Single-Minded: September/October

Any discussion of the music of 1968, or any other year, is incomplete by solely focusing on albums. So I thought I’d offer some assorted (jumbled) thoughts on some of the singles that reached the Top 10 of the Hot 100, Country and R&B charts during the year. Here’s the latest installment. This is just a smattering of the hits, of course. There are some that I’ve avoided because I’ll talk about the albums on which they were included, or some because I don’t have much to say about them, and still others that I left off for no good reason. But these capsule portraits hopefully reveal some of the individually noteworthy moments on the upper reaches of the Hit Parade, as well as some surprising connections between them.

 Born to Be Wild – Steppenwolf

(#2 Pop)

The key here is that it’s “never wanna die,” as opposed to the “never gonna die.” Even as John Kay’s bruising vocals suggest an anthem of defiance, there’s a sense of fantasy at its core. The protagonist’s descriptions are almost cartoonish, and – even as it roots in the real (and dangerous) biker culture of the late 1960s – it’s hard not to hear the celebrant at the center of the song as a faker, or at least a newbie, whose visions of the open road owe as much to the hog-wild mythos of Corman movies and pulp fiction, a mythos that Steppenwolf ultimately soundtracked with their heavy-metal thunder in Easy Rider and afterwards. No matter what, it still shakes the floorboards.

1,2,3 Red Light – 1910 Fruitgum Company

(#5 Pop)

Yuck. The Fruitgum Company spends the entirety of this odious (and boring) song complaining that the woman they desire always rebuffs their advances. And I don’t mean that she won’t open her heart or look in his direction: I mean that she doesn’t want to get busy with him despite his apparently numerous requests. This is bubblegum, sure, but it’s a filthy wad that’s stuck under the corner of an incel’s desk as he tweets vile shit at women he doesn’t know and stalks the Facebook profiles of those he does. No means no, asshole.

Stay In My Corner – The Dells

(#1 R&B/#10 Pop)

A return smash from one of soul’s stateliest ensembles, “Stay In My Corner” is both a throwback (a faithful updating of an older hit) and a call forward. Its form and ooh-wee crescendos revisit the warm glories of doo-wop and early Chicago soul, but the luxury of its length and arrangement points the way to the velvety funk of The Isleys, Millie Jackson or Isaac Hayes. The molasses-thick grooves match the intimacy and generosity of the lyric, and lead vocalist Marvin Junior draws every drop of hot-buttered soul from its swooning request.

You’re All I Need to Get By – Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell

(#7 Pop/#1 R&B)

It starts out perfect and it just gets better. The glistening intro, where the title swirls up and out like the mantra it is, opens into a sparkling gem that offers one of the best examples of what became Gaye & Terrell’s trademark mixture of sweet harmony and deep love. The open-throated joy of building a world around each other is matched by a subtle ache that suggests – at least in hindsight – the fated fragility of that safe place. But, whether momentary or forevermore, Marvin and Tammi escape into each other’s breaths and carry us along with them.

Hush – Deep Purple

(#4 Pop)

Deep Purple’s bruising hard rock never swung harder than their first hit, which dips Joe South’s horn-dog groover in a bath of flange and fuzz that renders it psychedelic and poptastic in equal measure. Loud-quiet-loud in both form and function, “Hush” wears its gospel influences on its wailing organ solo, “calling my name” lyrical tropes and the sweet supplication of Rod Lord’s vocal.

Hey Jude – The Beatles

(#1 Pop)

It’s a particularly Beatles-y trick that their most anthemic song are words of love directed to a child. It’s an even more Beatles-y trick that the central metaphor for these gentle encouragements is to “take a sad song and make it better.” After years of writing love songs to the young, Paul McCartney here targets one in particular – John and Cynthia Lennon’s son Julian – then witnessing his parents split up. The famous tonal shift halfway through takes the sweet song and makes it bigger, and – while it kinda wears out its welcome after four minutes – its all-sing grandiosity makes it a wake for their own period of seeming innocence, a nah-nah-nah goodbye to the yeah-yeah-yeah days. Very soon, they’d release an album that was simultaneously their most childlike and adult. And they’d be broken up a year later.

The Fool on the Hill – Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66

(#6 Pop)

Mendes and his combo not only turn the soppy Beatles original into simmering bossa nova, but – thanks in part to that sonic reframing – they also complicate the narrative. Where McCartney’s vocal (and the solo video that he offered in the ill-fated Magical Mystery Tour film) suggest a wide-eyed admiration for the innocent main character, here the vocal by Lani Hall render the story something of a cautionary tale, less a hippie dream than a warning about what can happen when you disengage.

The House that Jack Built – Aretha Franklin

(#6 Pop/#2 R&B)

No artist had a better 1968 than Aretha Franklin, who released three masterful LPs and remained a consistent presence on both Pop and R&B singles charts throughout the year. This blazing track sees Franklin standing in the shadows of love, which – in this iteration – is a well-built house with a picket fence and a car in the driveway. She laments how she pushed away the “upright man” who built a house on “land he worked by hand,” implicitly denying a dream of post-war domesticity and middle-class stability that didn’t satisfy Franklin in any number of implied ways. It’s a lost-love blues, for sure, but – like so much of Franklin’s best stuff from this period – it doubles as a warning to her listeners to be careful how they proceed in a period of social and cultural transition. Franklin’s trapped in a nice house with a nice fence around it, and that good car that won’t let her escape no matter how far or fast she drives.

Slip Away – Clarence Carter

(#6 Pop/#2 R&B)

From the first lyric – the cornerstone soul sentiment of “What would I give for just a few moments?” – Carter establishes the dynamic that defined his great run of hits: his chuckling swagger rode atop an ocean of hurt. He also establishes the warm, twangy sound that propelled those hits, as the Fame Gang struts behind him and Rick Hall’s crisp production plants it on the funky road that led from Muscle Shoals to the world.

Midnight Confessions – The Grass Roots

(#5 Pop)

In their brief moment, the Grass Roots were awfully good at interpreting the pop-rock subgenres then occupying mainstream white attention. Although the folk-rock of “Let’s Live for Today” or Motown burst of “Sooner or Later” have their charms, this bit of stomping blue-eyed soul is easily the best of their run of hits. With its pulsing rhythms and supportive horn section, it would’ve made a great Box Tops record. But, frankly, I don’t think Chilton and company could’ve done better with it.

Elenore – The Turtles

(#6 Pop)

The Turtles always seemed to be having a laugh, which could either improve and limit their effectiveness. Here, it’s a total plus, and a purposeful one, since the song was designed as a goofy parody of the “Happy Together” formula. But the joke was on them, because the song’s too good to be mere satire. Flo and Eddie play along a bouncing arrangement as they describe a lover who – despite their best efforts – renders them speechless. The sputtering “you’re my pride and joy, et cetera” undercuts the conscious clunkery of “Gee, I think your swell” and especially “you really do me well.” But it does so in a way that, perhaps unintentionally, finds the giggly glow of lust-love in the foolish attempt to articulate the inarticulable. Maybe they’re making fun of the whole idea of silly love songs. But we’re laughing along as they try to say somethin’ stupid like I love you.

Mama Tried – Merle Haggard

(#1 Country)

The clarion guitar duet that opens “Mama Tried” gives an immediate sonic signal of the ambivalence at its center. On one side, the delicate finger-picked arpeggios that sound a note of sad elegance as the curtain rises on one of Merle Haggard’s most enduring narratives. On the other, the electric notes offer a piercing interjection before they resolve into a two-beat declaration as Haggard’s protagonist describes his journey. Even as he remains imprisoned, the guitar lines sound the lonesome memories of the roads that led him there.

Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye – Eddy Arnold

(#1 Country)

Arnold finds yet another successful outlet for his seemingly-bottomless reserves of sweet regret (or maybe it’s a regretful sweetness). It’s not his best effort: his silky phrasing sounds slightly out of step with the John D. Loudermilk song and the string-heavy arrangement seems too eager to prove the continuing relevance of Nashville Sound thickness. But, as nearly always with Arnold, his easy mastery is on display as he sways through a song that maps the style-crossing music that made him a star and a favorite of artists in pop and R&B.

We’ll Get Ahead Someday – Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner

(#5 Country)

Just like Marvin & Tammi, Dolly and Porter were never better than when using their duets to model a larger strategy for survival in a cruel world. Here, the duo faces that world by facing the music, addressing their lack of money both by bemoaning a system where it’s hard to find work and even harder to save, and also by challenging each other to rely less on material things and more on the tangible and intangible benefits of successful partnership. Neither scoldy nor naïve, Parton and Wagoner find solace and even joy in the journey.

Looking at the World Through a Windshield – Del Reeves

(#5 Country)

The lyrics are sharp and the melody won’t quit, but what makes this one of the great truck-driving songs is the propulsive rhythm that rolls underneath the hotshot delivery. It’s a working-man’s blues, eschewing the brash affirmations of highway brotherhood or the gothic fantasias of crashes and phantoms. Instead, Reeves’s voice sits right on the edge of total exhaustion even as the wheels keep rolling underneath his proud and poignant narrative. Mama tried to raise him better, too, but he’s born to be wild, so he’s headed out on the highway. It’s not for fun or freedom – he needs to fulfill his fate and collect a paycheck.

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The Byrds – Sweetheart of the Rodeo

The Byrds – Sweetheart of the Rodeo

Fifty years on, Sweetheart of the Rodeo exists in myth as much as in music. Heralded as a country-rock ur-text and credited with realigning the relationship between the California longhairs and the Nashville cats, the Byrds’s only album with Gram Parsons – which marked the first sparkle of fame for newcomer Parsons – remains a prophetic roots touchstone. But, in recent years, the album’s contexts have been appropriately reappraised. Now, less than a singular moment of divergence provoked by the iconoclastic Parsons, Sweetheart of the Rodeo is more accurately understood as a deep-end swim through the same waters of country, folk, rock and even R&B that the Byrds had explored since the beginning. Parsons’s arrival in the group surely sparked a moment of remarkable creativity, but – taken in the context of the group’s previous and subsequent releases, as well as the work Parsons did solo and with fellow Byrd Chris Hillman in the Flying Burrito Brothers – Sweetheart of the Rodeo is a recognizable chapter in a larger text.

Opening with Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” call to stay put, the rest of Sweetheart looks elsewhere. It gazes to the mythical countrysides of Hillman’s swooning “Blue Canadian Rockies” and Parsons’ aching “Hickory Wind.” It looks back to forebears like Woody Guthrie and the Louvin Brothers, contemporaries like Merle Haggard, and R&B counterparts like William Bell with the fine version of his Memphis soul standard “You Don’t Miss Your Water.” It looks over the secular-sacred fence with Hillman’s aching “I Am A Pilgrim” and the cover of the Louvin Brothers’ “The Christian Life,” which overcomes McGuinn’s smirking vocal through the warm harmonies that sound deadly serious on the chorus. (McGuinn sounds much more sincere on the Dylan cuts, naturally, but also on the weeping version of “You Don’t Miss Your Water.”) And it looks forward to the apocalyptic visions of Dylan’s “Nothing Was Delivered” and Parsons’s “One Hundred Years From Now,” where – in 1968, as in 2018 and probably in 2068 – “nobody knows what kind of trouble we’re in.”

Musically, too, Sweetheart gestures toward the future even as it pages through the past. The future shock of “One Hundred Years From Now” is perhaps the composition that actually hews most closely to the Byrds’s jangly pop, while also that seems to most strongly establish the country-rock, alt-country and Americana to follow. (It makes sense that Wilco later did a whip-crack version on a Parsons tribute album.) Elsewhere, the Hillman-led “I Am A Pilgrim” (which features banjo from fellow space traveler John Hartford) signals the emergent strains of bluegrass-based hybrids that reached from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and the acoustic albums of the Grateful Dead, to the ‘70s fusions of Hartford or the Earl Scruggs Revue, to the rise of newgrass and beyond. And, in the remarkable “Hickory Wind,” sung by Parsons with the pregnant ache that defined his best vocals, the “cosmic American music” that he personified and spread to acolytes from Keith Richards to Emmylou Harris finds its trembling mystery.

The Byrds themselves have never sounded better. Parsons often gets the credit for singlehandedly reorienting the band’s sound and thus shifting the pop-music landscape, but – even though his impact is clear and compelling – this is clearly a group effort that relies on Parson’s conversation with McGuinn’s jangly tricksterism and especially with Chris Hillman’s open-hearted engagement of the bluegrass and country that had long inspired him. (Drummer Kevin Kelly is a secret weapon throughout.) Of course, the album’s success also lies with the of Nashville pros that provide the rich arrangements. None of them were unfamiliar with these sonic blends, and they approach the tracks with a playful expertise. While the album features key contributions from Hartford, bassist Roy Huskey, the brilliant guitarist (and future Byrd) Clarence White and others, the central support player is steel guitarist Lloyd Green, who anchors many of the album’s tracks with his responsive playing. The bounce of “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” the wistfulness of “Hickory Wind” and the unsettled pulse of “One Hundred Years From Now” all gain resonance through Green’s call-and-response with the trio of lead vocalists. As Steve Fishell – a great steel player in his own right – pointed out in a recent conversation I took part in at the annual Americana Fest in Nashville, this is as much Lloyd Green’s album as anyone’s.

Fifty years on, it’s easy to hear the ways that Sweetheart presented a sonic roadmap for the next several decades of country-rock alchemies. Even accounting for its precedents and contemporaries, the album retains its singular power. But it seems just as resonant in its engagement of a central 1968 theme across genres: the search for answers within a growing uncertainty about what comes next. The ambivalence that underlays even the album’s most peaceful tracks – the search for home, the longing for brighter mornings and more peaceful evenings, animates the album’s lyrics and adds a deeper layer of meaning to its explorations. “Nobody knows what kind of trouble we’re in,” and – while they don’t claim to have the answers – the Byrds and their country cousins are happy to offer a soundtrack for the search.

Best tracks: “Hickory Wind,” “Blue Canadian Rockies

 

Etta James – Tell Mama

Etta James – Tell Mama

In the 1960s, FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals became one of the prime locations for the creative and commercial development of southern soul. Not only did the studio help develop the region’s astonishing roster of homegrown talent, but it became a destination for nationally-prominent artists who sought to marry their hit-making sonic signatures to the studio’s tight country funk. Etta James’s Tell Mama, recorded at FAME in its halcyon year of 1967 and released in 1968, was both a pinnacle of this process – given that James’s career on Chess Records stretched back to the mid-1950s – and one of its final masterpieces. Soon after, the studio’s rhythm section departed to form their own studio and FAME reconstituted around a new band and a new period of success with the Osmonds, Bobbie Gentry, Clarence Carter and others. Tell Mama, the bold and brilliant record that James made in collaboration with the Shoals players and producer Rick Hall, returned her to the charts and remains one of her most famous LPs. And for good reason: it’s a remarkable synthesis of the Chicago-rooted blues and jazz textures that had anchored James hits like the glorious swoon of “At Last” to the gospel punch of “Something’s Got a Hold On Me” with the spare, strutting funk of Muscle Shoals. It points both backwards and forwards in the R&B/soul continuum, a cornerstone of her brilliant career and a centerpiece of the southern soul canon.

The album, fittingly and fundamentally, is a showcase for James’s voice. Her powerful alto swells, sways and swings in perfect complement with the supple and sympathetic arrangements. At times, she leaps out in front of the mix, like on the feverish “Watchdog,” which snarls with rock ‘n’ roll energy, and or “Just A Little Bit,” where James’s flirty snarl gives adult implications to childlike phrasing of the “teeny weeny bit” chorus. The most prominent example is on the title track, a gender-flipped version of Clarence Carter’s “Tell Daddy” that bespeaks both the post-“Respect” call of Aretha Franklin and James’s own earlier contributions to the answer-song script-flipping, when she offered “Annie’s” rebuke to the pleas of Hank Ballard’s “Henry.” (She pulls a similar, more implicit trick in her version of Otis Redding’s “Security,” trading his pleadings for the future into a demand for change now, as the slightly off-rhythm background vocals keep rushing to catch up with her.) On “Tell Mama,” James bursts through the stabbing horns, with a finger-pointing vocal that switches Carter’s leery smirk to a knowing (and sexy) rejoinder to her wayward lover.

Elsewhere, though, James’s clarion call whirls inside the mix, oozing through the instrumentation and bespeaking the vulnerability that parallels and intersects her moments of brash assurance. She calls for her lover to “keep me saaaaffee” on the ‘50s throwback “The Love of My Man,” exposing the roots of the dynamic vocal sweep that Van Morrison later made a trademark. She brings a knowing exhaustion to the blues humor of “My Mother-In Law,” nodding at Ernie K-Doe and needling the husband who got her into this mess.

The best example, and the album’s high point, is “I’d Rather Go Blind.” On this desperate plea, her vocals nestle between humming organ and soft backgrounds, behind a guitar and drum that trade sympathetic murmurs in the background. She works similar rocky ground on her version of “I’m Gonna Take What He’s Got,” and the despondent “It Hurts Too Much,” the closest James’s steadfast voice comes to sounding like she won’t survive.

The duality of Tell Mama even punches through within the same song.  On “The Same Rope,” James’s voice sounds at ease and playful in a way that it doesn’t elsewhere on Tell Mama. But this playfulness – with James bouncing over swinging rhythms and background vocals – offers a contrast to the song’s warning, which cautions her subject against growing too confident in the face of inevitable downfall. But, just beneath the surface, is James’s recognition that she too could end up being the victim of the very hubris and ignorance.

Best tracks: “I’d Rather Go Blind,” “The Same Rope

 

Single-Minded: July/August

Any discussion of the music of 1968, or any other year, is incomplete by solely focusing on albums. So I thought I’d offer some assorted (jumbled) thoughts on some of the singles that reached the Top 10 of the Hot 100, Country and R&B charts during the year. Here’s the latest installment. This is just a smattering of the hits, of course. There are some that I’ve avoided because I’ll talk about the albums on which they were included, or some because I don’t have much to say about them, and still others that I left off for no good reason. But these capsule portraits hopefully reveal some of the individually noteworthy moments on the upper reaches of the Hit Parade, as well as some surprising connections between them.

The Doors – “Hello, I Love You”

(#1 Pop)

A prime example of the fact that The Doors were always at their best when they embraced pop sleaze. Over a set of purposefully artless come-ons, the Lounge Lizard King slithers around his romantic conquest as Ray Manzarek’s organ pulsates behind him. The group’s sometimes underappreciated gift for radio-friendly melodies – the go-go grooves of this song, the Sinatra-ready croon of “Touch Me” – offered Morrison the best and most dynamic vehicles for his lithe baritone. This dark crystal is far creepier, and way sexier, than their outlaw blues or apocalypto fantasias.

 

Gary Puckett & The Union Gap – “Lady Willpower”

(#2 Pop)

If Morrison trades in puckish filth, Gary Puckett stakes his claim in eww-y gooey earnestness. Puckett and his Union Gap were consistent and consistently successful pop mansplainers, with a run of hits that offer pseudo-supportive “m’lady” affirmations and “well, actually” gaslighting but can’t hide their lip-licking condescensions underneath the sweet arrangements and sharp turtlenecks. Here, they pull a classic nice-guy routine: they beg a strong woman (whose “willpower” is both personal and feminist-era political) into giving it up for a man who respects her strength but knows that she’s secretly longing to let go a little bit. Perhaps the most yuck-tastic thing about this and the rest of Puckett’s string of inappropriate musical hugs is that they’re such finely-crafted examples of the fertile shared terrain between AOR croon and folk-rock hooks.

 

Richard Harris – “MacArthur Park”

(#2 Pop)

This record is nowhere near as bad as some tee-heeing “worst song ever” types might make you think. With its swirling arrangement and rhythmic changes, it paves the way for a decade of delicious pop-rock pomposities like “Live and Let Die” or “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.” And, sure, the lyrics are ridiculous, but Donna Summer and Waylon Jennings each found emotive gold in those rainy, cake-melting hills. Ultimately, then, the weak spot come through Richard Harris’s vocals. A gifted actor, Harris manages to be simultaneously too reserved and too over-the-top as he searches for profundity in the goofy lyrics and strains for footing in Jimmy Webb’s shifting melody. Unsurprisingly, the song worked better – if less grandly – when Webb’s great late-‘60s muse Glen Campbell got a hold of its cinemascope sonic breadth and unabashed cornball intensity a few years later.

 

The 5th Dimension – “Stoned Soul Picnic”

(#3 Pop/#2 R&B)

Jimmy Webb also was well served by The 5th Dimension, whose run of buoyant, genre-crossing hits defined a warm and reassuring brand of late-‘60s pop utopianism. Their community of voices took listeners “Up, Up and Away” in their Webb cover and announced the arrival of the Hair-raising “Age of Aquarius.” Here, they follow Laura Nyro’s directions and invite listeners to a gathering of friends and neighbors that is specific enough in its detail to feel epic in its scope. With the soul invocations both lyrical and sonic, the group offers a new-world vision that feels both tangible and transformative. Let the sunshine in.

 

The Cowsills – “Indian Lake”

(#10 Pop)

Even beyond the fact that they each scored a chart hit with a version of a song from Hair, The 5th Dimension shared a surprising similarity with The Cowsills. The family group offered a similarly utopian run of hits, exploring pop dreams with their cascading waterfall of “The Rain, The Park and Other Things” and the wowee-zowee anthem “Hair.” This track isn’t their best, but it might be their most enthusiastic. The family jubilates with Laura Nyro-level specificity (although nowhere near Laura Nyro-level craft) about a getaway where time stops and fun starts. Its jingly exuberance masks a surprising level of resonance, mapping onto the historical construction of “wilderness” spaces as getaways for urban denizens and the connected racial romance of what historian Philip DeLoria called “playing Indian,” both of which proved crucial and problematic to the hippie counterculture. All this, plus a bustling arrangement and insistent harmonies that both recall the late-60s work of the Beach Boys.

 

Donovan – “Hurdy Gurdy Man”

(#5 Pop)

On lyrics alone, this would seem to be another utopian vision of hippie freedom. But, musically, it’s pure creepy crawl, with crashing minor chords and reverb-soaked vocals that, particularly in the circular chorus, sound like a doomy incantation. Used expertly by David Fincher as the theme song of the titular killer in his 2007 film Zodiac, Donovan’s unsettling trance is more Spahn Ranch than Summer of Love. Which is maybe why it sounds less dated and more relevant than many of its cheerier counterparts.

 

The Rolling Stones – “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”

(#3 Pop)

In this beautiful dark twisted fantasy, the Rolling Stones conjured much of the sound and mythos that continues to define them. Jagger’s playful and pernicious snarl never sounded more convincing, and the band’s hypnotic pounding accentuates its brutal and seductive power. Jack Flash isn’t the Devil – the Stones would give us Satan’s side of the story later in the year – but he clearly knows him well. He’s also not far from Donovan’s hurdy gurdy man, pointing towards an equally dangerous new world. In a year of Tet, Prague, Chicago and Baltimore, the crossfire hurricane isn’t a far-away metaphor. It’s a gas, gas, gas.

 

James Brown – “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)”

(#1 R&B/#10 Pop)

James Brown’s demand for a new world is rooted in a Black political tradition that stretched across centuries and continents and propelled by a sound that synthesized the funky diasporic innovations of the late-‘60s. Brown’s call for solidarity, platform for power and celebration of Black pride is as revolutionary now as it was in 1968 (or 1848). Especially since its stabbing arrangement and shifting verse structure decenters the expectation of a hit song as powerfully as its lyric defy the theory and practice of white supremacy. Black lives matter.

 

The Temptations – “I Could Never Love Another After Loving You”

(#1 R&B)

From an opening bass line that sounds like a remix of the famous opening of “My Girl,” this urgent plea sounds like a tragic sequel to that earlier classic. With punchy late-period “Motown Sound” backing, the Temptations – led by David Ruffin in his final group appearance – document the end of the love affair that began with such hope and promise. At one point, Ruffin and company even utilize a similar litany of sweet similes as he describes his sadness and desperation. Earlier in 1968 the group had “wished it would rain,” and now it sounds like nothing will hurt more than losing the one who had been their sunshine on a cloudy day.

 

Smokey Robinson & The Miracles – “Yester Love”

(#9 R&B)

The author of “My Girl” is thinking back, too, on a track that gazes to the past even as its lead singer remains determined to move beyond. As it always does, Smokey Robinson’s sweet falsetto sounds the ambivalence and delicacy outlined his brilliant songwriting. In the middle of a busy arrangement that reflects the protagonist’s internal turmoil, and with complementary stabs from a bluesy electric guitar, Robinson outlines a memory of a “yester love” and offers a soul-era riff on William Faulkern’s famous suggestion that “the past is never dead. It isn’t even past.”

 

The Impressions – “I Loved and I Lost”

(#9 R&B)

The Impressions assess the same landscape.  Like Smokey Robinson, Curtis Mayfield’s falsetto expressed multiple registers of feeling and meaning, and this confession is a perfect vehicle for his signature mix of brittle vulnerability with soul-deep perseverance. Aided by the Impressions’ sympathetic backgrounds, and repeatedly riven by horn blasts, “I Loved and I Lost” paradoxically amplifies its pain by wrapping it in a bed of supple orchestrations. At the end, a shocking, shrieking end makes the pain even more exquisite. And, somehow, even more beautiful.

 

Eddy Arnold – “It’s Over”

(#4 Country)

It makes sense that Eddy Arnold – with his buttery croon and resonance with strains of jazz, pop and R&B – would do similar emotional work on the country side of the fence. He treads the same terrain as Mayfield and Robinson, substituting his stately and sublimated baritone. Standing on the verge of crying it out, Arnold’s graceful tremolo just barely masks a world of pain.

 

Loretta Lynn – “You’ve Just Stepped In From Stepping Out On Me”

(#2 Country)

Loretta Lynn’s still tired of your shit. A threat to turn “Honky Tonk Angel” before you’ve got time to wonder who made them, this track is in the unvarnished vein of Lynn’s other great hits and in the great tradition of country women who illustrate and condemn the intertwined relationship between sexual pleasure and gender privilege. With bluesy clarity, Lynn’s protagonist recognizes exactly what she needs and what he wants, leading her to a satisfying surprise ending that presages the lesson of Johnnie Taylor’s “Who’s Making Love” and reveals that Lynn’s more than woman enough for any purpose.

 

Barbara Acklin – “Love Makes A Woman”

(#3 R&B)

Lynn and Barbara Acklin reach across genre to slyly affirm women’s love rights. Over a swaying Chicago-soul arrangement that breathes deep and clutches tight, Acklin – who sighs and swoons with equal effectiveness – asserts the need for female self-actualization through love, defined broadly through Acklin’s dynamic vocals as a matter of the body, mind and soul.

 

Stevie Wonder – “You Met Your Match”

(#2 R&B)

1968 was a transitional year for Wonder, then in the process of moving from the exuberant early years to the adult sound that made him one of the very best recording artists of the 1970s. “You Met Your Match” sounds the presence of both periods and Wonder’s process of moving between them. Musically, the track marries the buoyant gospel-soul of the early years to the deepening funk, with its edges of rock and jazz, that marked his coming work. Lyrically, too, the song blends childhood romance and adult sexuality in a coy and deeply seductive manner. Strutting across the borderline from one “genius” phase to another, “You Met Your Match” centers the joyous mastery that’s defined every phase of his remarkable career.

 

Waylon Jennings – “Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line”

(#2 Country)

Another artist in transition, Waylon Jennings rumbles and grumbles towards the Outlaw ‘70s. “Only Daddy” is a slow-burn stomp that remixes Johnny Cash’s single-minded assurance (and single-note electric guitar licks) through a brash declaration of romantic steadfastness. With Jennings’s trembling vocals offsetting the deliberate rhythms, it all comes off as a bit defensive – maybe protesting too much to the kind of evidence that Loretta Lynn presents in “You’ve Just Stepped In.” Whether or not you believe him is up to you.

 

Grateful Dead – Anthem of the Sun

Grateful Dead – Anthem of the Sun

Released: July 18th, 1968

For a band that apparently didn’t really care about studio recording, the Grateful Dead embraced its possibilities quickly and effectively. Their second album, Anthem of the Sun, solidified the musical language and sensibility that – in one way or another – defined the remainder of their records and live career for the rest of their long strange trip. Building on the freak-out boogie of their early days as a premier live band of the San Francisco hippie scene, and gazing towards a recorded career that used the tangled threads of American music with an improvisatory sensibility anchored somewhere between free jazz and lysergic drone, Anthem of the Sun was perhaps the Dead’s first fully-formed recorded statement, a conscious attempt to assert creative control after a debut that felt compromised. Learning the possibilities of the studio, and spending a ton of record company money in the process, these anointed leaders of the already-fading “Summer of Love” suggested to listeners that counterculture rock was less about a set of defined lyrical or musical gestures and more about the embrace of a musical process that decentered traditional song structures and favored instrumental conversation.

This approach makes Anthem of the Sun a bit shaggy and aimless, as the happy wanderers don’t always back their drifting with compelling musical statements. But, when it works, Anthem of the Sun is striking in its inventiveness and sophistication. Particularly powerful is “That’s It For The Other One,” a multi-part suite that traces both a lyrical and musical origin story. The lyrics – particularly in Bob Weir’s jumping second section – present a whimsy-myth account of early adventures in Haight-Ashbury. Musically, “Other One” jumps between sounds and textures, with Garcia’s airy folk in the first section transitioning into bustling, Weir-driven rock and circular jazz that throws the spotlight on bassist Phil Lesh before dissolving into musique concrete sound burns near the end. The production approach matches these sonic shifts, with distorted vocals and instrumentation that blurs the boundaries between effects-heavy layers of sound and seemingly unvarnished sections of live improvisation.

They take a similar approach on the second side’s opener, “Alligator,” which matches the first track’s creative starburst. This time, the band grounds in the strutting R&B and rock that made them live draws, with Ron “Pigpen” McKernan offering his trademark amiable growl in a phasing multi-tracked vocal (just out-of-sync enough to reveal the studio trickery) as the band struts through some hippie-soul outlaw surrealism scored by bleating kazoos and cascading background vocals.  Then the planets shift into an extended, polyrhythmic breakdown where drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart head into drum space before being pulled back into orbit by a rave-up jam driven by McKernan’s swampy vocals and soul-revival organ. Dynamic and daring, “Alligator” is a fitting demonstration of how the Dead’s facility with their sonic material allowed them to develop a singular vision for how those origins might get freaky and fried. The climactic build of “Alligator” transitions into the noisy after-party of “Caution (Do Not Stop On The Tracks),” where McKernan shouts the blues over a groove spliced together from multiple performances. McKernan’s soulman patter gets a little gimmicky and mimicky here, but  touches of avant weirdness keep it from feeling too reductively cliché. At the end, the song trails off in a squall of feedback and studio noises. Anthem of the Sun thus closes with a final demonstration of the way that the Dead would honor the distinctiveness of their live and studio approaches while demonstrating the way that they could be linked in an unbroken chain.

The songs would get better. The performances would get more consistently electrifying. The trips would get both longer and stranger. Although it’s more a peek than a peak, the best moments on Anthem of the Sun successfully suggests the creative vision that made the Grateful Dead – reluctant and defiant as they may have been – into powerful wielders of studio magic.

Best tracks: “That’s It For The Other One,” “Alligator

Tammy Wynette – D-I-V-O-R-C-E

I’m thrilled to welcome Anthony Easton for this guest post on Tammy Wynette’s second album of 1968. Easton is a writer and artist in Hamilton, Ontario, and their work has appeared in SpinThe Atlantic OnlinePitchforkNashville Scene, City Pages, Bright Wall Dark Room, and other publications.

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Tammy Wynette – D-I-V-O-R-C-E

Released: July 8th, 1968

I always wonder why Tammy Wynette has not reached legend status outside of country music circles, why she has not become a pan-cultural icon like Johnny Cash or Dolly Parton. Talking to other country critics, there was some discussion about politics–that Ms Wynette’s work was less ambivalent, too conservative, not universal enough, or inspiring enough to be won over by the non-Nashville massives. Listening to her 1968 album D-I-V-O-R-C-E, I had another thought.

Tammy Wynette is too country.

The thought came to me when realizing how ubiquitous the album’s title track was–in the eighteen months after its release, there were at least a dozen cover versions, and even two parodies. Part of this is how Nashville works–country music, like the blues or hymn singing, has always been an interpretive medium, one whose tradition works by the slow reworking of tropes and ideals. (David Cantwell, who co-wrote the literal book on country music singles, notes that something similar happened with Merle Haggard’s “Today I Started Loving You Again.”)

So, an audience would fall in love with a song, or the song would be shopped around Nashville, or there would be small regional hits, then national hits by Nashville stars, and finally the work would become ubiquitous enough to earn a sophisticated parody from Homer & Jethro. (This process has returned somewhat with the covers and riffs that end up populating Spotify or YouTube playlists.) This practice revolved around respecting the particularities of singers – listeners who were curious what Connie Smith, for example, sounded like singing “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” – while sometimes they played with gender (Conway Twitty) or genre (Hourglass, which contained at least two Allmans). Sometimes, the covers seemed to be a little craven, like when Porter Wagoner encouraged Norma Jean to cover it for television—this was before Jean was replaced on the show by Dolly, who also covered it. Thinking about what happened to “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” and listening to the album the song contained, Tammy is playing the same game with different songs.

The album is rife with cover versions of country hits, with different readings of what became standards, and countryfied attempts at working through other genres. “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” was one of Wynette’s biggest singles and first signature song before being eclipsed by the next year’s “Stand by Your Man.” These two singles–both of which play with the history of country music and the domestic melodrama with a kind of exhausted, stoic sadness—did very well with audiences, perhaps more of a populist than critical favourite.

Listening to the late-1960s Tammy albums, and all of the cultural production afterwards, D-I-V-O-R-C-E feels like the apex of Wynette being taken seriously. George Jones, who had similar skills as a formalist and interpreter, continued into the 1970s and even 1980s. Wynette demonstrates the same gifts as her famed musical and romantic partner — how her voice plays against the lush arrangements of producer Billy Sherrill, how she crafts stories and characters, and how well she selects which songs to cover and how to cover them.

Thinking about this from the very first track, the album exemplifies how a voice becomes part of a larger production. Her cover of “Gentle on My Mind,” contrasts the smooth production style of Al De Lory in the Glen Campbell hit, with Campbell’s voice slotting into a placid sadness, and with Wynette’s voice bucking against Sherrill’s attempt to mimic De Lory. Her version of “The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde” tries for the rail-track ratcheting of Merle Haggard’s original, but moves slightly slower, against the instrumentation, letting in less space for instrumental or choral breaks. It doesn’t have the anxiety of Haggard’s take, but both versions do a good job of making robbery sound more like an adventure and less like a tragedy. However, her version of “Sweet Dreams” cribs and extends Patsy Cline’s heartbreak, pushing and extending a narrative of female suffering, noting who her sources are and – in an act of audacity for a young performer – claiming that heartbreak as her own.

There is also a version of “Yesterday,” because of course there is.

Listening to this tight album, even before the title track, is to be immersed into a kind of high country aesthetic, a late baroque form of riffing, covering, borrowing and lending. Its eleven songs are variations on the theme that Wynette has made her own–heartbreak, adultery, the domestic, children, sexual longing. I can understand how the title track could be read as camp, the pedal steel underlining every detail of a song that features details that might be a bit over the top – does she really need to mention both a birthday and Christmas? But it redeems itself from being too saccharine or silly by limning genre conventions. The song that follows the title track is “Come On Home,” a torch song to domesticity, a song that with a kind of high stoicism tells her husband that he can return from his “new love”. She talks about having a breakdown in the song, but the work never breaks. Just as the whole of D-I-V-O-R-C-E has a catch in her voice, but never quite collapses into tears.

This control of material is a formal choice. It is one of the things that marks her work with George Jones, and Jones’ solo work, as well. This close work with a producer becomes an act of mutual trust. Wynette knows how to play against the material, because the producer is right there with her, buttressing this formalism. She pushes Sherrill as much as he pushes her.

I think figuring out how to replicate the feeling of never quite breaking down is the key to Wynette’s skills. I think her playing with that feeling over lush production has an incredible sophistication. It is one of melodrama, and–if one is not a careful listener, one who can pay attention to the ebb and flow of a form, and a genre–a kind of melodrama that suggests the lack of female sexual autonomy. However, it is autonomy that allowed a generation of other women, both performers and audiences to claim an identity within a genre that could be welcoming. That this is the last one, foretold an ebb, where “authentic” country was again men’s stories told by men. What was lost was not only the genius of Wynette’s own working out of that autonomy, but her role as an interpretive curatorial voice, and her ability to craft narratives for other performers to graft their voices to.

This means that Wynette’s skills are often thought to come from a deep well spring of emotion, while her aesthetic choices are less recognized, particularly when compared to her male cohort. All of this talk about the ineffable sadness of George Jones’ “The Grand Tour” or “He Stopped Loving Her Today” was because of the recognition of Jones as a singular voice. The collective heartbreak of Wynette singing “Come on Home” or “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” and throughout this album, is not only real country to me, but it’s far less respected than it needs to be.

Best tracks: “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” “Come On Home

The Band – Music from Big Pink

The Band – Music from Big Pink

Released: July 1st, 1968

In a particularly consequential moment of music criticism, Eric Clapton was so affected by Music from Big Pink that he decided to quit his group Cream and try to convince The Band to let him join. Deeply inspired, and perhaps a little scared, by the album produced by the musicians best known as Bob Dylan’s touring band and “basement tapes” collaborators, Clapton even traveled to the group’s headquarters to make his case. “I wanted to be part of it. But there was no way in,” he remembered later. “So, all I could do was admire it from afar and long for something similar.”

Clapton’s words – like the broader story of his pilgrimage – offer an effectively tidy assessment of The Band and their astonishing debut album. Released six months after Dylan’s John Wesley Harding, which offered a similar intervention, Music from Big Pink is a compelling act of speculation that uses the tangled roots of American music to frame enigmatic parables of pilgrims and penitents. And, as Clapton’s words also suggest, the album’s immediate and enduring influence has not dulled its unique impact. Fifty years later, it still challenges its admirers to find a way in.

For me, right now, the primary way in is through the album’s mysterious and unsettling visions of a world gone wrong. Music from Big Pink teems with moments of deep mourning – like the opening cry of “Tears of Rage” or the stately cover of “The Long Black Veil” – and justified fear, as we await the explosions promised in “This Wheel’s On Fire” or the strange magic outlined in “Caledonia Mission.” Even the moments of seeming salvation (the longing for community in “The Weight” or the blessed assurance of “I Shall Be Released”) reveal a troubled now inside the calls for a more hopeful future. Reflecting the influence of gospel as both sound and sensibility, The Band’s songs bear witness and bear the cross – or perhaps “The Weight” – through refracted lyrical symbolism of Nazareths and Independence Days and an ongoing negotiation of desperate hope and weary understanding.

The music on Big Pink hold as many mysteries as the lyrics. The group’s voices join in seamless call-and-response – another gospel influence – while spotlighting the exquisite sadness of Richard Manuel, the restless nerves of Rick Danko, or the knowing skepticism of Levon Helm with equal effectiveness. Behind these vocals, the group constructs arrangements that reflect their road-tested chops and interest in studio experimentation. Robbie Robertson’s fiery guitar rides atop the rumbling of the Danko/Helm rhythm section and the two-keyboard interplay between Manuel and Garth Hudson, while country fiddle, jazz saxophone and electronic distortion all make notable appearances. Hudson, in particular, offers beautiful disruptions as he sounds the alarm on the sex panic of “Chest Fever” or sets the eerie scene on “In A Station.” In the closing moments of “I Shall Be Released,” Hudson’s electronic keyboard offers a final ghostly whisper as the song and album echo into the darkness.

Those echoes are particularly powerful for me as Music from Big Pink celebrates its 50th anniversary. As we mark another Independence Day soaked in tears of rage and on the brink of explosion, the most resonant prophecy of Music from Big Pink might not be its musical template, but instead its presentation of a troubled world that its remarkable music tries to express and understand. “It’s the same old riddle, only starting from the middle,” they sing on the R&B strut of “We Can Talk.” And, they admit, “I’d fix it but I don’t know how.” I don’t either, but Music from Big Pink helps me reckon with the paradox and envision a world where we all might earn our release one day. Before we can find a way out, though, we have to find a way in.

Best songs: “Tears of Rage,” “Chest Fever