Today, we are looking at the top ten folk artists of all time. I think at the end of piecing this list together, none of us were particularly happy that some of our individual favorites didn’t make it. But that’s what happens when three individuals make a list this comprehensive. Setting that aside, let’s venture into the wonderful world of folk music through a little exercise I like to call Folk University – or Folk U. Sorry about the bad pun, but I couldn’t help myself this time.
Folk music has a lot of definitions, so we tried to stick to artists that have a wealth of material that would widely be considered “folk music”. This cut a couple borderline people out, but thus is the process of trying to form these lists. Each of the next ten artists holds a special place in our heart for one reason or another. Let us know who we left out, and who some of your favorite folkies are. Enjoy!
10. Nick Drake
Nick Drake burned extremely bright for a few years before dying of a drug overdose. He remains mysterious in almost all ways except for his talent, highlighted by his breathy vocals and vocal style that Trey Anastasio has clearly taken a few cues from.
Folk U Mandatory Listening: “One of These Things First”
9. Mark Kozelek
Mark Kozelek may be best known for rearranging other people’s music into a more folk-friendly form (see album Tiny Cities), but his original work in the bands Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon is fantastic stuff. His work may be immediately viewed as slight, but upon repeated listens there is serious depth there.
Folk U Mandatory Listening: “Carry Me Ohio”
8. Conor Oberst
Conor Oberst has been many things throughout his career that are absolutely not folk (see his current tour with Desaparacedos). But at heart, with his lyrical crafting and guitar work, Oberst wants to be the modern-day Bob Dylan everyone described him as when he released his first Bright Eyes album. Between Bright Eyes, his self-titled album, and his work with Monsters of Folk, Oberst is folk to the core.
Folk U Mandatory Listening: “Land Locked Blues”
7. Lucinda Williams
Lucinda Williams is an artist that I find deeply moving and genuine no matter what comes out of her mouth. Maybe its her modest upbringing, her obvious insecurities, or her plain way of speaking. Here’s to hoping Williams has another twenty years of albums in her.
Folk U Mandatory Listening: “Lake Charles”
6. Townes Van Zandt
Van Zandt is a songwriter’s folk singer, often lauded for his ability to craft a simple beautiful song rather than perform the hell out of it. That being said, his honest way of making music helps his songs hold up to this day.
Folk U Mandatory Listening: “Loretta”
5. Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell, with her off-beat vocal style and pristine songwriting ability, paved the way for almost every female singer-songwriter that came after her. Blue holds up as one of the finest folk records of the 70’s against the other legends on this list.
Folk U Mandatory Listening: “California”
4. Simon & Garfunkel
Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel set out to do one thing: Make beautiful folk music accessible to the masses. They succeeded and were a unique voice among the British invasion that defined the rest of the 60’s.
Folk U Mandatory Listening: “Scarborough Fair”
3. Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen may be the most quietly respected folk singer on this list. I can’t deny that I know more music of Cohen from other artists covering him, but that by no means takes away the poignancy with which he delivered his simple, and sometimes heartbreaking, songs.
Folk U Mandatory Listening: “Joan of Arc”
2. Neil Young
Neil Young is many things, and a folk singer is just one of the hats he has worn throughout his long, weird and storied career. Equal parts folk artist, southern rocker and grungy tactician, Neil Young’s earliest work spoke to a more folk-influenced past. Throughout his career, Young has often revisited that deep well of inspiration.
Folk U Mandatory Listening: “Ambulance Blues”
1. Bob Dylan
You can’t talk about folk singers without putting maybe the greatest songwriter of all time at the top of the list. Dylan’s lyrics are peerless, his guitar work rugged and meaningful, and his aura unparalleled. There is no one else that could have topped this list.
Folk U Mandatory Listening: “Girl From the North Country”
Wes: Iron & Wine
Sam Beam, as Iron & Wine, has come a long way from primarily being known as the guy who recorded the deliberately toned-down version of The Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights”. Beam has released an album or EP almost every year since his 2002 debut, with almost every release having a new interesting wrinkle.
Folk U Mandatory Listening: “Jezebel”
Todd: Roy Harper
Todd likes to pull names out of left field every once in awhile, and I have to be honest in that I had to familiarize myself with Roy Harper’s music. It’s really really good stuff, with some of the more interesting guitar work from the 60’s and 70’s. Hats off to Todd on this one.
Folk U Mandatory Listening: “Goldfish”
Austin: Bonnie “Prince” Billy
Will Oldham may not exclusively be known as a folk artist, but his particular breed of guitar-based songwriting is pretty folky on much of his work. Oldham is one of the most prolific artists of the past fifteen years or so, and should be recognized for his quantity and quality.
Folk U Mandatory Listening: “Easy Does It”