Overview:

For those seeking a quick route to the heights of psychedelic majesty, let this introduction be your guide

Reading Time: 8 minutes

For several heady years in the late 1960s, an entire genre of popular music was devoted to echoing, capturing, or inspiring an altered state of consciousness resulting from the ingestion of potent drugs.

Whatever one might think of the unhealthiness or nihilism of such a peculiar love affair between melody and mind melting, the fact remains that this outpouring of deep-weed toking, magic mushroom-provoking, and LSD-evoking musicality brought forth some of the best albums ever made.

For a quick guide to the most compelling amethysts of that era, relax, keep your mind open, and heed well the offerings below.

10. Easter Everywhere, by The Thirteenth Floor Elevators

The first band to ever refer to their style of music as “psychedelic rock,” what makes their 1967 album so good for the spreading and searing of the soul is not the constant, harping electric jug gurgling through nearly every track, nor its’ overall eminence in Texas-spawned psychedelia, but rather: excellently-crafted, bizarre, and yet undeniably catchy songs. Roky Erickson’s voice is commanding, the instrumentation feels quite original — even though it was a bit of a rip off of the earlier Texas band Golden Dawn, but I won’t say anything if you won’t — and the whole album just weirdly works. And speaking of weirdly, it was a complete and utter dud upon its release, barely selling 10,00 copies. But its legacy endures. Brooklynvegan ranks it as the #17 best psychedelic rock album of the Summer of Love. Slip inside this house – you’ll quickly feel right at home, sorta.

9. Behold and See by Ultimate Spinach

A hitless wonder, Ultimate Spinach is really only known to die-hard psychedelic aficionados. Hailing from Boston, main composing member Ian Bruce-Douglas claimed that he came up with the name for the band while looking at himself in the mirror while tripping on LSD. “Behold and See” was released in 1968, and contains some real bountiful lovelies, such as “Gilded Lamp of the Cosmos,” “Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse,” and the drawn-out, indulgent, but truly of its time “Mind Flowers.” Most reviewers consider their first album (self-titled) the better one, but I’m going with this one – because while I was dreaming that I was looking at myself in the mirror while on LSD, Ian Bruce-Douglas said so.

8. Spirit by Spirit

With sporadic infusions of Hammond ambiance and tight jazz drumming—thanks in part to Ed Cassidy’s musical background—this mostly acoustic record, released in 1968, includes one beautifully, appealing, strange tune after another, from “Fresh Garbage” to “Gramophone Man.” Things get powerfully disconsolate with talk of death amidst ferocious lead guitaring from Randy California in “Mechanical World”—ranked as the 34th best psychedelic song of all time by psychedelicsight.com.

Then of course there’s “Taurus,” an instrumental that the band claimed was subsequently ripped off by Led Zeppelin, who opened for Spirit in concert at one point. It wasn’t: “Stairway to Heaven” has as much in common with “Taurus” as a Peanuts comic strip has with Salvador Dali’s oeuvre. But that unfortunate legal blip in the band’s overall trajectory aside, this album, from Topanga’s own, is truly delightful.

7. Electric Music for the Mind and Body by Country Joe and the Fish

Yeah, there were a lot of great psychedelic bands from the Bay Area, including Moby Grape, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, and they churned out some great albums. But the single best, most essential album of the lot is this one from 1967, with such epic tracks as “Bass Strings,” “Death Sound,” and “Section 43.” According to allmusic.com, this album is “one of the most important and enduring documents of the psychedelic era, the band’s swirl of distorted guitar and organ at its most inventive.” Indeed, that organ just rakes your bones – and you love it.

6. One Nation Underground by Pearls Before Swine

This classic folk-psych album from 1967 is one of many genius offerings from Floridian singer-songwriter Tom Rapp. Rarely talked about, often overlooked, and almost never ranked, this album is haunting, playful, mystical, smart, and sonorous. And seriously melancholy. The opening song of the album is “Another Time,” the inspiration of which Rapp explained in a 1994 interview: “I was in a car accident, I was in an Austin Healy Sprite convertible, I was the passenger. The car missed a curve and went off into the service road. I was thrown out. The car flipped over, the windshield was in a tree about a hundred yards away. I had a little scrape on my elbow and that’s it! I suddenly realized, standing in the road and this came to me — honest to God — is that the universe doesn’t care at all. I built the first song around that.” Unlike many of his contemporaries who went on to overdose or embrace shyster gurus, Rapp became a civil rights attorney later in life. So even if the universe doesn’t care, Tom Rapp did.

5. Sunshine Superman by Donovan

Although such amazing offerings as “Hurdy Gurdy Man,” “Sun,” “Sunny Goodge Street,” and “Jersey Thursday” float elsewhere on Donovan’s other albums, this one hits a surrealistic pop-psychedelic nerve from the very first note, and just keeps on hitting, and flowing, and peacefully, languidly lilting. In addition to such highs as “Sunshine Superman,” “Bert’s Blues,” and “The Fat Angel,” it also contains “Season of the Witch” – of which AllMusic’s Lindsay Planer notes: “Few songs so perfectly reflect the dawn of the psychedelic pop era… Both lyrically as well as musically, the languid and trippy contents project a dark foreboding atmosphere [and] a sort of sinister tale of paranoia and the paranormal.” The fact that this album came out in 1966—with songs probably written even earlier—evidences just what an inspiring, path-breaking album this was for the subsequent flower bursts of 1967 and 1968.

4. Axis: Bold as Love by The Jimi Hendrix Experience

This one time, I was at a Love concert—Arthur Lee playing with Baby Lemonade, his most enduring backup band for many years—and a friend of mine said, “Isn’t it kinda weird that Arthur is Black? I mean, psychedelic music is such a white thing.” To which I replied, “Um, ever heard of Jimi Hendrix?” To be sure, white musicians dominated the psychedelic era, but to ignore the influence of African Americans would be a huge mistake. To wit: Funkadelic, Sly Stone, the Chambers Brothers, Rotary Connection, Isaac Hayes, and of course, the greatest guitarist of all time: Hendrix. Picking his top psychedelic album is tough. After all, his most gorgeous song, “1983…a Merman I Should Turn to Be” appears on Electric Ladyland, and the all-too-groovy “Third Stone From the Sun” is on Are You Experienced. But as far as his best complete psychedelic album, Axis is it. From the powerfully raw “If 6 was 9” to the heartbreaking “Castles Made of Sand” and “Little Wing,” this album—from 1968—is essential, ranking at #92 by Rolling Stone among the 500 best albums of all time.

3. The Doors by The Doors

Man was this hard. After all, Strange Days harbors the eviscerating opus “When the Music’s Over,” Waiting for the Sun offers the devilish “Not to Touch the Earth,” The Soft Parade boasts “Shaman’s Blues,” Morrison Hotel soothes with “Indian Summer,” and LA Woman ends with the eternal “Riders on the Storm.” All masterpieces. But despite all of the above, and so much more, there’s simply nothing to compare to “The Crystal Ship” when it comes to trailing off into timeless psychedelic bliss. And then throw in “Break on Through” and “End of the Night” and “The End” and…well, that explains why my bong your melting where is her hair and then somehow I thought so to smoky and thus misty.

Where was I.

This, their first album, released in 1967, ranks 42 on Rolling Stone’s 500 best albums of all time. It has sold millions. But much more importantly, it has comforted, enthralled, and genuinely freaked out every teenager who ever turned out the lights and gave it a serious listen.

2. Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by the Beatles

First things first: anyone who ever compares this album—one of the greatest artistic creations ever gifted to humanity—to that trite, sappy, grating piece of shit Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys deserves to be put in the dunce’s corner for at least a month, fed nothing but cholesterol flakes. OK, now that that has been established, let’s breathe deep and pray to the tangerine and marmalade bliss of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” the lilting descent into ecstasy at the end of “Lovely Rita,” the raucous ribaldry of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” and the sweeping, exhilarating devastation of “Day in the Life.” Given its musical sophistication, unapparelled imagination, technological innovation, and everything else that ends in “tion,” Sgt. Peppers is psychedelic honey made from wizardly bees who dwell near patches of cosmic honeydew. There are, of course, many other psychedelic highs of the Beatles found elsewhere, such as “Tomorrow Never Knows,” or “Strawberry Fields Forever” — perhaps the greatest song ever written – which was originally recorded for Sgt. Peppers, but then left out. But while such tracks would certainly top the list of any ranking of psychedelic songs, when it comes to a complete psychedelic album that can actually expand your memory, enhance your existence, and prod your mind to wandering, Sgt. Peppers takes the paisley cake.

1. Forever Changes by Love

In 2002, several members of the British Parliament passed a motion declaring Forever Changes to be “the greatest album of all time.” Fuck yes. Moving, swirling, lush, nostalgic, despondent, compelling, unique, gorgeous, affirming, and unavoidably destined to gently stroke your veins with its strings and horns and elongated hues of both dusk and dawn, Forever Changes is the ultimate psychedelic masterpiece. Although the album barely made a ripple when it was first released in 1967, its stature has grown steadily over the years. Listed by Rolling Stone as #180 of the top 500 best albums of all time, and listed as the 11th greatest album of all time by Mojo, Forever Changes was the crown jewel of lead singer-songwriter Arthur Lee’s output. Every single track is pure. When Lee was serving time in prison (on trumped-up charges), I wrote to him. He wrote me back. His handwritten letter declared: “Love on Earth Must Be.” Sometime later, when the prosecutorial misconduct in his case was finally brought to light, he was released from prison, and immediately played a concert at the Knitting Factory, in Hollywood. It was one of the most sublime experiences of my life.

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Phil Zuckerman is the author of several books, including What It Means to be Moral (Counterpoint, 2019) The Nonreligious (Oxford, 2016), Living the Secular Life (Penguin, 2014), Faith No More (Oxford,...