Think of folk music and you think of acoustic guitars, singing with your finger in your ear and sad, tragic stories of failed romance all washed down with a tankard of real ale. However, there’s quite a bit more to it than that. From the Dust Bowl balladry of Woody Guthrie in the 1940s through to Fairport Convention plugging in and rocking out in the 1960s and Laura Marling’s reinvigoration of the singer-songwriter genre in the mid-2000s, folk is a many textured thing, constantly reinventing itself but always staying true to its roots. Here are the 20 best albums ever to come out of folk.
Fairport Convention – Liege and Leif (1969):
The album which birthed folk rock, ‘Leige and Leif’ is a seminal work, weaving together electric takes on traditional tunes, such as ‘Matty Groves’ and ‘Tam Lin’, as well as Fairport Conventions own compositions. Bracingly influential.
Nick Drake – Five Leaves Left (1969):
Nick Drake’s debut album is as gentle as the singer-songwriter himself. Sensitively plucked acoustic guitar and pensive lyrics make for a deeply resonant, emotionally effecting album. At turns haunting (‘River Man’) and quietly confident (‘Cello Song’), it’s Brit folk at its best.
Bert Jansch – ‘Bert Jansch’ (1965):
Scottish guitarist and folk singer Bert Jansch’s debut album is a bare bones delight – just Jansch, his guitar and a whole bunch of feelings. ‘Needle of Death’ is as harrowing as it sounds, written by Jansch about a friend’s heroin overdose. His version of finger-picking folk standard ‘Angie’ is a triumph.
Leonard Cohen – Songs Of Leonard Cohen (1967):
The poet Leonard Cohen’s first foray into music making is a dark and beautiful thing. Full of fiery and failed love affairs – think ‘Suzanne’ and ‘So Long, Marianne’ – his own brand of folk music is moody and meditative and deeply romantic.
John Martyn – Solid Air (1973):
Mixing folk with jazz, the title track of John Martyn’s finest album was dedicated to his friend Nick Drake, who died a year after it’s release. With it’s references to “sweet cocaine” and “Mary Jane” ‘Over The Hill’ proved folk could be every bit as rowdy as rock’n’roll, while ‘May You Never’ is still one of the prettiest love songs of the 1970s.
Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago (2007):
Who knew that a man getting dumped and retreating to a shed to make an album could result in such a beautiful thing? Justin Vernon’s first album as Bon Iver is a stark thing of loveliness, with the multitracked vocals of ‘Skinny Love’ and ‘Flume’ recalling an entire choir of very, very sad dudes.
Bright Eyes – I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning (2005):
Bright Eyes – aka Conor Oberst – was a noughties update on Bob Dylan and Gram Parsons’ 1960s sound. Listen to the graceful ‘Lua’ or ‘Land Locked Blues’ – featuring the talents of Emmylou Harris – if you want to immediately break down in floods of tears. You’re welcome.
Bob Dylan – The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1964):
Dylan’s third album saw him tackling the bigger issues and reflecting the uncertain mood felt by the youth of America in the mid-1960s. The title track remains a powerful call to arms and Dylan has never looked as casually badass he does here on the album’s cover.
Fotheringay – Fotheringay (1969):
The only Fotheringay album to be released in vocalist Sandy Denny’s lifetime, the full-throttle folk album is a propulsive proposition. The eight minute long ‘Banks of the Nile’ is a sumptuous, atmospheric vehicle for Denny’s brilliant voice.
Sandy Denny – Sandy (1972):
One of the UK’s finest female singers, after her first stint in Fairport Convention and post-forming Fotheringay Sandy Denny released her debut solo album, her bold vocals adding muscle to the bucolic likes of ‘Sweet Rosemary’ and ‘Bushes and Briars’. If you want you breath taken away, listen to the amazing acapella that is ‘Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood’.
The Pogues – Rum Sodomy and the Lash (1985):
Proof that punk and folk can be brilliant bedfellows, The Pogues second album tackled the Irish experience in London in the 1970s and ‘80s by pairing the penny whistle with electric guitars and Shane MacGowan’s drunken howl.
Joanna Newsom – The Milk-Eyed Mender (2004):
Californian vocalist and harp player Joanna Newsom was a very medieval proposition in the mid-2000s. Yet her debut album was acclaimed for its otherworldly instrumentation as well as Newsom’s unique vocal style. Weird and wonderful.
Richard and Linda Thompson – I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight (1974):
The husband and wife team’s first joint album, the album flopped on its release but has since come to be known as one of the finest albums of the 1970s. From the rolling fairground folk of the title track and ‘When I Get To The Border’ to the mournful ‘Down Where The Drunkards Roll’, this is human, storytelling music at its best.
Woody Guthrie – Dust Bowl Ballads (1940):
The box-car hoppin’, fascist-fightin’ Woody Guthrie set his depression era stories to music in this jangling, rolling collection, which also touched on John Steinbeck’s classic epic novel The Grapes of Wrath. Listening to this is like listening to history.
Laura Marling – Once I Was An Eagle (2013):
A homegrown talent who keeps on getting better and better, Marling’s fourth album bristles with intensity and experience. At 16 tracks long, it’s something of an epic, and skips from wracked emotion to breezy delicacy. Incredible stuff.
Odetta – Odetta Sings Folk Songs (1963):
Belting out the likes of ‘900 Miles’ over her vigorously picked guitar, Odetta – otherwise known as The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement – gave passion and poise to the great American folk songbook.
Pentangle – Cruel Sister (1970):
Bert Jansch and guitarist John Renbourn were a folk dream team. Here together on Pentangle’s most traditional album, this is akin to skipping through some corn fields on a hazy summer’s day before swigging from a flagon of cider. Lush.
The Watersons – Frost and Fire (1965):
A singing family from Hull, The Watersons’ debut collection of traditional, acapella songs is a bracing in its simplicity. The album is based around the changing of the seasons and ancient rituals of the British people.
The Weavers – At Carnegie Hall (1957):
Without this live record – recorded on Christmas Eve 1955 – they’d be no Bob Dylan. The show was the blacklisted singing group’s comeback gig and the 21 traditional and blues covers are full of passion and pride.
Bonnie “Prince” Billy – I See A Darkness (1999):
The first Will Oldham album to come out under the Bonnie “Prince” Billy name, ‘I See A Darkness’ is a skilled offering of gothic folk, circling around death and destruction like vultures around a corpse. Light some candles, stick it on and prepare to fell very concerned about your own mortality.