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.