Turning 50: Albums that changed music history
Filles de Kilimanjaro by Miles Davis
Miles Davis claimed to have changed the course of music multiple times during his long career from 1944-91. He certainly was at the forefront of such epochal changes in jazz styles such as bebop and cool jazz. But he was definitely the most instrumental in marrying jazz and rock. Filles de Kilimanjaro, coming a full year before he took the plunge into jazz fusion with In A Silent Way, is a transitional album that nonetheless wields great influence. This is the last album he recorded with his 1960s quintet, featuring jazz giants like Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams.
Kilimanjaro houses some of Davis’ most adventurous music, melding blues, electronic textures and dance rhythms with bop to create something new.
The Beatles by The Beatles
Better known as the White Album, this fragmentary, adult and dark album might be the greatest collection of songs that The Beatles ever put out in their remarkable eight-year run. It was less the Fab Four as a rock monolith and more of John, Paul, George and Ringo recording with a crack backup band called The Beatles. They had initially planned to call the album A Doll’s House (a traditional “doll’s house” is home to many different and unrelated objects), to reflect the musically diverse approach to song styles. The album’s great variety bears this out—the snarling Helter Skelter, psych pop of Dear Prudence, Hollywood schmaltz in Good Night and even the avant garde Revolution 9 share shelf space. And that’s just scratching the surface of this double-album. Today, the term “White Album” has become shorthand to describe a work of art that is messy, artistic, self-indulgent and genius.
At Folsom Prison by Johnny Cash
One of the most successful recording artists from the 1950s Sun Records stable (which also included Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison), Johnny Cash’s career was going nowhere by the end of the 1960s. Plagued with a worsening drug problem and brushes with the law, the “man in black” made his riskiest decision yet by playing two shows for the inmates of Folsom State Prison in California. By turns downbeat, funny, playful and sad, Cash struck a rapport with his audience. The results are searing renditions of such classics as Folsom Prison Blues, Cocaine Blues, The Long Black Veil and 25 Minutes To Go. Fifty years on, it remains one of the finest live albums ever recorded.
Beggars Banquet by The Rolling Stones
Between 1968 and 1972, the Stones embarked on one of the purplest of musical patches. It started with Beggars Banquet. Following the debacle of the band’s dabbling in psychedelia the previous year, the Stones knuckled down for a full return to their blues roots. Mick Jagger truly found his voice here, and Keith Richards blossomed into an innovative guitar stylist and songwriter. The raw menace of Stray Cat Blues, the insurrectionary Street Fighting Man and the bourgeois-baiting Sympathy For The Devil, sent the Stones on their way to becoming the biggest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world. They had the best hair, the tastiest riffs, and an outlaw aura all their own. With this album they wrote the rules for subsequent rock bands to follow.
White Light/White Heat by The Velvet Underground
While bands in California were breaking new ground in blues-based psychedelia, out east in New York, The Velvet Underground were laying down experimental noise rock and dissonant free jazz that sounds stunning even now. Led by Lou Reed’s feedback-drenched guitar, themes of illicit sex and drugs, John Cale’s viola and the primitive thump of Moe Tucker’s drums, the band’s second album was designed to be an affront to mainstream tastes. From tales of a medical procedure gone horribly wrong in Lady Godiva’s Operation, to the over 17-minute freak out of Sister Ray, White Light/White Heat experimented with the limits of the pop song. The result? Probably as many people have formed bands after hearing the VU as they have after hearing The Beatles.
Life by Sly And The Family Stone
A multi-racial melting pot of a band, led by an inscrutable visionary, Sly And The Family Stone’s music forms the vital link between 1960s RnB and 1970s funk and disco. Fusing psychedelia, soul and fuzzedout guitars, Life is the band’s finest album, even topping their previous effort, the commercial breakthrough Dance To The Music. It features some of Sly Stone’s best songs like Fun, Dynamite and Plastic Jim, and excellent ensemble playing. Over the past 50 years, their songs have been sampled by hip hop, pop, rock and dance music. This is no surprise, as Sly And The Family Stone had grooves to spare. Listening to the album, it’s impossible not to dance, which is the greatest tribute one can pay to Life.
Electric Ladyland by The Jimi Hendrix Experience
The third and final album that Jimi Hendrix made with the Experience is also the best. Not only does Hendrix break new ground with the electric guitar, he also becomes a great writer of psychedelic rock. Check out the soundscapes that the band constructs on epics like Voodoo Chile and 1983…(A Merman I Should Turn To Be) for the purest distillation of the sound of psychedelia steeped in the blues. As the songs kept pouring out of Hendrix, the scope of the album grew, until it became a double album. Hendrix produced the album himself, and as a result, Ladyland’s soundscape hews true to his musical approach to psychedelia. His cover of Dylan’s All Along The Watchtower is probably more famous today than the original.
Music From Big Pink by The Band
While popular culture was drowning in psychedelia, Bob Dylan’s touring band, The Hawks, retired to a house in rural New York, and proceeded to write songs about America. Changing their name to The Band, guitarist Robbie Robertson, bass player Rick Danko, pianist Richard Manuel, drummer Levon Helm and multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson re-imagined country, folk, blues and rock ‘n’ roll into something that sounded ancient and strange. Songs like The Weight, Tears Of Rage, This Wheel’s On Fire are as influential on rock as anything by The Stones. Eric Clapton heard them and broke up Cream. George Harrison hung out with them and internalized their sound for his solo debut. In a band without any stars, The Band would end up steering popular culture towards rootsy folk music redolent with earthy mystery and wonder.
Cheap Thrills by Big Brother And The Holding Company
Of all the West Coast psychedelic bands from San Francisco, none had a more distinctive sound than Big Brother And The Holding Company. And that sound was Janis Joplin’s voice. Big Brother had made a name for itself as an intense live band led by the live wire Joplin. Cheap Thrills was their first proper album, and it was a classic. The band wasn’t as talented musically as local scene-mates like The Grateful Dead or Jefferson Airplane. But they were good enough to give Joplin’s incredible singing prowess all the bluesy backing it needed. Songs like Piece Of My Heart, Ball And Chain and Turtle Blues remain benchmarks for rock singers everywhere. In an era of great album art, it also broke ground with the iconic cover cartoon by R. Crumb and his gonzo take on the song titles.
Lady Soul by Aretha Franklin
One of the first albums to drop in January 1968, Lady Soul cemented Aretha Franklin’s meteoric mid-1960s rise to the top of the RnB and pop charts. A crossover hit of massive proportions, the record established Franklin’s legend as the greatest voice in all of soul music. The songs here are impeccable, and Franklin’s impassioned voice tapped into the discontent of the Vietnam War and race riots with Chain Of Fools, a cover of the civil rights anthem People Get Ready, and (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman. Franklin’s troubled marriage informed Good To Me As I Am To You. There’s no filler here. Supported by a funky band and the backing vocals of the girl group The Sweet Inspirations, Franklin’s performance remains the touchstone of RnB and soul even today.