Although it sometimes seems to pale in significance compared to the two years that preceded it, 1969 eventually proved to be one of the more essential 12 months in rock’s remarkable trajectory. It not only found the old masters — Dylan, the Beatles, the Stones, the Who and The Kinks — creating some of the most memorable albums of their careers, but it also allowed newcomers like Led Zeppelin, King Crimson, the Band and the Burrito Brothers to set their sites on the future with albums that established new realms within rock’s vast umbrella. These aren’t the only triumphs of that fabled year, but they certainly are worthy of elevated distinction.
Although it wasn’t the Beatles’ swan song — the tumultuous Let It Be can claim that crown — Abbey Road was the final album that allowed them to express their collective creativity and realize the full potential of everything the band had manifest up until that point. Indeed, it boasted some of their best songs of all time, affirmation of the fact that their legacy would linger long after they made their fractious split. Lennon’s “Come Together,” Harrison’s “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun,” McCartney’s “Golden Slumbers” and “She Came In Through the Bathroom Window — even Starr’s “Octopus’s Garden” — ranked as singular triumphs that forever underscored the band’s brilliance and dynamic. The medley that spanned side two offered another testament to the Beatles’ prowess, making for an aptly fond farewell.
King Crimson, In the Court of the Crimson King (10/10/69)
Virtual unknowns prior to their formation, King Crimson had its genesis in a quirky trio called Giles, Giles and Fripp the year before. Indeed, nothing could prepare the rock world for the scope and span of Crimson’s namesake debut, an album that virtually set the course of prog rock for the remainder of the decade and beyond. Mellotron, sax, Mike Giles’ intricate drumming, Robert Fripp’s inventive riffing and Greg Lake’s emotive vocals offered a combination that was both cinematic in scope and shimmering in its illuminating beauty. No album ever sounded as demonstrative or distinctive, and indeed, few have come close since. The title track alone proved an epoch for the ages.
Poco – Pickin’ Up the Pieces (5/19/69)
A definitive early step in the forward progression of country rock, later morphing into Americana, Poco’s first album was sown in the immediate aftermath of Buffalo Springfield’s ill-fated final album, Last Time Around. The continuity implied in the title of Pickin’ Up the Pieces as a successor to Last Time Around is no accident; given the fact that Springfield alumni Richie Furay and Jim Messina were both involved, aided by Rusty Young, who played on the final Springfield sessions, Poco provided an able continuation of Springfield’s homespun sound. Although sometimes overshadowed by the later albums in Poco’s progression, it offered a title tune that still endures as a fan favorite.
Neil Young – Neil Young (1/22/69)
Following the slow, tattered break-up of the Buffalo Springfield, Neil Young’s eponymous debut proved that further glories, at least as far as its individual members were concerned, still waited in the wings. The more emotive tracks resonate to the greatest degree — “The Old Laughing Lady,” “Here We Are In The Years,” and “I’ve Loved Her So Long” — all affecting ballads which find Young immersed in tender reflection. “I’ve Been Waiting For You” has him taking a slightly more assertive stance, though his desperation is apparent. Still, it’s “The Loner,” a resolute rocker in the style Young would later nurture with Crazy Horse in tow, that ultimately stands the test of time. The album had its curiosities as well, as expressed by the nine and a half minute ramble, “The Last Trip To Tulsa,” an allegory of sorts that finds Young doing his best to emulate Dylan if he suffered a case of dementia.
The Band, The Band (9/22/69)
Although Music From Big Pink was the album that introduced the Band in their new incarnation, transitioning to a fully formed group from their secondary role as Bob Dylan’s backing band, their eponymous sophomore set effectively found them effectively coming into their own. While the first album was fashioned, at least in part, from songs recorded with Dylan as part of the famous Basement Tapes, these songs eschewed the group approach and mainly consisted of songs written by the band’s now acknowledged chief architect Robbie Robertson with only occasional assists from the others. It boasted at least three signature songs — “Across the Great Divide,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Rag Mama Rag,” and “Up On Cripple Creek” — although in fact, practically every song in the set could be seen as a classic. Likewise, the album as a whole established the template for today’s Americana movement and continues to resonate in that way with lasting effect.
Bob Dylan – Nashville Skyline (4/6/69)
While Dylan’s never failed to surprise — and sometimes shock — his loyal legions, Nashville Skyline was the album that changed everything all at once. The once fiery poet and protest maven turned his attention to the least likely genre anyone would imagine — traditional country music without any social meaning or underlying intent. Granted, he had begun the transition with John Wesley Harding and his efforts scoring songs with the Band, but here, under the influence of Nashville’s reliable regimen, he totally transformed — chopping off his hair, deepening his delivery and seemingly beaming from the album cover, Surprising too, it included a duet with Johnny Cash, then a veritable king of Country, Nashville royalty that represented blue-collar America, which was still technically at war with hippies and harbingers of anything rock related. A remarkable revelation, it, as much as anything, helped plot the course forward as far as country rock, roots rock and, of course, authentic Americana.
The Who – Tommy (5/23/69)
No album before or since, with the possible exception of Sgt Pepper, had such a profound effect on the rock psyche. Although its claim to be the first rock opera has been challenged by the Pretty Things with S.F. Sorrow and the Kinks via Arthur, Tommy was the first album to be fully performed in its entirety in the world’s great opera houses and other prestigious settings, among them, New York’s Carnegie Hall. Aside from the fact that several of its songs made indelible additions to the Who’s catalog — “Pinball Wizard,” “I’m Free, “See Me, Feel Me” chief among them — it elevated rock as a genre where it could be considered a more serious art form, a true example of genuine genius. It still resonates that way today.
The immediate contender for Tommy’s crown was, aside from the aforementioned S.F. Sorrow, was yet another highlight from the Kinks’ golden era, a musical narrative about the gradual slide of the British Empire as told from the vantage point of some English expatriates who resettled in the far reaches of the empire by way of Australia. Both rousing and reflective, it’s stirring set of songs all the way through, every bit as affecting as Village Green Preservation Society in its blend of optimism and enlightenment. Easily one of the best works of the Kinks Kanon, it’s as inspiring now in its idyllic exuberance as it ever was before. “Now that you’ve found your paradise, here is your kingdom to command/You can go outside and polish your car or sit by the fire in your Shangri-la.” Ah, such sweet sentiments.
Flying Burrito Brothers, Gilded Palace of Sin (2/6/69)
Another band born out of the roots of a classic precedent — in this case the Byrds — the Flying Burrito Brothers included a pioneer of the Americana genre in Gram Parsons. Parsons’ contributions to the Byrds’ classic Sweetheart of the Rodeo the year before found a natural follow-up in the Burritos easy blend of Laurel Canyon cool and Nashville’s blue collar anthems. Parsons wasn’t the only former Byrd on board — bassist Chris Hillman and Michael Clark also donned nudie suits and struck on some southern sensibilities while under the influence of the Brothers Everly and Louvin. Good taste had them tossing in a pair of classic Chips Moman and Dan Penn tunes for good measure.
The Rolling Stones, Let It Bleed (12/5/69)
The second instalment in a series of Stones releases that many critics consider the strongest single run of albums released by any outfit before or since (the others being Beggar’s Banquet, Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street), Let It Bleed ended the ‘60s with a track list that provided the bulk of the band’s set list for some time — “Gimme Shelter,” “Let It Bleed,” “Midnight Rambler,” and of course, the song that became a mantra for the disenfranchised, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” a song that soars with reverential indulgence. In contrast to the tattered blues of Beggars Banquet — the album that preceded it — the tone of Let It Bleed was dark and dire, as befitting the fact that this would be the final album on which the seriously ravaged Brian Jones would ever appear. Nevertheless, with a supporting cast that included Ry Cooder, Bobby Keys, Nicky Hopkins, Leon Russell, Jack Nitzsche, Al Kooper, and Merry Clayton (who shared the singing on Gimme Shelter” in such a stunning manner), there was no shortage of talent involved. Likewise, Keith Richards’ strangled lead vocal on “You Got the Silver” added to the album’s charms.
Jefferson Airplane, Volunteers (11/15/69)
From reverential folkies to drug-driven insurgents, and finally through to this, their rousing and rebellious rebuke of the establishment, the Jefferson Airplane reached their pinnacle with Volunteers, the most fully formed and cohesive effort of their career. The title track provided to be the most pivotal element of the entire album, but the controversial line “Up against the wall, motherfuckers,” the eco-friendly songs “The Farm” and “Eskimo Blue Day,” not to mention the band’s version of “Wooden Ships,” co-written by Paul Kantner, David Crosby and Steven Stills, also expressed their penchant for protest. Likewise, Jorma Kaukonen’s traditional blues on “Good Sheperd” foretold his future efforts with Hot Tuna. Indeed, Volunteers is the last album to include the band’s classic line-up, given that singer Marty Balin and drummer Spencer Dryden would depart soon after, leaving the rest of the band to eventually morph from Airplane to Starship.
Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin I, Led Zeppelin II (1/12/69 & 10/22/69)
The impact of Led Zeppelin’s first two albums can’t be overstated. Prototypes for heavy metal mayhem, as well as a promise fulfilled by Jimmy Page’s initial outlay in the Yardbirds, the combination of Plant, Page, Bonham and Jones set a standard for hard rock while developing a fan following that easily rivaled the devotion given to any other band on the planet before or since. Consider these two albums landmark efforts, not only of the era but really for all time.