I realize it might be a controversial opinion, given how many people favor the scrappy "we're an actual band (kind of, basically)!" vibe of Headquarters and a growing late stage appreciation for the supremely out-there mish-mashery of The Birds, The Bees, and the Monkees. But on this, its 50th anniversary, I am willing to put my reputation on the line to declare Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd, as the very best all-around LP ever released under the name The Monkees.
It ties together their many musical strands—straight-up teenager bubblegum ("She Hangs Out"), folk rock lite ("Salesman," "Door Into Summer," "Love Is Only Sleeping"), country rock ("What Am I Doing Hangin' Round"), garage rock ("Words"), music hall ("Cuddly Toy"), adult contemporary ("Hard To Believe," "Don't Call On Me"), and nascent psychedelia ("Daily Nightly," "Star Collector")—and contains one of their four truly massive hits, "Pleasant Valley Sunday."
It bears the usual Monkees production and songwriting pedigrees (Chip Douglas, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Harry Nilsson, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, and Boyce & Hart), but also allows the band members themselves, most notably Mike Nesmith, to steer the sound and direction of the record, thus yielding a gorgeous marriage of form and function, vision and collaboration, art and commerce.
It also marked an important step in the most interesting element of the whole Monkees project: the auto-deconstruction phase. Self-awareness permeated everything they did from this point onward. Season two of the TV show, all subsequent records, the misbegotten TV special 33&1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee, and the film Head above all.
Acknowledging the tension between their manufactured nature and the human energy that necessarily went into the creation of the work that bore their collective name, the Monkees introduced pop culture to the meta level long before the whole hip world started complaining about irony every five seconds.
You can even spot it on the ever-so-vaguely Pepper's-y album cover: their faces blank, their bodies in silhouette, their logo disappearing into the psychedelic watercolor flora all around them.
And you can definitely hear it in the music.
Some of the themes are surprisingly grown-up—"Star Collector" is about saying no to groupies ("How can I love her when I just don't respect her?"), "Cuddly Toy" deals cryptically (and not sympathetically) with an orgy, and "Salesman" alludes to drug dealing.
Others are simply captivating. The wistful, misty "The Door Into Summer" belongs on any list of the best pop music of 1967, which is REALLY REALLY saying something.
"What Am I Doing Hangin' Round" anticipates the next 15 years of pop music without feeling like cowboy hat play acting (unlike other country rockers I could mention).
"She Hangs Out" is Davy Jones at his absolute teenybopper best. This song is a total secret dance party classic.
The harmonies on "Cuddly Toy"—the first Nilsson song anyone ever recorded, PS—are flawless camouflage for the dark lyrics.
And what else is there to say about "Pleasant Valley Sunday," the greatest suburbs-as-hellscape, "Day Tripper" meets Ray Davies song ever recorded?
A lot of people seem to think the Monkees are a candy bar, and they are, but this album is also a full meal.
In short, since there are still people out there who still don't appreciate one of the most interesting and satisfying cultural phenomena in pop history, who still prize authenticity and authorship as the only meaningful signifiers of artistic achievement, I will simply say that this album is the best answer to the question I am most often asked: Why do you like the Monkees so goddamn much? It's the best place to start, and a fantastic place to return to.
Here's to another 50 years.