Folk

Parliament “Osmium” (Invictus, 1970)

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Osmium captures Parliament (aka Funkadelic) at a time before their trademark stylistic traits had firmly solidified. Consequently, it’s a wildly diverse record, full of songs both expected (if you’re familiar with the P-Funk catalog) and very surprising—like, “check the record to make sure this is still the band from Detroit led by George Clinton” surprising. Yes, Osmium is at core a soul album, but it’s a helluva lot more, too. Because any George Clinton production—especially from the ’60s and ’70s—can never be typical.

Osmium—alternately titled Rhenium and First Thangs in subsequent releases; a 2016 reissue of it is floating around, too—begins with a prime slice of horndog funk, “I Call My Baby Pussycat,” with Eddie Hazel and Tawl Ross’ guitars and Billy Bass Nelson’s bass really setting fire under asses. Things grind to a solemn halt with “Put Love In Your Life,” a soul-gospel-tinged ballad sung with baritone gravity by Ray Davis… but then it unexpectedly shifts into a florid psych-pop anthem. Wow, my ears just got whiplash. If that weren’t strange enough, the Ruth Copeland-penned “Little Ole Country Boy” swerves into mock-country territory, replete with jaw harp, tabletop guitar embellishments, and Fuzzy Haskins’ Southern-honky vocal affectations; think the Rolling Stones, but with tongues more firmly jammed in cheek. More ear whiplash. Ouch! (Yes, De La Soul producer Prince Paul sampled the yodeling part for “Potholes In My Lawn.”)

“Moonshine Leather” peddles the sort of sublimely sluggish bluesy funk that occupied some of Funkadelic’s earliest releases, while “Oh Lord, Why Lord/Prayer” is a baroque-classical/gospel hybrid, sung with utmost passion and soul by Calvin Simon and Copeland. It’s definitely the frilliest and most churchy P-Funk track I’ve heard. As an agnostic, it sort of gives me hives, but there’s no denying the sincerity and skill behind the song.

Side two begins with “My Automobile,” yet more Stonesy faux country, but with sitar (?!) accompaniment, quickly followed by the revved-up, libidinous “Nothing Before Me But Thang,” which is the wildest, most Funkadelicized cut on Osmium. The struttin’, ruttin’ “Funky Woman” is indeed funky and ready to make any party you’re attending lit, as the kids say. The hippie-fied gospel rock of “Livin’ The Life” sounds like something off of Godspell or Hair, but it’s not bad at all.

Parliament saved the best for last with “The Silent Boatman.” Another Ruth Copeland composition (she also co-produced the LP, by the way), “The Silent Boatman” is one of the most beautiful and moving songs in all creation. A slowly building, majestic ballad aswirl in Bernie Worrell’s organ and glockenspiel, it’s a poignant tale lamenting inequality and strife on Earth and redemption in the afterlife. When the bagpipes come in, you feel as if you’re being swept up in a highly improbable dream in which Parliament become the most persuasive religious sect ever to enter a studio. Going way against type, “The Silent Boatman” might be the closest Clinton & company ever got to godliness. Ruth Copeland was their secret weapon, although she never again recorded another proper album with the group. But what a legacy she left. -Buckley Mayfield

Milton Nascimento- Minas (EMI, 1975)

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Some albums just ooze a singular atmosphere and vibe that transcend language or rational thought. Milton Nascimento’s Minas is one of those albums. A Brazilian singer-songwriter who boasts a commanding, supple vocal style, Nascimento has collaborated with many prominent American and English musicians (Wayne Shorter, Paul Simon, Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, Peter Gabriel, Jon Anderson, Cat Stevens, and, uh, Duran Duran), yet his own records aren’t that well known here. But among the record-collector cognoscenti, he’s revered as something of a prog-folk-soul genius. You could think of Nascimento as something of a South American Tim Buckley, but even that doesn’t quite nail his special talent.

My Brazilian import copy of Minas contains scant info about the recording, but maybe not knowing every detail of it somehow enhances the listening experience. Savor the mystery! Milton sings in Portuguese, a wonderfully musical language that has a warm, tranquilizing effect on me. He enlists a children’s choir on a couple of tracks, which is one of my least favorite ploys, but for some reason it’s not as cloying as usual in Nascimento’s hands. Much of Minas is deceptively beautiful; most of the songs here don’t immediately stun you, but rather over repeat listens their oddly alluring contours begin to make sense and trigger your pleasure centers. By the fifth listen, you’re convinced Minas is a classic song cycle as devastatingly moving as Buckley’s Starsailor, Joni Mitchell’s The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, or any of Scott Walker’s first four solo joints.

Minas‘ highlight is “Fé Cega, Faca Amolada” (which Royal Trux, of all people, reverently and authoritatively covered; look for it on their box set Singles, Live, Unreleased). Co-written with Ronaldo Bastos, this song finds Milton trading unbelievably expressive vocals with Beto Guedes as the music flares and lopes with balletic grace and soulful buoyancy, like some superhuman strain of tropical pop whose rewards will never cease. I’ve no idea what they’re singing, but the vocalists convey powerful uplift, and that lump in my throat is real. Someone at the usually trustworthy Dusty Groove site noted about Minas that “the backings have a positive, triumphant quality that’s extremely upbeat and bright, yet without sounding commercial at all.” This is accurate. Nascimento and his cohorts gently unleash a new kind of beauty on us here and we should all devote a good chunk of the rest of our lives to luxuriating in it—language barrier be damned. -Buckley Mayfield

Julie Tippetts “Sunset Glow” (Utopia, 1975)

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Sunset Glow came to my attention in the ’90s when underground-rock musician Bob Bannister of Tono Bungay mentioned in some zine that it was his favorite album of all time. That recommendation spurred me to search for the British soul vocalist’s debut LP, which I’ve only been able to find on CD. (Tip: A label could make a nice chunk of change with a vinyl repress of Sunset Glow.)

Previously Tippetts had sung with Brian Auger’s dynamite soul-jazz group the Trinity and had some success with their epic cover of Donovan’s “Season Of The Witch.” (Who didn’t back then?) With Auger, Tippetts—then known as Julie Driscoll; she changed her name when she married prog-rock keyboardist Keith Tippett—belted her numbers with flamboyant bravado and soulful throatiness. She has a voice you remember and savor. Its passion and timbre suggests she lives life to the fullest, and then some. So it’s somewhat of a surprise to dip into the aptly titled Sunset Glow and encounter a suite of seven songs that confront you on much more intimate and poised terms—although if you’re familiar with Driscoll’s superb 1969 album from ’71, the shock’s not quite so strong. In fact, they make wonderful companion pieces in her catalog.

Sunset Glow‘s opening song, “Mind Of A Child,” is a slow-blooming flower of summertime soul balladry that stands up with the best of your Joni Mitchells, Margo Guryans, and Linda Perhacses. You say “YES!” to it within a minute, and revel in its pensive bombast, if you have any damn sensitivity in you at all. “Oceans And Sky (And Questions Why?)” approaches a Linda and Sonny Sharrock-ian level of astral-jazz levitation and chaos. The title track carries a wandering, woebegone air that’s tempered with hints of optimism; one hears similarities here to Tim Buckley at his most oceanically amorphous.

“Lilies” and “What Is Living” find Tippetts in sublime mantric mode, singing in her most dulcet timbre and as if in a trance. You feel as if she and the band are slyly luring you into a slow vortex of sensuality and existentialism. The latter’s lyrics—“What is living—if you can’t live to love?/What is living—if you can’t love to give?/What is living—if you can’t give everything?/What is everything—if it’s not living?”—possess a satisfying circularity and humble wisdom. The final track, “Behind The Eyes (For A Friend, R),” is just Tippetts singing and playing piano in a tender, gorgeous tribute to the recently paralyzed Robert Wyatt. What a classy finale.

Tippetts enlisted a crack band of Canterbury prog musicians to help her realize her special vision, including her husband, various Soft Machine and Centipede members, and South African drummer Louis Moholo. They manifested an apotheosis of artful folk jazz that could almost be viewed as the British version of Tim Buckley’s Lorca. Yeah, it’s that sublime. -Buckley Mayfield

Beaver & Krause “Ragnarök (Electronic Funk)” (Limelight, 1969)

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Back in 1997, I spotted a tattered copy of Ragnarök in a New Orleans used-record shop. The sexuagenarian owner had carefully wrapped the entire cover with clear tape, as it was eroded and moldy with water damage. Intrigued, I asked the proprietor to play the record so I could determine if I wanted to drop the $34 he was asking for it. (At the time, that was a very large amount for me to spend on a used LP.) From the first seconds of the title track, I knew I had to have it, astronomical sum be damned. It sounded like the most sinister and strange dystopian-sci-fi-film theme this side of Gil Mellé’s Andromeda Strain score. Years later, I found a clean copy, but I’ve always kept the original to remind myself of that magical moment in NOLA that turned me on to the peculiar genius of synthesizer maestros Paul Beaver and Bernie Krause.

Before they cut Ragnarök, Beaver & Krause had put together the synth-demonstration box set The Nonesuch Guide To Electronic Music. It’s good for a listen or two, and then you put it on your shelf to impress collectors. In 1967, Beaver wilded out on a Moog in the Monkees’ “Star Collector.” And Krause played a key role in helping George Harrison record his 1969 Moog-powered LP Electronic Sound; side two was essentially Krause giving Harrison a synth tutorial, which Krause had no idea would be released and with which he wasn’t pleased. Around the same time, Krause and Beaver cut Ragnarök, their masterpiece—and, maddeningly, their hardest release to obtain. On the back cover, Beatles producer George Martin rhapsodizes about B&K’s Moog prowess: “Among the earliest to realize the potential of the instrument, their knowledge and technique of its use are unsurpassed.” The late studio wizard was on point.

Dropping the needle on Ragnarök, following the spook-out of “Ragnarök,” you get 180º’d by the folky ballad on Moog and 12-string guitar that is “The Fisherman.” It features Krause’s earnest, not-unpleasant vocals that verge on sentimentality and lyrics that derive from an 8th-century poem by Chinese writer Li Po. “Circle X” is an incredibly ominous and anguished piece of imaginary horror-flick musick that could’ve fit in well on David Lynch’s Eraserhead soundtrack. “Dr. Fox”—featuring kooky lyrics by Leonard Lipton, author of “Puff, The Magic Dragon”—is one of the zaniest electro-pop/pseudo-circus-music jams you (n)ever did hear. Heard while tripping on acid, “Dr. Fox” will reduce you to tears of hysterical laughter, especially the part where Krause sings, “Dr. Fox built the freaking brain box that freaks me out/Every time he plugs me in, I spin, I spin, I spin [chuckle], I spin” over bleeping-and-blorping synth spasms.

Similarly, you will not keep a straight face when hearing “Moogy Blues Funk,” an absurdly jaunty old-time ditty that’s gussied up with thickly distorted Moog belches. By contrast, “As I Hear It” boasts such a beautifully wistful melody that you just know it broke the hearts of Boards Of Canada when they (probably) heard it in the early ’90s. “Fountains Of The Dept. Of Water & Power” is a veritable wonderland of Moog-y ostinatos while “33rd Stanza Of A Hymn To Sancho Panza” conjures vertiginous space-synth menace. “Changes” and “Interplay”—which come from a film score called Breakthrough—are alternately stately and whimsical synthesizer studies, with a rare use of drums on the former.

This very odd LP has never been reissued on vinyl or CD. If there’s a good reason for this, music-industry sages, please inform us. Somebody—legitimately or not—needs to bring Ragnarök back into circulation. -Buckley Mayfield

Cat Stevens “Izitso” (A&M, 1977)

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After he became a folk-pop star but before he changed his name to Yusuf Islam and said harsh things about Satanic Verses author Salman Rushdie, British singer/songwriter/guitarist Cat Stevens released this odd little LP. It’s best known for the chart-dwelling “(Remember The Days Of The) Old Schoolyard,” a bit of grandiose, schmaltzy synth pop that sounds like Styx crossed with Genesis or something. Most of the rest of Izitso—a keyboard-heavy effort with Chick Corea, the Muscle Shoals rhythm section, and 11 freakin’ engineers on it—is about as insubstantial and forgettable as its title, a mix of mediocre, commercial rock bluster and effete electro pop. Today you can commonly find copies of it in bargain bins nationwide. You’ve probably passed over this one 17,000 times in your life, give or take a thousand. However, I would like to implore you to grab Izitso next time you see it, if only for the ridiculously named instrumental “Was Dog A Doughnut.”

Well before Herbie Hancock’s similar-sounding “Rockit” and even preceding Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express,” “Was Dog A Doughnut” effectively created the electro genre. Listen to the spacey array of synth tones hovering, percolating, and plinking around the stuttering, funky beats and that crazy dog-bark punctuation, which was actually a synthesizer setting and not a real or sampled canine. (Big ups to keyboardist Corea and guitarist Ray Gomez for their invaluable contributions.)
The fool who reviewed Izitso for Rolling Stone said “the electronics on ‘Was Dog A Doughnut’ are a bit too robotlike”—like that’s a bad thing. I wonder what the just right amount of “robotlike”ness would be to this critic. On the plus side, though, Roots drummer Questlove told Christine Kakaire of the redbullmusicacademy.com that Stevens was just fucking around “and created a B-boy classic. What was just him messing around for four minutes in the studio wound up being a staple in the hip hop world,which he was very shocked to discover.” Kakaire went on to note that DJ Jellybean Benitez used to play it out at the New York club the Funhouse in the early ’80s and he cut a remix of “Dog” that also became a club staple. Rave icon Frankie Bones is also a huge fan of Stevens’ most anomalous song.

The track has rightly become a cult classic, and it’s hilarious to think that an urban, club-oriented genre like electro emerged, willy-nilly, from the same brain as the troubadour who penned frilly folk-pop hits like “Lady D’Arbanville,” “Morning Has Broken,” and “Oh Very Young.” This qualifies as one of the music world’s greatest WTF? turn of events. Get thee to a bargain bin, posthaste. -Buckley Mayfield

Relatively Clean Rivers “Relatively Clean Rivers (Phoenix repress; orig. rel. 1975/1976)

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There’s an original copy of Relatively Clean Rivers’ first and only LP on the wall at a Portland record store that’ll cost you $800 (not a typo). It’s been sitting there for at least four or five years… although after this review goes live, probably for not much longer. Why the absurdly high price? I mean, Relatively Clean Rivers is a great record, but is it $800 great? Is any record worth that much? Maybe I’m not the best person to ask, as the most I’ve paid for a single album is $60. But enough about record-collector economics…

The brainchild of Orange County guitarist/vocalist/bassist Phil Pearlman (he also plays flute, “sahz,” harmonica, and synthesizer and is responsible for those crucial psych-rock opuses by Electronic Hole and Beat Of The Earth; his son was also a member of Al Qaeda, but don’t let that distract you from the sonic beauty at hand), Relatively Clean Rivers is a perfect combination of the Grateful Dead at their most concise and mellowest and Popol Vuh at their most accessible, e.g., Letzte Tage – Letzte Nächt. And if you love the Velvet Underground’s “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’,” it’s pretty certain you’ll dig Relatively Clean Rivers.

This music sounds like the archetypal output of stoned-to-the-bone American hippies in the summer of 1969: bathed in a golden glow of gentle acoustic and electric guitar ramble and choogle, bursting with yearning melodies that twang your heart strings with utmost delicacy, and topped with Pearlman’s peace-mongering lyrics (“Hoping we an all get together, the Arabs and the Jews/And melt down weapons into water sprinklers”) and just-soulful-enough, Garcia-soft vocals. Every song’s a blessed wallow in laid-back melodiousness, with just enough rhythmic oomph to get your hips swaying and your upper lip sweating. Front to back, RCR keeps your manageable high at a sensible hum. It sounds best at sundown by the water with your tightest homies (especially “Hello Sunshine”), but these songs can elevate your mood wherever and whenever you happen to be.

In actuality, Relatively Clean Rivers is so great, I can’t fully trust anyone who doesn’t love it like Donald Trump loves attention. But I still wouldn’t pay 800 freakin’ US dollars for it. So thank you, Phoenix Records, for the reasonably priced reissue. -Buckley Mayfield

The Byrds “Mr. Tambourine Man” (Columbia, 1965)

MI0000506004The debut album by The Byrds charged forward with that jangly guitar sound, tambourines (of course) and woven harmonies that would become the template for many a folk or heartland rock band. Guitars are intricate with vocals complexly joined, bringing roots to rock format without substantial loss of the prior form.

Whether folkies see their rock and folk union as a watering down of tradition is another matter; as a rock exploration it opened doors. Their work of co-opting Dylan songs may have even helped lead Dylan to pick up an electric guitar, to most of his fans chagrin. But that’s just theorizing, since the only real connection is that this album and his infamous amplified set share the same year in history.

The album itself is in fine stereo presentation, and it sounds pretty close to a document as you’ll get from them before psychedelics and acid rock lead to more adventurous work in a studio vein. You can almost hear it coming in retrospect but with this album you have the best performance culminations of the Beatles and Dylan, with care given to the humble forms they lift up into rock celebrity. -Wade

The Fugs “Virgin Fugs” (ESP Disc, 1967)

220px-Virgin_FugsGross, confusing, sexy and a good laugh, “Virgin Fugs” comprises outtakes from previous Fugs albums and has a number of new songs to deliver their messages of vulgarity.

They are from the East Side, they hate the war, they love sex, and next thing you know they are awake all night on amphetamines making a racket. Any music produced is square one primitive stuff; maracas and tambourines shake, guitars chug and anything that can act as rhythmic engine is used for brothers Kupferburg and friends to push their righteous smut.

As famous as The Fugs are, they may be most well known for having C.I.A. Man covered by the even more popular Sun City Girls. You may remember that charting hit when you were a kid, you know, the one about how the C.I.A. operates:

“Who has got the secret-est service? The one that makes the other service nervous?
Fucking-a man! (Fucking-A! C-I-A!)”

Released by ESP early on, these guys are the best parts, comedically anyway, of hippiedom around them and punk rockers ahead. But mostly they are just The Fugs. -Wade

Bert Jansch “Rosemary Lane” (1971)

I don’t understand why this record is so overlooked. Perhaps it’s because at the time of its release, when every other 1960s folkie was busy going electric in the wake of Liege and Lief, Bert — ever the nonconformist — chose to go the other direction. This is nearly all-acoustic, and it might be his most gentle and heartbreakingly sad record ever. There’s a dreamy, hazy vibe to much of the music — one of the tracks is even titled “A Dream, A Dream, A Dream” — that creates a timeless feel; by which I mean not that the music hasn’t dated (although it hasn’t), but that it actually seems to stop time. I don’t think Jansch ever topped his vocal on “Tell Me What is True Love”, and it goes without saying that his guitar playing is superb. Seek it out. Fun Fact: Psych-folk supergroup Espers did the title track on their covers album The Weed Tree. –Brad

Lindisfarne “Fog On the Tyne” (1971)

This album came along in the States at a time when groups like Sandy Denny, Fairport Convention, Strawbs, Nick Drake and a bunch of others were plying the waters of Celtic folk rock. But Alan Hull & Company were different; these guys were as ragged as Fairport in their loosest moments — but they could be as polished and sharp as the Strawbs in their best moments. These guys were tight, multi-instrumentalists that played in the best of the tradition of English folk bands of the late 60′s and early 70′s. Steeleye Span, Jethro Tull and Gryphon were also contemporaries of Lindisfarne and had nothing on these guys. If you like any of the bands mentioned here and you’ve never added any Lindisfarne to your collection, you are missing a real treat here. Fog On the Tyne is Lindisfarne’s best effort overall (though many of their albums are very good) and their combination of rich, instrumental passages is backed by thick and bawdy harmonies in a very British and rollicking sensibility. The band’s guitar, mandolin and a seeming hundred other stringed instrument attack — along with a great rythym section on the bass and drums — gives them a sound that holds up well even today, thirty years later. Sadly, I heard somewhere that Alan Hull passed away recently, so there will be no nostalgia tours or “here we are again” releases from Lindisfarne. Get this one. It’s simply great. —R. Lindeboom

Incredible String Band “The 5000 Spirits Or The Layers Of The Onion” (1967)

The second ISB album, regarded by many as a peak moment in the evolution of the British psychedelic underground. Following the release of the band’s trio debut in the summer of 1966, Clive Palmer had split for Afghanistan, Robin Williamson had taken his girlfriend, Licorice McKechnie, to Morocco for an open-ended stay, and Mike Heron had opted to stay in Edinburgh. Heron returned to playing rock music, but in late 1966, Williamson came back from Marrakesh, bearing a wealth of strange North African musical instruments, and an equal number of compositional ideas.

Before long, the two had reformed the ISB as a duo, and they soon began woodshedding in a rural Scottish cottage. Joe Boyd, who had produced the first LP, had started a new club in London called the UFO, in partnership with John “Hoppy” Hopkins (the founder of The International Times). Boyd felt the scene was boiling over and was convinced the ISB had their part to play. He visited the pair, suggesting he become their manager and that they record a second album. The sessions for The 5000 Spirits Or The Layers Of The Onion happened at John Wood’s London studio in late spring 1967, and featured the lovely bass work of Danny Thompson (who had joined Pentangle two months earlier), the vocals of Licorice, and guest spots for “Hoppy”’s piano and Nazir Jairazbhoy’s sitar.

The album was released to great fanfare in July, 1967, just as the ISB was returning from an appearance at the Newport Folk Festival. With its uber-psych cover art by Dutch design firm The Fool (then being envied for their work with The Beatles), and classic songs (traditional folk, swathed in kaftans, incense and finger cymbals), 5000 Layers was truly a record for its time. Hailed by everyone from John Peel to Paul McCartney, the album went to Number One on the UK folk charts, and was an omnipresent accessory in every student garret. Four-plus decades on, it remains one of the all-time readymade classics of the ‘60s. —Forced Exposure

The Antiquarian Ear:
A Guide to the British Folk Renaissance

The evolution of folk music in Britain and America in the early to mid-20th century can be viewed as two essentially parallel lines. In both increasingly mechanistic and bureaucratic societies, listeners connected with folk as a more authentic musical expression of being and as a link to the cultures to which their countries’ rapid modernization was laying waste . In late 50’s Britain, it could even be argued that American folk and blues eclipsed that of the British strain in popularity. Indeed, the British Invasion of the following decade could never have been mounted had it not been for skiffle, a hybrid of blues, folk, country, and other indigenous American musical forms embraced by millions of British teenagers—including four certain ones from Liverpool.

But by the late-60’s these two paths would dramatically diverge. Many British musicians began to look less westward and further inward by “getting it together in the country” and seeking solace and inspiration in the myths, folklore, and landscapes of “Albion”, a storied antiquarian world that occupied the collective consciousness of many Britons and whose history stretched back to ancient times. This aesthetic would come to define one of modern Britain’s most fertile musical movements. Peaking in the early 70’s, it passionately and reverently embraced the traditions, heritage, and culture of a much older Britain while doing so with restless, forward-thinking imagination and experimentation. Recently, this movement was finally given the scholarly treatment it deserves in Rob Young’s excellent book, Electric Eden. It’s a must-read for anyone wishing to traverse this mythic soundscape. A few of these definitive selections will also help you begin the odyssey, from which you may never return:

Bert Jansch Jack Orion (1966). With just a guitar, a banjo, his voice, and occasional musical accompaniment from friend and fellow British folk icon John Renbourne, Jansch (who passed away this past autumn) made it clear the endless possibilities inherent in this newly realized version of British folk. Melding traditional Anglo and Celtic musical forms with blues and jazz sensibilities, Jansch laid the template for much of what would come out of Britain over the next few years. Highlights include the title track, a re-imagining of the “Glasgerion” ballad, and a similar reworking of another canonical ballad, “Blackwaterside”, this version of which Jimmy Page would shamelessly pilfer for his own “Black Mountain Side”, which appeared on Led Zeppelin’s 1968 debut.

The Pentangle The Pentangle (1968). This LP marks the first in a string of stunning releases by Britain’s first true “supergroup” comprised of guitarists Bert Jansch and John Renbourne, bassist Danny Thompson, drummer Terry Cox, and vocalist Jacqui MacShee. Their ethereal sound owed just as much to jazz as it did to folk, causing many to refer to it as “folk-jazz”. Whatever categorizations one wants to throw at the Pentangle are ultimately meaningless. Nothing before or since has ever sounded like them, and this album is where it all began.

The Incredible String Band The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter (1968). The ISB’s third album does not receive as many accolades as their second, The 5000 Spirits or Layers of an Onion [read our review], but in terms of adventurousness, risk-taking, and sheer other-worldliness, in the British folk canon The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter is almost without peer. Flush from the success of the aforementioned second LP, members Mike Heron and Robin Williamson utilized complex multi-tracking recording techniques and a large assortment of exotic acoustic and electric instruments to create this unforgettable psych-folk classic. Its centerpiece, the 13+ minutes “A Very Cellular Song”, is a spiritual freeform freakout that combines a Bahamian lullaby with a Sikh hymn, and it just might be their finest achievement. Another huge influence on Zep, Robert Plant has often cited it as the primary field manual consulted during the making of Led Zeppelin III.

Nick Drake Five Leaves Left (1969). Appearing from out of nowhere on the London folk club circuit in the mid-60s, Drake quickly caught the ear of producer Joe Boyd (perhaps British folk’s most important major player), after which the singer would be booked into London’s Sound Technique Studios to record this debut. Drake’s tragic personal and music career trajectory is now well-known, and the problems that plagued the production and release of this LP were not outside of this narrative. At odds with Boyd from the beginning regarding many of the songs’ backing arrangements, the strings that ended up on the final cut nevertheless compliment Drake’s lyrics and fretwork perfectly, particularly on the majestic “River Man”. What’s also striking is how confident and assured he still managed to sound here, every bit as melancholy and intense as ever but less damaged and defeated than he often sounded in his later work.

Fairport Convention Liege and Lief (1969). Also produced by Joe Boyd, the Fairport’s fourth release followed Unhalfbricking [read our review], the typical favorite of aficionados. But ultimately, Liege and Lief remains the band’s most important contribution to British folk. A magnificently paradoxical work, all the songs here are traditional ballads, reels, or jigs featuring Sandy Denny’s angelic vocals soaring above distorted amplified instruments. This would be the last album that Denny recorded with the band, next joining Fotheringay [read our review] for their sole 1970 release, which also holds a rightful place in the British folk canon.

Vashti Bunyan Just Another Diamond Day (1970). Among British folk’s diverse cast of eccentric characters, Vashti Bunyan has one of the most fascinating stories. Following a failed late-60s attempt at establishing herself as a female pop star a la Marianne Faithful, Bunyan and her boyfriend embarked on a trek across Britain in a horse-drawn wagon, eventually settling on a remote farm in the Outer Hebrides. Shortly thereafter, Joe Boyd (surprise!) coaxed her back into the studio to record this LP. Bunyan’s travels obviously gave her a lot of material to work with here, and her connection to the rugged, windswept Scottish landscape can be felt in songs like “Hebridean Sun”, “Rose Hip November”, and “Rainbow River”. Released in 1970, the record sold very few copies and promptly vanished into obscurity. Bunyan then left the music business and moved to Ireland to raise a family and continue her agrarian existence, presumably to be never heard from again. Meanwhile, the album grew in stature over the following decades, its original pressing becoming a big ticket collector’s piece and its songs becoming a huge influence on some American indie folk artists, most notably Davandra Banhart and Joanna Newsome. This renewed interest in Bunyan’s work lead to a loving reissue of this essential album, and the recording of a new one in 2005, Lookaftering, which was almost as good.

Steeleye Span Please to See the King (1971). A band with more than a passing resemblance to Fairport Convention (female lead vocalist, electrified arrangements of traditional material—it also didn’t hurt that founding member Ashley Hutchings was a previous member of the Fairports), Steeleye Span would prove to be one of British folk’s most enduring acts. Ironically, they lacked a drummer, but oftentimes they rocked harder than many bands who had one. This second album saw the arrival of Martin Carthy, an already huge presence on the British folk scene. Here he by no means hogs the spotlight, and his stellar guitar playing and supporting vocals make a perfect foil for lead vocalist Maddy Prior. This was the best lineup of Steleye Span, but it unfortunately lasted for only two more albums, neither of them nearly as good as this one.

The Strawbs From the Witchwood (1971). By the time of this release, the Strawbs had been around for a while, their earliest incarnation being more of a straight folk act (which briefly counted future Fairports’ vocalist Sandy Denny as a member). But over time they gravitated more towards a folk-rock sound, and with the addition of keyboardist Rick Wakeman here the band moved further into prog territory, a blessing or a curse depending on your personal tastes. Despite its studio wizardry and modern instrumentation, the Strawbs maintain a strong psychic connection to their homeland’s past. There are many fine moments here, including the daydreamy “Flight”. But the LP’s most memorable track is its side 1 closer, “The Hangman and the Papist”, a tragic tale of betrayal and injustice that could only have emerged from one of the darker chapters of Britain’s history.

Shirley Collins and the Albion Country Band No Roses (1971). This record represents a fruitful collaboration between another established folk icon, Shirley Collins, and a band that could have been called “Fairport Span” since many members of the Fairports (includiing Richard Thompson) and Steeleye Span participated in its recording. Actually, by the time of the album’s final mix, over 27 musicians had logged in time in the studio. Yet the record still retains a strong focus and clarity of purpose. The raucous “Murder of Maria Martin” illustrates what the Velvet Underground and Nico might have sounded like had it been recorded in the Scottish Highlands rather than New York.

Richard and Linda Thompson I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight (1974). After Thompson’s first solo outing, 1973′s Henry the Human Fly, singer Linda Peters, to whom he had recently married, joined him for his second outing, which would unexpectedly become the high watermark of his career. Almost everything about this record stands in stark contrast to the Utopian ideals that largely characterized the British folk movement in its earlier days, from its disturbing minimalist cover to the no-frills (mostly electric) guitar, drum, and bass arrangements . The lyrical content is much more personal than mythical or historical, and it often conveys a sense of loneliness, loss, and failure. Even some of the more upbeat material, like the title track, shows an abandonment of the country life and an embracing of an urban one. The deeply cynical “The End of the Rainbow” in a way serves as a fitting epitaph for a movement nearing its end.

Further Listening: At least a brief mention should be made about Ireland’s folk scene of this period. On many levels it can be difficult to distinguish it from that of Britain’s, as most Irish artists of merit ended up working in London (or, as was the case with the Clancy Brothers, New York). But one group who never got its due was Sweeney’s Men, a Galway-based trio whose sound embodied a beguiling mix of traditional Irish folk, eastern influences, and psychedelia. They only released two proper albums during their existence, which are nearly impossible to find. Fortunately, Castle Records released a wonderful anthology in 2004, Legend of Sweeney’s Men, which collects almost everything they ever recorded

For all intents and purposes, the arrival of punk rock in the late ’70s killed off what was left of the British folk movement. Many folk artists, including the ones listed above, adapted to the changing times successfully, but very few recorded anything as significant as the landmark LPs of their pasts. A high-profile revival—a British equivalent of the American alt-country movement of the early ’90s—never really materialized, which now seems strange. Yet today, bands like Mumford and Sons hint that such an event might be on the horizon. Who knows? Maybe a new generation of musicians will one day return to Albion and draw inspiration from it in ways that are just as new and exciting as those of their elders. To quote Nick Drake, “Time will tell us.” —Richard P

Are we forgetting your favorite late-60’s or 70’s British Folk or Folk-Rock LP? Leave your suggestions in the comments field below: