Friday, February 5, 2016

Best Albums of the Decades lists Part II: The '60s

The first records I ever owned that weren't "Alvin and the Chipmunks" or "A Three Stooges Christmas" were the 45 rpm single of "I'm a Believer" by the Monkees (with "I'm Not Your Steppin' Stone on the B Side), and the 45 of "Snoopy vs. the Red Baron" by The Royal Guardsmen. They were a gift from my best friend Bob, who had grown tired of them (or maybe he just saw how much I wanted them). "I'm a Believer" was #1 in the charts at the time on Cousin Brucie's 77 WABC radio station, and "Snoopy" was #3. "Georgy Girl" by The Seekers was #2, but I passed on that one. I wore the other two out.

Not having a lot of money in those days (some things never change), I mostly bought singles to add to my collection. I remember having the singles for "Incense and Peppermints" by The Strawberry Alarm Clock, which was delightfully psychedelic, and The Beatles "Hello Goodbye," whose B Side, "I Am the Walrus" was even more so.

I think my first adult album was The Monkees' Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, which was soon followed Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road before the great Beatles embargo, which caused constant arguments in my house. I don't remember if it was Lennon's "The Beatles are bigger than God!" declaration, or some of his and Yoko's nude antics (album covers, department store windows, seems like they were always showing off their junk), but at some point, I was forbidden to bring other Beatles music into the house.

It sucked, but as the '60s came to a close, there were so many amazing things happening musically that I pretty much spent every week's allowance money on records.

So I start my Best Albums of the Decades list in the '60s, because that's when I first became musically aware.

I can't claim my knowledge of the decade's music is all-encompassing. I came of age late in the decade, and caught up on the early part for artists like Dylan and The Beach Boys with greatest hits albums. To this day, I don't think I've ever heard Blonde on Blonde or Pet Sounds as complete musical pieces. Hmm. Maybe I should go back and do that some day, huh?. And my first experience with Woodstock was as a 12-year-old running into all the hippies on the rest stops of the New York State Turnpike in 1969 as they made their way back from the festival while my family was returning from a 2-week vacation in the Catskills. (My parents were less than impressed). It was only years later I learned about it as an iconic music event.

Nevertheless, I feel pretty comfortable with my "Best of choices". Unlike my picks for some of the later decades, there is nothing obscure about these two albums, and while other people may have their own picks, I don't think anyone can make a serious argument against mine. So without further fanfare, here's an in-depth look at my Best Albums of the previous 5 Decades:


Runner-up: Are You Experienced -- The Jimi Hendrix Experience

Jimi Hendrix was another artist whose records I was banned from buying. My mother used to work for an insurance company, and at some point, she got a look at some info on Hendrix because of a life insurance policy he was buying. She didn't like what she saw. She never went into depth about it. She just told me that he "lived like an animal," and she was not going to have a dollar of her hard-earned money spent on supporting his lifestyle. And since my allowance was made up of those hard-earned dollars, well, you can see her logic.

Luckily, I wasn't banned from bringing his records into the house. My memory is a little fuzzy, but I think I found a copy of Are You Experienced in someone's garbage. I remember my copy of it had a whole bunch of scratches, and if I'd been allowed, I would have replaced it with a new one. And if my uncle had had tits, he'd have been my aunt. Both moot points, except that my uncle had a better chance of filling out that wonder bra than I did of being allowed to actually buy a Hendrix album.

I was excited to even have the copy I did. I remember that the cool kids in my grammar school (of which I was decidedly not one) were going crazy for "Foxy Lady," which they played repeatedly anytime there was a party at school. At the time, I was still listening mostly to AM radio, but also just starting to get into Procol Harum and King Crimson, and I didn't get what all the fuss was about. Then I finally got hold of my own sad, battered copy of the album, and suddenly I understood.

If you read what I wrote about how I listen to music, you might think Hendrix was a weird fit with my taste. And to a certain extent you'd be right. When I listen to much of Hendrix's later music, and especially to most of the stuff they released after his death, I recognize he's a guitar genius, but it means nothing to me. A lot of it is just a bunch of noise to my ears.

But Are You Experienced is amazing. The songwriting is first-rate. Hell, "Foxy Lady" is my least favorite track on the album. "Manic Depression", "Hey Joe," "The Wind Cries Mary"and the album-closing title track -- every one is a winner. "Third Stone from the Sun" is a breathtakingly beautiful instrumental, and I'm not normally into instrumentals. (They usually sound like songs that were never finished to me).

Honestly, I feel my words are failing me about why this is such a great album.  (Actually, I'm finding a lot of the musical descriptions I'm posting on this blog are reminding me uncomfortably of Christian Bale's pretentious ramblings on the genius of Phil Collins in American Psycho, but whatever). Part of it is the perfect mix of driving rock songs like "Purple Haze" with ballads like "The Wind Cries Mary." And part of it is that you still have Jimi doing his outrageous guitar effects, but the quality of the songs themselves force him to kind of reign the effects in a little, and to focus them. (Listen to what he does on "Third Rock From the Sun," and how the effects kind of circle around the main musical theme).

One caveat: less is more. The CD they sell nowadays has 17 tracks on it, but the extra 6 tracks just water down the genius. Your best bet is look up the original order of the LP and make yourself a playlist of those 11 tracks. Otherwise, you just don't get the full effect.

Best Album: Tommy -- The Who

I know the term "genius" is thrown around too much. Hell, I already used it once in this post to describe Hendrix's guitar playing. But for my money, Pete Townshend is the number one genius in rock history. If anything, I think his biggest weakness is that he's got so much going on in his head that even he can't keep up with it. Hence his "failed" Lifehouse project, which only went on to become one of the most successful rock albums ever, Who's Next.

When I write about the '70s, I'm going to write a lot about what I call "perfect" albums, albums where every single track is a good one. By this definition, Are You Experienced is a perfect album. Tommy isn't. I don't love tracks like "The Hawker" or "Christmas," even though they're vital parts of the story.

Described as a rock opera, it also doesn't fully work as either an opera, or as a musical. I saw the mostly frightening Ken Russell, and I've heard the Broadway cast album and various other versions, and none of the them work as well as the original with The Who doing all of the singing.

But there are a couple of factors that make Tommy my album of the decade. One is the breathtaking ambition, just the sheer balls of the idea of making it a "rock opera." By the time Tommy was released, there were examples of extended suites of rock music, like The Who's own "A Quick One While He's Away" or Procol Harum's "In Held 'Twas in I." There were also concept albums, where there was overall theme or idea uniting most or all of the tracks, like Sgt. Pepper or King Crimson's In the Court of the Crimson King."

But to the best of my knowledge, Tommy was the first album that told a complete story, and it did so in a double album -- it was a pretty damned long story! Here was this genre, rock, that was often looked down on as being low-brow entertainment, a type of music that was blamed by moralists of the time of corrupting children and making them stupid. And here's Pete Townshend, who says "Fuck that! Rock can be whatever we want it to be." It can be musically complicated, it can be about complex ideas. It can make you think.

And then there were the songs. If they didn't all work, many of the ones that did worked spectacularly.  Not only "Pinball Wizard," with that sublime guitar-strumming intro that can still send a chill up your leg that Chris Matthews could only dream about, but listen to "Amazing Journey". Hell, even the opening chords of the "Overture" still give me a jolt every time. Yes indeed, not every song is a winner, but the winners far outnumbered the losers, and they're of such high quality that they blow every other album of the decade away.

Add all of that to the incredible instrumentality of The Who, and you have one of rock's all-time classics. Townshend's guitar work, madman Moon's drumming (listen to some of what he's got going on in the "Underture" -- it's crazy!), Entwistle's overpowering bass and his French horn. And Roger Daltry, really coming fully into his own as a singer for the first time and owning the character of Tommy, singing with, yes, power and beauty.

There was a period in my teens when I listened Tommy from beginning to end almost every night, and twice a night several times a week. It still moves me today. It brought a decade where rock music came into its own to an explosive climax. Thank you, Pete Townshend!

Next Post: The '70s