It is a long-established trope among classic rock aficionados that 1966 has a special place in music history — something was in the air, something that pushed bands and artists to experiment and explore new sonic territory, producing their very best work. Music that made rock, pop, and soul “grow up” and become music for discerning adults, rather than disposable entertainment for the bubble-gum set. Any time there’s a poll in some dinosaur-rock magazine or website, three specific 1966 albums (you know what they are) always seem to swap around the top spots.
Fifty years down the road, is it time for a re-examination of 1966? Do the vaunted, classic albums actually hold up, or has “1966” just become a lazy shorthand for an incredibly brief period of musical development that will never be replicated in a space of twelve months ever again, while the actual albums themselves grow inflated and overrated, and at the same time, dusty and rarely listened to?
First of all, it must be remembered that in 1966, the rock album was still in its infancy. Bands like the Beatles and solo artists like Bob Dylan were working hard to change that, but even in 1966, the album charts were dominated by traditional, non-rock artists (Herb Alpert, Frank Sinatra), soundtracks (Dr. Zhivago), and left-field novelties (The Ballad of the Green Berets).
I had a good time re-listening to these recordings from almost nine years before my birth with an eye on their place in history, and I came to the conclusion that 1966’s reputation is deserved, but should be looked at as the beginning of something, the first of many peaks, at least as far as “good album years” are concerned. (1991, anyone?)
And the albums that made the year’s reputation — and kicked open the door to the format becoming commercially dominant — were actually very few in number. Both Britain and the U.S. each had a group of albums I call “The Big 5.” By general consensus, these are the what made 1966 “1966”:
[A note on chart positions: The U.S. has one generally accepted music sales chart — Billboard. The U.K. had several different publications — Disc, Record Retailer, New Musical Express, and Melody Maker — each with their own method of charting a record’s success. I used whichever was the highest for a particular album.]
Release Date: August 5
Highest Chart Position: #1 (U.S. & U.K.)
The “what-is-the-best-Beatles-album” question is as pointless as it is personal. You’ve got the Abbey Road boosters, the Rubber Soul fanatics, the people who love the innocence and energy of their debut Please Please Me, and the people who love the hippie-baroque intricacies of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Then there’s people like me, who say Revolver is their best (by a slim whisker — it’s the most formidable discography in popular music.) My group has has been growing larger over the past several years. Sgt. Pepper’s star has faded a little, and Revolver’s reputation has finally clawed its way past it. The swaggering confidence they had as masters of the recording studio has seeped into the grooves of this record. They opened a dizzying bag of studio tricks: varispeed, tape loops, flanging, phasing, everything tried backwards, upside down, and sideways. The sheer musical variety from track to track demonstrates their effortless ear for genre and pastiche. From Harrison’s classical Indian piece “Love You To” to McCartney’s brass-saturated Memphis soul tribute “Got To Get You Into My Life,” to Lennon’s attempt (often imitated, never bettered) to create the audio equivalent of an LSD trip on “Tomorrow Never Knows,” Revolver shows off a band at the absolute top of its game. And I didn’t even mention “Eleanor Rigby.” Or “Yellow Submarine.” Or “Taxman.” Or “Good Day Sunshine.” Or “She Said She Said.” Each worthy of an essay of their own. And there’s still more great stuff…it’s a hell of an album.
Release Date: April 15
Highest Chart Position: #1 (U.K.), #2 (U.S.)
The Stones started their career as a better-than-average R&B cover band, but didn’t truly come into their own until the Jagger-Richards songwriting team kicked into gear in ‘65 with two blistering singles, “The Last Time” and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” By the spring of 1966, they were ready to unleash their first all-original album on an unsuspecting public. Their R&B roots were almost nowhere to be heard, replaced by a brittle, bitter form of power pop. The songs perfectly captured the mood of being a young, jaded rock star in Swinging London, and were underpinned by Charlie Watts’ light, jazzy touch on the drums. No heroics yet from future guitar god Keith Richards, who contributes a few stinging, fuzz-pedal lines here and there. The real show is band founder, multi-instrumentalist (and soon-to-be-ousted) Brian Jones, providing exotic textures on sitar, marimba, dulcimer, harpsichord, and a variety of bells, chimes, and random percussion. [Like many U.K. albums, Aftermath hit U.S. shores in altered form – a different cover and shorter track list. Unlike the clearly inferior U.S. version of Revolver, which simply cut the three Lennon tracks that had already appeared earlier in the year on the U.S.-only Yesterday…And Today, the American Aftermath is actually defensible – cutting four tracks (two of which were very sub-par) and adding the first-rate “Paint It, Black,” which had been a stand-alone single in the U.K.]
Release Date: October 28
Highest Chart Position: #8 (U.K.), #135 (U.S.)
The Kinks outgrew the aggressive, distorted riffs that made their early reputation (“You Really Got Me,” “All Day And All Of The Night”), and began taking a gentler, subtler approach. Chief writer Ray Davies began focusing on evocative and eccentric character studies (culminating in the awesome “Sunny Afternoon” which closes this album), all steeped in distinctly British pre-rock traditions — music hall, pub singalongs, light classical, and flourishes of Celtic folk. When he wasn’t writing about dandies, session musicians, exclusive residences for sale, or Hawaiian vacations, Davies turned inward, exploring his own fragile psyche (“Too Much On My Mind” “Rainy Day In June”). Sessions for the album began right after Davies’ recuperation from a much-discussed, Brian Wilson-esque nervous breakdown. The album was well-received in Britain, then faded from memory, even going out of print for several years. Its fortunes were revived when people began talking about 1966 in reverent tones, and it has received several deluxe reissues.
Release Date: December 9
Highest Chart Position: #4 (U.K.), #51 (U.S.)
By their own admission, the Who’s second album was a patchy affair based on the half-baked idea that other band members should contribute two original songs, rather than relying solely on Pete Townshend. Roger Daltrey coughed up one (the decent “See My Way”), and drummer Keith Moon cribbed the melody from a half-remembered TV theme song (Man From Interpol) and turned it into the brass band instrumental “Cobwebs And Strange.” Moon’s second offering was a haunting little trifle called “I Need You” (supposedly about the ego-bruising experience of nightclubbing with the Beatles), which I suspect received uncredited help from Townshend. A perfunctory cover of “Heatwave” does no favors. Luckily, the strengths of the album are noteworthy. A Quick One did boast some underrated Townshend gems, including the sublime “So Sad About Us,” and showed off John Entwistle’s skills as a darkly comic songwriter in the Ray Davies vein with “Whiskey Man” and “Boris The Spider.” (Every future Who album except Quadrophenia would feature at least one weird and wonderful Entwistle jam.) Finally, the last track on the album paved the way to the band’s future: the first “rock opera” — a nine-minute, multi-section suite about an extramarital affair called “A Quick One While He’s Away.” (The album’s generic “pop art” cover brought it down a notch. It’s quite hideous.)
Release Date: July 22
Highest Chart Position: #6 (U.K.), did not chart in the U.S.
Guitarist Eric Clapton had already established such a reputation during his time with the Yardbirds that bandleader John Mayall included his name in the actual title of the album. Mayall was one of the earliest performers to popularize American blues in Britain (second only to Alexis Korner), acting as an inspiration and mentor to younger acts like the Rolling Stones and the Animals. The Bluesbreakers line-up was always fluid, with Mayall switching off between keyboards and guitar, and a rotating cast of musicians backing him. The band that powered Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton consisted of Mayall (mostly on Hammond organ and harmonica), future Fleetwood Mac bassist John McVie, drummer Hughie Flint, and, of course, Eric Clapton and his sunburst Les Paul playing those impeccable licks that made him a legend. The songs themselves are tasteful and restrained versions (no side-long jamming just yet — it’s still 1966) of classic blues numbers originally by Otis Rush, Robert Johnson, Mose Allison, Little Walter, and others, along with a couple of Mayall originals. (Clapton shyly gives his first ever lead vocal performance on “Ramblin’ On My Mind.”)
Release Date: May 16
Highest Chart Position: #2 (U.K.), #10 (U.S.)
This much-revered jewel in the crown of a band that’s had a lot of ups and down should almost be included on Team U.K., since it was a (relative) underperformer in America, who still wanted the Beach Boys to dress in stripey shirts and do some more songs about surfing (which Mike Love would have been happy to do.) It was an instant classic in Britain, however. The U.S. finally came around after a generation of discerning music nerds sang its praises until they were blue in the face. Although credited to the Beach Boys, and tied together by their distinctive voices, this was, of course, a Brian Wilson brainchild. After 1965, Wilson could no longer handle the grind of touring, so he sent the rest of the band out on the road (with Bruce Johnston taking his place on stage) while he focused on writing music and supervising the production of backing tracks. Wilson, generally a melody guy, often worked with outside lyricists to help put words to his tunes, and in early 1966 he brought in Tony Asher to collaborate on a wistful, poignant song cycle that didn’t tie together conceptually, but rather sonically. The backing tracks were performed by the loose conglomeration of crack L.A. session players known as the “Wrecking Crew.” The Pet Sounds music was multi-layered and deeply resonant, building on — and even improving on — Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” style. The finishing touch was bringing in the rest of the Beach Boys to add their vocal magic, and a masterpiece was born.
Release Date: ? — Columbia Records’ official archives list it as May 16 (the same day as Pet Sounds), but multiple contemporary sources indicate it was delayed at the last minute, and probably came out in late June or early July.
Highest Chart Position: #3 (U.K.), #9 (U.S.)
Dylan was already on a hot streak when he recorded Blonde On Blonde. The twin 1965 triumphs Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited set a new standard in rock album quality, and his live shows were electric in every sense of the word. Tension over his abandonment of purist folk roots caused controversy, and not only was he touring with a rock band behind him, it was the loudest, most raucous rock band he could find — the Hawks (later to morph into the Band and become much more sedate.) The Hawks would not accompany him into the studio, however. For his ‘66 project, he went to Nashville, and hired the most skilled and professional session musicians he could find. Dylan said he was trying to capture a “thin, wild mercury” sound he heard in his head. Certainly not anything close to country music as it’s normally understood, but Dylan wanted the Nashville players for their efficiency, their ability to follow instructions and almost subconsciously knock out exactly what Dylan wanted in a minimum of takes. The trebly, clattering, part-Americana, part-speed freak rush he captured on these songs, topped by his own piercing harmonica, was indeed the sound of thin, wild mercury. And the highlight of any Dylan record — the lyrics — are among his best. His trademark wordplay is by turns venomous, tender, and always enigmatic.
Release Date: July 18
Highest Chart Position: #24 (U.S.), #27 (U.K.)
The Byrds were in transition. They were down to a quartet, vocalist and primary songwriter Gene Clark having left early in the year. Guitarist Jim McGuinn was always the visual focal point of the band onstage, with his cool, square-rimmed shades and big Rickenbacker 12-string guitar. Now he would have to step it up behind the scenes as well, taking more of the lead vocals on recordings and mastering the art of songwriting. They decided to build their next album around the last song they did with Clark, “Eight Miles High,” which was already climbing the charts as a single and causing controversy due to its supposed drug-referencing lyrics and non-traditional structure, which owed more to Indian ragas and free jazz than straightforward rock. A few covers were thrown in (including the old warhorse “Hey Joe”) to gloss over the songwriting gaps, but the new originals by McGuinn and second guitarist David Crosby were quite interesting, taking traditional folk and bluegrass stylings and marrying them to proto-psychedelic or sci-fi lyrics and titles, such as the title song and “Mr. Spaceman.”
Release Date: December 5
Highest Chart Position: #80 (U.S.), did not chart in the U.K.
The short-lived L.A./Canadian hybrid powerhouse Buffalo Springfield was fueled by the talents of the twin-headed monster known as Stephen Stills and Neil Young. Their peerless guitar chops were matched by their limitless egos, and the band essentially flamed out about eighteen months into their career. I don’t care how much praise is heaped on Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s much-later “masterpiece” Deja Vu, I maintain Stephen Stills never bettered his writing and playing on this self-titled debut, and Young’s work here (especially “Burned,” “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing” and “Flying On The Ground Is Wrong”) can stand proudly with his acclaimed solo work. Mere weeks after the release of this album, Buffalo Springfield put out “For What It’s Worth,” a Stills-penned stand-alone single that became an epic protest song and synonymous with “The Sixties.” The Buffalo Springfield album was reissued in March 1967 to include “For What It’s Worth” (replacing the second-rate “Baby Don’t Scold Me”) and became even more of a classic.
Release Date: October 10
Highest Chart Position: #4 (U.S.), #13 (U.K.)
This is far and away the duo’s most experimental work, which isn’t to say it’s an enormous departure from their signature sound. They simply added more aural textures, like bongos and celeste, to build on their folk foundations and create a more progressive sonic setting for their polished harmonies. The big guns are “Homeward Bound,” “Scarborough Fair/Canticle” and “The 59th Street Bridge Song,” but “Patterns” and “For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her” are very pretty, too. Occasional electric flourishes on organ and fuzz guitar are used primarily to poke fun — in a very clumsy and obvious way — at commercialism and the “rock” side of folk-rock. If you’re like me and find the air of insufferable pretension and smug intellectual superiority (always Paul Simon hallmarks) incredibly grating, this space in the Big 5 can be filled by another noteworthy folk-rock milestone, the much breezier If You Can Believe Your Eyes And Ears by The Mamas & The Papas, which is the only album here besides Revolver to hit #1 on the charts. John Phillips’ skills as a melody craftsman and vocal arranger are on par with Brian Wilson. “Monday, Monday,” “California Dreamin’,” and “Go Where You Wanna Go” are the obvious highlights, but there are other treasures to be mined.
There were also some albums that were released in 1966, went completely unnoticed at the time, but became enormous influences on artists and genres of a slightly later era. The 13th Floor Elevators heralded the beginning of a whole new age with their acid-soaked Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators, and Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention blended rock with avant-garde art on the double-album Freak Out!. (Paul McCartney was heard remarking on the Sgt. Pepper session tapes early the next year that “this is our Freak Out!”)
And the fruits of their labor would not be heard until early 1967, but I think it’s important to note that the Jimi Hendrix Experience entered the recording studio to begin their debut album in October of 1966.
The Singles of ‘66
Anyone who doubts that singles were still the primary form of musical consumption in 1966 need only look at this list.
“These Boots Are Made For Walkin’” — Nancy Sinatra
“Working My Way Back To You” — The Four Seasons
“I Fought The Law” — The Bobby Fuller Four
“Summer In The City” — The Lovin’ Spoonful
“(You’re My) Soul And Inspiration” — The Righteous Brothers
“Secret Agent Man” — Johnny Rivers
“Don’t Bring Me Down” — The Animals
“Time Won’t Let Me” — The Outsiders
“Kicks” — Paul Revere & The Raiders
“When A Man Loves A Woman” — Percy Sledge
“Cool Jerk” — The Capitols
“Red Rubber Ball” — Cyrkle
“You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me” — Dusty Springfield
“Wild Thing” — The Troggs
“Land Of 1000 Dances” — Wilson Pickett
“Sunshine Superman” — Donovan
“You Can’t Hurry Love” — The Supremes
“Hold On, I’m Comin'” — Sam & Dave
“Good Lovin'” — The Rascals
“Working In The Coal Mine” — Lee Dorsey
“Bus Stop” — The Hollies
“Cherish” — The Association
“96 Tears” — ? & The Mysterians
“Reach Out, I’ll Be There” — The Four Tops
“I’m A Believer” — The Monkees“
“Walk Away Renee” — The Left Banke
“Tell It Like It Is” — Aaron Neville
“What Becomes Of The Broken-Hearted” — Jimmy Ruffin
“Good Vibrations” — The Beach Boys (not included on Pet Sounds)
“Paperback Writer” — The Beatles (not included on Revolver)
“19th Nervous Breakdown” — The Rolling Stones (not included on Aftermath)
“Substitute” — The Who (not included on A Quick One)
“Dedicated Follower Of Fashion” — The Kinks (not included on Face To Face)
…and tons more.