Top Ten Albums From The Golden Age of UK Folk Music

Posted on 07 March 2011 by Joe

From the mid 1960s through to the early 1970s the UK folk music scene was transformed with a legacy that continues to influence indie and alternative artists to this day.

From America’s Midlake and Sweden’s Tallest Man on Earth to the UK’s current diverse folk scene of the likes of Tuung and The Unthanks the influences of this golden age of folk music were immense.

We thought it was about time that we paid tribute to this time and showcase some of the best albums produced by some familiar and less familiar names. We’ve drafted in folk music expert Garry Todd to compile this list for us as we present Neon Filler’s Top Ten Albums From The Golden Age of UK Folk Music.

1. Fairport Convention – Liege &Lief


Moving away from being the English Jefferson Airplane, and throwing off their predominantly American folk-psych influences, the band concocted this strange brew of ancient folk songs retooled for the psychedelic mindset. Born out of the tragic road accident which killed the original drummer, Martin Lamble, and seriously injured the rest of the band, Fairport’s fourth album is the philosopher’s stone of British folk rock. The first to fully realise an electrified British folk music.

The band’s alchemical manifesto is set out on opening song Come all ye in which Sandy Denny sets out to ‘Rouse the spirit of the Earth and move the rolling sky’. When Richard Thompson’s guitar takes flight duelling with Dave Swarbrick’s electric violin on Reynardine, it’s no mystery why this album was so influential.

2. Incredible String Band – The 5000 spirits or the layers of an onion


Out of the fertile folk scene of Scotland’s central belt, ISB were tremendously gifted musicians with a beatnik/proto hippie sensibility, who drew from a deep well of ethnic music, little heard at the time. Strong melodies augmented with keen harmonies and exotic arrangements, complement lyrics that range from whimsical conversations with clouds, to meetings with death and all points in between. They sound simultaneously ancient and modern all within the same song.

3. Roy Harper – Stormcock


Harper developed his idiosyncratic guitar style through years of itinerant wandering through Europe. On Stormcock he floats free from conventional songwriting, in a good way. His eddying fingerpicked guitar swells and rises over four long songs, bolstered with an orchestral arrangement and even Jimmy Page on one track. Often multitracking his voice into a epic chorus, Harper shifts register throughout in service of his songs. Throughout the album, Harper’s rails against religion, hypocrisy, power and it’s abuses with a sharp tongue and wit, with an occasional slide into low humour. The beautiful closing track, Me and My Woman, is where he finds some respite.

4. Bert Jansch – Rosemary Lane


Of all Jansch’s superb early albums, Rosemary Lane is the finest product of this purple patch. During a break from working with Pentangle, Jansch recorded the album at home with producer Bill Leader, as he had with his first few albums. Jansch makes these traditional songs truly his own, and the resulting ambience is intimate and immediate, as though the gentle melancholic lilt of Jansch’s hushed delivery were solely for you.

5. Shirley & Dolly Collins – Love, Death & The Lady


Dark, austere and forbidding, this beautiful, spare setting of traditional songs, is probably the peak of Shirley & Dolly Collins work. The arrangements of pipe organ and medieval instrumentation untether the mainly 19th century songs from their origins, setting them adrift in a melancholy world of their own. Shirley Collins has described herself being a conduit for the music. Her voice has an immediacy and purity, such clarity lost now, in an age of auto-tune and endless vibrato. The effect can beheartbreaking, as on Are you going to leave me?

6. Nick Drake – Five Leaves Left


It is hard to appreciate now that Nick Drake’s songs were once a precious secret. His albums reportedly sold less than 5000 copies each on original release, and were not widely available until released on CD in 1989. A fine guitarist with a strong lyrical style, his quiet, breathy delivery is supported on a bed of strings, adding drama and pathos to songs like River Man. Long overshadowed by the knowledge of his suicide, his music was sweetly introspective with a gentle melancholy often undercut by sly deprecative humour, as in Man in a Shed, or Poor Boy on his next album BryterLayter.

7. John Martyn – Bless The Weather


Bless the Weather was Martyn’s fifth album and his first solo album in what would  become his classic style, playing his guitar through an echoplex. Martyn develops his blend of Jazz, Folk and Rock into a spaced out hall of mirrors on Glistening Glyndebourne. His semi-slurred delivery only thickens from this point on, giving his songs a narcotic edge, even at their most romantic.

8. Comus – First Utterance


Murder ballads are a strong component of the folk repertoire. Comus took the murder ballad into the pagan wild woods and sacrificed it.  Although mostly acoustic the arrangements have a manic energy and intensity, which leaves most extreme rock looking puny and underfed. Roger Wooten, the lead singer and main songwriter sounds demonically possessed, throwing himself into the roles of rapist, murderer and asylum inmate with glee. The cover image of a twisted pain wracked man is fully representative of the lyrics. There are lighter moments but these are brief interludes before plunging back into the darkness. Step carefully into the forest.

9. Steeleye Span – Please to see the King


Ashley Hutchings left Fairport Convention after Liege and Leif, and founded Steeleye Span as a vehicle to delve deeper into traditional song. On their second album, Martin Carthy came on board and they went electric. With Carthy and Tim Hart the band had two strong male singers, but on the majority of songs Maddy Prior took the lead. All three harmonised terrifically throughout. Without drums the rhythm is carried through the interplay of guitar and bass, with violin often taking lead instrumental voice.

10. Lal & Mike Waterson – Bright Phoebus

Half of The Watersons make an original record with almost every significant musician in the British Folk Rock scene, it just has to be good, doesn’t it? Luckily, Bright Phoebus is a fantastic record with superb guitar work from Richard Thompson and Martin Carthy. Brilliant vocal harmonies from Lal and Mike are the centrepiece of glistening arrangements. There’s an eerie quality to most of the songs, listening to The Scarecrow will genuinely give you the shivers.

Compiled and written by Garry Todd

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8 Comments For This Post

  1. laret Says:

    Ok for all…They are a lot of others.Some reflections for me:for Steeleye Span,I prefer the first!For,FC,”Full House(my first album from the band) and “Angel Delight”,for the marvellous Incredible String Band “Wee Tam”!And the albums from Ashley Hutchings and all the Albion Band.I think Hutchings is one of the most important musician of the Folk(rock)music in England,Jean-Pierre(from Belgium!)

  2. Joe Says:

    Thanks Laret for adding to the list. Some other really good albums for our readers to seek out there. Here’s two more I’d like to add to the growing list. Bert Jansch’s first album and John Renbourn’s Sir John Alot. I first heard these as a kid as I looked through my dad’s record collection. I’ve been hooked ever since.

  3. Bob Says:

    I would have used Pentangle’s first album rather than Jansch’s solo album.

    That said, I did find the list rather puzzling in that it leaned heavily toward English folk/rock rather than UK folk (it seems difficult to label a list that excludes celtic music as “UK”). Also, mixing in singer/songriters (Drake and Harper particularly) also tended to confuse the issue for me.

  4. Joe Says:

    Bob, nice contradiction. Criticising the inclusion of Scottish musician Jansch and the English dominance of the list all at the same time. I guess no top ten list will please everyone. You have to remember that we are an indie and alternative music focused website, so for many of our readers these albums that have influenced so much of modern music will be new discoveries. Above all our ethos is that music should be enjoyable, even fun. Learned chin scratching about whether such and such is celtic, or whether Nick Drake is a folk singer or a singer-songwriter are not really what we are about. Feel free to add any other suggestions to the list though. Always keen to spread the word about good music.

  5. Bob Says:

    Given that Jansch was a founding member of Pentangle, I was hardly criticizing his inclusion :-). Sorry, I didn’t realize the ethos of your website. I just followed a link here.

    I think my point still stands, however: the list was about UK folk music, not musicians, wasn’t it? Planxty, 5 Hand Reel, Horslips … quite a slice of excellent UK folk music left out in the cold. :-)

    However, I didn’t mean to detract from your efforts to bring these masterpieces to light, and that is what all the albums on your list are, of course.

  6. Joe Says:

    Planxty are indeed excellent. I urge anyone reading this to follow Bob’s advice and check them out. Although, I’m not sure they or indeed Horslips would be happy to be referred to as UK Folk Music. The Republic of Ireland has been independent for a few years now. 😉

    I would hope that all music websites have the ethos that music should be enjoyed. Can’t believe there are any that don’t. :-)

  7. Joe Says:

    Planxty in action http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Z3A5Tgy47M

  8. Bob Says:

    Oh dear, I’ve exposed myself as a clueless USian …

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