Wednesday, June 5, 2019

The Masters: Jimi Hendrix - Best Studio Albums

RtBE loves listening to new music and prides itself on keeping tabs on up and coming artists but in 2019 we are also going to have a monthly spotlight on legendary artists who we really love. We are calling this series The Masters. It will focus on the best albums, live records, transcendent shows and other odd ways we appreciate the artists and their contribution to music, culture and our formation.
For June The Masters focuses on Jimi Hendrix.

While The Beatles were always around growing up and the foundation to so much popular music, Jimi Hendrix was the first artist who really broke through my ear drums to my brain. As a kid you flounder around with a weird mix of music and then at some point there is a gateway band, and Jimi was that when it came to rock and roll (Public Enemy & The Beastie Boys did that for hip hop around the exact same time). He was the first major musical artist who truly amazed me and was someone we had to write about in RtBE's Masters collection. 

Unlike others in this series, Hendrix was a comet and left only a small recorded legacy. With only three studio albums fully recorded and released while he was alive, Hendrix was just beginning to scratch the surface of his studio mastery. All original releases are vital to own as they sound so fresh and cosmic now it is no wonder they were revolutionary at the time. 

With the legal wrangling after his death, many albums were released and some of which were pure money grabs and some are truly revealing collections. Audio quality varies, re-mastering will be a thing til the end of time with Hendrix and every single take will eventually see a professional release, but these are the studio releases and collections of outtakes RtBE likes the best.

More then anyone else in rock history it is a shame Hendrix died when he did, because his music still sounds as fresh today (not matter what year you read this) as it did while he was alive. He was a magician, the best electric guitarist ever, a sonic poet, a soulful singer, an emotional songwriter who was only finding his of the true Masters. So let's tackle this topic, below we rank Hendrix best studio albums...    

5. First Rays Of The New Rising Sun (Recorded March 1968 – August 1970, Released 1997)

When Hendrix died on 9/18/1970 he was in the midst of assembling his follow up to the amazing Electric Ladyland. Over the final year of his life he played with various artists and configurations, but it seemed he was going to go forward with a trio of Mitch Mitchell and Billy Cox as the main touring act, but what studio songs were to make the final cut for his album were anyone's guess. There are sites and threads dedicate to this, and there have been many posthumous releases which try to capture this. RtBE gravitates towards First Rays Of The New Rising Sun, but if you like one of the other albums like The Cry of Love or War Heroes or Rainbow Bridge more power to you.

It was clearly a transitional time with Hendrix and FRotNRS plays like a kid sister to Electric Ladyland, but some of the songs are truly hypnotic. "Angel" is the best known song from this collection (with reason) while "Izabella", "Ezy Rider" and "Dolly Dagger" are blaring jagged rockers. "Room Full of Mirrors" is a winner while Hendrix's humor was evident still in "Belly Button Window" even while he was moving in more change driven directions lyrically with the ripping "Freedom" and "Earth Blues". My favorite song on the album is the climactic "Hey Baby (New Rising Sun)" the Hendrix anthem which unfortunately never happened. Outakes, could-a-been's, the future was still sounding pretty rad when this album got shelved in 1970. 

(Unfortunately it looks like there are no official tunes from Hendrix albums on youtube so these clips will be varied...go buy the albums anyway)

4. Blues (Recorded 1966-70 Released 1994)

Originally I was going to skip this feature for our Masters series this month. Hendrix only saw three studio albums to completion, they are all great, simply buy them all. Then I remembered Blues. There were two albums that really blew open the door for Hendrix and my young brain when I first got into him. One will be discussed when we tackle his live albums, and the other was Blues. Starting from the amazing cover art this record delivers the goods.

Having grown up on metal and hip-hop Jimi's Blues side made him unique and the soul with which he sung and played was something else. The cool groove of "Born Under A Bad Sign" with the Gypsy's, "Jelly 292" fits into a greater scope being tied to Duke Ellington's "Dooji Wooji" and almost every time I hear someone say Catfish, I realize no one ever sang it cooler then Jimi did during "Catfish Blues". While the tripped out sonic waves were totally Hendrix he really was a space traveling hippie bluesman through and through. It is telling that even when Hendrix estate finally got a hold of his music catalog this album (which was created prior to that) has been re-released multiple times.

Listening to "Hear My Train A'Comin'" acoustic to open and then closing with the amazing electric version is staggering. Let's chat about the electric version (which can also be found on Rainbow Bridge), while "Machine Gun" from Band of Gypsy's gets love as Hendrix ultimate guitar moment, this live version of "Hear My Train A Comin'" from Berkeley 1970 is what I consider his pinnacle performance. The Cox-Mitchell backing is part of the reason (Mitchell > Miles every-fucking-day) but the fireworks and dexterity Hendrix displays is eye popping.

While "Machine Gun" may perhaps be more emotional for him personally, the full song here sounds like a literal train starting, exhilarating and slamming home (innuendo intended). It is a passionate display from a guitar god that is staggering over almost 50 years later and what I feel is his best work. That alone is enough to make the Blues collection worth purchasing, but the other songs fill out the artists legacy.

3. Axis: Bold as Love (1967)

It might be the third best studio record on our list, however Axis: Bold as Love is still a masterpiece from the original Experience of Hendrix, Mitchell and Redding. Before the record even spins, it also has perhaps the coolest album cover in rock history (hmmm that is a future piece itself) even if Hendrix and company were not happy with it.  

When the music starts the psychedelic experience begins with shifting of sides talking about UFO's pitch shifting and speaker warping dripping into "Up From The Skies" which sets the tone for this record. There are a lot of shorter, forgettable numbers that show off the trio's playing and chief engineer Eddie Kramer's production talent, but never really talk deep root.

The songs which do lay it all out like the heavy rock of "Spanish Castle Magic", the proto funk freak-out of "If 6 Was 9", the spoken word groove of "Castles Made of Sand" and especially the gorgeously beautiful "Little Wing" are all fantastic. Kramer may be the underrated MVP of this record as even in 2019 it still sounds fresh and vibrant. The groovy "Wait Until Tomorrow" was an personal early favorite Jimi tune but now sounds a bit out of place with the other tracks here, however, "One Rainy Wish" points directly towards where Hendrix was headed with his next record and the climax inducing "Bold as Love" is a ultimate beast and one of the trio's best ever performances in the studio.

In comparison though there are a few songs you can skip which isn't always the case on a Hendrix record, especially the second half. Songs like "You Got Me Floatin'", "Little Miss Lover" and Redding's "She's So Fine" are fun but inconsequential.

While a great album which 99% of bands would kill for, the truth is with the crazy touring and cramped schedule (his second amazing album released in one calendar year?!?!) Axis will always sound like a transitional album between the bands blinding debut and their third record, speaking of those two...

Ahh the beginning of it all. To have been alive in 1967 and hear this album for the first time must have been mind altering on every front. Simply put this was a cosmic breakthrough and still sounds amazing.

The singles from Are You Experience? are such a part of classic rock culture they are instantly recognizable. On the American release "Purple Haze", "Manic Depression" and "Hey Joe" make for perhaps the best three debut songs in rock history, what's crazy is the English release is "Foxy Lady" "Manic Depression" and "Red House", just as good! Somehow, Purple Haze was left off of the English release of this album....insanity!

Hendrix psychedelic and cosmic take on the blues made him the ultimate icon of the times and his heavy sound along with Redding's thumping and Mitchell's killer drums accentuated him perfectly here.

Even outside of the more well known tunes a burning track like "I Don't Live Today" which Jimi dedicated to American Indians and other minority groups with passionate fierceness and the questioning, shimmering "Love or Confusion" is aptly titled and played, encompassing the trippy  year of '67.

"Fire" is just a scorching piece of guitar work and one of the signature Hendrix songs that combined with the more stretched out experimental numbers "Third Stone From The Sun" and title track anchor the backside of the album. What a backside it is add in "Foxey Lady" and the stunning "The Wind Cries Mary", there is almost nothing to critique with this record and as mentioned the different song English Version is a different trip, but a great one as well. 

It is hard to rank anything over this debut and if it is your favorite, or even if you choose Axis as your Jimi go to, it couldn't be faulted, however RtBE's number one Hendrix studio album is...   

1. Electric Ladyland (1968)

Jimi Hendrix is the main artist RtBE wishes could have avoided an early demise because he seemed to still be finding his voice and climbing higher when he unexpectedly died. His final studio album with the Experience Electric Ladyland is a double which tops our list and yet it still feels transitional as the spirit of Hendrix was still searching for his sound.

However, the sound contained here is gorgeous. Thematic, bluesy, rocking, languidly jammy it shows all the best sides of Hendrix and crew (various guest artists from Steve Winwood to Jack Casady to Brian Jones to Al Kooper to Buddy Miles to Dave Mason all help out) expand upon what they were hinting at with Axis: Bold as Love and move beyond that. 

The intro and rocking "Crosstown Traffic" start things before the slow blues of "Voodoo Chile" which rolls out like an extended jam session among friends...who happened to be the some of the best rockers in the world at that time. Not a big fan of Redding's individual songs, but "Little Miss Strange" is his best while  blistering hot "Long Hot Summer Night" contains perhaps my favorite individual Hendrix lick with "the telephone keeps on screamin'" lyric.

Hendrix lyrics and singing is more nuanced here as he paints vivid pictures and has a warm voice. The grooving of "Gypsy Eyes" and the wah-wah drenched "Burning The Midnight Lamp" are a gas as is the cover of the great Earl King's "Come On" nails some psychedelic rocking blues back to New Orleans boogie woogie sound; a ripping cover.

His cover which got him a touch more fame though was the band's take on Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" which the bard himself has stated is the best version of the song. But that comes after the "Rainy Day, Dream Away" which flows into the dream itself of "1983..." a journey which is at the heart of the already amazing album.

The passionate and pain drenched soul of "House Burning Down" is pure Hendrix and an underrated number on this masterpiece of an album while closes with the mega "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" and if forced to pin down the quintessential Hendrix song, this would be it with it's iconic riff, earth lyrics and cosmic playing. The track ends and it feels as if Hendrix and the Experience could go on forever...and in a sense, they have.       

How did we do? Agree? Disagree? Feel free to let us know your favorites in the comments. 


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