If you know your history, 1968 was a very tumultuous year. From the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy to the USSR invasion of Czechoslovakia to the mass murder of protesting students in Mexico to the Civil Rights fight in the USA to the violent demonstrations in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic Convention to the US black athletes protests before and during the Summer Olympics, there just seemed to have been civil unrest throughout the world. Dylan had put succinctly when he sang that the times were a-changing. And, the music of the time reflected what was happening.
Basically, not unlike today, we were witnessing a clash of ideas. Would the society continue down a road of progressive ideas or would it tighten things up and attempt to put everything back into an order that made people feel comfortable? As we now know, it was the latter. Today, it seems to be working in the opposite direction, especially here in the States: will society be every man (or woman) for himself (herself), or will we find a unity?
In 1968, the music reflected much of the same thought. On one hand, you have The Beatles looking backward a bit, giving each member a side to express his creative needs, all the while, The Velvet Underground were moving forward into a new frontier. And, in between those extremes were all kinds of mixed signals. For example, many conservatives were comforted by Johnny Cash’s reemergence although he was speaking to progressive ideas. Similarly, liberals were taken by the music of Bob Dylan proteges The Band’s music but missing the whole expression of the angst felt by people throughout the American South.
Now, with over 50 years of hindsight, we can truly put the finest music of that year into some proper prospective, with the romanticism that will infect my era of 1975 through 1995. At least I can admit that. Perhaps, that is what will always make rock music so great is that it will appeal to the young so viscerally. Once day, it will take my boys to put my era’s music in proper perspective since I am probably too close to it. And, that, my friends, is the way it should be done.
Anyway, let’s do this thing!
Aretha Franklin – Lady Soul (1968). Aretha took the title of the Queen of Soul with this album. Much as she had done with “Respect,” Franklin re-imagined Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” into a woman’s power moment. By taking a simple pop song and turning it into a sexually-charged statement of woman empowerment, Franklin put her foot down that she was not going to take it anymore. And the whole album, as well as her career trajectory, followed suit.
Big Brother & the Holding Company – Cheap Thrills (1968). After the band burst onto the scene during the previous year’s Monterrey Pop Festival, much was expected by this San Francisco psychedelic blues band. Fronting the band was a talented but hard-living leather-lunged blues belter named Janis Joplin. And, the musicians were no slouches either. With songs like “Piece of My Heart” and “Ball and Chain” anchoring the album, it seemed obvious that Janis’ star was going to eclipse her band, for better or for worse.
Blood, Sweat & Tears – Child Is Father to the Man (1968). In the post-Sgt. Pepper rock world, all ideas were on the table. The Moody Blues and Procol Harum ushered in a thing called progressive, or prog, rock. Now, musicians were seeking to incorporate elements of all kinds of music into their sound. So, when keyboardist Al Kooper put together BS&T, he was out to mix elements of the blues, rock, classical and jazz into his band’s sound. And, in doing so, BS&T set the stage for a commercial juggernaut called Chicago. Unfortunately, Kooper did not stick around for the huge commercial success that was in store for the band.
Jeff Beck Group – Truth (1968). After Clapton’s success with Cream, the reputation of The Yardbirds’ ghost got a further boost upon the release of this album. Beck build the foundation for the heavy rock sound that his fellow former Yardbird guitarist graduate Jimmy Page would ride in Led Zeppelin. Furthering Beck’s reputation was his discovery of future Faces and Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood and vocalist extraordinaire Rod Stewart. This group did everything that Zep became famous for a whole year earlier by using a thunderous rhythm section and a re-imagining of Willie Dixon blues numbers into a proto-heavy metal sound. Simply think of a pre-cheesy Rod Stewart fronting the Zep with a guitarist who can literally make a guitar sound any way he wants, and you have the Jeff Beck Group.
Johnny Cash – At Folsom Prison (1968). Next to Tina Turner’s 1984 comeback, this is rock’s second greatest return to form. Before this album, Cash was a down-and-out drug addict was creatively adrift. However, it was letters from prisoners and other so-called losers in life who revived Cash’s musical passion. He realized that he spoke for all the outcasts in the world. So, he started his comeback by recording this album in the very prison he once sang about. The great thing is that the prisoners’ reactions are real and sincere, not doctored. And, of course, Johnny was simply badass. This album is rock music stripped to its renegade essence, even though it appealed to the country crowd. I often wonder if the general population actually heard his lyrics.
Laura Nyro – Eli and the Thirteenth Confession (1968). I must confess that I was originally pissed when I read that Laura Nyro was being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as a performer and not a songwriter. Honestly, I LOVE all of the 5th Dimension and Three Dog Night versions of her songs, like “Stoned Soul Picnic,” “Eli’s Comin'” and, most spectacularly, “Wedding Bell Blues.” Then, I heard this album, and all that vitriol was removed. This is the point where the confessional singer/songwriter genre was born. Nyro’s vocal and lyrical honesty are accompanied by minimal music landscapes that do two things. First, it enhances her sound, and, second, nods to the greatness of Leonard Cohen’s debut album the year before.
Simon & Garfunkel – Bookends (1968). Oh, Paul Simon, you sly little booger! When I was a teen, I wrote your stuff off as easy listening crap. Then, as I hit my twenties, I thought, “My God! This man is brilliant!” How could you do that to me? Oh, how insidious you are to draw my parents into your music, yet use your lyrics to influence us youngsters. You must be sitting with Lorne Michaels, just knowing how you two did not change YOUR generation, but MINE! Sure, my five-year-old self LOVED “Mrs. Robinson” yet was not ready for the very same cynicism I would one day feel about this country all ready expressed by you in “America.” Then, you let The Bangles redo “A Hazy Shade of Winter” to be used in a film indicting my generation’s initial run from taking reigns of society, Less Than Zero. You have always been twenty steps ahead of everyone when the ignorant actually believe you are a couple of decades behind. Better late than never!
The Band – Music from Big Pink (1968). I will never be able to sing the praises of The Band loud enough. These five men were the most individually talented men, with three of them able to handle lead vocals. And, when they sang together, it was never in harmony, but as if each voice were straining to take the reigns of the song from the other members, much like their vocal heroes The Staple Singers. And how does four Canadians and an American from the South create the definitive sound of a genre we now call Americana? They will go on to perfect this sound on their next album, but the groundwork was completed here. This album includes their version of the Dylan standard “I Shall Be Released,” with some of the most heartbreaking vocals by Richard Manuel, and the legendary “The Weight,” during which Levon Helms and Rick Danko trade leads. What a debut album!
The Beatles – The Beatles (aka ‘The White Album’) (1968). Recently, Todd Rundgren stated that this album was the least Beatle album. And, he meant that this was the sound of the band at its most estranged, with each member playing as a backing band for the other. Camaraderie is dead on this album. And, it you throw out some of the stupid songs (“Rock Raccoon”) and the experimental montages (“Revolution #9”), you might have a decent album. But, to my ears, this is a case of “more is more,” not necessarily quality. But, when the boys are on, they are transcendent, such as George’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” or Paul’s Beach Boys ode “Back in the USSR.” Still, it’s The Beatles, so it is a major statement.
The Byrds – Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968). The Byrds were ready to spread their wings, so to speak, and move on from the folk rock sound they helped birth. So, they turned to Gram Parsons, visionary leader of the country rock innovators The International Submarine Band, who helped the band move toward said sound. Parsons had joined the band to replace a departed David Crosby. While many maintain Parsons exerted his creative control over the band, that wasn’t the case as future McGuinn and Hillman projects all had that country rock sound. This album set the stage for the highs of other Parsons projects, The Flying Burrito Brothers and his solo career, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, as well as the more poppish sounds of the Eagles.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Electric Ladyland (1968). This was Hendrix most visionary album, period. On it, you hear Hendrix taking the blues in all sorts of directions that would influence disparate artists like George Clinton’s Parliafunkadelicment Empire, Sly & the Family Stone, Prince, Rick James, Earth, Wind & Fire, Red Hot Chili Peppers, to mention but a few. For my money, this is the Hendrix album to own.
The Kinks – The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society (1968). While this album lacks the big hit song that will be remembered for perpetuity, this just might be the band’s most cohesive album statement. This album has taught me more about a romanticized English life than any book every could evoke. That’s what makes this album such a delightful listening.
The Rolling Stones – Beggars Banquet (1968). After a quick detour through some psychedelic crap, The Stones rediscovered their Chuck Berry/Blues-influenced sound, embraced a huge dose of darkness to plow a path into their most creatively satisfying period. And it all begins on this albums first track, the tongue-in-cheek “Sympathy for the Devil.” That track sets the tone that The Stones were ready to take rock into a new, more dangerous direction. If the opening track didn’t warn you, then everyone’s ears perked upon their first listen to their eternal paean to social unrest “Street Fighting Man.” The gauntlet had finally been thrown down that the youth were not settling for the status quo.
The Small Faces – Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake (1968). Everyone was making a psychedelic album back then, so why shouldn’t The Small Faces? But this album is not just another concept album, it is a masterpiece of the moment. Maybe, it’s impact has been lost over time, as Sgt. Pepper and even Tommy have established themselves as the anchors of a Mount Rushmore of the concept album. But this forgotten gem should be unearthed and given new life. Like its brother of a different mother, The Village Green Preservation Society, it tells the story of British life that never really happened. The album is packed with terrific songs, though “Lazy Sunday” remains my personal favorite.
The Velvet Underground – White Light/White Heat (1968). So, in 1967, The Velvets invented punk rock. Here, the band jettisons Nico and subsequently invents post-punk rock. There is nothing else that I can say about this album. Of course, it barely sold any copies until my generation of musicians heard it. It’s dark, scary, abrasive yet beautiful, all at the same time.
The Zombies – Odessey and Oracle (1968). Talk about a slow-burner, this album was delayed until the band had broken up and never really found an appreciative audience until LA’s Paisley Underground scene gave the album its due in the mid-Eighties. And, now, it is considered a classic of baroque pop and rock. Best remembered for the sexy hit song “Time of the Season,” this album is actually one of the best things of the Sixties. I cannot oversell it.
Van Morrison – Astral Weeks (1968). No one bought this album back in the day. It had NO hit songs. No one played it on the radio. Yet, today, this is considered to be Van Morrison’s greatest musical statement. So, what gives? This mystical blend of jazz, rock, Celtic and soul music it a beautiful statement. This IS art. Listen to it out in the country, in the deep woods, on the beach, in your bedroom. I don’t care! Just like to it as a more vanilla version of this sound will become elevator Muzak and New Age music (is there really a difference?) but long after the essence of this music has been removed. Even though I feel asleep to this album EVERY damn time, it’s not because it’s horrible or boring. Nay! It’s beautiful, relaxing and pastoral. Everyone I have recommended this to has said the same thing.
See you later!