Considering the fact that 2008 marks the 40th anniversary of a year that produced countless musical milestones, it's surprising how little has been made of it so far. While pundits were quick to offer retrospectives of 1967, the year that ushered in Sgt. Pepper, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Cream—plus the Summer of Love and its psychedelic soundtrack—they make little reference to the 12 months that followed. In 1968, trends and changes were established that resonate even today.
Indeed 1968 found the newcomers from the previous year building on their debuts, spawning follow-up efforts of equal or greater importance. Hendrix released the most ambitious album of his meteoric career, Electric Ladyland. Cream and Jefferson Airplane did the same with Wheels of Fire and Crown of Creation, respectively. Traffic tied up the disparate strands of folk, jazz and psychedelic prog rock with its self-titled sophomore set. Dylan, The Band and The Byrds redefined Americana, capping a trajectory that began with John Wesley Harding, Music from Big Pink and The Notorious Byrd Brothers and culminated with three of the most influential albums of that era—Nashville Skyline, The Band and Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Radio finally acquiesced to this musical shift; scattered amid the drivel dominating the pop charts ("Judy in Disguise" by John Fred & His Playboy Band, "Green Tambourine" by the Lemon Pipers, "Honey" by Bobby Goldsboro) were seminal songs: "Hey Jude," "The Dock of the Bay," "Hello, I Love You," "Mrs. Robinson" and "I Heard It Through the Grapevine."
Meanwhile, The Beatles and The Stones were also going back to basics with more modest intentions, as expressed in the disparate strains of The Beatles' White Album and The Stones' Beggars Banquet. At the same time, their colleagues on America's Left Coast—The Doors, The Dead and Buffalo Springfield—were winning raves, even though for the last, a break-up was brewing. As recompense for that, 1968 would usher in the next phase in the careers of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, both solo and as partners in the CSN&Y collective.
Today the indelible imprint of 1968 lives on. You can hear it in the psychedelic sensibilities of Radiohead and My Morning Jacket, the outlaw country sound of Steve Earle, the fuzzy folk of Devendra Banhart, the Stones-speak of blues and bluster proffered by The Black Crowes, and the die-hard Deadhead mentality that inspires many a jam band. It resonates with every guitarist who aspires to be the next Hendrix and every foppish frontman who mimics the sexuality and suggestion of Jim Morrison.
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Unfortunately, in some cases, what was once nouveau cool is now wearisome and obnoxious. Pete Doherty was busted and branded a renegade rock star, but in 1968, The Stones were setting standards for bad-ass behavior. As for you, Amy Winehouse: You may be fodder for the tabloids, but when it comes to scandalous singers, Grace Slick and Janis Joplin could easily burst your beehive.