Where the music was

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One of the Facebook pages I follow recently featured a comment from someone definitively stating that 1972 was the best year for music. Unfortunately, when I asked him why he believed that (a truly honest question – I wasn’t looking to argue), his response wasn’t particularly illuminating.

The exchange stayed with me. What was the best year for music? Is there a more subjective question? Probably not – but I’m going to try to tackle it, anyway, and justify my answer.  I’m also going to cop-out.

While the 70s were absolutely dynamic musically–including 1972–and brought us a massive trove of great songs that have held up very well, I believe that 1966-1969 was the golden age of modern pop music, and that it’s very difficult–if not impossible–to distinguish a “best” year among them.

Even though a sizable portion of music from that time was psychedelia that hasn’t aged gracefully (in my humble opinion), the best of it was groundbreaking and set the table for everything that followed in the same way Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Elvis, Carl Perkins and Chuck Berry gave birth to the early years of Rock-and-Roll.

This four-year period spawned legend after legend – impacts still being discussed and debated 50 years later. I have boiled my examples down to 16.

  1. The Beatles revolutionized the revolution – The Fab Four weren’t content with what they started in 1963-’64. In ’66 they stopped touring and closed out their career as a band with stunning flurry of meticulously-produced albums that explored every style, starting with Revolver and concluding with the epic medley on side-two of Abbey Road in 1969. The rest of the music world attempted to keep up, and the best artists did.
  2. Dylan went electric – The hero of 60s folk pissed-off the nation’s coffee houses by adding electric instruments in concert, often eliciting boos. He followed with a 1966 album that kept pace, Blonde on Blonde – still thought by many to be his best work.
  3. The Rolling Stones began to hit their peak – The Stones saw the ante being upped and responded with the albums Let it Bleed (1968) and Beggars Banquet (’69), and some of their greatest songs – Honky Tonk Woman, Let’s Spend the Night Together, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Paint it Black, Monkey Man, Gimme Shelter, Sympathy for the Devil, and You Can’t Always Get What You Want.    
  4. The deification of Clapton – Graffiti began to appear around London in the 60s saying, “Clapton is God.” He was/is one hell of a guitar player, that’s for sure. In 1966 he joined Cream with drummer Ginger Baker and bassist Jack Bruce. It was considered Rock’s first supergroup if you don’t count the Beatles. Cream didn’t last long, disbanding in ’69 and leaving us with classic blues-rockers like Strange Brew, Sunshine of Your Love and White Room. From there Clapton joined another supergroup, Blind Faith, with Baker and Steve Winwood.       
  5. The Jimi Hendrix explosion –  The authentic shooting star of Rock-and-Roll. Jimi arrived in London in ’66 and turned Rock on its ear for the remainder of his too-short life. His guitar virtuosity and unique sound made him a must-see for the Beatles and other inhabitants of Swinging London, and he made Clapton seem mortal.
  6. Brian Wilson raised the bar – The story goes that Wilson heard the Beatles’ Rubber Soul in ’65 and led the Beach Boys into the age of studio complexity and perfectionism to produce Pet Sounds in ’66, and that the Beatles heard it and–already committed to deeper studio craft–were driven to create Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Pet Sounds took a teen-idol surf band into the realm of progressive modern music. After that Wilson returned to the studio to produce what is probably the band’s greatest song, Good Vibrations.
  7. Tommy can you hear me? The Who seemed to be operating just outside the inner circle of the British Invasion when Pete Townshend changed all that by inventing the rock opera with the album “Tommy” in 1969. That deaf, dumb and blind kid sure played a mean pinball.
  8. The arrival of Led Zeppelin – Jimmy Page found a singer for the ages in Robert Plant and an innovative style of blues-rock/hard rock was born. It’s interesting that neither man has found much success by themselves. But that band had an alchemy that captivated the world and produced a body of work that should stand up for decades. It all began with two albums (I and II) in 1969 and, specifically, this cut to open the first LP.

9. The Band ignited a genre – Five guys who backed Bob Dylan on tour before venturing out as the Band delivered two pioneering works of Americana – their 1968 debut, Music from Big Pink, and a self-titled follow-up in ’69. Musicians were particularly enamored with the Band–Eric Clapton once said they changed his life– and the Eagles and much of modern country music owe the group a big debt of gratitude.

10. The astral plane – George Ivan Morrison, 23, previously known as the front man for the R&B-tinged Them and writer/performer of the wickedly catchy Brown-Eyed Girl, confounded everyone with an ethereal work of genius, 1968’s Astral Weeks. Folk-jazz is the closest description of the songs on this album. Van has spent the rest of his legendary career both playing it up and trying to live it down. He has produced other albums that are just as good, if not better, but nothing as unique for its time as that.     

11. Jerry’s Kids – The lead guitarist was missing most of a finger (Jerry Garcia), the rhythm guitarist (Bob Weir) joined the band because he didn’t have anything else to do, and the Warlocks morphed into the Grateful Dead and released its first iconic live record, Live Dead, in 1969, unleashing a 25-year gypsy caravan of music and ritual that ended only with Garcia’s death. Volkswagen buses never had it so good.

12. R&B got down and gritty – The Queen of Soul just crushed it. Check out Aretha Franklin’s Greatest Hits (1967) for a setting of the bar that remains formidable in 2018. Otis Redding, sometimes considered the King of Soul, left us too soon, in ’67, but his memory remains through a trio of tremendous albums released from ’66 -’68, Dictionary of Soul, the Dock of the Bay, and King and Queen. An innovative little outfit from Vallejo, CA–Sly and the Family Stone–erupted on the scene in ’68 with the songs Dance to the Music and Everyday People. Wilson Pickett continued to build on his crossover stardom with Mustang Sally in ’66. And Marvin Gaye made important strides during this period, recording I Heard it Through the Grapevine in ’68 and following a path that led to his seminal work, What’s Going On, in the early seventies.

13. Country – Buck Owens of Hee-Haw fame was emerging in 1966 with the harder-edged Bakersfield Sound, adopted faithfully and effectively by Merle Haggard and Dwight Yoakam; and the Byrds, of all bands, took another step to fuse rock and country with its Graham Parsons-led Sweetheart of the Rodeo in ’68. Johnny Cash and Glen Campbell were so mainstream that each had their own network variety shows beginning in ’69

14. The Chicago Transit Authority – Rock, Jazz and R&B intersected here with this band–we know it now, of course, as Chicago–and its self-titled debut album in 1969. The group has traveled a number of different directions in the last 49 years, but its early moments were breathtaking and arguably paved the way for the more sophisticated sounds of Steely Dan several years later.

15. Loan Me a Dime – A Texan named Boz Scaggs was already refusing to be typecast when he recorded this 12:30 instant blues classic on a self-titled album in 1969. His unique brand of blue-eyed soul would continue to develop through the 70s, culminating with the career-topping Silk Degrees. Nearly 50 years later Boz still plays Loan Me a Dime in concert.

Alice

16. Breaking through – Crosby, Stills & Nash caught fire with its debut album in 1969, helping to usher-in the so-called Southern California sound with a stunning song called Suite: Judy Blue Eyes; Neil Young’s second album, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere (’69), established his classic Crazy Horse sound; Three Dog Night arrived on the scene in ’68 with one of its biggest hits, One, from the band’s self-titled debut album; Linda Ronstadt debuted with Hand Sown..Home Grown (’69); and Alice Cooper debuted with Pretties For You in ’69, testing out some of the themes that would make him a pioneer of shock rock.

Other classic artists that flourished between 1966 and 1969 included the Doors, Janis Joplin, Traffic, Jefferson Airplane, the Mamas and Papas, Simon and Garfunkel, and Creedence Clearwater Revival.

As for 1972, it was no doubt a very good year, with the ascension of Elton and Bowie and the Eagles and Cat Stevens–among others–already underway, but it might have fallen a little short of any of the last four years of the 60s.

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