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When it comes to classic rock, what artist is more widely known than Jimi Hendrix, except maybe the Beatles. I remember when I first started listening to this legendary guitarist and being blown away of course by his fret work, but also by the overall creativity of his music. Sure it was the age of psychedelia when it was written (and the drugs were flowing), but there is still something special about his music. It's progressive, soulful and complex all while being more about expression that overtly showy or indulgent.
There are some Hendrix songs that are so iconic that even people who are not fans recognize them immediately. Along with that though, from the wealth of tracks he recorded in his short time in the limelight, there are some spectacular and more underrated songs. Those songs are my reasons for listening to Jimi Hendrix and I thought I would highlight a few of them here. I'll stay away from songs like "Purple Haze" and "Voodoo Chile" because everyone knows those and so much has been written about them already. These song are a little lesser known, but equally impressive.
1: "I Don't Live Today" from Are you Experienced
This song is one of my favorites from the debut Hendrix album. Opening with it's disjointed, primal drum work, recognizable descending guitar lines and howling feedback, this song starts off pretty psychedelic and trippy. What I really love about it though, is the chorus, which is pushed and larger than life with a killer guitar riff. Lyrically it's also quite interesting perhaps raising some questions about what it means to live life and why to live life, that is right within the concept of the album. Cap all that off with a huge screeching psychedelic guitar explosion in the middle that fades in and out in a sort of acid trip eschewing, and you have one heck of a song. Although not my favorite track from this album (don't forget that "Purple Haze", "Foxy Lady" and "Fire" are also on this one), it's definitely up there with the singles because while it remains in the guitar psychedelia that Hendrix was known for, it also rocks as hard as anything else.
2: "Bold As Love" from Axis: Bold as Love
Although it might be a pretty obvious choice from this album if you're choosing to overlook "Little Wing", this song is one of my all time favorite Hendrix tracks. One of the first "power ballads", if you want to use that term, it's an epic arena rock conclusion to the album, complete with extended full on soloing that fades out instead of ending, as if the song would keep going, people swaying with lighters in hand, forever. I think what really makes this song great though is that along with some killer guitar work and a musical complexity, is it's positive, uplifting lyrics that certainly are straight out of the "Summer of Love". I find this album to be the most overlooked of Hendrix's studio recordings released during his life (that's not saying much because there were so few), but there are some excellent tracks on it and this is one of the best in my opinion.
3: "1983 (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)" from Electric Ladyland
With it's marching grandeur, free form experimentation, cryptic poetic lyrics and epic 13 minute length, this is not be the most radio friendly song Jimi ever wrote. It's lyrics are quite cerebral and poetic though, and it might contain my favorite Hendrix musical moment. After a perfectly subtle guitar melody that floats over the rhythmic base, the song goes into true larger than life march style and the combination of the subtle guitar work and Jimi's lyrics at this point are perfect. Although all of the well known Hendrix songs and riffs are great, that little bit just screams with so much emotion and aching soulful power, that it hits you right in the chest like a rallying cry. The remaining 10 minutes of the song are also quite interesting as it first returns to the original melody with a short, but great lead line, before descending into complete atmospheric experimentation. Minimal, tinkling percussive elements underline mystic flavored guitar lines... it's almost like the song is receding away as day breaks, but it slowly builds with increasing percussion; funkier guitar and bass; and general swells of sound. Then eventually it surges with a full fledged cacophony of rock and roll riffing before returning to the original melodies, feel and grandeur to close out this immense beast of a song. Definitely one of my all time favorite Hendrix songs.
4: "Room Full of Mirrors" from Voodoo Soup
There was quite a large amount of music released after Jimi's death, more so than were released during his life actually. There's a variety of material ranging from studio demos, to more finished tracks, to complete live shows and it varies just as much in quality. This song is probably my favorite from the post Hendrix releases. A high energy, funky. rock and roll stomp with pounding jungle percussion and screeching guitars, it has a great feel throughout, and as always, some incredible guitar work. Over top of all of that, there's also some metaphoric/psychedelic lyrics and a great chorus. With it's relentless driving, even dance-esque feel, this song is definitely different than much of the released material from Jimi, but it's stellar in my mine, one of the outtake gems definitely worth checking out whether no matter how much of a Hendrix fan you are.
5: "Izabella" from War Heroes
This is another song that was never on an album released during Jimi's life, but along with "Room Full of Mirrors" and a number of others, was performed live, including at Woodstock. I like this song because of it's disjointed, jazzy, progressive riff. There is just an overall complexity to both the guitar work and the rhythm that distinguishes this from the rest. There's also some killer lead guitar work, expected from just about every Hendrix track, that sounds especially advanced as it arcs over the heavily syncopated rhythmic backing. I also just like the lyrical style and overall off kilter, feel of the track. It's almost like there are accents in the wrong places at first, but when in this context, they seem to work to create a very elaborate and impressive rhythmic feel. Great song, and the live version from the Woodstock performance is also pretty stellar.
Bonus: "Peace in Mississippi" Instrumental from Crash Landing
A less than known instrumental, this fuzzed out, sledge hammer of a track is easily one of the heaviest tracks Hendrix ever recorded. Although it's still a pretty psychedelic track, lacks some of the rhythmic complexity of some other Hendrix tunes. Then again, this song isn't about complexity... it's about brute force... face melting, feedback inducing, guitar power... and it delivers. These primal back works well behind howling rhythm/lead hybrid guitar work, which Jimi takes into the stratosphere with his usual gusto. If you've ever thought that Jimi Hendrix wasn't heavy enough... seriously, if you've ever thought that... this is the track to check out. It's huge, gritty and raw, pushed beyond any of the guitar psychedelics to a visceral edge. Great song... even as an instrumental, but of course it does leave you wondering what it would have sounded like had Jimi ever been able to put lyrics to it.
With the sheer amount of material available from Hendrix, I'm sure there are tons of other tracks I could have picked and each person's choices will of course be different. I had a hard time choosing these 5 (6) even because I like just about every track the man recorded for one reason or another and I've listened to most of them. Still, these are a few of my favorites that might be a little less known to casual fans.
If you've never heard of Jimi Hendrix, I'm shocked... most people at least know his name and maybe a track or two. Still, if that is the case and you're intrigued by some of the songs I've described, try starting with the hits and see if you like the Hendrix style before delving into these deeper tracks as it's not necessarily for everyone. If you're a casual Hendrix fan then I think it's time to start checking out a few of these songs as there was certainly plenty of music beyond "Purple Haze" and the best of collections. Also, hopefully I've reminded a few of you hardcore fans of a few great songs as well from this rock and roll icon.
Whether it's these songs, or any of the other great ones, or the memorable hits, there is one thing to remember with all of Jimi Hendrix's music: It needs to be loud. So crank it up (preferably with headphones because the stereo effects are incredible, just don't deafen yourself), and enjoy.
You'll find all of Jimi Hendrix's main albums through Amazon and many of the other major music outlets, but a few of the releases from after his death are a little harder to come by if you're not willing to shell out for imports. Most are worth it though, well at least for collectors.