The 1960s gave the world the most ephemeral, magical, and timeless of records. Unfortunately, most “best albums of the ’60s” lists heavily centralize Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or Pet Sounds.
It’s fair enough, but still limiting—especially when so many other albums from the ’60s deserve serious spotlight.
Odessey and Oracle
This legendarily-misspelled LP was recorded during the Summer of Love, 1967. For context, The Doors debuted that January, and Sgt. Pepper dropped that spring.
And here were The Zombies, entering their summer sessions expertly aware of those musical tides, exiting them as a tighter band…but at the cost of feeling like some lowercase zombies.
Tensions caused their breakup shortly after, before Odessey’s release. It wouldn’t have hit the US at all, if not for Dylan sidekick/organist, Al Kooper.
By 1969, both the US and UK were bumping “Time of the Season.” Oddly, though, the Zombies didn’t reunite—even with a hit song on the charts—until the 1990s.
And dig this: random bands toured under their moniker for some fast cash, fooling fools, sounding nothing like the real thing!
Odessey and Oracle is more than one good song and a history lesson, though. While Sgt. Pepper features more prominent production, Odessey and Oracle is the better record. And The Doors’ Ray Manzarek couldn’t touch Rod Argent’s keyboard solos with a long, drawn-out pole.
Listeners will love this record for its floral vocals, God-tier songwriting, and a signature sound.
Key tracks: “Care of Cell 44,” “This Will Be Our Year,” & “Time of the Season”
Santana’s 1969 debut—released weeks after their Woodstock performance—was destined for greatness.
Casual fans will recognize “Evil Ways,” but what makes the album next-level are the jams. Swelling organ licks dance between a lit section of drums, congas, and timbales, as bass effortlessly bridges world music with rock. The spotlight re-fixes whenever the guitar is strummed in the slightest.
Carlos Santana is a wiz, both in his rhythmic accents and signature solos. Moreover, what makes him a great bandleader is how and when he lets the band shine.
Put this on for active listening pleasure, or creative background music.
Key tracks: “Evil Ways,” “Jingo,” & “Soul Sacrifice”
Are You Experienced
The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Are You Experienced is not only a testament to one guitarist’s huge impact, but also captures a killer three-piece at their most spirited.
The deep cuts make this album soar: nowhere else in Hendrix’s discography can listeners find the psychedelic tenderness of “May This Be Love,” a standout with chill-rock sounds and poetry only Jimi could conjure.
The duties of bassist Noel Redding were inevitably replaced by Hendrix on Electric Ladyland. But here, fans can enjoy Noel’s energy and ability to follow the guitarist with precision.
There’s a reason drummer Mitch Mitchell never got replaced, though. That dude spit fire—see the song, “Fire.”
Moreover, Hendrix’s lyricism, an often-overlooked component, is at its shining best here. A fan of Dylan, his words add depth to the Experience.
Are You Experienced, the 1967 album that rightly lacks any punctuation, is a time-machine where the future of guitar music hides in plain sight.
Key Tracks: “May This Be Love,” “Fire,” & “The Wind Cries Mary”
The Byrds brought a new dimension to their sound, and 1966, with their third album.
Fifth Dimension is their first LP without Gene Clark, who shared prominent vocal/songwriting duties. To fill this void, McGuinn and Crosby stepped up.
Part of that included the band, who made a name doing Dylan covers in a folk-rock style (that they are widely credited for), skipping the Bob covers this time around.
The result: a more nuanced and original Byrds record, featuring more ambitious harmonies, stronger original songs, and great 12-string guitar playing. “I See You” (which the legendary prog-rock band, Yes, does a great cover of) and “Eight Miles High” are key indicators of this transformation.
Meanwhile, “What’s Happening?!?!” is a treat for Crosby fans. It expands on that spacey, pretty vibe carved out by “Wild Mountain Thyme,” with significantly more groove.
Every corner of Fifth Dimension shows why the Byrds are remembered as the iconic folky stoners from the ’60s.
Key tracks: “Wild Mountain Thyme,” “I See You,” & “Eight Miles High.”
Blonde on Blonde
Any of the six LPs from Dylan’s 1963-1966 period could top any list. Picking an album from his electric trilogy is just as hard, but Blonde on Blonde is his masterpiece.
Dylan would say this 12 years later for Playboy:
“The closest I ever got to the sound I hear in my mind was on…the Blonde on Blonde album. It’s that thin…wild mercury sound. It’s metallic and bright gold, with whatever that conjures up.”
What is this “thin wild mercury” sound? Start with some “cowboy chords” and add simple yet expressive drums, Nashville guitarists, clunky bass, organ licks by Al Kooper, piano played by blind legends, and harmonica. The lyrics make the best dare to do better, only to pale in comparison.
All of that, combined with Dylan’s nasally voice, makes Blonde on Blonde one of the best albums of the ’60s.
(Note: when folks make fun of Dylan’s singing, this is the album they’re referencing. No one knows why he started singing like this; it just works.)
The long songs don’t feel long, the funny songs feel rebellious, and the anti-love songs feel romantic. And leave it to Bob to popularize abstract ironic song titles!
If you’re not a Dylan fan, do yourself a favor: start here, then work backward.
Key tracks: “Just Like a Woman,” “I Want You,” & “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”
The standout albums of the ’60s elevated music to new (and often unmatched) heights, and continue to inspire musicians and fans of all ages, so many decades later.