Great albums as albums were not common before 1967. As a rare music enthusiast who doesn’t completely worship the Beatles, I still am aware of the importance of ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ in enabling a whole generation to make a ritual out of the album and making it an art form in and of itself. In keeping with my eternal Beatles skepticism, however, here is an alternative list of albums that pushed that similar boundary, and turning points in an artist’s discography in which the album is the great statement. Note – to be snobbish about the ‘feeble single’ is to deny the inherent consumerist boundary of popular music, however flexible a boundary that may be.
The Byrds never sounded so ‘together’ as they did on this 1968 masterpiece, and it’s the first Byrds album whose brilliance comes from the album as a unified mood piece rather than an interesting collection of great songs (Younger Than Yesterday).
A bonus track on the reissued CD shows an argument between them on the recording of ‘Natural Harmony’. This is a band in turmoil, a band that had the desperate nerve to steal a song from the member they had previously fired; by normal logic, this should be a an absolute car crash of dodgy moog experimentation and forced delivery, but it’s not. Whether its gorgeous cohesion is by accident, as always, doesn’t matter, and the ethereal harmonies and evocative ambient sound is timeless.
Beggar’s Banquet was the first album that truly solidified the Rolling Stones as a truly great rock ‘n’ roll band.
Previous albums like Aftermath and Between the Buttons represent the early ‘cheeky London pop’ sound of the group, but the raw, apocalyptic Beggar’s Banquet came like a shot out of nowhere. Partly due to Brian Jones’ slow deterioration, Keith Richards could fully exercise his primal growl through seminal tracks like Street Fighting Man, which tumbles rather than bounces, and the Stones’ trademark uneasy rock ‘n’ roll ambiguity comes into full swing, one that would intensify with Let it Bleed, and then decay beautifully on Exile on Main Street.
Are You Experienced showed Hendrix’s initial push towards the then impenetrable commercial boundary, and represented a fuzzy electric punch in the face to the British Invasion groups’ (and their disposable American imitators’) clean melodies and style. The follow-up, in my opinion, was where Hendrix refined his album-based craftmanship. The songs are no longer attenuated, by short lengths and the group is given just enough room to stretch, and they use it to float rather than snarl as they did on the debut, before the sprawling and indulgent classic that would succeed it.
Note: All CD versions of Are You Experienced since 1997 now come with 17 tracks, a different running order to both the original releases (American and English). Make of that what you will…