Historians often point at 1968 as a pivotal, transitional year in America, and elsewhere. Fifty years ago, riots, assassinations, demonstrations, even political conventions turned ugly and violent. What had been simmering under the surface for several years exploded during the 12 months of that dizzying year.
In pop culture, the same upheaval was underway. Pop art, op art, nudity on Broadway, “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” on TV, and films like “Rosemary’s Baby” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” were rocking our world.
In pop music, 1968 was very much a transitional year. Throughout the ’50s and up until 1968, the 45 rpm single was the dominant format consumers chose to enjoy music. Most people didn’t care yet about full albums of songs. Many people didn’t even have the equipment to play them. As the ’60s waned and the ’70s approached, the hit single began its slide in popularity as the full-length album became the favored format.
If you peruse the list of albums released in 1968, you’ll find several subgroups. There were loads of “Best Of” and “Greatest Hits” collections of artists’ top-selling singles, compiled on one disc for the customers’ convenience. There were the rudimentary efforts by bands that would someday be great but were still finding their way at that point (Joni Mitchell, Jethro Tull, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Grateful Dead). There were, as always, horrible LPs of filler that contained maybe one or two decent songs. And the smallest segment, perhaps, consisted of the truly groundbreaking, excellent albums full of top-quality material that, even 50 years later, stand up well to repeated listenings.
I have selected a dozen albums from 1968 that I believe are still worthy of attention, even by newer generations of fans. Beyond these, I have named another dozen “honorable mention” albums from 1968 that are historically noteworthy if not musically top-notch. As I said, it was a transitional time…
“Wheels of Fire,” Cream
Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce, each regarded as virtuosos on guitar, drums and bass, respectively, formed Cream in 1966, hoping to use improvisational jazz techniques within the pop/rock song structure. They succeeded on albums like “Fresh Cream” (1966) and “Disraeli Gears” (1967), but it was their landmark double album “Wheels of Fire” that truly cemented their status as iconic trailblazers. One album of nine studio tracks (including the hit “White Room”) and another disc of four extended live recordings (the incendiary “Crossroads” as well as the 16-minute mindblower “Spoonful”) showcased the band at its best. Sadly, their volatile personalities and a murderous touring schedule brought about the group’s demise by the end of the year. But their legacy lives on, thanks to records like this one.
“Music From Big Pink,” The Band
Bob Dylan’s mid-’60s backup band, originally known as The Hawks, decided the time was right in 1968 for them to record their first album on their own. Songwriter-guitarist Robbie Robertson, drummer-vocalist Levon Helm, organist Garth Hudson, keyboardist Richard Manuel and bassist Rick Danko convened in the garage of a modest pink house in Saugerties, NY (where they had recorded many songs with Dylan in what were to become known as “The Basement Tapes,” released in 1975). It was there that they came up with “Music From Big Pink,” the 12-song album that is now regarded as the harbinger of the “back to nature” movement that killed acid rock and ushered in the country rock movement and the singer-songwriter era. Neither the group, its members nor its music became million-selling superstars, but they were widely respected and praised within the music community and among a loyal legion of fans. Songs like “The Weight” and “Chest Fever” are prime examples of the lasting influence of this album.
“In Search of the Lost Chord,” The Moody Blues
The Moodies had almost been cut from their record deal in 1967 before they were paired with the London Festival Orchestra to combine orchestral/classical music with rock instruments to produce the landmark “Days of Future Passed” LP. After that successful project, the group was given more leeway to create their own vibe, which was decidedly more psychedelic and progressive. Beginning with their 1968 album “In Search of the Lost Chord,” the British group embarked on a legendary career full of spacey yet accessible music on multiple Top Five LPs, led by Justin Heyward’s songs and vocals, Mike Pinder’s mellotron and keyboards, John Lodge’s bass and vocals, Ray Thomas’s flute and Graeme Edge’s percussion. On this fine album, check out “Ride My Seesaw,” “Legend of a Mind,” “Voices in the Sky” and “Om.”
“Aretha Now,” Aretha Franklin
The amazing pipes of Aretha Franklin came bursting forth from Stax Records’ Memphis Studios in 1967 when she took Otis Redding’s “Respect” and made it one of the iconic soul tunes of all time. From there, it was hit after hit, mostly just as singles, but Stax wisely put enough great material together to create a fabulous LP, “Aretha Now,” in 1968. Spurred on by the hugely popular “Think” (later re-recorded in a rollicking remake for “The Blues Brothers” movie soundtrack in 1980), and other killer tracks like “I Say a Little Prayer” and “Night Time is the Right Time,” Franklin reached #3 with “Aretha Now,” her fourth Top Five album in less than two years.
“Bookends,” Simon & Garfunkel
With songs like “The Sound of Silence,” “Homeward Bound” and “I Am A Rock” in 1966, Paul Simon established himself as a major songwriter, and his recordings with partner Art Garfunkel reached the Top Five. In 1967, they were asked to contribute songs to the soundtrack of the game-changing film “The Graduate,” and the soundtrack LP went to #1 in early 1968. Their next studio LP, the extraordinary “Bookends,” came out in April and also reached #1. It included the full-length version of the #1 hit “Mrs. Robinson” (the film soundtrack included only the chorus because Simon hadn’t completed the song in time!), and other 1967 hits like “Hazy Shade of Winter” and “Fakin’ It.” Most important, it included an “ahead-of-its-time” song cycle about aging, from the teen angst of “Save The Life of My Child” and the early-adult soul-searching of “America” to the depression of divorce in “Overs” and the reflection of old age in “Old Friends/Bookends.” Simon and Garfunkel have been household names ever since, and with good reason.
“Super Session,” Al Kooper, Mike Bloomfield, Stephen Stills
Al Kooper was only 21 when he played an important role in recording sessions for Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” among others, and had founded the rock/brass group Blood, Sweat and Tears in 1967, contributing vocals and keyboards. But he was forced out of his own group, and he went off to lick his wounds by recording with blues guitar great Mike Bloomfield. But Bloomfield was a volatile soul who dabbled deeply in drugs, so when he failed to show up for a session, Kooper asked Stephen Stills, who was recuperating from the disbanding of Buffalo Springfield, to step in. The result is “Super Session,” a magnificent album with Kooper on vocals and keyboards throughout and Bloomfield on Side 1 and Stills on Side 2. This album just gets better and better whenever I put it on. By all means, immerse yourself in this one.
“Beggar’s Banquet,” The Rolling Stones
I doubt if they realized it yet, but upon the release of this well-rounded LP in December 1968, The Stones were at the beginning of a five-album run that would prove to be the apex of their 50-plus years in the business. Their reputation as cheeky delinquents was solidified by the album cover art of a dirty, graffiti-laced bathroom, which was, of course, refused by the US record label and replaced by a formal wedding invitation design. More important was the music, particularly the rocking “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Street Fighting Man” and “Salt of the Earth,” all offset by acoustic gems like “No Expectations,” “Parachute Woman” and “Factory Girl.” Mick Jagger and Keith Richards really stepped up here, with co-founder Brian Jones sliding further into the shadows, and the rhythm section of Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman had developed at that point into one of the very best in rock.
“Cheap Thrills,” Big Brother & The Holding Company
By all rights, this album should officially be a Janis Joplin album, but when it was recorded, she was still just the vocalist of this unrefined blues group from San Francisco. The album includes both studio and live recordings, all of which feature Joplin’s alternately powerful and gentle vocals. This LP, with its marvelous R. Crumb comic illustrations, reached #1 in the summer of ’68, thanks in part to the popular “Piece of My Heart” single. Only months after its release, she left Big Brother behind and went off to form the Kozmic Blues Band, touring incessantly until she died of an overdose in the fall of 1970. By all accounts, her take on Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball and Chain” is one of the most sensational tracks released that entire year.
“Truth,” Jeff Beck
Sadly, many Rod Stewart fans are unaware of Rod’s roots, when he was an unknown blues singer who joined the Jeff Beck Group and first appeared on Beck’s excellent debut LP “Truth” in 1968. Stewart offered seriously raw vocals, perfectly complementing Beck’s accomplished blues guitar stylings. And look who else is playing on this LP: future Faces/Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood on bass, future Led Zeppelin bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones and freelance keyboard wizard Nicky Hopkins. Even Who drummer Keith Moon and Zeppelin guitar master Jimmy Page are on the amazing “Beck’s Bolero” track. This LP is a solid testimony to Beck’s stature as one of the best guitarists in rock history.
“Electric Ladyland,” Jimi Hendrix Experience
At his seismic US debut at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967 and on his incredible first LP, “Are You Experienced?,” Jimi Hendrix had brought shock and awe to every guitarist on the British rock scene, and to the US record-buying public as well. Only a year later, on his third album, the sprawling double LP “Electric Ladyland,” he was exploring ever-new horizons, using guest players like Steve Winwood and Dave Mason and trying a broad palette of song styles on originals and covers alike. The 16-minute jam “Voodoo Chile” still sends chills up my spine, and his rendition of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” reinvented the idea of reinventing a song. There is self-indulgence here, but there’s so much great stuff as well, it just doesn’t matter.
“Astral Weeks,” Van Morrison
First came the garage rock of his first band Them and their 1966 hits “Gloria” and “Here Comes the Night.” Then came his 1967 solo debut and biggest hit single “Brown-Eyed Girl.” But before he kicked off an amazing run of FM radio favorites like 1970’s “Moondance,” 1971’s “Tupelo Honey” and 1972’s “St. Dominic’s Preview,” Van Morrison put together an astounding, free-flowing, stream-of-consciousness beauty called “Astral Weeks” in 1968. It didn’t sell well, and even a lot of Van’s fans aren’t all that familiar with it. But you would do well to look it up and give it a try. There are eight very thoughtful, delicately performed story-songs here that show Morrison in a pensive and creative mood.
“The Beatles (The White Album),” The Beatles
Ah yes, the crown jewel of the entire calendar year. The Beatles had been pretty quiet since “Sgt. Pepper” in June 1967, although the September 1968 two-sided single “Hey Jude” and “Revolution” had dominated the Top 40 throughout the fall. But very few anticipated the outpouring of 30 new songs on the group’s November release, “The Beatles,” which instantly became known as “The White Album” because of its stark white album cover. This expansive collection had something for everybody. Harrison offered his best track yet, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” featuring an uncredited guitar solo by pal Eric Clapton. McCartney kicked ass with rockers like “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” “Birthday,” and “Helter Skelter,” and also offered some fine acoustic stuff like “Blackbird,” “I Will,” “Mother Nature’s Son” and “Martha My Dear.” Even Ringo wrote a song, the country ditty “Don’t Pass Me By.” Lennon, meanwhile, stepped up with nearly a dozen of his best songs — “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” “I’m So Tired,” “Dear Prudence,” “Sexy Sadie” and a slow-burn version of “Revolution.” He insisted the album include his nightmarish sound collage, entitled “Revolution 9,” as well as his saccharine lullaby,”Good Night,” sung by Ringo. Because the recordings were so good, no one was aware the group was continually at odds and headed for a breakup. For now, this was an outstanding Christmas present.
“James Taylor,” James Taylor; “Living the Blues,” Canned Heat; “Eli and the Thirteenth Confession,” Laura Nyro; “Traffic,” Traffic; “Song to a Seagull,” Joni Mitchell; “One,” Three Dog Night; “Diana Ross and The Supremes Join The Temptations“; “In a Gadda Da Vida,” Iron Butterfly; “Tell Mama,” Etta James; “Last Time Around,” Buffalo Springfield; “Creedence Clearwater Revival,” Creedence Clearwater Revival; “This Was,” Jethro Tull; “Sweetheart of the Rodeo,” The Byrds; “Odessey and Oracle,” The Zombies; “Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake,” The Small Faces.