Some call the ‘60s a decade of conscious evolution, others a decade when man reverted to an animalistic state instead of “liberating” himself as is claimed and Western morality went down the tubes. Some just can’t remember it at all. For those of us who were born long after that time, there’s plenty of archival footage on YouTube, films, books and articles you can watch and read that will give you a cohesive picture of the ‘60s, along with the landslide of music that came out of it. If one wants an abridged timeline of the decade, it started with a lull of easy, innocent pop in the wake of the rock-n-roll era of the ‘50s coming to a grinding halt with surf rock a la Dick Dale popping up before long, eventually giving way to the mid-‘60s British Invasion and the American folk-rock boom started by Bob Dylan and the earlier beatniks. The counterculture essentially began around this time in ’63-’64 as the JFK assassination shattered the innocence of postwar America, the U.S moved into Vietnam and the boomer generation started to attend college, just in time to be drafted.
Once LSD started emerging as a drug du jour around ’66, the flavour of the month went from garage to psychedelic, coalescing in the hippie high point of the Summer Of Love in ’67. Ultimately, the hippies’ drop-out and peace-and-love idealism declined too as the fanatical extremists of ’68 shoved them out of the way, dying completely the next year thanks to the Manson murders and the chaos of the Altamont Free Concert (they did have Woodstock though). All that remained by 1970 were the campus leftists bombing businesses, torching ROTC buildings and fatally clashing with the National Guard; this too would eventually pass as the draft and U.S involvement in Vietnam were ended a few years later. After Watergate, the recession that ended America’s 30-year boom and the Fall Of Saigon, the communal kumbaya sentiment and the utopian enthusiasm that came of it was long gone, replaced first by weary demoralization, introspection then indulgent abandon– the roots of the “Me Decade”. The music that came from this historic span of time through the early ‘60s to the early ‘70s reflects these shifts well, though this list sticks strictly to the greatest albums of the ’60s in the author’s humble opinion. (For the ‘70s, click here).
- Grand Funk Railroad- Grand Funk (1969)
The average listener remembers Grand Funk as a 1970s band, and indeed that’s where they reigned supreme by smashing The Beatles’ Shea Stadium sales record and putting out staples of the likes of “I’m Your Captain (Closer To Home)”, “We’re An American Band” and the covers “The Loco-Motion” and “Some Kind Of Wonderful”. Shortly before that in ’69, they came in the door with two records of pure Michigan flavour: On Time and Grand Funk, the latter being nicknamed the Red Album due to its cover. Grand Funk shows the then-trio still in their developmental stage; nevertheless the album demonstrates a decent range from psychedelic fuzz-funk in “Got This Thing On The Move”, easy-going electric blues with “High-Falootin’ Woman” to long, grooving jams with “In Need”, “Paranoid” and The Animals cover “Inside Looking Out”. It’s a strong, memorable and underrated release that sets the stage for the rest of Grand Funk’s career, despite what many-a-critic thought of them at the time.
Runner-Up Recommendation: On Time (1969)
2. Led Zeppelin- Led Zeppelin (1969)
As mentioned in the introduction, 1969 was a true turning point in the countercultural era when the utopian spirit of the ‘60s collapsed and darker elements set in. As a reflection of that, the first fully-formed traces of heavy metal emerged, with the likes of Black Sabbath and shock-rocker Alice Cooper explicitly setting out to kill off whatever remained of the flower-power hippie zeitgeist. Led Zeppelin was part of this shift too, albeit still embracing some elements of the ‘60s sound and culture while venturing into far darker, heavier and primal territory than many of their American and British peers of the previous five years. With Led Zeppelin and Led Zeppelin II they began to set a new sonic and aesthetic prototype that would define rock and metal for the next 20 years and beyond, exchanging politics for bombast, brass and wanton recklessness and contributing greatly in making rock and roll less of a social vehicle and more of an industry cash cow. Whatever their debut’s ultimate legacy might be, cuts such as “Good Times Bad Times”, “Dazed And Confused” and “Communication Breakdown” still ring through as powerfully today as they did over 50 years ago.
Runner-Up Recommendation- Led Zeppelin II (1969)
3. The Beatles- Revolver (1966)
In the Beatles discography, no record stands out more on an innovative, transitional level than Revolver. There is the Rolling Stone list-topper Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, for sure, but Revolver captures The Beatles at a truly pivotal moment; breaking out of their mop-top constraints and conquering new frontiers in composition and production while edging closer to sequestering themselves to the studio for the rest of their run. There is an endless amount of variety on Revolver in comparison to their earlier British Invasion records, from the dark, baroque “Eleanor Rigby” to the children’s song “Yellow Submarine”, onto the Stax-influenced “Got To Get You Into My Life”, the drifty “I’m Only Sleeping” onto the psych-mod opener “Taxman.” Then of course there is the closer “Tomorrow Never Knows”, a Leary-inspired trip-out that defies all description; a titanic display of studio innovation that includes reversed tracks, tape loops and Eastern drone among other things not yet conceived of in 1966. Despite the record being all of 35 minutes long, you can still hear a plethora of genres being born throughout it.
Runner-Up Recommendation- Abbey Road (1969)
4. The Doors- The Doors (1967)
Jim Morrison was a complex and enigmatic fellow, and above all an iconoclast. He has been heralded retrospectively as one of the hippie icons of the 1960s while never putting himself in the same boat as the flower-power Scott McKenzie crowd; as a matter of fact he and the Doors were more of a precursor to punk if anything, as demonstrated by his impact on Iggy Pop and The Stooges (Iggy was even offered to replace him in the early ‘70s). Some of his actions, like those at the infamous 1969 Miami concert were considered so subversive to conventional morality that it prompted an investigation by the FBI, while his military father was one of the key people involved in the Gulf Of Tonkin incident that got the U.S involved in Vietnam. There are many songs, moments and records that define Jim Morrison, but at the end of the day The Doors’ 1967 debut encapsulates him and his band better than anything else. With numbers like the jazzy, Huxleyan “Break On Through (To The Other Side)”, the unsettling “Light My Fire” and the profane Oriental marathon “The End”, one gets the sense that there’s something not quite right with them; something is off, out of place and awkward yet it still seems to work. Given Morrison’s erudite poetic inclinations, John Densmore’s jazzy drum patterns and Ray Manzarek’s compensating on keys for their lack of a bass player, it’s safe to say much of their musical weirdness was both intentional and a natural by-product of who they were.
Runner-Up Recommendation- Strange Days (1967)
5. Blue Cheer- Vincebus Eruptum (1968)
Among the handful of names thrown around that are credited for pioneering heavy metal in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Blue Cheer remains one of the acts that is highly influential but nevertheless overlooked. Their debut Vincebus Eruptum includes many cuts worthy of note in the canon of counterculture-era power trios, most notably their cover of Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues”. Blistering, heavy and Hendrixian, their high-volume interpretation of the ‘50s rockabilly standard is a shining example of how far rock and roll had gone in the ten years since Eddie’s version hit the air. “Rock Me Baby” strikes like a rawer version of early Grand Funk, while numbers like “Doctor Please” and “Parchment Farm” are through-and-through Jimi, mixed with lingering bits of mid-‘60s garage. It’s music conceived of the era’s psychedelia and made for a panhead motorcycle, much in the same league if it had been given its just due as Deep Purple, Mountain and several other acts of the same time and ilk.
Runner-Up Recommendation- Blue Cheer (1969)
6. The Rolling Stones- Beggars Banquet (1968)
The Stones followed a similar trajectory to The Beatles while serving as their delinquent counterparts, right up to their brief dalliance with the acid-raga rock moment of 1967-1968 with Their Satanic Majesties Request, a fad that the fab four had largely brought about. When the Summer Of Love gave way to the Summer Of Revolt, the Stones, being the more dangerous of the two bands embraced and channelled the angry, anarchic spirit of ’68 while The Beatles (Lennon, mainly) denounced violent radicalism with “Revolution” and came into conflict with the hard-left segment of their fanbase. Beggars Banquet marks the beginning of the Stones’ golden age that continued up to Exile On Main St, catching them in a moment of raw, pure musicality between their psychedelic phase and their bleak double coupe de grace to the decade with Let It Bleed and Altamont. “Street Fighting Man”, a track inspired by the French student protests of ’68 that could have easily described America or Mexico City that year drives with all the destructive fervour you would expect; “Sympathy For The Devil” in contrast traffics in a happier kind of nihilism, a care-free dance to the tune of the apocalypse. The country-blues slop of “No Expectations” and “Dear Doctor” provide some quintessentially Stones moments, as does “Parachute Woman”, “Stray Cat Blues” and “Salt Of The Earth”. Ultimately, Beggars encapsulates the essence of every Stones album: Defined by a consistent, unwavering formula yet possessing a distinct character of its own.
Runner-Up Recommendation- Let It Bleed (1969)
7. The Allman Brothers Band- The Allman Brothers Band (1969)
Sadly only one of two full-length studio albums released in Duane “Skydog” Allman’s lifetime (not counting Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs), The Allmans made a fantastic entrance with their eponymous first album. All of 7 tracks, The Allman Brothers Band and subsequent records paved the way for southern rock and the many bands that came out of Jacksonville in the ‘70s after them: Lynyrd Skynyrd, Blackfoot, 38 Special, Molly Hatchet, etc. Tracks like “Don’t Want You No More” and “Dreams” showcase their capacity to jam out, a trait they would come to be renowned for. Energetic blues numbers like “Black Hearted Woman” and “Trouble No More” make it no wonder how Duane and Eric Clapton ended up collaborating and having some of the greatest artistic chemistry in rock, while the slow blues of “It’s Not My Cross To Bear” runs on out-and-out southern soul, the same that fuelled later Allman Brother Warren Haynes with Govt. Mule. Rounding it out is the timeless “Whipping Post” and the grooving “Every Hungry Woman”; all in all making for a great debut from one of the south’s most prominent musical treasures.
Runner-Up Recommendation- Idlewild South (1970) (There’s no other Allman Brothers release in the 1960s).
8. Creedence Clearwater Revival- Willy And The Poor Boys (1969)
There were a number of bands in the 1960s that dropped 2 or more albums in the same year, and CCR was one of them. Out of the three albums they released in 1969, Willy And The Poor Boys stands out as the most memorable. Along with Cosmo’s Factory, Willie shows CCR in its peak form, a band that went deep into the roots of American music and added a topical flare to it; most explicitly with their excoriation of the draft in “Fortunate Son”. The Chuck Berry-esque “It Came Out Of The Sky” spins a satirical U.F.O scenario involving numerous figures of the time, “Down On The Corner” centres around a fictional tale of a troupe of buskers and the old prison standard “Midnight Special” lends further credit to CCR’s status as a seminal rural, blue-collar band; a distinction betrayed only by their Bay Area origins. Nevertheless, the material they generated for Willy speaks for itself; and if anyone wants to get into the soundtrack of the Vietnam War and venture their way into the foundations of America’s musical history, Creedence is and always will be a great gateway.
Runner-Up Recommendation- Green River (1969)
9. Cream- Disraeli Gears (1967)
If any picture encapsulates 1967 in a nutshell, it’s the vivid hallucinogenic explosion of Cream’s Disraeli Gears cover. If there’s any album (well, there’s a few from that year) that captures ’67 in song, one great one out of the many landmark releases of that year by The Doors, The Beatles, The Stones, Big Brother, Hendrix et al. is also Disraeli Gears. Along with CCR, Cream may have been one of the most short-lived bands of that period (and all of rock history), but that obviously takes nothing away from the quality of their output. Riding and electrifying the British blues boom, former Yardbird and Bluesbreaker Eric Clapton, along with compadres Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker morphed, like the Stones, away from straightforward American blues as exhibited on Fresh Cream on Disraeli and into the psychedelic rabbit hole of peak hippie. There’s the Slowhand staples: “Sunshine Of Your Love” and “Strange Brew”, the narcotic ramblings of “World Of Pain” and “SWLABR” and easy-going cuts like “We’re Going Wrong” and “Dance The Night Away”. Then there’s the old Blind Joe Reynolds tune “Outside Woman Blues”, the Stonesy “Blue Condition” and the ever-so-English “Mother’s Lament”. With the 53rd anniversary of Disraeli’s release approaching as of this writing, it’s needless to say it’s held up well and will continue to in the many years since.
Runner-Up Recommendation- Wheels Of Fire (1968)
10. Jimi Hendrix Experience- Are You Experienced? (1967)
God knows it would be blasphemous to have a ‘60s list and not include its greatest guitar hero in some capacity. The influence and legacy of James Marshall Hendrix doesn’t need to be run through extensively here, any Top 10/50/100/500 list from Rolling Stone sums his contributions up succinctly enough. Coming from the Chitlin’ Circuit as a sideman to Wilson Pickett and Little Richard among others, Jimi’s playing on his debut record heralded a new era and standard for electric guitar; much like Eddie Van Halen’s playing did on Van Halen’s debut 11 years later. Apart from skill and soul (of which there is plenty on Are You Experienced?), Hendrix approached the six-string with a level of brass balls and attitude that hadn’t been demonstrated by a great deal of earlier rock-and-roll performers, exemplified best in cuts like “Foxey Lady”, “Purple Haze” and “I Don’t Live Today”. Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding undoubtedly served as the perfect rhythm section too; the whole affair from “Purple” through “Manic Depression”, “Hey Joe” and “Highway Chile” through to “Red House” serving as 38 straight minutes of amazement and inspiration experience to the youth of America and England and a fiery sonic backdrop for the grunts in ‘Nam. Over 5 years later, Are You Experienced remains a hard record for the inestimable number of Hendrix’s descendants to compete with.
Runner-Up Recommendation- Electric Ladyland (1968)