"We knew we had something special going because we enjoyed playing so much," said bassist/singer Chris Hillman about the group he co-founded in the mid-sixties with Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark, David Crosby, and Michael Clarke. The Byrds were largely associated with the popularization of folk rock, but they did dabble in all types of genres - country, bluegrass, jazz, eastern, psychedelia - as their highly influential first six albums can confirm. For a while, they were the only worthwhile American answer to The Beatles - only they had cooler shades and did way more drugs.
Mr. Tambourine Man, Columbia, 1965
Not only was Mr. Tambourine Man The Byrds' best album, but it also introduced the new genre of folk rock to the world. The record featured five original songs and seven covers, four of which were Bob Dylan penned tunes, including the massive hit single of the same name, "Mr. Tambourine," which topped the charts in both the U.S. and U.K. in the summer of 1965. The Byrds' debut stayed on the charts for thirty-eight weeks, peaking at number six on the Billboard Album chart, making it their highest charting non-compilation album.
Turn! Turn! Turn! Columbia/Legacy, 1965
Like its predecessor, Mr. Tambourine Man, Turn! Turn! Turn! featured an abundance of cover songs, including two more Bob Dylan covers. But it was the Pete Seeger penned title track that catapulted the band to new heights, becoming their second (and last) number one hit single. "Turn! Turn! Turn!" (the song) was a defining anthem of the sixties and has since become one of the most covered songs in pop music history with everyone from Dolly Parton to Bruce Springsteen performing renditions of it.
Fifth Dimension, Columbia/Legacy, 1966
The Byrds third release in two years and the last to feature main singer-songwriter Gene Clark until the 1973 reunion album. The band started to expand beyond their early folk rock tendencies, writing more complex compositions, integrating jazz, eastern and psychedelic influences, as evidenced by the hit single, "Eight Miles High," easily the best original, non-cover Byrds song ever. Clark's decision to leave was reportedly based on his fear of flying, in, which McGuinn responded , "You can't be a Byrd, Gene, if you can't fly."
Younger Than Yesterday, Columbia/Legacy, 1967
Emerging as an exceptional songwriter in his own right, David Crosby contributed four tracks to YTY, including the classic "Everybody's Been Burned," possibly the best self-penned composition he ever came up with - solo, Byrds or CSNY. Sadly, because of constant infighting, Crosby was dismissed from the group in late '67, but the record marked a turning point in the band's career. For the first time The Byrds did not rely on an overabundance of covers to fill out an album, employing only one - to the dismay of Crosby - the wonderfully reinterpretated Bob Dylan song "My Back Pages."
3 ½ Stars
The Notorious Byrd Brothers, Columbia/Legacy, 1968
...And then there were two. With Crosby getting axed and drummer Michael Clarke leaving due to musical differences, Chris Hillman and Roger McGuinn were forced to use outside musicians to complete the recording of the album, most notably session drummer Jim Gordon and future full-time Byrds member Clarence White. In the almost forty years since its release, many consider The Notorious Byrd Brothers to be the group's best album, despite the turmoil that surrounded its production.
Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Columbia/Legacy, 1968
The really country sounding one. Originally McGuinn was looking for someone who could play jazz piano, but what he got instead was a country singer and guitarist who would transform the sound of The Byrds virtually overnight: Gram Parsons. The Dylan cover "You Ain't Going Nowhere," peaked at a dismal number 74 on the singles chart, while the album itself only reached number 77 on Billboard's Pop Albums chart. Despite being a horrendous commercial flop at the time of its release, Sweetheart was seminal in the formation of country rock and the last truly great Byrds record.