Every year offers music both good and bad, but some years have a special pull. In My Favorite Music Year, A.V. Club music writers choose the years that speak to them most deeply, however fresh in memory or far in the past.
I have a friend who subscribes to a school of music fandom that strikes me as being fundamentally misguided, and also (I suspect) fairly common: He only listens to music that was released during his lifetime. His theory is that there’s simply too much great music in the world for anybody to hear it all, so you’re better off trying to stay on top of the new stuff so you can appreciate it in the context of the moment it was created and disseminated to the world.
If I try really hard I can sort of understand this point of view, though to me it’s like saying, “Hey, sorry Hitchcock, but I’m fine sticking with Disturbia, thank you very much!” I guess I just don’t grade music on a chronological scale. Blame it on all the hours I spent as a child in the backseat of my parents’ car listening to oldies and classic rock radio, bobbing my head to everything from Gary Lewis And The Playboys’ “This Diamond Ring” to The McCoys’ “Hang On Sloopy” to Chicago’s “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” I’ve never looked at music in terms of “old” and “new,” just old and new to me. So when I dug my dad’s copies of Rubber Soul and Big Hits (High Tide And Green Grass) out of the CD drawer, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were as much a part of the present tense at the time as Nirvana and Pearl Jam.
I’m constantly finding new artists and genres to obsess over, but if you press me, the easiest music for me to love is played on guitar, bass, and drums, with occasional accompaniment from horns, strings, organs, pianos, harmonicas, and harpsichords. I like handclaps, lots of backing vocals, and four-track recordings. I like pop music that sounds jangly, echo-y, and live, with an underlying sense of old-fashioned show-business professionalism.
I could’ve gone with any year from the mid-’60s to the early ’70s as My Favorite Music Year; I chose 1966 because it’s a year of such unbelievably bountiful riches that it’s frankly difficult for me to imagine living through it firsthand. What was it like to walk into a record store and see deathless warhorses like Pet Sounds, Blonde On Blonde, and Revolver in the new releases section? (Let’s not forget classics by The Stones, The Who, The Kinks, The Byrds, Otis Redding, The Animals, Cream, and Buffalo Springfield, as well as “second-tier” releases by The Yardbirds, Jefferson Airplane, Frank Zappa, and Love, to name just a dozen nuggets from ’66.) Those records were already so ingrained in the musical landscape by the time I was schooling myself in rock history 20 years ago that I felt like I already knew them before playing them for the first time. 1966 wasn’t a year of mere masterpieces; it was a time of records that birthed whole genres while also—and here’s the truly amazing part—fully engaging the mainstream, spawning radio hits and influencing pop culture in ways that still can be felt.
The music of 1966 hits the sweet spot between two eras. On one side, you have a period dominated by professional songwriters and an unpretentious pursuit of the pleasure principle, which was ending (or at least making itself less obvious). On the other side is a period of self-conscious artistic and intellectual exploration and cultural experimentation that was just starting to bubble up from the underground. It was the beginning of pop music being treated with a measure of seriousness; the first American rock magazine, Paul Williams’ Crawdaddy!, was created in ’66, and the Beatles and Bob Dylan began openly forsaking the star system, opting to cease touring in order to focus instead on creating the blueprint for the next 40 years of rock music. (In Dylan’s case, this decision came after his infamous tour with The Hawks, where he deliberately performed music he knew many of his fans hated. It would be another 10 years before this approach was officially codified as “punk rock.”)
But the music of ’66 wasn’t too serious; even thinking-man’s pop artists were expected to come up with radio product. It was the year before Sgt. Pepper officially made the LP the predominant artistic vehicle for pop artists; in ’66, making heart-stopping singles was at least as important as grouping songs together into a cohesive statement. As Dylan was blowing the doors wide open for lyrical expression and laying the groundwork for the counter-cultural takeover of mainstream pop culture with Blonde On Blonde, you could also hear his sweet ditty “I Want You” and the borderline novelty song “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” on Top 40 radio. And while the Beach Boys, to quote Mike Love, “fucked with the formula” of their sun ’n’ fun hitmaking machine with Pet Sounds, plenty of that album’s songs became hits, including “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “Sloop John B.” (There was also the stand-alone single “Good Vibrations,” a profoundly influential force of nature all by itself.)
Sweet Jesus, was the radio a wondrous place at the time, with all kinds of music playing together in perfect harmony. You had foot-stomping Southern R&B rubbing up next to British Invasion proto-psychedelia, slickly packaged bubblegum pop skipping along with crude garage rock that literally came out of garages, and ingeniously belabored studio creations sharing the floor with proudly junky fluff crapped out in a few hours.
Turn on the radio at any time of the day and you could hear Four Tops’ “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” The Mamas And The Papas’ “California Dreamin’,” The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High,” Sam & Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Comin’,” Percy Sledge’s “When A Man Loves A Woman,” The Troggs’ “Wild Thing,” The Cyrkle’s “Red Rubber Ball,” Lee Dorsey’s “Working In The Coal Mine,” Eddie Floyd’s “Knock On Wood,” The Monkees’ “Last Train To Clarksville,” The Rolling Stones’ “19th Nervous Breakdown,” Count Five’s “Psychotic Reaction,” Simon And Garfunkel’s “Sounds Of Silence,” Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight (Everything’s Alright),” The Hollies’ “Bus Stop,” The Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’,’” Tommy James’ “Hanky Panky,” and many, many, many more unbeatable favorites of shower singers and karaoke champions everywhere. I already love these songs, but I bet they’d really sing without the added baggage of all the commercials, movie trailers, and wedding receptions that have all but run them into the ground in the decades since.
STEVEN HYDEN’S TOP 5 ALBUMS OF 1966
1. Bob Dylan, Blonde On Blonde
Blonde On Blonde capped the greatest 18-month period for any artist in rock ’n’ roll history, forming a furiously visionary trilogy with Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited that definitively declared rock’s separation from pop. But what’s really revolutionary about Blonde On Blonde is how gleefully off-the-cuff it sounds; Dylan was just a 24-year-old speed freak when he made this record, but unlike practically every other person that’s ever abused amphetamines, he was actually justified in feeling like the master of the universe.
2. The Beach Boys, Pet Sounds
Brian Wilson succeeded where so many shy, sensitive wannabe pop-music geniuses have failed: He made Pet Sounds, the ultimate expression of melodic melancholy in modern pop music. Wilson wanted to be Phil Spector, but Pet Sounds made the loneliest boy in Southern California the enduring role model for moody guys in love with the beauty of their own sadness.
3. The Beatles, Revolver
It’s a testament to how deep ’66 is that a record as monumental as Revolver takes the bronze medal on my list; Revolver is not only in the discussion for being the Beatles’ best album, it’s a pivotal turning point, marking when pop culture turned from the relatively ’50s-like squareness of the early and mid-’60s to the recognizably tie-dyed version of “the ’60s” that we all know and love. Plus, it has the light-years-ahead-of-its-time “Tomorrow Never Knows,” where Ringo Starr tells anybody who’s ever joked about his drumming to go fuck themselves.
4. Buffalo Springfield, Buffalo Springfield
If Blonde On Blonde, Pet Sounds, and Revolver signal the beginning of the “real” ’60s, this record feels like an early start to the ’70s, foreshadowing the country-rock and laid-back singer-songwriter fare that would dominate Los Angeles until the early ’80s. Buffalo Springfield rocked harder than the bands it inspired, which isn’t immediately apparent on Buffalo Springfield due to the muted production. But the songwriting prowess of the band’s stars, Stephen Stills and Neil Young, was already apparent on instant classics like “For What It’s Worth” and “Flying On The Ground Is Wrong.”
5. The Rolling Stones, Aftermath
The greatest singles band of the ’60s, The Stones didn’t put out a masterful, all-original album until the supremely nasty Aftermath, a record that set a template of scathing, taboo-shredding blues rock that Mick and Keef would keep pushing to even greater heights until the early ’70s. This was also the last time Brian Jones exerted a dominant role in the Stones, adding exotic instrumental textures to “Paint It, Black” and “Under My Thumb.”
The Who’s slapdash second album A Quick One is a transitional work between the band’s epochal debut, My Generation, and its most likeable record, The Who Sell Out. But it does include Pete Townshend’s first stab at a rock opera (“A Quick One, While He’s Away”) and some rare and surprisingly strong songwriting contributions from Roger Daltrey (“See My Way”) and Keith Moon (the bizarre “Cobwebs And Strange”). With Face To Face, The Kinks were in full stride, with Ray Davies grabbing full command of the witty, wistful authorial voice that would really flower on Something Else and The Village Green Preservation Society. British blues rock was still in its prime thanks to budding legend Eric Clapton, who was already inspiring “Clapton is God” graffiti all over London due to his playing on two landmark records: Blues Breakers, recorded with John Mayall’s band, Cream’s debut Fresh Cream. The latter record would prove particularly influential, helping to form the British hard-rock template later perfected by Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. For a more straightforward version of British blues, The Animals’ Animalization—the American version of the British album Animalisms—features a top-notch mix of covers and fantastic originals like “Don’t Bring Me Down” and the unstoppable “Inside Looking Out.”
Over in America, The Byrds fortified their position as the defining band of L.A. stoner country-rock with Fifth Dimension, though the rawness of Love’s self-titled debut portended the rise of a more sinister strain of L.A. rock that was just around the corner. (There were lots of other lesser-known bands tearing up the Sunset Strip at the time, as featured in the excellent boxed set Where The Action Is! Los Angeles Nuggets 1965-1968.) Down in Texas, Roky Erickson and his band the 13th Floor Elevators explored the dark underbelly of the drug culture that seemingly every other band was glorifying on their debut The Psychedelic Sounds Of The 13th Floor Elevators, a spooky record distinguished by Erickson’s piercing screams and the otherworldly bubbling of Tommy Hall’s one-of-a-kind electric jug. While R&B artists were still a few years away from conceiving albums as more than a collection of songs, Otis Redding’s fantastic Complete And Unbelievable: The Otis Redding Dictionary Of Soul and Sam & Dave’s Hold On, I’m Comin’ have plenty to offer beyond the recognizable hits. The same goes for The Monkees’ self-titled first record and Paul Revere And The Raiders’ Midnight Ride, two excellent examples of ’60s pop-rock combining the best in Brill Building songwriting and incredibly rocking studio musicianship.
It seems like every record that I’ve already mentioned points toward something major that happened in popular music a little later on. But even scanning the less notable releases of 1966—relatively speaking, of course—you’ll find sneak previews of where music was headed for the next couple of decades. There’s nascent punk (The Monks’ furiously primitive Black Monk Time and The Sonics’ positively thunderous Boom, as well as singles from the Count Five, The Music Machine, ? And The Mysterians, and loads of scruffy one-hit wonders), metal (The Troggs’ Wild Thing and The Yardbirds’ Roger The Engineer), outrageous, taboo-smashing art-rock (The Mothers Of Invention’s debut Freak Out! and The Fugs’ second self-titled album), and introspective singer-songwriter fare (Tim Hardin’s Tim Hardin 1, Tim Buckley’s self-titled debut, and Fred Neil’s self-titled second album). If you happened to be club-goer in the world’s hippest cities, you would’ve also caught The Velvet Underground, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, The Grateful Dead, and The Doors right before they put out their first records.
Runner-up: 1991 is probably my favorite music year of my lifetime, a period that’s loaded with albums that are responsible for making me a lifetime music fan (particularly Nirvana’s Nevermind and U2’s Achtung Baby) as well as other personal faves like A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory, Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend, My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque, Guns N’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion I and II, and Ween’s The Pod. Going back on the classic-rock tip, I could spend a lifetime just listening to music from 1971, the year of The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, The Who’s Who’s Next, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Sly And The Family Stone’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On, Led Zeppelin IV, Rod Stewart’s Every Picture Tells A Story, Elvis Presley’s Elvis Country, The Beach Boys’ Surf’s Up, and lots of other records I still plan on playing when I’m 90.