Opinion: Twelve albums turning 50
Many records released in the bountiful year, 1968, remain immortal half a century later
This year marked the 50th anniversary of three great LPs—The Beatles’ White Album, the Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet, and The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Electric Ladyland. Their birthdays were celebrated with fanfare. The White Album’s 30 tracks were newly mixed and complemented with 27 early acoustic demos and 50 sessions takes. The Stones’ album also got a multi-format re-release, which included a limited edition vinyl. And Hendrix’s landmark record was re-released as a box set with surround sound, a documentary film on the original album’s making, lots of previously unreleased demos and alternate takes, a book, and rare photographs.
But 1968, when those three iconic albums came out, was a bountiful year for music lovers. Here (in no particular order) are a dozen albums that also celebrated their 50th anniversary this year and whose influence and impact has been no less over the past half-century:
Astral Weeks by Van Morrison: Acclaimed as a masterpiece, the eight songs on this album, recorded by Northern Irish singer Morrison in the US during a tumultuous period in his early career, are brilliant and critics even today seek to interpret their meanings. It’s a legendary album that has become immortal. And while it is difficult to pick a favourite out of the eight, Cyprus Avenue, where Morrison sings about young love, is my track pick from Astral Weeks.
Waiting For The Sun by The Doors: When the storied Los Angeles band came out with their third album, it was greeted with disappointment. It was mellower than their first two and the reviews were lukewarm, but the appeal of the songs grew over time: the organ-driven opener, Hello, I Love You; the flamenco-style guitar on Spanish Caravan; and the anti-war lyrics of The Unknown Soldier. My pick, Five To One, has enigmatic lyrics and a title speculated to be the ratio then of whites to blacks in the US; the ratio of Viet Congs to GIs, or the number of non-pot smokers to pot smokers. Take your pick.
Traffic by Traffic: This was the British band’s third studio album and marked the re-induction of folk rocker Dave Mason. Traffic’s 10 songs are a mix of folk rock (courtesy Mason) and psychedelic jams (by singer Steve Winwood and drummer Jim Capaldi). And while there are weird gems like 40,000 Headmen, which Capaldi has described as a “hash-fuelled dream", my favourite is Mason’s Feelin’ Alright?—a song about relationship issues and one that Joe Cocker made famous with his spirited live cover versions.
The Soft Machine by Soft Machine: The ambitious debut album by the British jazz-rock band, named after a William S. Burroughs book, was one of the genre’s pioneering albums, fusing psychedelic rock with jazz and laying the ground for what would be called progressive rock. In its early years, Soft Machine never really won commercial success, but this first album later became famous. My song pick is Why Are We Sleeping?, especially the lyrics (My head is a nightclub/ With glasses and wine/ The customers dancing/ Or just making time).
Super Session by Bloomfield, Kooper & Stills: Produced by Al Kooper, these sessions by guitarists Mike Bloomfield and Stephen Stills don’t feature them together (Bloomfield appears on Side 1; Stephen Stills on Side 2) but the album marks a time when rock songs were changing gears, adopting longer guitar solos and intense jamming. Super Session has incredible tracks but my pick is Season Of The Witch, a Donovan and Shawn Phillips original that Stills and Kooper stretch into an 11-minute delight.
Fleetwood Mac by Fleetwood Mac: Before becoming a pop rock band, and before singers Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie joined, singer and guitarist Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac was a British blues band. This eponymous debut album has mainly covers of blues tracks, including ones by Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf, but my favourite track is their superb cover of Elmore James’ Shake Your Moneymaker, the lyrics delivered with a British accent and the slide guitar virtuosity of co-founder Jeremy Spencer.
Shades Of Deep Purple by Deep Purple: When the British forefathers of metal and hard rock debuted with this album, the response was actually quite negative. The world, probably, was not ready for the sludgy, heavy din of their brand of music. Years later, the album won more fans and the band’s strong influence that has spawned generations of hard-rockers is undeniable. There are two tracks that I like on this album, both cover versions: Hey Joe, and The Beatles’ Help!. On the latter, the heavy fun really begins half way into the song. Check it out.
Steppenwolf by Steppenwolf: The heydays for this Canadian-American rock band lasted till only the early 1970s but their covers of Sookie Sookie and Hoochie Coochie Man from this album remain popular even today. Not as popular though as my pick—The Pusher—an anti-hard drug (and, perhaps, pro-pot!) song that got featured in Dennis Hopper’s 1969 film, Easy Rider (gratuitous tip: do check out how Blind Melon did the same song years later in their 1996 album, Nico).
There are others that also turn 50 this year—1968 was a fertile year in the record industry. For me, besides the ones above, there are four that stand out. In England, Jethro Tull debuted with This Was (with the early psychedelia of A Song For Jeffrey); amid San Francisco’s reigning psychedelic spirit, Jefferson Airplane released their third album, Crown Of Creation (with a compelling Grace Slick original, Lather); and the OST for The Graduate by Simon & Garfunkel, on which the two tracks that compete for my favour are (no, it’s not Mrs Robinson) Scarborough Fair and April Come She Will. Oh yes, there’s another 50-year-old on my list. The Grateful Dead’s Anthem Of The Sun, their second album and the first on which second drummer, Mickey Hart, played. What a year 1968 was!
THE LOUNGE LIST
Five tracks to bookend this week
1. ‘Cyprus Avenue’ by Van Morrison from ‘Astral Weeks’
2. ‘Feelin’ Alright?’ by Traffic from ‘Traffic’
3. ‘The Pusher’ by Steppenwolf from ‘Steppenwolf’
4. ‘Season of the Witch’ by Al Kooper, Mike Bloomfield & Stephen Stills from ‘Super Sessions’
5. ‘April Come She Will’ by Simon & Garfunkel from ‘The Graduate’
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music. Twitter: @sanjoynarayan