California Sounds 1968: 10 essential Los Angeles-infused records from a kaleidoscopic era

Joni Mitchell in November 1968, taken from a shoot for Vogue magazine.
Joni Mitchell in November 1968, taken from a shoot for Vogue magazine.
(Jack Robinson / Getty Images)

For many Los Angeles pop and rock acts paying dues in the mid-1960s music scene, 1968 marked an end.

Worldwide standard bearers the Beatles had concluded 1967 with “Magical Mystery Tour,” a stylistic Pandora’s box of sounds that typified the experimentation of the time (and featured George Harrison’s hat-tip to Los Angeles, “Blue Jay Way”).

Rock ’n’ roll and folk-rock sounds were giving way to a kaleidoscopic vision of what popular music could be, an all-encompassing canvas upon which flair, long hair and dynamic self-exploration could mingle. In jazz, too, freedom reigned, as structured compositions gave way to pure, borderless improvisation.

Into this wonderful confusion arrived work that many Angelenos recognize: two country-rock albums from the Byrds (“The Notorious Byrd Brothers” and “Sweetheart of the Rodeo”); a double dose of Frank Zappa (“We’re Only In It for the Money” and “Cruising With Ruben & the Jets”); the Monkees’ “The Birds, the Bees and the Monkees” and “Head”; and the Doors’ “Waiting for the Sun.”

Neil Young and Stephen Stills’ band Buffalo Springfield issued its final album “Last Time Around,” the Mamas & the Papas also released their last album, Spirit conjured a pair of classics, and Gram Parsons introduced his first L.A. outfit, the International Submarine Band.

But for deep divers, 1968 proved crucial beneath the surface as well and introduced artists who would go on to make lasting dents. Below, 10 essential, if lesser known, Los Angeles-area records issued in 1968.

Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, “Together”

(Warner Bros.) Partly recorded at a Hollywood discotheque called the Haunted House, Wright and band’s second album is a maximalist soul-funk work featuring Watts-based Wright and a band propelled by drumming legend James Gadson. The influential outfit performs work by James Brown, T-Bone Walker, the Rolling Stones and others on “Together” as well as a few Wright originals.

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Doug Dillard and Gene Clark, “The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark”

(A&M) An overlooked country-rock gem, this duet album tanked upon release. But the collaboration between banjo player Dillard and singer, songwriter and guitarist Clark carved a path that the Eagles, the Flying Burrito Bros. and Poco would soon tread. Criminally, this album is not available on streaming services (but is under $10 on used vinyl).

Chico Hamilton, “The Gamut”

(Solid State) A funky Latin jazz record by L.A. native Hamilton, “The Gamut” isn’t one of the drummer’s most famous works, but across standards by Sammy Cahn and Rodgers & Hammerstein and a number of collaborations with arranger-trombonist Jimmy Cheatham, buoyant rhythms lock in with brass and the voice of Jackie Arnold.

Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra, "Some Velvet Morning"

Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, “Nancy & Lee”

(Reprise) Whether straight or sober, this woozy, surreal studio work will mess with your head. Produced by visionary record man Hazlewood, it features a young Sinatra maneuvering through country and pop standards. The LSD seems to kick in, though, when freak shows such as “Sand,” “Sundown, Sundown” and especially “Some Velvet Morning” arrive. Bonus: arranger Billy Strange’s swirling work.

Alice Coltrane, “A Monastic Trio”

(Impulse) A record to get lost in, “A Monastic Trio” is Coltrane’s great leap forward, and while she recorded the album in New York in the wake of her husband John’s death the prior year, Alice’s debut album feels like a hymn to the West where she’d soon reside. At the center is her harp, which she works with a kind of effortless bliss.

Three Dog Night, “One”

(Ode) Few L.A. rock bands have ever shined so brightly, only to fade to footnote as the decades have passed. In its early ’70s prime, this L.A. outfit was one of the biggest in America. Contractual issues hobbled the members, and critics couldn’t resist maligning their middle-of-the-road approach. But a half-century later, the debut record pops.

The Everly Brothers, “Roots”

(Warner Bros.) A decade after they were America’s harmony-blessed sweetheart siblings, Don and Phil Everly were living in Los Angeles and working to fit in with the longhairs surrounding them. “Roots” is an oft-overlooked campfire classic that deserves to be filed with other influential country-rock records. This one has the bonus of those glorious fraternal harmonies.

Joni Mitchell, “Song to a Seagull”

(Reprise) By birth Canadian, when longtime resident Mitchell signed to Reprise for her first album, she recorded it at Sunset Sound with David Crosby. “Song to a Seagull” finds a young genius exploring her voice, and though it’s hardly on par with her later works “Blue” or “The Hissing of Summer Lawns,” it’s Mitchell and therefore built to endure.

Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, “Strictly Personal”

(Blue Thumb) The artist born Don Van Vliet disavowed this album when Blue Thumb released it as the follow-up to his Magic Band’s debut, “Safe As Milk.” And though “Strictly Personal” is awash with dated “psychedelic” effects, such trifles pale when compared with “Kandy Korn,” Beefheart’s spiritual, dada-esque celebration of those yellow and orange sugar bombs.

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