If you know the brief history of Jimi Hendrix, then you’ll understand why this is a Top 27 list. On September 18, 1970, Jimi’s life ended just as the second (and most well-known) phase of his career had come to a close. Jimi had moved beyond The Experience and was exploring new options.
We’ve chosen the finest selections from the Experience albums and
further gems from well-curated posthumous albums First Rays of the New Rising Sun and South
Saturn Delta for an overview of what was and what could have been.
CM: The strongest single encapsulation of Jimi’s sound, feel, and attitude. The first two attributes go hand in hand when assessing his guitar work, while the latter fuels everything he did. An altered blues, “Voodoo Chile” is filled with lacerating riffs and licks, guitar-drum telepathy, and has a mythic lyric to match. Props to Stevie Ray Vaughan for his cover version that pays direct homage yet lifts the song to other heights.
TG: A showcase for Jimi. The lyrics illustrate his poetic tendencies even amongst the braggadocio, “Well, I stand up next to a mountain / And I chop it down with the edge of my hand / Pick up the pieces and make an island / Might even raise a little sand.” Nicely done.
TG: Jimi had the ability to take a depressing topic and turn it into an uplifting song. He does so with “Depression”, but the real star is Mitch as he maniacally (and manically) pounds his kit, reflecting the unease of the lyrics. I think Mitchell and Hendrix suited each other very well. It’s a good thing Chas Chandler brought them together. Noel also came along as part of that package, and he’s earned a fair amount of derision over the years; however, I think he deserved better. Noel’s only transgression was being a guitarist who was asked to play bass.
CM: If our #1 promotes Jimi the musician, “Manic” dials that passion into an incomparable song, a raucous waltz with tumbling drums, a guitar solo that develops fragments lurking within the second verse, and much else to admire. Praise also to the band and producer for their roles in making it happen.
CM: Given the liberties Hendrix had taken on preceding albums, it’s no surprise that he devoted one and a quarter sides of Ladyland to a full exploration of form and texture. The bookend parts groove nicely, while the “Merman” dream-poem includes moodier themes and a free section. The whole suite flows smoothly and can satisfy multiple listeners. A stoner amused by Jimi’s fake inhalation in the first part can passively trip through the rest, whilst guitar fans marvel at wonder-wah solos. Free improv and ambient art camps might find “Merman” and “Moon Turn the Tides” interesting. Myself, I often revere formal adventures in rock, and this is a seminal one.
TG: Begins as an easy jam with nice sax as Rainy Day, Dream Away. Raining leads to dreaming of being a Merman in the “far-off” year of 1983 – intentionally one year before 1984? Who knows. This track highlights Jimi’s lyrical penchant for sci-fi storytelling: “Oh say can you see it’s such a mess / Every inch of Earth is a fighting nest / Giant pencil and lipstick-tube-shaped things / Continue to rain and cause screaming pain.” The destruction across the land is the reason Jimi and his Lady Katerina must journey beneath the sea and become merpeople. A “machine” (hey, I didn’t say Jimi was an actual scientist) delivers them safely to the depths of the ocean where they find “Atlantis full of cheer.”
Musically, the “Rainy Day Suite” runs a gamut of sounds and feelings. Studio effects abound but they’re used tastefully and serve the music well, especially during the nautical excursion. Jimi and crew tackled a long track in “Third Stone”, but this suite melds its elements together so wonderfully and with such ambition that it stands above that earlier attempt. Still Raining, Still Dreaming brings the listener back to earth and wraps up the tale with a mostly instrumental coda and a reminder that the rain is only temporary...and what’s a little water to a Merman, anyway?
CM: I’m not sure if this is as profound as the key change and studio sorcery in the homestretch makes it seem, but it’s lovely overall. Like the title track of Are You Experienced, an album closer that envisions a bold new tomorrow.
TG: “Axis” is a powerful song. The beginning may seem a bit weak, but so much goes on underneath the surface that it holds your attention. Meanwhile, Jimi is building to the soaring, emotional release of the finale. Jimi may have had a technical wizard in his back pocket in the person of Eddie Kramer, but Hendrix was the guitar wizard, and he knew what he wanted preserved on tape to represent the sounds only he could hear in his mind. “Axis” stands as evidence that Jimi was capable of achieving those sounds.
CM: Tritone alarm clock, hallowed riff, stomping beat, infamous lyric, and creative sounds add up to a rock benchmark.
TG: Not as high as one might think on this list because, to me, it has lost some power over the years. It’s still an amazing song that was clearly a revelation in 1967, but familiarity has taken away some of the sheen. It’s still a lot of fun and can blow your mind when you’re so inclined, and it’s a great jumping-off point when diving into Jimi’s catalog.
TG: Takes the boldness of “Axis” and softens it into ballad form. Notice though that Jimi rips back into guitar god mode near the end. It’s a real tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan that his cover version sits on the same shelf as the original.
CM: “Gorgeousness and gorgeousity made flesh” in a track that’s never lost its allure.
CM: Largely instrumental with some manipulated spoken word, this is one of Jimi’s most imaginative works, and I have to think that no one had heard anything like it at the time. Nothing sounds like it today, for sure. I love the casual tone of the front portion, while the faster bass ostinato, swinging drums, and guitar feedback of the second part could hardly be more mesmerizing. My personal favorite of anything on this list.
TG: Jimi’s original sci-fi trip features a hymn-like melody that gives the track an otherworldly feel. Mitch again plays the dexterous foil to Jimi’s lines, and Noel adds a bass line that grounds the other instruments without being too heavy itself, which is a rather clever accomplishment. Some of the guitar sounds in this track would be copied and used throughout the years by a number of bands – not that there’s anything wrong with that.
TG: Pure energy that goes from zero to sixty in seconds flat and never lifts off the pedal.
CM: Ladyland and Axis open the same way: spacy noise prelude, mellow song, then the third track shifts into heavy gear. “Crosstown Traffic” bats the 3-spot on Ladyland with heated verses (like “Fire”, just voice and drums) and a harried feeling appropriate to its title. Kazoo in the lead line? No matter; the real edge comes from the piano.
CM: A true live-in-the-studio performance where Jimi, Mitch, Steve Winwood, and Jack Casady rip open a blues by exchanging thoughts, building up, and coming down with no concern except for what feels right in the moment. Does it still, and if Jimi ever needed a keyboard counterpart, here’s the guy. Had Hendrix lived, I can imagine an alternate future where he and Winwood pursued their separate endeavors but collaborated periodically.
TG: Guest players may have been the crux of Noel’s problem with being in the Experience at this time. The studio was full of famous fans, friends and hangers-on stopping by studio to soak up some soul, and soul is what was exposed on this track, which culminates with Winwood’s orga(n)smic display. Chas Chandler also ended his association with Jimi around this time.
TG: In a maelstrom of activity, Jimi muses that love confuses: “Is it love, baby? / Or is it just confusion?” The stop-and-go, attack-and-release dynamic serves this song well as Jimi lays down rhythmic gymnastics.
CM: Twangy trance embedded in jagged rock. May this be love? Increasing darkness suggests not.
TG: Jimi was a different kind of cat, even for the late ‘60s. As a child, he was raised by whatever family would have him at the moment – until his father Al came into his life. Al provided Jimi a bit more security, yet his presence created a different set of problems. Throughout everything, Jimi sought out the one constant in his life – music. Whether strumming a broom or actually playing the first cheap guitar Al bought for him (after much begging), Jimi focused inward and turned private demons into eventual public acclaim.
I’m glad Jimi waved his "freak flag high". The “drop and die” line kind of bothers me when I listen to this track, but in a way, I think Jimi knew he might not have a lot of time so he made the most of what he had.
CM: The first 90 seconds is seductively raw – just two emphatic notes, hi-hat, and vocal – then the piece travels elsewhere before returning to the slap-yer-mama beginning (where Mitch’s explosive afterglow seals the deal). I can do without the capricious ending, but all else is a strong combination of Hendrix’s grounded and outward-bound tendencies.
TG: Speaking of mortality, here’s another great Jimi song about that very subject: “No sun comin' through my windows / Feel like I'm livin' at the bottom of a grave / I wish you'd hurry up and execute me / So I can be on my miserable way”. That’s some nihilistic thought coming from a peace-loving hippy, but the beauty of Hendrix is that he made some of his best music out of unease.
CM: How is it that two of the most engaging songs on Jimi’s debut are about being depressed? The cathartic exclamation of the title line climaxes a tormented arrangement where guitar feedback and oblong drum patterns could represent mental demons, yet there’s enough resolve in the music to suggest that tomorrow may be brighter.
TG: Though not Jimi’s best composition, the intricacies and phrasings of “Wish” make it a standout in his stacked catalog.
CM: “Wish” doesn’t immediately make its case; it’s a sleeper whose apparitions keep haunting until you examine how and why the whole thing resonates. (At least that was my experience.) There’s the dreamlike beginning, harder onset of reality, and repeating semi-tone changes that depict a perplexed mindset weighing one vision against another, all of which underline the song’s narrative. Jimi’s lyrics rarely mean much to me, but they function well for his purposes, in this case guiding a song no one else could have dreamed of.
CM: Riffs that stab and swerve, unstoppable forward motion, confident expression of simple ideas. If a total stranger to Jimi’s music wanted an appetizer, I’d play them this. It’s just got that essence.
TG: On my mindshelf of original and cover songs, there is one where Jimi is outclassed by another group. The Red Hot Chili Peppers version of “Fire” doesn’t stray far from the original, but it has the advantage of Flea on bass plus Anthony Kiedis channeling Hendrix on vocals. Jimi’s original, however, is a straight-up rock song with spark and energy.
CM: The violet fog that bathes the track – including harpsichord (!), choir-like counterlines, and frequency filters gone bonkers – somewhat overshadows an interesting song underneath that I sorta wish had been shot in sharper light. Nonetheless, “Lamp” emits considerable wattage and was one of the first dozen titles I scribbled for our list.
TG: Jimi’s use of the wah pedal plus the harpsichord set this off as a unique title. This is one of the more memorable Hendrix tunes just because it is so different. Its excellence shines out like a shaft of gold when all around is dark – much like a stream of bat’s piss. If you had money on a Monty Python reference being used within the Top 15 of a list of Jimi Hendrix tunes, then you have a very interesting sports book in your town.
CM: Thanks, Shaw and Whistler.
TG: Here’s another statement song, but I think this one is about racism. Jimi sings about his pride, children, and wife being threatened and harassed, but he’s talking metaphorically about children and wife since he had neither. It’s easy to hear that part of the chorus where he sings, “Freedom to live / Freedom, so I can give” and think that Jimi is spouting another positivist message, but there’s an undercurrent of anger. This song isn’t about Hendrix being different because of his hair, clothing or lifestyle – it’s about being black and finally recognized as a human and the freedom to be a man rather than a “man of color.” This track is also musically aggressive thanks to the bass which allows Jimi to flex some muscle as well.
CM: I think Todd’s assessment is on target and explains why the song comes across with such determination. It also happens to be full of funky wonderment, the bass clearly played by someone (Billy Cox) who chose the instrument rather than being a guitarist who adopted it due to circumstance. That’s not to belittle Noel Redding, who played bass well enough, but “Freedom” (like other tracks following his departure) lays a deeper groove.
TG: Robert Zimmerman birthed the song; James Marshall Hendrix adopted it and made it his own. The lyrics are pure Bob Dylan, but for the most part, you don’t listen to early Dylan for musical content; he was a storyteller who happened to carry a guitar. Hendrix was a guitar player who also told stories. “Watchtower” came alive musically when given the Experience treatment. Normally, we only consider the original songs of the artists for list inclusion; however, we had to make an exception for this and a later one.
CM: I was ready to not have this on the list at all, mainly because of its ubiquitous representation (in movies, etc.) of, like, the times, man. Dylan’s ditty, already moist with potential meanings, is here so psychedelically furnished that one might think they’ve pow-wowed with god on important matters, depending on chemical intake. Connotations of said culture aside, Hendrix’s “Watchtower” stays powerful to this day, though perhaps for different reasons.
CM: Adrenaline-raising intro, innit? Drums and percussion establish tempo, wah and feedback guitars unroll a red carpet for the rhythm riff, the bass adds depth, then all lock together beneath a soaring lead line. The ensuing song cruises straights and bends with all the free-willed bravado of its main character. Quite the rush.
TG: “Freedom” and “Ezy Rider” give a good idea of the musical avenues Hendrix was exploring post-Ladyland. The songs were less pop-oriented workouts with strong rhythmic lines and less reliance on studio or other effects. The downside to these tracks is that they weren’t finished by Jimi. People close to Hendrix have been involved in his posthumous recordings, and they care about what is being presented, but they don’t ultimately know where he would or could have taken them.
TG: With that kind of title, a psychedelic workout is expected, so the beginning of the song is a bit of a disappointment as it starts kind of lifelessly. However, Jimi’s guitar takes off when he announces, “Here we go!”. Here we go, alright, into full-fledged pyrotechnics, off-the-cuff vocals, and a party atmosphere.
CM: A hellacious B-side to “Midnight Lamp”, its subsequent remix preserved on South Saturn Delta. Sam laughs as he yanks listeners from brisk verses into a wild trip through the cosmos. Saturn and Mars are seen outside the windows, someone has new roller skates, a gee-tar yelps and yowls...Le Freakout, c’est chic.
CM: Around 35 seconds in is the first appearance of a particular passage that circles back on itself, a short epiphany that recurs just enough to transform an otherwise pleasant ballad into a truly beautiful piece. Also note Jimi’s preference for tuned metals (glockenspiel in “Little Wing”, vibraphone here) when in pretty mode.
TG: It’s a true talent to turn a love song into something that relates to a wide swath of humanity. I think this song is more than an ode to a girlfriend; the teardrops and heartbreaks could just have likely come from family, friends, or any relationship.
CM: It’s worth restating that Jimi’s main asset as a player (in my opinion) was his feel, and the intro riff is as good a place to sample it as any. The song continues to hop and pop from there, often surprising, never sagging.
TG: The opening to this song is its main strength, and the chorus is catchy. I especially like how the instruments are introduced almost separately; everything then swirls together celebrating that girl with the Gypsy eyes.
TG: I originally left “Lady” off my top 27, but I was convinced that it should appear after all. The lyrics aren’t anything special, but Jimi’s delivery makes them seem so, and the guitar sounds add edge.
CM: Completing the trio of classic riff-rockers on Are You Experienced, “Lady” may lack the glory of “Purple Haze” or blaze of “Fire” but has its own heat. I prefer it to the other two, with much love to the opening feedback and closing chord.
CM: Instrumental workout with several pace changes. Some may prefer the live rendition under a different title, but the studio take kicks, too.
TG: Would be higher on the list, but it is a bit repetitive. Still, Jimi’s guitar is worth listening for throughout the entire track. He even drops out long enough for you to want him to jump back in and bring it home, which he does.
CM: Dense sound and movement give an early-grunge impression, yet one also detects something “Foxey” in the main guitar part. Impulses collide and crystallize to cast a rough ‘n tough spell.
TG: Tight groove belies light-hearted lyrics. I guess Jimi was trying to capture a time and place that was important to him – the Spanish Castle was a dance hall where Jimi jammed during his high school years. The music is the bold audacity of youth. The lyrics are the innocent naiveté.
CM: A gentle treasure, its main hook reappearing in a short figure. That’s the leitmotif to the Experienced album, the chromatic walk-ups that appear in several places to smooth out chord changes and/or lend a soulful quality. (Conversely, “Love or Confusion” contains a line that walks down by half-steps, reflecting the lyric.) Trivial muso observation? No, it’s an essential part of Jimi’s style, here and afterward.
TG: “Mary” is a wonderful song buoyed by expressive lyrics – even the traffic lights are turning blue tomorrow. And Mary is now only a fleeting ember of romance floating upon the air. Yet that is enough to haunt the singer.
CM: Speak-sing verses and a sweet chorus make up a peculiar jaunt that probably transcends whatever Jimi envisioned when writing it. I suspect he got impatient along the way, double-timing the rhythm to accommodate his poetry-slam and patching holes with colorful guitar. I love the proscenium effect of the opening/closing guitar part. The charismatic outcome would sound at home on any Hendrix compilation.
TG: A golden-winged ship views the three diverse subjects of the song’s lyrics – a drunken, lovelorn loser, a doomed Indian brave, and a wheelchair-bound young girl - and sees them for the ephemera they are; the guitar and ship take off, leaving behind temporary pains for temporal planes.
TG: Jimi’s first major single was a cover version that Chas Chandler thought would be a good vehicle – guess he was right. Whatever the source, the Experience took the song to a higher level by slowing it down and accentuating the blues aspect.
CM: Other versions that I like come from Wilson Pickett and Medeski, Martin, & Wood, but Jimi undeniably made it the Experience’s own as their first record. The arrangement gives the impression of fate that cannot be stopped.
Todd’s 3 Faves:
Wait Until Tomorrow
Axis: Bold as Love (1967)
TG: More bass for your face from Mister Hendrix plus agile guitar gives this track an R&B anchor and establishes an infectious groove. Throw in Motownish background vocals from Mitch and Noel, and you have the perfect recipe for enjoyment.
TG: I used to own The Cry of Love on cassette before I knew about all the posthumous releases and various behind-the-scenes machinations involved with each one, and “My Friend” was one of my favorites even then. Jimi plays a woe-is-me tune here but injects it with life (the “party” going on in the background doesn’t hurt) and humor (the words spoken to him by the whore are so muddy that he has to clean them off, and they end up being an invitation to her place for service – with payment in hand, of course). Jimi even throws in the autobiographical line, “I just got out of a Scandinavian jail / And I’m on my way straight home to you” detailing his recent drug-related run-in with the police. He wraps up the song by declaiming, “And I thought you were my friend, too / Man, my shadow comes in line before you.” A shadow is only around when it’s sunny and clear; the shadow splits when dark times appear. Still, my shadow is still more of a friend than you. Ouch.
TG: This song has a bit of everything, and that’s why I like it. First, we have the cousin-of-Watchtower intro for 30 seconds. Second, there’s the false start of an apparent verse, but it’s really a pre-chorus that breaks down to a halt before a brief call-and-response guitar section introduces the true first verse at 1:00. Third, the verse kicks in with martial drums as Jimi relates how he came to find the house burning down. Fourth, the chorus officially comes in at about 1:34 and recedes at almost exactly 2:00 as Jimi’s vocals trail off and his solo enters before giving way to another call-and-response conversation with himself.
Fifth, the second verse stumbles in, during which Jimi declares “The truth is straight ahead!” Sixth, the hey...heys of the chorus come back a bit prematurely. Jimi hesitates and doesn’t carry it through until interjecting “What I say” at 3:00. Seventh, Jimi slips in a background “Ah, they still burnin’” behind the main chorus and other vocal variations as the chorus breaks down. Eighth, as the chorus ends, Jimi throws in a nice bass measure or two at 3:25 (sorry, Noel, you didn’t get to play on this one, either). Ninth, the boys bring it home to a false ending as other instruments drop out at 4:05. Tenth, this leaves another 30 seconds for Jimi’s phased cookie outro. What a ride!
Chris’ 3 Faves:
“Hey Joe” B-side (1966)
CM: That this sells a strong manifesto in two words (about not being tied down by assumptions) could be reason enough to like it, but an ulterior appeal is that I’m a sucker for well-utilized cowbell. You should see me dance to the verses, it’s nuts.
CM: While Jimi devotes much of Axis to songwriting, there are a few checkpoints where he returns to riffy swagger. “You Got Me Floating” rocks in that respect, but for reasons I can’t pinpoint, “Little Miss Lover” is even better.
CM: When Todd first mentioned this track as a possible list-maker, I said, “Nah, too sloppy,” which exaggerates the truth, but it is disheveled in spots, and the mismatched beats at the beginning constitute a false start if I’ve ever heard one. Nonetheless, “Delta” is unlike anything else Hendrix did, having more in common with a future he never heard – supercharged R&B rhythm, harmonic mobility, and wide stratification of timbre. Other prototypes of such had been drafted before Jimi, but within his world, it’s a tantalizing tangent.