Under turbulent circumstances, Lyndon Baines Johnson took the oath of office on November 22, 1963, to become the 36th POTUS. Having just suffered the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the country was facing increasing tensions in Vietnam that would soon escalate into a full-blown war. The Civil Rights Movement was at its climax, and it seemed like the country was being torn apart. Conflict helps foster art, though, and the mid to late ’60s were no exception.
Granted, much of the art produced during LBJ’s presidency was little more than agitprop lacking any meaningful nuance or was insipid escapism. However, at least as far as music went, during LBJ’s time in office some excellent albums were produced. The best albums from that time period are ranked below.
10. I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You – Aretha Franklin
If you haven’t watched the documentary about Muscle Shoals and FAME Studio, I recommend you do so. Produced by Rick Hall of FAME Studio, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You propelled Aretha Franklin to the Queen of Soul status.
9. The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society – The Kinks
One of the masterpieces of the British invasion, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society is often overshadowed by the album’s Baroque Pop peers (two are listed below). In fact, many people aren’t even aware of its existence, which is unfortunate. The album makes me think of the 19th-century novelist Thomas Hardy — if Hardy had been a drug-addled pop musician in love with Baroque music during the 1960s, that is.
8. Astral Weeks – Van Morrison
With his second studio album, the Irish songster Van Morrison moved from a pop sound to a more experimental sound that drew from jazz, folk, and blues. The highlight of the album is the nearly ten-minute long “Madame George,” which may or may not be about an aging transvestite (Van Morrison says it’s not). Regardless of the song’s subject matter, “Madame George” is a masterpiece of Irish stream of consciousness storytelling set to a lush musical accompaniment.
7. Music from Big Pink – The Band
Music from Big Pink is proof that millennial hipsters didn’t invent roots rock. The debut album from four Canadians and one American set the standard for a musical genre now called Americana. On a personal note, Music from Big Pink is the album on this list that I enjoy listening to the most frequently.
6. Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin
Released eight days before Richard Nixon took the oath of office, Led Zeppelin signaled that the new super-group by the same name was going to be a musical force to be reckoned with. Or, rather, it would have if the critics had been paying attention. Like other albums on this list, Led Zeppelin was originally dismissed by many of the critics. Thankfully, the public disagreed and the album charted for 73 straight weeks in the U.S. Blending blues with the relatively new genre of hard rock, Led Zeppelin built the foundation for much of what came after it in both hard rock and heavy metal.
5. Are You Experienced – Jimi Hendrix
Considered one of the greatest debut albums of all time (its biggest competitor may be #6 on this list), Are You Experienced burst onto the scene in 1967 and changed the way the electric guitar is used. Prior to his new-found fame in 1967, Jimi Hendrix had been a favorite among the musicians dominating the charts in the mid-60s. His debut album rewarded those musicians’ confidence in him.
4. The Velvet Underground & Nico – The Velvet Underground
Heading into the Summer of Love, the country appeared destined for a cultural implosion. The Velvet Underground & Nico, an album filled with explicit drug, BDSM, and prostitution references, was dropped into the swirling tension during the spring of 1967 and created an immediate uproar. Radio stations refused to play it, record stores refused to sell it, and the moralists roundly condemned it. On top of the subject matter, the album was highly experimental with more than a tinge of Dadaism in the music; the country and the market were not ready for The Velvet Underground & Nico in 1967. Unpopular at the time, Andy Warhol’s musical masterpiece is now widely regarded as an example of something that the critics got wrong.
3. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – The Beatles
Starting with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the top three selections on this list could probably be switched around without too much controversy. Considered by many (including myself) to be the Beatles’ high point, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is one of the most innovative albums among a group of very innovative and influential albums produced during the late ’60s.
2. Highway 61 Revisited – Bob Dylan
The highway where Robert Johnson supposedly made his deal with the devil and where Bessie Smith suffered her life-ending injuries is the setting for Bob Dylan’s musical exploration of his poetry’s connection with the blues. Initially, many of Dylan’s fans missed his point and focused instead on what they believed was a betrayal of the folk music movement by the album’s use of a backing rock band. I imagine that most of his older fans have since come around and embraced what many critics consider the best album of the rock/pop era.
1. Pet Sounds – Beach Boys
What 17th-century Baroque musicians called “affections,” Brian Wilson called “feels.” Locking himself away for months, Wilson, guided by his “feels,” composed a musically complex album that has one leg in the hybrid psychedelic-sunshine pop that made the Beach Boys famous, and the other leg in the world of Bach, concertino medium, and counterpoint. Pet Sounds reflects the dissonance, colorful themes, and clashing viewpoints of the 1960s. Pet Sounds is an absolutely brilliant album that is also a lot of fun to listen to.
Honorable Mentions: Revolver – The Beatles; Surrealistic Pillow – Jefferson Airplane; Blonde on Blonde – Bob Dylan; Fresh Cream – Cream; At Folsom Prison – Johnny Cash; The Psychedelic Sounds of The 13th Floor Elevators – The 13th Floor Elevators; The Piper At the Gates of Dawn – Pink Floyd; The Doors – The Doors; Father of the Folk Blues – Son House; Something Else by The Kinks – The Kinks.