Psychedelia in music and the other arts was born out of the counterculture movement of the 60s – and, as it was discussed in an earlier article, it’s still alive and well in our time! But even if great psychedelic music is still being recorded nowadays, the albums listed below will always be remembered as the most inspiring of all.
These records are extremely diverse musically, proving that the genre is not easy to define, and neither are the legendary artists who created them. However, they do have something very important in common: they all have the power to transport the listener into dimensions far away from our everyday, waking consciousness. After all, much of this music was inspired by the mind-expanding potential of psychedelic drugs, and some of these extraordinary tunes are as potent as a pure tab of LSD – but they are legal to enjoy!
It’s quite a challenge to narrow the never-ending list of psychedelic masterpieces down to the top 10. The many brilliant albums that had to be left out include ‘Forever Changes’ by Love, ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’ by Iron Butterfly, ‘The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators’ by the 13th Floor Elevators, ‘Electric Music For the Mind And Body’ by Country Joe & the Fish, ‘In Search of the Lost Chord’ by the Moody Blues and the self-titled debut by Quicksilver Messenger Service.
The records that made it to the list below were selected owing to their innovatiness and never-fading impact. Their influence transcends musical genres, and, in many cases, music itself.
10. The Grateful Dead – ‘Anthem of the Sun’ (1968)
A true cult classic, this is one of the Grateful Dead’s most definitive albums. They are famous for their extensive improvisations during their concerts, which are not easy to reproduce in the studio. ‘Anthem of the Sun’ is probably their best attempt at capturing the mind-blowing psychedelic experience of their live shows.
9. Janis Joplin – ‘I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!’ (1969)
This is Janis Joplin’s only solo studio album released during her lifetime, slightly over a year before her untimely death. Listening to her unrivalled vocals alone is enough to take us to a different place mentally, but the outstanding session musicians who formed the Kozmic Blues Band also gave a memorable performance, perfectly complementing Joplin’s almost otherworldly talent.
8. The Yardbirds – ‘Roger the Engineer’ (1966)
The album ‘Yardbirds’, or as most commonly referred to as, ‘Roger the Engineer’, is the group’s only one to include only original recordings. The line-up of Keith Relf, Jeff Beck, Chris Dreja, Paul-Samwell-Smith and Jim McCarthy used this opportunity to experiment with various sounds and explore the new trend of psychedelia, which was becoming increasingly popular among young bands in London at the time.
7. The Pretty Things – ‘S.F. Sorrow’ (1968)
One of the first rock operas and concept albums ever, ‘S.F. Sorrow’ never got the attention and recognition it deserved when it first came out, partly because it was released the same week as the Beatles’ ‘White Album’ and the Rolling Stones’ ‘Beggars Banquet’. Musically, the record is one of the greatest examples of late-60s British psychedelic rock, and conceptually, it influenced such acclaimed works as the Who’s ‘Tommy’ (1969) and Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’ (1979).
6. The Jimi Hendrix Experience – ‘Electric Ladyland’ (1968)
‘Electric Ladyland’ is the third and final studio album released in the short career of the Jimi Hendrix Experience. It’s one of the most commercially successful and critically praised psychedelic recordings of the 60s, wonderfully blending contemporary psychedelia with a heavier rock and funk sound.
5. The Doors – ‘Waiting for the Sun’ (1968)
Despite being the band’s only number one, ‘Waiting for the Sun’ is often said not to have lived up to the high expectations set by the previous two Doors albums. Nonetheless, its carefully composed tunes, balanced atmosphere and often trippy lyrics make it a pleasantly psychedelic listening experience.
4. The Velvet Underground & Nico – ‘The Velvet Underground & Nico’ (1967)
The most difficult to categorize on this list, the group’s debut was an experiment that seems to have worked out very well. Although it wasn’t successful commercially on its release and critics chose not to comment on it at the time, it’s now considered a masterpiece of alternative music and one of the most influential rock albums ever made. John Cale’s characteristic use of the electric viola and Lou Reed’s dreamy guitar playing create a psychedelic mood that makes it deserving to be in the top five.
3. Jefferson Airplane – ‘Surrealistic Pillow’ (1967)
‘Surrealistic Pillow’ is one the most definitive pieces of psychedelic music and the ultimate soundtrack to the 60s counterculture movement. It’s Jefferson Airplane’s first record to feature vocalist Grace Slick, who made some very memorable contributions, including writing and performing the quintessential psychedelic song ‘White Rabbit’.
2. Cream – ‘Disraeli Gears’ (1967)
‘Disraeli Gears’ is consistently featured on every list of the best albums ever made. Venturing slightly away from their blues background, Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker chose to explore a more psychedelic sound on this record. The many iconic tracks like ‘Strange Brew’, ‘Sunshine of Your Love’, ‘Tales of Brave Ulysses’ and ‘SWLABR’ capture the spirit of an era when music was radically changing.
1. Pink Floyd – ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ (1967)
With its sonic experimentation, Pink Floyd’s debut album took psychedelia to the next level, defined its future direction and laid down the foundation for the progressive rock genre. It was written and composed almost entirely by Syd Barrett, the group’s original conceptual leader, whose mental health issues forced him to quit shortly after ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ was released. Barrett’s almost surreal guitar sound and distinctively detached vocals helped create an atmosphere that was unlike anything that had been heard before, and whose innovatiness is very palpable even when listening to it 50 years later.