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Sunday, June 1, 2008

Music: Flashback -- The Best Albums of 1968 Continued - Part 2 of 2

By Noah Mallin

Here's the last installment of our survey featuring 1968's best albums.

11) The Kinks – Village Green Preservation Society
The Kinks were one of The Beatles most serious rivals in 1964, with singer Ray Davies capable of writing more and better songs than the Stones still nascent Jagger-Richards combo. By 1968 a dispute with the musicians union in the United States was preventing them from touring and a whole spate of other bands and sounds had eclipsed Ray Davies' still formidable writing prowess and his brother Dave's guitar skills. Village Green was The Kinks turning their backs on the United States and centering their songs on particularly British subjects emerging with a record that was a commercial flop but has become the most beloved in their venerable catalog.

12) Sly and The Family Stone – Life
was Sly and The Family Stone's third album, and their second of 1968. Where their first two albums had a great deal of filler this one showed the depth of Sly Stone's vision while it's optimism was as yet undimmed. The lack of big hits actually contributes to the unified feel of the record. The punchy drums and fuzztoned guitars point the way to funk while still retaining the immediacy of great pop.

13) Family - Music in a Doll's House
Family were a sadly underrated band who made several solid albums in the late 60s and early 70s including this, their debut. Their blues based background was typical of the British scene that spawned Fleetwood Mac, The Yardbirds, and others, as was their fondness for blending it with jazz and folk flourishes. What set them apart was the sharpness of their playing and arranging and their intricate band composed songs. It doesn't hurt that Traffic's Dave Mason and Stones producer Jimmy Miller were on hand to deliver an atmospheric and rich sound. At times they rock as hard as Led Zeppelin would barely a year later.

14) The Doors – Waiting For The Sun
This is not the Doors' best album but even a middling effort from them was pretty damn cool. "Hello I Love You" is sleazy stuff delivered with a knowing leer, "The Unknown Soldier" is as harsh an indictment of Vietnam as the band would deliver, that is until you get to "Five to One", the records hard rocking highlight. Some of the ballads undoubtedly bring out the worst in Morrison's pretentious writing and delivery but fail to sink the album.

15) Velvet Underground – White Light/ White Heat
Lou Reed and John Cale jettisoned Nico and her sponsor/band Svengali Andy Warhol by the time their second album White Light/White Heat came out. Even more polarizing than the first album it goes from mellow drones like "Here She Comes Now" to the skronk of "I Heard Her Call my Name" to the head ripping fierceness of the 17 minutes plus "Sister Ray." This is not to mention Cale's two showcases, the hilariously twisted shaggy-dog story of "The Gift" and the mesmerizing "Lady Godiva's Operation." This album laid down a gauntlet that the Stooges and Modern Lovers would later pass down to the first punk rockers. It would also be Cale's last studio album with the band.

16) Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention – We’re Only In It For The Money
Like the Velvets, Frank Zappa found the whole peace and love hippy vibe of 1967 to be totally alien and even repugnant. We're Only in it For The Money was his dystopian masterpiece, swinging a bat at the head of the counterculture and the establishment. Even better was his re-purposing of 50s and 60s doo-wop and R & B to underpin songs like "What's the Ugliest Part of Your Body?" (your brain, natch.)

17) Cream – Wheels of Fire
Cream were a far from perfect band and the overlong 2 LP set Wheels of Fire is a far from perfect album. The high points do represent some of the band's best work including "White Room" and "As You Said." The live stuff on the second record is often over indulgent but "Crossroads" shows off guitarist Eric Clapton's legendary playing to great effect.

18) Gilberto Gil – Gilberto Gil
Gil was one of the leading lights of the "tropicalia" movement that was taking Brazil by storm in 1968. This, his second album was a strong driving work with a particular rock bent. The sound of the record sometimes feels akin to coming across a band like The Animals playing carnival music. In fact Brazil's military junta felt that his openness to new sounds was such a threat that he and Caetono Veloso (see Part One) were both jailed at the end of the decade. Gil would flee to the UK in the early 70s before returning.

19) Byrds – Sweetheart of the Rodeo
Controversial both at the time of its release and today, Sweetheart of The Rodeo found Gram Parson's joining the Byrds and taking over the direction of the band. The sound not surprisingly veered to traditional country, seen as a bastion of the establishment in 1968 music circles. In addition Parsons was a wealthy high-living trust-fund kid which still leads to charges of cultural slumming for daring to tackle the Louvin Brothers "The Christian Life" and Merle Haggard's "Life in Prison". Bushwah says I. Sweethearts is a landmark of country rock and Parsons comes to the music with love and appreciation.In addition the countryfied cover of soul classic "You Don't Miss Your Water" is flat out genius.

20) Johnny Cash – At Folsom Prison
Unlike the Byrds, no-one ever questioned Johnny Cash's legitimacy or right to sing songs of prison life. Cash feeds off the energy of his literally captive audience and they feed of the dark despair at the heart of so many of his best songs. An indelibly great performance.

1 comment:

Mike Lorah said...

Nice picks - the ones that I know, anyway. The Tropicalia artists aren't ones I'm familiar with, and my tolerance for The Doors and Cream is notoriously low, but I recognize their impact.

My biggest quibble - I'd put The Beatles or Electric Ladyland at #1. It could go either way, depending on my mood.

If you're covering 1969, I'm only saying it once: Everybody Knows This is Nowhere!
(I'm pretty firmly of the opinion that from '69-'79, any list of the year's best albums has to start with whatever Neil Young put out that year - with the possible exception of '77's American Stars and Bars. But my Neil obsession is well documented among those who know me well!)