Friday, December 1, 2017

Psychobabble's Ten Greatest Albums of 1963

Great albums weren't a huge concern in the Rock & Roll world of 1963. Until that point, Elvis Presley and Ricky Nelson were the only Rock & Roll artists to have number one albums in the United States. Singles continued to be the preferred media, and they'd remain in that position until 1967, the first year a group of electric-guitar pickers had the number-one album of the year (though More of the Monkees was the one album The Monkees released that year on which the boys didn't actually do much guitar picking).

As we’ve already seen in this series, there had been great Rock & Roll records before 1963: Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry's After School Session, Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar, Here's Little Richard, Buddy Holly's The “Chirpin'“ Crickets, Bo Diddley, though most of these were conceived as singles appended with bits of filler that only by apparent providence turned out to be well above average. However, in 1963, artists such as Phil Spector, Sam Cooke, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, and especially The Beatles set the change-over in motion with truly fine LPs conceived to be just that. The year’s great records were also surprisingly varied with live albums, proto-concept albums, holiday albums, and the usual singles collections all sharing space on the shelves. The great-album era might not have been quite here yet, but now it was just a matter of time.

10. Live at the Apollo by James Brown

James Brown certainly made some great records, but he would not be the Godfather if not for his electrifying, stupefying, mesmerizing stage show. Live at the Apollo is a valiant effort to capture that show for the home audience, though the fact that so much of Brown’s greatness was in his shimmying ankles and drop-to-the-floorboards shtick means that these two vinyl discs still aren’t the ideal Brown presentation. The Fabulous Flames vamp endlessly while Brown steps away from the mic to no doubt do something fabulous, but the lack of essential visuals leaves a couple of stretches of Live at the Apollo a little tedious and 10-plus minutes of “Lost Someone” is a lot of time to spend listening to a slow jam. Live at the Apollo really earns its place as the ultimate James Brown album in its pithier moments, as he and the Flames lay waste to the recorded versions of “I’ll Go Crazy”, “Try Me”, “I Don’t Mind”, and “Please, Please, Please”. And the hyperventilating version of “Think” makes a good case for the argument that James Brown is also the Godfather of Speed Rock.

9. Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah by Bob B. Soxx & The Blue Jeans

Despite his concentration on constructing hit singes, Phil Spector managed to conjure several exceptional LPs, and three of them are on this very list. As we shall see, the purpose of each LP is pretty different, and Bob B. Soxx & The Blue Jeans’ Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah seems motivated by a spirit of experimentation. This is by far the weirdest of the albums on the Philles label. The title track, a bizarrely mechanized cover of a tune from a racist Disney movie and a top-ten hit, should telegraph this. The titles of such unlikely covers as “The White Cliffs of Dover” and “This Land Is Your Land” on the back cover should too, though the presence of the perfectly accessible hit “Why Do Lovers Break Each Other’s Hearts” is also a sign that the company’s old pop savvy is also well present. So is Darlene Love’s stunning voice, which gets full airing on “Why Do Lovers”, the overlong though powerfully soulful “My Heart Beat a Little Bit Faster”, and the killer “I Shook the World”. Bobby Sheen keeps pace with the gleefully wacky “Dear (Here Comes My Baby)” and the groovy shuffle “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright”. The album gets its off-kilter feel from the gears-and-cogs arrangements of “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Da”, “The White Cliffs of Dover”, and “Let the Good Times Roll” that might have been inspirational for Devo, its oddly out of tune version of “Baby (I Love You)” (not the Ronettes’ classic) that sounds like it was recorded at the bottom of a bottomless pit, and a kooky instrumental featuring neither Bob B. Soxx nor Blue Jeans named after Spector’s shrink—a guy who clearly was not very good at his job.

8. He’s a Rebel by The Crystals

While Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah smacks of an artist’s first inkling that an album era was dawning, He’s a Rebel is singles-era exploitation at its purest. It’s not only a shameless repackaging of quite a few recordings previously released as singles, but it’s also nearly identical to the first Crystals album, Twist Uptown, sharing nine songs with that 11-track album. Nine! However, the fact that “He’s a Rebel” (not a real Crystals song, of course) is one of Spector’s greatest early recordings makes He’s a Rebel superior to Twist Uptown, though the inclusion of the divisive “He Hit Me (and it Felt Like a Kiss)”—either a sympathetically grim representation of Little Eva’s abuse at the hands of her shithead boyfriend or a big steaming heap of misogyny depending on your perspective—may make you prefer Twist Uptown. Despite its glaring flaws, He’s a Rebel still has a lot to recommend it both in the presence of absolute essential A’s and B’s such as the title track, “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” (another Darlene Love helmed smash), the dramatic “Uptown”, “There’s No Other (Like My Baby)”, “Oh Yeah, Maybe Baby”, and “On Broadway” and in very fun throwaways like “Frankenstein Twist”.

7. Night Beat by Sam Cooke

Here is proof that some artists really were thinking deeply about the LP format in 1963. Sam Cooke’s Night Beat is consciously crafted mood music, a completely successful attempt to make after-hours mood music through carefully selected songs and soft-glow, dusky arrangements cooked up during three late-night sessions in the winter of ’63 with such stellar session men as Hal Blaine, Billy Preston, and Barnel Kessell. There is little of the pop sensibility that won Cooke his biggest hits on Night Beat. Instead he interprets the blues using his full range of gospel tools without ever indulging in crass showiness. This is simply some of the most emotive and beautiful singing on record, and on “Lost and Lookin’”, it is some of the most intensely controlled too. The one misstep is a version of “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” that is too subdued to compete with other versions of that warhorse, yet still too peppy to sit comfortably with the hushed material with which it shares vinyl.

6. With The Beatles by The Beatles

It probably does not need to be said that The Beatles altered the LP more radically than any other band. They were the ones who'd make it necessary for artists to work just as diligently on that track buried down at the end of Side B as they'd work on potential hits. Not that The Beatles were so calculated when making their first two albums. Like the debut that will feature a bit further up this list, With the Beatles was mostly a sampling of their live set and John Lennon and Paul McCartney's incipient songwriting efforts. Not all of these betrayed the guys’ supernatural talents. Things like “Little Child” and “Hold Me Tight” are pleasant but insubstantial, while a speedy take of a nothing song called “I Wanna Be your Man” cowers in the presence of the Stones’ savage version. Their other songs are all considerably better, though the fact that “All My Loving” is the only one that really gets tossed among the classics leaves With the Beatles feeling a touch thin compared to what came before it and certainly what would follow. That also means there are some great things for novice fans to discover, such as the pounding “It Won’t Be Long”, the sincerely soulful “All I’ve Got to Do”, and the marvelously wounded “Not a Second Time”. And though a lot of critics thumb their pointy noses at George’s debut contribution, I’ve always loved the bratty, sulky, snarly “Don’t Bother Me”. There are some exceptional covers here too, with John getting to scream off some of his baggage on rowdy renditions of “Please Mr. Postman” and “Money” and getting to really unveil the depth of his vocal talents on “You Really Got a Hold on Me”. To perform a Smoky Robinson song without embarrassing yourself in comparison to the master is a true blue feat. However, it does not make you forget that “You Really Got a Hold on Me” is Smokeys song,  just as the covers do not blot out memories of The Marvelettes, Chuck Berry, or Barrett Strong. The covers on Please Please Me all instantly became Beatles songs above all else as soon as the guys laid the tracks down. While the relative obscurity of the original tracks partially accounts for The Beatles usurping Arthur Alexander, The Shirelles, and The Cookies (though they defeat The Isley Brothers purely on chutzpah),  it remains another reason why With the Beatles is not the highest ranked Beatles LP on this list.

5. Surfer Girl by The Beach Boys

The Beach Boys made some of the great albums, but they would always be inconsistent in the format, shuffling masterpieces with half-hearted albums cobbled together to fulfill Capitol’s merciless demands to keep fresh product in the shops. For every All Summer Long there’s a Shut Down Vol. 2, for every Pet Sounds a Smiley Smile, for every Friends a 20/20. Surfer Girl is definitely one of their upswing discs, and easily the best long player they’d released so far. Filler is on short order, though some of it is pretty bad, such as “South Bay Surfer”, which cribs the melody of the hoary “Old Folks at Home”, and the generic, sloganeering “Surfer’s Rule”. A couple of instrumentals are merely inessential. The rest of the album is not only top notch but also a very early indication of Brian Wilson’s extreme inventiveness. This is particularly thrilling since no one should expect invention from the faddish surf rock format. But there he is cribbing a more fitting magical tune (“When You Wish Upon a Star”) and rendering it in complexly constructed harmonies on the title track, zooming a harp like a magic wand over the invigorating “Catch a Wave”, sprinkling pizzicato strings over “The Surfer Moon”, and initiating a personal perspective beyond sun and surf that would flower in his best work with “In My Room”. “Little Deuce Coupe” and “Hawaii” perfect the uncomplicated, summery Rock & Roll for which The Beach Boys were already loved.

4. Please Please Me by The Beatles

The Beach Boys were probably the most significant pre-Beatles guitar-based band, but their lame debut album sure didn’t seem too significant. Perhaps Please Please Me no longer sounds as if it is heralding in the most important LP artists of the pop era, but I’d imagine that it was pretty revelatory in 1963. The combination of chugging Chuck Berry riffing, American soul, and a peculiarly English harmonic and melodic sensibility was totally original. Not all of the material was fantastic. “Love Me Do” lacks dynamics or an interesting lyric or melody. Harmonically, it is as primitive as a nursery rhyme, and when it went to number one in the US in 1964, it mostly did so because nearly everything The Beatles released in the year of The Beatles went to number one. Elsewhere, their songwriting genius was already budding: the exhilarating title track with its coy sexuality and tension-building “Come ons,” Lennon's first brushes with self-pity (“Misery”) and introspection (“There's a Place”), McCartney's first blasts of filthy Rock & Roll (“I Saw Her Standing There”), and the pure craftsmanship that would make it not-ridiculous to speak of him in the same breath as Cole Porter or Hoagy Carmichael (“P.S. I Love You”). Rock & Roll artists always filled out their LPs with covers in those days, but few did so with the imagination of The Beatles. By adapting Girl Group and R&B hits such as “Boys,” “Chains,” “Boys,” “Baby It's You,” and “Twist and Shout” to their four-British-guys-with-guitars format, they ended up with creations completely unlike the original records. Their performances were as committed as they were on John and Paul's songs. Even more intriguingly, if a lot less excitingly, The Beatles toyed with non-Rock or Soul material by recording Bobby Scott and Ric Marlow's “A Taste of Honey,” which began life as incidental music for the play of the same name. Please Please Me did not change the album overnight, and its impact in America was watered down when Vee-Jay records lopped off the Capitol single “Love Me Do” / “P.S. I Love You” and released the LP as Introducing... The Beatles in early 1964. By that point, The Beatles had already taken command of England, had already released their second album there, but that is more a matter of history than artistry. In retrospect, Please Please Me is still a great album by the greatest album group, and it’s hard not to look back on its release as the dawning of a new era.

3. In Dreams by Roy Orbison

When The Beach Boys and Beatles matured fully, they’d both be renowned for their “concept” albums, though each group really only completed one apiece and perhaps neither were necessarily more unified in concept than Roy Orbison’s In Dreams released years before Pet Sounds or Sgt. Pepper’s. Orbison fixates on his R.E.M.s with the devastating title track and exquisite covers of Johnny Mercer’s “Dream”, The Everly Brothers’ “All I Have to Do Is Dream”, and Steven Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer”. Orbison also manages to create dreamy visions by describing landscapes the Texan surely never visited in waking life on the sumptuous “Shahdaroba” or stirring a somewhat nightmarish claustrophobia on “House without Windows”. Elsewhere, Orbison sings of nocturnal fancies on “Lonely Wine” and “My Prayer”, while “Sunset” is sort of the upbeat flipside of “In Dreams”—we keep waiting for another “it was all a dream” punch line that gratefully never comes. Sometimes we can’t quite squeeze the tunes into a conceptual tube, but that’s okay when those tunes are as fine as Hank Williams’s “No One Will Ever Know” with a “Running Scared”-revisited arrangement or the magical “Blue Bayou”, which is as dreamy a musical creation as there ever was. Sorry…there I go again.

2. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan by Bob Dylan

From Orbison’s dreams to Dylan’s wake-up call. Bob reaches the pinnacle of his explicitly political phase on his finest acoustic album. Just two albums into his career, he has mastered his style with a voice aged beyond its years, finger picking technique that is rich and full, and songwriting far beyond Wilson, Lennon, McCartney or anyone else on the outskirts of Dylan’s scene. At a wee 21-years old, Dylan had written the elliptical “Blowin’ in the Wind”, the purely poetic yet completely grounded “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”, and the vitriolic “Masters of War”. The latter is actually an interpretation of an English folk song, but if anyone ever proved that great artists steal, Dylan did so with the record on which he took ownership of “Scarborough Fair” on the stunning “Girl from the North Country” and Paul Clayton’s “Who’s Gonna Buy You Ribbons” on the breathtaking “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”, two timeless love songs that show Dylan was already thinking beyond current headlines. There are also flashes of his impish humor on “Bob Dylan’s Blues” and a giddy version of “Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance” and the crazed psychedelic wordplay of Blonde on Blonde on “I Shall Be Free”. On a groovy cover of “Corrina, Corrina”, he even plays with a band! Of course, Bob carries most of the album with nothing more than his voice, harmonica, and guitar, and this is the rare album of that sort that never sounds one-note.

1. A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records by Various Artists

Like so many visionaries, Phil Spector refused to grow up. Perhaps this has been the cause of so many of his problems—his infantilizing of ex-wife Ronnie Spector, his daddy issues, and his fatal obsession with playing with guns—but it is also the source of his art. His favorite toys are the ones found in a recording studio, and his favorite time of the year is Christmas. In 1963, Spector attempted to capture the essence of the holiday several months before December 25th in the less than seasonal setting of sunny Los Angeles’ Gold Star Studios. How would his thunderous Wall-of-Sound work with corny kiddie songs like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Frosty the Snowman” or the hymn carol “Silent Night” or the easy listening standard “Winter Wonderland”? Brilliantly, of course, though it has taken longer than Spector surely wished for this to become common knowledge. Upon it s release, A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records was a flop. Today it sits in the classic spot it should have earned fifty years ago. Hip holiday fans with no patience for church choirs or Andy Williams feel no embarrassment when giving this disc a spin. Surely no other Christmas record rocks so hard, is so soulful and powerful, yet also translates that indescribable holiday feeling so authentically. A Christmas Gift for You is snow and sleigh bells and fur-fringed red suits. It’s also a rowdy office party, a make-out session under the mistletoe, and in at least one instance, the gut-shredding anguish of spending Christmas all alone. With incalculable support from the expressive voices of The Crystals, The Ronettes, Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans, and—whoa…hold onto your Santa hat—Darlene Love, as well as the instrumental might of the Wrecking Crew, Spector not only made the never-will-be-challenged greatest Christmas record, he also made one of the greatest Rock & Roll records of any kind.
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