The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band just turned 50 years old—a milestone for anyone, but especially for the Greatest Album of All Time. Listen to the rock critics, and they’ll tell you: Once, pop music was simple, concerning itself only with tales of love and the moon and youthful innocence—and then John, Paul, George, and Ringo came along and fundamentally changed the form, creating a bold, brash new genre where there wasn’t one before. They were the first rockers to ever rock, and would inspire a generation of other white rock bands to also rock.
But listen to Sgt. Pepper’s without all the hoopla from critics and you start to wonder if it’s actually the most overhyped album of all time. I love The Beatles, but Sgt. Pepper’s has aged particularly poorly: The cutesy drug references and music-hall winks date it—as evidenced by how the album has struggled to catch on in the streaming era. The half-assed concept seems forced and irrelevant today, because—what was its concept? That people liked sex and drugs? That music could be dirty?
Look at the other albums released that same year though, and you’ll get a different story. The Beatles were not alone in their ambition or artistry; other bands at the time were starting to think conceptually about albums, too. And many of the Liverpool band’s contemporaries put out albums that hold up even by today’s pop standards.
So imagine, for a moment, that Sgt. Pepper wasn’t the best album that came out in 1967—who would deserve your attention then? It turns out, plenty of other contenders come to mind.
Below is a list of albums that could have been called the best of 1967, in an alternate universe where we all haven’t already been told what musical accomplishments we should value.
It’s this album from 1967, not Sgt Pepper’s, that most sounds like it could have been recorded by some orchestral indie pop band today. The downbeat masterpiece of Los Angeles’ Love is a sardonic abyss of orchestral pop. Guitarist Johnny Echols throws out menacingly twisted guitar lines as the music led by Arthur Lee rolls and swells with the intent to bury you. “We all want our freedom,” Lee sneers, stabbing the Summer of Love in the heart before it even started beating.
A collection of joyful duets released half a year before Johnny and June Cash were married, this album doesn’t present romance as blinding pain or ecstasy; here, love is a flirtatious, sometimes bumbling collaboration. June roars like a rock-a-billy goddess on songs like “Frisky,” and the couple’s cover of Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” is a joyfully clumsy disaster—punk rock decades before its time.
Nina Simone’s first RCA album strips away the orchestral backing in favor of a low, mean blues band. “Do I Move You?” and “Buck” are forthright statements of sexual intent that even Nicki Minaj would twerk to in agreement, while “Backlash Blues” is as anti-racist as Kendrick’s latest. You wouldn’t think so from listening to Sgt Pepper’s, but Simone assures you that they had lust, pain, and joy back in 1967 too.
The Beatles’ Indian influences have been much discussed and praised—but this stunning compilation by British philosopher and musicologist John Levy on Nonesuch has almost passed into oblivion. The album moves beyond the familiar sitar with songs like the frenetic, sawing “Sarangi” by fiddler Fateh Khan and the percussive workout of “Jaitarang” by Chintamani Jain on xylophone.
Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Eric Clapton, and others would spend their whole careers trying to sound as charmingly sexy-tough as bluesman Albert King. This record features King’s stinging guitar and hard-edged vocals, backed by the soulful Booker T. and the MGs, the house band of the cutting-edge Memphis record label, Stax Records.
The way Leonard Cohen mixes sex and grace on his first album sounds too smart for pop—which, of course, it is. Today, we think of Cohen for his weathered talk-singing, but here, his voice is startlingly light and expressive, as the demi-classical guitar wraps around eyebrow-raising lines like: “Oh, the sisters of mercy are not departed or gone… Oh, they brought me their comfort and later they brought me this song.”
Like The Beatles, The 5th Dimension took Motown’s polished singles production style as a blueprint for full-length albums. Jimmy Webb penned most of this bittersweet record on love and breaking up, culminating in the schizophrenic cheer of “Paper Cup.” Weird, transcendent, cornball music for the ages.
Donovan’s double album—half electric for adults, half acoustic for kids—must have seemed like a novelty at the time. But his version of twee still lives on, in the works of Sufjan Stevens, Devandra Banhardt, and the whole gently ominous genre of freak-folk. Even the song titles are works of genius: “The Tinker and The Crab,” “Starfish-on-the Toast,” “Wear Your Love Like Heaven.” Hippies live forever.
The Velvet Underground’s first album is considered the birth of brainy, primitive cool—a title which actually belongs to the work of one of R&B’s earliest icons, Bo Diddley. Still, and despite the hype, The Velvet Underground and Nico is still great, with tracks like “Heroin” teetering viscerally between sophistication and chaos. Punk, metal, art rock, and electronica’s screechier regions are all indebted to this record.
It’s a bit of a shock to realize that Jimi Hendrix’s first album came out a month before Sgt. Pepper’s. It feels so much more up-to-date; that opening cosmic blues riff from “Foxy Lady” swaggers down through the ages, showing up in everything from Led Zeppelin to Beyoncé’s “Don’t Hurt Yourself.”
An exhausted Brian Wilson stepped back from chief production duties, resulting in The Beach Boys’ loosest and arguably weirdest record. A clunky tribute to R&B, it’s stuffed with wiggy humor, what-the-heck-was-that effects, Wilson’s more-than-half stoned plea to see his girlfriend naked, and a heartfelt tune about eating your vegetables. Wild Honey foreshadows George Clinton, De la Soul, Andre 3000, Kanye, and every other inspired musical genius who ever took helium to float cross-eyed off the beaten path.
Released four years after Patsy Cline’s early death and re-released periodically thereafter, Decca’s 12-song compilation defined Cline’s legacy as the essence of eerily smooth, baroque heartbreak. As the Twin Peaks reboot makes clear, creeping, campy despair is as relevant today as ever.
An unfairly forgotten masterpiece, saxophonist Jackie McLean’s mix of hard bop and avant-garde confused listeners at the time, and is still, 50 years on, gloriously confusing. Ornette Coleman is the second horn, playing trumpet for the only time on LP, and he and McLean honk and squall over an incongruously gospel/blues-tinged rhythm section. Melody and harmony thunk and swing and sit up to pray. Every note is so giggle-inducingly wrong that it’s sublimely right, a fractured tour-de-force.
The church still haunts secular singers from Beyoncé to Cee-Lo, but no one ever joined gospel and pop better than Aretha Franklin did on this record. “Respect” is a spiritual demand for equality using syncopation as a bludgeon, while the title track shouts for carnal salvation. An album that deserves the universal praise it’s received for the last half century.
Sly Stone’s follow-up albums are considered classics, but his first is little discussed—which is a serious injustice. Modern funk begins with Sly’s whole new thing, a kaleidoscope of psychedelic soul-rock that sounds like it was assembled from jagged bits and pieces of busted R&B. Back before classic rock had even coalesced, Stone and his interracial, mixed-gender band were already pioneering rap’s pack-rat collage aesthetic. Forget The Beatles and their lonely hearts club band; there’s a good case that Sly’s initial outing is not just the best record of 1967, but the best album ever.