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 ‘60s 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. Be sure to sound off on your favorites in the comments section below.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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