Continuing the series of albums of the year, I am condensing the years of the ’60s prior to that of my birth. It was not a time for albums yet, at least not in pop. There were classic jazz albums, such as Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, an essential album of the decade with which I have never been able to close a friendship. In the ’60s the great Sinatra left Capitol and Nelson Riddle to become a crooner for the people following him into middle-age. There was one final great Capitol album, some goofing with the Rat Pack, then straight into bloated easy listening territory. Sinatra became so bland, he made Engelbert Humperdinck seem like the muse for the New York Dolls.
But the early ’60s also saw the rise of the Beatles as a pop band which could churn out good albums at an alarming rate. Consider that between the ropey debut of Please, Please Me to Rubber Soul, not quite three years passed. Only two years after Rubber Soul came the ludicrously influential Sgt Peppers. Two years later, the Beatles were finished. Such a rich body of work and astonishing artistic growth in seven years. Think about it: an act starting out in 2000 and breaking up about now, leaving behind a legacy like that. No wonder the Beatles are represented in this top 10 three times, with some consideration for two of the remaining three albums.
As ever, my top 10s are also not representative of the “best” albums of the year. Some are, but others will be included simply because I like them, knowing well that they are not as innovative or influential as others I have listed.
1. The Beatles – Help (1965)
On Sunday I bought the new DVD set. The movie looks and sounds great. Its cinematic merits aside (it is a bit ropey), Help! the film is a fascinating time capsule, coming after The Goons and before Monty Python. Add to that the Fab Four in action, and the songs, and it is a richly rewarding DVD, at least for the Beatles fan. And the album is my favourite Beatles set of all.
Help was the culmination of the Beatles’ innocent period, before lyrics started to acquire deeper meanings; before musical innovation became a hallmark of Beatles albums; before George Harrison was given the opportunity to express himself. Notable is the Dylan influence on both Lennon and McCartney — on “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” (my all-time favourite Beatles song, by John) and on the country-flavoured “I’ve Just Seen A Face” (Paul). “Ticket To Ride” and the title track hint at the leap the group would make just a few months later with Rubber Soul. For now, though, the songs were mostly still uncomplicated and sometimes even a bit goofy (”You’re Going To Lose That Girl”, “Another Girl”, Ringo’s cover of Buck Owen’s “Act Naturally”).
Perhaps because Help was recorded just as the Beatles became musically more adventurous, but before such innovation turned up some aberrations, it is their most perfect pop album. Even the inappropriate Dizzy Miss Lizzy, a throwback to the first three albums that should have been replaced by I’m Down (b-side to the single release of Help), cannot detract from the album’s perfection — positioned, as it is, at the end of the album, one can just switch it off.
The Beatles – You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away.mp3
The Beatles – You’re Gonna Lose That Girl.mp3
The Beatles – I’ve Just Seen A Face.mp3
2. The Beatles – A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
In preparation for this post, I listened to the three Beatles albums under review. I was going to rank Rubber Soul higher, but was reminded that there was more guff on that album than there is on the Beatles’ first soundtrack album. Somehow, my respect for Beatles albums tends to be based on the quality not of the singles but that of the tracks that were neither singles nor included on the 1973 red and blue compilations (a question of overfamiliarity, probably). And the album tracks on A Hard Day’s Night are just great: Anytime At All (how was that never a single?), I’ll Cry Instead, If I Fell, I’ll Be back. The singles/red album numbers – the title track, Things We Said Today, I Should Have Known Better, Can’t Buy Me Love – are outstanding as well. Oh, and the movie was really good as well (“He’s such a clean old man”).
The Beatles – Anytime At All.mp3
3. Vince Guaraldi Trio – A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
The soundtrack to the Peanuts Christmas special. It is a sublime film and a sublime record. Both are immensely comforting, I find. This might be the only jazz album which people who hate jazz can love, and which jazz lovers can forgive for being loved by jazz novices. Nominally it is a Christmas album. If one is familiar with the Peanuts film, it will evoke Christmas. If not, it might well do so anyway, but it works at any time of the year. Listen to O Tannenbaum, a cool bass and piano driven version of the quintessential German yuletide song (Silent Night is Austrian, don’t you know?): it extends far beyond the Christmas spirit and fir trees. And yet, if you want it to be about Christmas, it can and will be. Even the 4 minute version of the Peanuts theme song (properly titled Linus And Lucy).
Vince Guaraldi Trio – O Tannenbaum.mp3
4. Miles Davis – Sketches Of Spain (1960)
First off, I love the album cover. But if that were enough to qualify, Herb Alpert would be included in this post. Sketches Of Spain delivers what it promises: Davis interpreting Spanish music. Rodrigo’s classical Spanish guitar piece Concierto De Aranjuez gets the trumpet treatment, with Gil Evans’ luscious, deeply affecting arrangement producing 12 minutes and 43 seconds of utter bliss. I have said it before, to appreciate Miles Davis’ powers of innovation, one must look to his subtle works, certainly not to the jazz fusion wankery of Witches Brew. On Sketches Of Spain, things sway gently one moment, next a jolt as the tune segues into a film noir mood before it regains its whispering, ominous beauty. It is indeed a sad album, perhaps the saddest instrumental album I know besides Morricone’s wonderful soundtrack of Once Upon A Time In America. It is a rare and special thing when being a passive participant to such sadness can make one glad to be alive. Listen to this track, and, for the sake of experiment, cue your favourite upbeat pop song to follow it. My bet is that you will resent the pop song for crashing in on the afterglow of the emotion Davis has created.
Miles Davis – Concierto De Aranjuez.mp3
5. The Beatles – Rubber Soul (1965)
Never mind Revolver, it was Rubber Soul that represented the quantum leap in the Beatles’ artistic trajectory. Suddenly all kinds of strange instruments – especially George’s sitar – crept into the music, and the lyrics became increasingly surreal and, at times, cynical. Lennon seemed to be a bitter chap at that point. Run For Your Life, even by his own admission, is a nasty song, and Drive My Car is far from the polite tone of previous records (though Another Girl on Help is pretty mercenary). Some of the generic lyrics are still evident on the songs by Paul and George; it is John who first breaks out of the easy-going ghetto. Two songs stand out: the nostalgic In My Life, which seems to have been written by a man twice Lennon’s age, and Girl, which fuses a beautiful melody with much exasperated bitterness. The latter also has the best single sound on the album: the sharp intake of air through closed teeth, which serves to emphasise the protagonist’s frustration. The counterpoint is McCartney’s Michelle, an atrocious song which the greasepot crooners quickly latched on to as they had done with Yesterday and would do with Something. But where Yesterday is a brilliant song (spoiled by overexposure) and Something is sublime, Michelle is just horrible.
The Beatles – Girl.mp3
6. Stan Getz & Joao Gilberto – Getz/Gilberto (1964)
When I picked this album up in a charity thrift shop in the ’80s, I had no idea what a classic I was buying. To be honest, I had no idea who Gilberto was, only a vague idea about Getz, bossa nova was a mystery to me, and I regarded The Girl From Ipanema as a cheesy elevator muzak tune which punk forgot to kill. I bought the album solely because I liked the cover. I need not explain what happened when I played the record, at least not to those who love it as I do. This is a late-night, kick-back record, intimate and warm. It is a great lovemaking record, I imagine (I’ve never thought of testdriving it for that purpose). Astrud Gilberto may not be the greatest singer of all time (she was roped in only because she could sing in English), but her relaxed and cute voice, when it appears, provides the varnish to Getz’s cool sax, Joao’s warm vocals and Jobim’s astounding compositions.
Getz/Gilberto – The Girl From Ipanema.mp3
7. Bob Dylan – The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963)
I am not a Dylanisto. To me, not every Dylan album is a masterpiece, even as I have most of the older ones. This one, however, is superb, with the relative sparseness of the music (in contrast to Highway 61 Revisited anyway) all the more emphasising Dylan’s poetry. There are some songs one may happily overlook when compiling the definitive Dylan anthology (Down The Highway!), and the inclusion of two self-referencing songs smacks of egotism. But when Freewheelin’ hits, it hits so well. The hits are obvious – Blowin’ In The Wind, A Hard Rain’s…, Don’t Tink Twice… – but lesser known tracks like Corrina Corrina, Girl From The North Country and the quite funny I Shall Be Free are very good indeed. The surprise track is Talking World War III Blues, a song that engrosses the listener with its sermonising and satirising storytelling – despite the unappealing title, Dylan’s terrible vocals and the overbearing harmonica. I suppose the astute Dylan fan might wonder why, if I like that, I am not a Dylanista. It just ain’t me, babe.
Bob Dylan – Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.mp3
8. Otis Redding – Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul (1965)
It is tantalising to imagine what might have become of Otis Redding had he not died in a plane crash in 1968. Would he have adapted to the smoother sounds of ’70s soul? Would he have dabbled in disco? Might the future of soul music been shaped along a different path by this great singer’s influence? Or would he have gone the way of many of his contemporaries, into oblivion and largely excised from public consciousness until the ’60s soul revival of the ’80s (Londoners may well recall the Friday night club at the Kentish Town & Country Club, the Locomotion). The question I’m really posing is this: is Otis Redding a legend because of his music, or because of his dramatic death when he was in his prime? On the evidence of this album (the title and cover of which suggests that Otis was a country singer dabbling in soul as Ray Charles did in country), I’m inclined to think that Redding is a legend because he is. Redding took the Stones’ Satisfaction, and replaced Jagger’s great insolent vocals with mature emotion (the story goes that Otis had never heard the song before recording it). There is Respect, the original, done so in such a unique way that Aretha Franklin could take the song and shape it in her own image. There is the Temptations’ My Girl, no longer a cute spark of sunlight, but deflowered by the soulman. Redding even manages to nearly match Sam Cooke’s soaring A Change Is Gonna Come. But the highlight is I’ve Been Loving You Too Long, which Redding co-wrote with the great Jerry Butler (a song Isaac Hayes should have covered in a 15-minute epic). Redding’s performance of it at the Monterrey festival shortly before the plane crash is even more fantastic. And so I’m offering that live version rather than the one on the album.
Otis Redding – I’ve Been Loving You (live in Monterrey).mp3
9. Frank Sinatra – Nice ‘n’ Easy (1960)
This album (which I bought at the same charity shop as the Getz/Gilberto LP) marked the beginning of the end of Sinatra’s glorious Capitol/Nelson Riddle era. A few albums on the label followed, but the decline was beginning to set in amid a rapidly changing musical landscape. The besuited swing stars of the ’50s were beginning to fade, and a new batch of groovily clad and chesthaired poseurs like Humperdinck and Tom Jones were taking their place. All the more the pity. The killer track on this album is the title song, with the great spoken line, “Like the man said, one more time”, symbolising the last great hurrah of Sinatra’s credibility, just one album before he recorded Old Mac Donald, for crying out loud. But while the title track swings , the rest of the album is Sinatra in relaxed balladeering mood. It might have been false advertising, but the listener is not being cheated. Tracks like I Got A Crush On You, That Old Feeling and Try A Little Tenderness (just a few years before Otis Redding totally revamped and appropriated the song) showcase Sinatra’s capacity for investing himself into a song, before he descended into the greasepit of covering Yesterday and Something for our mothers’ uncles.
Frank Sinatra – Nice ‘n’ Easy.mp3
10. The Rat Pack – Live At The Sands (1963)
I am cheating now. This album was released only in 2001, presumably to cash in on the Rat Pack retro hype inspired by the remake of Ocean’s 11 and fed off by the likes of Robbie Williams trying to capture some of the cool. Oh, but the Rat Pack dudes were cool (it was Humphrey Bogart, of course, who founded the original Rat Pack, of which Sinatra was not a member). At least on stage they were cool. This collection captures the three principal members, the vocalists, on a great night. The banter is very amusing (though by today’s standards definitely not politically correct), with zinging teasing taken in good spirits and reciprocated. I have appropriated Sammy’s line: “…and these are the best friends I have”. Sammy Davis Jr certainly has his wits about him when he tells Dean Martin during a set of impressions to “be nice…or I’ll do Jerry [Lewis]”, with whom Martin was famously feuding. Sammy’s impersonations are great – especially that of Dino (“just having a little bit of fun folks”). It takes guts to impersonate somebody while that somebody is watching you. The vocal performances on the album are fine, but it is not enjoyable for that primarily; as Dino tells the audience: “if you want serious, buy a album”. It is just great fun, with three witty pallies riffing off one another. I was sad to note that Joey Bishop, the comedian of the Rat Pack, died last month at 89.
Sammy Davis Jr. – All The Way (impressions).mp3