America’s answer to the Rolling Stones? Most important rock music of the 1960s? Music writers seem to enjoy these type of clichés. And why not? They simplify the thinking process significantly. Reducing the complexities of a bands catalog to a quick catch-phrase that everyone can just parrot. But a proper study of the Byrds discography shouldn’t be approached with such a lighthearted or off-handed approach. Their talents, creativity and art deserve at least as much consideration as any experimental music or the vast catalog of Funkadelic. So we have endeavored to create a more thoughtful list for your consideration. The music of Roger McGuinn and Company is a highlight of 1960s rock music. Mingling the raw guitar-jangle of a proper garage-rock with a flaux-cosmic country. The Byrds music and their sound is completely unique and indeed, uniquely American. For better or worse, that’s the only proper way to say it. Other bands may have rocked harder or played with greater intensity but few were able to touch the Byrds voyage into greatness. But what truly set the band apart was the great songs and detailed production that the band executed in the studio. Many of their albums are complete artistic statements. As important as any band to emerge from the turbulence of the late 60s. And the range of their influence went deep into popular music in the decades ahead. Defining the jangle-guitar sound that would soon be adopted by many individual bands, as well as entire genres and sub-genres of music; from 80s & 90s power-pop like the Posies or Jellyfish to less obvious groups like Blue Oyster Cult and the Brian Jonestown Massacre. The Byrds musical influence is undeniable.
It’s tempting to segment a band with such a vast tenture into distinct periods to investigate and study; 1) The early jangle pop of Mr. Tambourine Man and Turn, Turn, Turn. 2) The psychedelic excursions of Mr. Spaceman or Eight Miles High. 3) And the atmospheric country-rock vibes of Sweetheart of the Rodeo. While that’s somewhat helpful when viewing the music through a certain fan lens, it’s more important to listen to the Byrds discography as a singluar unit; a twisting and turning creative juggernaut that continuously produced great music right up until their final collaborations.
And one final, often forgotten, point about the Byrds; in addition to their studio work, The Byrds remained a potent live force throughout their many changing members and journeys. Nothing demonstrates this fact better than the officially released, Live At The Filmore – February 1969 performance. Here the Byrds demonstrate their later country-influenced sound with guitar legend Clarance White. Focusing on material mostly from the later-half of their career. Gone is the jingle-jangle of their signature sound. Fillmore 69 finds a band moving beyond the limitation of their hit-machine years. Every thoughtful collection of Byrds music should include this is special live document. So let’s jump into the Vinyl Dreamscape’s Top 10 Byrds Albums. This is our not-so-humble attempt to refocus the appreciation of the Byrds music onto the totality of their output. Perhaps even shine some sunlight on those valuable records that don’t get the attention they deserve.The Byrds were a band defined by more then their singles. (And they did indeed produce fantastic singles that have stood the test of time). Remember, there is real depth to the band’s musical accomplishment and it would be a shame not to seeking a full examination of the importance of the albums and influence.
10) Farther Along / 1971 : The Byrds’ 11th and final album before the reunion of the original members in 1973, Farther Along is largely dismissed as one of the band’s most flawed late-period albums. And that’s a mistake. Firstly, the record features the genius guitar-picking of Clarence White. His unique style brings a country-bluegrass sound to the Byrds’ music. Looking closer at the track listing, Farther Along is full of hidden secrets and rarified gems. Drummer Gene Parsons brings two outstanding songs to the playlist; B.B. Class Road and Get Down Your Line. Both are light as a feather (in a good way) and reflect the laid-back vibe that permeates the record. If you find Further Along to your liking, check out White‘s pedal-steel workout’s on Gene Parsons’ very likable solo album, Kindling; a cosmic-bluegrass hippie trip from 1973.
09) The Byrds (reunion) / 1973 : The first big reunion attempt with all five of the original members contributing to the album in one form or another. Somehow, The Byrds (reunion) album is forever overlooked by critics and fans. But there’s gold in them thar overlooked grooves. Although it must be said, the two song contributions from David Crosby are completely negligible. Just don’t let that discourage you from jumping right into this great little record.The original singles are certainly worth your immediate time and attention; Gene Clarks‘ brilliant Full Circle and Chris Hillman’s Things Will Be Better. Both songs crackling with the fresh spark of inventiveness that aways made the Byrds‘ music so special. Changing Hearts is another Gene Clark song that shouldn’t be missed. On the negitive side, the album play more like a collection of individual tracks rather then a fluid collection by a functions unit. And clearly their sound/music had changed by 1973. However, there is an appealing campfire quality to the sessions that is often over looked. In fact, the resulting music is not dissimilar to that of the Band. The Byrds (reunion) album has some great, smokey highs waiting to be discovered. And some unfortunate lows. But the buzz is worth the effort.
08)(Untitled) / 1970 : Half-live and half-studio, Untitled can be a confusing and difficult album to get your head around. But it’s the schizophrenic nature that makes the record such a unique listen. Apparently, the original concept behind the songs was that they would be include as the score to theaterical stage-play. When the business deal behind the effort fell apart, the songs found their way onto the new Byrds record. Whatever the source, Untitled finds the band moving confidently into uncharted waters. There are two colaborations between the Byrds‘ new bass player Skip Battin and future Runaway‘s svangeli Kim Fowley; Hungry Planet and You All Look Alike. Of course, everyone claims to love Chestnut Mare (It’s just OK IMO) but Truck Stop Girl is brillant; a Lowell George (Little Feat) track that shouldn’t be missed. Oh…and the live material is good to great. Don’t miss the CD reissue which expands the live material to two full discs. Worth hunting down if you are so inclined.
07) Sweatheart of the Rodeo / 1968: Much has been written about this record. The problem is, Sweartheart just isn’t as great as everyone pontificates. Don’t get me wrong, there are good tracks to be found. But that could be said of any Byrds album. Only Bobby Zimmerman‘s You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere and the Louvin Brother’s Christian Life provided any real heat to this poor-man’s sermon. The rest of the record has pleasant moments but that’s the problem. It’s easy to get lost in the dusty pleasantries and cosmic blue–smoke-and-mirrors but there is little nourishment on the bone. A country-rock milestone? Maybe. Check out Gram Parson‘s two Flying Burrito Brothers‘ albums for a similar sound with better songs. Nevertheless, let us concede; Sweetheart is a very good record that everyone should appreciate.
06)Ballad of Easy Rider / 1969 : Laid-back in all the right ways; Ballad has the hippie-rock vibes that everyone can love. It’s just impossible for me to hear the simple beauty of the title track without the images of a young Peter Fonda and Dennis Hooper zig-zag their choppers across the American south/west. Their tragic search for freedom and meaning looping through my head as the music softly flows. And that title track sets the tone for this lush, expansive piece of music. All the mysteries are here if you seek them out; the joys and nightmares of a nation that has lost it’s way linger in the silence between each track. Even Jesus is Just Alright sound great on a hot summer day; racing to the beach with the morning sun in our eyes. The music loud and the wind on your soft face. Her dark-shining hair seemed a beautiful, goddamn mess. Oh…Get the vinyl if you must but don’t miss out on all the great bonus greats on the CD reissue. And yes, you need them.
05) Turn! Turn! Turn! / 1965 : Turn, Turn, Turn gets and deserves a lots of respect. The album placing at the number five position only demonstrates the strength of the band’s full discography. But let us get right into the music; who could overlook the sad beauty of Gene Clarks’ Set You Free This Time and The World Turns All Around Her? Both are beyond my ability to touch or analyze in this moment. Let’s just say that words & music are rarely such a fulfillment of a man’s unspoken heartache and emptied soul. The truth and mystery of unrealized love presented as a singular and stoic concessional. Not an admission to a god or priest or audience. No. These are the truths that remains forever within. Both songs lift the album to a plateau that is far beyond song-craft and skill. These are the sounds and thoughts that swirls around our heads deep into the night. Like a lost radio broadcast of an internal conversation; the transmission scattered and too painful to articulate openly. Just don’t listen too close, you may hear your own lonely voice between the static. Enough said.
04) Mr. Tambourine Man / 1965: A band producing two albums as great as Mr. Tambourine Man and Turn, Turn, Turn in the same year? Here is the birth of the Rickenbacker‘s “jingle jangle morning“. A near perfect listening experience that couple’s Gene Clark‘s original compositions and those great Zimmerman covers. The result is a real-time classic that actually deserve the label. Mr. Tambourine Man is a suprisingly, dark and complex pop record with more happening beneath the surface then you may expect. One such gem is Gene Clark’s overlooked Here Without You.The song was actually written before the Byrds came into existence. Dating back to 1964 when the band were still called Jet Set. Don’t miss the Preflyte compilation which gather together all the early demo versions of the songs such as, Here Without You, You Won’t Have to Cry, I Knew I’d Want You, and Mr. Tambourine Man recorded before the first album as Jet Set.
03)The Notorious Byrd Brothers / 1968: It would be tempting to say that these last three picks are just interchangable. And it’s almost true. The recording sessions for the album began with the same band members as the previous two albums; Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, Chris Hillman and Michael Clarke. However, as they say, times were changing. David Crosby was fired by McGuinn and Hillman AND then replaced by a former member Gene Clark. Unfortunately, Clark only last for the final three weeks of the albums session. By the time of the release, only McGuinn and Hillman remained as offical members. The Notorious Byrd Brothers‘ kicks off with a psychedelic-pop gem that works beyond any expectations. Artificial Energy recapturing the promise and optimism of the band’s early singles, while still moving-on musically. Notorious is an album full of these interesting suprises. Get to You is credited on the record as being written by McGuinn and Hillman. However, there are all those rumors the song was actullly writen by Gene Clark. The song is good but not great. Striking as more craft then the magic Clark was capable of producing. On the otherhand, Carol King‘s outstanding Goin Back is another highlight. A ballad that is overflowning with all the ingredients that make the Byrds music so enjoyable.
02) Fifth Dimension / 1966 : Oddly, most of Fifth Dimension was recorded after the departure of the band principle songwriter, Gene Clark. But instead of falling into disaray, the group rallied and others stepped into the role. The result is a truly unique masterpieces of expansive and adventurous music. Included amoung the many highlights is the psych-rock classic, Eight Miles High. A song that demonstrates that the band’s output was not tied to any individual member. Clark’s songwriting skills may have been missing but the Byrds had a very talented bench. The two McGuinn-penning tracks, Mr. Spaceman and 5D(Fifth Dimension) are both psych-pop masterpieces. The music taking flight far beyond the limitations of the jangle-pop sound. Fifth Dimension finds our Byrd Brother‘s at their most interesting and complex musically. The album is a brilliant “next-step” for a band that made very few mistakes as they moved forward.
01) Younger Than Yesterday / 1967 : What is this? An experimential pscyhelelic/country rock masterpece? Or just my controversial choice for the number one spot? Everyone in the band is still present and accounted. But the music is moving beyond the traditional moniker’s of mere pop or rock music.Besides all the Bob Dylan covers (all good), Chris Hillman demonstrate his many gifts; credited as the songwriter on the beautiful Have You Seen Her Face, Time Between, Thoughts and Words, and brilliant The Girl with No Name. Hillman is also credited as the co-writer of So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star, which he also sings with McGuinn and David Crosby. That’s an amazing track record for a single album. Additionally, Gary Usher’s detailed production is exploding all over the record. Inspiring the band to move away from the rawness of the early albums. Some have refered to this album as the Byrds most mature work.And although that is likely true, “mature” misses the point entirely. Younger Than Yesterday is full of the freshness and vitality of a creative unit functioning at the height of the considerable collective powers. These are colors and textures that are completely new to the bands sound. A beautiful kaleidoscope view of the world that the band was experiencing together. This music is the best of what the 1960s had to offer from with mainstream of rock music. It’s also a record that grows more important with each listen. Never forget.