Greatest Psychedelic Albums (1-10)
- 1. The Byrds/The Notorious Byrd Brothers (1968). With this album, the Byrds certainly put an exclamation point on their psychedelic trilogy, which began with Fifth Dimension and its centerpiece single “Eight Miles High,” and continued with Younger Than Yesterday. Brothers opens with “Artificial Energy,” a horn-driven ode to amphetamines, and closes with “Dolphin’s Smile” and “Space Odyssey,” songs that manage to reach a couple of farthest frontiers before the high wears off. Not strictly a psychedelic band even during this period, the Byrds in between these two poles explore pedal-steel-drenched Brill Building pop (!) with “Goin’ Back,” softly insistent protest with “Draft Morning,” a raga/backward guitar solo that segues into evocative, earthy pedal steel (!!) in “Change Is Now,” and a soothing nod to what was happening up the coast in the bay area/youth Mecca with “Tribal Gathering.” And amazingly, only one song on the album lasts more than three and a half minutes, meaning no meandering, self-indulgent experimentation, just brilliantly blended pop sensibilities and imaginative, challenging rock. No wonder that, after throwing down this gauntlet to more rigidly defined psychedelic bands, all the Byrds could do was to go off and invent country rock with Sweetheart of the Rodeo.
- 2. Love/Forever Changes (1967). Love, the premier Los Angeles band (unless you consider the Byrds an “L.A.” band) in the year or two before the Doors inherited their mantle, was led by Arthur Lee, who along with Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone was one of the few African-Americans associated with psychedelia. Listening to the sense of isolation and cynicism that permeates the lyrics, I can’t help but feel that Lee believed his race kept him on the margins of a scene that prided itself on the shedding of social prejudices. “Alone Again Or” leads off the album, and as Lee acknowledges that “Tonight I’ll be alone again my dear” his status as an outsider is immediately felt. “The Red Telephone” finds Lee attempting to take the spotlight off of himself, as he presents himself “Sitting on a hillside/ Watching all the people die,” a chilling passivity that may be explained in the outro of the song; as the music begins to wind down, a stereotypically backwoods black voice intones, “All God’s chillun got to have their freedom”: the hypocrisy of the often upper-middle class white kids crowing about freedom and peace up in San Francisco is put on full display. Disillusionment continues in “Live and Let Live,” which finds Lee bitterly satirizing American attitudes about ownership and violence as he matter-of-factly explains “There’s a bluebird sitting on a branch/ I think I’ll take my pistol/ I have it in my hand/ Because he’s on my land.” This anger and alienation charges the album, as Lee comments on both hippies and the larger culture, and the sickening similarities often found between them; he observes from a distance, hurt that he can’t be a part of it, yet angry at himself that he would even want to be. However, what in the end makes Forever Changes so powerful is the complementary nature of the music to the lyrics. The music is never obscured, and the strings, horns, harmonicas and other instruments Lee uses to craft his sometimes baroque, always majestic music provide the emotional vulnerability and pain that he resists expressing in his words.
- 3. Jefferson Airplane/Surrealistic Pillow (1967). Grace Slick joined the Airplane before this, their second album, and all she does is turn it into the San Francisco shot heard ‘round the world. Interestingly, “Somebody to Love,” one of the two big singles, is one of the lesser songs here, its tone more aggressive and its lyrical content more pedestrian than anything else on the album. Most of Pillow is delicate and understated; politics would come later, eschewed for now in favor of wistful emotion. The side one trilogy of “My Best Friend,” “Today,” perhaps the most haunting guitar line I’ve heard, and “Comin’ Back to Me,” five minutes of heartbreak and redemption set to a melody played on a recorder (really!), is so quietly compelling that I’m always forced to stop whatever I’m doing to listen. Side two continues this mood and culminates with the other big single, “White Rabbit,” a song that fits the context of the album much better than “Somebody.” The bolero beat stirs quietly after the acoustic instrumental “Embryonic Journey” winds down, and both the volume and tone become insistently more strident until Slick can no longer tolerate the lunatic fantasy she describes: “Feed your head! Feed your head!” she demands and then abruptly drops off. This is the album that gives the lie to the stereotype of the overly optimistic, naively sincere hippie; the undercurrent of knowing melancholy that runs through these songs is also present in much of the enduring psychedelia of the era.
- 4. The Byrds/Younger Than Yesterday (1967). “So you want to be a rock ‘n’ roll star?” ask the Byrds with a knowing smirk on the first song of their fourth album. Well, the Byrds already were stars and seemed ready to say “no thank you” to more of the same, so they put together an album so recklessly eccentric and bipolar in mood that you wonder if they knew what they were doing. I guess yes. “C.T.A.-102” is an exuberant assurance to any space aliens listening that Roger McGuinn doesn’t care “who’s been there first” as long as he gets there too—and hearing the aliens critique the Byrds’ music in their incomprehensible jabber of a language is cosmically illuminating. This “up” is followed soon after by the “down” of David Crosby’s Sinatra-ready torch song “Everybody’s Been Burned.” Chris Hillman, not to be outdone, weighs in with his finest writing effort on the paranoid yet compulsively singable “Have You Seen Her Face.” Thankfully, we also get a dreamy retreat from reality in the gorgeous “Renaissance Fair,” and a comforting look back to the band’s beginnings with a strong cover of Dylan’s “My Back Pages.” And well, what can be said about “Mind Gardens”? This atonal, free-verse ‘song’ that easily manages to be both the worst song released by the classic Byrds lineup and the most pretentious thing ever written by Crosby (no easy feat) is simply the flaw that brings into sharp relief the excellence of the rest of the album. The impressive collection of egotistical talents that was the Byrds would never again work this well together; Crosby would be gone halfway into the next album, and Hillman wouldn’t be far behind.
- 5. The Doors/The Doors (1967). Los Angeles bands always seemed to have the darkest take on the psychedelic scene, in contrast to the San Francisco bands with their hopes for brotherhood and to the British bands who at times seemed lost in a world of whimsy. The darkest of the dark in L. A. was definitely The Doors, not just because they had a more profound recognition of the dangerous side of the superficially lighthearted world they saw around them but because they seemed to revel in that danger to an extent no other band would, or could for that matter. Their first album, The Doors, is still the best statement of their uniquely gleeful take on the chaos they observed, although there are moments on each of their other five albums that come close. “Break on Through (To the Other Side),” the opening song, sets the tone. Transcendence is here portrayed as an attempt to escape reality: “You try to run / Try to hide / Break on through to the other side.” Even love, the ultimate hope for many, is a lie, as Jim Morrison sings like a West Coast Virgil leading us through hell that for lovers, “Arms are chains / Eyes are lies.” The covers are amazingly appropriate for this world; “Alabama Song (Whisky Bar)” is a Kurt Weill song from that other time and place famously teetering on the brink of apocalypse, 1920s Berlin, and “Back Door Man” reaches back to the Blues, with its myths of midnight meetings at the crossroads and pacts with the devil. It is almost as though Morrison foresees Charles Manson, the humiliation of withdrawal from Vietnam, and a host of other events that soured the dreams of the mid-to-late Sixties. Even in the seedy diner described in “Soul Kitchen” as one of the few refuges for the weary, we see people withdrawing into their own words, “Speaking secret alphabets...Learn to forget.” Morrison might ask in “The Crystal Ship” for “another fleeting chance at bliss,” but his closing statement in “The End” extinguishes the album in a grotesque, nihilistic haze. The song may be a psycho-gothic drama that verges on overindulgence, but it is still chillingly effective. With its imagery of family murder and rape, lonely highways, writhing serpents, and forbidden sights in the abyss of an abandoned gold mine, “The End” leaves you gasping as you wonder why anyone would have stayed in California as the Sixties crashed to a close, much less move there in pursuit of something beautiful. Just imagine listening to this album as you drive down a desert highway at night...
- 6. The Zombies/Odyssey and Oracle (1968). This album contains some of the most sublime melodies and arrangements found during the psychedelic era, amazing because it is a period known for the exceptional quality of the songs. The opening one-two punch of “Care of Cell 44,” driven by a jauntily played piano that fades into the background as the singer tells his now-imprisoned love how much he misses her, and “A Rose for Emily,” also dominated by piano, albeit in a more subdued manner, makes it difficult to resist skipping back to the beginning to hear both again; however, the listener who fends off this impulse is more than rewarded. “Maybe After He’s Gone” breaks into a desperately hopeful chorus, and “Brief Candles” follows the same pattern: the melancholy of the verses leads into a paradoxically glorious chorus that only reinforces the sadness. Sentimental without being sappy, “Friends of Mine” finds the band listing off the names of many of the couples they know after they sing “It feels so good to know two people/ So in love.” How this song manages to be thrilling instead of cloying I don’t know; it just is. The album closes with “Time of the Season,” one of the most assured and memorable singles of the era. A certain sinister spirit pervades this apparent seduction of an inexperienced young girl by a man with a psychosexual spiel, yet just try to keep from singing along with him as he suggests, “Let me try/ With pleasured hands/ To take you in the sun to/ Promised lands.” All these references to sunshine-drenched afternoons, summer days, and seasons add up to a fleeting innocence and glimpse of happiness that both band and listener know can never last, and in fact is slipping away even as the album ends.
- 7. Spirit/Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus (1970). Icon for blended families everywhere, guitarist Randy California and his stepfather, drummer Ed Cassidy, led Spirit into psychedelia at its most exuberant, pointedly ignoring that the rest of the scene and sound had fallen on hard times a couple of years removed from the salad days of 1967-68; no, listening to Sardonicus, their fourth album, it was possible to believe that the counterculture was easily winning hearts and minds out in the hinterlands. Unique among ecological statements, “Nature’s Way” is both optimistic and toe-tapping as California assures us that although nature has been wronged, she fully expects to receive us back. In “Animal Zoo,” California laments the state of the “air I breath and the water I drink” after the sounds of urban gridlock (horns, idling engines) open the song, and he ultimately feels driven back to the “animal zoo” (?), while apparently nothing says love like backward rhythm guitar on “Love Has Found a Way.” None of these sentiments are self-righteously intoned but sung with humor and likeability. Along with the occasional horn section punctuating the choruses, Cassidy’s powerful drumming—no drum solos, nothing flashy—and California’s riffs and skillful playing keep an infectious sense of energy going, even during the ballads. If there’s one psychedelic album where you can imagine everyone in the band smiling the entire time they’re playing and recording, this is it. Guaranteed to jolt you out of whatever funk you’re in.
- 8. Family/Music in a Doll's House (1968). Music in a Doll’s House may be the most overlooked great album of the Psychedelic era. In some ways, Family seems to have feet in both the British scene, which they came from, and the San Francisco scene, combining as they did the delicate, wistful folk rock of Moby Grape or Jefferson Airplane with the more adventurous arrangements and influences of The Beatles. Solid song structure and pleasing melodies are enhanced by the strong drumming and intelligently used cellos, saxes, and harmonicas; these instruments are prominent on many of the songs but the band never overindulges in using them simply to sound strange or experimental, instead using them to strengthen choruses, bridges, and outros. The sound is perhaps related to the decidedly rock-leaning folk rock of The Faces, but with a broader palette of instruments and arrangements to draw from. But without a doubt, as compelling as the music is, it is the unique voice of lead singer Roger Chapman that is the focal point of Family’s sound. Reminiscent of a lower, earthier Robert Plant, Chapman’s full vocals are set apart by his noticeable vibrato(!). As odd as that may sound, it in no way overwhelms or distracts; his voice is not operatic or bombastic, but controlled and warm. As for the songs, they run the gamut while still being of a piece. “Voyage” couples eastern-sounding strings with lyrics about metaphysical searches, while the more aggressive “The Chase” foregrounds the British side of their songwriting with an extended metaphor of foxes and hounds, ending with Chapman confronting his love: “do I see blood in your eyes, dear?” Even on this amazingly consistent collection, two songs stand out, “Mellowing Grey” and “Me My Friend.” “Mellowing Grey” is one of the folkier songs, one that would not be out of place on Surrealistic Pillow. Backed by a simply plucked guitar and a cello that wordlessly plays the chorus–no drums–Chapman sings of hope, symbolized by the “misty morning’s day” and “velvet shades of dawn,” succeeded by disappointment, now evening, the “mellowing grey” of the title; it is lovely and melancholy. “Me My Friend,” on the other hand, is more energetic, as it opens with phased drums and horns that return with each forcefully-sung chorus; it shares the traveling theme of “Voyage,” as Chapman sings of the “many lands” he has ranged. That is the central paradox of the album: even with a title as confining as Music in a Doll’s House, the themes and sound are so expansive as to make the dollhouse seem as quaint as the songs and thoughts of an older era.
- 9. Jefferson Airplane/Volunteers (1969). Released at the end of 1969, in many ways this album closes out both the cohesive “San Francisco scene” and the Airplane as an artistic force. The most overtly political album by the band, the self-righteousness is fortunately tempered by a resignation and bitterness. In the opener, “We Can Be Together,” Grace Slick acknowledges that they “are all outlaws in the eyes of America,” and from here on out much of the focus turns to pastoral themes, strange for a band so strongly identified with that most sophisticated of cities, San Fran. A utopian tone underlies the traditional gospel song “Good Shepherd” as Jesus is implored to “feed your sheep.” “Wooden Ships” presents an odd escapist fantasy about living in peace in the wilderness, feeding off berries and turning away from civilization. Slick gets caustically ecological in “Eskimo Blue Day” (apparently, humanity “doesn’t mean shit to a tree”), Jerry Garcia joins in on “The Farm,” and the Soviet national anthem makes a cameo with the instrumental “Meadowlands” before Jefferson Airplane makes one last stand with the closing cut “Volunteers”; “We’re the volunteers of America,” they sneer, with a militancy that immediately sounds the warning: all this talk about the country side is a regrouping, not a retreat. And oh yeah, the music doesn’t get left behind, punchy and alternately driving and restrained as the occasion requires. Moral: politics goes down much better with six great musicians.
- 10. The Who/The Who Sell Out (1967). The Who Sell Out opens with “Armenia City in the Sky,” one of those flights of fancy the psychedelic era was so known for; it seems a tribute to the heights many artists and young people attempted to reach, whether through pure imagination, love, drugs, or some combination of all. However, the surreal imagery of the world presided over by this city, “the sky is glass, the sea is brown,” belongs to an idealistic realm the characters in the rest of the album’s songs strive for but can never quite reach. The parodic commercials interspersed between the songs are often laugh-out-loud funny, but also serve as a constant grounding contrast to the attempts at transcendence or belonging depicted in songs such as “Tattoo,” a humorous yet serious account of a boy trying to make the transition to adulthood; “what makes a man a man?” he wonders before deciding maybe a tattoo is the answer, a choice he has decidedly mixed feelings about once it’s too late to go back. The segue from a PSA suggesting “go to the church of your choice” to the sweetly sung opening line “Our love was...,” from the song of the same name, backed by chiming guitars that are only slightly more forceful than those on a Byrds’ album, places an older road to happiness next to the newer generation’s choice. Sadly, the love sung about is in the past tense. The rightful centerpiece of the album is “I Can See for Miles,” an angry denouncement of a strayed lover. Musically the song matches the lyrics’ rage through Keith Moon’s powerful drumming and Pete Townshend’s manic guitar as the chorus climaxes. The mystical potential for utopia depicted in “Armenia” is now turned to more mundane matters as a type of special sight is credited with allowing the narrator to detect the infidelity. The next song, “I Can’t Reach You,” further distances us from the unattainable dream of the city in the sky with a much sadder tone; transcendence is within the grasp but crumbles away–“I caught a glimpse of your unguarded untouched heart / but my mind tore us apart.” Don’t let me mislead you into thinking this is an album of moping ballads though; The Who’s trademark powerful sound is front and center here, but it is nuanced thoughtfully by the sensitivity expected especially from the pen of Townshend and the voice of Roger Daltry.
I posted most of these a couple of years ago and finally completed it recently. Nothing like efficiency, is there? Anyway, the new reviews are the ones for #5, The Doors, #8, Music in a Doll's House, and #10, The Who Sell Out.
The title of this list was "The Twenty-Five Greatest Psychedelic Albums," but because of the length of the first ten reviews, I hopefully will get to work soon on a second list of "Greatest Psychedelic Albums (11-20)." I hope that won't take another two years.
I've limited the psychedelic era to roughly the years 1966-1970. I realize that this strict time period could be expanded if some early prog-rock (which evolved out of psychedelia) and neo-psych albums being released even up to today were included, but this is the period I love the most, and it certainly makes the list more manageable.
Any comments, questions, or disagreements over my rankings are certainly welcome.