The influence of psychedelic drugs on music is undeniable—to say the very least. In the 1960s, substances like LSD and mushrooms swirled with foreign influences and emerging technologies to forever change the sound of Western music. Artists like The Beatles, Jefferson Airplane, and Jimi Hendrix infused their work with trippy lyrics and bizarro storytelling shaped by consciousness-enhancing experiences. These mind-boggling narratives accompany instrumentals indebted to new techniques: innovative studio practices, loops, tape delay, flanging, and drone sounds influenced by music from India. Today, much of this innovation is taken for granted in genres ranging from R&B to neo-soul, dance music to pop. Nearly all music stands on the shoulders of these psychedelic giants.
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Best Albums of Psychedelic Music
There is no uncontroversial way to list the “best” psychedelic albums—there are dozens upon dozens spanning the past 60 years. (Forgive us if your fav didn’t make the cut!) We curated this with an eye to the diversity of artists, sounds, and decades: Sure, “classic” psychedelic rock emerged in the ’60s and ’70s, but we’ll take you all the way up to present-day artists like Kelela and Hiatus Kaiyote. Presented in chronological order to chart the sound’s wayward genealogy, here’s our take on the 15 best albums of psychedelic music:
1. Revolver – The Beatles (1966)
The Beatles were turned on to pot in 1964. They first tried LSD in 1965. And in 1966, they released Revolver, an album cementing their evolution from teenie-bopper boy band into some of the greatest musical innovators of all time. Considered by many to be the group’s best album, Revolver includes “Eleanor Rigby,” “Yellow Submarine,” and ends with “Tomorrow Never Knows,” a song that honestly feels like tripping.
2. The Doors – The Doors (1967)
Featuring their breakthrough single “Light My Fire,” The Doors’ self-titled début infused hard rock with jazz, classical, and R&B influences. The album was produced by producer Bruce Botnick, considered one of the most important names in developing psychedelic rock. This album concludes with the 12-minute epic “The End,” which includes a highly Oedipal spoken word section.
3. Surrealistic Pillow – Jefferson Airplane (1967)
Vocalist Grace Slick formed her first band, the Great Society, after being inspired by seeing Jefferson Airplane play a show in San Francisco. Just a year later, she joined Jefferson Airplane and sang on their recording of “White Rabbit,” which she herself composed previously. Undeniably one of the era’s best psychedelic songs, “White Rabbit” draws imagery from the Alice In Wonderland books, and rounds out an album which also includes the radio classics “Somebody To Love” and “Today.”
4. Forever Changes – Love (1967)
Love, a band from Los Angeles whose original line-up lasted just a couple years, explored disillusionment with the 1960s counterculture on Forever Changes, their third album. Following up on the success of their top 40 hit “7 And 7 Is,” this album saw the band embrace what AllMusic called “a more gentle, contemplative, and organic sound,” infusing folk music influences with psychedelic rock.
5. Electric Ladyland – The Jimi Hendrix Experience (1968)
Widely considered one of the greatest electric guitar players of all time, Jimi Hendrix regularly consumed cannabis, hashish, and LSD in the late ’60s, particularly while touring with his band. Electric Ladyland was their third and final album. Hendrix passed away shortly after its release, joining the infamous “27 Club.” The album’s heavy guitar sounds and lack of conventional structure confounded the critics of its time but was later re-evaluated as displaying Hendrix’s unparalleled talents to their fullest extent.
6. Bitches Brew – Miles Davis (1970)
Miles Davis rose to prominence as a jazz composer and trumpet player. This changed on Bitches Brew, which turned to looser, more improvised rock-style rhythms incorporating guitar and electric piano. Considered an early example of the jazz-rock genre, this album prominently features the soprano saxophone and bass clarinet. Rolling Stone praised it for “beauty, subtlety, and sheer magnificence [that] encourages soaring flights of imagination by anyone who listens.”
7. The Smile Sessions – The Beach Boys (1965-1971) [Released 2011]
Brian Wilson—songwriter, producer, and co-lead singer of The Beach Boys—was prone to debilitating perfectionism, which is one of several reasons that the album Smile, planned and mostly recorded in the late 60s, never came to fruition. After decades of anticipation, parts of those recording sessions were finally amalgamated into an official album. Smile was celebrated for featuring the band’s signature complex vocal arrangements, as well as its use of mysticism, satire, whimsy, and musical influences ranging from ragtime to blues.
8. The Dark Side of the Moon – Pink Floyd (1973)
The Dark Side of the Moon is a concept album exploring themes like individualism, conflict, greed, and mental illness, all of which were brought up as the band toured in the early 1970s. Each side of the album is a continuous piece of music, making it perfect for both psychedelic experiences and the fan-favorite “Dark Side of the Rainbow” theory, which claims the album synchronizes perfectly with the 1939 The Wizard of Oz movie.
9. Mothership Connection – Parliament (1975)
George Clinton, frontman of the Parliament-Funkadelic collective whose sci-fi mythology became foundational to the Afrofuturist aesthetic, said his group intended to imagine “black people in situations nobody ever thought they would be in”—such as in outer space. Concept album Mothership Connection does exactly that in a playful and archetypally funky manner, introducing Clinton’s alien alter ego Star Child and featuring one of the collective’s most famous songs, the anthemic “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof off the Sucker).”
10. A Live One – Phish (1995)
We can’t talk about psychedelic music without paying tribute to the jam bands who helped define the very concept. Their long-winded, improvisational live performances created hotbeds for the psychedelic community—a style pioneered by the Grateful Dead beginning in the 1960s. Following in their footsteps is Phish, which—like the Dead—cultivated an exceptionally dedicated cult following. Phish began publishing albums in 1989. Yet, they didn’t release “A Live One” until 1995, though fans had been distributing tapes of amateur live recordings for years, a tradition that continues today.
11. Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots – The Flaming Lips (2002)
Psychedelic music enters the new millennium with what Fortune called the “lush and haunting electronic symphony” of Yoshimi, the seminal tenth studio album by Oklahoma City–born band The Flaming Lips. Beginning with a four-track story about the titular Yoshimi, the album goes on to explore not just the clash of man and machine, but love and melancholy described in lyrics laced into atmospheric, computer-driven production. The album’s closing track, “Approaching Pavonis Mons by Balloon,” won a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental.
12. Biophilia – Björk (2011)
Over her four decades making music, Icelandic polymath Björk’s style has run the gamut from classical to pop to trip-hop, always tending toward the trippy and experimental. Biophilia grew out of her desire to explore humankind’s relationship to nature—including the exploitation of Iceland’s natural resources. Entirely new instruments were invented in order to make the album, including a group of pendulums that transmitted the earth’s movement to the playing of a harp for the song “Solstice.” The album’s swirl of form and content is so ingenious that you should probably read the Wikipedia page before or while you listen.
13. An Awesome Wave – alt-J (2012)
English band alt-J’s debut album, which infuses English folk sounds with modern-day electronica to make “folktronica,” takes psychedelia back to basics with guitar sounds ranging from soft to intense and a poppy exterior that belies a rich complexity of genre and themes. Almost hypnotically, the album draws you into sonic and moral blurriness with ambiguous, sometimes unintelligible lyrics. Still, what it means to “Tessellate” becomes clearer by “Dissolve Me,” which opens with the words “two tabs on your tongue.”
14. Hallucinogen – Kelela (2015)
DC-born Kelela, who is Ethiopian-American and a queer icon, burst onto the scene with this 2015 debut EP, whose six tracks chronicle the beginning, middle, and end of a relationship in reverse order. The album’s emotionally vulnerable and futuristic take on R&B includes production by Venezuela’s trans-avant-gardist Arca, as well as Kingdom, another great queer musical innovator of our time. Don’t miss the remix album, which includes takes by Brazilian funk artist MC Bin Laden and ballroom icons MikeQ and Divoli S’vere.
15. Mood Valiant – Hiatus Kaiyote (2021)
If the colorful personal style of guitarist and lead singer Nai Palm—who claims Jimi Hendrix and David Bowie as influences—isn’t psychedelic enough for you, dive into the “wondercore” world of Hiatus Kaiyote’s three albums. (That’s the word the band uses to describe the emotional effect they intend to achieve with their blend of soulful, jazzy, and, at times, tropical genres). Rolling Stone praised their Grammy-nominated Mood Valiant—their most recent release—for its “almost kaleidoscopic compositions.” some of which were inspired by Palm’s treatment for breast cancer from 2018 to 2019. “Red Room” is a fan-favorite track.
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