The 15 Best Albums of 1968

Fifty years ago, a historically difficult year produced historically important music from the Beatles, Stones, Hendrix, Aretha, and more.

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7. The Kinks, Are the Village Green Preservation Society
Release: Nov. 22
The Kinks were never rabble-rousers in the truest sense of the word. For every proto-punk attempt at slash and burn with songs like “You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All of the Night,” Ray Davies and Co. were able to offer softer laments like “Waterloo Sunset” and “Set Me Free.” With an astute eye for detail, Davies could probe the absurdities of life and turn them into woeful tales of middle-class misery. He found full flourish with the lovely and graceful Village Green Preservation Society, a wonderfully wistful song cycle about idyllic England in more innocent times, flush with nostalgia, nuance and a gentle chiding of civility and sentiment in a storybook world. If Davies chose to look at life through rose-colored lenses, no one could blame him for attempting to engineer this imaginative escape.

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6. Simon & Garfunkel, Bookends
Release: April 3
The most fully realized album of Simon and Garfunkel’s middle-period career, Bookends showed that the duo were capable of more than merely poignant, introspective balladry. Only their fourth studio effort, Bookends was fashioned as a concept album that imagined life’s progression from youth to old age. “Old Friends,” a song that more or less became synonymous with the duo’s often stormy relationship, encapsulated that trajectory, but several others stood apart as future standards, including “America,” “A Hazy Shade of Winter,” “At the Zoo,” and an encore performance of “Mrs. Robinson,” culled from the soundtrack to The Graduate, released the year before. At the same time, Bookends would prove an ideal lead-in to Bridge Over Troubled Water, which would follow two years later and elevate the duo to their grand crescendo.

5. The Band, Music From Big Pink
Release: July 1
By the time The Band released their debut full-length, they were already a well-known, road-tested outfit who’d played behind Dylan during his infamous electric breakout. But their emergence as architects of archival Americana arrived with Music From Big Pink, an album borne from jams, rehearsals and songwriting sessions at the album’s namesake house in upstate New York. Though elevated in stature at the time thanks to the presence of a few Dylan compositions, the finished album found Robertson, Helm, Hudson, Danko and Manuel tossing off their musical shackles, mixing up instrumental and vocal duties, and creating a vintage variety of folk and country that seemed as effortless as it did brilliant. It was that emphasis on rural roots—the band boasted four Canadians and and Arkansan—that inspired the souped-up backwoods persona they purveyed in both sight and sound. The songs stand the test of time, and indeed, “The Weight,” “This Wheel’s On Fire,” “Tears of Rage” and “I Shall Be Released” stand among the most indelible expressions of heartland music ever recorded.

4. Aretha Franklin, Lady Soul
Release: Jan. 22
It says something about how rare and electrifying Aretha Franklin was in 1968, as a 26-year-old singer making her third album for Atlantic, that she could claim the title Lady Soul and not only pull it off, but then wear the crown undisputed for the next 50 years. Franklin had scored a defining hit—for both herself and women everywhere—the previous year with her cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect,” then mourned Redding’s death in December. Her mix of exuberance and despair, crying and shouting with every twist of a wounded relationship that haunts the album, courses through Lady Soul. There’s gospel bliss on ”(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and down-hearted blues on “Good to Me As I Am to You.” She also fearlessly reimagines songs by her most famed male contemporaries, including a simmering cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” which had been a hit for The Impressions. Franklin’s once-in-a-century siren of a voice—always powerful, always under complete control—is backed all the way by a crack New York headlined led by organist Spooner Oldham, saxophonist King Curtis and guitarist Joe South.

3. The Rolling Stones, Beggar’s Banquet
Release: Dec. 6
Following 1967’s critically panned Their Satanic Majesties Request, attempt to cash in on psychedelia, the Stones revealed their essence on Beggar’s Banquet—a dirty, raw, set of originals that injected some country twang into the band’s R&B obsessions and set the mold for the iconic Stones sound that would stretch on for another 50 years. Containing at least three certified Stones classics—“Street Fighting Man,” “Salt of the Earth (featuring a rare lead vocal from Keith Richards) and the signature song “Sympathy for the Devil”—Beggar’s Banquet marked the first entry in a four-album run—followed by Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street—that would go down as maybe the greatest winning streak in rock history. Sadly, it also marks the final album with Brian Jones’s full participation, and his reliability at the time was clearly in question. The original cover image, featuring a graffiti-strewn lavatory, was rejected by the record label and replaced with an unadorned invitation image that drew instant comparisons to the BeatlesWhite Album, which had come out three weeks before. Nevertheless, the inner gatefold, depicting an enthusiastic food fight, ensured the Stones’ depravity wasn’t diminished.

2. The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Electric Ladyland
Release: Oct. 16
Jimi Hendrix  radiated genius from the get-go with Are You Experienced? and Axis Bold As Love, his first two albums with the Experience in 1967. On Electric Ladyland, he took that extraordinary innovation into entirely new realms that were difficult to define then and remain so now. The trio, with its British rhythm section and American frontman, was perfectly suited to their era, and with a supporting cast that included Traffic’s Steve Winwood, Dave Mason and Chris Wood, as well as drummer Buddy Miles and Jefferson Airplane bassist Jack Casady, Ladyland redefined the concept of modern rock within a progressive posture. The album boasts everything that Hendrix (who produced it) did well: slinky psych-soul (“Burning of the Midnight Lamp,” the title track), explosive electric blues (“Voodoo Chile”), melodic pop (“Crosstown Traffic,” “Long Hot Summer Night”) and tripped-out sonic explorations that take the listener under the sea (“1983… A Merman I Should Turn to Be”) and into the heavens (“And the Gods Made Love”). His version of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” showcased his ability to put an indelible mark on any popular music of the day, making it little wonder that even now, half a century later, the final studio effort recorded in Hendrix’s lifetime continues to set an almost unattainably high bar.

1. The Beatles, The Beatles
Release: Nov. 22
After the critical success of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the rapid follow-up of the equally colorful and hallucinogenic Magical Mystery Tour, this expansive double-disc allowed the four Beatles both to stretch out artistically and reconnect with their roots in a way that would be further explored with the barebones concept for their 1970 swan song, Let It Be. A series of solo excursions made by an increasingly fractured band, the so-called White Album collected songs composed while the Fabs were meditating in India with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. It mostly resisted the pressure to address the social upheaval swirling outside the doors of EMI Studios (later called Abbey Road) and focused instead on wide-ranging song craft, with each member managing to create some of his most lasting work despite—or maybe because of—the infighting and tension that plagued the recording sessions. Lennon emerged with “Dear Prudence,” Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” “Sexy Sadie” and “Revolution 1”; McCartney composed “Martha My Dear,” “Blackbird,” “I Will” and “Helter Skelter”; and Harrison contributed “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Long Long Long” and “Savoy Truffle.” Taken together, they form what many consider to be The Beatles’ greatest collection of songs.

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