Life at 33 1/3: The album classics of 1968

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The Beatles, The Beatles (Apple) – Released: November 22, 1968

A wondrous treasure of songs and styles.  Not four solo albums rolled into one as some say, but at least partly a full fledged group effort, though most of Paul McCartney’s contributions ended up as solo recordings thanks to the evil moods of John Lennon, who’s sharp tongue kept lashing out both at him and his songs.  John was high on heroin, Yoko and his own ego, so Paul preferred to work on his own songs alone (or with Ringo).

Paul, bless him, did not reciprocate, but rather threw himself wholeheartedly into both Lennon and Harrison’s songs, recreating the old group magic, his contributions to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, for instance, are crucial.  The irony is that because Paul’s own recordings differ from the group efforts, they actually turn the album into a richer listening experience.  John Lennon must have appreciated this in the end as his acoustic solo performance of “Julia” was the very last song recorded for the “White Album”.

I don’t think there is a single genre or style in popular music not present on “The Beatles”.  The greatest double album of all time?  I think so.

Contents: Back in the U.S.S.R./Dear Prudence/Glass Onion/Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da/Wild Honey Pie/The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill/While My Guitar Gently Weeps/Happiness Is a Warm Gun/Martha My Dear/I’m So Tired/Blackbird/Piggies/Rocky Raccoon/Don’t Pass Me By/Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?/I Will/Julia/Birthday/Yer Blues/Mother Nature’s Son/Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey/Sexy Sadie/Helter Skelter/Long, Long, Long/Revolution 1/Honey Pie/Savoy Truffle/Cry Baby Cry/Revolution 9/Good Night

The Rolling Stones, Beggars Banquet (Decca) – Released: December 6, 1968

The Stones going back to basics after the psychedelic (but actually quite underrated) “Their Satanic Majesties Request”.  Some tracks are almost unplugged acoustic blues, and even the thundering “Street Fighting Man” is actually an acoustic number, there’s no electric guitars on it.

The mood of the album is a disillusioned and resigned response to the chaotic 1968, a year of aggressive student demonstrations, assassinations (Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.), bloody battles in Vietnam (the Tet-offensive and the battle of Khe Sahn), the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.  The hypnotic and dark “Sympathy For The Devil” opens the album, while the gospel like “Salt Of The Earth” closes it, offering some sort of bleak consolation.

Contents: Sympathy for the Devil/No Expectations/Dear Doctor/Parachute Woman/Jig-Saw Puzzle/Street Fighting Man/Prodigal Son/Stray Cat Blues/Factory Girl/Salt of the Earth

The Band, Music From Big Pink (Capitol) – Released: July 1, 1968

“Music From Big Pink” came as a revelation when it arrived in July 1968.  No studio tricks, no backwards guitars, no interstellar overdrives, just a plain and simple record consisting of songs about basic values performed by a collective of musicians who loved each other’s company and who treated each song, every note they played, with love and awe.  They looked like men from the mountains, men of soil – so distant from Carnaby Street that they probably had travelled through time.

I won’t say that “Music For Big Pink” saved rock, but it did show that there were other paths to walk, and it sure reclaimed some of what was being lost in the drugged out mumbo jumbo of psychedelia.  Levon Helm, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel have all left us.  On “Music For Big Pink” they shine forever.

Contents: Tears of Rage/To Kingdom Come/In a Station/Caledonia Mission/The Weight/We Can Talk/Long Black Veil/Chest Fever/Lonesome Suzie/This Wheel’s on Fire/Shall Be Released

Mothers Of Invention, We’re Only In It For The Money (Verve) – Released: March 4, 1968

The sleeve is a hilarious parody of “Sgt. Pepper”, already an icon in 1968, but EMI interfered.  Zappa had to invert the concept, so the inner gatefold became the outer sleeve.  He blamed The Beatles, but Paul McCartney who loves the cover, claims that it was not their decision at all.

The record itself satirizes the hippie movement so cleverly that the targets at first didn’t realize the joke was on them.  It also lashes out at left wing politics and right-wing squares without missing a beat, the punch line being that anybody belonging to a movement should be approached with caution and contempt.

The songs themselves are very funny and extremely easy on the ear, sometimes almost infantile, but never outstaying their welcome as the music constantly takes some unexpected left turns.  I’d say this is Frank Zappa’s first masterpiece.  Even if the record company censored some snippets of the lyrics behind his back.

Contents: Are You Hung Up?/Who Needs the Peace Corps?/Concentration Moon/Mom & Dad/Bow Tie Daddy/Harry, You’re a Beast/the Ugliest Part of Your Body?/Absolutely Free/Flower Punk/Hot Poop/Nasal Retentive Calliope Music/Let’s Make the Water Turn Black/The Idiot Bastard Son/Lonely Little Girl/Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance/What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body? (Reprise)/Mother People/The Chrome Plated Megaphone of Destiny

The Zombies, Odessey And Oracle (CBS) – Released: April 19, 1968

An unparalleled work of beauty, recorded in Abbey Road in the summer and autumn of 1967.  Unfortunately the band split up before the album was released, so it didn’t stand a chance.  It was somewhat resurrected in 1969 when “Time Of The Season” became a surprise posthumous hit single in the US.  Today it is often included on critics’ and musicians’ lists of the 100 greatest albums of all time.

Contents: Care of Cell 44/A Rose for Emily/Maybe After He’s Gone/Beechwood Park/Brief Candles/ Hung Up on a Dream/Changes/I Want Her, She Wants Me/This Will Be Our Year/Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914)/Friends of Mine/Time of the Season

The Kinks, The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society (PYE) – Released: November 22, 1968

A concept album lamenting the passing of the old England, its traditions and quiet country life.  A masterpiece that hardly anyone bought at the time, but its status gradually improved over the years.  It has influenced loads of later bands and is considered as a bona fide classic today.

Contents: The Village Green Preservation Society/Do You Remember Walter?/Picture Book/Johnny Thunder/Last of the Steam-powered Trains/Big Sky/Sitting by the Riverside/Animal Farm/Village Green/Starstruck/Phenomenal Cat/All of My Friends Were There/Wicked Annabella/Monica/People Take Pictures of Each Other

Jimi Hendrix Experience, Electric Ladyland (Track) – Released: October 16, 1968

The last Experience-album.  There’s r&b, blues, psychedelia, experimental jams, funk, you name it, and the icing on the cake: the absolute definitive version of “All Along The Watchtower”.

Contents: …And the Gods Made Love/Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)/Crosstown Traffic/Voodoo Chile/Little Miss Strange/Long Hot Summer Night/Come On (Part I)/Gypsy Eyes/Burning of the Midnight Lamp/Rainy Day, Dream Away/1983… (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)/Moon, Turn the Tides…Gently Gently Away/Still Raining, Still Dreaming/House Burning Down/All Along the Watchtower/Voodoo Child (Slight Return)

Small Faces, Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake (Immediate) – Released: May 24, 1968

Oh what a joyful record (and sleeve)!  A masterpiece of cockney whimsy and friendly psychedelia.  The concept part that covers the whole second side of the album sounds a bit dated, but it’s still fun if you can stomach the gobbledegook of narrator Stanley Unwin.  Side 1 on the other hand, is a non-stop delight.

Contents: Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake/Afterglow (Of Your Love)/Long Agos and Worlds Apart/Rene/Song of a Baker/Lazy Sunday/Happiness Stan/Rollin’ Over/The Hungry Intruder/The Journey/Mad John/Happy Days Toy Town

Aretha Franklin, Aretha Now (Atlantic) – Released: June 14, 1968

By now Aretha was established as the female voice of soul music, and this, her fourth album for Atlantic Records, is so good you wanna eat it.  Includes the marvellous “Think”.

Contents: Think/I Say a Little Prayer/See Saw/Night Time Is the Right Time/You Send Me/You’re a Sweet Sweet Man/I Take What I Want/Hello Sunshine/A Change/I Can’t See Myself Leaving You

The Byrds, Sweetheart Of The Rodeo (Columbia/CBS) – Released: August 30, 1968

An important release as it was the first country-rock album by a major band.  New member, the legendary Gram Parsons steered them right into the heart of the music, and even if most of his vocals were replaced with Roger McGuinn’s voice (due to legal complications), his heart and soul is still there, shining.

Contents: You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere/I Am a Pilgrim/The Christian Life/You Don’t Miss Your Water/You’re Still on My Mind/Pretty Boy Floyd/Hickory Wind/One Hundred Years from Now/Blue Canadian Rockies/Life in Prison/Nothing Was Delivered