Monday, October 19, 2009

Top Albums of the 1960s (Pt. 2)

In continuation of my 90 Favorite Albums of the '60s list, I bring you my #30 through 16. If you missed out on #90 through 31, click here. Otherwise, keep on reading.

As I've said before, the '60s were pretty crazy. All sorts of new genres were popping up, and the preexisting ones were becoming more and more different. Chuck Berry in the previous decade became The Stooges. Charlie Parker: Albert Ayler. Sure there were some nice, poppy records in the decade, but the ones that stuck and truly made a statement (i.e. many of the ones on this list) were the ones that did something weird, new, and necessary for music.

And so the countdown continues...

30. The Rolling Stones--Beggars Banquet
If you've read this blog before, you may have noticed that I'm not exactly a Rolling Stones kind of guy. I think Sticky Fingers and Let It Bleed are pretty good, if inconsistent, albums. I enjoy Exile On Main St., but would never consider it to be a favorite of mine. However, because "Sympathy For The Devil" is one of my all-time favorite songs (as I showed on my Songs of The '60s list), I was very intrigued by Beggars Banquet. So I listened to it. Where their other albums are often a bit overblown and populated with corny stabs at white-man soul, this one is focused and raw. It pulls off their blues-rock M.O. with more umph and less fraudulence than any other album of theirs. Beggars Banquet is the world's biggest band's best album.

29. Charles Mingus--The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady
Not exactly free jazz and not exactly bebop, The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady is definitely Charles Mingus's strangest and best work. It alternates between being oddly minimal and oddly chaotic, as Mingus's big band often sounds somewhere between traditional Mingus and Sun Ra. This is a good thing. Where his earlier albums had been tight almost to a fault, Mingus lets his band free on this album. I feel kind of like I'm in a film noir movie when I listen to it. I feel like it's The Maltese Falcon, but Humphrey Bogart is a crack addict prone to a good car chase. What I'm trying to get at is that Black Saint just exudes cool. It combines all these cool things (Ellington, avant-garde, bebop, film scores) to create some new, unique monster of coolness.

28. Van Dyke Parks--Song Cycle
A lot of people hate this album. They think it's too weird and too pretentious. They think it's over-produced and self-indulgent. Those people are right. But the reasons all those people hate Song Cycle is the reason I love it. The songs change direction constantly, showcasing all sorts of different forms and styles. It's totally overblown in its ideas and arrangements, and that makes it a completely unique and interesting listen. If one were to put Song Cycle into a genre, one could say "pop" or, perhaps, "Americana." But it's pacing and range--which give it a feeling of schizophrenia--are more akin to some sort of experimental music. Parks might now be more popular for his work with Brian Wilson or even Joanna Newsom, but Song Cycle is his avant-pop masterpiece.
(I can't find one for this either.)

27. Anthony Braxton--For Alto
A lot of the albums on this list all started as truly innovative and awesome concepts. Terry Riley's In C called for the musicians to just play whatever they wanted in an allotted time period, for example. The concept of For Alto, the great Anthony Braxton's opus, is to create several pieces for just alto saxophone. Jazz music generally involves at least a duo, if not more. Most music that is comprised of just one instrument is done on the piano. So, even if the music on For Alto stunk, Braxton still would have been innovative. Luckily, that's not the case. Braxton's solo sax is strong and chaotic. Each piece is a bizarre, apocalyptic trip through Braxton's mind and lungs. The fact that alto sax is the only sound on the record makes it that much more raw, original, and great.
(I can't find one for this. I guess you'll have to trust me.)

26. Monks--Black Monk Time
Proto-punk. Proto-krautrock. Proto-doesn't matter. Black Monk Time is a truly awesome and unique rock n' roll album. While it is true that this album, released in 1966 before anything by The Stooges or The MC5, had a great influence on punk and krautrock, it should be acknowledged more for its really weird and innovative songs. Created by a group of American expats dressed as padres living in Germany, Black Monk Time is a total mess. The lyrics are intensely political and often intensely funny. They are sung with urgency and anger, but also without seriousness. The Monks were angry with the state of the world, but they were still having a good time. The music mixes dissonant organ riffs with heavily rhythmic drumming with distorted guitars (and banjos). It's different. In a good way.

25. Terry Riley--In C
In the modern classical music pantheon, In C would be Dinonysus. Or someone like that. (Who am I kidding? I don't know mythology.) The bottom line is In C is one of the most powerful and most important works of not just modern classical music, but all music. And though it certainly is minimal in its rhythms and whatnot, there is a lot going on in In C, and everything that happens is completely unexpected. Riley meant for the music to be random; he wanted the music to just happen. That's a pretty neat idea, and he gets neat results. Now that I've looked up Dionysus, I've found that he was also the god of epiphany. So, saying this piece is to music as Dionysus was to the gods actually makes sense. It's a good analogy. In C is a groundbreaking, ethereal work: a musical epiphany, if you will. (And even if you won't.)

24. The Mothers Of Invention--We're Only In It For The Money
Plenty of albums try to be over-the-top weird and experimental. These days, people will put in tons and tons of money and effort to be odd and quirky. The Mothers did not try to be weird. It did not take them any effort to be quirky. This was a legitimately bizarre group of human beings. We're Only In It For The Money is the group's crowning achievement; it is their most sprawling, weirdest, most experimental record. It blasts through a heap of short songs that cover every genre you can name (and several you can't) without taking a break. The music is progressive, the lyrics: nonsense in the best way possible. I'm sure Frank Zappa and Co. took a fair share of hallucinogens, but that can't possibly be the only reason We're Only In It For The Money sounds like it does. A lot of bands do drugs. No bands sound like The Mothers.

23. Otis Redding--Otis Blue: Otis Sings Soul
In 1965, the center of the soul music universe was in Motown. And as long as perfect pop tracks were streaming out of Hitsville, that fact would remain true. But Otis Redding didn't care. He may have been recording hundreds of miles south of Motown, but his music was more soulful than anything Berry Gordy had his hand in. Nowhere is that more apparent than on Otis Blue. This is the definitive soul album: it's a filler-free work of beauty that transcends its own single-driven genre. The music is funky and rough. The lyrics are thoughtful and current. They don't sugarcoat the oppressive times that Redding and his peers were going through. But most important to Otis Blue is Redding's amazing voice. It's tender and beautiful, but also jagged and unkempt. It sounds like both life and death. And it's what makes this album soul's defining LP.

22. Miles Davis--In A Silent Way
In A Silent Way: On Which Miles Davis Basically Invents The Next Four Decades Of Jazz Music may be a more apt, albeit heavy-handed, title for this record. It's true, though. Bitches Brew gets the lion's share of the credit when it comes to Miles's fusion records, but it all started with this one. Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul, Dave Holland: they're all here, and they all sound like they're at their respective peaks. (Even though they probably aren't.) And of course, there's Miles. Leading the band over two lengthy tracks, Davis blows his horn powerfully and chaotically and as he would for the next decade. In A Silent Way is jazz, but it is layered with funk organs and psychedelic rock guitars. In a catalogue as deep as Miles's, it's hard to pick favorites, but it's also hard to argue against this one.

21. Can--Monster Movie
Before the legendary Damo Suzuki joined the group, Malcolm Mooney was Can's lead vocalist. Suzuki may now be regarded as the greater singer, but Mooney is pretty much as good. Like Suzuki, he created a bizarre, frightened atmosphere via random blurts and yelps and non sequiturs. Unlike Suzuki, however, he only participated on one Can studio album. (Not including reunion effort Rite Time.) That album, of course, is Monster Movie. And it definitely holds its own against Can's early '70s records. The music on this album sounds like a more primitive version of what was to come. The drumming is funky and rhythmic, and the guitars and keyboards create a psychedelic electronic world around Mooney's schizophrenic vocals. Monster Movie is definitely more "rock" oriented than any other Can release, and it's arguably their second best.

20. Bob Dylan--Blonde On Blonde
Just as you may have noticed that I'm not a Rolling Stones kinda guy, you can probably tell I'm not really a Bob Dylan kinda guy. I respect the hell out of him, but I've had my share of trouble truly enjoying his music. His voice is a little grating, and the arrangements can be boring at best. Over the last year or two, I've began to actually like his music more and more, but I'm still not absolutely nuts about a chunk of his material. Blonde On Blonde is not included in that chunk. Not at all. Blonde On Blonde represents all the things I like best about Dylan. Where Highway 61 is polished excessively, Blonde On Blonde is undeniably raw. It's bluesy without sounding forced and folky without sounding boring. Being the sucker I am for double albums, I appreciate the breadth of material on Blonde On Blonde especially because there are almost no filler tracks. Simply put, it's this legend's best.

19. The Sonics--Here Are The Sonics!!!
Okay. So Here Are The Sonics!!! may not contain the best music of any album on this list. The Sonics may have only written six or seven of the album's sixteen songs. (The rest are rock n' roll covers.) But this is one of the most fun and most influential records ever made, and that's a fact. The songs are all fast and aggressive. The band is clearly having a great time, and their enthusiasm is contagious. It is wilder and more chaotic than any other rock record I've ever heard. It's raw and angry while still being an unstoppable good time. The band supposedly hacked at their amps with ice picks: a great idea because the music is very loud, very distorted, and very heavy. It certainly had a hand in birthing punk, but it's way more fun than any punk album I've heard. Here Are The Sonics!!! is simple, dirty, groovy, wild, sloppy, fast, unhinged, headache-inducing, fun, and messy in all the right ways.

18. Sly & The Family Stone--Stand!
It may be extremely different from my #1 favorite album of the '70s, There's A Riot Goin' On, but Stand! is a work of genius in its own right. As I mentioned in my write-up for Riot, Sly & The Family Stone's music in the '60s was very uplifting and happy. They were fun-loving hippies who just wanted peace, happiness, and equality. While this sentiment could be nauseating coming out of the mouths of others, Sly and his family are able to name songs "Sing A Simple Song" and "You Can Make It If You Try" and sound smart and sophisticated. In fact, these songs are genuinely uplifting. But they do hint at the darkness to come; there are also tracks titled "Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey" and "Sex Machine." But whether the lyrics are happy or sad, the music is always funky. Stand! is Sly Stone's last album before going crazy, and it's also one of the most soulful and funky documents of the ill-fated Age Of Aquarius.

17. John Coltrane--Ascension
He had waded the avant-garde on A Love Supreme earlier that year (yes, he released two masterpieces in one year), but on Ascension, John Coltrane takes a full-on swan dive into free jazz. Things like form and key, the benchmarks of jazz just one decade earlier, were thrown completely out the window on Ascension. Consisting of two different, side-length versions of the same tune, this album is a beast. That's really the only word I can think of to describe it. You'd think taking in a wildly experimental, forty-minute song would be difficult, but the time flies by. The solos (taken by Coltrane, Sanders, and Shepp, among others), are densely packed with every playable note. But Coltrane's are the strongest. Even this hugely talented band has trouble keeping up with him on the record. The man put out several albums a year for many years, but only one of them holds a candle to Ascension. (I'll give you a hint: it's in the top 15.)

16. The Beatles--Abbey Road
The last recorded Beatles album...blah blah blah...their most "rock" album...blah blah blah...a final symbol of unity before breaking up...blah blah of the all-time great album covers...blah blah blah...a brilliant send-off for the best band ever in the world ever...blah blah blah. Writing about The Beatles is relatively redundant, seeing as music critics have spent the last forty-odd years dissecting every second of every Beatles tune. But I'm going to offer my two-cents anyways. Yes, Abbey Road is the last album The Beatles recorded. Yes, it is their hardest rocking album. Yes, it was nice to see all four Beatles together on the cover, and yes, it is a darn good cover. Abbey Road's music though, rather than its story, is why it is number 16 on this list, ahead of most other Beatles albums. It is a huge, rambling rock masterpiece that encompasses some of the bands most tender moments and some of their most bizarre ones. What else is there to say?

That's what I think. Stay on the lookout for the top 15, which you could probably guess already.

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