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.
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.
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 – 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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.