Essential Folk Albums

Albums every folk music fan should have in their collection

The folk music genre spans a wide variety of artists. If you're new to these varied forms of Americana that include everything from bluegrass to alt-country, ​old-timey fiddle tunes to folk-rock, this list is a great start. But, it's also a good primer for fans looking to expand their existing CD collection.

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Various Artists - 'Anthology of American Folk Music'

'Anthology of American Folk Music' Boxed Set Cover
'Anthology of American Folk Music' Boxed Set Cover. © Smithsonian Folkways

In 1952, filmmaker Harry Smith released a compilation of field recordings, country blues and folk songs from the 1920s and 30s that became an inspiration for budding folk singers and the movement that followed. The rather extensive presented artists like The Carter Family, Mississippi John Hurt, Charlie Poole, and Clarence Ashley, among many, many others.

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The Almanac Singers - 'Songs of Protest'

Almanac Singers - 'Songs of Protest' CD
Almanac Singers - 'Songs of Protest' CD. © Prism

Contrary to popular belief, the folk music revival in America didn't start in the '50s or '60s, it began much earlier in the 20th century, as the folklorists hit the fields and started working to preserve traditional folk songs. Meanwhile, during the Great Depression, a group of like-minded activists and songwriters gathered in New York City and started reviving the songs of the working class, and writing working class songs of their own. The Almanac Singers included heavyweights like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Millard Lampell, Lee Hays, and others who went on to hugely influence the '60s folk revival. This album is an excellent introduction to their work.

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Woody Guthrie - 'The Asch Recordings, Vols. 1-4'

Woody Guthrie - The Asche Recordings, Vol. 1
Woody Guthrie - The Asche Recordings, Vol. 1. © Smithsonian Folkways

Granted it's four CDs, but this is probably the most important group of songs in American Folk music. So many artists have been inspired and enlightened by Woody Guthrie's wealth of work. The remarkable thing is that these four CDs don't even begin to cover the hundreds of songs Woody wrote in his lifetime. But they're certainly his most influential and timeless classics.

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Various Artists - 'Hand-Picked: 25 Years Of Bluegrass On Rounder Records'

Hand Picked: 25 Years of Bluegrass on Rounder Records
Hand Picked: 25 Years of Bluegrass on Rounder Records. © Rounder Records

If you're looking for a decent introduction to the traditional and contemporary bluegrass movement, you can't get much better than the Rounder Records library. This collection features some of the greatest players in the genre, from Hazel Dickens to Tony Trischka, Alison Krauss to J.D. Crowe and the New South. This two-disc set is a great introduction for bluegrass newbies and an excellent addition to fans' collections.

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Bob Dylan - 'The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan'

Bob Dylan - The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan - The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. © Columbia Records

This was Bob Dylan's second release and includes some of his best work ever. From "Blowin' in the Wind" to "Masters of War," this album cemented Dylan's place in the course of contemporary folk music history.

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Joni Mitchell - 'Blue'

Joni Mitchell - Blue
Joni Mitchell - Blue. © Warner Bros./WEA

One of Joni Mitchell's best, and certainly her most popular recording. Songs like "Carey," "A Case of You," and "River" have continued to inspire Folk singers and fans since the record's release in 1971. Besides that, it's repeatedly been chosen as one of the best records ever made.

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Bill Monroe - 'Blue Grass 1950-1958'

Bill Monroe - Blue Grass 1950-1958 Box Set
Bill Monroe - Blue Grass 1950-1958 Box Set. © Bear Family Records

If Bluegrass is your bag, this CD collection belongs on your mantle. It contains a lot of hard-to-come-by material from Bill Monroe's early days, as well as some of his greatest early hits with the Blue Grass Boys. These four CDs contain the songs that defined Bluegrass and are pretty much responsible for the evolution of this genre.

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Pete Seeger - 'Essential Pete Seeger'

Essential Pete Seeger CD Cover
Essential Pete Seeger CD Cover. © Legacy Recordings

Pete Seeger is one of the most important folk singers and singer/songwriters in the history of contemporary folk music in America. His original songs—from "Waste Deep in the Big Muddy" to "Turn Turn Turn"—have been covered by so many artists, it's hard to count anymore. And, the songs he's found and revived ("We Shall Overcome," for example) have become definitive tunes in the struggle for peace and equality. This greatest hits collection includes many of Seeger's most notable songs and serves as an excellent introduction to this font of great American folk music.

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Phil Ochs - 'I Ain't Marching Anymore'

Phil Ochs - I Ain't Marching Anymore
Phil Ochs - I Ain't Marching Anymore. courtesy PriceGrabber

Phil Ochs put out a couple of really fantastic records, and his best songs are kind of sprawled over all of them. But I Ain't Marching Anymore (Elektra, 1965) has some real fabulous tunes like "Draft Dodger Rag" and "The Men Behind the Guns." Trust me it's tough to write topical songs that are both timely and timeless, but Phil mastered that art during his unfortunately somewhat short career.

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Bob Dylan - 'Highway 61 Revisited'

Bob Dylan - Highway 61 Revisited
Bob Dylan - Highway 61 Revisited. © Columbia Records

Highway 61 Revisited is one of my personal favorite from the Dylan discography. It opens with one of Bob's greatest early folk-rock tunes—"Like a Rolling Stone"—and keeps on rolling all the way to "Desolation Row." It's one of the most poignant records released by someone who's still alive and making poignant records.

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Utah Phillips - 'We Have Fed You All A Thousand Years'

Utah Phillips - 'We Have Fed You All a Thousand Years' CD
Utah Phillips - 'We Have Fed You All a Thousand Years' CD. © Philo Records

Utah Phillips was an amazing advocate for workers' rights, and he made it his life's mission to keep alive the songs of the working class. Here, in his 1993 recording, he collected the songs of Joe Hill and others as preserved through the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) Songbook. Folks interested in learning more about the plight of the labor movement, and the history of the songs that have accompanied it, would appreciate this well-performed collection.

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Neil Young - 'Everybody Knows This is Nowhere'

Neil Young - 'Everybody Knows This is Nowhere' CD Cover
Neil Young - 'Everybody Knows This is Nowhere' CD Cover. © Reprise/WEA

Neil Young's second solo album, released in 1969, was one of the most definitive albums of his career until that point. Many of the songs on Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, including the title track, have held up as the decades have passed. This was also his first album with his band Crazy Horse which, in itself, is notable. Folks interested in learning more about the great voices of the folk-rock movement would appreciate this disc.

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Uncle Tupelo - 'No Depression'

Uncle Tupelo - No Depression CD Cover
Uncle Tupelo - No Depression CD Cover. © Sony

Uncle Tupelo's debut album in 1990, No Depression not only resurrected an old Carter Family song, repurposing it for a new generation but also gave inspiration to the founders of the magazine by the same name. Other things it inspired include the whole of the alt-country movement since then. Although alt-country artists had been experimenting with the genre for decades, Uncle Tupelo's entrance onto the national scene solidified the genre's staying power; and the band itself eventually spun off into some other remarkable groups (Son Volt, The Gourds, and others).

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Alison Krauss and Union Station - 'Live'

Alison Krauss and Union Station - 'Live' CD Cover
Alison Krauss and Union Station - 'Live' CD Cover. © Rounder Records

Alison Krauss and Union Station are, inarguably, one of the best bands in contemporary music. Their instrumentation is award winning and impeccable. They are one of those magical groups of star players, and the songs they play together are some of the best in contemporary bluegrass. If there's any doubt that the group can deliver, their double-disc live recording (titled, aptly, Live) surely provides plenty of proof.

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Cat Stevens - 'Gold'

Cat Stevens - 'Gold'
Cat Stevens - 'Gold'. © A&M/Universal

This 2005 collection of Cat Stevens classics includes songs written from 1966 - 2005, and features many of Stevens' most influential compositions ("Morning Has Broken," "Peace Train," "Wild World," and others). Folks interested in learning more about the golden age of the singer-songwriter that took place in the late '60s and '70s would appreciate the breadth of influence Stevens (now known as Yusuf Islam) had on the folk-pop movement.

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Indigo Girls - 'Rites of Passage'

Indigo Girls - 'Rites of Passage' CD Cover
Indigo Girls - 'Rites of Passage' CD Cover. © Epic, 1992

This 1992 release from the Indigo Girls is arguably one of their most notable releases, and includes some of their greatest hits ("Chickenman," "Galileo"). As contemporary folk-pop goes, the Indigo Girls are masters of contrapuntal harmonies and songs that range from alt-country to folk-rock, always inspired by traditional songwriting methods and social issues.

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Townes Van Zandt - 'Live at the Old Quarter'

Townes Van Zandt - Live at the Old Quarter
Townes Van Zandt - Live at the Old Quarter. courtesy PriceGrabber

This early live performance was recorded in 1976, before Townes Van Zandt's work had been discovered and lauded by just about every working songwriter. His performance is telling and honest, bringing out some of his best songs ever, including the unmatchable "Pancho and Lefty" and "For the Sake of the Song." It's an excellent peek into why Van Zandt is such a lauded songwriter.

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Ani DiFranco - 'Not a Pretty Girl'

Ani DiFranco - Not a Pretty Girl
Ani DiFranco - Not a Pretty Girl. © Righteous Babe

Ani DiFranco has explored all kinds of avenues before and since this record, but Not a Pretty Girl could be considered the one record that decisively made her famous. Besides, "The Million You Never Made" is a classic and coy middle finger to the music industry that so often eschews folk artists. Add to that the fact that Ani and her one bandmate at the time managed to come off sounding like a big, thick band. Lyrically and sonically, it's a must-have.

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Paul Simon - 'Graceland'

Paul Simon - Graceland
Paul Simon - Graceland. © Rhino/WEA

Paul Simon is one of the best American Folk singer/songwriters, and Graceland is one of his greatest records. It won a whole lot of Grammy awards when it was released in 1986, and it holds classics like the title track, "You Can Call Me Al," and "I Know What I Know." It was also the introduction of Paul's world music influences and his melding of American Folk with South African rhythms.

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Steve Earle & The Del McCoury Band - 'Mountain'

Steve Earle & Del McCoury Band - Mountain
Steve Earle & Del McCoury Band - Mountain. © E Squared Records

This CD and the film Oh Brother, Where Art Thou are a big reason Bluegrass came back into the public consciousness. It was also a major step for both Steve Earle and the Del McCoury Band, and consequently a movement for and bluegrass alike. Every single song is outstanding.