Psychedelic rock may have gained its greatest cultural prominence during the drug-fueled youth movements of the 1960s, but the genre’s experimental sounds created a wave that still ripples outward into modern music today, nearly 50 years removed from 1967’s summer of love. Festivals devoted to the genre occur annually across the US, and modern alternative acts wear the psychedelic genre label like a badge of honor, using imagery that specifically recalls their ’60s forebearers.
In honor of this enduring genre of fuzzed out improvisational jams and LSD-inspired soundscapes, let’s look back at some of the genre’s best ever album efforts, some legendary and some oft-overlooked. In no particular order, these are eight of the greatest psychedelic rock albums of all-time.
1. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn – Pink Floyd
Before they were prog, they were psych. In the 1960s, Pink Floyd combined space-age chord structures with nursery rhyme-esque lyrics under the leadership of doomed band leader Syd Barrett. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is the band’s only LP where Barrett penned a majority of the songs, and it holds its own among the band’s more famous later efforts like The Dark Side of the Moon. Its crowning achievement is either the plodding, unpredictable “Interstellar Overdrive” or the tighter controlled chaos of “Astronomy Domine.”
2. Happy Trails – Quicksilver Messenger Service
Quicksilver Messenger Service was one of the quintessential acts of San Francisco’s thriving ’60s psych scene, and their most essential album reflects their electric live performances. There isn’t much in the way of songwriting here — much of the album is just an excuse for an extended solo by guitarist John Cipollina in the guise of a multi-track cover of “Who Do You Love.” And what a solo it is, with the melody morphing seamlessly from the main theme into new, instrumentally fascinating bluesy departures. Committed to record, the band’s instrumental prowess somehow recreates what it might have felt like to hear them performing live in an intimate Bay Area venue filled with stale pot smoke. And that’s quite a feat.
3. Incense and Peppermints – Strawberry Alarm Clock
Despite the success of its title track, now almost synonymous with 1960s-era montages, Strawberry Alarm Clock’s debut albums if by-and-large forgotten. Nevertheless, the album is one of psychedelia’s most fascinating LPs for its textured production and striking instrumentation, including flute playing by Steve Barbek. Most of the songs don’t have irresistible hooks like “Incense and Peppermints,” but each one has a loose but frenetic energy complimented by strong melodies and a willingness to explore new sounds.
4. Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? – of Montreal
A brief trip forward in time brings us to the eclectic 60s-influenced soundscape of of Montreal (that’s not a typo). The band’s frontman Kevin Barnes crafted stripped back Beatles-esque pop on his first albums before expanding his sound into something more obviously psychedelic. His songs are tighter and more lushly produced, with the pitch turned higher to compliment his nasally glam vocals, but his willingness to tackle sonically adventurous pop songs (“Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse”) and lengthy jam sessions (“The Past Is a Grotesque Animal”) smacks of psychedelia. The band’s greatest album to date provides the best of both worlds, bringing the singer’s diverse influences confidently into the 21st century.
5. Electric Music for the Mind and Body – Country Joe & The Fish
Country Joe and the Fish typified ’60s counterculture through both music and lyrics, crafting adventurous musical compositions as often as they sang about free love and recreational drug use. Their debut album, which gave birth to their only charting single “Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine,” found them already reaching a creative peak. Their sound was recycled from myriad influences — blues, roots rock and folk, to name a few — but still sounded wholly new thanks in part to the organ accompaniment, satirically clever lyrics and partially-live recorded technique.
6. The United States of America – The United States of America
The one album wonder that was The United States of America stands as one of the most adventurous American bands of the 1960s, and not just for their confusing band name. They pushed psychedelic sounds more than a few steps towards the avant garde, creating a self-titled album that thrilled critics and alienated listeners. They deserve a place in music history for their early use of electronic instrumentation. More importantly, they deserve a place in your music library for their cinematic, clever compositions that still sound like nothing else ever released.
7. Are You Experienced? – The Jimi Hendrix Experience
It’s difficult to settle on just one Hendrix LP among the three he released during his short lifetime, but I’ll vouch for his 1967 debut. Are You Experienced? introduced the world to one of the most innovative guitarists of all-time with a blast of heavy psychedelic rock that combined strong songwriting with stronger playing. The shaggy dog production and Hendrix’s talk-singing makes the album sound as raw and powerful as the day it was released, while radio-ready melodies on tracks like “Purple Haze” and “Hey Joe” popularized a playing style so distinct it practically reinvented rock music for the latter half of the 20th century.
8. Strange Days – The Doors
The Doors are strongly associated with the ’60s, but the group stands out from many of their contemporaries for several reasons. Their songs forego free love in favor of themes of isolation and alienation — “People Are Strange” being the most obvious example — reflecting the disturbed psyche of frontman Jim Morrison. Their songs were tight but brilliantly reflected these lyrical themes with an organ-centric approach that conjures up images of a haunted big-top circus in reference to everyday life.
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