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Top 30 Albums of the 1960s

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11. Various 'Tropicália ou Panis et Circensis' (1968)

Various 'Tropicália ou Panis et Circensis'
Philips

1968 was a watershed (counter-) cultural year for much of the globe, not least of all in Brazil. In rebellion to a military dictatorship, a crew of student provocateurs in Salvador —lead by Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, and Os Mutantes— used musical transgression as a greater form of protest. Mongreling Brazilian popular music —the establishment's sound— with strains of Sgt. Pepper's, psychedelia, the Afro-Brazilian folk of the Brazilian North-East, and the people's music of bossa nova, these 'tropicalistas' blooded a new sound that stirred up a furore in its native land. Tropicália: ou Panis et Circencis served as their manifesto: mixing experimentalism with sweeping orchestrations and archly-ironic lyrics in a stand of stylish defiance.

12. Gilberto Gil 'Gilberto Gil' (1968)

Gilberto Gil 'Gilberto Gil' (1968)
Philips

Made at the same time as Tropicália, Gilberto Gil's second record —the first of his three self-titled LPs, oft clarified as 1968— found him collaborating with members of Os Mutantes and the orchestral overseer of tropicalismo, Rogério Duprat. Duprat dresses Gil's songs in flutters of woodwinds and sumptuous strings, giving a sense of orchestral grandeur to a suite of sambas delivered with a groovy rock'n'roll touch and marked with strange found-sound flourishes. Though 1968 ripples with sweetness and beauty —especially on the glorious "Êle Falava Nisso Todo Dia" and "Luzia Luluza"— it was proved too avant-garde for Brazil's ruling junta, who, in 1969, jailed Gil and his fellow tropicálista Caetano Veloso for being subversive influences.

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13. Os Mutantes 'Os Mutantes' (1968)

Os Mutantes 'Os Mutantes' (1968)
Polydor

None of Brazil's treasonous tropicalistas quite so mutated musical form as did Os Mutantes. Inspired by The Beatles' use of the studio as experimental tool, the outfit's outlandish debut LP is marked by manifold monkeyshines: overdriven guitars swamping a song in distortion, false endings fading in and out at random, traditional Afro-Portuguese rhythms broken down then brought back to Frankenstein-ish life. It's a longplaying monster as ridiculous as it is radical, as theatrical as it is musical. Authoring this freaky fusion of culture and genre, high-brow and low-brow, pop-song and experimentalism, it's as if Os Mutantes peered into the future; their hyper-modernist, genre-juggling, boundary-pushing pop still sounding utterly contemporary.

14. The United States of America 'The United States of America' (1968)

The United States of America 'The United States of America'
Columbia
The United States of America's name came loaded with irony: the band avant-gardists whose subversive politics were considered "treasonous" by their own (largely disinterested) label, Columbia. A crew of music scholars —students of modern composers like John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen— who decided to try their hand at being in a rock'n'roll band, the USA were like no band ever seen. Electronic oscillations, ring modulator whine, scrapes of violin, and a circus calliope were amongst their bizarre bag of tricks. The crew's sole LP took their experimental approach to compositional extremes; songs herein —whilst sweetly sung by Dorothy Moskowitz— routinely assaulted by passages of white noise, eerie atmospheres, and cacophonous collage.

15. Pearls Before Swine 'Balaklava' (1968)

Pearls Before Swine 'Balaklava'
ESP-Disk
After discovering The Fugs, teenage Floridian poet Tom Rapp fired off a set of his eerie, psychedelic folksongs to ESP-Disk, and cut his first Pearls Before Swine LP, 1967's One Nation Underground, at just 19. At 21, he authored the mighty Balaklava, a parable on war steeped in horror, dread, and aching sadness at the conflict in Vietnam. Rapp marshals flutes, organs, strings, and eerie atmospheric effects on his songs, and rallies a variety of anti-war allies —a quote from Herodotus, text from Tolkein, lyrics from Leonard Cohen, a field-recording of Florence Nightingale— in support of their message. Throughout, Rapp's trembling, lisping voice stands stark naked; the songsmith sounding as if reduced to tears by man's inherent belligerence.

16. Tyrannosaurus Rex 'My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair...' (1968)

Tyrannosaurus Rex 'My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair...'
Regal Zonophone

Veteran listeners were aghast when bearded freak-folk pin-up boy Devendra Banhart arrived in the mid-'00s, all ridiculous warble and flower-child mysticism. Banhart's shtick was a veritable facsimile of Tyrannosaurus Rex, the bizarre folkie beginnings for Marc Bolan. Bolan's cosmically-titled debut, My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair... but Now They're Content to Wear Stars on Their Brows, finds his swooping, screeching voice and guitar-flaying playing matched to zoned-out bongos; the whole sounding as if lost in a psychedelic, fairy-tale forest filled with magic mushrooms. Bolan would soon rebrand has band T. Rex, and find fame peddling glam-rock boogie, but in such success his strangeness —his uniqueness— was completely lost.

17. The Incredible String Band 'The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter' (1968)

The Incredible String Band 'The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter'
Elektra
You'd think having the blessing of the church would be anathema to counter-cultural credibility, but when the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, calls the Incredible String Band's music "holy," he's onto something. On "A Very Cellular Song," the 13-minute centerpiece of their undoubted masterpiece, The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter, Mike Heron draws connections between all life forms, from the divine to the amoebic. Such musical pantheism draws broadly from religions —incorporating a Bahamian spiritual and a Sikh hymnal— and musics —featuring oud, gimbri, shenai, sitar, and panpipes— as it meanders ever further into strangeness. Decades before folk weirdness was vogue, these Scottish oddballs had already made it into high, holy art.

18. Shirley and Dolly Collins 'Anthems in Eden' (1969)

Shirley and Dolly Collins 'Anthems in Eden'
Harvest

Shirley Collins is the defining voice of the folk-revival; its purest practitioner, its spiritual sage, its most gracious —and, perhaps, greatest— presence. And Anthems in Eden is her undoubted magnum opus, a work of dizzying ambition, savage beauty, and cultural resonance. Its Side A is a single 28-minute work; a nine-part "Song-Story" that repositions a host of traditionals into a narrative charting the destructive effect of World War One casualties on rural England. Working with London's Early Music Consort, the song-cycle matches Collins' rough-hewn voice to archaic instruments called things like crumhorn, sackbut, sordun, and rackett. It's undeniably a product of '60s idealism, but Anthems in Eden sounds timeless, ancient, eternal.

19. Nick Drake 'Five Leaves Left' (1969)

Nick Drake 'Five Leaves Left'
Island

The regal prince of folkie melancholy delivered his debut album with the decade dwindling, and he'd follow it up with two more tender, tortured LPs before dying, in 1974, at just 26. Five Leaves Left introduced the singular, near-perfect sound Nick Drake achieved across all three records; his honeyed croon and fingerpicking guitar dressed in the sumptuous orchestrations of Robert Kirby. The production, by studio sage Joe Boyd, makes everything sound warm and glistening, songs glowing like newly-blown glass. Despite Drake's youth, the album feels filled with resignation and regret; a lamentation born from a life of hard-earned wisdoms. He was barely 20 at the time, but Drake was, it seems, already in the autumnal years of his life.

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20. Kevin Ayers 'Joy of a Toy' (1969)

Kevin Ayers 'Joy of a Toy'
Harvest
After a tour in which his band, Soft Machine, opened for the Jimi Hendrix Experience, eternal free-spirit Kevin Ayers —a close friend of legendary Pink Floyd recluse Syd Barrett— retreated to an Ibiza beach, and retired from music. Luckily, he found the freedom far too alluring, and in isolation authored the songs for his kooky debut solo LP, Joy of a Toy. Embracing the freedoms of being his own boss, Ayers peppered his purely-melodic folk-pop songs with whimsical influences drawn from free-jazz, avant-gardism, Malaysian folksong, psychedelia, circus music, English music-hall, and any other oddball audio source he wished. The record ended up serving as a blueprint for Elephant 6 outfits like Neutral Milk Hotel and Of Montreal in the '90s.
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