Tom’s Top 5’s: Albums of 1968

About ten years ago, journalist Mark Kurlansky wrote a book entitled 1968: The Year That Rocked the World. There’s little debating that title; 1968 was the year riots raged at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the year Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, the year that U.S. troops brutally murdered 500 Vietnamese civilians at Mai Lai. It was also a big year for rock music, and a happier one at that: James Taylor, Jethro Tull, the Steve Miller Band, the Band, Fleetwood Mac, and Joni Mitchell all released their debut albums; Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Jeff Beck, and a little outfit called the New Yardbirds revolutionized hard rock; Simon & Garfunkel soundtracked The Graduate and Sly & the Family Stone danced to the music while the Beatles meditated with the Maharishi. Choosing a Top 25 from such a monumental year would be a daunting task; choosing a Top 5, positively absurd. And yet absurd is what we’re all about here. So without further ado, my Top 5 Albums of 1968…

5. CHILD IS THE FATHER OF THE MAN (Blood Sweat & Tears)

Child Is the Father of the Man

It’s fascinating to me that Chicago and Blood Sweat & Tears—two bands who, on paper, should’ve sounded almost identical—could be so different, and yet both great. BS&T released two killer albums in 1968, but I’ll take their debut as the most potent realization of Al Kooper’s original vision for the group. This is music without boundaries, drawing equally on rock, pop, jazz, classical, and R&B to create a bold, brassy sound that’s both startlingly unique and instantly familiar.

4. IN SEARCH OF THE LOST CHORD (The Moody Blues)

In Search of the Lost Chord

In Search of the Lost Chord is a step down in both ambition and quality from Days of Future Passed, but only marginally. This one may dispense with orchestra in favor of a more “stripped-down” sound, but that’s on a relative scale; the Moodies are still thinking big, as the meditative, consciousness-raising “Om” and the psychedelic travails of “House of Four Doors”/”Legend of a Mind” testify.

3. ODESSEY & ORACLE (The Zombies)

Odessey & Oracle

People often wield the term “Beatles-esque” when I think what they actually mean is “Odessey & Oracle-esque.” “Time of the Season” is actually the odd song out here; for the most part, this is the “Penny Lane” aesthetic extended to album length, positively bursting with shimmering harmonies, bouncy keyboards (including healthy doses of harpsichord), and unforgettable melodies.

2. ASTRAL WEEKS (Van Morrison)

Astral Weeks

Astral Weeks embodies, as well or better than any album he ever made, the intense, nostalgic yearning that serves as the wellspring of Van Morrison’s creativity. With an alchemical blend of jazz, folk, and Celtic soul, Van the Man leads his listeners on a tour of a mythologized Belfast in which names are incantations and the smallest details take on mystical significance, resulting in an album unlike anything else in the rock canon.

1. THE BEATLES (WHITE ALBUM) (The Beatles)

The Beatles (White Album)

You’d have thought the Beatles couldn’t stretch themselves any further than they did on Sgt. Pepper. You’d have been wrong. Back-to-nature folk, storming hard rock, swirling psychedelia, bouncy pop, classic rock n’ roll, stomping country, soulful horns… if it was on the radio in 1968, it was on the White Album. And yet, instead of ending up a giant, inchoate mess, the White Album thrives on its own sprawl, blending the self-assured craftsmanship of the virtuoso with the giddy abandon of the newcomer. Perhaps the biggest testament to the White Album’s greatness is that even “Revolution 9” feels like it belongs, somehow.

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