Greatest Psychedelic Albums (11-20)

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  • 11. The Beatles/Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967). One of the first true masterpieces of the psychedelic scene, Sgt. Pepper’s is an experimental album that sounds so seamless and confident that the listener can be forgiven for not realizing exactly how experimental it is, a distinction it shares with The Byrds’ Younger Than Yesterday among few others. The unifying concept of crowd noise, cheering and occasional laughter, serves the purpose of making the sheer range of song styles and genres seem organic, as though we are witnesses to an enthralling variety show or vaudeville act. Within this framework, even the raga “Within You, Without You” sits comfortably between the circus minstrelsy of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” and the updated vaudeville of “When I’m Sixty-Four.” With “Mr. Kite!” and its waltzing horse, along with the role playing of the title track, and the childlike surrealism of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” lies the origin of the whimsy that would quickly be taken up and expanded on by other British psychedelic bands, some well, some to the point of preciousness and incoherence, but few approaching the charm and effectiveness with which it is used on Sgt. Pepper’s (The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is its one true competitor). What helps moor this experimentation and whimsy is what I can’t help but hear as the true strength of the album, Paul McCartney’s bass playing. Never flashy or intrusive, the sturdy, melodic bass lines provide the underpinnings for an album that despite its arresting eclecticism rocks hard in places. “With a Little Help From My Friends,” “Getting Better,” “Fixing a Hole,” and “Lovely Rita” are all bass-driven, even if it takes a little listening to start picking the lines out; once you’ve heard them, you’ll hear them every time. “A Day in the Life” creates a sober tone from the strummed guitar and piano, yes, but right on their heels comes that bass again! I’ve always believed that bass guitar is the unsung hero of rock music, and Sgt. Pepper’s confirms it.
  • 12. Pink Floyd/The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967). At first listen, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is the album that confirms all of the stereotypes psychedelic music has been saddled with for so many years. It is fantastic and insular, withdrawing into a seemingly impenetrable cocoon of fairy tales, animals, outer space, and gnomes. Strange, jarring noises intrude periodically. And then there is Syd Barrett, one of a select group of psychedelic musicians to have “burned out,” to have become an “acid casualty.” The story of Barrett is certainly a sad one, kicked out of Pink Floyd for his erratic behavior, adored by a cult that almost celebrates his mental illness, unable to function in the wider world. But if we know now what was in his future, at the same time we as listeners should still be able to judge this, the only Pink Floyd album Barrett was involved with from beginning to end, on its own strengths, not as a bizarre artifact full of clues to his impeding meltdown. And when listening to Piper on its own merits, what strikes me immediately is what a strong, controlled musician and songwriter Barrett was; the album may be fantastic and insular, but it is full of solid songs with internally-consistent lyrics, a unified work of art rather than the chaotic side-effect of an extended acid trip. Barrett’s ability to so fully inhabit the viewpoint of a child—the innocence, the blurring of reality and fantasy, the unique imagination—is what gives the album its identity; and no, this empathy never becomes indulgent or precious. “Astronomy Domine,” the opening track, melds outer space with inner, beginning as it does with rado bleeps and static interspersed with garbled transmissions that sound as though they had traveled light years to reach our speakers. Once these begin to fade we get stream of consciousness that combines a sense of the overwhelming size of the universe—“Titania Neptune Titan / Stars can frighten”—with sing-songy fragments of nursery rhymes that never were—“Blam pow pow / Stairway scare Dan Dare who’s there.” What belies the popular misconceptions of Barrett, though, is his guitar playing on the track; by turns muscular and lyrical, it is a series of lines played by an inspired, yet disciplined, musician. The guitar elevates a charming song into an arresting one. Other songs match “Astronomy Domine”: “Lucifer Sam” with its eerie description of a lurking cat; “Scarecrow,” a character sketch of a lonely scarecrow backed by a rhythm I can only describe as “cantering”; and “Bike,” in which a child’s simple, compassionate way of seeing the world is depicted. And what about “Interstellar Overdrive”? It is a nine-minute, tour-de-force instrumental that rockets the listener forward with propulsive guitar and drums before slowing down with organ tweaks and mechanically-plucked guitar; surely this is what Major Tom was listening to as he was floating off into the ether?
  • 13. Traffic/Heaven Is in Your Mind (1969). In terms of pure musicianship, Traffic is one of the strongest of all groups to record during the late Sixties, and like many of the other talented artists to record psychedelic music–The Beatles, The Who, The Byrds, and The Rolling Stones–Traffic tried their hand at it, mastered it (or perhaps not, in the case of the Stones), and then moved on to something else. Heaven Is in You Mind, their psychedelic pinnacle, nevertheless rivals anything else the band recorded later, whether together or for one of their solo careers. Traffic seems to fall between The Beatles and The Byrds on the one hand, groups whose members for the most part really embraced psychedelia and believed in its possibilities and potential, and The Rolling Stones on the other, a group who, perhaps wrongly, is often assumed to have dabbled opportunistically in the music, a cynical attempt at a hit album. The contrast between the tough rockers and bluesy shuffles, and the almost comically “psychedelic” lyrics of a couple of the other songs–elephants in bubblegum trees and beds made from candy floss, anyone?–makes me at least question how much Traffic actually “bought in” to the whole scene. In their defense, though, they seem to have so much damn fun all the way throughout, that it is easy to forgive them any of the cynicism they may have harbored; Traffic may not have “gotten” psychedelia, but they sure gave it a hell of a try. This sense of fun, coupled with the considerable talent of the band, is the key to the album’s success; the boisterous nature of the music makes it purely enjoyable on a level that perhaps only Spirit’s Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus truly surpasses among psychedelic albums. The title song is powered by an almost martial beat that is softened by some shakers and piano, before a pumping bass and random voices and noises lead out. “Berkshire Poppies” mixes a carefree vaudeville sound on the verses with more aggressive, rocking choruses, while “Dear Mr. Fantasy” starts off with Steve Winwood’s bluesy vocals asking the title character to “play us a tune” before the song revs up at the end, the tempo quickening and a harmonica honking in the background. “Giving to You” bookends a great shuffling instrumental, complete with organ, pounding drums, near-frenzied guitar solos, and a mellotron, with the hilarious come-ons of a jazz freak: “sweetheart, I mean, you know, jazz, its there man, where its at!” And as for the elephant in a bubblegum tree? Well, “Hole in My Shoe” and “House for Everyone” aren’t the best songs on the album, but even here Traffic pulls it off, sounding like they’re laughing to themselves as Winwood struggles to sing his lyrics with a straight face. Note: Heaven Is in Your Mind is the American equivalent, with two songs switched, of the British Mr. Fantasy. I personally think the two American-only songs are better than the two British release ones.
  • 14. Big Brother and the Holding Company/Cheap Thrills (1968). One of the few albums to be known more for its cover art than for its music, Cheap Thrills undoubtedly should be known for both. The colorful R. Crumb drawings pickpocket the eye as effectively as any comic book and are responsible for the impressive accomplishment of making anyone who picks up the album want to read all of the credits, incorporated cleverly into the panels as they are. Oh yeah, and one other thing most everyone knows about Cheap Thrills: Janis Joplin’s voice. Her singing has always been one of those love-it-or-hate-it sorts of things, a barreling train screaming down a mountain pass, whistle, wheels, and boiler all about to explode and litter the slopes but somehow always holding together. I’m one of the “love it” people, and not just because she’s from my home state of Texas. But leaving aside Janis, a known quantity, the rest of Big Brother deserves some attention. After all, the album begins with a PA announcer introducing the band as, “four gentlemen and one great, great broad!” The received wisdom is that, although these “four gentlemen” were the most sympathetic band Janis ever sang with, they were also a sloppy, undisciplined bunch of musicians, and who can blame her if she went in search of better support? I can; Big Brother is guilty of being sloppy, true, but they had a chemistry few bands could hope to match. The music on Cheap Thrills is nothing short of exuberant, and the tracks cut in front of a live audience at the Fillmore make it clear just how much the band, including Janis, thrived on the energy of the enthusiastic crowds they played to. “Combination of the Two,” one of these live tracks, contains a crazed guitar solo by James Gurley—one of the band’s three guitarists who shared leads—that matches Janis’ voice for edgy excitement, helping her carry out her stated mission: “we’re gonna knock ya, rock ya, sock ya tonight!” “I Need a Man to Love” is carried by creeping bass and rhythm guitar, later to be joined by background gang vocals. “Piece of My Heart” is the best-known song, which to my ears shines most in the details: the build up of “come on, come on, come on,” just before Janis bursts into the memorable “Take another piece of my heart now baby!,” and the intermittent blasts of guitar during the chorus. And, boy, Gershwin never sounded like he does here on “Summertime”; some might disagree with me, but somehow I think he would approve.
  • 15. Cream/Disreali Gears (1967). Cream. The first supergroup. Jack Bruce on bass. Ginger Baker on drums. Eric Clapton (aka God) on guitar. Nothing could be louder. Nothing could demand more attention. Or could it? Disraeli Gears, Cream’s second album, despite the credentials of the band’s members and the expectations of the public, is surprisingly restrained, with nary a showy display of talents to be found. Yes, Ginger Baker pounds the drums maniacally for parts of the record, but it’s not quite the same as, say, John Bonham’s drum solo on “Moby Dick.” This restraint mirrors the reserve and doubt of the lyrics, as songs like “Sunshine of Your Love” and “Dance the Night Away” aren’t nearly as carefree as their titles would lead you to believe; these two cuts bookend another song called “World of Pain.” Of course, Clapton was steeped in the blues, a form in which even the most uninhibited songs often have a hint of darkness to them, and this background may have much to do with Disraeli Gears' tone and feel. This restraint hardly compromises the album’s power: “Sunshine of Your Love” can rightfully be called thundering, yet even then, you feel that the band could have really cut loose on it if they had wanted to. And other tracks on the album benefit from this undercurrent of darkness; “Dance the Night Away” sounds forlorn musically, and lyrics such as “dance myself to nothing…turn myself to shadows” match note with word. “Tales of Brave Ulysses” opens with a slow, deliberate bass line before Clapton’s treated guitar and Baker’s flailing drums start in. The lyrics are understated, lovely images of “tiny purple fishes / [that] run laughing through your fingers” and “your girl’s brown body / dancing through the turquoise / and her footprints make you follow / where the sky loves the sea.” Lovely, yes, but melancholy and tragic, for the girl turns out to be a mermaid who drowns her lovers in the sea. The song seems drunk on sad beauty. Disraeli Gears’ mood lightens a bit as it moves into its second half. “SWLABR” makes use of surreal imagery—“the rainbow has a beard”—and the lead guitar has an almost liquid feel as it flows through the song. “Outside Woman Blues” and “Take It Back” are the most traditional blues on the album, and “Mother’s Lament” is an embarrassing sing along, an attempt at forced camaraderie.
  • 16T. The Jimi Hendrix Experience/Are You Experienced? (1967). One played from his home base in California, while the other took the long way around to fame, from Seattle to London, via stops in the U.S. Army and chitlin’ circuit tours of the South. One savored each note he played, while the other tossed out notes furiously, as though he’d traded that military machine gun for a guitar. One turned to the East for enlightenment, a deliberate meditative path that matched his style, while the other went truly pan-global, embracing the hippie ethos of piecemeal ideals, reflected in his flamboyant individual dress and style. Despite these differences, Carlos Santana and Jimi Hendrix belong together on this list as the two best American guitarists of the Psychedelic era. Santana’s sound was consistent from his first recordings with his band, but Hendrix explored and mastered quite a few genres and styles on his debut album, Are You Experienced? Hendrix announces the aggressive inventive nature of his playing from the opening cut, “Purple Haze,” as he tick-tocks the guitar for a few seconds before bursting into a distorted riff. This was something new: a sound so thick, so solid, that listeners felt they could literally touch the notes as they piled on top of one another in an immaculate frenzy. The sound was explosive, and the lyrics could be speaking for us, even as they ostensibly address the effect of a girl: “lately things don’t seem the same.” Hendrix may sing “that girl put a spell on me,” but he just as surely put a spell on us with his guitar. Just three songs later, in “Love and Confusion,” his guitar is a rocket lifting off the pad, massive in its sheer force and noise, while “Are You Experienced?” dangles backward-tracked guitars and a trippy, heavily-treated solo as seductive enticements for a person whose “little world won’t let you go.” The rest of The Experience makes their presence particularly felt on “Fire,” another cut that explodes out of the gate, Mitch Mitchell’s drums powering and Noel Redding’s bass throbbing through the choruses. “May This Be Love” and “Foxey Lady” highlight Hendrix’s voice, emotive and gentle on the former, sneering and confrontational on the latter. “Stone Free” is an outlandish example of the kind of psychedelic soul The Temptations would later try their hand at, and “Red House” is an appropriate way to close the album, a spin on the electric blues Hendrix’s sound originated from, the explicitly bluesy solo the song ends with a way to acknowledge the blues and soul influences that, despite the innovation, he hadn’t even come close to leaving behind.
  • 16T. Santana/Abraxas (1970). I have heard that when Santana first formed union rules required that a member of the band be designated the leader; guitarist Carlos Santana resisted being named leader because he wanted this to be a band of equals, but he eventually gave in and ultimately the group became known by his name. If this is true, did Santana truly believe he would not stand out in any group he was a member of? For his guitar playing is instantly recognizable, and it is not overstating the case to label him a genius, a term I use seriously and sparingly. This guitar sound that identifies him is emotional and at times soaring, at other times caressing. It is also an efficient sound; strange to link him to a later guitarist like U2’s The Edge, but they share a minimalist sensibility that notes are not to be wasted, that notes are most eloquent when they are most rare. Santana himself best describes his guitar with the opening cut on Abraxas, the band’s second album. An instrumental entitled “Singing Winds, Crying Beasts,” the form of the song illuminates the words of the title; a spare piano is backed by Latin percussion and organ, but it is the recurring wind chimes that rustle periodically throughout the song that directly comment on the guitar. Santana weaves his guitar line in and out of the foreground, fading away and then softly building again to ringing heights, evocative of both the wind stirring the chimes and the plaintive cries of nocturnal animals, sounds that float from the night comforting, yet lonely and eerie. The rest of the album tends to follow this lead, with Santana avoiding traditional solos for emotive lines that at times mix with the earthy rhythms and at other times wheel and climb above them; it is no surprise that on later albums, Santana would move into collaborating with jazz musicians, as his approach shares more with saxophonists like John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins than it does with most rock guitarists. Not that his playing here becomes abstract and difficult, the way Coltrane’s last albums were; Santana’s lines also share something of the blues in their melancholic passion, and this keeps him grounded. “Incident at Neshabur” finds his guitar intertwining with a jazzy piano, while “Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen,” the biggest single from the album, covers a blues song from Peter Green and the earlier incarnation of Fleetwood Mac. “Oye Como Va,” a Tito Puente number, and “Sambo Pa Ti” are nods to the third tradition, after jazz and blues, that Santana and his band brought to their take on rock: Latin. The Latin percussion cushions most of the songs in a sensual groove, and the Spanish sung on parts of the album enhances its exotic flavor; however, considering the thrilling results of both Santana the man and Santana the band’s fusing of such distinct traditions, isn’t it likely that Abraxas sounds as exotic to listeners in Latin America as it does to us?
  • 18. The Beatles/Revolver (1966). Coming as it did in 1966, Revolver wasn’t recorded with the influences of the psychedelic scene in mind; indeed, that scene barely existed. Instead, the album, along with The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” and a few other scattered songs and albums by various groups, helped goose forward the nascent movement toward studio experimentation that would explode into full flower in 1967. Unlike Sgt. Peppers, their next album, The Beatles on Revolver, with a couple of exceptions, don’t give full rein to the spirit of experimentation, for the most part preferring to have sonic innovations serve the songs subtly, which does not mean that these advances are used tentatively or are simply grafted onto otherwise staid songs. The backward noises heard periodically on “I’m Only Sleeping” are odd, but also assimilated well, acting as a de facto solo a minute and a half in, and serving as a peculiarly effective outro. “Love You To” initially seems completely foreign, with its opening sitar-noodling and the tablas that soon join in, but the lyrics fit both 1960s pop tradition and certain aspects of the Eastern influence George Harrison was pulling from with their emphasis on love; a certain ambiguity resides in the lyrics as it appears to be referring to physical love—“make love all day long / make love singing songs”—and the idea of love as a spiritual refuge from the hostility of the outside world. As much as it seems a child-like sing-along, “Yellow Submarine” continues this theme of retreat from the world; over an acoustic guitar banging out the melody, the song’s lyrics depict a trek to a faraway land, a utopia where the travelers are safe “beneath the waves” and all their friends are there, too. The most blatantly experimental song on the album, “Tomorrow Never Knows” explores a different kind of sanctuary: within. Propulsive drums, droning notes, and bizarre tape effects, teamed with lyrics from The Tibetan Book of the Dead, introduced many to mysticism while at the same time pointing the way for musicians eager to test the limits of the studio and of recorded music. Other artists would take up the baton, and go on to produce imaginative and marvelous creations of sound and scope, but unfortunately few would remember to bring along that balance of joyous spirit and restless intellect that The Beatles so eloquently highlighted on Revolver.
  • 19. Quicksilver Messenger Service/Quicksilver Messenger Service (1968). Quicksilver Messenger Service is one of the lesser-known bands of the San Francisco scene, not because of the quality of their music, which at its best matches Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother, or Santana, but because they didn’t make a lot of noise, figuratively and literally. If Big Brother with Janis Joplin’s banshee vocals was the rave-up, and The Grateful Dead jammed you into the wee hours of the morning, Quicksilver, especially on their eponymous debut album, was the wind-down after a long night, comfortable melodies and understated musicianship that still rewarded close listening, never becoming simple background music. The playing on the album is tight and spare, but even a first listen reveals the potential they had to really stretch out, something they only really do here on “The Fool,” the twelve-minute finale to the album, but would embrace on their next album, Happy Trails, most of which is devoted to a twenty-five-minute-plus jam on Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love.” Here on Quicksilver they kick things off with apocalyptic folk rock in the vein of Barry Maguire’s “Eve of Destruction”; the urgent but subdued vocals of “Pride of Man” employ Biblical imagery like “behold a mighty city broken in the dust again” in its warning against nuclear holocaust: “can’t you see that flash of fire / ten times brighter than the day.” A mournful guitar solo translates into notes what the lyrics portend. The guitars, in fact, played by John Cipollina and Gary Duncan, are the melancholy centerpieces of several songs on the album; on the instrumental “Gold and Silver,” the guitar line extends the length of the song, over some lovely guitar picking. “Too Long” features a tight mid-tempo groove by the lockstep rhythm section with a jumpy, nervous guitar livening things up a little. “The Fool,” mentioned above, impressively shifts tempo several times; five minutes in, a distorted, yet strangely deliberate, solo breaks in for about two minutes until the vocals surface, blending in organically as a complement to the other instruments. When the song finally wanes, the album’s subtle strengths only wax, as the unassuming melodies will surface quietly in your mind for hours afterward.
  • 20. Captain Beefheart/Safe as Milk (1967). Captain Beefheart is a true original of rock and roll, so much so that he stands out even in that most eccentric of times, the Psychedelic era. His voice is ragged and deep; imagine Tom Waits with even more of a growl, even more passionate. His music would reach a pinnacle of strangeness on his second album, Trout Mask Replica, but I prefer Safe as Milk, his debut, a little more accessible than his next effort—which is not to say its like anything else I’ve ever heard. Beefheart’s music is strongly rooted in the blues, and however bizarre his take on the form gets, it is still done in sincerity and affection. “Sure ‘Nuff ‘N Yes I Do” kicks off the album with a furious shuffle, complete with Beefheart’s growling and shards of slide guitar slicing in the way others would use distortion; “Plastic Factory” is a blue-collar lament over a harmonica-driven stomp: “Factory ain’t no place for me / Boss man let me be!” In “Grown So Ugly” Beefheart even goes so far as to claim he was recently released from Angola prison, the notorious Louisiana penitentiary where Ledbelly, among others, served time. Other songs, still rootsy, deviate from the bluesy template, such as “Abba Zaba,” a song full of blurry nonsense syllables that are so damn catchy it infuriates that you can’t decipher them to sing along; words like “monsoon,” “tiger moon,” and “baboon” surface periodically to make you wonder if those ubiquitous “Eastern influences” could rocket so far past sitar use and peaceful philosophies that even the rishis wouldn’t recognize them anymore. “Where There’s Woman” utilizes slinky percussion reminiscent of Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly, and “Zig Zag Wanderer” and “Dropout Boogie” are warped takes on garage rock, with a thick, muddy sound and fuzz guitar. Two final songs that transcend even the skewed versions of rock already described must be mentioned: “I’m Glad,” straight-faced doo-wop that would be right at home on Frank Zappa’s Freak Out!, is the song where Beefheart comes as close to actual crooning that he could ever get; the trembling falsetto background vocals—“so sad baby / so glad girl”—are hilarious in a way that actual parody could never attain. Only a passionate fan of this music could get it so right. And finally, there is “Electricity,” possibly the only song I’ve ever heard with an ethereal theremin (the high-pitched instrument heard on The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations”) hovering over a rollicking near-rockabilly beat and twangy guitar. Safe as Milk may sound inaccessible when described, but its not; the genius of Captain Beefheart is that he made a truly unique album that any fan of psychedelic, garage or just plain old rock and roll can enjoy.