Top 20 Albums of the 1960s

Posted: July 20, 2012 in Uncategorized
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This is the first entry in a five-part series that will go through the 2000s. I’ve been making lists like this in my head (and occasionally in writing) for years. Now felt like a good time to put it all out there and explain my picks. These are my personal favorites, not necessarily the ones that were the most groundbreaking or most influential (although there is definitely a lot of overlap).

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I am updating this post on July 16, 2017. When I first made this list, I limited myself to no more than two albums from any one artist. I did this mostly so there wouldn’t be four or five albums. However, I now think that was a dumb idea. Limiting this list to two Beatles albums means it wasn’t really my top 20. Also, loading up on three or four albums from one artist turned out not to be an issue in any other decade as I went through them. So, the list below is now updated as of July 2017.

All that said, the list still does not include any live albums, because some of my favorite live albums were released a decade or two after they were recorded, making it hard to decide which decade they would fall under.

Without further ado, here are my top 20 albums of the 1960s. Feel free to comment with your thoughts on the list.

Honorable Mentions
Bob Dylan- Highway 61 Revisited (1965)
The Byrds- Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968)
The Kinks- The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society (1968)
Simon & Garfunkel- Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme (1966)
Sly and the Family Stone- Stand! (1969)

20. The Who- Tommy (1969)
Because it’s a rock opera — the first album to be billed as such — Tommy is more of an investment than any other album on this list. But you really only need to skim the album’s Wikipedia page in order to understand the story enough to appreciate the music, because ultimately it’s still the music that carries the album. Tommy features some of The Who’s best arrangements, starting with the fantastic “Overture.” “Sparks” is another great instrumental, while “Amazing Journey,” “Christmas,” “Pinball Wizard,” “Go to the Mirror” and “Sally Simpson” stand out as the best songs. As great as the album version of Tommy is, the best version, in my opinion, is the one on Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970.

19. Creedence Clearwater Revival- Willy and the Poorboys (1969)
Along with The Band, CCR helped lead the roots rock movement of the late ’60s. They put out a ridiculous six albums from 1968 to 1970, with this one being the best in my opinion. “Fortunate Son” — arguably the greatest protest song ever made — is the obvious highlight, but there are plenty of others. “Down on the Corner” and “It Came Out of the Sky” provide a great 1-2 punch to open the album, “Midnight Special” is possibly the best cover CCR did, and “Effigy” is pretty much the perfect closer for a CCR album.

18. Dusty Springfield- Dusty in Memphis (1969)
The ’60s, more than any other decade, gave us a ton of great soul music. Most of it came from hit singles, but here we get an entire album of it. Springfield moved from England to Memphis (hence the title) to record this album in the hopes of boosting her credibility in the U.S., and she certainly did that. An All-Star cast of songwriters (led by Gerry Goffin, Carole King, Randy Newman, Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, Burt Bacharach and Hal David) gave Springfield the songs, and she brought them to life. “Son of a Preacher Man” (which, oddly enough, wasn’t written by any of those superstar writers) is the obvious highlight — it became a top-10 hit and is Springfield’s most well-known song — but every song here is very good.

17. Otis Redding- Otis Blue (1965)
Speaking of great soul music, Redding is arguably the greatest soul artist of all. And Otis Blue would be the first piece of evidence you’d offer if you wanted to make that case. Redding had the balls to cover three of the greatest songs of the era — “A Change Is Gonna Come,” “My Girl,” and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” — and he managed to succeed on all three. The rest of the covers are great, too, as are the three Redding originals — “Ole Man Trouble,” “Respect” (which obviously became more famous when Aretha Franklin covered it), and “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” Redding’s powerful vocals are great, but the instrumental work of the legendary M.G.’s makes this album even greater.

16. The Jimi Hendrix Experience- Are You Experienced (1967)
It’s widely regarded as one of the greatest debut albums ever, and for good reason. Hendrix sounded like no one who came before him. “Purple Haze” and “Foxy Lady” showcase two of Hendrix’ finest riffs, “Hey Joe” is one of his bluesiest efforts, “The Wind Cries Mary” shows he can be tender, and “Fire” reminds us that Mitch Mitchell was a pretty damn good drummer. I could do without the trippy “Third Stone from the Sun,” but I find it pretty easy to let one song slide.

15. The Rolling Stones- Let It Bleed (1969)
The Stones’ run from Beggars Banquet to Exile on Main St. is the best four-album run in rock/pop history in my opinion. Let It Bleed ranks fourth in that group for me, but I still love it. Continuing the back-to-our-roots feel of Beggars Banquet, most of the songs here are built from blues and country. “Gimme Shelter” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” are two all-time classics. The rocking “Live With Me,” bluesy “Midnight Rambler” and country-tinged “You Got the Silver” (which was the first Stones song to feature just Keith Richards on lead vocals) stand out as highlights as well.

14. Led Zeppelin- Led Zeppelin II (1969)
Led Zeppelin’s debut album was very good, but the follow-up is even better. “Heartbreaker” and amped-up blues classics “Whole Lotta Love” and “Bring It On Home” are forerunners of heavy metal, but they’re also just great rock songs. The tempo changes in “What Is and What Should Never Be” and “The Lemon Song” (another blues cover) make them my two favorite songs on the album. The acoustic-based songs “Thank You” and “Ramble On” are great as well. Many hard rock bands copied this album, but few ever came close to matching it.

13. Love- Forever Changes (1967)
This is an album that was overlooked when it was released, then recognized as a masterpiece in following years, then, I fear, overlooked again by later generations. I’m guessing that is mostly because Love isn’t a big-name band, but this should be a big-name album. The orchestration on every song is great, resulting in an album that sounds simply outstanding. “A House Is Not a Motel,” “The Daily Planet” and “Bummer in the Summer” are my personal favorites, but every song here is very good. A lot of the lyrics feature a sinister take on hippie culture, which was a bit ahead of its time considering that this album was recorded during the Summer of Love.

12. Neil Young- Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969)
This was Young’s first album with Crazy Horse backing him, and it’s one of the best he ever made. The impact of Young’s new band is evident right from the opening riff of “Cinnamon Girl.” It continues throughout the album, most notably on the epic jams of “Down by the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand.” This album isn’t all about rocking hard, though. The country-folk feel of the title track, “Round and Round (It Won’t Be Long)” and “The Losing End (When You’re On)” makes this is a pretty diverse album, one that showed just what kind of greatness Young was capable of.

11. Bob Dylan- Bringing It All Back Home (1965)
This album was the first time Dylan went electric, and it also continued his shift from protest songs to more personal lyrics. To me, this is a better collection of songs than Highway 61 Revisited. The electric first half includes rockers like “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” “Maggie’s Farm” and “Outlaw Blues,” as well as love songs like “She Belongs to Me” and “Love Minus Zero/No Limit.” The acoustic second half comprises the beautiful “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” along with the angry “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” And of course, the lyrics are poetic from start to finish.

10. The Beatles- Abbey Road (1969)
It was the last album The Beatles recorded, and they were as divided as ever. But you’d never know that just from listening to it. Abbey Road sounds like a total band effort, like everyone was on the same page and working in perfect harmony — check out the vocals on “Because.” “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun” are two of the best songs George Harrison ever wrote. The closing medley — the brainchild of Paul McCartney and producer George Martin — is 16 minutes of magic, highlighted by the “Golden Slumbers”-“Carry That Weight”-“The End” trifecta.

9. The Velvet Underground- The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)
The Velvet Underground’s debut has a little bit of everything. It has dreamy pop like “Sunday Morning,” “Femme Fatale” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror.” It has dirty garage rock like “I’m Waiting for the Man,” “Run, Run, Run” and the epic and explicit “Heroin.” It has psychedelic rock like “Venus in Furs” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties.” A big part of this album’s legacy is all the bands it inspired — “It only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band,” said Brian Eno — but the music still holds up as well. The only song here I’m not a big fan of is “The Black Angel’s Death Song.”

8. The Beatles- Rubber Soul (1965)
This wasn’t the first great Beatles album, but it was a leap forward in terms of songwriting. It combines pop, rock and folk and includes one of The Beatles’ first forays into Eastern-inspired music with “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown). The lyrics go from fun on opener “Drive My Car” to threatening on closer “Run for Your Life,” and touch on a little bit of everything in between. “You Won’t See Me” is about trying and failing to win a girl back, “Nowhere Man” is about a guy who’s completely lost, “Think For Yourself” is about cutting ties with a liar, “Wait” is about maintaining a long-distance relationship, and “If I Needed Someone” is about a guy trying to convince himself he doesn’t need a girlfriend. As great as all those songs are, the crown jewel is “In My Life,” which is a contender for the title of best Beatles song.

7. The Rolling Stones- Beggars Banquet (1968)
This was the Stones’ first comeback album (1978’s Some Girls would be the second), and it signaled the start of their golden era. It didn’t just mark a return to their roots after the psychedelic and un-Stones-like Their Satanic Majesties Request; it marked their rootsiest album yet, with Keith Richards’ acoustic guitar as the prominent instrument. The album kicks off with arguably the best song they ever made — the demonic history lesson “Sympathy for the Devil.” “Street Fighting Man” was the Stones’ most political song and “Stray Cat Blues” was one of their dirtiest (both lyrically and musically). Other highlights are “No Expectations” (which features Brian Jones on slide guitar, one of the last contributions from the band’s original leader) and “Jigsaw Puzzle” (which features some of Nicky Hopkins’ best piano work).

6. The Band- The Band (1969)
Although The Band was 80 percent Canadian, their music was Americana through and through. They were at their peak here. As a whole, this album tells stories about average Americans, many of them from years gone past. None stand out more than the remarkable “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” the tale of Confederate soldier Virgil Caine. “Across the Great Divide,” “Up on Cripple Creek,” “Jawbone” and “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” also stand out as highlights, as does the amusing “Rag Mama Rag,” which finds The Band at their most playful. They put themselves in a lot of other people’s shoes on this album, but all the emotions feel and sound genuine.

5. The Beatles- Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
Sgt. Pepper’s continues a lot of the experimentation and advances in recording that The Beatles began on Rubber Soul and especially Revolver, and continues it at an extremely high level. John’s “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” (which perfectly channels the circus that inspired it) and “Good Morning Good Morning” and Paul’s title track, “Fixing a Hole” and “Lovely Rita” are all excellent, as is the tag team effort on “She’s Leaving Home.” Oh, and then there’s the incredible closer “A Day in the Life,” which would top my (and many others’) ranking of the best Beatles songs.

4. Van Morrison- Astral Weeks (1968)
This really isn’t a rock or pop album. There are no electric instruments, and “The Way Young Lovers Do” and maybe “Sweet Thing” are the only songs that approach pop. Instead, this album is a mixture of folk, jazz, blues, soul and even classical. And it’s beautiful. I love how the whole album feels so loose and free, yet never out of control. Aside from the two songs already mentioned, my other two favorites are the title track and “Cyprus Avenue.” “Madame George” is also worth mentioning — it’s nearly 10 minutes long and was called the album’s “crowning touch” by Rolling Stone.

3. The Kinks- Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) (1969)
The Kinks’ music was more English than most of their British Invasion contemporaries, and on Arthur Ray Davies examines the effect two World Wars had on the British. You don’t need to be English or know a whole lot about the decline of the British Empire in order to appreciate this album, though (although I’ll admit that being a history nerd adds to my love of it). It’s full of Ray Davies’ best arrangements and some of his best lyrics as well. The music manages to be both hard-rocking and sophisticated, combining the two sides of The Kinks better than any other album they made. Much of the album attacks the gap between the rich and poor and how the lifestyle of the rich is still seen as something everyone should strive for even when most have no chance of getting there (see songs like “Victoria” and “She’s Bought a Hat Like Princess Marina”). “Shangri-La” is one of the best songs The Kinks ever made, “Some Mother’s Son” is one of the best war songs ever made, and “Arthur” is the perfect closer to summarize the title character’s fruitless fight to better his life.

2. The Beatles- Revolver (1966)
When I first made this list in 2012, Rubber Soul was my highest-ranked Beatles album. I thought that while The Beatles got more experimental on later albums, Rubber Soul remained their most consistently great album from start to finish. I still think Rubber Soul is consistently great, but I now think Revolver is consistently even greater. It does have one skippable song in “Yellow Submarine,” but Rubber Soul also has “Run for Your Life,” and every other song on Revolver is somewhere between really good and perfect. The more experimental stuff might be the best. “Eleanor Rigby” doesn’t have any traditional instruments and is one of the saddest Beatles songs, “I’m Only Sleeping” features backmasked recording and gives us some of John’s dreamiest lyrics and vocals, “Love You To” finds George’s Indian influence reaching its peak, and closer “Tomorrow Never Knows” is just a master class in psychedelic recording. Paul gives us one of his best love songs (“Here, There and Everywhere”) and one of his best breakup songs (“For No One”), and there’s also stellar rock on “She Said She Said,” “And Your Bird Can Sing” and “Doctor Robert.”

1. The Beach Boys- Pet Sounds (1966)
In retrospect, there were signs of more mature lyrics and music on The Beach Boys’ two albums from 1965 — Today! and Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!). Still, no one could have anticipated the masterpiece that is Pet Sounds. It pushed all the boundaries of studio production, but it never feels overdone. It retains all the catchy hooks and beautiful harmonies you expect from The Beach Boys, even if they come in a darker and less cheery form. Brian Wilson was already battling mental health issues and had quit touring as a result, which is actually what allowed him to put so much effort into the writing and production of Pet Sounds. The album opens innocently enough with “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” but then we get “You Still Believe in Me,” whose narrator knows he keeps screwing up a relationship. “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder),” “I’m Waiting for the Day,” “Here Today” and “Caroline, No” are all about imperfect or crumbling relationships, too. Then, of course, there’s “God Only Knows,” which may very well be the greatest song ever made. Wilson’s deteriorating mental health robbed us of more Beach Boys albums like this, but in some ways that makes Pet Sounds even more special.

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Comments
  1. […] is the second entry in a five-part series that will go through the 2000s. As with my 1960s list, I limited myself to no more than two albums from any one artist, and I didn’t include live […]

  2. […] I didn’t include live albums. If you missed the series’ first two installments, here is the 1960s list and the 1970s […]

  3. […] separate artists. If you missed any of the first three entries in this series, here they are: 1960s, 1970s, […]

  4. […] you missed any of the previous entries, check them out here: 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, […]

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