Music’s most significant years stress the freshest sounds. By that measure, 1969 stands with the most consequential of all time, generating albums and genres that have defined key parts of the last half century.
Arguably, more influential debut works appeared that year than in any of the “classic-rock” era – the creatively dense stretch between 1968 and 1972. While 1967 may have introduced us to The Doors, The Velvet Underground and David Bowie, and 1968 brought us Joni Mitchell, The Band and Led Zeppelin, the sheer range of debuts in 1969 makes it a standout year in modern music history.
So, why did this particular period – whose peak will toast its 50th anniversary this year - produce such an ocean of innovators? The gist boils down to a harmonic convergence of generational, demographic and economic shifts. Members of the boomer generation, who would dominate most of the next half-century, reached their prime teen years at this time. And their ballooning demographic came armed with an exceptional amount of disposable income to spend on the music they adored. Once the older record executives recognised the richness of that market, and acknowledged their own ignorance about the new sounds it craved, they ceded more creative control to the new stars, encouraging them to test the limits of their imaginations.
In other words, they handed the inmates the keys to the asylum, resulting in the creative windfall that these works revel in.
Neil Young - Neil Young (January)
Young, who had announced his prodigious talents three years earlier in Buffalo Springfield, landed a one-two punch as a solo artist in 1969. In a scant five-month-period, he not only released his self-titled debut, but his first bracing work with Crazy Horse, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (May). While the latter has more force and classics (Down by The River, Cinnamon Girl), the former had a lush and hallowed beauty that established Young as both a singular soul and a role model for others to come.
The Flying Burrito Brothers - The Gilded Palace of Sin (February)
Poco - Pickin’ Up the Pieces (May)
Country-rock became a key trend with two releases during this pivotal year. The more substantial of them, from The Flying Burrito Brothers, featured key members of The Byrds – Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman – who had first experimented with melding country and rock seven months earlier on “Sweetheart of the Rodeo.” For their new venture, they added soul, via some aching cover songs, and psychedelia, through the piercing pedal steel work of “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow. Their harmonies beguiled, but the peak arrived with “Hot Burrito #1,” one of the most ravishing ballads of all time. Three months later came Poco, another country-rock touchstone, fronted by an ex-member of Buffalo Springfield, Ritchie Furay. They brought a more gleeful sound to this new amalgam.
MC5 - Kick Out the Jams (February)
The Stooges - The Stooges (August)
Much of the punk insurrection can be traced to debuts by these two Detroit-based pioneers. MC5 matched primal rock to revolutionary politics, with plenty of lyrical epithets thrown in for good measure. The Stooges presented equal anarchism, but with sexier songs, like their undying salute to masochism I Wanna Be Your Dog.
Free - Tons of Sobs (March)
Though erroneously cast as a one-hit-wonder in the US, due to their sole Top 5 hit, All Right Now, Free flipped the entire dynamic of British blues-rock. Instead of racing through the music, and packing it with brisk solos, they played with slow determination and left lots of space in the sound – the better to make each note count, and to give the music a uniquely heavy sense of momentum.
Joe Cocker - With A Little Help from My Friends (April)
Like Ray Charles reborn for a new generation, Cocker brought extra gravity to British blues and soul. One of its greatest interpretive singers, he found fresh profundity in familiar material, peaking with his take on Bob Dylan’s Just Like a Woman, which had the weight of Greek tragedy.
Crosby, Stills and Nash - Crosby Stills & Nash (May)
Blind Faith - Blind Faith (August)
Humble Pie - As Safe as Yesterday Is (August)
In 1969, the super-group became a major trend, starting with the debut of CSN, which melded Buffalo Springfield’s Stephen Stills, The Byrds’ David Crosby and The Hollies, Graham Nash. Their graceful harmonies made them one of the era’s most beloved bands, while their melodies helped folk-rock progress. Later that summer, Blind Faith brought together Cream’s, er, cream (Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker) with Traffic’s boy wonder Steve Winwood. They barely made it through their debut before imploding, but songs like Can’t Find My Way Home and Presence of the Lord still resonate. A somewhat lesser alliance arrived when Humble Pie’s distilled players from Small Faces (Steve Marriott), Spooky Tooth (Greg Ridley) and The Herd (Peter Frampton). Their stirring debut caught them at their artistic peak.
Delaney and Bonnie - Home (May)
The first white group signed to Stax Records, Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett created a Southern sound that wound up altering the course of British music. The couple’s music proved so influential that, the next year it inspired top UK artists, from Clapton to George Harrison to Dave Mason, to join them on tour, emboldening a deepening connection between British rock and American soul.
The Meters - The Meters (May)
Perhaps the funkiest instrumental album of all time, The Meters’ debut roiled with the musical mix of their native New Orleans.
Elton John - Empty Sky (June)
The album wasn’t released in the US until 1975, and it’s known for just one song, Skyline Pidgeon. But Empty Sky found Elton getting in on the ground floor of the singer-songwriter movement that, along with Carole King and James Taylor, would dominate early 1970s pop.
Roberta Flack - First Take (June)
While a key song from the album, The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, wouldn’t become a hit for another three years, Flack’s debut remains her most adventurous work. Never again was she as tough, or jazzy, as in the opening Compared to What, while the closer, All the Sad Young Men, culminated in a vocal crescendo of Streisand-like proportions.
Johnny Winter - Johnny Winter (June)
Some of the fastest, and more ferocious, blues-rock ever made came courtesy of the fingers and voice of this Texas powerhouse. Proclaimed as being one of the most talented guitarists of his generation, the album launched with a wave of media attention, thanks to a Rolling Stone article the year before, and an historically lucrative contract signed with Columbia Records.
Yes - Yes (June)
King Crimson - In the Court of the Crimson King (October)
It took Yes until their third album to perfect their signature sound. But their debut greatly enhanced the range and colour of the growing prog-rock movement. Even so, it was downright regressive compared to the shock and awe of King Crimson’s debut, which immediately established Robert Fripp’s band as one beyond category or limit.
Can - Monster Movie (August)
One of the first “kraut-rock bands”, Can helped usher in a renaissance in German musical experimentation. Their inventive use of rhythmic repetition created a sound that hypnotized. Everything was recorded by 'instant composition', according to Can’s co-founder Holger Czukay. Yoo Doo Right was an unusual long piece of music at that time, with a rhythm that did not belong to the world of rock ‘n roll.
Santana - Santana (August)
Latin-rock’s greatest exemplar, Santana also helped bring sounds from outside the US/UK axis to the pop charts. The band played at Woodstock the same month the album was released, and one of the festival’s highlights was their performance of Soul Sacrifice, complete with the legendary Michael Shrieve drum solo. Legend has it that promoter Bill Graham only agreed to help plan Woodstock if the then-unknown Santana was added to the bill.
Nick Drake - Five Leaves Left (September)
Discovered by Fairport Convention's Ashley Hutchings, Drake was pigeonholed as a 'folk' artist. But, as Five Leaves Left showed, he was so much more. Drake’s ballads, like the jazzy River Man, provided some of music’s most intimate moments, presaging Joni Mitchell’s epic of sensitivity, Blue.
Janis Joplin - I Got ‘Dem Old Kozmic Blues (September)
Rod Stewart - The Rod Stewart Album (November)
These well-loved, and gritty, singers made their solo debuts two months apart. Janis’ album departed from the psych-rock of her earlier band, Big Brother. Her spirited, if clumsy, new Kosmic Blues Band, grind through songs like the horn-punctuated Maybe. Meanwhile, Rod Stewart moved from his perch in The Jeff Beck Group to present himself as a sui generis scamp in cuts that ranged from an inventive cover of Street Fighting Man to his own hard luck anthem, Blind Prayer.
The Allman Brothers - The Allman Brothers (November)
The creators of the southern-rock amalgam, which mixed psychedelic solos with blues and soul. The band hated the “southern-rock” term - no surprise given their strong connection to jazz, which is evident from the John Coltrane-inspired Dreams.
Mott The Hoople - Mott The Hoople (November)
Functioning as their own nexus of classic rock, Mott’s debut married the Dylanesque vocals of Ian Hunter with the Stones-style riffing of Mick Ralphs. Their debut was epitomized by Rock ‘n Roll Queen, which created an unacknowledged template for Keith Richards’ stinging riff in Bitch.
Kool & The Gang - Kool & The Gang (November)
Long before they veered into funk, and later to pop, Kool offered a rousingly swanky mix of horn-driven jazz and danceable funk, which was honed on the streets of Jersey City and Greenwich Village.
The Jackson 5 - Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5 (December)
In the late 1960s, Motown needed to modernize their sound, and the change came in the form of the Jackson 5. The Jackson clan took the best of Motown’s imperial hits and applied them to a new generation, personified by the most soulful 12-year-old who ever lived, Michael Jackson.
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