Astrud Gilberto - Beach Samba (1967), 4/10

Astrud Gilberto’s Beach Samba begins with “Stay”, a pleasant samba track that features interesting musicality and Gilberto’s signature smooth vocals. Beyond this opening track the album loses its focus and becomes a standard bossa nova album at best and genuinely confusing or terrible at its worst. “Parade”, for instance, has no real place and beyond sounding like an entirely misplaced novelty; it is a poor effort and a grating song. When Gilberto sticks with the traditionally successful aspects of bossa nova music it is bearable although nothing particularly special. Her graceful vocal delivery is the allure of the record, yet she has better performances and contributions elsewhere that exhibit her talents with more grace. The middle of the record is very standard as far as the genre is concerned and plays it safe, although this is a strength considering when Gilberto ventures beyond these boundaries the results are typically quite poor. “Oba Oba”, “Canoeiro”, and “My Foolish Heart” exemplify Astrud in her comfort zone while “I Had the Craziest Dream”, “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice”, or “Parade” show us why she is best within the confines of the already established tenants of bossa nova. Obviously, there is little of musical substance or grander interest in Beach Samba, making it just another album thrown into the considerably dense mix of bossa nova from the sixties.
The Doors - The Doors (1967), 6/10

The impact of The Doors’ debut record is undeniable. Its consistency is highly arguable, however, especially with songs like “Alabama Song (Whisky Bar)” or “Back Door Man” sounding entirely out of place with varying levels of individual success. The album begins with one of its strongest individual songs in “Break On Through (To the Other Side)” and the first half closes with one of the album’s other strongest singles with “Light My Fire”. Things do gradually get more interesting until the underrated “Take It as It Comes” precedes the epic and lengthy closer aptly titled “The End”. The boundless sexual energy and charisma of the album, particularly in its singles, carry much of the weight but its intermittently generic psych rock slows things down too often. Their follow up album Strange Days has far superior pacing, experiments in studio sound, and songwriting consistency. It is a hit for hardcore psychedelic fans, particularly for indulgent tracks such as “The Crystal Ship” or “End of the Night” but it is not the transcendent experiment in music that it is often touted to be. Even the ambitious closer does not stand up to some of the more interesting songs released during its time. Manzarek’s organ is refreshingly unique in the context of the band’s makeup, but again one can feel a missing piece in almost every song on this record. Morrison’s lyrics are certainly hit or miss depending on personal experience, but they generally lack substance throughout his career. Here they at least work enough to convey an electric musical experience when complemented by Krieger’s writing.
The Doors - Strange Days (1967), 7/10

The Doors proved they could assemble and record an album without a single weak song in Strange Days while simultaneously approaching a more interesting and topical subject matter. This combined with a more complete sound make it an arguably equal or better record compared to their debut. The songs of Strange Days range from introspective psych pop to the sprawling eleven minute closer “When the Music’s Over” that combines brilliant psychedelic abstraction with the band’s knack for infectious songwriting. As the album progresses its strength only builds; there is hardly a moment lacking in interesting musicality or lyricism, building on the sound established by their self-titled debut. Even the chaotic and dark “Horse Latitudes” breathes anarchic life into the record just as the energy of its exploration of established musical ideas begins to wane. It is no surprise that despite its decline in popularity, the band saw the album as a step up in creativity. While their debut indulges itself in its own thematic and sonic sensibilities, Strange Days covers much more creative ground with equal grace. While the expansion of recording techniques can be argued as premature, their execution is outstanding and the inclusion of sounds like marimba and Moog synth are new but match wonderfully well with the band’s existing sound and songwriting techniques. The minimal experimentation with musique concrète is just another layer of interest that adds to the album’s creative appeal. The psychedelic sound is suppressed with this second record in favor of surreal darkness, a refreshing shift that shows signs of maturity and a necessary shift in musical perspective. Its success in relation to The Doors’ powerful debut is arguable but its artistic triumph is absolute.
Nina Simone - Wild Is the Wind (1966), 5/10

Wild Is the Wind is a wildly inconsistent record but when it is great, it is truly remarkable. This irregularity in quality largely stems from the long list of songwriters but also from the scattered source of recordings and Simone’s variation in styles. Unsurprisingly, this is most apparent with Nina Simone’s only compositional contribution to the record “Four Women” that is easily one of her best songs, if not the very best, both from a songwriting and stylistic execution perspective. Contrasted with “Break Down and Let It All Out” which is unremarkable and misguided from the start, this makes the album appear jagged and unpredictable rather than fluid or attractive. There are, however, more good songs than bad, with side one being more irregular than side two, yet the best songs are undoubtedly hosted in the most inconsistent section of the record, never allowing for any true momentum to be constructed. Still, Simone’s single “Four Women” carries enough weight to make the first half memorable and interesting while the second does not have a standout song, apart from perhaps the thematic peak of the title track. The band is equally irregular, sometimes brilliantly matching and accenting Simone’s eccentric vocal qualities and sometimes detracting from the emotive power built by a song. Her style is another aspect of the album that breeds divisiveness, equally through Simone’s discography in general but it is more extreme and apparent here. The aimless and haphazard presentation mixed with a heavy reliance on individual quality to overshadow various grades of songwriting make Wild Is the Wind one of her less appealing major projects.
XTC - Skylarking (1986), 7/10

XTC’s maturity can be heard right away with one of the strongest songs of the album and one of their strongest openers in “Summer’s Cauldron”, followed by eight or so songs that are equally impressive in sound and scope. While things are less consistently outstanding in the second half of the record, stark exceptions being "Mermaid Smiled", “The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul”, and the emotionally charged philosophical closer included on later releases “Dear God”, the bar had already been set very high and the album as a project is remarkably well executed. The band had reached a peak in songwriting and focused arrangements, a combination that yielded what is perhaps their best effort in the pop realm. There is a relatively clear concept of time and its relationship with nature that comes across through the collection of songs that sometimes diverges but largely remains pleasantly consistent. You can also hear the influence of sixties pop and rock music, particularly in the second half of the album. While the inclusion of “Dear God” in later releases adds to the summative quality of the album, its thematic place among the rest is questionable and arguable as fairly omitted, making its presence ultimately unnecessary but simply another testament to the strength in songwriting from Partridge at this stage in the band’s development at its height. There is not a significant difference in the quality of compositions coming from Partridge and Moulding, respectively, which is a pleasant surprise considering the level that these songs blend and form as a cohesive listening experience. The result is a simply gorgeous pop album that transcends most of what the band had accomplished, at least in recent projects and in a sense of thematic and technical achievement. Where the album excels at its highest peak of achievement, however, is in its deviation from expectations, especially with daring songs like “Mermaid Smiled” or “The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul”. These stylistic shifts are mostly heard at the end of the record but are also present as background to some of Partridge's more grabbing pop songs. The album as it progresses becomes a narrative exploration and developing adventure in pursuing deeper meaning through many aspects of life and time. This makes Skylarking a clear artistic high point for eighties pop music from XTC.
Yardbirds - Yardbirds [Roger the Engineer] (1966), 4/10

Yardbirds are another blues rock band relying on technical guitar work and thematic gimmicks to prop up otherwise unnecessary and uninteresting re-imagining of the blues. This has been accomplished better before and since, making most of the album drearily mundane despite its inconsistency in quality. That being said, the first two tracks are exceptional and grabbing before the rest of the record starts to drag on. Sections of “Lost Woman” and “Over, Under, Sideways, Down” make at least a passing glance worthwhile before the second half of the record proves itself aimless and impotent. While a track like “Jeff’s Boogie” shows off Jeff Beck’s remarkable individual talent, as a blues song it is inane, especially in its place signaling an immediate downward spiral in quality before the end of the album. The record becomes a mess despite its consistency in aim, becoming a series of questionable twists and turns before it ends with perhaps the weakest track of the bunch in “Ever Since the World Began”. Anyone coming simply to hear great guitar work from Jeff Beck or serious fans of blues rock may find substance amidst an otherwise pointless exercise, but for anyone else this is another generic release. There is simply nothing here to help the band stand out among the already overwhelming crowd of British blues rock, making it far from essential and ultimately a poor effort.
The Stooges - The Stooges (1969), 6/10

The Stooges embodied punk before punk was realized. Not only through the aesthetic and thematic quality of their music, but through sheer personality. The pinnacle of the record, both musically and artistically, is “1969” which blends punkish lyrics and psychedelic proto-punk to form one of the greatest songs of the era. While the rest of the album cannot quite measure up in comparison, the music still dares to explore largely uncovered territory and has some brilliant moments, some theoretically building off of the equally important music from The Doors, but some entirely new. Its classic status derives from two reasons: it provides the foundation for the punk movement and simultaneously achieves a timeless energy and sound, a rare and beautiful combination. While the band’s next two records clearly and definitively outshine their debut, The Stooges has its own place among the greats. The single “I Wanna Be Your Dog” is catchy and interesting, as are “No Fun” and “Little Doll” in particular, yet the songwriting and energy are remarkably consistent, and while neither reach the heights of their later efforts, they outshine practically any simple rock music coming from their contemporaries. The unhinged rock and roll sound paired with unapologetically simple and angry performances separate The Stooges from any other rock act of the sixties with their ability to embody the discontent of the sixties, and now much further beyond its time and place. Of course, Iggy’s vocals are so palpably charismatic that they often chew up the music and spit it out, leaving simple chugging and distorted psychedelia in its wake. The honest garage band aesthetic and quality of this debut provides a brilliantly simple launching point for one of the greatest rock bands to emerge from the sixties and seventies.
John Mayall with Eric Clapton - Blues Breakers (1966), 4/10

The group now featuring Eric Clapton on guitar plays a collection of blues standards and does a decent enough job of covering these tracks with good energy and excellent technical execution. Unfortunately, Mayall’s vocals are incredibly weak compared to the original artists and while Clapton’s performances exhibit solid proficiency, they already foreshadow his inconsistent ability to convey feeling outside of already charged compositions. The simple way to look at it is these songs had been and would be played much better than they are here. Particularly such a strong song such as Robert Johnson’s “Ramblin’ on My Mind” is practically botched by Clapton, proving that the project is a misguided attempt at recreating better music. It further proves that technical prowess does not yield artistic merit, especially when it comes to the blues that relies so heavily on genuine emotion through performance, something that artists like Clapton, and many others who bastardized the genre, struggle with consistently. Mayall’s vocals, in comparison, are a matter of taste but rarely provide anything moving, again especially in comparison to some of the source material they use in conjunction with Mayall’s material. So once things get going, the album is just another example of an unnecessary stylistic tangent stemming from an originally pure genre, especially considering its complete lack of vulnerability or originality.