You can hardly call me sentimental here. While much musical "wisdom" is the result of someone turning 14 years old at the same moment a musical group releases their "seminal" recordings, there is also sometimes just appalling, overwhelming evidence that certain years were simply better years for being alive than others. The only thing I remember first-hand about 1969 was crapping in a diaper (my own?), so it isn't some misplaced nostalgia that makes me stare in astonishment at just how many great records were released that year.
The fact that I had to actually leave off albums as notable as Scott Walker 3 and 4, Frank Zappa's Hot Rats and Uncle Meat, Soft Machine's Volume Two, the Meters' self-titled release, Phil Ochs' Rehearsals For Retirements, The Doors' The Soft Parade, the Bee Gees' Odessa and Jethro Tull's Stand Up. And that's just for starters. Now imagine all the albums that got ignored because of evil fate taking its natural twist and you've got a year for the record books.
I finally got this list down to what it is by once again applying a sense of random balance. These aren't necessarily the 25 I would take a deserted island (why is it always a deserted island? Can't it just be a crappy highway motel with a few people you don't like very much?), but they represent different ideas of what people were listening to in 1969 and what other people were creating.
If you remember these albums upon their release, you are now horribly, horribly old. But look on the bright side: you won't have to pay for the forthcoming economic collapse! You'll just be sitting outside the shuttered government building wondering who took your government cheese!
On that note, let's rock!
The Shaggs--Philosophy Of The World: Not exactly a chart-burner in its day, Philosophy has gone on to become one of those albums that everyone needs to hear at least once. Just so they can understand why tuning your instrument is overrated. And why you should be glad your parents didn't encourage you to pursue music. As the Ramones used to say, "There's money in the supermarket and I'm going after it."
24) Crosby, Stills And Nash--Crosby, Stills And Nash: Get the campfire up and burning and the hippies in their tie-dye magically appear singing songs from this debut album that was considered to have been made by a "supergroup," since it had members of the Byrds, Hollies and Buffalo Springfield, which in today's currency would be like what? Former members of Matchbox 20, Archers Of Loaf and Pearl Jam?
Leonard Cohen--Songs From A Room: Len is now an institution, an elder statesman. But he was once a guy who wrote books nobody read and made albums that most people tried to avoid. He was known for singing in a monotone and basing songs on stories from the Bible. "The Story of Isaac" doesn't exactly resonate with top 40 appeal. But "Bird On The Wire" went on to become one of those songs that people hold hands and sing like it's "Kumbaya" which it's not. Someday this man is going to be on a stamp! At which point, it won't matter, because there won't be any more mail!
22) The Beatles--Abbey Road: The Beatles were a popular singing group from England who were finally getting bored of each other. They kept reinventing their sound much more successfully than, say, U2 who would attempt the same thing years later. By this point they were torn between John Lennon's love for angry, monotonous blues, Ringo's need to write children's music, McCartney's love for singing in foreign languages and Harrison's determination to write something everyone else would cover and make him a million dollars.
King Crimson--In The Court Of The Crimson King: I've always considered King Crimson to be a bit like "squirrel music." If you ever watch those little critters, they're always working so hard and moving very quickly where you can't keep up. King Crimson sound determined to do exactly that. They have so many musical chops that they're not sure which ones to use at any given time, so they use them all. Keep in mind there was no blueprint for this kind of music back then. It previously didn't exist.
20) Nick Drake--Five Leaves Left: Let's hear it for revisionism! Sure, Drake is now a household name like Arm & Hammer, Brillo and Fanta, but there was a time when Drake was an obscure oddity who very few people cared about. Fair enough. It happens. But his future success should be seen as an "object lesson" for others. If Drake could slip past, surely others have too. This is why you should respect your elders and listen to them as they dribble the soup down their chin. They can enlighten you in ways that young, spry hipsters cannot. Before you start shipping them to a home, you should ask them if they have any records they'd like to send your way.
The Allman Brothers Band--The Allman Brothers Band: Admittedly, I was never much of a southern rock guy and--heresy, heresy--I prefer Lynyrd Skynyrd for the songs and the singing. But the Allman Brothers brought together a jam that has been imitated but rarely improved upon. Obviously when you lose a key member at a young age--that'd be Duane--it severely alters the landscape and leads to all kinds of suppositions that can't be proved or disproved. You can only deal with what is there. And then in a moment of Zen weirdness ask the cosmos what "there" really implicates.
18) Can--Monster Movie: Another band ignored in their time and then miraculously resurrected by punk bands who acted like they had no idea what you were talking about. Purely coincidental when you listen to Public Image Limited and hear shades of Amon Duul II and Can. All music has to start somewhere. It's just a wonder sometimes as to where a band like Can got their start? It doesn't sound like they were listening to Cream.
MC5--Kick Out The Jams: They never overthrew the government, which was probably a good thing. We might not have running water if John Sinclair took over the public utilities. But the band did make a raucous noise and one that taken in correct doses can solve chronic fatigue syndrome and depression without serious side effects. Well, except from severe hearing loss.
16) Alexander "Skip" Spence--Oar: These days it's not unusual for mental cases to land in recording studios to document their visions. But in 1969 there weren't as many casualties to choose from. Syd Barrett, Roky Erickson and Skippy here were really the frontline of attack. These days the medications they put people on often prevent people from finding this creative part of themselves. Instead, they go on to successful careers as web-page designers and life coaches. Some dare call it progress.
The Band--The Band: Rusty mustaches aside, The Band were these young guys who liked the idea of being looked upon as old country gentlemen, Canadians (and one American) who loved the mythology of America. Sounds like a bad history lesson in the making, right? History professors loved them, natch. I liked them when Richard Manuel got a hold on things. But that name is like "No Frills" or something.
14) The Who--Tommy: Admittedly, I'm one of the few who has never made it from the beginning to end of this concept album. I'm not sure what the problem is except maybe I've never been sympathetic to deaf, dumb and blind pinball wizards. Or maybe I've never found Pete Townshend that interesting. I mean, he's no Paul Weller. Sometimes the cart belongs in front of the horse, even if it means standing there like a jerk. Now if you could bottle up Keith Moon and use him whenever needed, there's a product I would gladly use.
Dusty Springfield--Dusty In Memphis: As someone who likes lazy, sleepy, mildly depressed music, I find Dusty Springfield appealing. Even at her most spirited, she sounds like someone who's in need of a muscle relaxant to help her through her day. That intensity cannot be good for her heart. But it's a fine way for the rest of us to spend an afternoon. Voyeurism rules!
12) The Flying Burrito Brothers--The Gilded Palace Of Sin: Country-rock is tricky. These guys came to it early enough that it hadn't curdled into southern-Cali lite FM or by-the-numbers alt.country. You'd still get better mileage from an actual Merle Haggard or George Jones album, but everyone needs a proper introduction sometimes and with Sneaky Pete playing pedal steel, when focused these guys played the real thing. The trick was keeping their leader--Gram Parsons--sober enough to find the notes.
Led Zeppelin--Led Zeppelin And II: Who would've guessed that forty years later it would be Led Zeppelin wearing the hard rock crown? At the time, they were like another Jeff Beck Group but without Rod Stewart. Another English group who liked to play the blues very loudly, with band members who were studio pros and unlikely to find their own voice. C'mon, kids, these guys could've turned out to be Toto! But as you'll hear, they were less interested in pop music and much more concerned with ruining your stereo speakers so you'd have to buy a better stereo to keep up with their monstrous noise.
10) The Kinks--Arthur Or The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire: It's as if the Kinks were determined to lose whatever audience they had as quickly as humanly possible. I know this was the age of high concepts and serious rock music but this sounds like they're going to Parliament to petition for a land variance. Of course, the album is quite good, but talk about being out of step with what was going on. This makes them much more interesting but it does nothing towards keeping them employed.
Sly And The Family Stone--Stand!: Before Sly went off the deep end and partied himself into paranoia, he was leading a wave of optimism and genre-fusing that suggested he would have quite the career in the 1970s. Things don't always go as planned, but that doesn't mean you can't enjoy the moments that actually did happen.
8) Captain Beefheart--Trout Mask Replica: These days it all fits on one CD and sounds like something any number of kids from Brooklyn might attempt in between cashing trust fund checks, but there was a time when there was a less affluent society who found ways to burn money without actually burning it. Captain Beefheart managed to find ways to make music that drew a proverbial line in the sand. Some people listen to these crazy rhythms for enjoyment, others do so to rattle the nerves of their neighbors and the guy in the cubicle next to them. It's always win-win when you break out the Beefheart.
Isaac Hayes--Hot Buttered Soul: Never discount the art of talking. Isaac Hayes was a brilliant soul. He wrote and played great tunes but his greatest success was often when he took other people's songs and created his own backstory. He was sort of like a rapper who didn't need to rhyme or hurry up. He got in the car and took the scenic route, pointing out little things that might be significant or might not. Either way, he had a voice that made you want to listen.
6) Tim Buckley--Happy/Sad, Blue Afternoon: I had to do a double-take when I saw this. TWO albums in one year of such high quality from a young man who could've been spending more time doing other things? Nowadays bands take four years to put one lousy album together. Back then, it was as if everyone was on a clock and paranoid that there wouldn't be a music business waiting for them if they took too long. You released what you could when you could. Apparently not a bad strategy.
Miles Davis--In A Silent Way: Some of this sounds like edgy new age music and some of it sounds like a porn soundtrack. All of it sounds like it belongs in a very eerie film of some sort. Davis was a true genius. Where others were lucky to make a couple of albums that switched things around somewhat, Davis altered reality on a regular basis. Until he got tired of being misunderstood and he took his toys and went home. Then the 1980s hit and everyone sucked.
4) The Velvet Underground--The Velvet Underground: The quiet album from a band who would go on to legendary status despite never selling many records. Not the kind of numbers that make people in the business take notice. Or allow its members to buy their own private island or a mountain. More proof that you can't build a swimming pool with positive reviews.
The Stooges--The Stooges: Proof that playing simple chords is sometimes best and not as easy as it seems. Because if it was so easy, wouldn't someone else already have done it? And why do so many others who play simple also sound dumb? When these guys deliberately sound dumb, they sound pretty smart. Paradoxes are heavy.
2) Neil Young--Neil Young, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere: Another one of these moments when you almost can't believe that these two albums happened in the same year. Like didn't anyone have anything else to do? Were people less busy with other things? I guess they didn't Twitter or Facebook or have email. Wasn't the home computer supposed to make our lives easier? Less hectic? Somebody was lying to us along the way and I think we should hurt that person the way we've been hurt. We shouldn't steal their money, but steal their time!
The Rolling Stones--Let It Bleed: At this point, you're forgiven if you've forgotten just how good these guys once were. Thirty years of questionable performances will taint people's opinions. But in 1970, they were pretty darn good. Maybe not "The World's Greatest Rock n' Roll Band." Is there ever really such a thing? But damn close--and certainly more deserving of the title than Ten Years After, who weren't bad and whose Ssssh very nearly came in at number one before I decided to leave it off entirely in a moment of irrational Ten Years After hate. I guess "Gimme Shelter" could be considered a little better than "I Don't Know That You Don't Know My Name." But better than "The Stomp"?