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The 10 best Folk Rock albums

Fairport Convention sitting in a country pub
Fairport Convention sitting in a country pub (Image credit: Gems / Getty Images)

Rock musicians spent half the 1960s nicking ideas off the folkies. You only have to take a brief listen to Jimmy Page’s Black Mountain Side instrumental on Led Zeppelin’s 1969 debut alongside folk guitarist Bert Jansch’s Black Water Side (see what he done there?) to realise that they are even closer than the (not so) subtle title change suggests. 

Fast forward to Led Zeppelin III, and that’s folk rock you’re listening to on Gallows Pole, a traditional folk song given the rock’n’roll treatment. And who’s this bloke Roy Harper they’re taking their hats off to on the last track? Some renegade folkie Zep have adopted, that’s who. 

The folk scene had remained suspicious of rock music. Even young Turks like Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and Ralph McTell were wary of ‘selling out’. When Donovan broke cover and shot up the charts with Catch The Wind in 1965, the traditionalists denounced him as a traitor. They were also pretty sniffy when Jansch and Renbourn became part of the Unplugged-style folk supergroup Pentangle a couple of years later. 

It needed a rock group to put the rock into folk rather than vice versa. That band was Fairport Convention. They’d built up a name on the underground scene with their covers of (then unknown) Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan songs. But singer Sandy Denny had already paid her dues on the folk circuit, and when they brought in folk fiddle player Dave Swarbrick the die was cast. 

Their 1969 album Liege & Lief laid down the folk rock template for the decade that would follow. Other bands soon took advantage, although there was an incestuous element at play (in the studio, not the bedroom): Fairport begat Fotheringay, Richard & Linda Thompson and Steeleye Span, who begat the Albion Band and so on. But some bands, such as Lindisfarne, seemed to have been waiting in the wings for the call. 

Led Zep were not the only rock band partial to a bit of folk, either. Steve Winwood took a fancy to the trad ballad of John Barleycorn after the demise of Blind Faith, a solo project that became a new Traffic album called John Barleycorn Must Die. And even though Jethro Tull weren’t going back and cobbling the source material, they were clearly influenced by the folk rock sound. 

Once the precedent was set, other folk singers began to cross over: John Martyn, Roy Harper, Nick Drake, Michael Chapman, Al Stewart… They brought their own material to the burgeoning singer-songwriter movement, but it was folk rock that paid their ticket.

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Fairport Convention: Liege & Lief (1969) 

Folk rock’s defining moment came as Fairport Convention nailed the spirit of rock to the rickety table of folk. Epic traditional ballads like Tam Lin and Matty Groves get a driving backbeat, with Richard Thompson providing hefty guitar riffs that mutate into furious jigs and reels. 

It’s all topped off with Dave Swarbrick’s taut, frenetic fiddle and Sandy Denny’s soaring, swooping, lingering and cajoling vocal. It was an audacious move, but Fairport knew what they wanted to do and they succeeded beyond expectation. View Deal

Steeleye Span: Parcel Of Rogues (1973) 

Although Steeleye Span were originally formed by Fairport Convention’s Ashley Hutchings, they didn’t really put on their rock’n’roll shoes until Hutchings split and the band windmilled a flame-streaked Gibson through their traditional folky repertoire. 

The slashing power chords that cut across the heavily harmonised vocals of Alison Gross and Maddy Prior’s lilting tones on Cam Ye O’er Frae France verge on folk metal. Competition for the wah-wah pedal is intense – guitars, violins and even the bass all get a shot on Robbery With Violins. This is folk rock you can stomp to.View Deal

John Martyn: Solid Air (1973) 

On Solid Air, John Martyn makes the leap from folk to… who knows where, partnered by acoustic bass player Danny Thompson, whose blurry playing keeps pace with Martyn’s blurry voice. 

Running his acoustic guitar into an array of effects pedals, Martyn picks and strums his way through songs that snake about among jazz, blues, folk and rock: the driving Dreams By The Sea, the mellow May You Never and the tripped-out I’d Rather Be The Devil. Despite most of Fairport turning up for the recording, the sound is still sparse.View Deal

Richard & Linda Thompson: I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight (1974)

Richard Thompson left Fairport Convention when he realised his songwriting had got lost in the band’s new folk rock format. He married Linda, then married British folk to American country to give folk rock a new twist. 

Linda’s voice is the perfect foil for Richard’s still-developing vocal style on this album. But his guitar style is already well-developed, and hones the dark edged lyricism on songs like When I Get To The Border.View Deal

Lindisfarne: Fog On The Tyne (1971) 

Formed around the Geordie songwriting trio of Alan Hull, Rod Clements and Ray Jackson, Lindisfarne had found a ready audience for their wit and raucous harmonies at late60s rock festivals. 

Come the 70s, they lured Nashville producer Bob Johnston for second album, Fog On The Tyne. It was a smart move. Johnston smooths out the rougher edges without losing any of the band’s populism. The album swept to the top of the chart in early ’72, propelled by hit singles Meet Me On The Corner and the title track.View Deal

Roy Harper: Stormcock (1971) 

Never a man to be tied down by style and convention, Roy Harper had his own ideas about the great folk/rock crossover, and committed them to record on four long tracks on Stormcock

The best is The Same Old Rock, a biting attack on religion, in which Harper’s sensitive acoustic guitar bounces off some searing electric from Jimmy Page (thinly disguised as S Flavius Mercurius) and culminates in a superb three-minute duet between the two. 

Harper’s voice is familiar thanks to his vocals on Pink Floyd’s Have A Cigar, and is particularly fine on Me And My Woman.View Deal

Horslips: Book Of Invasions: Celtic Symphony (1977) 

Pioneers of Celtic rock, Dublin’s Horslips took a Steeleye Spanstyle approach to their Irish roots and used Celtic mythology to create a giant concept album and enough flute to attract even the densest passing Jethro Tull fan. 

Celtic Symphony, themed around the Christian invasion of Ireland, is their sixth electroacoustic album. The melodies are strong, the playing is polished, and despite the sometimes contrived conceptual feel the songs are short and separate. A big influence on U2 and Big Country.View Deal

Sandy Denny: No More Sad Refrains: The Anthology (2000) 

After Fairport Convention, Sandy Denny formed Fotheringay and later pursued a solo career. She fell down the stairs to her death in 1978. While all her albums had high points, none really did her justice. 

This two-CD collection follows her from Fairport to 1977’s Rendezvous, focusing on her voice – one of the finest in British rock – and her songwriting. When both peak together, like on Who Knows Where The Time Goes, The Sea, The Pond And The Stream, and Listen Listen, the results are simply exquisite.View Deal

Nick Drake: Bryter Layter (1970) 

The second album from Drake is something of a respite from the stark introspection that linked his other albums. Backed by various members of Fairport Convention and some delicate brass, woodwind and string arrangements, his mournful folk style takes on a lighter, jazzier feel here, particularly on Hazy Jane I and II and At The Chime Of A City Clock

It’s not long before Drake’s dark side is lured out by the Velvet Underground’s John Cale on viola, celeste and harpsichord; check out Fly and perhaps Drake’s most perfectly realised song, Northern Sky.View Deal

Stealers Wheel: Stuck In The Middle – Hits Collection (1998) 

If Stealers Wheel hadn’t been so busy breaking up before, during and after each of the three albums they released in the early 70s they could have been Britain’s answer to Crosby Stills & Nash

Gerry Rafferty and Joe Egan had a peerless sense of harmony and melody and an understated yet compelling style. The Tarantino-revived Stuck In The Middle With You may be their only hit, but it has to fight for its place on this collection with other songs that, although less catchy, have a deeper appeal, particularly to alt.country fans.View Deal