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Monday 5 December 2016

Remember '66? It was a very good year

Published 06/12/2015 | 02:30

The Beatles heading to Germany from London Heathrow in 1966
The Beatles heading to Germany from London Heathrow in 1966

When it comes to music - and indeed all the arts - some years are a hell of a lot better than others. On the albums front, 2015 has been fine, but hardly a vintage year.

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Of course there have been some superb releases - Kendrick Lamar, Björk and Sufjan Stevens have shone - but there aren't as many truly brilliant albums as you would have found last year, for instance, or 2013, for that matter.

But what was the ultimate year for music? Jon Savage, the esteemed music writer behind the best book ever written about punk, England's Dreaming, has published a book which makes a very strong case for 1966. The 600-page tome titled 1966: The Year the Decade Exploded argues that this was the year that the 'Sixties' as we now think of it truly came into being. It was the year when art and pop merged quite spectacularly and it's fair to say that music has never been the same since.

It was also the year that gave us a batch of albums we now think of as among the greatest of all time.

How about the The Beatles' Revolver, Beach Boys' Pet Sounds and Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde? The Rolling Stones' Aftermath and The Kinks' Face to Face weren't too shabby either.

And if you want to think about other albums from '66 that influenced scores of future musicians, you don't have to look much further than Simon and Garfunkel's Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, The Mamas & the Papas' If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears or - what most have sounded very daring at the time - The Mothers of Invention's Freak Out, the first time the world had heard the mad genius of Frank Zappa.

But for many - this writer included - the greatest year in pop history occurred the following year, 1967. It was the 'winner', a few years ago, of a BBC Radio 2 poll which aimed to uncover what host Simon Mayo billed the Ultimate Music Year. And just think of the albums that came out that year: The Beatles' Sgt Pepper, The Jimi Hendrix Experience's Are You Experienced? Love's Forever Changes, the Velvet Underground debut album - one breathtaking album after another.

No matter what way you square it, the second half of the 1960s was the most thrilling era in pop - a time where frontiers were pushed out towards the parameters we know today. And yet, for those of us who didn't live through it, it's hard not to feel-short changed - that no matter how special the music of subsequent eras, they just couldn't live up to that golden period of 1966 to 1969.

That's certainly how the English music writer Garry Mulholland felt when he wrote his marvellous book on great pop singles, This is Uncool: The 500 Best Singles Since Punk and Disco and followed it up a few years later with an album equivalent called Fear of Music: The 261 Best Albums Since Punk and Disco. He contended that the weight of The Beatles and their 60s brethren were suffocating for those music lovers who came of age in the 1970s and subsequent decades so he set out to show that the music from the late 1970s on was every bit as special and vital.

His singles book made a very strong argument for 1979 being the all-time great year for pop and it certainly was special when you consider that among the classic albums released were Talking Heads' Fear of Music, Michael Jackson's Off the Wall, Fleetwood Mac's Tusk (which has just been given the remastering treatment), Elvis Costello's Armed Forces. Oh, and The Clash's London Calling too.

Another year with a very strong case is 1991. I turned 16 - a formative age when it comes to music - and remember being transfixed by Nirvana's Nevermind, Pearl Jam's Ten and Red Hot Chili Peppers' Blood, Sugar, Sex, Magik. It was also the year that delivered two albums that would appear in virtually all top-five-Irish-albums ever lists - U2's Achtung Baby and My Bloody Valentine's Loveless.

And let's not forget that 1991 also gave us REM's Out of Time, Teenage Fanclub's Bandwagonesque, Primal Scream's Screamadelica and Massive Attack's Blue Lines. Other albums, like Slint's Spiderland would be hugely influential to many fledgling musicians who heard it. What a heavyweight year.

Our appreciation for what's constitutes great music years is often bound up with being of impressionable age - most mid-fiftysomethings I know would argue that any of the final years of the 1970s wipe the floor with today's offerings and I'm perfectly conscious that those, like me, who were born in the mid-70s place a great deal of affection on the early 1990s.

But our sense of whether a particular year is remarkable or not needs the benefit of time. Often we don't realise how durable (or not) the music we're listening to in the here and now will be in the future. Will I return to Father John Misty's I Love You Honeybear - one of my favourites this year - as frequently a decade from now as I revisit Arcade Fire's Funeral (released in Ireland in 2005)?

Mind you, 2015 really has been a good year when it's come to music books with Jon Savage's tome joining that other door-stopper, Peter Doggett's Electric Shock, and a glut of memoirs - many of them from women, including Kim Gordon, Patti Smith and Carly Simon.

l Another book that looks at pop culture - and this time from an exclusively Irish viewpoint - is the lavishly illustrated Brand New Retro (Liberties Press). Ostensibly looking at the ads and flyers and magazines and posters from the 1950s to the present day, it offers a treasure trove of information about long-gone venues, barely remembered bands, horrendous fashions and much-loved fanzines (fanzines - now there's a blast from the past).

The book is a labour of love from Brian McMahon, who runs an award-winning blog of the same name.

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