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Best 60s Albums: 20 Classics From The Decade That Changed It All
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List & Guides

Best 60s Albums: 20 Classics From The Decade That Changed It All

Coming into bloom in the flower-power era, the best 60s albums cover psychedelic excursions, folk-rock introspection and hard-rock rebellion.

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Amid rapid shifts in attitudes to class, race, gender and sexuality, the Swinging 60s was a tumultuous decade of unrelenting change and pioneering originality. Shaking off years of stifling moral attitudes and restrictive social norms, musicians collectively ushered in a whole new era of anti-establishment dissent and boundary-pushing sonic experimentalism, with protest songs and free-love anthems alike celebrating nonconformity and venerating the outsiders, the mavericks and the misfits. The best 60s albums prove that the decade truly was a golden age for music as, across a range of genres, forward-thinking artists challenged the status quo and created timeless classics that stand the test of time…

Best 60s Albums: 20 Classics From The Decade That Changed It All

20: Aretha Franklin: ‘I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You’ (1967)

Proving the power of soul music like few other female singers before her, Aretha Franklin’s I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You was the first album she released after signing with Jerry Wexler’s Atlantic Records. Opening the record with her definitive cover of Otis Redding’s Respect, “The Queen Of Soul” reinterpreted the song as a feminist anthem that doubled up as an exuberant celebration of her newfound creative freedom on the label, forever ensuring its place among the best Aretha Franklin songs of all time.

Unsurprisingly, the rest of the album is a near-perfect summation of Franklin’s mastery of gospel, R&B and even rock’n’roll, as on her self-penned Dr Feelgood (Love Is A Serious Business) and the rip-roaring vocal outburst of Save Me. A milestone in soul music’s ascendancy, I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You stands proudly as a testament to Aretha Franklin’s peerless voice.

Must hear: Respect

19: The Stooges: ‘The Stooges’ (1969)

When Detroit-based proto-punks The Stooges surfaced in 1969 with their self-titled debut album, there was nothing else like it. Dark and chaotic, frontman Iggy Pop’s anguished screams and Ron Asheton’s heavily distorted guitar riffs put the wailing corpse of the hippie era out of its misery on a record which was largely misunderstood at the time, but which now stands unequivocally as one of the best 60s albums.

Evoking a country at war with itself (1969) and weaponising boredom (No Fun), The Stooges’ debut proved to be hugely influential on the following decade’s punk movement, thanks to its deliriously provocative mix of nihilism and three-chord simplicity. Elsewhere, I Wanna Be Your Dog is an outrageously masochistic highlight which became something of a signature song for Iggy Pop as his wild stage antics courted controversy and revulsion.

Must hear: I Wanna Be Your Dog

18: The Rolling Stones: ‘Beggars Banquet’ (1968)

The last Rolling Stones album released before the death of founding member Brian Jones, Beggars Banquet is widely considered to mark the start of the band’s imperial phase. Beginning their run of classic albums produced by Jimmy Miller, Beggars Banquet strings together the group’s scratchy blues-rock leanings with experiments with world music.

Nowhere is this better heard than on Sympathy For The Devil. Inspired by the French poet Charles Baudelaire, the song’s tribal conga rhythms wind around frontman Mick Jagger’s devilish exploration of the nature of evil in the modern world. Elsewhere, ripped straight from the riots then commanding newspaper headlines, Street Fighting Man taps into a similar vein, mixing sitar with a comment on the 1968 Paris uprising. It’s an undeniably bewitching listen.

Must hear: Sympathy For The Devil

17: Pink Floyd: ‘The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’ (1967)

After laying the foundations for British psychedelia in London’s UFO Club, Pink Floyd’s debut album, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, showcased songwriter Syd Barrett’s eccentric vision and inspired a generation with his playful, child-like wordplay. Drawing upon nursery rhymes and Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland in equal measure, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn captured the innocence of youth (Bike) as well as the nightmarish qualities of fairy tales (The Gnome).

Elsewhere, the likes of Astronomy Domine and Interstellar Overdrive gave form to the galaxy-sized jams with which Pink Floyd soundtracked the birth of London’s acid-rock scene. Released just two months after The BeatlesSgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the album inspired a tsunami of sonically adventurous kindred spirits.

Must hear: Interstellar Overdrive

16: The Kinks: ‘The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society’ (1968)

Having been banned from the US, The Kinks’ main songwriter, Ray Davies, continued his retreat into quintessentially British social commentary by offering an album of nostalgic reflections of a lost England: a world of quaint country fêtes (Village Green) and rusty locomotives (Last Of The Steam-Powered Trains).

Largely met with bemusement upon its release in 1968, The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society is now regarded as a landmark in British rock. Crystallising The Kinks’ penchant for parochial pastiche and containing quirky character studies and playfully satirical ruminations on God and country, you could even argue it invented Britpop three decades early. By celebrating a wistful view of patriotism long faded from memory, it’s an eccentric and artful triumph.

Must hear: The Village Green Preservation Society

15: Otis Redding: ‘Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul’ (1965)

For his breakthrough record, legendary soul singer Otis Redding made a beeline for the commercial mainstream, beating The Rolling Stones at their own game with his bravura cover of (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction and crafting the immortal ode to human dignity, Respect.

Recorded in Memphis’ famous Stax studio, Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul harnessed gospel, soul, R&B and pop across a range of covers and originals, with Redding giving us a whistle-stop tour on the current state of 60s Black music. The success of the album culminated in Redding making a historic performance at Monterey International Pop Festival in front of a mostly white rock audience – proof, as if it were ever needed, that he had crafted one of the best 60s albums.

Must hear: (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction

14: Van Morrison: ‘Astral Weeks’ (1968)

Irish folk-rock songwriter Van Morrison’s unassailable masterpiece, Astral Weeks stands tall as not only his best work, but one of the best 60s albums. With lyrics sizzling with mystical poetry (“If I ventured in the slipstream/Between the viaducts of your dream”), it’s an evocative, jazz-tinged work, transporting the blues to Belfast (Cyprus Avenue) and injecting it with expressionistic poetry (Madame George).

According to music critic Lester Bangs, Astral Weeks is a record about “people stunned by life, completely overwhelmed, stalled in their skins”. Musically, it explores the dazed paralysis of melancholia by mining Van Morrison’s Celtic spiritualism and his progressive folk ambitions. By imbuing music with the life-affirming power of literature, Astral Weeks is nothing less than a transcendental listening experience.

Must hear: Astral Weeks

13: The Rolling Stones: ‘Let It Bleed’ (1969)

Mirroring the demise of hippie utopianism, The Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed drips with violence and social discontent. The ominous sweep of Gimme Shelter speaks of rape and murder being “just a shot away”, and the blues epic Midnight Rambler tells the story of a prowling murderer. It’s a far cry from peace and love.

Serving up blues-rock vignettes to all manner of vices, the album typified The Rolling Stones’ rebellious and iconoclastic nature, but it also contains Mick Jagger’s greatest words of wisdom: “You can’t always get what you want/But if you try sometimes/Well, you just might find/You get what you need”. Easily one of the best 60s albums, Let It Bleed was the transfusion rock’n’roll needed.

Must hear: Gimme Shelter

12: Neil Young With Crazy Horse: ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’ (1969)

What made Neil Young’s sophomore record, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, so refreshing was how he and his band Crazy Horse courageously defied the late-60s trend for the blues with their rough-hewn and heavily distorted take on country-rock. The shambling guitar stomp of Cinnamon Girl added a heavier facet to Americana, with dark lyrics that whips up dust like a feral stallion.

Often gnarly and saw-edged, the album showcases Young’s radically ragged jamming as he duels with fellow guitarist Danny Whitten on the murder ballad Down By The River. It’s clear evidence of why the Canadian singer-songwriter came to be regarded as “The Godfather Of Grunge”, and leaves little doubt over Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’s place among the best 60s albums.

Must hear: Cinnamon Girl

11: Love: ‘Forever Changes’ (1967)

Criminally underrated at the time, the Los Angeles-based psychedelic rockers Love gifted us one of the best 60s albums in the shape of their eclectic masterpiece, Forever Changes. Produced by Bruce Botnik, the album embellished Love’s garage-rock origins with orchestral arrangements and saw them infuse psychedelia with acoustic folk and classical influences.

Conceptually, Forever Changes pondered the dark side of the 60s counterculture, expressing Arthur Lee’s scepticism about the roots of flower power. Though not a commercial success, the album is now regarded as one of the decade’s finest, exemplified by Alone Again Or’s mixing of mariachi influences with Arthur Lee’s savage takedown of free love (“Somebody said to me/You know that I could be in love with almost everyone”).

Must hear: Alone Again Or

10: The Jimi Hendrix Experience: ‘Are You Experienced’ (1967)

Touching down in 60s Britain as if beamed in from outer space, legendary guitarist Jimi Hendrix changed the face of rock’n’roll forever with his love of ear-pummelling distortion and his remarkable virtuosity. The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s debut album, Are You Experienced, erupted from London’s psychedelic scene and became an instant classic thanks to the sci-fi blast of Manic Depression and, included on the US edition of the album, Purple Haze – songs which established its creator as one of the best guitarists of all time.

Elsewhere, Hendrix’s scorching rocker Fire and the evocative xylophone-accompanied soloing on The Wind Cries Mary – another standalone UK single given album placement in the US – underscored the arrival of a once-in-a-lifetime musical genius. Fusing the amped-up noise of The Who with an authentic feel for the blues, it’s a truly historic entry among the best 60s albums.

Must hear: Purple Haze

9: Led Zeppelin: ‘Led Zeppelin’ (1969)

Immediate and vital, Led Zeppelin’s debut album saw guitarist Jimmy Page bring his unique vision of a heavier take on the blues kicking and screaming to life, with essential support from Robert Plant’s cathartic vocals, John Paul Jones’ floor-rattling bass and John Bonham’s earth-shattering drums. Acting as their hard-rock manifesto, the turbo-charged Communication Breakdown and Good Times Bad Times added fire to the kindling of Dazed And Confused’s swirling embers.

Instantly regarded as one of the best 60s albums, Led Zeppelin’s debut also included covers of the late 50s folk song Babe I’m Gonna Leave You and blues legend Willie Dixon’s I Can’t Quit You Baby, giving momentum to the group’s desire to put a heavier spin on folk and blues standards as they sped ahead of the rest with pistons pumping.

Must hear: Communication Breakdown

8: Bob Dylan: ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ (1965)

Spurning the pressure of being “the voice of a generation”, Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited shook off the singer-songwriter’s folk beginnings and embraced an electrified take on ramshackle blues-rock. Flirting with surrealistic wordplay akin to that of Beat poets such as Allen Ginsberg, Dylan’s gleefully absurdist lyrics (Desolation Row) and free-form Jack Kerouac-esque streams of consciousness (Like A Rolling Stone) turned their back on direct social commentary and dragged rock’n’roll into pastures new.

Still finding space for beautifully haunting piano ballads such as Ballad Of A Thin Man, the cryptic songwriting on Highway 61 Revisited mark it out as one of Dylan’s best 60s albums, and found a vein of creativity he would tap into once more on Blonde On Blonde. By subverting expectations, a legend was born.

Must hear: Like A Rolling Stone

7: The Beatles: ‘Revolver’ (1966)

With John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s songwriting, and George Martin’s innovative production as formidable as ever, The Beatles’ 1966 album, Revolver, was nothing short of revolutionary. While testing the limits of studio-based wizardry, the songs ranged from kitchen-sink chamber pop (Eleanor Rigby) to Indian raga (Love You To), kid-friendly singalongs (Yellow Submarine), sinuous acid rock (She Said She Said) and jaunty pop (Good Day Sunshine).

Needless to say, Revolver stands the test of time as one of the best 60s albums: a pioneering work of art, it gestured towards the avant-garde by embracing Stockhausen’s use of tape loops on Tomorrow Never Knows, a psych-rock mind-melter that saw John Lennon recite words from the Tibetan Book Of The Dead. Brazen and experimental, The Beatles had elevated their musical talents to a higher plane, scaling heights from which they would never come down.

Must hear: Tomorrow Never Knows

6: The Doors: ‘The Doors’ (1967)

Named after Aldous Huxley’s trippy book The Doors Of Perception, The Doors’ debut album opened audiences’ collective third eye thanks to the spiritual bent of frontman Jim Morrison’s edgy poeticism and keyboardist Ray Manzarek’s mesmerising playing. Floating freely with almost jazzy abandon, the record foretold a gloomy and near-apocalyptic prophecy, soundtracking the anti-war mood of the hippie era with some of the best Doors songs, among them the agenda-setting Break On Through (To The Other Side), the steamy baroque-pop hit Light My Fire and the 11-minute closing epic, The End.

Elsewhere, the Brecht/Weill cabaret of Alabama Song (Whisky Bar) adds a touch of Weimar decadence to proceedings, expertly summing up the doomed romanticism of the West Coast’s peace-and-love ideals. Uncompromising and often dark, The Doors’ debut ranks among the best 60s albums for the way Jim Morrison saw the writing on the wall and turned it into pure poetry.

Must hear: Break On Through (To The Other Side)

5: The Beach Boys: ‘Pet Sounds’ (1966)

Moving on from the carefree surf-rock that made The Beach Boys a household name, songwriter and producer Brian Wilson stretched his eccentric production skills with their 1966 masterpiece, Pet Sounds. Dewy-eyed and dreamlike, the album harnessed Californian pop songcraft with sonic effects such as bicycle bells and horn sections to paint a melancholic picture of Wilson’s imagination.

From the perky Wouldn’t It Be Nice to the introspective I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times, Pet Sounds was a quintessentially American marvel full of innovative production techniques. Better yet was the heavenly love ballad God Only Knows, an expansive work of pop melodicism that Paul McCartney described as “one of the few songs that reduces me to tears”. No wonder, then, that it inspired The Beatles to create Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Must hear: God Only Knows

4: The Beatles: ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ (1967)

No album captured the cultural zeitgeist of the 60s better than Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Released at the height of the Summer Of Love, it provided a conceptual master class in genre-hopping progressive pop and sonically ambitious psychedelic sounds. Whether you favour John Lennon spinning heads with Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds or Paul McCartney hopping in a time machine on When I’m Sixty-Four, there’s something here for everyone.

As one of the best 60s albums, Sgt Pepper wasn’t just era-defining, it also demonstrated to other musicians the artistic viability of the long-playing vinyl format as The Beatles encouraged rock’n’rollers to tackle diverse influences ranging from Indian music to avant-garde orchestration. By showcasing the limitless possibilities of studio experimentation, there’s no denying the influence of an album that set the blueprint for everything else that followed.

Must hear: A Day In The Life

3: Led Zeppelin: ‘Led Zeppelin II’ (1969)

Led Zeppelin’s sophomore outing earns its place as one of the best 60s albums for how the group honed their pioneering blend of blues and hard-rock. With Jimmy Page’s gut-busting riffs (Whole Lotta Love, Heartbreaker) and John Bonham’s pummelling drum solos (Moby Dick), it also became the band’s breakthrough when it reached No.1 on both sides of the Atlantic.

Within six months, the record had sold three million copies in the US, outstripping all competition. Led Zeppelin II also saw Robert Plant pen Ramble On after leafing through the pages of JRR Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings for inspiration, coming up with a fantastical fusion of mythical lore and Page’s blues roots that paved the way for Led Zeppelin’s later evolution. Streamlining the group’s powerful hard-rock formula, it asserted Led Zeppelin’s place among the best rock bands in history.

Must hear: Whole Lotta Love

2: The Beatles: ‘Abbey Road’ (1969)

As the final album recorded by The Beatles, Abbey Road found the group on typically groundbreaking form. Not only did guitarist George Harrison come into full bloom as a truly great songwriter (Something, Here Comes The Sun) but drummer Ringo Starr emerged with a charming aquatic ditty (Octopus’s Garden) while John Lennon’s swampy, minimalist rock (Come Together) sat neatly alongside Paul McCartney’s Moog-laced music hall (Maxwell’s Silver Hammer).

Cementing itself as one of the best 60s albums, the record’s second half saw George Martin’s exemplary production style string together stray song fragments into a fully-fledged pop opera – the fabled Abbey Road medley included McCartney’s melodic You Never Give Me Your Money before majestically closing the door on The Beatles’ songwriting journey with The End. Going on to sell 27.5 million copies worldwide to date, it’s clear Abbey Road is nothing less than The Beatles’ crowning achievement.

Must hear: Come Together

1: The Velvet Underground: ‘The Velvet Underground & Nico’ (1967)

Cooked up in Andy Warhol’s Factory warehouse in New York City, The Velvet Underground’s 1967 debut was a dark counterpoint to hippie idealism, and stands as on of the most influential albums of all time. With Lou Reed’s transgressive lyrics tackling drugs and S&M (Heroin, Venus In Furs) and John Cale’s hypnotic viola putting an avant-garde spin on harmonics, it ushered in an era of art-rock with twinkly music-box pop (Sunday Morning) and German singer Nico’s sultry European influence (Femme Fatale).

Reportedly only selling 30,000 copies, the album’s lo-fi production values and controversial subject matter provided a seminal touchstone for David Bowie. “I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band!” Bowie’s producer Brian Eno later said. Without The Velvet Underground & Nico, the rise of glam, punk, new wave and indie in the following decades would have been far less provocative and confrontational – and that’s why it tops our list of the best 60s albums.

Must hear: Sunday Morning

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