Photo by Neal Preston/Corbis
Summer is a time for music festivals and memories of songs and albums from our past. With that in mind, we look at nine uplifting folk-rock albums that we think do what folk-rock does best — blend evocative storytelling with some rock 'n' roll. It doesn't hurt that the personalities behind them — Springsteen, Dylan and the like — are the ones telling the stories.
Below is our list of albums plus a favorite song. Tell us whether you love them or loathe them by leaving a comment on the bottom of this page or visit the messages board):
- Bob Dylan — Bringing It All Back Home: "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue"
- The Byrds — Mr. Tambourine Man: "All I Really Want to Do"
- Simon and Garfunkel — Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme: "Homeward Bound"
- Nick Drake — Five Leaves Left: "Day Is Done"
- Fairport Convention — Liege & Lief: "Matty Groves"
- Traffic — John Barleycorn Must Die: "John Barleycorn"
- Roy Harper — Stormcock: "Hors d'œuvres"
- Bruce Springsteen — Nebraska: "Highway Patrolman"
- R.E.M — Fables of the Reconstruction: "Wendell Gee"
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Bob Dylan — Bringing It All Back Home (1965). Track that will improve your life: "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue"
This was Dylan's first album to mix folk with rock 'n' roll. Though the LP seemed to devote one side to each genre, never had there been rock as lyrically ambitious as the frantic "Subterranean Homesick Blues," nor folk as texturally sprawling as "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)." For my money, this is Dylan's most accessible album. Its best-known song, "Mr. Tambourine Man," would feel equally at home on pirate radio or at a middle-school dance. The rock sizzles, while the folk goes deeper than anyone had before — including Dylan himself. Just listen to how he captures the end of a relationship in "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue": "The vagabond who's rapping at your door/ Is standing in the clothes that you once wore./ Strike another match, go start anew,/ And it's all over now, Baby Blue."
The Byrds — Mr. Tambourine Man (1965). Track that will improve your life: "All I Really Want to Do"
The Byrds influenced both the Beatles and Bob Dylan. (After hearing the Byrds play their version of his own "Mr. Tambourine Man," Dylan decided he could combine his love of Woody Guthrie with his love of Little Richard.) The four Dylan covers on this, the Byrds' debut album, got the most attention, but "I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better" symbolized the new folk-rock sound they were helping to pioneer. Toss in the delightful "We'll Meet Again," their grimly upbeat cover of the folk standard "The Bells of Rhymney," add those sumptuous Byrds harmonies, and you have not just one of the earliest folk-rock albums but still one of the best.
Simon and Garfunkel — Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme (1966). Track that will improve your life: "Homeward Bound"
Opening with their impossibly gorgeous arrangement of the haunting ancient lay "Scarborough Fair/Canticle" and continuing through their savage Dylan parody "A Simple Desultory Philippic (or How I Was Robert McNamara'd into Submission)" before wrapping up with the chilling "7 O'Clock News/Silent Night," this was the album that made it clear Simon and Garfunkel were serious contenders for the folk-rock throne. Indeed, Dylan would soon hole up at Woodstock with The Band to recover from a motorcycle accident, then detour into country. That left S&G with no serious challengers until they broke up (for the second and final time) in 1970.
Nick Drake — Five Leaves Left (1969). Track that will improve your life: "Day Is Done"
English singer-songwriter Nick Drake's whispery voice and ornate fingerpicking is hypnotic. Add sensitive accompaniment by members of the British folk-rock supergroups Fairport Convention and Pentangle, and it's hard to figure out why this album isn't much better known — until you realize that music this starkly intimate is almost always something of a cult property. As for Drake's lovely, complex writing, there's nothing quite like it: He quietly grabs you from note 1, then injects his unique potion of melancholy straight to the heart.
Fairport Convention — Liege & Lief (1969). Track that will improve your life: "Matty Groves"
Sandy Denny's crystalline vocals waft over you in a curiously dreamy yet demanding way — demanding that you take notice, that is. Meanwhile Richard Thompson applies his unsurpassed guitar playing to traditional English ballads, some of which (I'm thinking of "Tam Lin") date back four centuries. Fairport's original drummer, Martin Lamble, had died in a car accident on his way home from a gig just a few months before this album was recorded. The group therefore subbed in the powerful Dave Mattacks — and, while they were in change mode, shed the Dylan covers they had relied on until then. The result: A folk-rock milestone that may be England's finest.
Traffic — John Barleycorn Must Die (1970). Track that will improve your life: "John Barleycorn"
Steve Winwood was at loose ends. The former teen-sensation singer had found success with his later bands: first Traffic, with Dave Mason, then supergroup Blind Faith, with Eric Clapton. When the latter fell apart, Winwood tried to go solo, but the sessions stagnated. Realizing he worked best when playing off others, Windwood invited his former Traffic bandmates to the studio and — bing! — a classic was born. As usual for Traffic, the album had plenty of jazz and soul, but the folk-rock influence on "Freedom Rider" is unmistakable. It's the folk-rock of the title track — a song with antecedents in the 1500s — that lets Barleycorn hit its creative high points.
Roy Harper — Stormcock (1971). Track that will improve your life: "Hors d'œuvres"
British man-about-town Roy Harper sang lead vocals on the Pink Floyd staple "Have a Cigar" and inspired the Led Zeppelin cut "Hats Off to (Roy) Harper," yet he never became more than a cult figure in the United States. And that's a shame, for Stormcock showcases why so many legendary musicians thought so highly of his output. Consisting of just four long songs — most of them feature Harper on vocals and acoustic guitar, with minimal accompaniment — the tunes are progressive and circuitous; even at the uncommercial average of 10 minutes apiece, they make this collection feel like it ends too early.
Bruce Springsteen — Nebraska (1982). Track that will improve your life: "Highway Patrolman"
When the most critically acclaimed American rocker of his generation has the biggest hit of his career — the pop smash "Hungry Heart," off 1980's The River — what's the next logical step? I'm pretty sure it's not to release a quiet, somber acoustic album filled with songs about characters down on their luck, pushed to the very edge or, in the case of the harrowing title track, pushed well over it. With this album — recorded in his kitchen with the idea that its 10 songs would never be more than demos — Springsteen laid uncontested claim to the impossibly lofty title of "the next Bob Dylan."
R.E.M. — Fables of the Reconstruction (1985). Track that will improve your life: "Wendell Gee"
This Southern gothic quartet delighted in smashing "rock-'n'-rules": Their vocal tracks were largely indecipherable, the musicians refused to appear on album covers, and they scorned solos and synthesizers alike. All that seemed only to amplify their commercial momentum. So, true to form, the band decamped for England at the height of its success. The weather was miserable and so was R.E.M., but their discomfit is our gain: Under Joe Boyd, the legendary producer of Pink Floyd and Maria Muldaur, R.E.M. crafted a moody, mysterious album suffused with the atmosphere of both cold, rainy England and hot, humid Georgia. Give a listen to the breezy yet disarming "Green Grow the Rushes," or the dreamlike "Wendell Gee." With the album's emphasis on railroad imagery, notably in "Driver 8," your ears may lead your eyes to see the ghost of Woody Guthrie taking shape across the room.
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