With fall comes the rain — something I know all too well since I live in the Pacific Northwest — and there’s something extra special about listening to vinyl on a rainy day. Maybe it’s the warmth that analog provides, but layered vocals and acoustic instruments — the keystones of folk music — are at their best when listened to on vinyl. On many levels, the subtle nuances present in these records really show off your system as well.
Here are a few of my favorite rainy-day listening folk albums. Even if you’re not a particular fan of this type of music, you’re bound to find something compelling and comforting here.
The roots of American folk music all lead back to this man. While Guthrie was an incredibly prolific songwriter, “This Land Is Your Land” is arguably the most important folk song of all time. Because of its age, the recording quality of this album is primitive, to say the least. But the heart and soul presented in this collection make the journey worthwhile. These sparse songs truly tell the tales of America in the 1930s and 1940s.
It would be a disciple of Guthrie’s — Bob Dylan — who would become the shining superstar of folk music, giving the concept of the singer/songwriter true validation. There are a number of great audiophile remasters of this set, offering an excellent cross-section of his most popular and accessible tracks. Grab a latte and start with “Just Like A Woman,” from side two of record two. This is minimalist production at its finest, with Dylan serving up some great guitar and harp playing. Let the rest unfold around you, and your day will be better for it.
Don’t let the Austin Powers-esque groovy title track fool you: the rest of this record is pure folk, in line with Donovan’s roots as a self-styled bard. “Guinevere” features a nice blend of his instantly recognizable singing and fingerstyle guitar playing (which would serve as a major influence on White Album-era John Lennon), with some tasty bongo bits mixed in. The next track, “The Fat Angel,” is heavy on sitar, hinting that Donovan’s output would become a lot more turned-on very soon.
In a short three-year period from 1965 to 1968, the Mamas and the Papas released four records that expanded the genre of folk-rock and simultaneously became a big part of a more psychedelic “California Sound.” While “Monday, Monday” and “Go Where You Wanna Go” were both big hits, the track that best fits the autumn vibe has to be “California Dreaming.” The monster countermelodies in this song will have you longing for warmer days.
Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel also burst on the scene in a major way in 1965, combining intricate harmonies with artful (though sometimes obtuse) lyrics. While Bridge Over Troubled Water sold the most records, many consider the prior album Bookends to be their best work, as evidenced by the fact that it produced no less than five hit singles. The legendary track “Mrs. Robinson” (from the film The Graduate) won the Grammy® for Best Rock Single in 1969. It’s the perfect song to revisit their catalog, buried in a comfy chair, watching the clouds roll by. You can almost reach out and strum those acoustic guitars yourself.
Many Joni fans flock to Blue. I suggest you go off the beaten path and pick up a copy of Ladies of the Canyon instead. A bit more upbeat than the former, this record is also more complex musically, spawning a couple of Ms. Mitchell’s biggest hits: “Woodstock” and “Big Yellow Taxi,” a tune whose message is not out of touch today. The flawless recording, with its sparse, ethereal arrangements, is coffee shop music at its best. This record is also a great way to bookmark Joni Mitchell’s voice to compare to her later work.
If Bob Dylan is folk music’s brightest star, Crosby, Stills & Nash (with or without Young in tow) are folk’s biggest supergroup … and this record is undoubtedly one of vinyl’s greatest treasures. With soaring voices that blend together incomparably, Déjà vu truly stands the test of time, and it remains one of my most beloved vinyl albums, even after 50 plus years of listening. If it becomes one of your favorites as well, be sure to seek out this year’s Record Store Day release of alternate takes.
With strong accompaniment from Emmylou Harris, Gram Parsons’ second and final album Grievous Angel has become a cult classic over the decades. A bit country, a bit folk, Parsons himself described it as “Cosmic American Music.” Just before his death, Parsons was hanging out with Keith Richards, and it doesn’t take long to find that influence in the Stones’ music of the era. Even though there is a lot of country twang here, the “folkiest” song on this record might just be “Brass Buttons.”
Dig deeper than the title track, and head straight to the Stevie Wonder tune, “I Never Dreamed You’d Leave In Summer.” Baez’ voice is so pure here, it might just bring you to tears. Along with several self-penned tunes (including “Dida,” a duet she sings with Joni Mitchell), you’ll find songs by Dylan, Jackson Browne, Janis Ian and others.
Most people associate Johnny Cash with country music, but the deeper you dig, the more you’ll discover a heavy folk vein in his music too, right to the very end of his life. These last four records, produced with Rick Rubin (collectively called American Recordings), contain some of the most chilling, hardcore folk songs ever put on vinyl. It doesn’t get more intense than this, and you’ll find that Cash’s deep, rich baritone not only sends shivers down your spine but really brings your system to life.
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