Tuesday, 9 June 2015

The Culture Fix's Top 100 Albums of the 60s (Part 2 of 4)

by J. Albert Barr

And so we're now onto Part 2 of my Top 100 Albums of the 1960s, counting down from #75-51:

75. Midnight Cowboy - Soundtrack (1969)

John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy was, arguably, the first film to depict urban experience from such an unvarnished and raw perspective. It very much anticipated what would become the single greatest decade in American cinema: the 1970s. And its outstanding soundtrack was one of the first of its kind as well; a collection of songs featuring a couple of successful pop tunes that charted in the Top 40. Harry Nilsson's "Everybody's Talkin'" and John Barry's "Midnight Cowboy Theme" both hit the Top 10 (by the late 70s/early 80s, it was common to see a film soundtrack high in the charts and spawning single after single). Barry supervised the song selection and composed several tracks himself, including the positively gorgeous and romantic "Fun City", the dramatic "Science Fiction", the fun and silly "Florida Fantasy", and the now classic, aforementioned "Midnight Cowboy Theme". Two other highlights appearing are contributions from the underrated band, Elephant's Memory: "Jungle Gym At The Zoo", and especially, the unforgettable "Old Man Willow", which played during the memorable "Factory party scene"; a song, I feel, deserves to be acknowledged as a bona fide classic of late 60s psychedelia.

74. Aftermath - The Rolling Stones (1966)

The Stones made a significant artistic leap with this superb 1966 album. It was the first Stones album to display nothing but Jagger/Richards originals, and also discernibly expand their sound musically, particularly from that of Brian Jones, who introduced an array of exotic instruments such as the sitar, Appalachian dulcimer, and Japanese koto. They were still able to maintain their Chicago blues influence, of course, but really opened up, compositionally, with stellar tracks-cum-classics like "Under My Thumb", "Mother's Little Helper", "Lady Jane", "Paint it Black" (featured on the American version), "Flight 505", and the electric blues of "Goin' Home" and "Doncha Bother Me".

73. S.F. Sorrow - The Pretty Things (1968)

By 1967, the undervalued Pretty Things had released three albums of mostly garage rock that achieved some success in their native Britain, but didn't make much of a dent in North America. They entered Abbey Road studios later in '67 to begin recording their fourth album, S.F. Sorrow. This album would be their most ambitious and creative yet, and would also become the very first "rock opera" to boot. The album's narrative told the tragic story of one Sebastian F. Sorrow from birth to frustrating life experience as a youth and adult to his regretful and sad old age and death. It wasn't exactly a "party album", and its unrelenting, negative vibe may have been, at least, partially responsible for its commercial failure. But there were other outside components that contributed to S.F. Sorrow's lack of sales too, such as the record label not promoting it enough, and refusing to release it in North America. Strangely, it was Motown Records that eventually released it on their Rare Earth offshoot "rock music label". This meant that The Who's Tommy beat it to the proverbial punch in America, despite S.F. Sorrow being released several months before Tommy in Britain. This mostly unknown album really is a lost gem of sorts and wholly deserves a far larger listenership than it currently holds.

72. Chelsea Girl - Nico (1967)

It's too bad Nico herself hated this album, because it really is a beautiful piece of work. Nico said in a 1981 interview that she still couldn't bring herself to listen to it even over a decade after its initial release. She said that everything she wanted on the album she didn't get, like drums and more guitars. Instead, there were florid strings tracked over the mostly acoustic guitars. And most dismaying of all, there were flutes! Yes, it was mainly the flutes that Nico refused to countenance. That wind instrument hardly overwhelms the album, an album that featured most of the members of The Velvet Underground playing on it and contributing several songs as well, such as Lou Reed's and Sterling Morrison's lovely title track, as well as John Cale's "Winter Song". The best known song, of course, is undoubtedly "These Days", which was written by her then teenaged boyfriend, Jackson Browne, who also played guitar on the song. Thirty-four years later, Wes Anderson's marvelous, The Royal Tenenbaums, provided new and valuable exposure for this folksy classic when it was played during a memorable scene of a fetchingly gloomy Gwyneth Paltrow exiting a Green Line bus to meet her distraught brother (via her adoption) and secret love.

71. Smiley Smile - The Beach Boys (1967)

Carl Wilson said about Smiley Smile that it turned out to be "a bunt instead of a grand slam". That "grand slam" was supposed to be the famously aborted Smile album. It wasn't until 37 years later that Brian Wilson finally realized the completed recording and release of Smile in 2004 as a solo album, and then, at last, in 2011 (using the magnificent 2004's track sequence) the original 1967 Beach Boys recordings were finally released as a deluxe 2-disc set and an even snazzier, and much more expensive, box-set. As for Smiley Smile being, perhaps sheepishly, offered as a substitute? Well, it was a commercial disappointment for the most part, only peaking at #41, and spawning a near Top 10 hit with the terrific "Heroes and Villains" (it also had "Good Vibrations" on it too, several months after it was released as a stand-alone single). It didn't impress most critics and utterly baffled Beach Boys fans, but years later this delightfully strange album began gaining some critical momentum as it was reappraised under a new context beyond its initial "summer of love/psychedelic paradigm". There really wasn't anything quite like it back then, and it has only gone on to influence subsequently pared down, loosely experimental and ambient ,and seemingly off-the-cuff albums, such as Paul McCartney's solo debut, simply called McCartney, XTC's Mummer, Radiohead's Amnesiac and The Breeders' Title TK.

70. Sketches of Spain - Miles Davis (1960)

A true classic among many for Miles, this rather unusual album really does stand out in his legendary discography. It was recorded in collaboration with Gil Evans, who was the conductor and arranger here. Sketches of Spain is one of the great exponents of Third Stream music: a musical fusion of jazz, European classical and world music. Because of this uncharacteristic sound, coupled with its obvious Spanish theme, there's a fair amount of polarizing opinion among, especially (casual) contemporary, Miles Davis fans, who prefer his more immediate and famous albums. Their lack of appreciation and open-mindedness is quite unfortunate, because they're really missing out here for sure.

69. The Stooges - The Stooges (1969)

The Stooges' debut album was definitely ahead of its time. It's generally regarded as an early prototype of punk music, the advent of which is pretty much when The Stooges started to finally be appreciated. It's most famous tune, "I Wanna be Your Dog", has since become a garage rock/punk standard and covered by the likes of David Bowie, Joan Jett, Sonic Youth, Uncle Tupelo and The Fall, as well as appearing in several "hip films", such as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Transporter 3, Sid and Nancy, and The Runaways. The Stooges would follow-up their debut with two superior albums in 1970 and 1973, in my opinion, but there's no diminishing of the importance of this dirty little classic that officially introduced to the world (even if that world wasn't ready for him yet in 1969) the truly one and only Iggy Pop!

68. Waiting for the Sun - The Doors (1968)

If The Doors suffered any kind of artistic slump it was certainly during their middle period of album's three and four while Jim Morrison was still with them, and alive as well; the remaining three members, of course, recorded two new Doors albums after Jim died, and then, in 1978, provided musical accompaniment for Jim's poems that he recorded in 1969-70 on An American Prayer. If The Doors' 1969 album, The Soft Parade, was indeed an almost thoroughly disappointing listen, with only three or four good tracks on it, I can definitely think of far worse albums to trigger a so-called "slump" than 1968's Waiting for the Sun. Being The Doors' only #1 album and spawning one of the band's two #1 singles in "Hello, I Love You", Waiting for the Sun also features several of their best songs: "Love Street", "The Unknown Soldier", "Not to Touch the Earth", "Five to One", "Spanish Caravan", and one of their most underrated tunes in the enchanting "Yes, the River Knows"; with its sense of an overcast day, it could have easily been slotted somewhere amidst Strange Days' running time.

67. Folk Singer - Muddy Waters (1964)

One of the all-time great blues artists, Muddy Waters recorded this raw, intimate and stunning collection of blues songs with the hushed atmosphere of a precedent-setting "unplugged album". It was recorded with only acoustic guitars played by Muddy and Buddy Guy, predominately. The also legendary Willie Dixon played some bass and co-produced this masterful 1964 album. Aiming to lure folk music lovers to its nakedly honest charms, Folk Singer was aptly titled. One of the album's highlights was a fantastic cover of Sonny Boy Williamson's 1937 standard, "Good Morning, School Girl" (Muddy included the word "Little" School Girl in its title). One is immediately reminded of Bob Dylan's penultimate track on his classic Blonde on Blonde album, "Obviously 5 Believers", which clearly borrowed from the former song, despite Memphis Minnie's "Me and My Chauffeur Blues" (recorded in 1941) usually getting the credit for Dylan's inspiration.

66. Days of Future Passed - The Moody Blues (1967)

With its highly dramatic, lush Tchaikovsky/Debussy-like strings and orchestration, along with an admittedly cheesy and pretentious voice narration in the beginning and at the end, The Moody's Days of Future Passed clearly aimed to achieve artistic heights of a considerable degree that openly challenged its months old, groundbreaking predecessor, Sgt. Pepper. The fact of the matter is that I don't have a problem with "pretentiousness", so long as it backs its assertions up with quality material, and quite frankly, Days of Future Passed is every bit the proto-progressive/psychedelic classic it's championed to be. Amongst all the orchestral moments, however, there's a bunch of great pop songs to gush over, like Mike Pinder's gorgeous "Dawn is a Feeling", John Lodge's rocking "Peak Hour", and Justin Hayward's sublime tandem "Forever Afternoon (Tuesday?)" and, of course, "Nights in White Satin".  

65. Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes featuring Veronica - The Ronettes (1964)

This may have been the only proper album ever released by The Ronettes, but it may just be the best album of all the great "girl groups" of the 60s. Artistically dominated by principle song-writer and, especially, producer, the eccentric Phil Spector; his famous "Wall of Sound" production, which he prompted out of his "Wreaking Crew" studio of now legendary musicians, remains a landmark in the history of pop music. We all know how Brian Wilson became famously, and neurotically, obsessed with the album's biggest hit, "Be My Baby" (an inarguable classic by all means!), and how celebrated tracks like "Walking in the Rain" (with its innovative thunder and rain effects), "Baby, I Love You" and "Chapel of Love" (though originally released by The Dixie Cups), have all become oldies staples,  but I feel the real winner here is the simply amazing, but criminally underrated and nearly forgotten, "Do I Love You?", which, uncontrollably, gives me a fit of goosebumps every time I hear it, especially when the chorus reaches that heart-melting crescendo of "Do I love you? Yes, I love you!!" harmonies!

64. Maiden Voyage - Herbie Hancock (1965)

After releasing a string of impressive jazz albums before he even turned 25, Herbie Hancock unleashed, in 1965, what would generally be agreed upon as his most acclaimed album of not only the 60s, but perhaps his best album ever. Admittedly, I haven't heard all of his albums, but I'd likely be hard-pressed to find a better album than Maiden Voyage (though Head Hunters would be a very close second, in my opinion). Chock this masterpiece up among the Blue Note classics from the 60s indeed. Hancock, with his absolutely stellar band of George Coleman, Freddie Hubbard, Ron Carter and Tony Williams, laid down five fabulous tracks that encompassed a nautical theme and atmosphere; three of which have, particularly, become jazz standards: "The Eye of the Hurricane", "Dolphin Dance", and the title track.

63. Genesis - Wendy & Bonnie (1969)

The fates can truly be cruel and merciless on human endeavors, and it was no less the case for the Flower sisters, Wendy and Bonnie, when they recorded their first, and only, album, Genesis, in 1969. Having professional musicians for parents, the teenaged girls had developed musical talents of their own, both as players and writers, and their father, Art, realized his daughters' potential, so he connected them with well-known Latin jazz percussionist, Cal Tjader (who was conveniently their godfather), who, after hearing some of the girls' acoustic home demos, hooked them up with musician/producer, Gary McFarland, for a recording session. So impressed was McFarland that he signed the girls to his jazz label, Skye Records (which also released a few "pop records" too), and got them into the studio to record a full-length album. Wendy and Bonnie wrote an album's worth of songs at only age 17 and 13, respectively. They did all the singing, and Bonnie played some guitar, but McFarland recruited a studio band to take care of the lion's share of playing. These fine musicians included the now legendary session drummer, Jim Keltner. Genesis is positively replete with one charmingly melodic tune after another, including predominately unknown gems like the serenely beautiful "By the Sea" (which was covered by Stereolab's Laetitia Sadier in 2010), "The Paisley Window Pane", "I Realized You", "Endless Pathway", and the wholly 60s-spirited, "Let Yourself Go Another Time". Wendy and Bonnie's remarkable harmonies are some kind of wonderful to behold. But then tragedy happened unexpectedly, just as the girls were scheduled to appear on Merv Griffith, to promote their first album; Skye Records went bankrupt and all and any promotion meant for Genesis was instantly lost. The record died without it having been given a chance. The girls were devastated. The final blow came when Gary McFarland, who mentored them, was murdered in New York City in 1971, thus destroying the last vestiges of hope for a music career as Wendy & Bonnie. Genesis languished in abject obscurity for decades until indie label Sundazed Records re-issued it shortly after the millennium. It has since slowly garnered a relatively small cult audience as one of the bona fide "lost classics" of the 60s. Thanks to Genesis being discovered to an encouraging level, Wendy Flower recorded a solid solo album of her own in 2012 entitled, New.

62. Da Capo - Love (1966)

Love never got the recognition and success they more than legitimately deserved. Unlike their psychedelic rock contemporaries, and label-mates, The Doors (whom Love's Arthur Lee directed Elektra Records' attention towards in the first place), Love wallowed in near obscurity throughout the 60s and into the 70s. Their self-titled debut album (which featured their sensational cover of Bacharach/David's "My Little Red Book") was their highest charting album, peaking at #57. Da Capo was the band's second full-length effort, and it signified the direction that would lead to their ultimate masterpiece the following year, Forever Changes. The biggest hit Love ever had was Da Capo's proto-punk rocker, the ferocious "7 and 7 Is", which actually managed to crack the American Top 40, hitting #33. The band's overall sound by then was a combination of psychedelia, baroque pop, folk and garage rock/proto-punk, the amalgamation of which seemed to askew their sound enough to place them against the grain of what was commercially accessible for that time among all the trendy counter-cultural acts that were suffusing the airwaves and charts. It's truly a shame, because Da Capo is a fantastic record.

61. Kick Out the Jams - MC5 (1969)

The two albums that are usually singled out as the proto-punk albums of the late 60s are The Stooges' debut album, and Detroit's MC5's as well. The main difference between these two monumentally important albums, of course, is that Kick Out the Jams is a "live album". And, man, what a live album! Its most celebrated track, the full throttle, high octane that is the title song, was infamous for lead-singer, Rob Tyner's intro: "And right now...right now....right now it's time to...kick out the jams, motherfuckers!!!" At the time of its release, however, Kick Out the Jams was met with some less than enthusiastic opinions. Renowned rock critic, Lester Bangs, for instance, called the album "ridiculous, overbearing and pretentious". Pretentious? That just seems so ridiculous, in itself, to call this album, and its kind of hard rock sound, "pretentious". Not surprisingly, given what had transpired a few years later after its initial release, Kick Out the Jams anticipated The Ramones, and Patti Smith and The Damned and all that followed in the wake of punk rock's explosion in 1976-77.

60. Willie and the Poor Boys - Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969)

CCR were on some kind of unprecedented role at the end of 1969 when they released their third, yes, third album that year with Willie and the Poor Boys (without the convenience of peppering them with "filler", that is). Their wholly original brand a swampy blues rock had taken America by storm in 1969 with Bayou Country and Green River preceding this, again, stellar collection of couldn't-fake-it-if-we-tried, tunes that were soaked in the Southern Comfort of the "great Mississip", despite their San Francisco Bay Area origins. Two of their biggest and most beloved songs come from this album: "Down on the Corner" and their Vietnam War protest classic, "Fortunate Son".

59. Everybody Knows This is Nowhere - Neil Young (1969)

Immediately after the demise of the short-lived Buffalo Springfield in 1968, Neil Young recorded and released his eponymous debut album. It was mostly ignored. Also, there were issues with that record's sound quality as well resulting in it being remixed the following year. And in that year of 1969, Neil released his second solo album, the immensely superior Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. This album is practically perfect in every way, especially with the benefit of hindsight, given the seeming mournfulness infused in most of the tracks, suggesting the less than expected sea change within the culture when the 60s was about to end, ultimately unfulfilled. Only the stunning opening rocker, "Cinnamon Girl", sounds uplifting, and is perhaps what gave him the internal strength to express everything that comes after it; one authentic, heartfelt song after another, with particular highlights being "Round & Round (It Won't be Long)", "Down by the River" and "Cowgirl in the Sand". This was Neil Young's first of many classic albums.

58. We're Only in it for the Money - The Mothers of Invention (1968)

The Mothers' third album really went after the pervasive cultural trend of that time in the late 60s: the hippie movement, and the whole, ultimately, naive notion of loving your brother and sister-from-another-mother. Literally, from head-to-toe, the ugliest "part of the collective body" of the hippie generation appeared to be their minds. It wasn't just the general "love movement" that was a target for Frank Zappa and his merry-mad band of satirical minstrels, but also the famous and beloved rock stars who picked up the torch for love and peace, and carried it to the top of the pop charts. The seemingly good-intentioned, generational gesture of "love for love's sake" to revolutionize the times and its increasingly alienated, commercial and business-mindedness, was judged as utterly, and painfully, ingenuous by We're Only in it for the Money, and it took, ironically enough, this weird and silly and brilliantly biting album to fight fire with fire, so to speak. Hindsight being 20-20, Zappa's argument, and more grounded perspective, proved the more truth-bearing me thinks.

57. Please Please Me - The Beatles (1963)

The monumental debut album that started it all. The mop-top's Merseybeat-laden first album officially introduced John, Paul, George and Ringo to mainstream U.K. radio and culture in 1963, before taking Beatlemania across the Atlantic to North America and thus world domination. Side two is actually the stronger side, but who cares, Please Please Me remains astronomical in its importance, and is still a complete joy and thrill to listen to over fifty years after its initial release.

56. Led Zeppelin - Led Zeppelin (1969)

As significant debut albums go, Zeppelin's first ranks pretty damn high. A legitimate precursor to heavy metal, this classic blues-updating, hard rocker introduced Robert Plant's sex-drenched, banshee-like vocals to the world, and, collectively, one of the greatest rock and roll bands of all-time, period. We can forgive them for initially taking full credit for Jake Holmes' 1967 "Dazed and Confused" - they were "naughty boys" after all. The lyrics, particularly, imply that the band was already leaving everything the 60s represented behind for a new 70s-bound outlook, for better or worse. There was no political overtones or social issues tackled on this debut album; a disposition they would continue to hold throughout the increasingly hedonistic, bloated and bombastic 70s, until punk and new wave took over. Regardless, and despite the early critics deriding them, Zed Zeppelin would eventually get their justifiable due as rock innovators and towering giants of "cock rawk", but also having retained the true spirit of what rock and roll was really all about from the get-go.

55. The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators - The 13th Floor Elevators (1966)

Hailing from Austin, Texas, The 13th Floor Elevators were one of the first progenitors of, well, the psychedelic sound that emerged in 1966 and dominated the following year. In fact, they are credited with being the first to use the term "psychedelic" to describe their music. The album's opening track, "You're Gonna Miss Me", is a big garage rock classic, in particular. It was used in the first scene of Stephen Frears' wonderful 2000 film, High Fidelity. Commercially, only "You're Gonna Miss Me" accomplished to chart, peaking at a humble #55, unlike its parent album, which failed to appear on Billboard's Top 200 chart, so that pretty much makes this album one of the great, under-appreciated classics from that feverishly creative and innovative time in the 60s.

54. Howlin' Wolf - Howlin' Wolf (1962)

One of the all-time great blues albums, this one really rocked too, and so it's no surprise that the likes of Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck (all future Yardbirds then) took notes while listening to and absorbing this classic. And in some cases (I'm looking at you, Jimmy), quite literally incorporated those "notes" into their own music. Howlin' Wolf had an unmistakable, testosterone-fueled, raspy vocal delivery, whom famed disc-jockey, Wolfman Jack, nicked his own vocal persona from, and it shines and truly howls to the very foundations of music and culture and unbridled sexuality here; look no further than Willie Dixon's "Back Door Man" to confirm the latter. Every track (which Willie Dixon wrote, save Howlin' Wolf's own "Who's Been Talking" and St. Louis Jimmy Oden's "Going Down Slow") is a standout, especially the aforementioned "Back Door Man", "Spoonful", "The Red Rooster" and "Wang Dang Doodle".

53. Bookends - Simon and Garfunkel (1968)

After back-to-back albums that progressively established Simon and Garfunkel as significant contributors to both folk rock and 60s counter-culture in general, they really hit their stride, artistically, with the wholly consistent Bookends; an album that had a loose conceptual narrative of being young and then growing old, hence the album's title. It also featured tracks, located on the second side, that were a part of their contribution to Mike Nicholl's generation-defining 1967 film, The Graduate. Only the beloved "Mrs. Robinson" was actually used in the film, however, so the rest found a home on Bookends, along with "Mrs. Robinson", which appeared on both this album and The Graduate soundtrack. Other superb aural specimens from this masterful album are the sublime "America", the gorgeously bittersweet and strings-laden "Old Friends", dark-rocker, "A Hazy Shade of Winter", and the sweetly jaunty "At the Zoo".

52. John Wesley Harding - Bob Dylan (1967)

Shortly after Dylan's phenomenal double album, Blonde on Blonde was released to universal acclaim and considerable commercial success, he was involved in a serious motorcycle accident near his Woodstock, New York home on July 29th, 1966. He broke several vertebrae in his neck and was therefore laid-up for about a year and a half. He was out of the spotlight for a substantial period of time, which he said afterwards was kind of a good thing, because he had been feeling overwhelmed by all the media attention he had received from the releasing of his, now, classic trilogy of mid-60s albums. During his convalescence he wrote and recorded a slew of new songs with his then backing band, The Hawks, who would, of course, go on to become The Band. The results of those recordings became The Basement Tapes, which would not be officially released, commercially, until 1975, despite all the bootlegs that were circulated over the years. Dylan, however, also recorded, during this time of healing, what became his first new album in sometime, John Wesley Harding. What was so surprising about this album was that Dylan, in complete contrast to the trends of 1967, recorded an acoustic album similar to his pre-electric albums, but with a more modern tone and feel, as well as even some country music influence, particularly on album closer, "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight". His "All Along the Watchtower" would be immediately covered by Jimi Hendrix the following year to spectacular results and instantly becoming a classic, and his biggest, hit. Other big acts would subsequently record stripped-down and back-to-basics albums in 1968, thus proving that Dylan was still commanding the musical field of those revolutionary times.

51. The Beach Boys Today! - The Beach Boys (1965)

Already having released seven albums in just three years, this important album foreshadowed the rapid artistic development and sophistication of the budding "Mozart of Hawthorne", Brian Wilson. The year before, Brian had suffered a devastating nervous breakdown on a plane while on tour with the rest of the band. Realizing he couldn't emotionally handle the long bouts of being away from home while on tour, he thus felt he could best serve the interests of the band by staying home and concentrating on writing and producing their records. They soon recruited Bruce Johnston to replace Brian on tour as the band's bass player, before joining the band as an official member and appearing on their subsequent studio albums. Today! was the first Beach Boys album where Brian's new found artistic freedom really shone, particularly on the second side, which showed ever more intricate arrangements and orchestration. This would all culminate with 1966's Pet Sounds, before another breakdown, due to the overwhelming pressure he increasingly felt to express himself and keep his band and record label happy, severely hampered Brian's creativity, hence killing Smile before it could be fully realized...before 2004 finally righted that misfortune. of course.

To be continued, of course, with Part 3...

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