The 60 Best Albums of the 1960s

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The 60 Best Albums of the 1960s

If music as we know it today is our universe, the 1960s are the Big Bang. Of course, nothing exists in a vacuum, and many of the groundbreaking artists who rose to prominence in the decade borrowed heavily from the artists who came before them, but looking back, there’s no denying the 1960s were some sort of scary, beautiful explosion of sound.

All of a sudden, there were screaming girls, weeping and tearing their clothes off as they watched their teen idols perform. Black kids and white kids started listening to the same records—a tiny sliver of common ground for future generations to build upon as the battle for equality raged on. As the Vietnam War escalated and a nation tuned in, turned on and dropped out, the protest song became an important part of American life. In other words, the ‘60s produced some of the greatest records of all time, but beyond that, it’s the decade taught us what music could—and should—truly be.

As with our previous decades lists, we polled our staff, interns and writers and whittled it down to our 60 favorite albums. However, we’ve barely scratched the surface; to avoid making this just a list of Beatles and Bob Dylan records, we’ve limited it to three albums per artist—which means some incredible works like Rubber Soul, The White Album and Bringing It All Back Home, while highly recommended by us, had to get bumped this time around.

BookerT.&theMG'sGreenOnions.jpg 60. Booker T. & the M.G.’s, Green Onions (1962)
In the summer of 1962, a 17-year-old organ player named Booker T. Jones was messing around at Stax, where he, guitarist Steve Cropper, upright bassist Lewie Steinberg and drummer Al Jackson Jr. served as session musicians. When Stax president Jim Stewart hit the “record” button and released the instrumental “Green Onions,” one of the first multi-racial bands was born—as well as the studio’s first #1 single. The full album Green Onions would set the template for that sweet Stax soul sound. —Josh Jackson

220px-Cheapthrills.jpeg 59. Big Brother and the Holding Company, Cheap Thrills (1968)
Capturing the spirit of San Francisco’s musical and cultural shifts, Robert Crumb’s iconic cover contributed almost as much to the album’s success as singer Janis Joplin’s iconic voice. Recorded and released during America’s infamous spring and summer of 1968 (the murders of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, Chicago’s violent Democratic Convention, Vietnam’s Tet Offensive), Joplin’s rasp explosively melded with the band’s psychedelic vibrations and often overlooked guitar prowess. Joplin had already wowed the Monterey Pop Festival with her performance of Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball and Chain” a year earlier. A live version of that and cuts like “Piece of My Heart” would shoot Joplin into stardom and, sadly, martyrdom when she died just two years later of a heroin overdose. —Tim Basham

13th_Floor_Elevators-The_Psychedelic_Sounds_of_the_13th_Floor_Elevators_(album_cover).jpg 58. 13th Floor Elevators, The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators (1966)
It’s hard to think of any one record that has influenced an entire genre as much as the 13th Floor Elevators’ seminal debut influenced psych rock. Since its release in 1966, countless bands have tried to imitate the album’s sound, and every psych-oriented group from The Jesus and Mary Chain to The Black Angels are in some way indebted to The Elevators and their visionary frontman Roky Erickson. Though they would continue to record and tour following the release of The Psychedelic Sounds…, nothing they did came remotely close to having the impact and ferocious psychedelic energy of their debut and its incendiary single and leadoff track, “You’re Gonna Miss Me.” —Ryan Bort

220px-MC5_-_Kick_Out_the_Jams.jpg 57. MC5, Kick Out the Jams (1969)
It might not have been until 1977 when punk rock became somewhat of a household name, but its foundation was set in 1969 with the Motor City Five’s roaring arrival, Kick Out the Jams. The album was recorded live, appropriately enough at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom, but as the band’s later studio albums would prove, it was the only way to capture the restless amp-crankers. The band, who was also notoriously political with their association with the White Panther party, kicks the album off with a speech from crowd riler and “spiritual adviser” Brother J.C. Crawford. The album doesn’t lose pace from there, launching into the jarring “Ramblin’ Rose” before the unmistakable intro to the album’s title track: “Kick out the jams, motherfucker!”— Tyler Kane

220px-Marvin-gaye-in-the-groove.jpg 56. Marvin Gaye, I Heard It Through The Grapevine (1968)
Marvin Gaye—on the brink of his socially conscious breakthrough What’s Going On—closed out the ‘60s with this collection that obviously sought new places. His ‘70s, more overtly soulful rhythm & blues was foreshadowed here by “Heard It Through the Grapevine,” the steamy song of “finding out” that’s become one of Motown’s defining moments. Current Brill Building pop classics “There Goes My Baby” and “Some Kind of Wonderful” are balanced with emerging writers Ashford & Simpson and Stevie Wonder, whose “Tear It Down” and “Lovin’ You Is Sweeter” suggest an increasing awareness and sexual grounding. Old-school soul feels good… and nobody does it like Marvin Gaye. —Holly Gleason

220px-Whitelightwhiteheat.jpg 55. The Velvet Underground, White Light/White Heat (1968)
The Velvet Underground only released four albums (the post-Reed material is strictly for Willie Alexander completionists and the Doug Yule Defense Squad) and each one gets legitimate “best of all time” buzz from its partisans. My vote flops between the first two depending on my mood, but if we’re judging solely on the primordial chaos and destruction inherent in the truest rock ‘n’ roll, White Light / White Heat is clearly number one. Rawer than the Stooges and almost as much of a “fuck you” as Metal Machine Music, the Velvets’ second album drenched Lou Reed’s grimy tales of chemicals and aberrant sex in torrents of noise and feedback, treading the line between songs and pure noise. From the most perfect guitar solo ever in “I Heard Her Call My Name” to the epic cultural touchstone of “Sister Ray”, White Light / White Heat is every bit the equal of The Velvet Underground & Nico. —Garrett Martin

220px-DavidBowiePhilips.jpg 54. David Bowie, Space Oddity (1969)
David Bowie’s 1969 album, Space Oddity, would be the record that transitioned him from his early music to the ‘70s Bowie who established the essence of glam rock. Bowie’s folk-rock sound at this time provided a humble platform for his unmistakable vocals, and his commentary about the politics and climate of the era are apparent. Displaying his maturation as a musician and visionary, this album is a staple in the musical history of the ‘60s. —Nicole Oran

220px-Axiscover.jpg 53. The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Axis: Bold as Love (1967)
On the heels of his stunning Are You Experienced?, the psychedelic guitarist of mind-bending talent returned with an album more grounded in his own writing. Still progressive and going where no other player would, he explored mystical, melodic turns on “Little Wing,” “Castles Made of Sand” and the title track. Yes, the brazen full-tiltery of “Purple Haze” and “Foxy Lady” was acknowledged in “Up From The Skies,” but this was a deeper journey from the inside out. If Experienced was a rock masterpiece, Axis was a cosmic player seeing how far the music—grounded in soul, tethered with progressive jazz—could go. —Holly Gleason

220px-HowlinWolfRockinChair.jpg 52. Howlin’ Wolf, Howlin’ Wolf (1962)
We all know the blues are sad, but sometimes they can be downright sexy, and on his 1962 self-titled effort (often referred to as the Rocking Chair Album because of its artwork) for Chess Records, Howlin’ Wolf growls his way through some of Willie Dixon’s naughtiest compositions, including “Spoonful” and “Back Door Man,” as well as staples like “Wang Dang Doodle” and “Little Red Rooster.” —Bonnie Stiernberg

220px-DustyInMemphis.jpg 51. Dusty Springfield, Dusty in Memphis (1969)

For her 1969 magnum opus, the English soul queen hopped across the pond, recording in Memphis with producers Jerry Wexler, Tom Dowd and Arif Mardin and singing tracks penned by heavyweights like Randy Newman (“I Don’t Want to Hear It Anymore” and “Just One Smile”) and Carole King (“So Much Love” and “Don’t Forget About Me”). The album’s crown jewel, however, is the classic “Son of a Preacher Man”—a landmark moment for blue-eyed soul. —Bonnie Stiernberg

220px-SoundsSilence.jpg 50. Simon & Garfunkel, Sounds of Silence (1966)
Sounds of Silence is not, by any means, a victory of melody or lyricism. There is very little complexity or lofty metaphor use at play here, but it’s a winning album because despite the simplicity (sometimes overly so), the earnestness is impossible to ignore. It’s easy to picture a field full of long-haired hippies smoking and swaying their limbs just to feel the basic joy in movement. It’s all about basics here, but with unexpected textural twists: happy strumming guitar melodies and gorgeous harmonies juxtaposed with sad-bastard, forget-it-all lyrics. That’s what turns an otherwise run-of-the-mill folk album into a classic. —Patty Miranda

Velvetundergroundthirdalbum.jpg 49. The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground (1969)
The Velvet Underground’s third effort is their first to feature Doug Yule. In addition to playing bass, Yule handles lead vocals on “Candy Says,” the album’s opening ode to Candy Darling (who would later famously become a subject of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”). The album marks a departure for the art rockers as they began to shift from their experimental Warhol years into calmer, mellower—but no less outstanding—sonic territory. —Bonnie Stiernberg

220px-TheDoorsTheDoorsalbumcover.jpg 48. The Doors, The Doors (1967)
The Doors’ 1967 self-titled debut catapulted the Los Angeles four-piece from house band at the Whiskey A Go-Go into the national spotlight. Though their rapid ascension can be attributed to the success of singles “Light My Fire” and “Break On Through (To The Other Side),” the album is full of gems from start to finish, culminating with “The End,” a chilling 11-minute, 43-second Oedipal examination that was as much a performance piece as it was a song. Morrison and The Doors would grow beards and foray into more blues-based material in the ‘70s, but The Doors will always be the album they are most remembered for. —Ryan Bort

Ronettes.jpg 47. The Ronettes, Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica (1964)
Writing for Esquire a decade ago, Scott Raab called The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” “the pure love-burst chamber of a young heart torn and twisted.” Why stop there? A decade later, the song has taken on prophetic new meaning; without it, it’s impossible to imagine Best Coast or Vivian Girls. But the beauty of The Ronettes is that they exist out of time, untarnished by a bloody-handed history that dates back to the early ‘70s, when Ronnie Spector divorced psychotic husband/producer Phil. Heard on its own merits, Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica is a wonder of transmogrified, dreamy R&B. Singing in three-part harmony, these big-haired gals proved that serenading is a team sport. —MT Richards

220px-Leader_of_the_Pack_(album).jpeg 46. The Shangri-Las, Leader of the Pack (1965)
Leader of the Pack never performed as well on the charts as the singles it spawned. But its titular song stands today as an immortal girl-group pop hit, a nuanced juxtaposition of little-girl sweetness and adult tragedy. An archetypal “splatter platter,” “Leader of The Pack” was just one of many teenage tragedy sides the Shangri-Las would cut, making them something of icons in macabre sub-genre. It’s important to remember that early rock ’n’ roll was perceived as kid stuff, a new sound marketed specifically at the newly defined “teen-ager” demographic. The vocal quartet of Mary and Betty Weiss and Marge and Mary Anne Ganser imbued the lush, saccharine girl-group sound with a creeping darkness. Turns out there’s something lasting in that mix. Blondie covered their “Out In The Streets” early in their career. Garage god Greg Cartwright, of Reigning Sound and The Oblivians, backed Mary Weiss on her 2007 comeback album Dangerous Game. The Dum Dum Girls’ Spector-pop revision even nods to the Shangri-Las’ “The Dum Dum Ditty” in its very name. Over the past four decades, pop has alternately embraced the melodrama and immediacy of adolescent emotions and reacted against it, trying to validate rock ’n’ roll as serious art. The Shangri-Las managed to do both. —Bryan C. Reed

220px-DisraeliGears.jpg 45. Cream, Disraeli Gears (1967)
One of the first supergroups, Cream—composed of Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker and Eric Clapton—moved from blues to psychedelic rock with their second album Disraeli Gears, even though the blues of Albert King and Robert Johnson can still be felt under the wah-wah pedal. Cream delivers a distinctly late-’60s psych sound on Disraeli Gears, as seen in songs like “Sunshine of Your Love,” yet they went on to become influential in the forming of metal, prog and jam bands. It took Disraeli Gears 26 years to go platinum in the U.S., but that only goes to prove the importance it continues to have over the decades. —Ross Bonaime

220px-Five_Leaves_Left.jpg 44. Nick Drake, Five Leaves Left (1969)
Nick Drake  was only 21 when he released his debut album Five Leaves Left. Two albums and five years later, Drake had passed on, leaving the world absent of his melancholy lyrics and unique voice. While Drake only needed a guitar to have an impact, Five Leaves Left gives him a string arrangement on many tracks, like “Way to Blue” and “Day is Done,” making his songs transcendent. Drake wasn’t here for long, but Five Leaves Left shows the beginning of a short career filled with music that is astoundingly gorgeous. —Ross Bonaime

220px-Trout_Mask_Replica.png 43. Captain Beefheart, Trout Mask Replica (1969)
Not only the most challenging and polarizing album on this list, but quite possibly ever recorded, Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band’s 1969 relic, Trout Mask Replica, still remains ahead of its time over four decades after its initial release. But, speaking from personal experience, it’s an album that will likely break you down and bitch-slap you repeatedly before it blows your mind. Holed up in the studio with producer/longtime buddy Frank Zappa and his gang of musical freaks, Beefheart and company recorded a batshit-crazy 28-track behemoth—one which sprawls from free-jazz noise to bluesy wailing to hypnotic avant-garde doodling, with Beefheart obtrusively moaning his acid-hippie poetry (occasionally in time) over the whole sprawling mess. The first time you hear it, you’re likely disgusted, grasping for dear life to Bill Harkleroad and Jeff Cotton’s wild slide-guitar lines, squeezing out every ounce of rhythm from John French’s cacophonous drum kit. But after three or four listens, the insanity starts to click, and before you know it, your notions of pop music have been irrevocably altered, for better or worse (but probably better). —Ryan Reed

220px-ArethaFranklinLadySoul.jpg 42. Aretha Franklin, Lady Soul (1968)
All of Lady Soul is brilliant, from the girl-power sing-along of “Chain of Fools” to her outshining Carole King (sorry, everyone, but come on now) on “(You Make Me Feel) Like A Natural Woman” to the soaring groove of “Since You’ve Been Gone (Sweet Sweet Baby),” but to understand the true power of the album, and perhaps Aretha Franklin as a singer in general, it’s all in the closing track. “Ain’t No Way,” her plea for intimacy from the man she loves, backed by piano and a smoldering sax riff, is stunning—at times gentle, at times frustrated, into the unforgettable outro. She makes it honest. It feels like a love song. Love songs don’t always feel that way these days, and this isn’t anyone’s fault, but it takes a singer with the dynamism and grace of an Aretha to remind us that love is powerful and a good love song is supposed to make you feel that same ache. If “Ain’t No Way” were a person, it would be that person you want to just slow-dance with in your living room at four in the morning and drape your arm around as you both fall asleep. I’m not even mad a whole generation of music listeners probably only know the song because Amber Riley sang it on Glee. Just so long as they know. —Lindsay Eanet

220px-StoogesStooges.jpg 41. The Stooges, The Stooges (1969)
Although the cards weren’t necessarily stacked in their favor (their own label, Elektra, didn’t necessarily believe in them), the only thing that was quiet about The Stooges’ 1969 debut was its impact on the Billboard Charts. The band’s self-titled effort introduced the spastic, howling Iggy Pop behind a studio-tamed backing band. Although the album doesn’t quite capture the band’s bombastic live show, it does showcase their unique (and oddly meticulous) take on songwriting, best showcased in the sludgy “I Wanna Be Your Dog. ”—Tyler Kane

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