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1968: It was a very good year

By Ed Symkus Globe Correspondent 

A half-century ago, in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered; Bobby Kennedy was murdered; riots plagued the Democratic National Convention; Richard Nixon was elected president; and ABC canceled “Batman.”

But music helped us get through. WBCN started programming rock, and record companies, prompted by 1967’s “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” wanted albums to be fully formed listening experiences, rather than collections of a couple of hits and some filler.

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The idea for this story is to celebrate 10 great records that turn 50 in 2018. But with such a wealth of choices, would readers revolt if “Astral Weeks” didn’t make the cut? What about “Music from Big Pink” or “Crown of Creation?”

The solution: Make it subjective; make it my favorites, not “the best.” Happy 50th to them all.

The Beatles: “The Beatles”

The boys weren’t getting along while creating the so-called “White Album,” and some songs were recorded without whole-group participation. But creative juices flowed, and the double LP features an astoundingly wide range of music, from the lilting “Blackbird” to the hard-rocking “Helter Skelter,” the old-timey “Honey Pie,” and the incomprehensible “Revolution 9.” The scope of sounds and personal nature of some pieces — the bouncy “Martha My Dear” is about Paul’s dog, the haunting “Julia” is about John’s mother — make up for any lack of cohesiveness.

Jeff Beck: “Truth”

Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart get serious about guitar playing and raspy singing on the opener, a remake of the Yardbirds’ “Shapes of Things,” then call and respond to each other in their bluesy “Let Me Love You.” Even with strong rhythm from bassist Ron Wood and drummer Mick Waller, Beck rules. His wah-wah prowess shines on covers of “Morning Dew” and “I Ain’t Superstitious,” but he’s best on the Beck-Stewart composition “Rock My Plimsoul.” The instrumental “Beck’s Bolero” is an older recording featuring Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, and Keith Moon.

Big Brother & the Holding Company: “Cheap Thrills”

“Four gentlemen and one great, great broad,” says Bill Graham, introducing Janis Joplin and band on “Combination of the Two.” While their playing is sloppy, the guitar work of James Gurley and Sam Houston Andrew is also fearless. Add the ragged power of Joplin’s vocals, and you’ve got an intense set of live and studio blues-rockers. Even her whispers are chilling in the standard “Summertime.” But the album remains known for her uninhibited, shouted cover of Erma Franklin’s “Piece of My Heart” and her emotionally draining take of Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball and Chain.”

Blood, Sweat & Tears: “Child Is Father to the Man”

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This is where Al Kooper’s vision of a rock-blues band complemented by brass and reeds came to life. Kooper sings most of the leads, soulfully in “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know,” screaming at full tilt in the epic “Somethin’ Goin’ On.” Producer John Simon’s string arrangements are spot-on, though he lays the horns on a bit thick in a couple of tunes. But every instrument, along with Kooper’s strongest vocal, find a perfect balance on the mid-tempo rocker “I Can’t Quit Her.”

The Byrds: “Sweetheart of the Rodeo”

These folk-rockers went pure country when they welcomed Gram Parsons into the fold with a couple of his originals — “Hickory Wind” and “One Hundred Years from Now” — in a batch of covers including Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd.” The Byrds lineup always featured talented musicians, but this record was spruced up by a host of Nashville players. Leader Roger McGuinn refrained from singing all of the songs, allowing the full-voiced Parsons to do a couple, to best effect on the honky-tonk rollicker “You’re Still on My Mind.”

The Jimi Hendrix Experience: “Electric Ladyland”

Hendrix was an extraordinary player, but not a great composer, and this double set of mostly Hendrix originals would have been an exceptional single LP. Once it starts cooking with the energetic “Crosstown Traffic,” Hendrix moves on to prove he was the American blues-rock-jam guitarist of the day on “Voodoo Chile.” The jazzy “Rainy Day, Dream Away” is a strong, little-known song, but Hendrix takes it all home with the majestic twin ending of the best rock cover. . . ever: Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” and his own “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).”

The Moody Blues: “In Search of the Lost Chord”

Marred only by some insubstantial poetry, this is an album that immediately clicks with “Ride My See-Saw,” introducing multiple metaphorical “searchings” for meanings in life. You could call it the first major concept album, albeit one that contains references to giant Antarctic eels in “Dr. Livingstone, I Presume” and the joys of dropping acid in “Legend of a Mind.” Different sorts of getting high are addressed in “The Best Way to Travel” and “Om,” but it’s the group’s shimmering three-part harmonies that really give the album substance.

The Nice: “Ars Longa Vita Brevis”

The sound mix is poor, and bassist Lee Jackson isn’t a good singer, but the album is brimming with ambitious ideas, killer keyboard playing by Keith Emerson, and mostly outstanding drumming from Brian Davison. “America,” from “West Side Story,” an audacious and thrilling union of composers Dvorak and Bernstein, leads to jazz-pop mode in the catchy “Little Arabella.” Sibelius’s “Karelia Suite” morphs from classical to psychedelic, and the orchestral title track that takes up all of Side Two rocks out with Emerson’s most adventurous work on the album: “Brandenburger,” his take on Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto No. 3.”

The Rolling Stones: “Beggars Banquet”

The year’s “other white album” (Decca and London vetoed the original cover showing a toilet) marked a big step in the evolution of the blues-based Stones, with all sorts of songs coming from myriad directions. The slick ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ still stands tall, building in intensity and boasting Keith’s blistering guitar work. As does the largely misunderstood (and non-violent) “Street Fighting Man.” But the lesser-known songs are also treats: the salacious “Stray Cat Blues” and the rowdy, bluesy “Prodigal Son,” which was “borrowed” from Robert Wilkins’s 1929 “That’s no Way to Get Along.”

Simon and Garfunkel: “Bookends”

The delicate opening guitar notes of “Bookends Theme” cut to the bombast of “Save the Life of My Child,” marking the album’s first misstep. From there, the duo’s ethereal harmonies float through the forlorn “America,” the sad “Overs” and the lilting “Old Friends,” with a dissonant string section the album’s only other flaw. Highlights include the cheery “Punky’s Dilemma,” the infectious pop hit “Mrs. Robinson,” some full-out rockin’ and peculiar lyrics in “At the Zoo” and, thankfully, a lovely, soothing “demo” of “Old Friends” to cap it off.


Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.