Any folk listener would admit to you that folk music is a class of its own. Filled with imbued storytelling that is both poignant and deserving of a listening ear, sounds that are both cathartic and liberating; folk musicians have a heart and ability to capture listeners of any age through timelessness and relatable lyrics.
With an ability to humble even the loudest voice, awe-struck the quietest soul, folk is varied in its abilities and emotional strength. Although music can be used as a tool for voice, opinion, and justice, folk’s power to be more than simply a voice is what makes it still imminent in today’s setting.
Audiophiles can relate as well. The quality of music is important. Which is why an attention to its importance also means an attention to its genre. Folk grasps old and new. It grasps nostalgia and eminence.
With that said, the top 10 folk albums below span years, decades, and time. Some being fairly recent. Some being fairly old. Despite their age, however, each and every record deserves both attention and a humble ear.
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Best Folk Albums to Buy on Vinyl
Here are the top ten best folk vinyl every audiophile should own, starting with the one and only, Bob Dylan.
1) Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A Changin‘ (1964)
Any “best folk album” list wouldn’t be complete without Bob Dylan. His album The Times They Are A Changin’ is no less the same. One of the beauties of folk is its ability to illustrate stories through song. Bob Dylan’s These Times They Are A Changin’ lives up to that beauty and more.
Not only is it a classic, and in my opinion, one of his best albums because of it’s raw and honest tone, but it’s a “must have” for anyone who’s collecting folk vinyl. At the time of its release in 1964, America was being turned upside down. The Sixties within America were submerged with the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Protests, and more.
Bob Dylan’s uncanny ability to express due diligence do the social and economic situations of America only make his Nobel Prize in Literature, not a surprise to many, but an understandably given feat. His album-dedicated opener, “These Times They Are a Changin’” delineates that same feat.
Discussing the difficulties and casualties in attempting to understand and accept change, Dylan expresses it both poetically and skillfully through his distinct voice. Because of Dylan’s masterful ability of storytelling in a way that is both compelling and timely, These Times They Are A Changin’ is an album that is all unforgettable, timeless, and necessary in any folk collector’s collection.
2) Nick Drake, Pink Moon (1972)
Aside from its gorgeous pastel pink disc that is reminiscent of the album’s title, Nick Drake’s Pink Moon is a classic that any die-hard folk listener would love to acquire. Drake’s beautiful, humble voice that dances across each honestly sung lyric murmuring from song to song is what makes Drake’s third, final album to be one of the most emotional upon this list.
Due to his struggle with depression, his songwriting and singing abilities are both uncanny and characteristic. He understandably sung “semi-coherently” which is seen as the album’s “most endearing qualities” because of its humbleness in the face of adversity.
Other than its opener, “Pink Moon”, the song that is most notable is the one that follows. “Place To Be” is a song filled with regret, alongside the constant hums of questions and contemplation of youth and life’s culmination. From the lyrics (When I was young, younger than before / I never saw the truth hanging from the door), he explores both the naivety and the beauty that is within youth.
Exploring what it means to be both heartened and disheartened by the life that surrounds him. With his shaky voice and whispered thoughts, he proves to the listener that he found it difficult to fit in within a world that was overwhelming. Although Nick Drake is classic to the folk era, his constant battle with depression and his ability to illuminate his struggles with it through the instrument of his choice, a guitar, and a voice, is what makes this a must-have. It’s both beautiful and necessary to any collector of folk vinyl.
3) Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago (2007)
Whether it’s the constant hum of confusion, sadness, or hopelessness that draws you into Bon Iver’s love-wrought album that makes it a must-have album, or because of the sheer fact it’s done by Bon Iver himself is valid. Released in 2007, Justin Vernon wrote this record out in his father’s hunting cabin.
Filled with flurried, mudded lyrics, Vernon’s personable album takes the listener’s at the first note of its opener, “Flume” which invites the audiophile into the strange environment he illustrates. With it’s incandescent lyrics and similes that reminisce his womb beginnings of (I am my mother’s only one / It’s enough) to the constant chorus that delineates, (Only love is all maroon) only to return to the womb-like reference, coalescing both nature and life with (Sky is womb and she’s the moon).
Its most notable song, however, “Skinny Love” takes the cake. It is a hearted plight that nearly every broken-hearted individual will nod, sob, and relate to. From the opening that instantly names it’s almost hopeless plight, (Come on skinny love just last the year) it continues with lyrics that build upon the previous, layering foundation atop heart-breaking foundation only for Vernon’s chorus to be sung with a heartfelt voice.
Audiophiles and heartbroken lovers will undoubtedly find themselves singing along. “The Wolves (Act I and Act II)” dictates not only the same amount of emotion but attention as well. In all, Bon Iver’s uncanny ability to treat the listener as both a close friend, and trusted confidant while spilling out his overwhelming emotions over his guitar make For Emma, Forever Ago a must-have for more than simply the one who got away or even the many lovers out there who know what it feels to have their hearts broken.
It’s for any and every folk listener who loves emotional honesty and heartfelt songwriting. Because of its somewhat fairly recent release date, vinyl records of this album shouldn’t be difficult to find as well.
4) Joni Mitchell, Blue (1971)
The album Blue by the famed Joni Mitchell seems like poetry when first listened to. Her beautiful, melancholic voice murmurs stories, hopes, and love loss. Ultimately it’s an exploration of the different aspects of relationships and their dynamics, but in the same grain, it’s folk at its most raw and simplest. Discovering and letting lay out the emotions felt and honored through pure song and songwriting.
Joni Mitchell’s fourth studio album Blue is often considered one that is both timeless and classic amongst many music critics. Mitchell’s peculiar ability to both do justice to the smallest details. Her bird-like voice chips and marries the constant turmoil of emotion being sung about. Her most influential songs to-date from the album could be considered, the self-titled “Blue”, and “California” amongst others.
“Blue” for its sorrowful, heartbreaking, yet honest depiction of love lost. Her ability to be so poetic about the ending of her rather intense relationship with James Taylor at the time was beautiful and raw. The small nitpicking of simple details only lovers will notice about one another was both poetic and filled the songwriting with timeless honesty.
Similar to Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago, heartbroken lovers will relate endlessly to her singing at hand. Additionally, her song “California” is both classic and timeless within the folk genre. Containing a ballad-like chorus filled with hope, longing, and beauty; Joni Mitchell’s Blue is important because its timeless.
5) Iron & Wine, Our Endless Numbered Days (2004)
Iron & Wine’s ability to be both intimate and hauntingly poetic make Our Endless Numbered Days a must-have when it comes to any folk record collection. Iron & Wine’s lead singer, Sam Beam, doubles as both a poet and a folk-mastermind.
Whether you sit, tight-knit within the corner of a coffee shop, soaking in all of his hushed words like gospel or drive down the highway to the songs that make you reminisce of the freedom of your youth; Iron & Wine’s Our Endless Numbered Days fits that scene and more.
An album of love, loss, youth, hope, amongst more; Sam Beam illustrates each topic in a renaissance of mingled words strummed along by a quiet yet sentimental guitar. His voice reminds you of both a young child filled with curiosity and an elderly man with wiseness lingering in his eyes.
Although each song is a must-listen, “Naked As We Came” is one of the album’s finest. The softly finger-picked guitar that sounds like feet rushing down cold pavement immediately bring the listener to a time of youth and discovery. Mingled with love-tainted lyrics such as (One of us will die inside these arms), only for Sam Beam to immediately ruminate with the themes of life and death as he whispers (Eyes wide open, naked as we came / One will spread our ashes around the yard).
Iron & Wine as a whole is an artist any and every folk audiophile should take the time to listen to. Not only should the album be fairly easy to acquire since it’s still popular, it’s also unique in its artwork. The vinyl record album is adorned with golden stripes that lay outward with four stars completing the circle. It’s both a simple, yet humble adornment. Which is anything but characteristic of both the album and Iron & Wine himself.
6) James Taylor, Sweet Baby James (1970)
Another classic, James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James, is a must-have for traditionalist and modern folk-lovers alike. Similar to the timeless album Blue by Joni Mitchell, Taylor’s album is a classic because of its lyrics that are relatable for decades and centuries to come. His simplicity throughout makes it not only a modest attempt but one filled with beauty and grace.
Cauterizing the emotions of loneliness, finding a home in unlikely places, and love amongst others with Taylor’s excellent songwriting, Sweet Baby James is an album every folk artist needs to have alongside his or her other vinyl collections. Because of James Taylor’s unique situation in that he was actually homeless during the album’s recording, the songs “Country Road”, “Fire & Rain” and “Anywhere from Heaven,” can be listened to with a widened ear upon understanding the circumstances.
That aside, James Taylor’s life experiences during the sixties can be beautifully summed up within Sweet Baby James. An album that’s relatable on any extent, and one that is both a classic and timeless should find itself upon every folk audiophile’s shelved vinyl collection.
7) Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)
Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot can and will be seen as easily one of the most experimental albums on this list. It was even barred for a year past its original release date in 2001 due to conflict with AOL’s Time Warner.
Despite the controversy, it deserves a place on this list for good reason. Aside from being considered one of the greatest albums of all time by Rolling Stones’ Mag and other established music critics, it coalesces major trends of modern folk rock and traditional roots into one dynamic and experimental masterpiece.
While more traditional folk-lovers will love its often-noted hit, “Jesus, etc.” for its simplicity, and return to folk-rock roots with its storytelling-like atmosphere. Layered with symbolism, and relatable lyrics, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot as a whole is an experimental, rock, folk masterpiece. Additionally, modern folk-lovers and the more experimental crowd as a whole will adore the album song after song.
Because variety is the spice of life, having both variety and a difference of options is perfect when collecting vinyl records. And coming from a personal opinion, Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is an album that grows with you.
8) Ben Howard, Every Kingdom (2011)
Speaking of more modern-folk, or modern vinyl records can come as both a surprise to some classic listeners or even as blasphemy to listeners who remain tried and true to traditional folk roots. Although I admire their consistent value for tradition and nostalgia, Ben Howard’s Every Kingdom deserves a place within any audiophile’s folk vinyl collection similarly to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
His voice, both calming and honest, marries between intricately plucked guitar strings. Some songs have the added benefit of a full-fledged band, drums, electric guitar, piano synth and all. However, despite the album’s short-lived “departure” from traditional folk in its popular song “Only Love”, Ben Howard can be seen as a modern and yet beautiful addition to any folk vinyl collector.
Each and every song is brimming with morality, honest questioning of life’s qualms, and more. Ben Howard’s song-veering ability to delineate emotion and raw thought into each and every song is both compelling and beautiful. Compellingly, however, his most gracious song, could be heard within the track titled “Promise.”
Beginning with the simple sound of rain pattering against what sounds like a tin roof, the soft, echoing sound of an acoustic melody shortly drifts afterward. Meshing rain with guitar, the guitar soon becomes underwhelmed by Ben Howard’s hushed voice that mulls throughout. Mingling promises and metaphorical gestures, Howard’s masterfully beautiful, almost hymn-like rhythmic song becomes and solidifies this modern album as one that is both unforgettable and bound to be timeless.
9) Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues (2011)
If there is any vinyl record within this list that captures youth in such a cathartic and reckoning way, it has to be Fleet Foxes Helplessness Blues. Released in 2011, this is yet another modern folk album that deems itself both desirable and a “must-have” in any folk collection.
Other than being able to acquire it in a glistening white, rather than the typical black color, an album from the sextet, Fleet Foxes, is a necessary gem for any folk audiophile. Their music is layered, fantastically with detailed, sophisticated, and introspective lyrics that are relatable, enchanting, and vivid. Aside from the Fleet Foxes’ distinguished banter of harmonious bursts of chorus following a brief silence, their songs are meant to be heard and listened to.
Their opening track “Montezuma” is definitely one of them. As Robin Pecknold, the lead singer of the group, laments and questions consistently over his youth and past, his voice wanders aimlessly throughout the song, mimicking not only the trails that come with finding yourself but finding meaning within a life that may seem to be somewhat meaningless.
His cathartic questions that mule (Oh man what I used to be / Oh man oh my oh me) linger with both an unease and confusion that is sympathetic and puzzling. The song then breaks into a dizzying, sunny delay of the groups’ voices that starkly contrasts with its apparent quiet contemplation.
This beautiful chaos is a trademark of the band and is remembered throughout each and every inquisitive, nostalgic song. Again, because of its rather not-far-off release, it should be fairly easy to obtain as a vinyl record. (And if you do, I’d highly recommend nabbing the white one.)
10) Father John Misty, I Love You, Honeybear (2015)
Albeit the most recently released vinyl on the list, Father John Misty is no artist to ignore when it comes to folk’s current modern mantra. Being an album that’s both hysterical, hilarious, and quite sarcastic; it could be seen as the odd one out within this list aside from its union with more instruments than simply a guitar and a voice.
However, due to its acclaim as being an album that “is a profoundly serious examination of life in all it’s untidiness”, and being a former member of the Fleet Foxes, Joshua Tillman is a man to both listen and pay attention to, especially when it comes to I Love You, Honeybear. Other than it’s gorgeous illustrative concept, it could be seen as one of the most artistic and unique vinyl on this list.
The watercolor illustrations continue throughout the inner slip package, adorned with hilariously, almost pathetic looking and animalistic characters that are and the vinyl itself is a psychedelic, bright pink, muddled with a purple hue that sets apart a bright blue finish on the opposite side. If turned over on the second side, the record is adorned in a similar tie-dye fashion, with yellow instead of the initial purple.
Whether his lyrics make you laugh or make you more aware of life’s situations and blessings; Father John Misty is a man who utilizes his music to explore and pick apart life’s concept and behaviors. With his opener “I Love You, Honeybear” he slowly sets the scene as all of the instruments coalesce into a building sound, as Joshua Tillman’s ranging voice pleads to his wife (in which he adoringly calls “honey bear”).
In short, this album could be considered a love letter to his wife. However, that would be an understatement. Tillman’s I Love You, Honeybear is a concept. It’s a picking apart of his life in which he engaged in behavior he felt was regrettable. With that in mind, you can see that most of the lyrics, while both witty, sometimes repulsive and bougie; it’s characteristic of Tillman.
One of its final songs, titled rather brazenly, “Holy Sh*t”, could remind some younger and older listeners of Bob Dylan’s “These Times Are A Changin'” in that it comments on life’s current situations only to bring it home. And aside from every cynical and lyrical word that may brush others aside, Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear could be reminded of what was beautiful about traditional folk, but also of what is beautiful of the modern.
Folk music brings a beautiful tradition. One that is both old in it’s emotional and uncanny ability to be both a storytelling profession through song and a free pass to explore relationships, illuminate social injustice, and pick apart life’s beautiful mess among many others.
The honesty, power, and raw thought and emotion that comes from such a humbling act of artistry is what defines folk music as a genre among many. Whether you’re a hardcore folk traditionalist, or are simply an audiophile for folk music, or are even more interested in the more modern aspects of folk; any vinyl by the above artists is worth owning for each of their own reasons. Each one has a redeeming fact worth purchasing.
Whether you purchase it for its nostalgia and for its beauty, or for its honesty and for its empathy. And yes, even for its art and humor (I’m talking to you I Love You, Honeybear); each is worth owning on its own time. All in all, the sheer beauty of simply an artist and their guitar is what makes folk music both accessible and easily lovable by thousands of old souls.
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