26 Apr 2015

VAPOUR TRAIL'S TOP TEN ALBUMS OF THE SIXTIES

I've been listening to a hell of a lot of sixties stuff recently, and it's slowly becoming a problem. I think then was kind of when everything really took of for psych, prog, and even rock and pop music, because even I'd be hard pressed to name something great from the 50's that isn't jazz or Jerry Lee Lewis. As well as that, the whole counterculture around that time was amazing, with the free festivals and latter bit of the beats, and the colour television AND EVERYTHING. Anyway, I've been giving a lot of thought to my favourite albums of the sixties, and I think because a lot of people my age have a very limited scope of albums from that album that aren't The Beatles or Stones (both of whom are great) and I think it'd be great to introduce some people to new obsessions. Here's a mix of classics, obscurities, and everything in the middle, as well as a list of honourable mentions at the end...

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10. The Doors - The Doors (1967)
Ah, yes, let's get the ball rolling with something nice and simple. The debut album by The Doors is a bit of a mixed bag, but ultimately I think it's their most complete work; in that I mean I like almost every song on it, and generally, for me anyway, Doors albums were generally a bit hit and miss. Alongside Barrett's Pink Floyd, The Doors pioneered the keyboard/organ as a main instrument in guitar music, and the album's highlight Light My Fire is a stonking example; a 2 minute pop gem with a 5 minute organ-driven freakout bolted on, even the hook is absolute genius. As well as that, Crystal Ship is a totally seductive dream work, and The End is a disjointed mess in the best, most charismatic way possible. Maybe the bit people dwell on the most with The Doors is Jim Morrison, and whilst I think maybe his lyrics aren't the greatest, his voice packs such a punch here that it's hard to even find an angle to criticise from.

9. The Stooges - The Stooges (1969)
OK, well I s2g the album titles get better as you scroll through, but Iggy & co's self-titled debut is a fantastic record that didn't do so great at the time, but was revered years later because it was simply so forward thinking. This is, in it's rawest form, punk rock. Thick, heavy riffs, angst-ridden vocals, and all of it performed by the one of the greatest, most animalistic frontmen who ever lived. I Wanna Be Your Dog is the creme de la creme of sleazy punk rock love songs, with it's powerful, descending riff, and primal lyrics. 1969 is the voice of the bored teenager, and despite being masked by walls of distortion, two more of Ig's best pop songs can be found on this album; Little Doll and No Fun (later immortalised by Spacemen 3 and The Sex Pistols respectively). It's probably not the best Stooges album - that honour goes to the Bowie produced Raw Power of '73 - but the first Stooges album is a forward thinking masterpiece that you have to HAVE TO hear.

8. The Psychedelic Sounds Of... - The 13th Floor Elevators (1966)
Right, this album is another LP that was incredibly forward thinking that you've gotta hear at least once before you die. It's essentially psychedelic garage punk, done by one of the greatest, maddest, and most totally wired bands of the era - and in fact this era 'cos after nearly 45 years away they're back for Austin Psych Fest. Led by frontman and madman, Roky Erickson, whose voice is basically an un-nauseating version of Robert Plant, the Elevators have a brilliant sound to them. All recorded live, Roky's screams, thrashy guitars, and that wobbidy woobidy sound that's there all the time are all iconic sixties sounds, and if that wasn't enough for you, they're also credited with coining the term psychedelic rock, so like, they practically invented music. ...Psychedelic Sounds... is their debut album, and it's probably the best and cleanest sounding album the band put out. Their albums are recorded live, and this one is the one that comes out best for it; You're Gonna Miss Me is an immortal pop song that makes it for me, and Fire Engine and Reverberation are, well, BANGERS. This is so far from a polished effort, but largely, it's a raw psychedelic masterpiece. Oh yeah, this is also the bit of the post where the cover art begins to get good, like really really good.

7. Revolver - The Beatles (1966)
Ah, yes! The Beatles! An obvious choice for most, but in all honesty, I've always struggled to take to The Beatles in the same way I took to all the other great bands. I never liked Paul's voice, or the sound of them harmonising, and I just found them to be a bit, well, I just didn't understand why The Beatles were huge when the Rolling Stones were there, existing. But Revolver really swayed it for me. It's the right amount of pop and psychedelia. Apart from Yellow Submarine. That song is as bad as anything Bastille or U2 have ever done. My favourite two tracks off of this masterpiece are Taxman, a brilliantly worded attack on the taxman - although maybe it's all too easy to think 'hmmm, easy for you to say Harrison - and Love You To, which is a sitar driven dream (that was recently covered by one of our favourite new bands The Vickers). The common denominator here is that they're George Harrison at his best, and it's enough to change the opinion of any hard-shelled Beatle-cynic. Oh, but as well as that, this LP is home to Eleanor Rigby, which some people say is the greatest Beatles track, and I, uh, I'm happy to go with that. It's a stone cold classic, but one thought that follows me around is this; how did Eleanor Rigby die? It's not wholly specified, but my dollar is on Father McKenzie. in the church, WITH THE LEAD PIPE. Anyway, Beatlesian conspiracies aside, this is The Beatles' best work, and it has the right amount of psychedelic sounds and perfect pop punch to make it a great listen all the way through (which is something Sgt Pepper's and Abbey Road lack I think).

6. An Electric Storm - White Noise (1969)
Gather round music fans, this is the single most interesting, innovative and scary-as-fuck-album on the list. An Electric Storm is a deeply terrifying album that is so forward thinking that it can give nightmares to an audience raised on Sky TV and horror films. Basically, what this is is thus; it's the collaboration between some guys and gals, some of whom worked in the BBC soundtrack department, and some of whom just had an interest in pushing musical boundaries, and it's really the first electronic record. Throughout 7 songs, 40 odd harrowing minutes, and some scary other-wordly vocals, this sonic mindfuck pushes the listener to the very edge of sanity. According to my mum (although I can't find any proof on the internet), just listening to this album was enough to push many bikers and the like to suicide. Here's why. "Some sounds have never been heard by humans", the sleeve reads, "some sound waves you don't hear- but they reach you", it continues. The freakish, freakish sounds on this record and ominous feel of it can be blamed on that. People talk about bands like the Cocteaus being otherworldly (fair point, tbf), but this is genuinely something else, and it's hard to say just why with words, but I'll try. Although its on spotify, and if you want a harrowing audio horror trip, and a nice piece of musical history pie YOU HAVE TO LISTEN TO IT. The album's masterpiece The Visitation is 7 minutes that kind of transcend all reasoning; it's a story about a biker who dies, and stuff. But the sounds are incredible; it's got a horribly haunting synth sound, ghost-type voice that will make you clench every muscle, and extended crying. It chills right to the bone. Firebird is a bit of an actual song that could maybe have come from the likes of the Cocteau Twins, but it still has that not quite right feeling to it and maybe the same with My Game Of Loving. Well, the bit that isn't 2 minutes of orgy sounds. And if you want to crank the WHAT THE FUCKING HELL IS THIS FUCKING RECORD factor up to 11-thousand, Here Come The Fleas sounds like Alvin and the Chipmunks or something from a kids' shampoo advert. But Black Mass: An Electric Storm In Hell closes the record, and boy is it fucking satanic. The darkest 11 minutes on record. It starts with some chanting, which again, DOES NOT FEEL RIGHT, it makes your skin crawl, before the piece explodes into a frenzy of African type drumming, on speed, that drums right into your soul. I can't explain it. I don't want to explain it. I'm scared even talking about it. So why is this horrorshow on my list? Well, I love it. It's got hypnotic narrative, and when I'm listening to this record it makes me more emotionally involved than any other album in the world. It's creepy, scary, dystopian, but it's so forward thinking - it still sounds like it's from the future. And it was recorded well before man walked on the bloody moon. It just doesn't add up, and it doesn't sit right, and that's what I love about the whole twisted affair.

5. The Seeds - The Seeds (1966)
More geeky psychedelic garage rock for the list, The Seeds had one of the coolest sounds in sixties music, and they probably deserved to make it a lot bigger than they did because they're probably my favourites of the bunch of Nuggets bands, except maybe The 13th Floor Elevators. They had a pianist, some guitars, and their frontman Sky Saxon (not christened as that, by the way), had a fantastic voice. This record shouldn't really work so well, because every song is nigh on the same really; it has a bit of a stomping start, increasingly dramatic lyrics with some Saxon songsmithstry at work, then a weird little organ solo, and then more guitars. All the songs follow this formula, and, well, for that reason many people shouted it down when it came out. But no! IT'S A BRILLIANT FORMULA, and contorting themselves into that formula are fantastic pop songs. Listen to that wonderful feel that Can't Seem To Have You Mine has, it's a total dream. And the same with the next song, No Escape. Organ-melodica aplenty. But that's what's most loveable about it; identical piano thing solos just get better every time, and, well. Pushin' Too Hard is on it. It's sorta cabaret-punk feel is nothing short of amazing, and thanks to various compilaitions it's now one of the generation's most iconic songs. This album is one of the best, most original sounding albums of the decade, despite sounding very formulaic, and I love it to absolute pieces. So now's probably a good time to give a big thanks to Julian Cope for writing about the Seeds (and in fact White Noise), Julian u r a god.

4. The Velvet Underground and Nico - The Velvet Underground, with Nico (1967)
A short introduction to anyone that thinks the soup cans or the Munroes are Andy Warhol's best work - HERE'S A NEWSFLASH FOR YOU - the man produced the VU's Heroin, which is one of the greatest artworks of all time, that should be seen as anyone's best work, right? This is an album that kind of speaks for itself, I won't bore you with the deets, but essentially this is a masterpiece that transcends any kind of wordsy description. The Velvet Underground's debut is a really versatile record, it's material is a great showcase to both dynamics of the band; beautiful, angelic VU, with the soft, assuring voice (more of which crops up on 1969's Velvet Underground LP), and then the aggressive proto punk thrash (more of which crops up on White Light... err, more on that later). On this album, Nico is probably, actually the weak link, her voice is a bit on the dull side IMHO, and if you've got the Velvets' Live At Max's Kansas City you'll know that her songs sound much more gorgeous at the helm of Lou Reed's voice. But whatever, of her offerings Femme Fatale is a perfect pop song, as is I'll Be Your Mirror, with All Tomorrow's Parties being a drag that takes the edge off the end of Side 1. But nahhhh, it's Lou's songs on this that are truly great - Sunday Morning is the most beautiful offering, a hot bath for the senses, and Venus In Furs is the opposite; a harrowing, sado-masorchistic bad acid trip for the senses. These songs are great, as in, great great GREAT will-last-as-long-as-Beethoven's-Pastoral-symphony-great, but what makes this album a forward thinking classic is when the Velvets really let their hair down. Scratchy, thrashy, and slightly angry in a kind of reserved art student manner, European Son is a complete frenzy of guitar scratches and the like. and it kinda paves way for their next, even more off the wall album. AND, finally, Heroin makes this record great, and I guess evidently so did heroin, but Lou Reed speedy-up slowy-down garage rock classic is a really harrowing song that kind of sounds more punk rock than any of their contemporaries, and more frail than them at the same time. I love it, and I think it's one of the greatest debut albums of all time.

3. In The Court of the Crimson King - King Crimson (1969)
So far on this countdown we've had some bloody great cover art, but this one is probably the coolest, most iconic, and most striking in the history of music. I've been wanting to do a post on cover art just so I could drone on about the cover art to In The Court of... It was painted by semi-professional artist Barry Godber, and what makes the cover art of it maybe a little more mystical is that it was the only cover artwork the 24 year old painted before his untimely death. But on to the music. Is this in our countdown purely for it's cover? Hell no brother. It opens with the electrifying 21st Century Schizoid Man, a track recently made popular amongst the modern day indies after notorious cover versions by Yak and Ty Segall's Fuzz, which is an incredibly powerful song. Although it has only two short, impressionistic verses, they're so strong; "Cats foot/Iron claw" is the non-rhyming couplets that kicks it off, and it sets the precedent for dystopian imagery, about the twisted, tortured soul from the not so distant future - the twenty first century schizoid man. Maybe the fact it's title prophesises the 21st century despite being a 1969 release adds to it's resonance today. Maybe it doesn't. Who knows? Oh, oh, oh, and the rest of the record is, whilst less confrontational, a work of brilliance. all the other four songs, I Talk To The Wind, Epitath, Moonchild and In The Court of... are full of cryptic, drug-fuelled lyrics, and really beautiful, mythical textures (no, really that works as a description, LISTEN). This album is a brilliant work of psychedelic rock mastery by some of the most talented musicians of all time.

2. Piper At The Gates of Dawn - Pink Floyd (1967)
Don't listen to anyone else, this is The Floyd's bona fide masterpiece. This was the only album they made with psychedelic visionary, Syd Barrett before sacking him so they could make some fairly naff prog records (by that I mean their output from 68-70, not everything else they ever did). This album is a really quirky 40 minute ride, that has some early examples of psyched-out freak-outs, and some fairy-taley childlike lyrics that give an insight into Barrett's mind. Before this came the singles Arnold Layne and See Emily Play (omitted from the album), which were genre defining acid-pop gems; they also did well; Arnold Layne was banned from radio for being about cross-dressing, and still reached number 20, and See Emily Play gave the band a top 10 (#6) hit. But whilst they're absent from Piper, the album is very much in the same vane. Astronomy Domine sounds batshit crazy, because it is, with Gilmour's backing vocals flickering through what all the surfaces of the planets of the solar system are like. The Gnome and Flaming have really mad lyrics that are kind of childlike, that deal with the subject of LSD in a really weird way, and a way that is SO Syd. The two most well known songs on it though, and the two highlights as far as I'm concerned are Bike and Interstellar Overdrive. Bike is a real sweet, quirky love song that is also shot to pieces on acid. It clunks along in such a joyous carefree way, and the way Syd sorta says 'hey I don't have much (borrowed bike, pet mouse, gingerbread men), but I want to share it with you' is just the sweetest. Interstellar Overdrive, on the other hand, is just out of this fucking world. It's worth noting that it'd have sounded much better if was recorded how Syd wanted it recorded; live versions often saw Syd piling on the reverb, wah and distortion in a way that was out of anyone's frame of reference, and the band's 1966 live performances are stuff of legend because of it. But despite the fact that on Piper, it's a bit polished, it is still what it is; Interstellar Overdrive is a 10 minute instrumental, that blasts it's way through time and space in an acid-induced free form sonic trip. It doesn't have the precision of later Floyd, but Interstellar Overdrive is every bit as easy to lose yourself in. Piper At the Gates of Dawn is easily my favourite Pink Floyd album, and it was a formative piece of work in the sixties.

1. White Light/White Heat - The Velvet Underground (1968)
We've already had the first Velvets album on this countdown, and that is a masterpiece, but this is more experimental, more avant-garde, and because it has John Cale and Lou Reed at the controls, it's much more accomplished. When it came out, a contemporary audience found it unlistenable, it's out of this world. OK, it begins with a proper pop hit that The Beatles probably could have written, but White Light is the product of, probably, the greatest band of all time firing on all cylinders at once. So it opens with the title track, which is a 2 minute punk-rock call-and-response slap in the face, and I think everyone's lucky enough to be familiar with that because it's probably, bar Sweet Jane and I'm Waiting For The Man, their best out and out rock and roll track. But from their any hint of conformity is left behind. I Heard Her Call My Name is a ravenous cacophony of scratchy, angry guitars, and a furious instrumental garage freakout. Oh, and the lyrics are nigh on as explicit about sex as the sixties got. You can't help but feel that this song alone would be enough to get the Velvets burnt at the stake in 60's America, if they didn't inhabit the most progressive and forward thinking big city in the country. Elsewhere, The Gift is unlike anything you've ever heard before, bar a couple of Half Man Half Biscuit numbers, in that a rough guitar line trips over itself in your left ear, whilst John Cale's soft spoken Welsh voice tells you the tale of Waldo Jeffers - a bit of a cautionary tale that shows just how shit everything gets when no one pays attention to anyone else's wants or needs, because it ends in poor old waldo getting some gardening shears right through the eyes. But essentially, what makes this LP the greatest of the sixties, as well as it's charm, and it's marriage of raw power AND raw pop songs, is the fact that it's so experimental, and all the experimentation comes off so, so well. No less is the case than with album closer Sister Ray; an impovised 17 minutes of pummeling avant-rock murder ballad. It features John Cale giving it large on the organ, which is plugged into a highly distorted guitar amp (where he'd played bass on the most of their recordings), whilst Reed and Sterling Morrison chugged the song along with brilliant guitar parts. It's the Velvets' brilliant best, and like the rest of the record shows one of the greatest bands of all time with their strongest line-up, going all out. Although they do sound brilliant with their soft spoken balladry on The Velvet Underground and the verstility of The Velvet Underground and Nico is stunning, White Light/White Heat is a proto-punk album that was the blue-print for so many of the next ten years' albums - punk rock, post-punk, avant-garde and even various krautrock took it's lead from the bravery of The Velvet Underground on this album.



FURTHER LISTENING: the great albums that didn't quite make it
OK, so picking ten sucked because there are so many I wanted to include it, so before I stop geeking out, here are some more albums you might love if you love any of them on this list.

The Velvet Underground - The Velvet Underground (1969): The group's third album is their most melodic, and forlorn, and although it has rocky moments that are much better than any of their contemporaries, it's beauty lies in Pale Blue Eyes and Candy Says, which are two of the band's saddest, softest songs.
Space Oddity - David Bowie (1969): Bowie's second album has the eternally perfect Space Oddity on it (obviously), but people often forget about the ambitious gem Cygnet Committee and the lovely Letter To Hermione.
Here Are The Sonics - The Sonics (1965): Probably often considered the first (proto) punk album, it's a raw, rough LP that is 50% cover versions that sees the band screaming, distorting, and sounding utterly ahead of their time.
Electric Ladyland - Jimi Hendrix (1967): I got really stressed out tryna pick out a favourite Hendrix LP, 'cos the guy's such a genius, and sadly the live albums were reissued just out of the timespan that this blog-post covers - and those would be near the top of this list, because Hendrix's bluesy virtuoso genius would be enough to propel it to the top any day.
Strange Days - The Doors (1967): This is just a Doors LP I didn't quite have room for, it makes use of the keyboards better than the debut does, and parts of it still sound like they're from the future. Although I prefer the debut, for it's great song after great song mentality, I think the peaks of this album are a lot higher than they are on The Doors.
Scott 4 - Scott Walker (1969): Scott Walker released Scott 1-4, in the sixties (his albums after that had proper names), and of the 4, and of the four, this is the best. It was a commercial flop, but Walker's fantastic baritone, complimented by his most ambitious 60's songwriting were great to the Scott purists.
The Inner Mystique - The Chocolate Watchband (1968): The second Watchband album is a fuzzed out garage psych album, that sees the band (and on a couple of tracks, the original singer with studio musicians) roar through a load of cover versions and originals to make for a truly brilliant listen.
Electronic Sound - George Harrison (1969): I SAID HE WAS THE BEST ONE DIDN'T I? After a mainly sitar-driven Indian classical-inspired album, the soundtrack to the Wonderwall film, was credited to Harrison as a solo album (he did all the arrangements, and wrote the songs, etc), he returned with this. It's a really bizarre thing, that isn't exactly great, but the Moog being the only instrument makes this a really interesting listen.
Let It Bleed - The Rolling Stones (1969): This is maybe The Stones' most complete work, bar Exile. Because it has the masterpieces Gimme Shelter and You Can't Always Get What You Want, it might be best to explain why this didn't make it into the top ten. Well, it's got some incredible tracks on it, but ultimately it's flawed by one or two fillers too many. Tracks 3-5 take a lot of the punch out of the whole album, which would otherwise be a perfect masterwork.

(written by calum cashin)