Monday, October 26, 2009

Top Albums of the 1960s (Pt. 3)

Here they are: my top fifteen favorite albums of the 1960s. (#s 90 through 31 are here, and 30 through 16 are here.) These albums may have been released when my parents were younger than I am now, but they are all truly amazing and unique works of art that have helped shape modern music. Encompassing soul, jazz, pop, folk, rock, and all sorts of different subgenres, these fifteen albums are all undeniably timeless and undeniably mindblowing. So sit back, and learn that the music of the '60s wasn't only about The Beatles. (But they were a darn big part of it.)

15. The Jimi Hendrix Experience--Are You Experienced?
It's difficult to debate that Jimi Hendrix is not the greatest rock n' roll guitarist of all time. Time and again, he proved that he was a technically skilled, open-minded, innovative genius. Though this fact is most evident on video (see: Woodstock or Monterrey), the record that captures the man and his guitar best is definitely Are You Experienced?. Rooted in the blues, but restlessly experimental and psychedelic, Are You Experienced? is the ultimate guitar record. Jimi's Fender wails and shakes and jangles and destroys with the utmost precision and emotion. A traditional blues riff may become a mind-altering, distorted solo at any time. No single guitar player has ever been more influential to rock, soul, blues, funk, metal, etc. But what people often overlook in Jimi's music is his singing. He delivers smart, relevant lyrics in a deep, soulful voice that allowed his music to be both funk and rock. I actually think he was one of rock's great singers as well as its premier guitarist.

14. The Beatles--Magical Mystery Tour
I was always hesitant to get Magical Mystery Tour because I assumed that it would be similar to Yellow Submarine. Both soundtrack Beatles movies, and both have silly covers. And Yellow Submarine, though inoffensive, is certainly The Beatles' worst album. And so I approached this album with caution; I feared that it would be a mess of over-the-top psychedelic camp. Well, it kind of is, but it's genius over-the-top psychedelic camp. Magical Mystery Tour is probably the band's weirdest album. The sounds found on it are spacier and more bizarre than those found on some of the most experimental music, but the hooks are some of the group's biggest. Side one is comprised of brilliant, hazy psych-pop tracks from the film, and side two has five Beatles singles--all of which are excellent. Magical Mystery Tour is rarely considered to be as good as most other Beatles albums (Rolling Stone didn't even include it on their Beatles-centric Top 500 Albums list), but I think it ranks comfortably with their best.

13. Leonard Cohen--Songs Of Leonard Cohen
Several of the songs from Songs Of Leonard Cohen were featured in Robert Altman's McCabe And Mrs. Miller. When I listen to these songs on the album, I see scenes from the movie. And if you've seen the movie or you haven't (and you should if you haven't), I'm guessing a similar picture fills your mind when your listening to Cohen's opus. A starkly beautiful, desolate land. Snow covering the ground. Thick patches of evergreens. Log cabins. Guys drinkin' whiskey. Horses. Prostitutes. These are the images that Songs Of Leonard Cohen conjures. It plays with emotions: it is at once hopeful yet dark, beautiful yet sparse, lovely yet lonely. Cohen is a true poet and a true genius, unlike any other songwriter before or since. No one, not Dylan or Drake or anyone else, has ever been able to stir up my feelings like Leonard Cohen. Time has passed, and he has solidified his place as rock's foremost poet, but nothing even in his repertoire is as beautiful or haunting as his debut. Songs Of Leonard Cohen is what folk should sound like.

12. Albert Ayler--Spiritual Unity
You may recall, if you're a faithful reader of Il Buono, that I made a list of my favorite saxophonists two months or so ago. Number one was John Coltrane; that's a given. But number two was not Parker or Sanders or even Ornette Coleman. It was Albert Ayler, and Spiritual Unity is the main reason why. This album is crazy. Absolutely crazy. It's wilder and more experimental than most Boredoms releases, it's faster at times than many a Bad Brains tune, and Ayler's saxophone squeals louder and more emotionally than that of Parker or Sanders or Coleman. Credited officially to the Albert Ayler Trio (with Gary Peacock on bass and Sunny Murray on percussion), Spiritual Unity may not be the first example of avant-garde jazz, but it is the best. Peacock's bass is completely unhinged and crazy. He plays the bass faster than most can play the guitar. Murray's percussion manages to keep up with the whole mess, and it allows Ayler's horn to shine. But it's not just a highpoint in avant-garde, it's a highpoint in jazz and in music.

11. The Velvet Underground--The Velvet Underground
John Cage is a pretty cool guy. I'd even say a very cool guy. But after their aggressive avant-garde masterpiece, White Light/White Heat, The Velvet Underground "eased" Cage "out of the band." (This is from Wikipedia.) Now why in the world would VU get rid of one of the most brilliant musical minds in the history of the universe, you may ask. Well, I'm not exactly sure why they canned him, but it didn't hurt too much. Their next two albums, Loaded and The Velvet Underground, both find The Velvets streamlining their harsh sound and becoming more of a straightforward rock n' roll band. And, it turns out, they play rock n' roll better than pretty much anyone. Especially on this album, the band crafts songs that are not excessively original or experimental in their aesthetic approach, but wind up sounding original due to their near-perfect execution. Many of the songs are fun and catchy, while several others are downright beautiful. They of course indulge in some experimenting, but the mainstream-ness of this is part of what makes it so amazing.

10. James Brown--Live At The Apollo
I've never really gotten the appeal of the live album. As far as I know, more often than not, it's used to fill contracts or make some extra cash. Generally, a live album is a sloppy showcase of previously released material: a group of recordings that make you wish you were at that show, but don't make for a good album. Cue Live At The Apollo. Live At The Apollo is James Brown's best album, one of the best funk/soul albums ever made, and easily the finest live album of all time. The songs on it were Brown's recent singles, and many of them had not yet made it onto an LP yet. Most of those tracks are among Brown's all-time best. The exuberance and energy of the songs themselves are matched only by Brown's own enthusiasm. Live albums' chief problem, sound quality, is not an issue on this record. Though the sound of riotous applause sometimes drowns out The JBs' stone cold funk, the sound is always crisp. This album is chaotic and tight at the same time. It showcases the Godfather not at his creative peak, but at his Hardest Working Man in Showbiz apex. And then there's the intro...

9. The Stooges--The Stooges
Obviously, "I Wanna Be Your Dog," my favorite song of the entire 1960s, is a big part of The Stooges. But, while that is certainly the best song on the album, The Stooges' landmark debut is brilliant through and through. It helped paved the way, along with the following two Stooges albums, for punk rock and metal. It was the first major release for one James Osterberg (a.k.a. Iggy Pop), who has gone on to have one of the lengthiest and most unique careers in the history of rock n' roll. And all of its songs are pretty darn great. Though "garage rock" was a widely practiced genre before The Stooges was released, and what has since been coined "protopunk" had already been developed, The Stooges rocked harder, faster, and better than anything else released in the 1960s. No band matched The Stooges' ferocity and intensity when it came to play messy, distorted rock n' roll: not The Sonics, not The MC5, not The Amboy Dukes, etc. Throughout the whole album, Ron Asheton plays instantly memorable, apocalyptic funk-rock riffs while Iggy yelps about sex and drugs in his now famous howl. The Stooges is fun, fast, and timeless.

8. John Coltrane--A Love Supreme
Here it is: my favorite jazz album of all time. Now, I'm definitely a rock/pop/soul kinda guy, but I like to think I know more about jazz than the average seventeen year-old. (I have stumbled through the occasional trombone solo in high school jazz band, after all.) Anyhow, enough with my jazz credentials (or lack thereof.) The bottom line is that, regardless of genre, A Love Supreme is one of the most sonically interesting and original albums ever created. The album represents the turning point in John Coltrane's career where he switched from being the world's preeminent bebop/hard bop sax player to being the world's preeminent avant-garde sax player. Though A Love Supreme is significantly more conventional than, say, Ascension, it is still definitely an experimental work. On it, Coltrane plays tenor sax and lends trippy, overdubbed vocals. He is joined by Jimmy Garrison, McCoy Tyner, and Elvin Jones--one heck of a quartet. The band plays through the four part Love Supreme with both chaos and precision. A Love Supreme is jazz's definitive record because it mixed the past with the future, and sounds better than anything released before or since.

7. Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band--Trout Mask Replica
A lot of people say they love Trout Mask Replica because it will make them sound cool. The reason for this is that most people who hear Trout Mask hate it with every fiber of their being. I, actually, was a member of the first group mentioned at first. I was like, "Hey, if I say I like Trout Mask Replica, cool people will like me." Well, that didn't happen. But what did happen is I listened to the album, and I found that I do like it. A lot, in fact. I fully understand why so many people loathe this album; it's formless, insufferably weird, relentlessly noisy, and all around un-musical. It's long and heavy, which makes it difficult to listen to all the through in one sitting. But it's also one of the most interesting albums ever made. The music, though unbelievably messy and experimental, is tight and pleasantly original. Resembling blues mostly, the music frequently switches style, tempo, time signature, and more. It's so complex and bizarre that it hasn't really influenced many people. No one else could pull it off. Beefheart's vocals are equally, if not more, demented. The words are dissonant nonsense, and his delivery is wholly unique. It's challenging, yes, but also rewarding.
(I can't find a video. Sorry. (I'm not sorry.))

6. The Beach Boys--Pet Sounds
One of the problems I have with writing about classic '60s records like Pet Sounds is that every rock critic for the past forty-plus years has dissected them over and over again. This means, there is little left to say. And I wonder: is this a good thing? Is it beneficial to analyze every single second of an album over the course of four or five or even six decades? Could all this attention ruin what was thought to be a timeless album? In the case of Pet Sounds, the answer is "no." I've read a fair share of articles about and reviews of Pet Sounds, and I know there are thousands upon thousands out there I haven't read. Most of these things tell the same story: Brian Wilson decided to make a brilliant pop concept album, he took control of the band, the other band members got mad, he made the album, some people loved it but most hated it, Brian Wilson started going a little crazy, the album became a huge inspiration to everyone. And it's true. That is indeed what happened as far as I can tell. But I'm not as interested in that. Most of these reviews then talk about the sounds on the album and how they are unlike any other ever. This is what I'm interested in. Pet Sounds is lush, vibrant, and full of the most unique textures I've ever heard.

5. Love--Forever Changes
I first heard this album several years ago when I thought music without excessive distortion and yelling was terrible. I didn't think Forever Changes was terrible, but I certainly didn't like it very much. Fast forward a few years, and I finally accepted it as one of the greatest albums ever made. Because it does belong in that group: the pantheon of rock albums. It's just one of--maybe the--most beautiful albums I've heard. Musically, it's perfect. And I don't mean Steely Dan perfect, but it's actually not that far away from that. Every note is meticulously calculated. Every sound seems to be picked with the utmost care. Forever Changes uses more instruments and implements more textures and timbres than any other album (except for maybe Pet Sounds). The result is an album that straddles folk, baroque pop, and psychedelic rock without sounding like any of those things. It's executed so flawlessly, it's devastating. Equally devastating are the lyrics and the vocals. Arthur Lee's words are heartbreakingly clever and generally relatable, even if they are a bit obtuse. The release of Forever Changes kind of coincided with the end of the whole acoustic/folk/rock/pop scene. After this, people wanted to rock out. And that's probably because people knew they couldn't match this album.

4. The Beatles--The Beatles (The White Album)
The White Album is probably the most ridiculous album I've ever had the pleasure of listening to. It is the sound of a brilliant group of people who had no idea what they wanted to do--musically or in life. Each Beatle was a mess in his own particular way, and it shows. No other Beatles album--and few albums by anyone else--are so diverse. Spanning thirty songs over two discs, The White Album leaves no stylistic stone unturned. They do hard rock, they do reggae, they do avant-garde, they do pop, they do folk, they do country, they do psychedelic. Using the studio and drugs as their instruments of choice, each member of the group basically did their own thing. Then all of the disparate recording were compiled. This makes this album a genius musical collage: a grouping of songs that are similar only in that they are so different. There's loads of filler, but the filler feels necessary. In addition to being the biggest and strangest Beatles album, it is also the one I loved first. I'd be lying if I said there was no nostalgia attached to The White Album. I've been listening to this for well over half my life. I feel more connected to this album than maybe any other in my collection. But my love for this album isn't just wistful. This is some of the best rock n' roll music ever created. (Especially on disc one.)

3. The Velvet Underground--White Light/White Heat
White Light/White Heat is often considered "noisy" and "difficult." People, whether they loather the album or think it's brilliant, consider it a precursor to several different types of experimental music, and they think it's a challenging listen. It is noisy. That's true. It did influence experimental music: from krautrock to noise rock to just about everything else. But White Light/White Heat is, I think, far from difficult or challenging. Now, I understand the dark meanings to the lyrics. I realize that they are telling stories of bizarre sex, drug abuse, dying, and abortions. I hear the feedback and dissonant chords that are prevalent on every track. But it makes me feel good nonetheless. And I think it makes me feel this way simply because it's such an amazing album. White Light/White Heat is the album that I would want to make, and when I listen to it, I think "Wow. I wish I had thought of that. That is so insane and original and good. And this came out over forty years ago." Every track is so unique: the title track is a messy rock n' roll stomper coated in noise, "The Gift" finds John Cage telling a great story over a sludgy riff, "Lady Godiva's Operation" has one of my favorite moments in the history of music on it (when Lou Reed says "sweetly"), "Here She Comes Now" is the album's lone beautiful moment, "I Heard Her Call My Name" is a noisy precursor to "Sister Ray," which is a long, bizarre trip that's noisier than just about anything else ever made.

2. The Beatles--Revolver
At this point, I've already written a lot about The Beatles; I've devoted more blog space to them than I have to any other band. Between this post, and the write-ups for Abbey Road, Magical Mystery Tour, and The Beatles for this list, I think I have professed my adoration for the Fab Four sufficiently. But all those sweeping generalizations and cliche (but also true) remarks I've made about how great the band was don't even come close to capturing the genius that is Revolver. The Beatles never made a bad--or even decent--album, but nothing they put out is as innovative and perfect as Revolver. Unlike Sgt. Pepper's or The Beatles, it has no filler. (I even love "Yellow Submarine.") Unlike Rubber Soul, it's never boring; it doesn't stay on a particular idea long enough to ever sound normal. Unlike Magical Mystery Tour, it doesn't experiment to a fault. (I still love Magical Mystery Tour. Don't worry.) Unlike Abbey Road, it's totally bizarre. (I obviously love Abbey Road, but it's pretty darn mainstream.) Revolver showcases The Beatles at all their peaks. No Beatles song is as beautiful as "Eleanor Rigby." None are as groundbreaking or avant-garde as "Tomorrow Never Knows." Taking influence from Indian music, The Beatles were able to outdo all their contemporaries in their quest to make a quirky avant-pop masterpiece. Not even Brian Wilson could ever match the scope of Revolver. It's so complex and diverse that, when taken as a whole, it sounds nothing like any other album ever--even if people have been ripping it off for decades. Revolver is the biggest rock band ever's opus. So it must be good.

1. The Velvet Underground--The Velvet Underground & Nico
You know, any of the albums in this top three could be number one. When I listen to Revolver, I think that might be the best. When I listen to White Light/White Heat: same thing. But there's always some doubt in my mind when I think about actually putting either of those albums at the top. I can't really think of any negatives of either of them, but there is still doubt. This is not the case with The Velvet Underground & Nico. Every time I listen to it, I know that this is the best album of the 1960s and probably the best album ever made. Like those other two, I can't point to a single bad thing on the album. Few other albums are as universally accepted as genius as this one. No other rock n' roll album is as groundbreaking and original. No other album has had the impact this one has had on the underground rock community. But let's forget about VU & Nico's innovations and accolades. Let's forget about the cult that is this album, and let's just focus on the music.

The music on this album is more diverse than that on any other VU album, and as diverse as any mid- to late-Beatles album. The tracks alternate between slickly beautiful and jaggedly cacophonous--often mid-song. When they want to be delicate and pretty, they can break more hearts than Nick Drake. When they want to be noisy, they can induce more headaches than Ryoji Ikeda. They charm listeners with their glockenspiel and then repel them with a sharp, dissonant viola. Throughout all of this are droning, un-tuned guitars and a plodding drum. Their experimental tendencies are certainly more fully realized on their sophomore effort, White Light/White Heat, but they are more refined on this album, which I appreciate. They love to drone, but VU are brilliant melodically as well. Above the noise nearly always lies a great hook, whether it is intentional or not. This gives The Velvet Underground & Nico some of the finest pop songs of the '60s (or ever), even if the band was clearly not aiming for the mainstream. Many albums on this list have been hugely influential, but never quite matched by their followers. This is most true with this album. Even though "everyone who bought it started a band" (or whatever that Eno quote is), no one--in the forty-three years and counting since its release--has sounded anything like The Velvet Underground. The music on this album is so raw and unique, sloppy and complex at the same time; it can't be adequately replicated.

I've managed to write this much without talking about the lyrics, though. Lou Reed belongs in a group with Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits in terms of songwriters I really pay attention to. And Reed might be the ringleader of said group. He and Nico tell these stories that I usually can't relate to on any level, and I'm always fascinated. I don't listen to The Velvet Underground & Nico while I'm doing other things because I want to make sure I pick up on every lyrical nuance. Even after all these listens, I learn new things every time from Reed's words. His dissertations on heroin, prostitutes, transvestites, dying, sado-masochism, and the New York art scene are unbelievably interesting and clever even if I'm not exactly experienced in or knowledgeable about any of those fields. And his poetry is amazing on every Velvet Underground release and on most of his solo recordings. (It's just that the music is best on this one.) Lou Reed is arguably the best songwriter of all time. The Velvet Underground are arguably the best band of all time. They're probably my favorite.

That's what I think. You're entitled to not like The Beatles and VU as much as I do. But you probably should.

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