Best Folk CDs of the 1990s

A list of the Top 15 folk, bluegrass, and alt-country CDs of the '90s

The 1990s were a vibrant, versatile time in American folk music, as alt-country and the folk-punk realm both picked up steam and changed the face of contemporary folk music. Meanwhile, artists that had been around for decades also continued to put out excellent records and keep their hats in the ring. Learn more about contemporary folk music with this look at the 15 best folk, bluegrass, and alt-country albums of the 1990s.

Uncle Tupelo - 'No Depression' (1990)

Uncle Tupelo - 'No Depression'
Uncle Tupelo - 'No Depression'. © Sony

Uncle Tupelo's 1990 debut, No Depression, didn't only introduce the world to a new Midwestern band, it was also one of the first major releases that could be adequately considered alternative country. It inspired a magazine by the same name that came to help define the roots community and was, in general, just a really great record.

Alison Krauss - 'I've Got That Old Feeling' (1991)

Alison Krasus - 'I've Got That Old Feeling'
Alison Krasus - 'I've Got That Old Feeling'. © Rounder Records

I've Got That Old Feeling, Alison Krauss' third album, saw her hitting her stride and delivering a handful of songs that solidified her place in the hearts of contemporary bluegrass, folk, country, and mainstream music fans. This album was an early indication of the great music that was to come from an artist who has since become one of modern music's greatest contributors.

John Gorka - 'Jack's Crows' (1991)

John Gorka - 'Jack's Crows'
John Gorka - 'Jack's Crows'. © RCA

Named Kerrville Folk Festival New Folk Winner in 1984, John Gorka followed into the late '80s and early '90s with a number of excellent releases. On Jack's Crows, Gorka included some timeless tunes that have proven to stand up as some of his best work ("Houses in the Fields," "The Mercy of the Wheels," "I'm From New Jersey").

Suzanne Vega - '99.9 F' (1992)

Suzanne Vega - '99.9F'
Suzanne Vega - '99.9F'. © A&M

Suzanne Vega's 99.9F album tested the limits of contemporary folk music, experimenting with the artistry of electronic music and melding it with Vega's decidedly provocative contemporary folk songs. It was a breakthrough album in many ways and crossed over to pique the interest of many mainstream music fans that may not have been as open to picking up a record by a folk singer prior to that.

Shawn Colvin - 'Fat City' (1992)

Shawn Colvin - 'Fat City'
Shawn Colvin - 'Fat City'. © Sony

Shawn Colvin's A Few Small Repairs may have contained the single ("Sonny Came Home") that helped make her famous, but Fat City has been one of the best efforts of her career. Containing incredible introspective tunes like "Polaroids" and "Kill the Messenger." While inarguably less commercial than Repairs, it was an excellent introduction to her work.

Michelle Shocked - 'Arkansas Traveler' (1994)

Michelle Shocked - 'Arkansas Traveler'
Michelle Shocked - 'Arkansas Traveler'. © Polygram

Michelle Shocked was one of the best new folk singer-songwriters in the '90s, blending together various styles of roots and Americana that encapsulated old folk music and blues with other more mainstream styles. Arkansas Traveler included classic tunes like the title track and "Prodigal Daughter (Cotton Eyed Joe)."

Emmylou Harris - 'Wrecking Ball' (1995)

Emmylou Harris - 'Wrecking Ball'
Emmylou Harris - 'Wrecking Ball'. © Asylum Records

Emmylou Harris had been around on the music scene for nearly two decades by the time the '90s got into swing, but Wrecking Ball was one of her most notable discs until that point. It was a marked departure from the decidedly country tilt of her previous records. And the title track—penned by Lucinda Williams—still stands as one of her best tunes.

Dar Williams - 'Mortal City' (1996)

Dar Williams - 'Mortal City'
Dar Williams - 'Mortal City'. © Razor & Tie

Dar Williams' Mortal City disc was, in many ways, her breakthrough effort, and it contains many of the songs that are still considered by many fans as her greatest hits: "As Cool As I Am," "Iowa," "The Christians and the Pagans."

Gillian Welch - 'Revival' (1996)

Gillian Welch - 'Revival'
Gillian Welch - 'Revival'. © Acony Records

In 1996, there was no way to predict how much influence Gillian Welch would come to have over the folk and bluegrass worlds—O Brother, Where Art Thou? was still a few years off—but her debut Revival was an excellent introduction to her beautiful work. It also earned her a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Folk Album.

Greg Brown - 'Further In' (1996)

Greg Brown - 'Further In'
Greg Brown - 'Further In'. © Red House Records

Greg Brown had, by 1996, delivered more than a dozen albums full of exquisite work, but Further In was one of his finest, most contemplative discs to date. Every single song was excellently performed, bringing together Brown's thick influence of gospel, blues, and folk music.

Bob Dylan - 'Time Out of Mind' (1997)

Bob Dylan - 'Time Out of Mind'
Bob Dylan - 'Time Out of Mind'. © Columbia Records

Bob Dylan has released a large stack of albums through the years and has dabbled in just about every single style of modern music aside from maybe hip hop. Time Out of Mind was Dylan's 30th studio effort, produced by Daniel Lanois, and heavily blues-influenced. It was a tremendous effort that arguably stands up as one of Dylan's best albums.

Ani DiFranco - 'Living in Clip' (1997)

Ani DiFranco - 'Living in Clip'
Ani DiFranco - 'Living in Clip'. © Righteous Babe Records

Ani DiFranco's career took off in the 1990s when her shows grew from coffee shop, bar, and festival engagements to sold-out theaters and larger venues. Her live shows were likened to tent revivals, and her audiences were (and still are) incredibly enthusiastic. That it took her seven years to make a live record was surprising, but Living in Clip was well worth the wait.

Dan Bern (self-titled, 1997)

Dan Bern self-titled CD
Dan Bern self-titled CD. © Sony

Dan Bern's self-titled debut made waves on the folk scene, even if most of the songs were in the same key. His fearless, deeply honest and personal lyrics scored him a "Next Bob Dylan" categorization. While his second disc, 1998's Fifty Eggs was perhaps more artistically astute, Dan Bern was just full of great songs.

Billy Bragg & Wilco - 'Mermaid Avenue' (1998)

Billy Bragg & Wilco - 'Mermaid Avenue'
Billy Bragg & Wilco - 'Mermaid Avenue'. © Elektra/WEA

Billy Bragg's collaborative effort with Wilco is one of the best contemporary folk records, hands down. It brought together Bragg's anti-folk stylings with the alt-country/folk-rock elements of Wilco and the timeless music of Woody Guthrie. It just doesn't get much better than that. It also introduced hard-core Guthrie fans to some of his best-unpublished work.

J.D. Crowe & the New South - 'Come On Down to My World' (1999)

J.D. Crowe & the New South - 'Come On Down to My World'
J.D. Crowe & the New South - 'Come On Down to My World'. © Rounder

J.D. Crowe's influence on bluegrass music has been palpable and lasting, and this release was one of the best in the genre in the '90s. From Crowe's exquisite banjo work to the efforts of Phil Leadbetter and Dwight McCall's mandolin and vocals, Come on Down to My World was just a great record.