1969, on the precipice of a new decade, saw the hippie counterculture movement slide to a slow and inevitable death. The Vietnam war would eventually end near the beginning of the new decade of the 1970s, and where there was more of a sense of hope in the air in 1967, one that began to dissipate by 1969.
The music that came out of ’69 is representative of this shift in the cultural atmosphere of Western societies; there are darker undertones, specifically seen in the early developments of new genres of rock, such as punk and progressive rock. It wasn’t only the music that was mirroring the shift; the air, in general, felt explosive: the hippie counterculture was also fueled by drug use in order to expand one’s conscious which was synonymous with free love and peace as associated with the hippie movement. To think that there were no repercussions that would result from such a call to substance use on a mass scale is naive. Drug abuse led to increased crime, resulting in more violence, therefore creating a tangible correlation between the late stages of the movement and rising violence.
There were certainly martyrs of the psychedelic and hippie age, human embodiments of this mythos that seems almost fantastical to younger people in 2021. Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd virtually suffered from too much LSD use, Janis Joplin died of a heroin overdose and Jim Morrison, the Dionysus of the hippie age, ravaged his mind and body with insurmountable amounts of drugs.
In what was a massive symbolic tragedy, a man died at the famous Rolling Stones concert in Altamont, California. The person was stabbed to death by the Hell’s Angels biker gang, who were hired to provide security. Some commentators would speculate that this was the perfect symbol for the death of peace and love.
However, the end of the decade leading into the ’70s was not all doom and gloom in regards to pop culture and popular music. A lot of great bands and artists released and would continue to release material throughout the decade. There was a lot of great art happening; then again, one could make the argument that the worse society gets, the better art becomes.
The most famous music festival happened in 1969; Woodstock would host a slew of some of the biggest acts to grace the history of popular music. Ravi Shankar was present among the performers who sort of played the part of an ambassador and symbol of Western pop stars such as The Beatles, The Kinks and The Rolling Stones all embracing Eastern music. All of who released great albums in 1969 – none of them have been included on this list.
While Abbey Road, Arthur and Let It Bleed are all superb albums, in my opinion, all of them pale in comparison to the respective bands’ other work they have put out.
Therefore, I wanted to shine the spotlight on some other albums that have had more of a far-reaching impact in the greater cultural context of 1969. The albums that I have chosen are all groundbreaking and ahead of its time.
The best albums released in 1969:
The Stooges (Eponymous Debut)
The Stooges’ eponymous debut album released through Elektra Records, is an incredibly important album considering the year. It sounds like it came out in the mid to late 1970s. It is essentially a punk album, but since punk didn’t technically exist yet for journalists, it is called proto-punk. The album peaked at number 106 on the top 200 billboard charts.
Iggy Pop would later recall an anecdote that involved the record label, Elektra Records: “We auditioned [the seven-song version of the album] live in the studio and they refused it. Jac Holzman, the head of Elektra Records allegedly responded with ‘There aren’t enough songs that contain structured lead vocals!’ So we lied and said, ‘That’s OK, we’ve got lots more proper songs.’ Upon hearing this Holzman then indicated to the band that they had one week to record and prepare the album.”
Sly and the Family Stone – Stand!
Stand! Would prove to be a highly successful album for the band whose luck with previous albums wasn’t faring so well. Sly Stone, the band’s leader, was very much responsible for innovating a wholly unique soul, funk, and rock sound in and outside of the band. In the 1960s and the ’70s, he lived in California and worked as a record producer and disc jockey.
Sly and the Family Stone, are one of those few bands who embody their message rather than constantly sing simple songs about a message. Alec Dubro for The Rolling Stone, when he reviewed the album in 1969, said that the album had “a very moral sense of purpose.” They were one of the first interracially formed bands.
To quote Peter Shapiro from Uncut, who truly summed up the album the best: “At a time when the civil rights coalition was breaking apart when flower power was mutating into armed struggle, the Family Stone clung desperately to the belief that ‘You Can Make it If You Try’ and had the gall to deliver the decade’s most powerful message of unity as a singsong nursery rhyme. Of course, maybe ‘Everyday People’ was believable as a nursery rhyme because, on songs like ‘Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey’ and ‘Somebody’s Watching You’, Sly watches the ’60s dream disintegrate before his eyes.”
King Crimson – In The Court of The Crimson King
Another debut album that was released in 1969, further confirming that out of the ashes of an ageing ideology, came new ideas that sought to provide fresh answers. King Crimson’s debut is nothing short of a masterpiece, and it is regarded as one of the first progressive rock albums. Unlike The Stooges who share the same DNA as The Velvet Underground, King Crimson took the perspective of a higher art form, fusing an elaborate style of blues with jazz and classical music and incorporating long symphonic structures within their compositions.
The kind of assurance an artist looks for when creating something new and original is not in fact, all positive reviews (that would imply conformism) but instead, an array of mixed reviews is more favourable, which is exactly what happened. While some critics did not take the time that is necessary to understand the prophetic nature of The Court of The Crimson King, Lindsay Planer from Allmusic praised it, saying, “As if somehow prophetic, King Crimson projected a darker and edgier brand of post-psychedelic rock.”
Miles Davis – In a Silent Way
This choice introduces a veteran of an artist who would, by 1969, have seemed like an ageing vampire from a different century. The master jazz trumpeter was already performing live as a highly revered professional jazz innovator by 1950. Miles Davis pioneered early forms of jazz; his Birth of Cool Sessions were instrumental in the development of cool jazz, and would also play a part in the earliest sessions that solidified another sub-genre of jazz, hard-bop. Miles Davis has the strain of the avant-garde in his heart.
In a Silent Way would challenge his jazz peers as he further sought to stretch the boundaries of what jazz can be; he would be one of the first to incorporate electric instruments in jazz compositions. By the time 1969 came around, although he was older than some of the newer musicians he was being introduced to such as Jimi Hendrix, he was ready to play their game and beat them at it too.
Velvet Underground (Eponymous album)
While this is the third album from the underground art-rockers, their eponymous record contains elements of ‘newness’ as this is the first album that features Doug Yule in place of John Cale. The songs on this album are also of a more straightforward rock structure variety. There are no long noise sequences, and there aren’t any dissident sounds. Quite the opposite is true; the songs are some of Reed’s best.
‘Pale Blue Eyes’ would prove to be a massive influence on many bands who frequently cite it as their favourite VU song. REM would cover it in the later years.
Buffy Sainte-Marie – Illuminations
Illuminations as obscure as it may seem compared to the other selections, this album is actually the most ahead of its time compared to the other mentions. Buffy Sainte-Marie is an extraordinary musician and person. The first track off the album, God is Alive Magic is Afoot, was written using the words of Leonard Cohen’s novel, Beautiful Losers. Her album would be the very first to use electronics to create music, as early as 1969.
Sainte-Marie – a dissident and true rebel at heart – is also the first Native American to win both an Academy Award and Golden Globe. Which is sort of ironic, because earlier on in her career, unbeknownst to her, and because of her subversive and political nature, Sainte-Marie’s music was put blacklisted in the States for a long time.
If you have never heard of her before, I highly recommend you take a listen; she is incredibly original.