Ending the Decade in Style
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Part V/V: The Finest Albums of 1969
THE reason I want to put together a new feature…
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is to shine a light on the albums that end a decade with a huge bang. I feel it is hard to define what a decade is about and how it evolves but the first and last years are crucial. Entering a decade with a big album is a great way to stand out and, similarly, ending it with something stunning is vital. It can be hard leaving a brilliant and bountiful decade of music but I wanted to shine a light on the artists who brought out albums that did justice; gave hope the next decade would be full, exciting and brilliant. I will do a five-part series about albums that opened a decade with panache but, right now, the fifth in a five-part feature that collates the best decade-enders from the 1960s, 1970s; 1980s, 1990s and the 2000s. I am focusing on 1969 and the best ten records from the year. The 1960s was a truly staggering decade and some of the very best records from the decade were released right at the very end. Have a look at these ten 1969-released albums and I am sure you will agree that the 1960s was a pretty....
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The Beatles – Abbey Road
Release Date: 26th September, 1969 (U.K.)/1st October, 1969 (U.S.)
“Then, just for a moment, we're into Paul's "You Never Give Me Your Money," which seems more a daydream than an actual address to the girl he's thinking about. Allowed to remain pensive only for an instant, we're next transported, via Paul's "Lady Madonna" voice and boogie-woogie piano in the bridge, to this happy thought: "Oh, that magic feelin'/Nowhere to go." Crickets' chirping and a kid's nursery rhyme ("1-2-3-4-5-6-7/All good children go to heaven") lead us from there into a dreamy John number, "Sun King," in which we find him singing for the Italian market, words like amore and felice giving us some clue as to the feel of this reminiscent-of-"In My Room" ballad.
And then, before we know what's happened, we're out in John Lennon's England meeting these two human oddities, Mean Mr. Mustard and Polythene Pam. From there it's off to watch a surreal afternoon telly programme, Paul's "She Came In Through the Bathroom Window." Pensive and a touch melancholy again a moment later, we're into "Golden Slumbers," from which we wake to the resounding thousands of voices on "Carry That Weight," a rollicking little commentary of life's labours if ever there was one, and hence to a reprise of the "Money" theme (the most addicting melody and unforgettable words on the album). Finally, a perfect epitaph for our visit to the world of Beatle daydreams: "The love you take is equal to the love you make ..." And, just for the record, Paul's gonna make Her Majesty his.
I'd hesitate to say anything's impossible for him after listening to Abbey Road the first thousand times, and the others aren't far behind. To iy mind, they're equatable, but still unsurpassed” – Rolling Stone
Standout Track: Come Together
Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin II
Release Date: 22nd October, 1969
“Every track on this record is musically brilliant, and in the span of just a few months it’s amazing how much Page had enriched the band’s sound. Chiming acoustic guitars provide the contrast to the crunch in a whole new way on “Ramble On” and “Thank You”, offering yet another template for mixing folk with proto-metal. “Whole Lotta Love” might have gotten the band sued by Willie Dixon, but there was no sonic precedent for it in rock music—it’s a sound that would have been unimaginable without the rise of drug culture. If you are not a drummer, it’s hard to imagine listening to “Moby Dick” very often, but better evidence of John Bonham’s genius is found elsewhere on the record. Zep’s rhythmic underpinning, especially the locked-in tandem of Jones and Bonham, was always their secret weapon, the thing that divided them from contemporaries like Black Sabbath” – Pitchfork
Standout Track: Moby Dick
The Rolling Stones – Let It Bleed
Release Date: 5th December, 1969
Labels: Decca (U.K.); London (U.S.)
“The Stones were never as consistent on album as their main rivals, the Beatles, and Let It Bleed suffers from some rather perfunctory tracks, like "Monkey Man" and a countrified remake of the classic "Honky Tonk Woman" (here titled "Country Honk"). Yet some of the songs are among their very best, especially "Gimme Shelter," with its shimmering guitar lines and apocalyptic lyrics; the harmonica-driven "Midnight Rambler"; the druggy party ambience of the title track; and the stunning "You Can't Always Get What You Want," which was the Stones' "Hey Jude" of sorts, with its epic structure, horns, philosophical lyrics, and swelling choral vocals. "You Got the Silver" (Keith Richards' first lead vocal) and Robert Johnson's "Love in Vain," by contrast, were as close to the roots of acoustic down-home blues as the Stones ever got” – AllMusic
Standout Track: Gimme Shelter
Nick Drake – Five Leaves Left
Release Date: 3rd July, 1969
“Drake is often painted as a retiring man, yet he was often extremely vocal over his muse. He and Boyd initially fought over Drake's wish for a stripped back approach (which he eventually found on his last masterpiece, Pink Moon). In the end old college friend, Robert Kirby, provided orchestration that beautifully captured the yearning 'autumnal' element in the songs "Way To Blue" and "Day Is Done".
What's more, the string arrangement by Harry Robinson on "River Man" - possibly Drake's finest song - succinctly turned his Delius-meets-folk-jazz opus into something that no one had ever heard before. It's a key text for Drake fans, containing the return to nature matched against the infidelities of city life: A theme he would return to again and again, while the album title's sly reference to smoker's delights (as well as "Thoughts Of Mary Jane") showed that Drake was no stranger to the standard musician's indulgences.
Widely ignored upon its release, with hindsight it's easy to see how such ignorance conspired to make Drake a bitter man. Yet ultimately all we can do is bask in the unique vision captured here and be grateful that, for a short period, Nick Drake was able to share it with us all” – BBC
Standout Track: Way to Blue
Bob Dylan – Nashville Skyline
Release Date: 9th April, 1969
“John Wesley Harding suggested country with its textures and structures, but Nashville Skyline was a full-fledged country album, complete with steel guitars and brief, direct songs. It's a warm, friendly album, particularly since Bob Dylan is singing in a previously unheard gentle croon -- the sound of his voice is so different it may be disarming upon first listen, but it suits the songs. While there are a handful of lightweight numbers on the record, at its core are several excellent songs -- "Lay Lady Lay," "To Be Alone With You," "I Threw It All Away," "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You," as well as a duet with Johnny Cash on "Girl From the North Country" -- that have become country-rock standards. And there's no discounting that Nashville Skyline, arriving in the spring of 1969, established country-rock as a vital force in pop music, as well as a commercially viable genre” – Allmusic
Standout Track: Lay, Lady, Lay
Dusty Springfield – Dusty in Memphis
Release Date: 31st March, 1969
“Sometimes memories distort or inflate the quality of recordings deemed legendary, but in the case of Dusty in Memphis, the years have only strengthened its reputation. The idea of taking England's reigning female soul queen to the home of the music she had mastered was an inspired one. The Jerry Wexler/Tom Dowd/Arif Mardin production and engineering team picked mostly perfect songs, and those that weren't so great were salvaged by Springfield's marvelous delivery and technique. This set has definitive numbers in "So Much Love," "Son of a Preacher Man," "Breakfast in Bed," "Just One Smile," "I Don't Want to Hear About It Anymore," and "Just a Little Lovin'" and three bonus tracks: an unreleased version of "What Do You Do When Love Dies," "Willie & Laura Mae Jones" and "That Old Sweet Roll (Hi-De-Ho)." It's truly a disc deserving of its classic status” – AllMusic
Standout Track: Son of a Preacher Man
MC5 – Kick Out the Jams
Release Date: February 1969
“Since 1965, singer Rob Tyner, guitarists Wayne Kramer and Fred “Sonic” Smith, bassist Michael Smith and drummer Dennis Thompson had been cutting their teeth in and around the Motor City: gradually evolving from British Invasion and garage rock foundations to incorporate the region’s R&B influences and even the work of free jazz exponents like John Coltrane and space-jazz legend Sun-Ra.
The latter’s unique aesthetic would duly inform Kick Out the Jams’ tripped-out "Starship," while those osmosis-acquired R&B and blues lessons made their presence known in apocalyptic blasts like "Rocket Reducer No. 62 (Rama Lama Fa Fa Fa)," "‘Motor City is Burning" and "I Want You Right Now." Finally, the young group’s interpretation of rock and roll history resulted in heavy rock and proto-punk slabs such as "Ramblin’ Rose," "Come Together" and "Borderline." Fittingly, the LP stirred public opinion as soon as it hit record store shelves — seemingly because of Tyner’s profane invocation while announcing the title track (later overdubbed with “Kick out the jams, brothers and sisters”), but primarily due to the militant associations spearheaded by band manager John Sinclair.
Much more than a simple manager, Sinclair carefully orchestrated a comprehensive philosophical manifesto for the MC5 — one that went well beyond their music and, although rooted in the same, wide-ranging call for societal reform prevalent throughout the late-‘60s, took things quite a few steps further into fiery activism and included a controversial affiliation with the White Panther Party.
Between these two points of conflict, mainstream retail chains were soon refusing to carry the album (and anything released by Elektra, for that matter), inevitably forcing the record company to censor Tyner’s rallying cry, as explained above (though not before limited quantities landed behind record store counters), and irreparably damaging band/label relations.
Within the year, Sinclair would be incarcerated on trumped-up drugs charges, Elektra would drop the MC5 for fear of further recriminations, and the band would never recover their musical or emotional momentum, thus making Kick Out the Jams an even more historically unique and, ironically, powerful musical statement that still reverberates down the decades” – Ultimate Classic Rock
Standout Track: Kick Out the Jams
Scott Walker – Scott 4
Release Date: November 1969
Labels: Phillips; Fontana
“Walker dropped out of the British Top Ten with his fourth album, but the result was probably his finest '60s LP. While the tension between the bloated production and his introspective, ambitious lyrics remains, much of the over-the-top bombast of the orchestral arrangements has been reined in, leaving a relatively stripped-down approach that complements his songs rather than smothering them. This is the first Walker album to feature entirely original material, and his songwriting is more lucid and cutting. Several of the tracks stand among his finest. "The Seventh Seal," based upon the classic film by Ingmar Bergman, features remarkably ambitious (and relatively successful) lyrics set against a haunting Ennio Morricone-style arrangement. "The Old Man's Back Again" also echoes Morricone, and tackles no less ambitious a lyrical palette; "dedicated to the neo-Stalinist regime," the "old man" of this song was supposedly Josef Stalin. "Hero of the War" is also one of Walker's better vignettes, serenading his war hero with a cryptic mix of tribute and irony. Other songs show engaging folk, country, and soul influences that were largely buried on his previous solo albums” – AllMusic
Standout Track: The Seventh Seal
The Stooges – The Stooges
Release Date: 5th August, 1969
“The Stooges were signed to the peace-and-love promoting Elektra Records when A&R man Danny Fields caught them in concert as he was signing the MC5. After being forced by label boss Jac Holzman to write more material, The Stooges was produced by John Cale immediately after leaving the Velvet Underground. Cale’s all-faders-open production is one of the most exciting captured on record. This is rock at its most primordial. Ron Asheton’s guitar solo on “I Wanna Be Your Dog” has absolutely nothing to do with virtuoso grandstanding – it’s played as if his whole life depends on it. “No Fun” dispels any notion that the 60s were all about hippie harmony
The Stooges’ debut album is the original punk rock rush on record, a long-held well-kept secret by those in the know. The influence on John Lydon and Mark E. Smith in particular is immense. Rolling Stone said in 1992 that “there’s a finely honed metal-edge to the Stooges' Motor City psychedelia that keeps it from sounded dated.” This is absolutely true; it sounds like it’s been recorded in a garage this very morning” – BBC
Standout Track: 1969
Creedence Clearwater Revival – Willy and the Poor Boys
Release Date: 2nd November, 1969
“Make no mistake, Willy & the Poor Boys is a fun record, perhaps the breeziest album CCR ever made. Apart from the eerie minor-key closer "Effigy" (one of John Fogerty's most haunting numbers), there is little of the doom that colored Green River. Fogerty's rage remains, blazing to the forefront on "Fortunate Son," a working-class protest song that cuts harder than any of the explicit Vietnam protest songs of the era, which is one of the reasons that it hasn't aged where its peers have. Also, there's that unbridled vocal from Fogerty and the ferocious playing on CCR, which both sound fresh as they did upon release. "Fortunate Son" is one of the greatest, hardest rock & rollers ever cut, so it might seem to be out of step with an album that is pretty laid-back and friendly, but there's that elemental joy that by late '69 was one of CCR's main trademarks. That joy runs throughout the album, from the gleeful single "Down on the Corner" and the lazy jugband blues of "Poorboy Shuffle" through the great slow blues jam "Feelin' Blue" to the great rockabilly spiritual "Don't Look Now," one of Fogerty's overlooked gems. The covers don't feel like throwaways, either, since both "Cotton Fields" and "The Midnight Special" have been overhauled to feel like genuine CCR songs. It all adds up to one of the greatest pure rock & roll records ever cut” – AllMusic
Standout Track: Down on the Corner