TOP TWENTY FOLK ROCK ALBUMS OF ALL TIME

Folk rock music carved out its own niche in the larger work of pop and rock music in the late sixties and into the seventies.  Drawing on the folk protest movement of the 50s and 60s it took on the mantle of rock music without leaving the harmonies, acoustic instruments, and often the message laden lyrics behind.   Sometimes picking up elements from country music as well,  it has been a diverse music form, distinguishable from straight pop, hard rock, heavy metal, jazz rock, and various other musical forms.     Please note that I say ‘albums’ in the heading to this post.   I am talking about albums that have the strong elements of folk rock music from start to finish, including strong song writing.   Yes, I allow for an album to have a cut or two that is less than stellar, but it needs to be a strong album as a whole, not just have one or two memorable songs.   In the era when albums mattered and downloading individual songs was impossible, folk rock thrived.   Not so much these days.  Some of what passes for contemporary folk rock today owes as much to grunge and other influences as classic folk rock.  There are of course exceptions, but I have yet to find a single album written after say 1995 that could even be a potential candidate for this list.   The list is in no particular order.

1)      James Taylor,  Sweet Baby James –  My home boy from Chapel Hill, still going strong. There are several other albums of his like Shower the People or even more recent albums that could be considered but this one is absolute classic.

2)      Carole King— Tapestry Before Thriller and Dark Side of the Moon it was for a long time the best selling album of this sort on or off the Billboard charts.

3-4) Joni Mitchell— Here too we have lots of choices before her jazz rock phase.  Her first and self-titled album produced by David Crosby is closer to straight folk music, but not quite, and its echo chamber sound makes it seem like this is music that floated directly down from heaven.  Also, Joni’s voice lacks the later quaver and is wonderful.    But of course this list could not be complete without  River as poignant an album as there is from that period.   I saw Joni perform this album all by herself at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium— it was amazing.   The act that opened for her?  A brand new So Cal country folk rock band called— The Eagles.  What a concert that was.

5)       The Eagles— You could pick Hotel California certainly as that song is as strong as any Don Henley ever wrote.  However, for consistently good songs from top to bottom the first Eagles album deserves the nod.  As one musician once said  ‘You have twenty years to write the songs for your first album, but if it is a success, you have about five minutes to write the songs for the second and third albums’.  Too true.

6)      Crosby, Stills, Nash  (and sometimes Young)–  The whole was greater than the sum of the parts, and the parts culled from Buffalo Springfield, the Hollies, and the Byrds were pretty darn amazing in themselves.   To this day, there are probably no better three part harmonizers in the folk rock universe, although Still’s upper voice is basically gone.   You have to go with their first and self-titled album,  but Déjà vu has two all world songs— Carry On and of course the title song.   If you ever saw their second live concert on film— which just happened to be at Woodstock,  you could already see this group was magic and the harmonies were celestial.

7)      Neil Young— Harvest and/or After the Gold Rush On the whole I like the latter better and it is more consistent.   All of CSN and Y produced some fine solo efforts  (the first Stephen Stills, Nash’s Songs for Beginnners,  Crosby’s   If I Could Only Remember my Name) but Young was the most consistently creative (along with early Stills, including the first Manassas album) .

8)      Loggins and Messina—Sittin’ In This tends more to the country end of the spectrum due especially to Jimmy Messina and his famous Fender Stratocaster but the album is diverse and rich.  They never did a better one.

9-10)Bob Dylan—- Too many choices, too little time.  I am choosing from the part of his career which involves a little more than straight folk—- so Blonde on Blonde should be listed, and also Blood on the Tracks, but there are many other worthy candidates.

11)      Dan Fogelberg–  Here it is very difficult to pick between Souvenirs which has the help of Joe Walsh,  and the classy  The Innocent Age. On a desert island, I guess I will take the former with me.

12)   Jackson Browne— As the knowledgeable reader knows, these bands all cross-fertilized and often you would find players from one group playing on the other group’s album.  Jackson Browne’s first album  Saturate before Using is like that (Crosby shows up)  and Doctor my Eyes got a lot of good albums going for Browne.    The one album I would be willing to include in this list from after 2002 is Browne’s marvelous  The Naked Ride Home.

13)   America—-  A Horse with No Name— This album has quite a history.  It came out without the classic song A Horse with No Name, and when that song took off, they had to repress the thing and include it.    America tended towards the Pop end of the spectrum but this first album was acoustic and with good three part harmonies, even if Dewey Bunnell’s lyrics seem to have been inspired by too much smoking dope.

14)   The Grateful Dead— American Beauty. I am tempted to include Working Man’s Dead instead of American Beauty, but either way,  you need a Grateful Dead lp in this for sure.

15)     The Allman Brothers—-  Yes, I know they were a rock band, but they also did southern folk rock, and were the best at it.    Their very first album with Midnight Rider is much more of a folk rock album, and , Eat a Peach due to the influence of Dickey Betts was as much country folk rock as anything.

16)    Simon and Garfunkel—  They began life as folk singers, as is very apparent in their first big lp  The Sounds of Silence, and while I love the album with Old Friends, their quintessential and best folk rock album was Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme. They carried forward the tradition of having meaningful lyrics with social commentary and of course their harmonies and song craft were magical .  Paul Simon is still at it, and you should check out So Beautiful or So What.

17)   Van Morrison—  Of course his music is diverse, but at heart he is a Irish folkie with jazz inflections.  Listen to early classics like Moon Dance, or Tupelo Honey.

18)    Bruce Hornsby—The Way it Is. Though he is a piano player, this Virginia born and based musician is deeply steeped in southern folk and Gospel traditions, and it shows, especially on his early albums.  He carried forward to social commentary side of folk as well and the use of the mandolin added the classic folk touches.

19)   Shawn Colvin—-What a wonderful late period folk rock singer.   My kids can still sing the songs on Fat City which we used to sing all the way to the beach when they were small— ‘snakes in the grass, better step on the gas’.

20)   Marc Cohn— Another fabulous singer and song writer who was too under appreciated, and then  was in a near fatal car accident.   The original self-titled Album with Walking in Memphis is marvelous

21)   BONUS—-    This list would not be complete if I didn’t add one duo album— Crosby and Nash’s Wind on the Water. Just great.

Yes,  I could have kept going until the cows come home, but if you want to build a wonderful library of classic folk rock, that is not disposable music but stands up to lots of listening, and provoked actual thought by its lyrics,  here’s a good starter kit.  Enjoy, as I have.

  • http://www.deltatwins.com Bob

    Regarding Marc Cohn (my fav of all of the above), he was shot in the head in a car-jacking incident in Colorado. He has since recovered and put out two albums. His concerts are loose, soulful, and inspiring.

  • Marc Axelrod

    Great list. I liked the Carole King/ James Taylor live cd/dvd that came out last year. Did you read Girls Like Us by Sheila Weller? A triple bio of King, Mitchell, and Carly Simon. Great book.Joni doesn’t come out as the most likeable lady in the world.

    Could the Byrds or Fairport Convention or Steeleye Span make a list like this? What about Elton’s Madman lp or Christian artists like Larry Norman and Keith Green?

    Maybe not. This is a near flawless list

  • Jay Roberson

    Thanks Ben. I might have added a couple, like Seals and Croft or Bruce Cockburn, but overall it’s a great list. I’m especially fond of thre Allman Bros. and gladly call myself a charter member of the Big house Museum in Macon GA!

  • http://www.benwitherington.com ben witherington

    Jay I thought about including the Summer Breeze lp. It is great, I agree. If I had gone to 25-30 it would be in, and maybe Elton’s Your Song album before he went all poppy. Honestly though Elton’s other best album was Yellow Brick Road. Larry Norman’s first major album could pass muster, and I need to look up that Weiler book. Joni was a curmudgeon for sure. I love the remastered Cohn greatest hits CD.

    BW3

  • http://aerycksmusic.wordpress.com Eric Sawyer

    Just off the top of my head, I’d add ‘Whatever’s For Us’ by Joan Armatrading and the lesser known Mark Heard’s (take your pick – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Heard. There are others, but one that has really impressed me of late is the late Michael Hedges. Suffice to say there are scores of others who would vie for a twenty A-list ( but I just don’t have time to sort it now ) There’s one composer who I think has produced some of the finest folk-rock ever written and that’d be Lowell George. Peace, Eric.

  • http://www.benwitherington.com ben witherington

    I like Lowell George. I love Michael Hedges stuff, but I don’t really think it deserves the label rock. Joan Armitrading would have been in my top 30 as well. I do not know Mark Heard. I personally loved the first Lazarus lp— I wonder how many of you heard there two big lps?

    Ben W.

  • Ray Forthuber

    Very nice list Ben and good ear – very happy to see the Dead,
    Allmans included and given your disclaimer on America …I’ll even grant a nod to a couple of theirs having a lasting lyrical
    sense – however given the general time frame and genre I must point to John Prine (1971) Atlantic Recording as a regrettable omission, for one – later high marks for ’95′s
    Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings and 2005′s Fair and Square.
    let’s not forget The Band, Joan Baez or Canada’s Canned Heat…go’in to the country got to get away…God Bless you for not forgoing the impact of God’s general grace bestowed upon these cultural icons and the impact of their music and lyrics that range from beautiful and uplifting to questioning and and evaluation – Selah.

  • http://www.benwitherington.com ben witherington

    Hi Ray:

    Again John Prine is a country or bluegrass artist. The word rock doesn’t enter into it. I do like a lot of his stuff. Joan Baez never had a whole good album, nor did Canned Heat, but you can make a case for one of the Band’s albums for sure.

    BW3

  • Dan S

    You say here, “I have yet to find a single album written after say 1995 that could even be a potential candidate for this list.” Have you listened to anything by the Vigilantes of Love?

    It is a shame that you have not listened to any of Mark Heard’s work. I would urge you to correct this at once.

  • Jayflm

    I agree with the Vigilantes of Love and Mark Heard recommendations. For VOL start with “Killing Floor” and for Heard check out “Second Hand”.

  • Marc Axelrod

    What about Randy Stonehill? Return to Paradise was great. And do Springsteen’s first two albums qualify as folk rock?

    There are also some Richard Thompson cds I’d rank high on a list of this sort. What about The Wallflowers cd that has 6th Avenue Paradise, that seems like folk rock.

    Grant McLennan’s awesome Horsebreaker Star is one of my favorites, but it is not strictly folk rock.

    I’d consider some of R.E.Ms stuff to be folk rock or folk pop. What about Automatic for the People?

  • Matt

    Great list. Have them all, still listen to them all, and have enjoyed learning to play them on guitar over the years – esp JT.
    In the christian genre, Love Songs first album “Welcome Back”.

  • Matt

    How about a top 10 “best actor to embody or transend” a character from a novel. #1 Robert Duvall as Augustus ‘Gus’ McCrae – Lonesome Dove.

  • http://aerycksmusic.wordpress.com Eric Sawyer

    BW3,
    Oh, you don’t know Mark Heard. :) You’re going to be surprised. :) Apart from beings something of poet-legend of almost cult status, he really had a wonderful gritty way of rendering rock in a number of genres.
    I wish I’d taken his work more seriously, but I turned the page on Christian music back in late ’79 I found that Mark’s music was still very accessible. (particularly ‘Stop The Dominoes’ ~ song: ‘I’m Crying Again’, ‘Stop The Dominoes’ ~ song: ‘Heart of Hearts’ and ‘Mosaics’ ~ song: ‘Golden Age’ I think my real passion for his music has grown out of performing tunes by him. It’s a whole other experience to get into the meanings and the sheer force that lies hidden in content. He scores very highly in my own list.
    I am glad Joan Armatrading’s ‘Whatever’s For Us’ made it into your top 30, for me it’d be a toss up between ‘City Girl’ and ‘Visionary Mountains’, though in retrospect I think there was only one weak track on that album. Amazing stuff!
    Mmm, Hedges is still quite new to me, but in his life he certainly recorded some amazing albums and I’ve not got anywhere near towards letting him get under my skin enough. A superb wordsmith and a brilliant alternate tune player as is Joni Mitchell. I think my own lists have changed so much and mostly due to meeting those who have collected far more widely than I have.
    Thanks for the exciting thread.
    Rock on!

    I spent years collecting Christian country rock and I’d say there is a massive untapped resource there. Another time.

    Eric.

  • http://aerycksmusic.wordpress.com Eric Sawyer

    BW3,
    Here’s a website dedicated to Mark’s music.
    http://www.markheard.net/
    Back to practice.
    Peace,
    Eric.

  • http://aerycksmusic.wordpress.com Eric Sawyer

    edit. correction. ‘Heart of Hearts’ was from ‘Victims of the Age’ by Mark Heard. (I particularly enjoy playing that with open chords’) It’s so fat and chunky and has some really great lyrics. Here’s a sample:

    ‘The world is in shambles
    I’m just a young man but it’s been getting
    a little bit old to me
    I’m already aching
    The years have been taking
    a little bit of a toll on me

    But way down in my heart of hearts
    Way down in my soul of souls
    Way down I know that I am a fortunate man
    To have known Divine love’

    From: Heart of Hearts by Mark Heard.
    http://www.markheard.net/

  • RD

    Ben, yours is a near perfect list. I might switch one of two of your choices for Elton’s Madman Across the Water or John Denver’s – YES, John Denver – Rocky Mountain High LP or his first live LP. And the Seals and Croft suggestion is one I’d have no problem with. Anything by Jim Croce would fit nicely, and some Cat Stevens. Glad to see Mark Heard getting kudos. I played the grooves out of my copy of Mark’s Eye of the Storm LP

  • Jerry

    Can’t fault your list, but to answer your challenge regarding folk albums after 1995 I would put Pierce Pettis’ State of Grace (Compass, 10 July 2001), Great Big World (Compass, 3 August 2004) or That Kind of Love (Compass, 27 January 2009) up for your review.

    One of Pettis’ early albums was produced by Mark Heard and as a tribute he has covered one of Heard’s songs on each of his ablums since Heard’s passing.

    Pettis got his start as asong writer when Joan Baez “Song at the End of the Movie.”

  • Rodney Welch

    I think the Joni Mitchell album you are referring to is “Blue.” “River” is a song on it. And I agree — great, immortal folk rock disc.

  • Jeff L

    Minor correction: “Midnight Rider” was on the Allman Bros. second album, “Idlewild South.” Some years later their first two albums (the first eponymously titled) was issued as a double album entitled “Beginnings.”

    And I agree with Mark Axlerod that a lot of R.E.M., before they veered off in a weird kind of art-rock direction, was folk rock. “Driver 8,” on “Fables of the Reconstruction,” is one of the great Americana songs of all time.

  • Ben Witherington

    Guess what Jeff? An earlier version of the song was on their very first album with the white cover, indeed on their album before they had a proper contract with ATCO or whoever there first big music deal was with.

  • http://www.benwitherington.com ben witherington

    Definitely Cat Stevens belongs in the top 25— I vote for Tea for the Tillerman.

  • Jeff L

    Never heard of that album BW3. I know that Greg and Duane made a demo LP in ’68 that wasn’t released until after Live at Fillmore became an FM staple. I think “Melissa” was on the demo.

    Cool. Learned something new!

  • http://aerycksmusic.wordpress.com Eric Sawyer

    Rodney Welch,
    Yes, I agree ‘Blue’ by Joni Mitchell is a superb album. :)
    BW3,
    ‘Tea For The Tillerman’ is and exquisite album! (Especially the song ‘Longer Boats’)
    RD,
    Mark Heard’s albums should probably be in their own private 20 best albums ever list. :)

    Peace,
    Eric.

  • michael

    No Lucinda Williams? Car Wheels on a Gravel Road; Emmylou Harris? Wrecking Ball; Eva Cassidy? Songbird. I’m not sure I am fully getting this niche simply because not everyone on the list strikes me as that lyrically interesting. But as one who welcomes time and a good album with no interruptions, and in light of the works on this list that make sense to me; I would want to add a few of these groovy women to the beauty of Joni, Bob. Cool Mr Young and America

  • http://aerycksmusic.wordpress.com Eric Sawyer

    Hi Michael,
    Lucinda, Emmylou and Eva are superb! Of course one might add Stevie Nicks, Bonnie Raitt and the lesser known Ian Thomas (Painted Ladies – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j3pvsiQvSPs ) What about the almost unknown Rodriguez? :)
    Peace,
    Eric.

  • http://www.reverbnation.com/billkaffenberger Bill K.

    If we are talking folk rock albums here, I find it somewhat disconcerting that the veritable “creators” of folk rock, The Byrds, aren’t listed anywhere in your Top 20. Surely both Mr. Tambourine Man and Turn Turn Turn ought to both rank somewhere in your Top 20. Many that you have on your list actually arguable owe their very existence to the smooth harmonies of Crosby, Clark and McGuinn and the arrangements and electric 12 string Rickenbacker artistry of McGuinn.

  • Ben Witherington

    Hi Bill: I love the Byrds, but the fact is they did not do one solid whole album and that is the criteria. On top of that, their big hits were retreads from Dylan. I like the retreads, but you see my point. The basis of this post is ‘best albums’. The Byrds didn’t have one.

  • http://movies.yahoo.com/movie/contributor/1800011450 hotshot bald cop

    Preach it my brother.

  • Will Ruddock

    Great list. One correction though. “River” is not the name of the album. The name of the album is “Blue”.

  • Anonymous

    This list is too US heavy (not that I don’t like American music, but there was a lot of folk-rock coming out of the UK and elsewhere that should feature on an “all time” list), and some of these artists are more country-rock than folk-rock.

    At the very least, some Fairport Convention (UK) needs to be in this list.

  • christina

    Find another profession .. you left out “Tea For The Tillerman” you have heard of it ??????

  • BenW3

    Hi Christina: Thank you for your comment. Cat Steven’s wonderful album does not qualify as a folk-ROCK album. A folk album yes, a Pop album, yes, and a great one. One of my favorites. But it is not any kind of rock album album…. BW3

  • Ryan A.

    One can quibble about one or two tracks, but overall it’s really hard to believe that the Beatles’ 1965 folk-rock classic, “Rubber Soul”, was omitted from this list. The group was one album away from truly eliminating all filler from their albums, but the Beatles were certainly a rock band, and were most definitely in their folk-rock, Dylan/Byrds-inspired stage.

    Straight off the top, you get the “big four” tunes from Lennon: Norwegian Wood, Nowhere Man, In My Life, and Girl. Quite likely the four best songs on the album, and amongst the best Lennon ever did.

    George wrote the extremely Byrds-ian If I Needed Someone, with chiming/jangly guitars that could’ve been lifted straight off one of the Byrds’ first two albums.

    Drive My Car was probably the hardest-rocking song on the album, while Paul contributes the lovely Michelle (replete with French language phrases) and I’m Looking Through You (a folk-rock track if ever there was one, with incredibly wide stereo separation).

    That’s 2/3rds of the album right there, comprised of truly brilliant songs. Not to mention that this was a stunningly influential album coming out as it did in 1965, long before most of the other ones on this list were written. The combination of incredible/classic folk-rock songs along with the early release date and subsequent influential status really confirms the necessity of including it on a Top 20 Folk Rock Albums list. Even the slightly-distorted album cover art has the Beatles in a forest-y location with brown suede jackets…

    Cheers,
    Ryan

  • skullpit

    What is this, folk rock, you seemed to have lost the plot. What about Fairport Convention, Home Service, Steeleye Span, Mr Fox, The Albion Band, Richard Thompson, John Martyn, Oysterband, Sandy Denny, Shirley Collins, Edward II, The Etchingham Steam Band, Lindisfarne, Ashley Hutchings, The Pogues, Hedgehog Pie, Jack the Lad, Pentangle, The Strawbs, Gryphon, Bob Pegg, Trees, Fotheringhay and Five Hand Reel.

  • skullpit

    What do you mean, ‘does not qualify’? How does it not qualify? It uses songs associated with a singer/songwriter/folk idiom and places them in a rock/pop setting. Perhaps you can explain the difference between Cat Stevens and America or Simon and Garfunkel.


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