Tuesday, March 19, 2013

That Wonderful Year in Music... 1968 (Again)

As I had promised a few weeks ago, I was planning on revising some of my "year in music" lists, but only a select handful. 1968 was the first year I covered and wrote the blog on a lark; where most of my music blogs took two or three weeks of research, I wrote my '68 almost by memory in about six hours. That blog alone was the impetus of a pet project that went on for four years, encouraging me to study the history of rock, pop, and jazz music.

It's easy to see why I choose 1968 first; that whole year is impossibly strong and almost omnipresent in its scope and influence. From a cultural and musical perspective, everything that the '60s built up to hit a crescendo that year. Unofficially this was the second year of the "classic rock" era, country-rock was blossoming, and R&B and soul were as confrontational and immediate as they'd ever been. Only the jazz world struggled to move forward; the death of John Coltrane a year earlier sent shockwaves through the whole scene, and even though there was some classic releases in 1968 the confusion and sorrow were at times too transparent.

(Note: parentheses note original ranking)

1. The Beatles (a/k/a The White Album), The Beatles. (1) Looking at the big picture, this is the Fab Four's most jumbled and splintered effort, and by far the most bloated. Judged on its musical merit alone, it's another masterwork from the '60s most definitive band. Trading the psychedelia of their previous three albums for a heavier guitar sound, this self-titled double-LP finds The Beatles retaining their whimsy and sounding as eclectic as they've ever been. Ignore the great band slowly falling apart and pay attention to the variety of styles and genres the Beatles have seemingly mastered.
2. Odessey and Oracle, The Zombies. (2) As outstanding as it was flukey, The Zombies' third and final album found an audience in the US well after the quintet had broken up and American interest in the band was seemingly tapped out. Indeed, Oracle was intended as a final statement and this soaring declaration is elegant, bold and at 32 minutes, concise. The end result of this band's frustration and disharmony was one of the defining psychedelic pop/rock albums of its time.
3. White Light White Heat, The Velvet Underground. (3) Neither aided by troubled chanteuse Nico nor coddled by "producer" Andy Warhol, the Velvets' second album --their only release with the classic Reed/Cale/Morrison/Tucker lineup-- is a complete assault on what anyone in 1968 would consider "music." Where their first album challenged conventions, White Heat beats those conventions to a pulp. Every song takes the band's inner demons to the hilt, and the climatic "Sister Ray" is basically four instruments at war with each other for 17-plus minutes.
4. Astral Weeks, Van Morrison (9)
5. Beggars Banquet, The Rolling Stones (7)
6. The Village Green Preservation Society, The Kinks (4)
7. Electric Ladyland, The Jimi Hendrix Experience (8)
8. Music from Big Pink, The Band (5)
9. We're Only In It For The Money, Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention
10. Bookends, Simon & Garfunkel. (6) The '60s most notable folk duo were a group that steadily became stronger and more confident with each album, and Bookends is an ambitious effort that pales only to their masterpiece 1970 swan song, Bridge Over Troubled Water. A nation divided --usually figuratively, sometimes literally-- is reflected on almost every track, from the enigmatic journey of "America" to the wry bleakness of "Mrs. Robinson" and "At The Zoo."

11. Sweetheart of the Rodeo, The Byrds (10)
12. At Folsom Prison, Johnny Cash
13. Lady Soul, Aretha Franklin
14. A Saucerful of Secrets, Pink Floyd (11)
15. Cheap Thrills, Big Brother & The Holding Company. Meet Janis Joplin. San Francisco's best-kept secret brought the house down at Monterey Pop, but legal entanglements kept Joplin and her band from signing a major label contract and capitalizing on their breakthrough show. Luckily, Cheap Thrills delivers and than some, offering all the excitement and energy of their live show on one convenient LP. Janis is the breakout star without question, shredding ears and vocal cords alike with unique urgency, emotion, and desperation.
16. Waiting for the Sun, The Doors
17. The United States of America, The United States of America
18. Creedence Clearwater Revival, Creedence Clearwater Revival
19. Switched-On Bach, Wendy Carlos
20. Eli & The Thirteenth Confession, Laura Nyro. A criminally under-appreciated singer-songwriter, Nyro is known more for the songs that were covered by other artists (Three Dog Night, the 5th Dimension, Barbra Streisand) than for her own lilting, confessional releases. Thirteenth Confession showcases a musical talent that peaked fairly early yet had a lot to say, augmented by a savvy blend of blue-eyed soul and New York pop. Everyone from Tori Amos to Alecia Keys owes some debt to the late, great Laura Nyro.

1. Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, Chick Corea. In the intermediate period between backing Stan Getz and Miles Davis, Corea's fourth album as a leader proved he was a genius in his own right. Rounding out the trio is bassist Miroslav Vitous and drummer Roy Haynes, and all three artists never cave into each other. Originally released with five tracks, Now He Sings has been expanded "Leaves of Grass"-style to include 11 original compositions by the piano auteur.
2. Filles de Kilimanjaro, Miles Davis
3. Forest Flower, Charles Lloyd
4. Underground, Thelonious Monk
5. Midnight Creeper, Lou Donaldson

Honorable Mention: A Monastic Trio, Alice Coltrane (12).

"Hey Jude," The Beatles
"White Room," Cream
"Going Up The Country," Canned Heat
"Time Has Come Today," The Chambers Brothers
"Hurdy Gurdy Man," Donovan
"I'm Gonna Make You Love Me," The Supremes & The Temptations
"Open My Eyes," The Nazz
"Bend Me, Shape Me," The American Breed
"I Wonder What She's Doing Tonight," Boyce & Hart
"Fire," The Crazy World of Arthur Brown

"Journey to the Center of the Mind," Amboy Dukes
"Livin' in the USA," Steve Miller Band
"Magic Carpet Ride," Steppenwolf
"Elenore," The Turtles
"Lady Willpower," Gary Puckett and the Union Gap
"Judy in Disguise (with Glasses)," John Fred & His Playboy Band
"Grazing in the Grass," Hugh Masekela
"Love is Blue," Paul Mauriat
"Wichita Lineman," Glen Campbell
"MacArthur Park," Richard Harris

Your thoughts?

Next Week: my annual MLB haiku preview.


  1. Must point out that at the time s(he) produced Switched-On Bach, it was Walter Carlos.
    I'd move Bookends, Electric Ladyland, and Music from Big Pink much higher on the albums list. Waiting For the Sun I would drop off the list: the peak for the Doors was Strange Days the year before.
    Songs:Bend Me Shape Me belongs in the trash can, not on any list other than "Worst Songs in History". Same with anything by Gary Puckett.

  2. Great list, although I would find a place for the Moody Blues' "In Search of the Lost Chord". It's my least favorite album of theirs, but it does have "Legend of a Mind", "The Actor", and "Voices in the Sky". Unfortunately the album as a whole is tedious. I dunno why everyone at the time thought it was cool to dick around with a sitar even though they didn't know how to play it.
    "A Saucerful of Secrets" has moved way up on my list over the years. I consider it the last great album by Pink Floyd and it only seems to get better over time.

  3. This is all personal taste but as a big Doors fan, Strange Days was my 2nd least favorite album. I would definitely keep Waiting For The Sun on the list. Personally I don't get the fondness for Van Morrison. It always sounded like Muzak to me.

  4. Van Morrison was a very dynamic performer...but that didn't translate well to vinyl. So I've never had any use for his too-slick albums either.
    As far as The Doors, I kinda side with Graham. Much like Pink Floyd, I felt like it was all downhill after the first 2 albums, all the way to the near-total burn-out (speaking of Muzak) of LA Woman.

  5. I think the Doors peak was Morrison Hotel & LA Woman & they rocked the hell out of those albums. I'm a Blues/Jazz guy, so the psychedelic exercises of the 1st two albums to me aren't as memorable, but all 7 albums have really strong material with filler. I do love the 1st album dearly; it just sounds more dated. It seemed like the 2nd album was trying too much to copy the 1st album's format & just wasn't as great. Small gripe: I never liked the album version of Love Me Two Times & it sounds a lot better live.

    I don't get this love for pre-Dark Side Pink Floyd. I've heard almost all of that material & it's just weird unstructured jams & avant garde. The Velvet Underground was better & smarter at it.