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Still essential after 40 years
2008 had some fine albums, but it's unlikely they'll measure up to 1968's
In 2008, a flurry of releases arrived to remind us of the inventive vibrancy of the pop music scene . . . of four decades ago.
Albums by the Beatles, Stones, Jimi, Janis, Aretha, Marvin, Otis, Sly, Miles, and Zappa were among the 1968 releases getting major play and press last year. Fortieth anniversary sets reminded us of a time when imaginative artistry ruled the pop charts, revealing numerous creative influences that still permeate our culture.
The music business has changed dramatically in 40 years, but 1968 and 2008 bear comparison. Both were turbulent years with watershed presidential elections, unpopular foreign wars, and major upheaval - social then, financial now. 1968 saw the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., racial tensions, and the ensuing riots; in 2008 we voted our first African-American president into office.
Will the albums on 2008's best-of lists measure up to the astonishing number of classics from 1968? A few decades from now, will we still consider Coldplay, Vampire Weekend, Guns N' Roses, or TV on the Radio essential listening?
One could argue, for those willing to dig a little deeper, that there's more good music being recorded today than ever before. But the competition - represented below with a small cross-section of 1968's seminal, enduring records - is stiff. It seems highly unlikely that, 40 years from now, we'll be humming Beyonc??'s "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)" like we do Aretha's "A Natural Woman."
JIMI HENDRIX "Electric Ladyland"
The mind-warping guitarist followed the rock pyrotechnics of his five-star "Axis: Bold as Love" (also from 1968) with this groundbreaking double album, a psychedelic masterpiece of soft soul, wild experimentation, and smoky midnight jazz riffs, rereleased last month in a deluxe CD and DVD set. "Jimi's records had opened up a whole new world for me," says singer-producer Don Dixon (R.E.M., Smithereens). " 'Are You Experienced?' replaced Otis on my turntable until 'Electric Ladyland' came out and replaced that. For me, it was the Holy Grail, the culmination of his inimitable guitar style with a more soulful rhythm and vocal approach." Al Kooper (of Blood, Sweat & Tears) and most of Traffic, who released their own classics in 1968, also performed on the album.
JOHNNY CASH "Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison"
Jan. 13, 1968, the day the Man in Black walked into Folsom to perform for the inmates, recorded a career-defining album and, as daughter Rosanne put it, "came into the light," has been commemorated with an expanded "Legacy Edition." " 'Folsom' is a statement about compassion and rebellion," says Cash biographer Michael Streissguth. "It carried a message of prison reform to the masses. While other musicians gave lip service to those on the fringes of society, Cash met the disenfranchised on their own turf and rolled tape." Bestor Cram, producer of the box set's DVD, adds, "There is the vulnerable heart of a desperate man revealed with passion and intensity. It's so authentic that you feel he can touch you."
JAMES BROWN "Live at the Apollo, Vol. II"
Brown's simulcast Boston Garden show, a day after Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1968 assassination, is credited with preventing an explosion of the city's racial tensions. But it's the Godfather of Soul's earlier show at Harlem's Apollo Theater that is remembered as one of the greatest concerts of last century. "When James Brown says, 'I come here to do business!' we know he's not just making an empty threat," says James Sullivan, author of "The Hardest Working Man." "He was so hot creatively, he could take on Sinatra one minute and Miles Davis the next. With Pee Wee Ellis newly in charge, the band was never tougher. And even when JB stepped aside, he was the undisputed star of the show: 'Spotlight on James Brown,' Bobby Byrd sings . 'He's the king of them all, y'all.' "
VELVET UNDERGROUND "White Light, White Heat"
Largely ignored when released, this proto-punk classic - with lyrics about drugs, shock therapy, and transsexuals; noise-nasty improv; and 17-minute closer "Sister Ray" - is one of rock's most influential artifacts. Electric violist John Cale has described the cornerstone of glam, punk, and experimental rock as "consciously anti-beauty," while the late guitarist Sterling Morrison saw it as a reflection of the era's chaos: "We may have been dragging each other off a cliff, but we were all definitely going in the same direction."
BIG BROTHER & THE HOLDING COMPANY "Cheap Thrills"
Though "Cheap Thrills" doesn't get as much love as Janis Joplin's solo work, it offers many of her gutsiest performances. With "Piece of My Heart," "Summertime," and a nine-minute "Ball and Chain," Janis introduced the grit of the soul sisters and big-mama belters to rock. Big Brother bangs out hard-rock laced with blues and acid, lending Joplin's vocals an urgent passion. "Cheap Thrills" spent eight weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard charts, succeeded by "Electric Ladyland."
ROLLING STONES "Beggars Banquet"
After 1967's "Their Satanic Majesties Request" experiment, "many feared that the bad boys of rock had sacrificed their raw, bluesy edge to love, peace, and flower power," writes Alan Clayson, author of "Legendary Sessions: The Rolling Stones Beggars Banquet." "No need to worry, salvation was at hand with 'Beggars Banquet.' " Anchored by "Sympathy for the Devil," "Street Fighting Man," and "You Can't Always Get What You Want," the album was a bracing return to celebrating the common man, with rock and country blues reframed as social revolution.
FRANK ZAPPA & THE MOTHERS OF INVENTION "We're Only in It for the Money " and "Lumpy Gravy"
These pioneering albums by the late composer-satirist - with send-ups of the summer of love and razor-blade edits that mashed together classical motifs and barbed rock - are combined in "Lumpy Money"; an expanded 3-CD set with alternate mixes is due out this month. "These two records are Frank's masterworks," says Gail Zappa, Frank's wife and head of the Zappa Family Trust. " 'Lumpy Gravy' remains my personal favorite, and it was right up there on Frank's list." "We're Only in It for the Money," one of 250 significant albums chosen by the Library of Congress for the National Recording Registry (along with "At Folsom Prison" and "Switched-on Bach"), is "an early attack on the massification hasn't so much dated as found its context," wrote music critic Robert Christgau.
THE BEATLES "The Beatles" (The White Album)
Some have written that the expansive, eclectic scope of this album is the sound of the band breaking up. That didn't stop it from becoming the 10th best-selling album of all time. Nearly every track, from "Helter Skelter" to "Blackbird," is a pop-culture fixture. Even the Vatican, having forgiven John Lennon for claiming the Beatles were more popular than Christ, cited the 30-song double album on its 40th anniversary as a groundbreaking "magical musical anthology" with "pearls that even today remain unparalleled. A listening experience like is rare."
THE BAND "Music From Big Pink"
After its Basement Tapes sessions with Bob Dylan, the Band used the Big Pink house to record a soulful, country-ish debut that changed the rock landscape.
CREAM "Wheels of Fire"
The half-studio, half-live set of combustible power-trio rock 'n' blues, featuring Eric Clapton's guitar scorching "Crossroads," was the first platinum-selling double album. It was replaced at No. 1 by the Doors' "Waiting for the Sun."
ARETHA FRANKLIN "Lady Soul"
Timeless crossover hits -"Chain of Fools," "A Natural Woman" - and an all-star band.
SIMON & GARFUNKEL "Bookends" Folk-pop craft at its most appealing.
INCREDIBLE STRING BAND "The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter"
Incandescent minstrel foundations of modern folk.
WALTER (WENDY) CARLOS "Switched-On Bach"
Radical computer pop.
BLOOD SWEAT & TEARS "Child Is Father to the Man"
Al Kooper's seminal fusion of brass, rock, and jazz.
THE BYRDS "Sweetheart of the Rodeo"
Kickstarted the country-rock movement.
BLUE CHEER "Vincebus Eruptum"
The first grunge metal album?
THE DOORS "Waiting for the Sun"
The psychedelic prophets' only No. 1 album.
DR. JOHN "Gris Gris"
A voodoo swamp-soul gem.
JEFF BECK "Truth"
The guitar hero's most visionary metallic album.
ZOMBIES "Odessey and Oracle"
Full of chestnuts like "Time of the Season."
MARVIN GAYE "I Heard It Through the Grapevine"
A breakthrough for the smoothest voice in soul.
THE KINKS "The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society"
Quintessential social commentary rock.
CREEDENCE CLEARWATER REVIVAL "Creedence Clearwater Revival"
The potent debut of Southern rock, John Fogerty-style.
JEFFERSON AIRPLANE "Crown of Creation"
Tuneful exploration of psychedelic possibilities.
OTIS REDDING "The Dock of the Bay"
Posthumous monument to Southern soul.
SLY & THE FAMILY STONE "Dance to the Music"
Revolutionary funk-pop grooves.