Ah yes, 1969 — a pivotal year for me, and a pivotal year for the record business.
I was turning 14, starting to pay more attention to the world outside my safe neighborhood surroundings. I was suddenly more interested in the opposite sex, and I was being introduced to the intriguing, horizon-stretching music of bands with peculiar names I’d never heard of before.
At the same time, the record-buying public at large was starting to pay attention to complete albums instead of just hit singles. By year’s end, for the first time, the total number of albums sold eclipsed the number of singles sold. My generation was no longer willing to settle for what the Top 40 stations were willing to broadcast. We started going on deep dives through the record stores of America — at Woolworth’s and other major chains, but more often at independent hippie-type stores — to discover much, much more.
There’s no question that 1969 brought a stunning breadth of albums that, even fifty years after their release, are among the finest rock LPs ever produced. Readers might take exception with the obviousness of my 12 selections here; there are at least a dozen others, listed as “honorable mentions” at the end, that might easily make your own personal Top Dozen list. But that’s my point: 1969 offered an embarrassment of riches. As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of these records, let us relive the thrill that the music within them still brings us.
When San Francisco area concert promoter Bill Graham was asked to become involved with the not-yet-legendary Woodstock Music and Arts Fair, he did so on the condition that Santana, an unknown Latin-infused rock band he had been championing, be added to the bill, even though their debut LP hadn’t come out yet. Santana’s high-energy instrumental music, most notably “Soul Sacrifice,” was a revelation to the festival crowd, and their performance played a big part in the 1970 film. “Santana” was released a few weeks later and, thanks to radio play for the instrumental track “Jingo” and even more for the #9 hit “Evil Ways,” climbed to #4 on the album charts. Six of the album’s nine tracks are instrumentals, a rarity for a Top Ten LP. Santana’s winning formula was a bubbling mix of white-hot percussion, Gregg Rolie’s Hammond organ and vocals, and, interlaced throughout, Carlos Santana’s biting, soaring guitar playing.
“Led Zeppelin (I),” Led Zeppelin
You’d be hard pressed to find a debut album more game-changing than this one. Rising from the ashes of the great blues group The Yardbirds, “Led Zeppelin” is a combination of heavy and light, by turns thunderous and delicate. “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” beautifully demonstrated this dichotomy, with gentle acoustic and fiery electric passages in the same track. The explosive “Good Times Bad Times” and “Communication Breakdown” set new standards in condensed hard rock, and eclectic pieces like the acoustic instrumental “Black Mountain Side” and the organ-dominated “Your Time is Gonna Come” offered something different. But it’s the blues covers like “You Shook Me” and “I Can’t Quite You Babe,” and the lengthier album side closers “Dazed and Confused” and “How Many More Times,” that really dominate the proceedings. Guitarist Jimmy Page wrote, arranged and produced most of the album’s nine tracks, with help from keyboardist/bassist John Paul Jones, while singer Robert Plant and drummer John Bonham cemented reputations as among the best at their respective positions.
“Stand Up,” Jethro Tull
Although this band began as a ragtag blues outfit in 1968 with guitarist Mick Abrahams sharing leadership with flutist-singer Ian Anderson, it wasn’t long before Abrahams split to form Blodwyn Pig, and Anderson took over the Tull reins for good. By adding superb guitarist Martin Barre and writing ten wonderfully eclectic tunes, Anderson steered Tull to the top the British charts with “Stand Up,” an album that remains a favorite of mine and millions of others. Witness the cornucopia of styles: blues (“A New Day Yesterday,”), folk (“Fat Man”), hard rock (“We Used to Know,” “For a Thousand Mothers,” “Nothing is Easy”), acoustic balladry (“Reasons for Waiting,” “Look Into the Sun”), even light jazz (the instrumental “Bourée”). Tull went on to great achievements over the next three decades, but this LP continues to delight, and was a high point of 1969 album releases.
“Chicago Transit Authority,” Chicago
There had been horns used in rock music before (Blood, Sweat, and Tears, The Buckinghams), but not quite like what Chicago attempted with this brazenly ambitious double-album debut. With three talented singer-songwriters in the lineup (keyboardist Robert Lamm, guitarist Terry Kath and bassist Peter Cetera), plus a meaty horn section of trumpet, trombone and sax, Chicago had the goods to deliver well over an hour of catchy, energetic music right out of the gate. So much great material: the effervescent “Beginnings” and “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is,” the bluesy “South California Purples,” the riff-laden “Introduction” and “Questions 67 and 68,” and a politically timely medley (“Prologue/Someday”) and a 15-minute jam (“Liberation”). The group’s original lineup kept things interesting for another five or six years before succumbing to a more puerile commercial style that wore thin.
“Blind Faith,” Blind Faith
Eric Clapton was looking for some new musical chemistry following the demise of Cream, and he found it with Steve Winwood, the amazing singer/songwriter/keyboardist on hiatus from his own band Traffic. Cream drummer Ginger Baker showed up at their informal rehearsals, hoping to get involved, and despite Clapton’s apprehensions, joined the recording sessions, along with Ric Grech on bass and violin. Sadly, the group was hyped beyond belief as a “supergroup” that was almost the antithesis of what Clapton and Winwood had originally conceived, and the group disbanded in a matter of months. Although the resulting album features only six tracks (one of which was a 16-minute jam on Baker’s “Do What You Like”), the musicianship is exemplary, particularly on the Winwood tunes, “Can’t Find My Way Home,” “Sea of Joy” and “Had to Cry Today.” Clapton also contributed his first top-shelf song, the lovely “Presence of the Lord.” The album reached #1 on the UK and US album charts, but it turned out to be the only record they’d make (although it had two covers!).
“Yer Album,” The James Gang
Cleveland had been the city where legendary DJ Alan Freed got his start, hosting what is considered the world’s first rock concert back in 1952. But there hadn’t been much else on the city’s music scene to gain national attention until The James Gang, fortified by the addition of newcomer Joe Walsh taking over for the departing Glenn Schwartz, burst out with the eye-opening “Yer Album” debut LP in April 1969. It wasn’t until the following year’s “James Gang Rides Again” and its hit single “Funk #49” that the group became commercial successful, but guitar legends like Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page all sang the praises of Walsh as a talent to reckon with, based on the tracks on “Yer Album.” On original songs like “Take a Look Around,” “Collage,” “I Don’t Have the Time” and “Fred,” Walsh showed a flair for melody and vocal arrangement, and on excellent covers such as “Bluebird,” “Stop” and “Lost Woman,” he demonstrated his considerable guitar prowess.
“Abbey Road,” The Beatles
By mid-1969, the best band of them all concluded it was time to call it quits, but the album they recorded in January, “Let It Be,” had left a bad taste in their mouths (and it sat unreleased for another 15 months). Instead, they decided to regroup in July and record “a proper swan song,” as Paul McCartney put it. And what a farewell it was. George Harrison weighed in with “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun,” two of his finest songs yet; John Lennon had already checked out mentally, but brought “Come Together,” “Because” and “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” to the party. McCartney did the lion’s share of the writing, and arranged the spectacular medley (“You Never Give Me Your Money,” “Sun King,” “Mean Mister Mustard,” “Polythene Pam,” “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” “Golden Slumbers,” “Carry That Weight” and “The End”) that comprises most of Side Two and is the best-ever 15 minutes of Beatles music.
“Tommy,” The Who
From 1965 onward, Pete Townshend and The Who had enjoyed plenty of chart success in England with a string of brash yet melodic singles, but their penchant for destroying their instruments in live performances kept them in debt and in danger of losing their record contract. In late 1968, Townshend put his songwriting talents into overdrive and came up with a sprawling “rock opera” about a deaf, dumb and blind boy who becomes a pinball god with a fawning audience who eventually turn on him. The exceptional music he built around these story-lyrics is the real attention-getter here, with amazing melodies and arrangements that singer Roger Daltrey, drummer Keith Moon and bassist John Entwistle (and guitarist Townshend himself) could really sink their teeth into. “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” “The Acid Queen,” “Pinball Wizard,” “I’m Free,” “Amazing Journey,” “Go to the Mirror,” “Christmas,” “Underture” — just a marvelous spread to feast upon.
“Crosby, Stills and Nash,” Crosby, Stills and Nash
This pretty much perfect LP is largely the work of Stills, who had been biding his time since the imploding of Buffalo Springfield a year before. “Captain Manyhands,” as he was nicknamed, played most of the instruments and produced all the tracks, and wrote the amazing “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” “Helplessly Hoping” and “You Don’t Have to Cry.” He also had the wisdom to recruit superb harmonizer David Crosby from the Byrds, who brought “Guinnevere,” “Long Time Gone” and “Wooden Ships” to the project. The icing on the cake was the addition of the high harmonies of ex-Hollie Graham Nash and his great tunes “Marrakesh Express,” “Lady of the Island”: and “Pre-Road Downs.” The spring and summer of 1969 were far more pleasant because of these wondrous songs floating out of radios and home stereos across the country.
“Bayou Country,” Creedence Clearwater Revival
Although singer-songwriter John Fogerty hailed from El Cerrito, California, he conjured up a type of rock music that seemed steeped in Louisiana humidity. His band, Creedence Clearwater Revival, offered a mesmerizing brand of “swamp rock” that showed influences of roots rockers like Little Richard, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and The Big Bopper. Fogerty ran the group with an iron hand, which eventually alienated his bandmates, but it was his musical vision that led Creedence to great commercial success with five hugely popular LPs in 1969 and 1970, beginning with “Bayou Country” in January ’69. “Proud Mary” was the flagship tune, but for me, “Born on the Bayou” is the band’s finest moment, followed closely by “Bootleg,” a scintillating cover of “Good Golly Miss Molly” and a relentless jam-boogie, “Keep on Chooglin’.”
“Led Zeppelin II,” Led Zeppelin
Excitement and momentum had been building all year long in the wake of Led Zeppelin’s incredible debut LP (see above), and the band toured relentlessly in support of it. It is to Jimmy Page’s everlasting credit that he was somehow able to write, arrange, record and produce the band’s follow-up album, “Led Zeppelin II,” released only nine months after the first one. Written on the fly in hotel rooms and recorded/mixed in five different cities along the way, the nine songs remain lasting, much-loved prototypes of heavy metal (“Heartbreaker,” “Whole Lotta Love”), blues-based rock (“Lemon Song,” “Bring It On Home”) and the occasional lighter moments (“Ramble On,” “Thank You,” “What Is and What Shall Never Be”) that represent the “zeppelin” to go with the “led.” The album pushed “Abbey Road” out of the top spot by year’s end and ushered in a new era where Zeppelin was the band everyone else was trying to top.
“Let It Bleed,” The Rolling Stones
Any album that kicks off with a song as seismic as “Gimme Shelter” and concludes with a song as anthemic as “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is clearly a shoo-in for any “Best Of” list. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were firing on all their songwriting cylinders in the spring and summer of ’69, in the wake of the accidental death of Brian Jones, who appears only nominally on the finished LP. New Stones guitarist Mick Taylor joined too late to contribute much, but session virtuoso Nicky Hopkins adds superb piano to “Midnight Rambler,” “Monkey Man” and “Live With Me.” Just as previous LP “Beggar’s Banquet” had included several acoustic-based tracks, “Let It Bleed” featured “Love in Vain,” “You Got the Silver,” the title track and a country arrangement of concurrent hit single “Honky Tony Woman” called “Country Honk.”
“Everybody Knows This is Nowhere,” Neil Young; “Stand!,” Sly and the Family Stone; “Happy Sad,” Tim Buckley; “Free,” Free; “In the Court of Crimson King,” King Crimson; “Volunteers,” Jefferson Airplane; “Clouds,” Joni Mitchell; “A Salty Dog,” Procol Harum; “Nashville Skyline,” Bob Dylan; “Arthur,” The Kinks; “A Little Help From My Friends,” Joe Cocker; “Moby Grape ’69,” Moby Grape; “I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again, Mama!,” Janis Joplin; “Green River,” Creedence Clearwater Revival; “Songs for a Tailor,” Jack Bruce; “Then Play On,” Fleetwood Mac.
There are two Spotify playlists here. The first includes three or four selections from each of the featured LPs; the second offered one or two tracks from each of the honorable mentions. Happy listening!