call (“Come All Ye”), tingles the spine on a campfire yarn about a werefox (“Reynardine”), breaks hearts while relating the unjust execution of a pacifist (“The Deserter”) and trilling a song of parting (“Farewell, Farewell”, another original), and spins witchy tales like a proto Stevie Nicks (the medieval ballad “Tam Lin”). A successful solo career made Richard Thompson the most high-profile member of Fairport Convention, and his tasteful yet forceful guitar work should not be underestimated (nor should his haunting compositions “Farewell, Farewell” and “Crazy Man Michael”), but the most underrated weapon in the group’s arsenal is crazed fiddler Dave Swarbrick, who also arranged the stormy “Tam Lin” and the manic jig “Medley”. Liege & Lief hit a high for Fairport Convention, solidifying them as the voices of the new English folk-rock movement right before Sandy Denny moved on to her new band Fotheringay, leaving the Convention deprived of their key conventioneer.

15. Volunteers by Jefferson Airplane

In their early days, Fairport Convention was often referred to as the British Jefferson Airplane, so it’s a coincidence that both bands were pulling apart and the same time. After four strong and distinct albums, the Airplane was feeling weary by 1969. The band’s founder, Marty Balin, was unhappy about the third-class band member status he’d been stuck with after Surrealistic Pillow, and the band was feeling hindered by drummer Spencer Dryden’s inability to hit as hard as guitarist Jorma Kaukonen or monster-fingered bassist Jack Cassady. Volunteers would be Balin and Dryden’s last LP with Jefferson Airplane (at least until Balin rejoined for a bad reunion disc in 1989), leaving it the last record by the group’s “classic” line up. While Dryden’s lack of thrust is noticeable on Volunteers, the other members more than make up for it with Kaukonen and Cassady whipping up a hurricane on anarchic the anthems “We Can Be Together”, “Volunteers”, and “Wooden Ships”. Ironically, the themes of all these tracks are solidity and community against a corrupt, war-mongering system just as the band was at its least together. Grace Slick also made her stance on environmentalism clear on the no-punches pulled “Eskimo Blue Day” (“the human dream doesn’t mean shit to a tree”), and the band made their political party of choice explicit by tossing in an instrumental cover of the traditional Soviet song “Polyushko-polye” (retitled “Meadowlands”) and trumpeting communal values on “The Farm”. Like Fairport Convention, Jefferson Airplane would deal with their losses and move on to make more records, though they would not last as long as Fairport, possibly because they failed to make another album as good as Volunteers.

14. In the Court of the Crimson King by King Crimson

King Crimson is the only prog-rock group with an air of hipness, not just because hip icons like Kurt Cobain and Robert Pollard sang the band’s praises, but because King Crimson made some of the hardest-hitting, most genuinely “out there” records in the genre. Their debut album may be most famous for its hideous record sleeve, but it’s the music that stands as what might be the greatest statement in all progressive rock. “21st Century Schizoid Man” gets the album started like a TNT plunger. An elephantine riff provides the track’s heavy metal hook. All of the dizzying saxophone/guitar/bass/drum interplay in the middle-section is like something from an Ornette Coleman record. “I Talk to the Wind” couldn’t be a more radical change of pace, with its pastoral woodwinds, poetic lyrics, and atmosphere of autumnal reflection. “Moonchild” is even airier, although its stark spookiness keeps it from floating away completely (the interminable noodling at the end of the track is pretty unsatisfying, though). The twin dirges “Epitaph” and “The Court of the Crimson King” blend such heaviness and lightness masterfully. In the Court of the Crimson King is also uncommonly emotive for prog rock, even if its dark fairy tale lyrics aren’t relatable to anyone who doesn’t spend their summers on Middle Earth. It is also strikingly vivid for such a gloomy record, as much a product of Beatles-derived psychedelia as a portent of the pretentions of progressive rock, and it achieves a masterful balance between both poles.

13. Five Leaves Left by Nick Drake

Nick Drake was basically unheard of during his lifetime, but he has since become a formidable cult figure. The influence of his gentle, personal, and very, very dark folk rock has profoundly affected the work of R.E.M., Belle and Sebastian, Elliott Smith, and countless others. His debut album finds him at his moodiest. Texturally and structurally, Five Leaves Left is very similar to Van Morrison’s, Astral Weeks, with its simple, modal songs arranged for acoustic guitar, stand-up bass, and strings. Drake’s record also shares Morrison’s obsession with death and romance. Where the two records diverge dramatically is Five Leaves Left’s complete lack of the feral eroticism that drives Astral Weeks. Drake’s lyrics are devoid of sex, and his voice is polite and resigned, further muted by a fey, shy lisp. It is difficult to listen to the album without considering Drake’s Drake early death by overdose just five years after its release, especially when so many of the songs can be read morbidly (and soothsaying-minded fans like to read a lot into the album’s title). Is the “River Man” Charon, the hooded figure of Greek mythology who ferries the dead across the river Styx? Is the “day” of “Day Is Done” a metaphor for life? Is the “place in the cloud” to which Drake dreams of being lifted in “Cello Song” a metaphor for death? When Drake isn’t teasing death themes, he’s singing of retreating into isolation (“Three Hours”) or finding the opposite sex evocatively inscrutable (“The Thoughts of Mary Jane”) or both (“Man in a Shed”). Unsettled yet resigned, grim yet beautifully sung and arranged, Five Leaves Left is a one of folk-pop’s most fascinating and exquisite pieces of uneasy listening.

12. The Velvet Underground by The Velvet Underground

The Velvet Underground couldn’t have sounded more different from White Light/White Heat, the feedback-saturated freak-out that preceded it. The prevailing sound of the band’s eponymous third album is shimmery acoustic guitars, lazy rhythms, and whispered vocals—many of them whispered by new guy Doug Ewell, whose boyish tone won’t be mistaken for Lou Reed’s grizzled grunt. The Velvet Underground is almost as intense an experience as White Light/White Heat, though it’s more like spending a long, dark night of the soul over flickering candlelight than shooting speed while getting blown by a hooker in drag. Meditative tracks such as “Candy Says”, “Pale Blue Eyes”, “I’m Set Free”, and “Jesus” are the album’s defining pieces. “What Goes On” and “Beginning to See the Light” are a couple of euphoric rockers murky enough to avoid feeling out of place. Then it all comes to a surreal conclusion with the lengthy, babbling “Murder Mystery”, the strangest and scariest piece on The Velvet Underground, and the disarmingly jaunty, yet lyrically dejected, “After Hours”, featuring a Ringo-esque vocal by Mo Tucker. This two-song finale is a weird juxtaposition of songs reminiscent of the way “Revolution 9” and “Good Night” concluded The Beatles. The Velvet Underground’s poppy next album would invite even more Beatles comparisons, and it’s drastic break from The Velvet Underground’s somberness is further evidence of how unpredictable the band was.

11. Led Zeppelin by Led Zeppelin

It’s pretty impossible to imagine today, but when Led Zeppelin released their debut, critics reviled the album, the band, and everyone juvenile enough to adopt it as the new gospel. They probably just didn’t understand that they were witnessing the invention of an entirely new genre. Groups like Cream and The Jimi Hendrix Experience (and even The Beatles with “Helter Skelter”) had laid the groundwork for what would become known as heavy metal, but it was Led Zeppelin that created the first full-blooded metal record. All of the elements that would define the genre are already present on Led Zeppelin: the mid-tempo pile-driver riffs, the grotesque bastardization of the blues, the absurd banshee vocals and six-string histrionics, the trouser-snake obsession, the bombast, the doominess, even the speed (and it wouldn’t be out of line to crown “Communication Breakdown” the first hardcore punk recording). Still, Led Zeppelin is more varied than critics—and even some fans—recognize. The head-banging blow outs “Communication Breakdown”, “How Many More Times”, “You Shook Me”, “Dazed and Confused”, and the incredible funk-hard rock fusion “Good Times, Bad Times”, which announces John Bonham and John Paul Jones as rock’s tightest new rhythm section, sometimes overshadow the raga folk instrumental “Black Mountain Side” or the rousing gospel-tinged “Your Time is Gonna Come” or the fact that the group was already versatile enough to rework “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”— a song they originally heard on a Joan Baez record of all things! Led Zeppelin is not the band’s best album, but it is one of rock’s most important ones.

10. Introspection by The End

Bill Wyman pulled off an unimaginable feat by breaking Jagger and Richards’s songwriting monopoly and getting his “In Another Land” onto Their Satanic Majesties Request. Buoyed by this achievement, Wyman started writing follow-ups to the track, but there would be no repeating his accomplishment. Although the Stones recorded his “Down Town Suzie” during sessions for Beggars Banquet, the song wouldn’t make the final cut of that record (even though it’s better than some of the songs that made it on there). He never again sneaked one of his songs onto a Stones album, but he may have already suspected that would happen since in late 1967 he was peddling songs to another band called The End. Wyman had actually been using The End as an outlet for his creativity since co-producing their single “I Can’t Get Any Joy” with Glyn Johns in 1965. When he corralled them back into the studio in 1967 to record two of his own co-compositions, “Shades of Orange” and “Loving Sacred Loving”, he ended up producing an entire album for the band, though Introspection would not see release until 1969 because The End lacked an attentive manager to see it through. By the time it appeared, its swirl of Mellotrons and tripped-out harmonies sounded out-of-touch with the year’s heavy blues and backwoods country-rock. That doesn’t make it any less of a fabulous album. The one mistake was the inclusion of a corny sing-a-long around the piano of “She Said Yeah”, a Larry Williams song The Rolling Stones cut as a feedback-saturated monster in ’65. Any comparison with the Stones should end there even though Introspection has often been compared to Their Satanic Majesties Request. That’s just because it’s psychedelic and Wyman was involved in its making, but The End’s poppy album really sounds nothing like Satanic’s avant garde exoticism. Introspection is a lot poppier, and terrific tracks such as “Cardboard Watch”, “What Does It Feel Like”, and “Under the Rainbow” would have sounded at home on 1967 radio. In 1969, it was doomed to flop, which it did. That just makes it more of a wonderful discovery for the obscure psychedelia treasure hunters of today.

9. Arthur, or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire by The Kinks

In late 1968, Ray Davies and playwright Julian Mitchell began work on a teleplay inspired by the state of post-World War II Britain and the emigration of his sister Rose (and her husband Arthur) from England to Australia. The TV program was never produced, but the twelve songs Davies wrote for its soundtrack became the basis of the least pretentious rock opera of its time. Unlike The Who’s Tommy or The Pretty Things’ S.F. Sorrow or Small Faces’ Ogden’s Nutgone Flake, there aren’t any acid trips or mystical journeys on Arthur, or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire. It’s all very unhip and very British—in other words, it’s very Kinks. Still, considering that Arthur was released at the height of the Vietnam War, American listeners (who took to the album more enthusiastically than British ones did) probably heard anti-war, anti-military statements like “Yes Sir, No Sir”, “Some Mother’s Son”, and “Brainwashed” as completely relevant comments on the state of the world in 1969. Musically, this is a more rocking record than The Kinks previous few releases, and the band sounds more than pleased with the opportunities to whip up a noise on “Brainwashed”, “Australia”, “Nothing to Say”, “Arthur”, and “Victoria” (listen to Dave Davies hooting and hollering with joy off mic). Even the tracks that don’t begin as such eventually boil into Rock & Roll. “She Bought a Hat Like Princess Marina” starts off all prim and proper before exploding into a knees up of chugging guitars and daffy kazooing. The classic “Shangri-La” begins with delicately plucked acoustic guitar and gentle vocals, but soon develops into one of the toughest songs The Kinks recorded in the late sixties. On the down side, Arthur reveals its origin as soundtrack music when a few songs meander on too long because they were intended to play out over long scenes in the TV movie. These aimless stretches in the otherwise excellent “Australia”, “Mr. Churchill Says”, and “Arthur” make the album feel a bit undisciplined when precision had been key strengths of The Kinks’ two best records, Something Else and Village Green Preservation Society. Arthur is not as immaculate as those albums. Few albums are.

8. Let It Bleed by The Rolling Stones

Let It Bleed was a very appropriate way for The Rolling Stones—and by “The Rolling Stones” I mean “Rock & Roll”—to say “fuck off” to the sixties. By the end of that decade, all of the hippie idealism that had built up since the Stones started making hits in ’64 had been pummeled by multiple assassinations, riots, police brutality, the election of Richard Nixon, and the ongoing mess in Vietnam. “Gimme Shelter”, with its horrifying refrain of “Rape, murder, it’s just a shot away”, distills that violence. “Midnight Rambler”, a gleeful, first-person peek through the eyes of the Boston Strangler, swells it to epic size. The other tracks are not quite as bloodletting as these two, though they are rarely less cynical. The funky “Monkey Man” is Jagger’s hilarious mockery of his own cartoonish image. “Live With Me”, which sports the Stones’ best bass line (played by Keith Richards), is a mock-love song more into porno scenarios than conventional romance. The title track is a nasty plea for companionship that offers, “We all need someone we can bleed on, and if you want to, you can bleed on me.” “You Got the Silver” (featuring Richards’s first ragged solo vocal) and the cover of Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain” brood on isolation. Let It Bleed culminates with the operatic “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”, a sort of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” for an audience far more jaded than the one to which Jagger sang back in 1965. The Stones sound more jaded than ever too as they pander to their audience’s basest instincts. That audience has largely responded with appreciation since Let It Bleed is regularly rated with Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street as one of the band’s best albums. This praise for the first Stones album that could really be called formulaic (read this old post to see how closely it mirrored Beggars Banquet) may have hindered the band’s creativity. It was as if the critical hammering Their Satanic Majesties Request received scared them away from ever rocking the boat too much again. Using a choir on “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is really the only time the Stones stretch themselves beyond tried and true methods. The percentage of marginal tracks (“Love in Vain”, the daffy rural parodies “Country Honk” and “Let It Bleed”) is also too high for Let It Bleed’s place among the Stones’ greatest albums to really hold true. Nevertheless, a record with such major ones as “Gimme Shelter”, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”, “Midnight Rambler”, and “You Got the Silver” couldn’t be anything less than a classic.

7. Green River by Creedence Clearwater Revival

Bizarrely, Creedence Clearwater Revival was pretty unhip back in the sixties, even though they made some of the hardest, darkest Rock & Roll of that period. When it was fashionable to play endless guitar and drum solos, Creedence was at their best when pumping out punchy two-minute singles that mopped the floor with their more self-indulgent contemporaries. John Fogerty occasionally proved that he could be as pretentious as any other group, and there are a fair share of long jams on the band’s eponymous debut and Bayou Country, and there’d be a few more on records to come, but there’s no evidence of that on Green River. This album is downright old-fashioned in its format: a clutch of classic hit singles, a few strong album tracks, and an old R&B cover thrown in for good measure. This is basically the formula that made The Beatles’ Capitol albums so much fun, yet it was hardly trendy in 1969. Of course, those early Beatles albums were never as unrelentingly dark as Green River is. Death and apocalyptic visions plague “Tombstone Shadow”, “Sinister Purpose”, the huge hit “Bad Moon Rising”, and the funky, swampy title track. “Commotion” is an indictment of the frantic pace of urban life, while “Wrote a Song for Everyone” and “Lodi” are aching rural soul numbers about the failure to connect. Critics who dismissed Creedence Clearwater Revival as a sort of bubblegum band must have had cotton in their ears when listening to these dark songs, and anyone who failed to recognize Fogerty’s exceptional craftsmanship had his head up his ass too. The only problem with Green River is that there isn’t enough of it: just nine songs in under thirty minutes. Fortunately, Creedence was a really prolific band that did not leave their considerable audience wanting more for long. In fact, Green River was already Creedence’s second album of 1969, and there’d be another one by the end of the year! That fast-paced release schedule was yet another old-fashioned aspect of one of the best new bands of the late sixties.

6. Nazz Nazz by Nazz

This was not supposed to be Nazz’s second album, at least as far as Todd Rundgren was concerned. He planned on a double-vinyl opus called Fungo Bat, but certain members of the group felt putting out a double-disc so early in the band’s career was too risky, while also balking at the increasingly sensitive songs Rundgren was composing. Nazz started deteriorating shortly thereafter. With the reality that the band might not be around much longer, a decision was made to cherry pick the Fungo Bat sessions for the best material and release the single-disc album we now know as Nazz Nazz (the remainder of the Fungo Bat material would end up on the band’s final album, Nazz III, the following year). As it stands, Nazz Nazz is Nazz’s most consistently original and exciting record, and while it failed to produce a timeless classic along the lines of “Open Your Eyes”, “Forget All About It” is just as great. One might assume that getting to play stuff as hard rocking as “Forget All About It”, “Rain Rider”, “Hang on Paul”, and the near-metal “Under the Ice”, or as hilarious as the cop-baiting Beatle-homage “Meridian Leeward”, should have been enough to appease Nazz’s more ballad-phobic members, but what are you gonna do? That those guys disliked Rundgren’s ballads seems particularly clueless in light of the beauty of “Gonna Cry Today” and “Letters Don’t Count”. Conversely, “A Beautiful Song” is interminable and only starts to live up to its name about seven minutes into the track. Despite that one issue, Nazz Nazz is an excellent album that deserves as much acclaim as anything else Rundgren ever had his eclectic hands in.

5. Turtle Soup by The Turtles

The Turtles must have been determined to make their final album exceptional. They hired Ray Davies to produce it right after he’d completed his masterpiece, The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society. They also wrote the most mature, most well developed songs of their career. Fans of charmingly smarmy hits like “She’d Rather Be With Me” and “Elenore” may have been disappointed that such fare was in short order on Turtle Soup, but that’s probably neither here nor there since hardly anyone actually bought the album. Unlike its fellow commercial flops Village Green, The Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle, and Love’s Forever Changes, Turtle Soup has never developed a cult following. That’s unfair to a fabulous record. Each song is a perfectly crafted, witty pop song performed with big energy and arranged with Davies’s ear for acoustic instrumentation and little details, such as the tick-tocking percussion and strings on “John and Julie” and the Wagnerian brass bursts on “How You Loved Me” and “Love in the City”, a failed single that deserved to be a hit. Turtle Soup is also cool because it gave each member of the band a shot at singing and writing, so the record is sincerely eclectic without the trivial parodic tinges of their previous record, The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands. There’s some great boogey (“Come Over”, “Bachelor Mother”), jangle pop (the exhilarating “She Always Leaves Me Laughing”), anthems (“How You Loved Me”, “Love in the City”), delicate balladry (“John and Julie”), hornball rock (“Hot Little Hands”), nocturnal mood music (“Somewhere Friday Night”), country waltzing (“Dance This Dance”), and classic Turtles pop (“You Don’t Have to Walk in the Rain”). With it’s commercial failure, Turtle Soup ended up being The Turtles’ last album. It sent the guys off on a high note, even though all but the most devoted cultists are aware of that today.

4. Tommy by The Who

Tommy totally changed The Who’s career. Before it they were fumbling for an identity and hadn’t made a significant impression in the commercially crucial U.S. market yet. Tommy gave them the conceptual hook for which they’d been searching. It also consumed them for much of the rest of their career. That’s the downside as The Who ceased to be a great singles-act and started favoring progressive heft and highfalutin concepts over the humor and pithiness that made their sixties work so amazing (not that the rock opera is devoid of humor; “Pinball Wizard”, “Cousin Kevin”, and “Fiddle About” are all bad-taste comedy numbers that would make John Waters jealous and “Tommy’s Holiday Camp” is as silly as The Who ever got—and they could get pretty silly). Tommy would also go on to inspire an appalling film, an appalling all-star record with the London Symphony Orchestra, and a Broadway musical that I can only assume was as appalling as everything else the rock opera birthed. The album, itself, is difficult to assess without all the baggage that goes with it. The rock opera concept was undoubtedly revolutionary, but the storyline of Tommy is goofy: kid is struck deaf, dumb, and blind after witnessing his father murdering his mother’s lover but gets back on track as a pinball playing messiah. Taken as two discs of The Who’s latest songs, however, Tommy is wonderful. With The Who Sell Out, the band best known for smashing their instruments developed a sound that was both crushing and ethereal, their three-part harmonies being especially glorious. That sound persists on Tommy. Inside or outside the opera’s wacko plot, “Christmas”, “Sensation”, “Cousin Kevin”, “Amazing Journey/Sparks”, “1921”, and “Go to the Mirror!” are among The Who’s best songs. There is certainly filler on this double record, but even that is quite beautiful. “Underture” is little more than an extended riff on “Sparks” (which was already an extended riff on “Rael” from Sell Out) clearly included to bring Side B up to an acceptable length. It’s still a hypnotic track with some of Keith Moon’s fieriest drumming. All of the time the band spent on the road before recording Tommy is fully evident on disc for the first time. Daltrey’s vocals are stronger than ever, and with “Sparks”, Entwistle is finally allowed to cut loose in the studio the way he always did on stage.

3. Abbey Road by The Beatles

It’s common knowledge that Let It Be is the last album The Beatles released, and Abbey Road is the last one they actually recorded. Incredibly, they were still altering the face of popular music at the end. Using a medley as a resting place for unfinished songs was a stroke of genius that makes for a fascinating sprint through so many of the qualities that made The Beatles the most beloved band in pop history. Their irresistible melodies, unparalleled harmonies, oddball character sketches, and Liverpudlian humor segue until “The End”, on which each guy steps forward to take a final solo (even the ever reluctant Ringo) before famously declaring “the love you take is equal to the love you make.” But first there’s a heap of stand-alone songs that point to where each Beatle would take his respective solo career. On “Come Together” and “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, John Lennon dishes out the pared-down Rock & Roll and bone-rattling self-exorcism that would dominate Plastic Ono Band, and the haunting “Because” presaged the delicacy of that album’s “Love”. If Paul McCartney’s silly “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” is the most accurate indicator of how he’d often diddle about during his solo career, “Oh! Darling” proved he could still rock when he wanted to. McCartney would also serially attempt to recreate the Side B medley on Wings records from Red Rose Speedway to Venus and Mars to Back to the Egg. The masterful mini-medley “You Never Give Me Your Money” summed up all his best attributes. Ringo’s “Octopus’s Garden” shows that the most likable Beatle would continue to be likable (and lightweight). However, it is George Harrison’s “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun” that suggests the quiet one might have the most promising solo career of all. Though he would totally expend all of that promise on his first album, the results would be the single greatest Beatle solo album and the greatest pop album of the seventies, All Things Must Pass. Abbey Road may be a bit too slick for its own good, but it is a far more fitting farewell than the cobbled together Let It Be.

2. The Band by The Band

Deciding which of the final two albums on this list would take the top spot was really, really difficult. I even considered having them share number one until I stopped kidding myself and put my personal favorite at the top (these “Great Albums” lists are nothing if not personal). I will concede that I’m probably in the minority on this decision, so feel free to swap the number two and number one positions if it makes you feel better. Putting The Band sure wouldn’t be unwarranted since it is one of the most influential albums in a year that gave us such massively influential ones as Led Zeppelin, Five Leaves Left, Tommy, and Abbey Road. Great as those records are, none define 1969 as perfectly as The Band. The Band’s second record encapsulates that year’s retro-focus, with its earthy collection of Dixieland, American folk, waltz, and country sounds. Much of this was present on Music from Big Pink, too, but The Band beats that debut with a flawless line up of completely original material brilliantly arranged. They layer such antiquated instruments as mouth harp, tuba, accordion, and mandolin over their rootsy songs. The lyrical concerns are straight out of the past too: the fall of the Confederate Army (hoorah!) on “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, mud pie romance on “Up on Cripple Creek”, farming on “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)”, and the emigration of Canadian pioneers on “Across the Great Divide”. Even the sepia cover photo of the shaggy group looks like it was shot a hundred years before the record was recorded. The Band is as much a rousing listen as it is a Cliff’s Notes history lesson, the guys sounding even looser and more confident than they did on Music From Big Pink. There certainly have never been songs as totally hick and totally funky as “Rag Mama Rag” or “Up On Cripple Creek”. On “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, “Rockin’ Chair”, and “The Unfaithful Servant” they achieve an unparalleled dignity. “Jawbone” finds The Band at their most delightfully eccentric, “Whispering Pines” at their most ethereal. The gruff harmonies of Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, and Rick Danko tussle and tangle and intertwine like no other. Perhaps there wasn’t a finer album in 1969, but my personal preference goes to…

1. A Salty Dog by Procol Harum

…an album by a band that, believe it or not, The Band was often accused of aping early in their career. Taking in their complete bodies of work, The Band and Procol Harum seem to have little in common. One group is salt of the Earth; the other is mystical and Gothic. One group is rich in Americana; the other is distinctly English. One group draws heavily on folk, blues, and country; the other can cite Bach as a main influence. Yet on Procol’s third and greatest album, the comparison does hold some water. This is that otherworldly band at their most rustic and rooted, with major doses of folk, blues, and country in their wizard’s cauldron. Lyricist Keith Reid’s concerns are less out there on A Salty Dog than they’d been on the death-laden debut album or the weirdly philosophical Shine On Brightly. A Salty Dog almost plays as a nautical concept album, and it has as much in common with the stories of Herman Melville as it does the sounds of The Band. Reid captures former-sailor Melville’s fascination with the sea, as well as his obsessions with death, destiny, and futility, in several songs. The band created music worthy of the precisely picturesque words, crafting majestic soundscapes to compliment Reid’s seascapes. Using an eclectic assortment of styles (sweeping dirges, stripped-down blues, airy folk, heavy rock, soul, classically-tinged pop), instruments (various mallets, full orchestration, horns, pipes, percussion), and singers (chief Procol singer Gary Brooker shares mic time with organist Matthew Fisher, who sounds a bit like The Zombies’ Colin Blunstone, and sandpaper-voiced guitarist Robin Trower), Procol Harum fashioned a complete sensory experience through music. Close your eyes and imagine the slow churn of the waves beneath a ship gone adrift while listening to their masterpiece, “A Salty Dog”. See a mighty whaler being tossed and tumbled like a toy boat on a stormy sea during Fisher’s breathtaking “Wreck of the Hesperus”. Languish before images of a tropical island revelry while taking in his “Boredom”. Feel the calm breeze gently rolling off the ocean during the wistful “Too Much Between Us”. Shudder before mightily crashing waves during “The Devil Came From Kansas”, which features a simple, but ingenious, fill that seesaws between handclaps and drums. B.J. Wilson’s drumming throughout the record is among the best on any rock record, as is Gary Brooker’s awesome singing, especially on the title track and the grand “All This and More”. A Salty Dog is not the best-loved album of 1969, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s the best.

Twelve More Great Albums from 1969
20/20 by The Beach Boys
Bayou Country by Creedence Clearwater Revival
Bless Its Pointed Little Head by Jefferson Airplane
Blind Faith by Blind Faith
Crosby, Stills, and Nash by Crosby, Stills, and Nash
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere by Neil Young
Instant Replay by The Monkees
Led Zeppelin II by Led Zeppelin
The Monkees Present by The Monkees
The Stooges by The Stooges
Unhalfbricking by Fairport Convention
Willy and the Poor Boys by Creedence Clearwater Revival
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