Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Psychobabble’s Ten Greatest Albums of 1964

If March 22, 1963— the day The Beatles’ released Please Please Me— was the album era’s date of conception, then 1964 was its year of infancy. As The British invaded and the singles charts remained key for kids, a higher-quality crop of LPs was just starting to sprout too. As we shall see, two artists were particularly reliable, but Bob Dylan and The Beatles were not the only makers of excellent albums in 1964. A number of the year’s best were the very first efforts from some of the decade’s defining rock and soul stars. And if only one of the following albums stands as its artist’s defining long-playing statement, all are distinctive for appearing before a lick of self-conscious artistry sneaked into the music. In the year before “Yesterday”, “Desolation Row”, and “California Girls”, the defining sound was simple, exuberant. Hell, even Dylan started getting poppy! So pop on your Beatle wig and yowl “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” Here are Psychobabble’s Ten Greatest Albums of 1964!

10. Kinks by The Kinks

The chemical formula of all pre-’65 British pop LPs is on fiery display on Kinks. Take a few Chuck Berry covers, a few blues nuggets, a snatch of originals by a budding songwriting genius, and one monumental single, and you have everything necessary to convince teens to part with five bucks. Unlike The Rolling Stones or The Beatles, The Kinks cannot keep their essential Britishness in check when doing those Berry and Blues songs, so things like “Beautiful Delilah” and “Too Much Monkey Business” sound more poppy, if not necessarily more polite, in their hands. Dave Davies’s naturally ravaged voice makes the former track sufficiently rude, but Ray’s grinning sigh is already audible on the latter one. He sounds a lot more at home on his own material, whether screaming through the psychotic “You Really Got Me”, pumping through the Mersey Beat styles of “I Took My Baby Home” and “I Just Can’t Go to Sleep”, or choking up throats with the swaying “Stop Your Sobbing”. Dave’s guitar work, on the other hand, sounds like a tormented bull barreling out of its corral on its way to gore a matador for the first time. Compared to what would come later, Kinks is definitely a lesser Kinks album, but no other record finds them sounding this raw and hungry, even as it remains decidedly poppy.

9. Pain in My Heart by Otis Redding

Speaking of raw and hungry, no other record on this list conveys those states more shatteringly than Pain in My Heart. Even the title is a bloody statement of emotion. By common accounts, Otis was actually a sweet, good-natured, happy guy. He still managed to pull things from his soul that made that pain sound nothing but 100% authentic. The title track, “These Arms of Mine”, “That’s What My Heart Needs”, “Security”, and Otis’s astonishing cover of Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me” will turn your knees to jam and drop you to the carpet. But let’s not get too bogged down in that pain, because there’s a ton of joy on this record too, with the man inviting you to dance the Rufus Thomas-way on “The Dog”, and turning your skull into rubble with his own screamer “Hey Hey Baby”. If “Pain in My Heart” is the heart of this record, than “Hey Hey Baby” is its wiggling legs; Otis at his wildest and most goddamned fun.

8. Where Did Our Love Go by The Supremes

Otis Redding and his Memphis Stax associates made soul that slit itself up the abdomen and spilled its guts all over the floor. Up north to Detroit, Motown scooped up those guts, sewed up that abdomen, and draped a sequined gown around it. No group embodied the elegance of Motown better than the aptly named Supremes. They looked beautiful with their plastered on smiles and plastered on evening wear, but listen closely, because there is real emotion in their music, and the restraint of it is as emotionally affecting in its way as any Otis Redding wail. Diana Ross’s elongated “Mmmmms” on the title track of her group’s second album marinates in longing, sadness, and the underlying eroticism at the core of all The Supremes’ hits. “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes” lets that eroticism bust on through those wigs and gowns. Pure joy. As excellent as album cuts like “Long Gone Lover” and “I’m Standing at the Crossroads of Love” are, the key strength of an album from a label that paid far less mind to its albums than its singles is its reliance on singles. When Where Did Our Love Go came out in August 1964, half of the album had already been released as 45 rpm A-sides (another two were Bs). So its place on this list may seem like a bit of cheat—a near-greatest hits masquerading as a proper new album—but take it easy. This was 1964. The album was not yet regarded as a work of art (especially not by Motown). Just dig the fact that you totally get your money’s worth with Where Did Our Love Go. It’s not the only great long player of 1964 to draw its main strength from short players… as my top choice on this list reiterates.

7. The Rolling Stones by The Rolling Stones

One of the striking things about Kinks is that Ray Davies was coming up with material like “You Really Got Me”, “Stop Your Sobbing”, and “Just Can’t Get to Sleep” when he was just twenty-years old. One of the striking things about The Rolling Stones is that one of the greatest songwriting teams of the 1960s (do I dare call them the greatest?) wasn’t doing shit on their debut. The only Jagger/Richards original on their first album is “Tell Me”, which is much more memorable for its cavemen-play-“Earth-Angel” approach than the song itself. Of all the key British rock debuts, none are more dependent on performance than The Rolling Stones. Good thing that these boys can fucking play. They rampage through warhorses like “Route 66”, “Walking the Dog”, and “I Just Want to Make Love to You” like Attila’s Huns. They get more creative with the blues, transforming Bo Diddley’s “Mona” into cosmic mood music and Slim Harpo’s “I’m a King Bee” into a sexed-up slide down a helter skelter. The one weak point of The Rolling Stones is that its most celebrated contributor hasn’t matured yet. Mick Jagger sounds particularly green when trying to sing soul, leaving “Can I Get a Witness” and “You Can Make It If You Try” as the weakest vocal tracks on the record (the weakest overall track is a sped-up instrumental version of “Witness” that sounds like it should be playing over Keystone Cops footage). That’s OK. Mick will catch up soon enough, he and Keith will start writing classics, and Brian will hang up his harp and guitar and pick up his sitars, Mellotrons, and dulcimers. The Stones will start making their greatest records in a couple of years. Until then, there’s this proof that before they were consummate record makers, Brian, Keith, Bill, and Charlie were a great fucking band.

5. & 6. The Times They Are A-Changin’ & Another Side of Bob Dylan by Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan made his finest pre-electric album in 1963 by giving voice to both his political and romantic sides (and writing some of the best melodies of his career). These two poles split the following year. Neither The Times They Are A-Changin’ nor Another Side of Bob Dylan are as monumental as The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan but both find his work progressing noticeably. The title track of the more topical The Times They Are A-Changin’ is a much better anthem than “Blowin’ in the Wind” from Freewheelin’, employing a tougher, less sing-songy melody and powerfully stormy imagery to match. His commentaries gets startlingly specific, whether conveying his stance on poverty and racism with fiction (“The Ballad of Hollis Brown”) or reportage (the outraged “Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and “Only a Pawn in Their Game”). Dylan allows himself ample space to cry his messages, making for an unusually epic album in a year dominated by ultra-compact pop songs. His songs on Another Side of Bob Dylan would be no briefer, but his romantic stance was a lot more in line with the kind of stuff John and Paul were singing in ’64. The Times They Are A-Changin’ is an album of people. Another Side is an album of one person, and that person is Bob. With aching pieces like “To Ramona”, “Spanish Harlem Incident”, “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)”, and “Ballad in Plain D”, we learn he is as intense about human emotions as he is about current events. Dylan also continues to tighten his craft, and it’s no accident that a slew of pop covers followed the release of “All I Really Want to Do”, “Spanish Harlem Incident”, “Chimes of Freedom”, “My Back Pages”, and “It Ain’t Me Babe”. The Byrds practically built their career on this album. Dylan’s most dogmatically folkie followers, however, regarded his obsession with love and himself to be a betrayal. He’d finish off alienating those close-minded few with his next two albums on which he’d go pop in a much more radical way.

4. All Summer Long by The Beach Boys

The Beach Boys managed to be one of the few American bands to survive the British Invasion by shipping out wave after wave of great singles. But as The Beatles quickly made clear, it was going to take more than great 45s to compete. The Beatles made spectacular LPs too. Surfin’ U.S.A., Surfer Girl, and Little Deuce Coupe were very good albums for their time, but none were completely solid (and a sprinkle of spectacular tracks aside, Surfin’ Safari and Shut Down Volume 2 were downright lame). Brian Wilson really entered the game with All Summer Long, the first great Beach Boys long player. There was still a little filler—the instrumental “Carl’s Big Chance”, the generic Mike Love cheers “Drive-In” and “Do You Remember?”, and the time-wasting babble “Our Favorite Recording Sessions”—but the rest of the album is great, great, great. “All Summer Long” and “Wendy” are glorious Brian Wilson production pieces, and with their mingling of bells, woodwinds, and maxed-out reverb, we hear early inklings of the Pet Sounds sound. The spine-melting “We’ll Run Away” introduces themes that would bear fruit with “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”. The coolest thing about All Summer Long is how often it rocks. “Little Honda” and “Don’t Back Down” are prime examples, and the power-chording “I Get Around” is the group’s hardest Rock & Roll yet. Legend has it that Mick Jagger helped make the Boys’ career in the UK when he gave it the thumbs up. Wilson and Love also gallop up closer to Lennon and McCartney with an album of almost 100% original material (the only cover is “Hushabye”, and it’s a great one). Within a year or so those horses would be neck-and-neck…

2. & 3. A Hard Day’s Night & Beatles for Sale by The Beatles

…but for the time being, The Beatles were still a grade above every other band on the scene. On just their third album, they’d progressed to the point where they could provide all of their own material. In contrast to All Summer Long, there isn’t a single bum track on A Hard Day’s Night. The album is a full plunge into the joy of Beatlemania undiluted by Motown or Chuck Berry interpretations. And for the first time we really hear the Lennon and McCartney personas at work in their work, Paul being the expert craftsman of such perfect pop pieces as “Can’t Buy Me Love”, “And I Love Her”, and “Things We Said Today”, John being the more personal, acerbic, self-pitying artist of “If I Fell”, “I’ll Cry Instead”, “You Can’t Do That”, and “I’ll Be Back”. Though the overwhelming temper of A Hard Day’s Night is joyous, a melancholic streak is entering the work too, and The Beatles expanded their electricity with country and folk flavors and subtler acoustic instrumentation on almost half the tracks. This is the sound that would define their next three albums beginning with Beatles for Sale. The Beatles’ fourth album often gets bad press because it takes a major step back from the complete originality of A Hard Day’s Night, because The Beatles sound fatigued on covers of “Rock and Roll Music” and “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby”, and because much of the new material is downbeat. That final criticism is what makes Beatles for Sale such a compelling record. The bleakness of “No Reply”, “I’m a Loser”, “Baby’s in Black”, and “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party” contribute as much to the album’s autumnal atmosphere as the largely acoustic backing tracks. This mood spans material that doesn’t even fit it. On “Every Little Thing”, John sings Paul’s happy-to-be-in-love lyric as if he’s considering suicide. “Eight Days a Week” is the only original to really recapture the ecstatic A Hard Days Night vibe, and its quality earned the band another number one in America. Paul brings additional substance with “I’ll Follow the Sun”, an old song he used to perform in ragtime style now treated wistfully, and “What You’re Doing”, a slight composition rescued by some great rhythmic interplay between heavy bass and drums and jangling guitar. Plus, there are a few really good covers here, with the guys harmonizing like angels on Buddy Holly’s “Words of Love”, John shrieking torment on Dr. Feelgood’s “Mr. Moonlight”, and Ringo doing Carl Perkins’s “Honey Don’t” with bubbly humor. In any previous year, either one of these records would easily be crowned album of the year, and most people would probably still crown them that, but I invite you to consider…

1. Presenting The Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica by The Ronettes

…a record that, distinctive from The Beatles’ two mega-sellers of ’64, barely dipped its toes into the top 100. That’s probably because seven of its songs had already been released as singles from 1963 to 1964. It’s also because, coming at the end of a year dominated by The Beatles and their British brethren, The Ronettes and their Spectorian sistern were on a downward curve in popularity. It’s too bad that The Ronettes’ one and only album was not a smash, because simply owning its singles—and everyone who didn’t own the magnificent “Be My Baby”, “Baby I Love You”, “Walking in the Rain”, “Do I Love You”, and “(The Best Part of) Breaking Up” at the time needed to do some serious work on their 45s collection—was not enough. Presenting The Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica is more than a greatest hits album in all but name. Everything on it is great: the crazed, faux-live version of “What’d I Say”, the percussive workout “How Does It Feel?”, the slow-burning fifties throwback “When I Saw You”, Greenwich and Barry’s swoon-inducing “I Wonder”, and “You, Baby”, a song everyone in their right mind would wish Ronnie sang just for them. The only slight throwaway is the rendition of “Chapel of Love” that closes the collection, and it’s no worse than, say, the version of “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby” that closes Beatles for Sale. That means it’s even more consistent than A Christmas Gift for You. And unlike that other Spector-produced LP that tanked on release, Presenting The Fabulous Ronettes has not achieved some sort of retroactive classic status. That is a crime. It’s time to break Presenting The Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica out of storage with all the fervor of Hal Blaine’s drum bash that opens “Be My Baby”. The greatest album of 1964 deserves nothing less.
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