Shelleyan Orphan “Helleborine” (1987)

Shelleyan Orphan are one of those peculiar little groups that show up once in a while, make some stunning music, and then disappear. They have no peers, so trying to describe who they sound like is impossible. They are etherial, and never more so than on their first album “Helleborine,” a stunning mix of orchestral sweetness and lyrical mastery. Long before their demise into songs with titles like “Dead Cat,” the Orphans were writing songs like “Epitaph Ivy and Woe,” juxtaposing the generally sweet and upbeat timbre of the music with the often graphic lyrics describing a cemetery and a charnel house. On “Anatomy of Love,” vocalist Caroline Crawley asks the same questions that anyone that is in love asks: “Does it still move you? Does it still make you feel that?” “Cavalry of Cloud,” with it’s gorgeous introduction, will give you chills. “Helleborine,” the album’s only instrumental track, is another example of the artistic beauty the Orphans had a complete mastery of. This was their supreme moment, and when they began their fall, they would fall far. —Eric

John Prine “John Prine” (1971)

People who don’t listen to country music much tend to consider John Prine a country artist, it seems, while people who do listen to country music consider him a folk artist. I guess non-country fans are taken by how country-sounding this music is; and I guess country fans are taken by how un-country these lyrics are. This could be called country music in retrospect, but Nashville didn’t put up with songs that deal with the subjects Prine wrote about. Still doesn’t, in fact.

Some singer-songwriters of this era wrote both funny songs and serious songs. Jim Croce did it. So did Prine’s pal Steve Goodman. And Jimmy Buffett. But Prine was different–he somehow blended his humor together with his more serious sentiments, rather than separating “funny” songs from “serious” ones. It’s uncanny, really.

For instance, “Illegal Smile” is completely goofy, but its message–that marijuana is fun and makes him happy and should be legal–is crystal clear. “Sam Stone” is a devastating depiction of a drug-addicted vet who unravels after the war, yet Prine makes it subtly funny the way only he could. Is there a better, funnier way to describe a junkie parent from a child’s perspective than the line, “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes”? Just about all these songs make you laugh but also make a point or at least tell a good story. —Rocket88

Leonard Cohen “Songs of Love and Hate” (1971)

This albums is absolutely bone-chilling and perfect for peripatetic journeys through dark nights. The biggest drawback of prolific wordsmiths like Dylan and Cohen is the acute degree of attention they necessitate and compel. “Avalanche” begins with a sinister broken chord and Cohen’s famous growl/murmur, more disturbing than the confessional howls of Kurt Cobain, more bleak than the sassy, impudent yelp of Johnny Rotten, more numinous than the transcendental whimpers of the Buckleys, Elliott Smith, & co. “Diamonds in the Mine” sees Cohen delving into unfamiliar territory, as the typically monotonous raconteur approaches the drunken, bluesy passion of Tom Waits and Captain Beefheart, imposed over a queerly saccharine chorus. Always an asset, the backing female choir is never eerier than in “Dress Rehearsal Rag.”

Remarkably, Cohen crafts not only stories but songs, not only songs but tunes, which at their best evoke the timelessness of Dylan’s. Although to label anything Cohen has written as “catchy” or, even more absurdly, “singable,” would probably discredit this review, “Dress Rehearsal Rag” and “Love Calls You by Your Name” feature conspicuous choruses, while the opening lines “Avalanche” refuses to leave you, and “Diamonds in the Mine” not only permits but invites a sing-a-long. —Garrett

John Martyn “Solid Air” (1973)

Solid Air is an amazingly effective amalgamation of blues, folk, and jazz. Though I can’t think of any album that sounds similar musically, Solid Air reminds me of Astral Weeks because it creates an emotion that is entirely its own. The title track drew me in; Martyn uses his voice like an instrument so it melts into the saxophone part, creating a totally unique sound. The album continued to be a mesmerizing listening experience and it shows off Martyn’s handle of a wide variety of musical styles. “Over The Hill” and “May You Never” are folk masterpieces, the former highlighted by Richard Thompson’s fabulous mandolin performance and the latter with its unforgettable melody. “I’d Rather Be The Devil” and “Dreams By The Sea” are both exciting, menacing tracks that show off Martyn’s skills on electric guitar with his impressive command of the Echoplex guitar effect. The former builds in tension and then crashes down into a peaceful musical section that ends the song on a serene note. The latter recreates some of the jazzy atmosphere of the title track with another fantastic saxophone part. “Don’t Want To Know,” “Go Down Easy” and “Man In The Station” are mellow but engaging folk tracks where the combination of Martyn’s voice and the tinkling instrumental parts are quite soothing. “The Easy Blues” shows Martyn’s strengths as an acoustic blues performer and the album closes on an uplifting, peaceful note with “Gentle Blues.” The album is so consistent, it is impossible for me to pick favorites. It simply deserves five stars. —Nathan

John Fahey “The Voice of the Turtle” (1968)

Like some of John Fahey’s other projects in the ’60s, this was actually recorded and assembled over a few years, and primarily composed of duets with various other artists (including overdubs with his own pseudonym, “Blind Joe Death”). One of his more obscure early efforts, Voice of the Turtle is both able and wildly eclectic, going from scratchy emulations of early blues 78s and country fiddle tunes to haunting guitar-flute combinations and eerie ragas. “A Raga Called Pat, Part III” and “Part IV” is a particularly ambitious piece, its disquieting swooping slide and brief bits of electronic white noise reverb veering into experimental psychedelia. Most of this is pretty traditional and acoustic in tone, however, though it has the undercurrent of dark, uneasy tension that gives much of Fahey’s ’60s material its intriguing combination of meditation and restlessness. —Richie Ubermench

Fotheringay “Fotheringay” (1970)

After her successful and excellent beginnings with Fairport Convention, Sandy Denny carries on surprising us with new gems with Fotheringay. Unfortunately this new band will officially release only one album and Sandy will carry on in a solo career. The 3 masterpieces are first the haunting and emotional “Banks of the Nile” another thrilling war song with delicate acoustic accompaniment and very soulful singing. “Winter Winds” is also an absolute folk beauty backed by a wonderful acoustic riff between each verse.
At last, the opener “Nothing More” is the 3rd Sandy Denny gem here. “The Sea” is another very attaching song also sung by Sandy. Among the songs songs not sung by her, “Peace in the End” and “The Way I Feel” are 2 other wonders. The first one has pleasant backing vocals while the second one has a haunting guitars backing and medieval melody in a fast tempo. There is not a single mediocre song here. This album is truly a must-have if you are into folk, folk-rock music. —Paul

Sandy Bull “Fantasias for Guitar & Banjo” (1963)

The face of folk music changed forever when Sandy Bull blended folk with jazz and Indian music on his otherworldly debut. He was years ahead of his time: in 1963 rock and folk music meant simple, three-minute songs while he was composing long, progressive, improvised jams. Bull also played nearly every instrument on the record and was an early adopter of using tapes while playing live. In “Blend” Bull and Ornette Coleman drummer Billy Higgins create a massive, supreme folk suite, with elements of traditional western and eastern music and American primitivism was born. “Carmina Burana Fantasy” is an interpretation of a classical piece (prog-rock?). “Gospel Tune” was folk with electric guitar two years before Bob Dylan plugged in. “Little Maggie” is  simple song for guitar and banjo. Everything is instrumental, monumental, and open-minded. Nearly fifty years later, Fantasias for Guitar & Banjo still sounds like music from another world. –Zielona

Leonard Cohen “Songs of Love and Hate” (1971)

Never the most chipper of performers, Cohen seems to have stopped taking his happy pills here, but the album is all the better for it as far as I’m concerned. Songs about religion? Check. Anguish? Check. Love? Check. No sex though..must be his impotent period. But anyway, it’s just fabulous from start to finish, and contains some of his best lyrics, especially “Avalanche”, “Famous Blue Raincoat”, and “Diamonds In The Mine”. The latter track finds him nearly losing it like some angry lounge singer, his background vocalists barely keeping him in check. There was never any doubt Leonard Cohen was a poet, but both his written word and music shine perfectly in unison here. Speaking of poetry, if you’re a woman in college right now and some smooth character is shooting you provocative looks from the poetry section in the library, run like hell. I know he’s probably holding a copy of Cohen’s “Beautiful Losers” and has a wine collection, but he’s not worth it. Trust me. –Neal

The Incredible String Band “The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion” (1967)

Yes, I think this is even better than The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter. The difference is while that record gets its strength from its total weirdness — it meanders in the best sense — this one has actual songs: great, great songs that will move you, make you laugh and make you think. “First Girl I Loved” alone is enough to get you seeking out this record, but add to that the prescient sarcasm of “Back In The 1960s” (which foresees the death of the hippie ideal before it had even begun), the Wind In The Willows on acid of “Little Cloud” and “The Hedgehog Song” (The Archbishop of Canterbury’s fave ISB number!) and the simply beautiful “Painting Box”. Plus I love the way Williamson sings. For those of you who wonder what “The Fool On The Hill” would have been liked if Lennon had written it. –Brad

Fairport Convention “Unhalfbricking” (1969)

While Liege And Lief may very well be a more revolutionary and influential album than Unhalfbricking, I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking the latter even better than the former. As both their last album as “England’s Answer To Jefferson Airplane” and their first to move decisively towards traditional folk (and to feature Dave Swarbrick), it straddles both camps effortlessly. Of course both Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny contribute two excellent songs each, of which my favourite has always been the jazzy “Autopsy” (what a wonderful drummer Martin Lamble was!). Of course, “Who Knows Where The Time Goes” isn’t exactly a throwaway either. There’s no less than three Bob Dylan tracks, all of them unreleased by Bob in 1969, including the very moving “Percy’s Song”, featuring ex-Fairporter Ian Matthews on harmony vocals. (While this song had been recorded while he was still in the band, it began a tradition of ex-members making cameo appearances on new Fairport records that has made them see less like a band and more like a family.) The stunner, though, has to be the wonderful performance of the traditional song “A Sailor’s Life”, reputedly recorded in one take. I’ll take this one over all of Liege And Lief, thanks. Unlike some of Fairport’s other records, this one hasn’t aged a bit, and there’s absolutely no filler tracks. –Brad

Townes Van Zandt “Townes Van Zandt” (1969)

More than any other of Van Zandt’s albums this reflects how unhappy the man must have been with his debut “For The Sake Of The Song.” No less than four of the tracks on here first appeared on that earlier work and, without exception, all are better for the reworking. The lovely Spanish guitar refrains of “For The Sake Of The Song” and “(Quicksilver Daydreams Of) Maria” bring out the best in the plaintive, lovelorn lyrics. “I’ll Be Here In The Morning” is reborn as a tale of a lonesome cowboy heading back home to his true love and “Waiting Around To Die” simply stands as one of Van Zandt’s finest songs. In fact I can give this no more praise than it bears comparison with Dylan’s early folk albums – because, have no doubts, this is a folk album not a country album. And a very sparse one at that. The fact there is so much emotion and feeling on display is down to the voice and the words rather than the music. For instance I have no idea what “Lungs” is really about but it is poetically intense in its imagery and compelling in its tale of loneliness and failure. Equally the depiction of nature as an extension of the human condition in the likes of “Columbine” is both moving and powerful.

After listening to a number of Van Zandt’s albums, I’ve come to realise that sometimes the word underrated –although hackneyed and simplistic – is appropriate. To a certain degree, the word undiscovered is also extremely apt in this case because there are a great deal of revered singer-songwriters performing in the same field who don’t come anywhere close to having the sheer emotive power and impact of Van Zandt. He deserves all the plaudits thrown in his direction and I will definitely continue to mine his back catalogue. –Ian

Judee Sill “Heart Food” (1973)

I’ve heard Joni Mitchell, and I’ve heard Laura Nyro, and without wanting to denigrate either of those fine artists, I think Judee Sill’s better than either of them. Actually, that’s not quite fair; Sill reminds me more of Brian Wilson and his “teenage symphonies to God” than either Mitchell or Nyro. Like Wilson, there’s a sense of childlike wonder to Judee; like Wilson, both talk a lot about God (and, in Sill’s case, Jesus) without being explicitly Christian; instead God is used as a name for the Other, the Muse. And, like Wilson, Sill fuses all sorts of musics — pop, soul, doo-wop, folk, “cosmic cowboy music” similar to Gene Clark’s — with an elaborate sense of orchestration to come up with something completely open, gorgeously sunny, wistfully dark and totally sensuous. In his liner notes to the CD reissue, XTC’s Andy Partridge talks about the “velvet milk” of this record, and that’s a perfect description of its plushness (but not lushness). Anyone who could hear “The Donor” and not acclaim its composer as a pop genius doesn’t deserve a record player. You can, charitably, see why it didn’t sell in 1973: just too damn individual and demanding a listen. Then again, Pet Sounds didn’t sell either. –Brad