Few single years in rock n’ roll are as crucial to its development as 1968. The fact that a healthy portion of this list contains recordings released within the span of those crazy 12 months is a testament to ‘68 and its impact on our listening habits 50 years later. Maybe it’s because we are living in a time that seems just as upside down as it was back then, when social unrest burned cities and put corrupt politicians in high seats of public office. And while other periods in pop history are certainly represented here, the 50-year-old titles selected for this Top 10 still have enough power in their collective matrix to add color to a grayscale life and capture the electricity of a society on edge a half century later.
1. The Beatles – The Beatles 50th Anniversary Edition (Apple/Capitol)
Originally released on Nov. 22, 1968, the Beatles’ follow-up to Magical Mystery Tour was an eponymous double LP lovingly dubbed The White Album on account of its stark artwork. It was a total reboot from the fanfare of their psychedelic era, but that didn’t mean the Fabs were done exploring new sounds. The Beatles was a sonic chronicle of the group’s sojourn as students of the Maharishi’s Academy of Transcendental Meditation. “We had left Sgt. Pepper’s band to play in his sunny Elysian Fields and were now striding out in new directions without a map,” writes Paul McCartney in his introductory message written in this massive 7-disc edition of the album for its 50th anniversary. It was overseen by second generation Beatles producer Giles Martin and loaded for tiger like Bungalow Bill with 50 session outtakes and the long-bootlegged 27-track set of acoustic demos crafted in George Harrison’s house in Esher, Surrey, which has never been experienced with such clarity thanks to young Martin. The four-disc sessions set, meanwhile, is a pure wonderland of revelations, including a raucous second take of “Helter Skelter” that sounds like Sonic Youth, Take 10 of “Good Night” with John Lennon, Paul and George all joining in on vocal harmonies and an 18th take of “Revolution” that is the proper, natural bridge between versions 1 and 9. Plus these weird early versions of “Let It Be” and “Across the Universe” as well as the instrumental version of “The Inner Light”? Giles Martin indeed does his late father George a wonderful honor by making this most important work in the Beatles canon all the more essential.
2. Jimi Hendrix Experience – Electric Ladyland 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition (Legacy Recordings)
The greatness of this lovingly produced box set commemorating the Seattle guitar god’s magnum opus, which restores Ladyland in the vision originally intended by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, exists not so much in the quantity of what’s offered here, but rather in the quality of this bonus material — The apex of which is a crystal-clear remix of the acoustic demos for these sessions, which focus on Jimi the singer-songwriter. When listening to these bare-bones variations of songs like “1983…A Merman I Shall Turn to Be,” “Voodoo Chile” and “Cherokee Mist,” the beauty of the compositions — still incredibly potent even after all the studio magick is washed away — is readily apparent.
3. Matthew Sweet – Altered Beast 25th Anniversary Edition (Intervention Records)
A flood in the warehouse could spell certain curtains for a record label, especially one as relatively young as the Pugent Sound, Washington-based Intervention Records, founded by Shane Buettner in 2015. But this imprint which specializes in high end audio reissues both on vinyl and the risky yet supremely rewarding SACD format just brushed off calamity like a boss and pressed on. And the cream of their 2018 catalog stems from having acquired the rights to Matthew Sweet’s Zoo Recordings discography, including his 1993 guitar pop masterpiece Altered Beast, presented here in an expanded form for its 25th anniversary with six bonus tracks, including unparalleled earworms as “The Ugly Truth,” “Someone to Pull the Trigger,” “Do It Again” and “Reaching Out.” To re-experience Beast in this kind of superb fidelity, bringing out the synergy between bassist Sweet and his rotating supergroup flanked by New York punk guitar icons Richard Lloyd and Robert Quine, the incomparable Nicky Hopkins on piano and a murderer’s row of drummers including Ric Menck, Pete Thomas of The Attractions, Big Star’s Jody Stephens and Mick Fleetwood (!) like never before, will truly have you second guessing your decision to ditch physical media once and for all.
4. The Kinks – The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society (BMG)
Sgt. Pepper notwithstanding, Village Green may very well be the true English son of Pet Sounds. Especially when you consider the parallels these albums took both The Beach Boys and The Kinks, respectively, through the years. But Village Green is on its own cloud entirely, a very British imaginary square a bustle with such characters as Mrs. Mopp, Old Mother Riley, Walter and Daisy, Monica the prostitute and of course rebel biker Johnny Thunder. “It’s the end of our innocence, our youth,” Davies said of the album. “Some people are quite old but in the Village Green, you’re never allowed to grow up.” This massive 50th anniversary box set, filled to the gills with just about every audio and visual associated with the album, is the definitive word on a groundbreaking work that continues to inform young pop auteurs from both sides of the Atlantic to this very day.
5. Bobbie Gentry – The Girl From Chicksaw County: The Complete Capitol Masters (Universal Music Enterprises)
Few songs in the American pop songbook are as haunting as Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe,” the ballad about a mysterious something thrown the Tallahatchie Bridge in Money, Mississippi, and the boy who followed suit the very next day. The song spent four weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 in August of 1967 and would be followed up with a prolific succession of acclaimed albums that abruptly ended in 1971 with the release of her sixth and final full-length, the self-produced and thoroughly underrated Patchwork. Following an appearance on the 1981 TV special All-Star Salute to Mother’s Day, Gentry vanished from the spotlight and remains in gated community reclusion to this very day at age 76. But regardless of her absence from the public eye she remains a hero to the creative spirit, most recently inspiring Mercury Rev to collaborate with such renowned modern artists as Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier, Norah Jones, Margo Price and Lucinda Williams to reimagine Gentry’s 1968 masterpiece The Delta Sweete, set for release in February of 2019. With amazing artwork by fashion illustrator David Downton, The Girl from Chicksaw County tells Gentry’s complete story on acetate like never before, bringing together all seven of her Capitol albums along with at least another full-length’s worth of demos and alternate tracks apiece along with Live at the BBC, previously available as a Record Store Day exclusive.
6. Kate Bush – Remastered Pt. I & Pt. II (Rhino)
By pop parameters, remastering the catalog of Kate Bush is like trying to do a restoration on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel — how do you improve upon perfection? But across these two extraordinary box sets, the British visionary’s recorded output has never looked or sounded better, while a four-disc collection of extras — though in many ways incomplete with the absence of such crucial fan favorites as the 12-inch mixes from her The Red Shoes era and the material comprising the 1979 On Stage EP — is nevertheless a treasure trove filled with such rare treats as the previously unreleased 1975 composition “Humming” and a version of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” that was originally recorded in 1994 with Irish musician Davy Spillane and wasn’t officially released until 2005 when it served as the b-side for the Aerial single “King of the Mountain.”
7. John Coltrane – 1963: New Directions (Impulse!)
“Like finding a new room in the Great Pyramid,” Sonny Rollins is quoted in saying about Both Directions At Once, a newly unearthed lost album by the John Coltrane Quartet from 1963. But this discovery is only a fraction of a most pivotal year for the eternal heavyweight champion of jazz saxophone. The New Directions box set pairs the newly-uncovered recordings with the rest of Trane’s ‘63, which also includes material recorded for his acclaimed collaborative LP with singer Johnny Hartman as well as essential titles like Dear Old Stockholm, Newport ‘63 and Live at Birdland. 1963 was a pivotal year for the indelible combo of Coltrane, pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones (not to mention the living legend Roy Haynes, who sat in for Jones on Stockholm and Newport), and to have the totality of this output sequenced by session date is a truly new direction in listening to this masterful music.
8. Buck Owens – The Complete Capitol Singles: 1967-1970 / Country Singer’s Prayer (Omnivore Recordings)
There wasn’t a more impressive clinic on guitar interplay in country music than the duels that went down between Buck Owens and Don Rich in the late ’60s. By 1967, the country rock renaissance in the canyons of Lower California was starting to reveal itself, and during this exuberant stretch of singles Owens and his Rich-led Buckaroos were modifying the Bakersfield sound to keep up with those high flying Byrds as Buck began his duties as co-host of Hee-Haw with Roy Clark, resulting in some of the most adventurous work of the guitarist’s career. When Don Rich was killed in a motorcycle accident at the young age of 32 on July 17, 1974, Owens largely removed himself from the music business for much of the ’70s. But in the immediacy of his grief from losing the man he considered a son, in November of ‘75, he channeled his emotions into one last album for Capitol, Country Singer’s Prayer, which the label shelved on account of commercial indifference. Forty-three years later, however, Omnivore made it public with this beautiful extended edition with a pair of Owens’ last b-sides for Capitol including one of his last studio tracks with Rich, “Meanwhile Back At The Ranch.”
9. Alexander Spence – AndOarAgain (Modern Harmonic/Sundazed)
Few rock albums can exhibit the human mind at its most fragile state of psychosis quite like this most complete version of the sole solo album from Moby Grape guitarist Alexander “Skip” Spence. Recorded in seven days in Nashville with songs written during a six-month stay at New York’s Bellevue Hospital, Oar revealed the profound effects of one’s mental wellness on their songwriting process. With almost two hours’ worth of formerly unheard music, this complete edition of the loner cult classic is by far the most comprehensive dive into the album that, in his outstanding liner notes, veteran rock journalist David Fricke hails as “the most harrowing and compelling artifacts of rock & roll’s most euphoric era.”
10. Buddy Guy and Junior Wells – A Man and the Blues & Coming At You (Craft Recordings)
As aging Chess masters of Chicago blues like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf were off making psychedelic records with white musicians, over in the Windy City it was young lions of the scene like Buddy Guy and Junior Wells over on the Vanguard label who were really doing their town proud in ‘68. These two albums are stone classics in the book of any blues scholar worth their salt. And don’t mistake the cover art; neither A Man and the Blues nor Coming At You are some kinda hippie head trip. This is the real deal electric blues, the bedrock of what the next 50 years of its evolution would look like, from Jimi Hendrix to the Stones to Stevie Ray Vaughan to Gary Clark Jr. and John Mayer. That Buddy Guy, at 82, is still as vital a voice for his craft as he was back in 1968 alone is a testament to this music right here. No bonus bells and whistles needed here; having both back on wax and sounding more electrifying than ever thanks to the remastering work of Ron McMaster is good enough.
Also Worth Checking Out:
Wings – Wild Life/Red Rose Speedway (MPL/Capitol)
A deep look at the cover of Egypt Station will reveal more than a couple of shoutouts to Macca’s storied past. But his Paul McCartney Archive Series continues to tell the bassist’s tale in a better and more unconventional way. News of these oft-maligned first two Wings albums serving as the next two installments was met with a healthy amount of skepticism by tastemakers, but for those who always believed in the knockabout charm of these fledgling Wings records, the wealth of rarities and interactive physical ephemera contained within is the reward for their true faith.
Fleetwood Mac – 50 Years (Rhino)
It sucks that Lindsey Buckingham was canned from the Mac this year. But when it comes down to it, the arrival of Mike Campbell and Neil Finn into the Fleetwood fold upon Lindsey’s departure is just another era in the books for the many forms of this band. It’s the most unique evolution in rock history, Fleetwood Mac, and 50 Years does a magnificent job in bringing all the different periods together in one continuous song mix. And what it might lack in physical appeal it makes up for in production and sequencing — especially that first disc, arguably the finest single disc distillation of pre-Buckingham-Nicks Fleetwood Mac available. One can only hope it leads to proper deluxe editions of the Danny Kirwan-era classic Bare Trees and the underrated Bob Welch-driven fan fave Heroes Are Hard To Find somewhere down the road.
Roxy Music – Roxy Music Super Deluxe Edition (Virgin)
A 3-CD/1-DVD box set celebrating the 45th anniversary of Roxy Music’s auspicious, eponymous debut– one of only two albums to feature original member Brian Eno — was the left-field reissue 2018 needed. This beautifully packaged and remastered set includes such rare treasures as the revealing demo tape which got them signed to Island Records, a small anthology of their first BBC sessions and an entire disc of previously unreleased studio outtakes overseen by Bryan Ferry himself that plays out like an alternate version of the album.