The Best Records of 1968

best albums of 1968

Fifty years ago, the world was in the midst of turbulent times. A war raged as heavy on hearts as rebellion weighed on the backs of students protesting throughout the US, France, Poland, Germany, Italy and several other countries. The year also begat some incredible music, from The Rolling StonesBeggars Banquet to The Jimi Hendrix Experience‘s Electric Ladyland. The year could have easily defined the decade had it not been for perhaps the greatest year of music in the 20th century: 1967. Beginning with the best albums of 1968, this Best Of The Decades series features a variety of writers thick with opinion, championing their choice for Best Of The ‘8s from 1968 through 2008. So let’s get started with the year the first humans orbited the moon…

The Millennium
Begin - The Millennium

Acclaimed for his vocal arrangements on mid-’60s records from The Association, wunderkind producer Curt Boettcher gathered a collection of LA-based artists to embody his unique sonic vision on his own masterwork, Begin, released under the band name of The Millennium. Combining an epic assortment of sounds, including Brazilian bossa nova and Japanese koto music, with soaring, lightly-psychedelic vocals, Boettcher’s team begat a ground-breaking “sunshine pop” record that sounds like the Beach Boys led by Kevin Barnes from indie rockers Of Montreal. A commercial failure at the time, the 1968 album was forgotten until it was rediscovered in the new millennium, appropriately enough.

Eric J. Lawrence, DJ & Host, KCRW

Shine On Brightly
Procol Harum
Procol Harum - Shine On Brightly

How does a band like Procol Harum move forwards after leaping to #1 in their native England with their first single (Whiter Shade of Pale) and selling many, many copies of their 1967 debut album? How about a follow-up album punctuated by a 17-minute multi-tiered epic that many mark as one of the earliest examples of prog rock? Shine On Brightly is just that bold, with the band throwing as many ideas and noises (car horns, sirens, calliopes, etc.) into a mix that also boasts fantastical visions like Rambling On, a tale of an excitable boy who takes to the air and Elizabethan poetry set (Quite Rightly So) set to blustering blues-flecked rock. A criminally under-heard album by a criminally under-appreciated band from the first British Invasion.

Robert Ham, Assistant Music Editor, Paste Magazine

Tropicália: ou Panis et Circencis
Various Artists
Tropicália: ou Panis et Circencis

I was so relieved to find out this incredible record was released in 1968, as it saved me from having to pick between solo albums by Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso and Os Mutantes that same year. A collaboration in every sense of the word and manifesto for one of the most radical and disruptive movements of the 20th century, Tropicália captures the rhythmic adventurism and playful weirdness I love about Brazilian music. All the joy, vibrancy and melancholy of life is stuffed into these 12 madcap tracks. My copy is so beat up you can hardly hear it through the fuzz, but that just makes it all the more human.

Anton Spice, Editor-In-Chief, The Vinyl Factory

The Dock of the Bay
Otis Redding
Otis Redding - The Dock of the Bay

Released a mere 75 days after his plane crashed into Lake Monona in Madison, Wis., Otis Redding’s The Dock Of The Bay proved to be Otis’ creative and career breakthrough, an album that saw him vault from the top of the soul charts to the top of the pop charts thanks to its perfect title track.

Even though it’s a near-perfect album front to back, it’s technically not done; it was “finished” by Otis’ death. It’s the best album of 1968 to me, because it represents a potential unfulfilled, the same way the ideals of the 1960s ended up unfulfilled too.

Andrew Winistorfer, Head Of Editorial, Vinyl Me, Please

Vincebus Eruptum
Blue Cheer
Blue Cheer - Vincebus Eruptum

Blue Cheer welcomed 1968 with the excellently named Vincebus Eruptum, a bruising slab of proto-metal that Jimmy Page was surely listening to between Yardbirds gigs. It’s more visceral, dangerous and bat-shit crazy than Led Zeppelin‘s 1969 debut and 50 years has done nothing to tame its glorious excess.

Guitarist Leigh Stephens used volume as a weapon and Vincebus Eruptum is six tracks of gleeful blunt force trauma steeped in the Delta. This was a white dude blues trio that ignored the Claptons of the world to unleash an album of pure psychedelic stomp that sounds even more unhinged now.

Jeffrey Lee Puckett, Pop Music Critic, Courier-Journal

Nancy & Lee
Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood
Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood - Nancy & Lee

I was initially introduced to Nancy & Lee through Amon Tobin during a marathon Halo 2 online sesh spent at his downtown loft in Montreal. He’d just put the finishing touches on the soundtrack he composed for Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, a video game slated to hit stores in the spring of 2004. Amon was mostly working around the clock, but there was always a bit of time for some online gaming over takeout Mexican and jazz cigarettes. Game volume was always lowered so that we could listen to records instead. He spun as I listened attentively; music nerd conversations ensued.

I was introduced to a lot of music I was unfamiliar with through those gaming sessions with Amon. I promptly took to chasing down those albums down for myself. Early Kinks, Elephants Memory, and Rhinoceros immediately come to mind — but that Nancy & Lee album just stuck with me. At the time, my wife was pregnant with our daughter. We both dug Nancy, so it all vibed nicely with that happy period in our lives. Our daily listening included my newfound obsession for Lee Hazlewood; the ever-expanding Songs For Baby Sofia iTunes playlist included almost every track from that Nancy & Lee album.

Sofia’s almost 12 now. Nancy & Lee has been the soundtrack to her life since before she was born. Every road trip and Pool/BBQ mixtape has included “Some Velvet Morning” and “Jackson“. We’ve been singing along to “Summer Wine” since before she could speak and I can’t imagine we’ll ever stop.

Yeah, this is my favorite album from 1968, for all the reasons that matter most. Kiddo has her own turntable now. Nancy & Lee was part of that first stack of records I gave her. That album is family.

Jeremy Ron, Vinyl Junkies Podcast

The Marble Index
Nico - The Marble Index

The Marble Index stands as a lasting piece of major label weirdness, perfectly capturing a moment when rock was new and big companies like Elektra Records would take a chance on an artist if there was something evocative and interesting going on. The album is the obvious predecessor to many a beloved genre, laying the foundations for post-punk, goth, and iconic future outsiders like Kate Bush and Bjork. Nico’s singing style — a freezing stew of moans and groans — is perfectly complemented by her own accompaniment on the harmonium, an instrument best described as an accordion and piano’s bastard offspring. Former Velvet Underground bandmate John Cale’s production adds icy swaths of classical arrangement, making this a timeless album which becomes more rewarding with each listening.

Jennifer Otter Bickerdike, Author, Why Vinyl Matters

Just Because I’m a Woman
Dolly Parton
Dolly Parton - Just Because I’m a Woman

On Just Because I’m A Woman, Dolly Parton drew some very crucial lines in the sand: She wasn’t going to take any guff, and she was going to talk about topics that made people uncomfortable. Sex (the title track), men screwing her over (You’re Gonna Be Sorry), failure (False Eyelashes) — and even unwanted pregnancy—on the gutting, ever-so-slightly psychedelic The Bridge, which Parton wrote, she plays a pregnant woman contemplating suicide. “Here is where I’ll end it,” Parton sings as the song comes to a hard stop. The album’s personal and political messages (mostly one and the same) live in Dolly’s soaring, artfully-warbling soprano, backed by timeless, stripped-down honky-tonk. A remarkable snapshot of the moment when one of country’s greats was just coming into her own.

Natalie Weiner, Staff Writer, Bleacher Report

Dr. John
Dr. John - Gris-Gris

My first listen to Dr. John‘s Gris-Gris occurred in New Orleans… while tripping on LSD. Ideal scenario! But one doesn’t need that set and setting to fall madly in love with the preternaturally soulful keyboardist/vocalist’s masterpiece. From the first seconds of Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya to the fade-out of I Walk On Gilded Splinters, the album conjures a hellishly heavenly hoodoo that makes you feel as if your brain’s swimming in a bouillabaisse of seven-horned lamb heads and mescaline. Whether it’s oozing darkness and mystery or evoking NOLA-tastic festiveness, Gris-Gris summons its own special sauce universe that neither The Night Tripper nor anyone else in the last 50 years has surpassed.

Dave Segal, Music Writer, The Stranger

Lady Soul
Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin - Lady Soul

I don’t think I would’ve been a good hippie. Though I dearly love The Kinks and Stones albums from 1968, I think my favorite has to be Aretha Franklin’s Lady Soul.

More than 10 albums into her career by then — and at the top of her game in terms of bridging gospel, R&B and what became pop — her Groovin’ makes me forgive everything I don’t like about the original. Natural Woman and People Get Ready don’t need discussion. Even now, one word, repeated three times, will stop most people in their tracks to finish the line: “Chain, Chain, Chain…”

Carrie Colliton, Co-Founder, Record Store Day

Dorothy Ashby
Dorothy Ashby - Afro-Harping

The harp may be most commonly associated with dainty cherubs fluttering around biblical cloudscapes, but in actual fact it is sublimely freaky and unexpectedly soulful. In 1968, sonic visionaries Dorothy Ashby and Alice Coltrane independently released albums that transformed the instrument from an orchestral accessory into a centre-stage act. But it was Ashby who created a truly one-of-a-kind LP with Afro-Harping. From the hypnotic, theremin-esque twangs of opener Soul Vibrations, she seamlessly traversed across styles like celestial jazz, funk, bebop, and R&B with an affectingly adept touch. This is a testament to Ashby’s pioneering work, which 40 years later is finally getting the long overdue recognition it so rightly deserves.

Gabriela Helfet, Editorial Assistant, The Vinyl Factory

In C
Terry Riley
Terry Riley - In C

It was a distinctly unpromising scenario: An unknown Bay Area composer named Terry Riley and his friends recorded a 43-minute experimental music piece in Buffalo, N.Y. Unsurprisingly, the resulting album flew well under the radar when it was released in 1968. But In C would have a huge impact on both the contemporary classical music scene and on European rock. That’s because In C is the piece that introduced the musical style known as Minimalism to a (relatively) wider audience.

Repetitive but constantly changing, rhythmically charged but also kinda trippy, In C found a common ground between the worlds of psychedelic rock and spacey electronic studio music. By paving the way for Riley and Minimalism, In C would eventually lead to The Who’s Baba O’Riley (the “teenage wasteland” song with the Riley-inspired electronic keyboards), the krautrock of bands like Tangerine Dream, and the Steve Reich/Philip Glass music that would filter into David Bowie and Brian Eno’s work on the albums Low and Heroes.

This recording, the first of many of this ever-mutable piece, featured a relatively small ensemble overdubbing various parts, several of whom (including trumpeter Jon Hassell, perhaps best-known for his work with Eno and David Sylvian) would go on to long and important careers. Because the work is “open scoring” – i.e. it can be played by any combination of instruments – it has since been recorded by the Shanghai Film Orchestra (a recording mixed by Eno and Hassell), the Bang On A Can All-Stars, and Damon Albarn’s Africa Express, among many others. But it all started with this original Columbia Records release, which was actually out of print before being reissued on CD in 1988.

John Schaefer, Managing Editor & Host, WNYC

A Monastic Trio
Alice Coltrane
Alice Coltrane - A Monastic Trio

As a composer and musician, Alice Coltrane translated the loss of her husband, John Coltrane, into rhythms and melodies played out on harp and piano and poured into song. A Monastic Trio, her debut album released the year following his death, revealed a woman grieving, but moving forward emotionally and musically. She created complex soundscapes that pushed the boundary between crafted music and joyful noise. Her compositions blended jazz and blues, and Indian motifs, using tones to fill in the spaces left between Rashied Ali’s drums, Jimmy Garrison’s bass, and Pharoah Sanders’ irrepressible saxophone, flute, and bass clarinet. The album firmly puts Coltrane at the forefront of avant-garde jazz.

Melissa Locker, Freelance Music Journalist

Switched-On Bach
Walter Carlos
Walter / Wendy Carlos - Switched-On Bach

1968 was the year this writer’s brain was stretched like taffy, and it wasn’t from any creation in Owlsey’s lab. (This may have something to do with living in white-trash Western Pennsylvania and being 7 years old.) That was the year I saw The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown perform Fire on Tom Jones’ Sunday night variety show, and I had nightmares for a week.

But the truly weirdest thing I heard in my adolescence was this stuff that always seemed to be used as bumper music for shows and previews that ran on WQED, the Pittsburgh-based PBS affiliate. The music was ornate but unusual, like you might have heard at an amusement park merry-go-round or maaaaybe at Sunday mass. It wasn’t until I walked into the National Record Mart at the local mall and discovered Walter Carlos‘ Moog-powered adaptations of Bach (which I was still pronouncing as “Batch”) playing over the store’s speakers and having a true mind-equals-blown moment.

This record single-handedly amped up my interest in synthesizers (classical music, not so much, if I’m being honest). When I heard that first Emerson, Lake & Palmer two years later, my life was changed forever. I did end up getting Zappa‘s Lumpy Gravy and The Moody BluesIn Search Of The Lost Chord (best lyric of 1968 has to be “Fainting is the best way to travel”) years later, but Wendy (dead name: Walter) Carlos made me a synth-slave in my adolescence, and that’s why it’s the best album of 1968. Thanks, Wenners!

Jason Pettigrew, Editor-In-Chief, Alternative Press