This list (unlike the first one) and others that will (probably? maybe?) follow are the product of a kind of cultural mid-life crisis. Lately, I’ve found myself spending too much time listening to talk radio and podcasts and watching Netflix-y television shows that are rarely quite as good as they’re made out to be.
As a reaction, and because writing about new music is now a very small part of my professional life, I’ve decided to relisten to my record collection, or most of it, filling in the some gaps along the way via Spotify or YouTube or whatever. I’m doing a 50-year stretch of pop music that encompasses what I think of as the album era, which started around 1965, when artists like Bob Dylan (Highway 61 Revisited) and The Beatles (Rubber Soul) changed the conception of the album as a complete work of art, to 2014, to create a tidy half century time span and land amid a moment when technology shifts, for better or worse, are changing the notion of what an album is.
So I’m doing one year at a time, non-chronologically, until I finish them all or decide to stop (you never know). I’m adding a longer singles list and shorter movies list, probably without commentary. Album commentary will be half-formed thoughts and only occasional. When I get to years with records I’ve written about in the past, I may crib from older writing I still agree with and don’t find embarrassing. Future years already planned: 1973, 1988, 1996. After that, I dunno.
On 1967: I decided to start here because the idea came while I was re-reading ‘Nixonland” and a section about Sgt. Pepper’s made me want to re-listen to that album. I came of musical age in the late 1980s and Rolling Stone magazine’s 1987 “100 Best Albums of the Last 20 Years” issue looms very large over my musical education, as it does for pretty much every music writer of my generation that I’ve met. It was an introduction to the classic-rock canon and a kind of checklist. (Shoutout to the old second floor of the Memphis main library, at Peabody and McLean, where I checked out most of the albums from the list.) Sgt. Pepper’s, of course, topped the list. Baby boomer nostalgia was rampant at the time, and Sgt. Pepper’s is a now a generational talisman twice over I’ve been attracted to or repulsed by at various points over the years.
In album terms, I feel like 1967 was not quite as good as it was momentous. Part of that might be that “psychedelic” is among my least favored rock forms. Among some of the Class of 67 psychedelic also-rans that didn’t make this list, I’d rank them, roughly: Cream, 13th Floor Elevators, Youngbloods, Pink Floyd, Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane’s trippier sequel. The list …
Top 25 Albums:
- Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band — The Beatles: I’ve gone back and forth on this over the years, and pulling it out for the first time in a few years was surprised at how fresh it sounds. The further removed from the tyranny of “20 years ago today” baby-boomer nostalgia, the better it sounds, the more timeless its topicality. Not The Greatest Album Ever Made, and probably not the Beatles’ very best. But I’ve come back around to it being pretty great, and just maybe the best of its day. (Order was tough on this top three.) Other than “Within You Without You,” which I would still ditch, and “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” which I wouldn’t, it’s not really all that psychedelic. It renders much of its cohort dated and a little silly by comparison. A generous consideration of a then-exploding generation gap, where studio meticulousness doesn’t dampen humor or musicality. They have empathy for the old. They envision being them one day. Some of them made it.
- The Velvet Underground & Nico — The Velvet Underground & Nico: The S&M anthem “Venus in Furs” works because it’s sung and written in a muffled laugh. (Or is that my own?) “Heroin” is about as thrillingly unsettling as recorded music gets. It’s texture and particular beauty stand apart from the rest of the culture of its moment. Do I always play all of the eight-minute noise-freakout outro “European Son” the way I do the next year’s 17-minute “Sister Ray”? I do not, which goes to show that they progressed, I guess. But I’m not sure they made a better record.
Are You Experienced? — The Jimi Hendrix Experience: My first favorite album, as in my favorite album the first time I ever decided to make a list of favorite albums. Now seems ossified, more the idea of an album, but then I put it on and woooshhh. Play loud.
I Never Loved a Man (The Way That I Love You) — Aretha Franklin: Singles and filler, but oh what singles and oh what filler. Title track sounds most shocking. The Ray Charles is better than the Sam Cooke, but the combination is a turf grab.
The Byrds’ Greatest Hits — The Byrds: 11 songs, 4 Dylan covers, all (ok, mostly) chiming perfection. Captures the band and its moment better than any of their studio albums.
Forever Changes — Love: My favorite hippie record.
You Got My Mind Messed Up — James Carr: The peak of Memphis soul, circa 1967, album and single, did not come from Stax.
The Immortal Mississippi John Hurt — Mississippi John Hurt: The calm yin to Howlin’ Wolf’s turbulent yang atop my personal blues pantheon.
The Who Sell Out — The Who: I admire the craft, charm and smarts of this radio-broadcast concept, especially as a juxtaposition to the indulgences that surrounded it, but have never felt the concept quite rewards repeat listening in accordance with its classic status.
Axis: Bold as Love — Jimi Hendrix Experience: Lighter and slighter than the debut, but underscores Hendrix’s poetry and vocal affability in addition to his historic guitar.
Live in London – The Stax/Volt Revue: Better than the more celebrated Otis solo disc with which it shares one song, ceding the spotlight to Sam & Dave.
King & Queen — Otis Redding & Carla Thomas: Lovable lark.
Born Under a Bad Sign — Albert King
Flowers — The Rolling Stones: I love how this was a retrospectively bad year for the Rolling Stones. “Summer of Love” was not their most comfortable milieu, with greatness before and after but not so much here. (Big Between the Buttons fans would argue this point.) My favorite of their three 1967 releases is this singles comp.
Magical Mystery Tour — The Beatles
Younger Than Yesterday — The Byrds
Wild Honey — Beach Boys
Live in Europe — Otis Redding
Moby Grape — Moby Grape
Between the Buttons — The Rolling Stones
The Soul of a Bell — William Bell
Safe as Milk — Captain Beefheart
Surrealistic Pillow — Jefferson Airplane
Chuck Berry in Memphis — Chuck Berry
The Doors — The Doors: Do 9th graders still have their minds blown by this? A kind of schlock classic at this point. Silly, but more enduringly enjoyable than many of the year’s alleged cult classics
- “The Dark End of the Street” — James Carr
- “Respect” — Aretha Franklin
- “Sing Me Back Home” — Merle Haggard
- “Tramp” — Otis Redding & Carla Thomas
- “Cold Sweat” — James Brown
- “Strawberry Fields Forever”/“Penny Lane” — The Beatles
- “Soul Man” — Sam & Dave
- “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You” — Aretha Franklin
- “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You” — Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell
- “Chain of Fools” — Aretha Franklin
- “Waterloo Sunset” — The Kinks
- “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” — Aretha Franklin
- “Born Under a Bad Sign” — Albert King
- “I Am the Walrus” – The Beatles
- “I Second That Emotion” — Smokey & the Miracles
- “All You Need is Love” — The Beatles
- “When Something is Wrong With My Baby” — Sam & Dave
- “I’d Rather Go Blind” — Etta James
- “Don’t Hit Me No More” — Mable John
- “For What It’s Worth” — Buffalo Springfield
- “I Can See For Miles” — The Who
- “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad” – Tammy Wynette
- “Cold Hard Facts of Life” — Porter Wagoner
- “Higher and Higher” — Jackie Wilson
- “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” — Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell
- “I Think We’re Alone Now” – Tommy James & the Shondells
- “Purple Haze” — Jimi Hendrix Experience
- “Let it Out (Let it All Hang Out)” – The Hombres
- “I’m a Believer” — The Monkees
- “The Letter” — The Box Tops
- “Ode to Billie Joe” — Bobbie Gentry
- “Your Precious Love” — Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell
- “Nobody But Me” — The Human Beinz
- “Soul Finger” — The Bar-Kays
- “I’ve Been Lonely Too Long” — The Rascals
- “Expressway to Your Heart” — The Soul Survivors
- “Groovin’” — The Rascals
- “I Was Made to Love Her” — Stevie Wonder
- “Jackson” — Johnny and June Carter Cash
- “Mercy Mercy Mercy” — Larry Williams and Johnny Watson
This isn’t a film project, but I’ll throw a Top 5 or Top 10 movies list (depending on how deep my viewing is for a particular year) at the end of these for the hell of it. My sense has never been that the 1960s were a particularly great movie decade, particularly for American movies. I prefer both the 1950s and 1970s. This year, in particular, is lousy with cultural touchstones that either aren’t that good (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night) or that I feel like might be pretty overrated but would like a re-watch to confirm (Cool Hand Luke, The Graduate). One cultural touchstone of 1967 that is not overrated tops this list:
- Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn)
- Point Blank (John Boorman)
- Playtime (Jacques Tati)
- Weekend (Jean-Luc Godard)
- Belle de Jour (Luis Bunuel)
Honorable Mention: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Sergio Leone)