Look up the word “psychedelic” in the dictionary, and one of the first definitions will be “mind expanding”. That’s what all of the best psychedelic albums have in common. Most were made during the golden era of 1966-1968, but quite a few came along later. Some were made in the psych epicentres of San Francisco and Los Angeles, others are from as far afield as Brazil, Texas and the UK. Some were clearly acid-inspired, but at least one was made by an artist (Prince) who never indulged in hallucinogenics. Some fit the classic model of psychedelic music, while others are just spiritually related to the scene. All of them are, however, guaranteed to take your head to places it never went before.
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30: Cream: Disraeli Gears (1967)
Cream were only partly a psychedelic band. Even when they took acid, they were more about playing the blues and improvising. But a few of their songs stand as psych landmarks, and two of them (‘Strange Brew’ and ‘Tales of Brave Ulysses’) opened each side of the original vinyl pressing of Disraeli Gears. And let’s not forget that iconic album cover.
Must hear: ‘Strange Brew’
29: Nirvana: The Story Of Simon Simopath (1967)
Musically, the English duo Nirvana couldn’t be any different from the Seattle band of the same name. Indebted a bit to both Donovan and The Incredible String Band, this concept album is steeped in nursery-rhyme gentleness and flower-power whimsy. Yet the central concept, about a misfit who finds new life after a stay in a mental institution, was something Nirvana’s grunge namesakes might have appreciated.
Must hear: ‘Wings Of Love’
28: The Rolling Stones: Their Satanic Majesties Request (1967)
The triumph of The Rolling Stones’ one psych album, Their Satanic Majesties Request ,was that they could embrace everything – Indian music, Pink Floyd tape weirdness, orchestrated freakouts – and still sound just like the Stones. Call it a period piece, but the single ‘She’s A Rainbow’ is still in their setlists today.
Must hear: ‘2000 Light Years From Home’
27: Tame Impala: Lonerism (2012)
Tame Impala mastermind Kevin Parker is one of the modern artists doing the most with trippy 60s influences, and his solo recordings reveal the multicolour world inside his head. On the sophomore Tame Impala album, Lonerism, he plays around with vintage sounds, from analogue synths to fuzz guitars and DIY drumkits, which he’d later fuse with elements of trip-hop.
Must hear: ‘Music To Walk Home By’
26: Aphrodite’s Child: 666 (1972)
Genesis famously did an ‘Apocalypse In 9/8’, but on this double-album, Aphrodite’s Child unleashed one in every time signature there was. Bridging late psych and early prog, 666 effectively approximates what you’d experience if you were reading The Book Of Revelation when the acid kicked in. The fact that Aphrodite’s singer, Demis Roussos, went on to be an easy-listening star, while keyboardist Vangelis helped invent New Age, is psychedelic in itself.
Must hear: ‘The Four Horsemen’
25: Donovan: Sunshine Superman (1966)
Donovan gets dismissed in some quarters (not least from Bob Dylan in Dont Look Back) as a lightweight, but, hey – it’s not his fault that he had a good time in the 60s and came out unscathed. There are some truly heavyweight songs in his most psychedelic-leaning album, Sunshine Superman, including the indelible single and self-explanatory ‘The Trip’. Other cuts include the San Francisco ode ‘Fat Angel’ (which salutes Jefferson Airplane, who later covered it) and the oft-covered ‘Season Of The Witch’, which predicts the time when hippies would start trying to make it rich.
Must hear: ‘The Trip’
24: Blues Magoos: Psychedelic Lollipop (1966)
Blues Magoos’ 1966 debut album earns immortality for its second single alone: ‘(We Ain’t Got) Nothin’ Yet’, one of the era’s most uplifting songs. Also here is the definitive freaked-out version of the oft-covered ‘Tobacco Road’ and the acid-inspired ‘Love Seems Doomed’. And let’s not forget they were just kids when they recorded one of the best psychedelic albums of the mid-60s; singer Peppy Theilhelm was just 16.
Must hear: ‘We Ain’t Got Nothin’ Yet’
23: The Temptations: Cloud Nine (1969)
Cloud Nine was the album that changed the equation for Motown, as The Temptations were joined by new singer Dennis Edwards and the visionary writer-producer Norman Whitfield. About half the album is still in traditional Tempts style, but the future of psychedelic soul arrives via the topical title track – with its indelible Dennis Coffey wah-wah intro – and especially ‘Runaway Child, Running Wild’, a spooky production epic that became a hit in its edited form.
Must hear: ‘Runaway Child, Running Wild’
22: The Dream Syndicate: The Universe Inside (2020)
It warms our heart that we can include a 2020 release on this list of the best psychedelic albums. The Dream Syndicate came to light as members of LA’s legendary, psych-inspired Paisley Underground in the 80s, and Steve Wynn went on to be a singer-songwriter of considerable note, but the third release to come out of their latter-day reunion is something else entirely. With five songs covering a double-album, they leave conventional song structures behind and discover the mind-expanding possibilities of texture and groove, proving you can still find new territory to explore.
Must hear: ‘The Regulator’
21: Caravan: In The Land Of Grey And Pink (1971)
There’s a thin line between psych rock and prog, and on In The Land Of Grey And Pink, Caravan easily worked both sides. There’s something beautifully English about the whimsical hippie humour in the title track and ‘Golf Girl’, which turns the illicit substance into tea. The album’s second half is a flawless suite that includes some straight ahead jazz, a heavy riff or two, and a gorgeous pastoral melody toward the end.
Must hear: ‘In The Land Of Grey And Pink’
20: Iron Butterfly: In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida (1968)
The great thing about this album is that it’s quite literally bubblegum pop on acid. Take away the 15 minutes of trippy jamming and the title track is a giddy love song that Ohio Express could have recorded. But, of course, a 15-minute jam is largely the appeal of any great psychedelic album. Even the other side of In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida is as catchy as it is trippy, and it left us with a great bit of 60s wisdom: “Flowers and beads are one thing/But having a girl, that’s something!”
Must hear: ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’
19: The Pretty Things: SF Sorrow / Small Faces: Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake (both 1968)
These two albums have to go together as they both came out in 1968, were both among the first concept albums, and were both recorded by UK bands who were doing straight R&B just a few months earlier. They represent emotional opposites, too: The Pretty Things’ album tells the mournful but hauntingly melodic story of a man and his well of loneliness. Characteristically, Small Faces had no time for tears: Their psych epic is a jolly rave-up, with a side-long fairy tale, a music-hall blast of a single (‘Lazy Sunday’) and even a bit of proto-metal, in the shape of ‘Afterglow’.
Must hear: ‘Lazy Sunday’
18: Todd Rundgren: A Wizard, A True Star (1973)
One of the most audacious and best psychedelic albums ever made, A Wizard, A True Star came out just when Todd Rundgren had developed a reputation as a pop songsmith, and the world expected more of the same. He delivered this Technicolor mind trip instead. It’s probably the reason he never became a mainstream superstar, but also the reason why, 45 years later, a lot of us are still following him.
Must hear: ‘International Feel’
17: The Moody Blues: In Search Of The Lost Chord (1968)
Each of the Moodies’ classic seven albums was a unified statement, and each one was different, but In Search Of The Lost Chord was the most psychedelic. In a set of finely crafted songs that begins with an invitation to ‘Ride My See-Saw’, the Moodies’ search for the essence of life took them down three possible paths: acid, meditation and romantic love. Later in their career, they’d pretty much settle on option three.
Must hear: ‘Legend Of A Mind’
16: The Dukes Of Stratosphear: 25 O’Clock (1985)
XTC’s in-disguise album is a great bit of musical pranksterism – if you know your 60s psych, it’s wall-to-wall in-jokes. But their Dukes Of Stratosphear alter-ego is also a loving and accurate homage to the best psychedelic albums, and every song here is terrific in its own right. From the Floydian title track to the Moodies-inspired ‘Your Gold Dress’, the psych influence would carry over to XTC’s next proper album, Skylarking.
Must hear: ‘Your Gold Dress’
15: Hüsker Dü: Zen Arcade (1984)
Psychedelia was one of many styles embraced by the 80s rock underground, and Zen Arcade’s influence was huge. There’s still plenty of Hüsker Dü’s hardcore rage here, but the group also employ tape loops, reoccurring song fragments and an epic closing jam to evoke the kaleidoscopic experiences of a young man’s first year away from home.
Must hear: ‘Something I Learned Today’
14: Dr John: Gris-Gris (1968)
On this classic debut album, Dr John realised that the spiritual imagery of psychedelia and New Orleans’ voodoo weren’t far apart. Working with the cream of Crescent City session men, he came up with a spooky and funky sound unlike any heard before, and created a memorable character to go with it. If ‘I Walk On Gilded Splinters’ isn’t psych, we don’t know what is. Fun fact: the entire album was financed by money that Dr John and his arranger had made on Sonny & Cher sessions.
Must hear: ‘I Walk On Gilded Splinters’
13: Prince and The Revolution: Around The World In A Day (1985)
Around The World In A Day was the Purple Rain follow-up that nobody saw coming, Prince widely expanded both his musical template and his consciousness – with help from Wendy and Lisa, who apparently gave him his first Beatles record. ‘Raspberry Beret’ introduced a new generation to 60s psychedelia, but the album wasn’t all sunshine and flowers. ‘Condition Of The Heart’ could be Prince’s loveliest ballad, while ‘Temptation’ serves up a tense encounter with God.
Must hear: ‘Paisley Park’
12: The Zombies: Odessey & Oracle (1968)
You know an album is timeless when it takes a half-century to be properly appreciated. The Zombies were, however, right into the spirit of the times in 1968, evolving from their R&B origins and writing one of the most enduring peace-and-love anthems, Odyssey & Oracle’s only hit, ‘Time Of The Season’. But it took decades for most people to hear the rest of the album and realise how beautifully inventive it all was. It’s no secret that The Zombies were squeaky-clean compared to most 60s bands, but this album was visionary as they come.
Must hear: ‘Time Of The Season’
11: Country Joe And The Fish: Electric Music For The Mind And Body (1967)
An early 1967 release, Country Joe And The Fish’s debut album opened up all kinds of possibilities: heady jams, poetic ballads, free-form ragas and even a taste of political satire. Because Joe McDonald was a songwriter first, the whole album is wrapped in a tuneful package. The closing ‘Grace’ is a romantic epic in honour of Grace Slick (Janis Joplin would get similar treatment on the follow-up album).
Must hear: ‘Flying High’
10: The Monkees: Head (1968)
If you don’t think The Monkees (or Carole King) were psychedelic, you haven’t heard ‘Porpoise Song’, a swirling and hypnotic track from their soundtrack album Head. It proved too much for their pre-teen fans and was the first Monkees single to flop. Elsewhere on the record, Mike Nesmith gets into the groove with ‘Circle Sky’, while Peter Tork contributes a fuzztone rocker about reincarnation; it’s all held together with surreal spoken soundbites. If you think the album is out there, wait till you see the movie.
Must hear: ‘Porpoise Song’
9: The 13th Floor Elevators: The Psychedelic Sounds Of The 13th Floor Elevators (1966)
In the context of frontman Roky Erickson’s career, this ranks as a relatively straightahead rock’n’roll album: the opening ‘You’re Gonna Miss Me’ is nothing less than a punk landmark, electric jug and all. In some ways, however, this is the great psychedelic album The Rolling Stones should have made. The Elevators deal in raw blues-rock songs with heady imagery and, as always, the otherworldly howl of Erickson’s voice.
Must hear: ‘You’re Gonna Miss Me’
8: The Doors: The Doors (1967)
During the first week of 1967, when this album was released, the future of rock could be anything, including a jazz-identified band with a Dionysian Beat poet upfront. The Doors’ self-titled debut is a remarkably diverse, with covers of songs by both Willie Dixon and Bertolt Brecht. The first side closes with the sexual release of ‘Light My Fire’ while the second ends with the Apocalypse on ‘The End’. Making it one of the best psychedelic albums of all time, however, is that every note is about transcendence.
Must hear: ‘The End’
7: Jefferson Airplane: After Bathing At Baxter’s (1967)
As Paul Kantner later explained, “bathing at Baxter’s” was band-slang for dropping acid, and this influence is clearer than on Jefferson Airplane’s more song-oriented later albums. Grace Slick writes a pair of free-associative cabaret songs; Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady take ten minutes to map out Hot Tuna’s territory for the next 50 years; and Kantner’s ‘The Ballad Of You And Me And Pooneil’ is one of the most joyful acid songs ever written.
Must hear: ‘The Ballad of You And Me And Pooneil’
6: Grateful Dead: Aoxomoxoa (1969)
This was as psychedelic as the Dead ever got in the studio. The eight-minute ‘What’s Become of The Baby’ was effectively their ‘Revolution 9’, but note how the phasing on Jerry Garcia’s voice gives ‘China Cat Sunflower’ a sense of mystery that the many live versions lack. Meanwhile, there are the last hints of the Dead’s early garage-rock tendencies (‘Doin’ That Rag’) and, on ‘St Stephen’, their future in Americana.
Must hear: ‘What’s Become Of The Baby’
5: Gal Costa: Gal (1969)
The Brazilian Tropicália movement was as much about psychedelia as it was a political statement: it was radical music made against an oppressive government. It was also thrilling in purely musical terms, producing landmark work by Tom Zé, Os Mutantes and Caetano Veloso. But this 1969 album by Gal Costa was the most radical and beautiful of them all. Already known as a superior pop singer, Costa collaborates here with a sublimely freaky studio band. What they do with Veloso’s ‘Cinema Olympia’ – originally a nice little song about movies – is truly mindblowing.
Must hear: ‘Cinema Olympia’
4: The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Electric Ladyland (1968)
Jimi Hendrix was psychedelic by his very existence, and the expansive double-album Electric Ladyland brought you further inside his head (and closer to other parts of his anatomy) than any other record. The blues are epic, the rockers furious and the side trips (like most of Side Three on the original vinyl) lead to uncharted territory. On ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return)’, he demonstrates that the imagery of blues lyrics was always psychedelic to begin with.
Must hear: ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return)’
3: Spirit: Twelve Dreams Of Dr Sardonicus (1970)
Released in November 1970, this was the original psychedelic era’s final masterpiece. Lyrically, Twelve Dreams Of Dr Sardonicus wraps up everything that era was trying to say. Songs like ‘Nature’s Way’ and ‘Nothing To Hide’ thumb their noses at the straight world; ‘Love Has Found A Way’ and ‘Life Has Just Begun’ illustrate how much is possible if your mind is ready for it. Musically, it’s endlessly inventive, bringing the band’s jazz, pop and heavy rock factions onto the same astral plane. And though it crystallises a moment in time, it doesn’t sound the least bit dated.
Must hear: ‘Life Has Just Begun’
2: The Beatles: Magical Mystery Tour (1967)
If there was one moment that changed everything and psychedelicised the world, it was the release of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ (backed with ‘Penny Lane’) as a single in February 1967. Quite simply, the AM airwaves had never thrown out anything like that before. They were already classics by the time the Magical Mystery Tour album came out around Christmas (in the US; the songs, minus the era’s single sides, were released as a double-EP set in the UK), but the likes of ‘I Am the Walrus’ and ‘Fool On The Hill’ showed The Beatles still had more adventures in store.
Must hear: ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’
1: Love: Forever Changes (1967)
This classic album from really stands apart from the best psychedelic albums. There are no studio effects, no freeform jams, and hardly even any electric guitars. The psychedelic influence came entirely from the mind of Arthur Lee, whose lyrics were always otherworldly and never fully possible to pin down, and whose melodies were completely unforgettable. ‘You Set The Scene’ still ranks as one of rock’s great existential statements.
Must hear: ‘You Set The Scene’
Looking for more? Discover the origins of psychedelic rock.