10 Essential Psychedelic Folk Albums

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Psychedelic Folk albums

Fifteen years ago, indie music press had a new summer obsession: Freak folk. Though none of the artists associated with the sound cared for the term, and the term itself had been floating around for more than a decade due to a number of reissued obscure acoustic ’60s and ’70s albums that reemerged in the ’90s, it nonetheless found a new audience in young people attracted to the medieval plucks of Joanna Newsom and the drone-and-yelp of early Animal Collective. But really it was all part of a much longer tradition of psychedelic folk that stretched back to the ’60s. Initially associated with groups like Holy Modal Rounders and Pearls Before Swine, psychedelic folk soon became a staple of the ’60s counterculture, with hippie strummers adopting the textural and stylistic conceits of avant garde composition and Hindustani classical music. Much like The Beatles famously did, in fact, but in the context of the folk tradition; in fact, folk music is built on the foundation of the past, and in the psychedelic era, that simply included a much broader representation of the past, with a dose of surrealism and dissonance to fit the moment. Over the past five decades, psych-folk has thrived and evolved, and it’s had subsequent moments in the sun. But what’s interesting about it is that it expands outward, its influences and foundation growing each time a new interpretation is released. This week, we take a look at 10 of the best albums the genre’s produced. This isn’t an end-all be-all list; there are dozens and dozens of artists worth exploring (and we haven’t even gotten into Sun City Girls, which is a topic that warrants its own article). But this should serve as a solid starter set of psychedelic folk records that deserve a spin on the turntable.

essential psychedelic folk albums DonovanDonovan – Sunshine Superman

(1966; Epic)

Turning away from his usual folk albums, Donovan’s 1966 album Sunshine Superman may be described as “bubblegum psychedelic.” With its lighter tones and almost whimsical melodies, this album feels as if you are lying in a vast field of flowers and rainbows. Very much in the vibe of a more drug-than-bug Beatles’ tune (though one doesn’t have to be on drugs to make such sounds) with hints of Indian or Eastern influences, Sunshine Superman moves at times at its own pace and is never in a hurry, as with the track “Three King Fishers.” Retaining his folk-roots, Donovan looks back to the Legend of Arthur in “Guinevere,” in languid and tender vocals and guitar strumming. Truly a British musician with a lazy-day mission, singer-songwriter Donovan’s 1966 album is not one to pass up while exploring the psychedelic genre and its many facets of rock, pop, and folk. – KR

essential psychedelic folk Incredible String BandThe Incredible String Band – The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter

(1968; Elektra)

Suppose some cosmic mirthmaker travels back in time a couple hundred years to spike everyone’s drink in an Elizabethan pub with some pretty potent doses of LSD. Well, you’d get something like The Incredible String Band’s third album, an album as much a product of the 1960s as it is completely apart from it. “The Minotaur’s Song,” with its barroom singalongs, and “Koeeoaddi There,” rife with the buzz of sitars, each show a different aspect of the band, though it’s the sprawling centerpiece “A Very Cellular Song” that offers 13 minutes of The Incredible String Band at their strongest and most inventive. Everything here is weird and merry and strange, yet always inviting and warm. As long, strange trips go, it’s an awfully comforting one. – JT

essential psychedelic folk Tim BuckleyTim Buckley – Happy Sad

(1969; Elektra)

At just 20 years old, Tim Buckley entered a phase of his career that stands as a period of creative fertility that yielded five outstanding albums in just three years. Happy Sad is the second of these, his third overall, the sweet spot between his jazziest grooves and LSD-laced freakouts (the latter of which would reach an almost nightmarish peak on 1970’s Starsailor). Happy Sad isn’t harrowing or intense, but cool and weird, like a much funkier answer to Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks with nods to the likes of Miles Davis. From the opening “All Blues”-lifted groove of “Strange Feelin’,” Buckley guides a session intoxicated with voodoo and who knows what else, a smoky and searing moment of psychedelic singer/songwriter ecstasy. What lies beyond is a “singer/songwriter” album in name only, the end result the best bohemian jam session ever caught on tape. – JT

essential psychedelic folk Linda PerhacsLinda Perhacs – Parallellograms

(1970; Kapp)

California singer/songwriter Linda Perhacs became a cult sensation decades after releasing her debut album in 1970, and in the decades afterward she worked as a dentist, only in the past decade returning to recording new music. It’s a shame that Parallelograms flew under the radar for so long, but in retrospect the album’s a little like a gentle hallucination or a visitation from a ghost. It gives the listener a sensation of having been briefly haunted. These songs drift through the subconscious, each one an out-of-body experience more than a performance. There are grooves, like the funky raga of “Moons and Cattails.” And there are nigh-ASMR tingles in tracks like “Chimacum Rain.” But it’s in the title track where Perhacs’ penchant for exploratory weirdness truly shines, with sonic details and far-out stylistic shifts set her apart from the rest of the post-Summer-of-Love hippie guitar pluckers. – JT

essential psychedelic folk albums ComusComus – First Utterance

(1971; Dawn)

While those in the know have always known folk to contain tales of darkness, often being more focused on capturing stories of suffering and sorrow than tales of joy and splendor, Comus took things to a whole other level on First Utterance. For instance, the record is often cited by musicians in the extreme metal world as highly influential, its tales of decay and murder and other more foul acts feeling more often like a high Gothic novel dripping in lurid gore than something dappled in sunshine. Even the cover bespeaks the unholy terror of this record, a black coal and ink scrawl of some brutally withered man. And yet it is not sheerly the evil contained which made it so memorable but the indelibly lush and expansive prog/psych folk backdrop, all shimmer and gleam against the grit and slime and the subject matter. Enter whole, leave with melting head and rotten body. – LH

Robyn-hitchcockRobyn Hitchcock – I Often Dream of Trains

(1984; Midnight Music)

Robyn Hitchcock’s occasional non-electric recordings, intentionally or not (probably not, though I suppose we could ask him), function as resets from the more ornamented electric material that preceded them. Maybe because of their sparse nature, they also feel closer to the epicenter of his immense talent and lyrical obsessions: dreams, applied psychology, reproduction, the bridges between objectivity and empathy, and death. Hitchcock’s third solo album was his first to avoid complex machines, recalling the disjointed luster of Syd Barrett’s Opal. Hitchcock’s irrepressible but even-keeled humor comes through in the sexual manualism ode “Sometimes I Wish I Was a Pretty Girl,” the barbershop-quartet Freudianism of “Uncorrected Personality Traits,” and the short-circuited country gospel of “Ye Sleeping Knights of Jesus.” But he also acquaints himself well with the sentiment only a naturalist can transmit in the halting “Cathedral,” the simple and stark “Autumn Is Your Last Chance,” and the slowly rolling title track that will undoubtedly anchor the soundtrack to the Oscar-winning Hitchcock biopic due in 2067. – PPe

microphones-eerieThe Microphones – Mount Eerie

(2003; K)

Phil Elverum doesn’t just sing about nature—he is a force of nature. Each of his four proper albums with The Microphones channels one of the four elements—air, water, fire, and earth—and sure enough, parts of Mount Eerie sound like the ground breaking open. Staged as a five-act play about death and ascension, The Microphones’ grand finale is arguably the most conceptual of Elverum’s works under any name. It’s certainly the heaviest and most musically ambitious, seesawing between thunderous percussion to brittle acoustic guitars on the monolithic “I. The Sun” and cramming the pseudo-title track to the gills with over a dozen so-called “Precipice Carolers.” It’s psychedelic folk as The Rite of Spring. – JN

Cripple CrowDevendra Banhart – Cripple Crow

(2005; XL)

From the moment Devendra Banhart’s 2004 album Rejoicing in the Hands became a critical favorite, the term “freak folk” followed, for better or for worse (from the perspective of anyone who’s ever been on the other side of it, usually worse). But Banhart’s most wildly psychedelic moments wouldn’t happen until he upgraded labels, invited in members of Vetiver to back him and created his own creepily ominous homage to both The Beatles and Incredible String Band on the cover of Cripple Crow. It’s not just his best album, but his most inventive, opening portals to blistering raga-rock on “Lazy Butterfly,” embracing a meditative trip-out on “When They Come” and letting his inner-child’s mane grow wild on “Long Haired Child,” all while embracing a hippie make-love-not-war outlook throughout. It shouldn’t make sense that Banhart’s least contained work is also his most focused, but here we are. – JT

Espers II reviewEspers – II

(2006; Drag City)

This LP embraces playful misdirection: The vinyl and CD tracklists run in different order, the title belies the fact that this was the Philadelphia band’s third album, and its crystalline arrangements flirt with both the prog of Genesis (“Mansfield and Cyclops”) and the kitchen-sink Krautrock of Can and the earliest Kraftwerk (“Dead Queen,” “Widow’s Weed”). But it’s really the pastoral and mystical vocals of Meg Baird, Brook Sietinsons, and Greg Weeks that helped sell this band’s ability to guide Hipster Nation through enchanted forests. – AB

Grouper - The Man Who DiedGrouper – The Man Who Died in His Boat

(2013; Kranky)

Inspired by an unmanned vessel washed upon the shore of Agate Beach, Oregon, The Man Who Died in His Boat is a neo-gothic classic that epitomizes Liz Harris’ crushing ambient work under the Grouper pseudonym. The record drifts in a hypnagogic twilight, straddling an intermediate territory that’s patiently detached yet melodically present. Slipping into Harris’ solemnity stirs feelings of both warmth and unmistakable desolation, materializing in a visceral sonic palette so intrinsically familiar it’s borderline startling. There’s a specific déjà vu quality to Boat, which may explain the revision of “Vanishing Point” on this year’s Nivhek record. Its spectral quality is the record’s most disoriented and exemplary moment of Harris’ haunting encounter with that vacant sepulcher many years ago. – PPi

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View Comments (11)
    • Hmmm, agreed about Tim Buckley. But, Sunshine Superman, getting its title from the “orange sunshine” LSD tabs available at the time with the opening line of ” . . could have tripped out easy, but I’ve changed my ways”, and songs like “The Trip”, Ferris Wheel, The Fat Angel (a reference to Mama Cass of the Mamas and the Papas, whom Donovan met at an acid party in the valley outside of LA), Sand and Foam and the Hampstead Incident, from the sister album “Mellow Yellow” all are making reference to, or coming from the psychedelic experience. “Crystals sparkle in the grass, I polish them with thought, on my lash there in my eye a star of light is born, yeah, fortunes told in grains of sand and “I am” is all I know . . .” (Hampstead Incident)
      I think the confusion might be over music that sounds “psychedelic” and music that was inspired by the psychedelic experience. Both are valid to be considered part of the genre. Even in that regards, most of The String Band’s music is not really psychedelic either, in style, Robin and Mike took off for Morocco and the East before making The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter album beginning to bring into it influences from Eastern thought, music and its instruments. But it is the pure random, yet not random, nature of the imagery in their music that really makes it psychedelic. “Amoebas are very small!”

    • It’s not presented as psychedelic. It’s presented as psychedelic folk. Maybe read the title at the top.

  • I think this is a fantastic and evocative review and the choice of albums is unusual but apt. I am sad that Egg is missing though

  • Well, having seen the first three album artists live, back in the day, I certainly agree you (JT) have made some great, quintessential choices. (They are not just good representations of the impact of the psychedelic experience, save Tim Buckley, who, while he no doubt dropped some acid somewhere along the line, his perspective was really more a result of hard drugs [speed and heroin] and drinking, and this album brings out this side of his experience, his loss of connection with his wife and son. My mother used to say that between him and Tim Hardin was produced the some of saddest music she ever heard, the kind that gets inside your soul. Tim’s is a fusion of folk and jazz, with very clean undistorted playing of Lee Underwood’s electric guitar and fantastic use of congas and vibes. Having seen him perform that album in the West Village. Unfortunately it was the beginning of a slow downward spiral, “Happy and [Very] Sad” might be a better title.)
    True, Donovan was originally a folk singer, with occasional hints of jazz (Sunny Good Street), it is hard to really call Sunshine Superman folky, perhaps a couple of songs have a hint of folk. But your writing seems to be more about your desire to express your writing style than really describing what is going on on the albums, or what makes them the kind of music you can listen to over and over again and never get bored of, this is hard to achieve. Also, you could mention things like the fact that a young studio musician, Jimmy Page, plays electric guitar on Sunshine Superman. At the time he was playing rhythm guitar behind Jeff Beck in the Yardbirds (Clapton having left the band in search of more serious bluesmen, joining John Mayhal and the Blues Breakers for a time before forming the Cream.) And that key to the quality of this, and its sister album, Mellow Yellow, is John Cameron’s arrangements of much of the music in the Classical/Baroque style; playing a similar role as George Martin for the Beatles. But not only that, he played keyboards on certain tracks, notably the genius of using a harpsichord as a jazz instrument, to my knowledge no one else had or has done this. Listen to “Bert’s Blues” to hear how he transitions from classical to jazz, near the end. Donovan was always trying to sneak a little jazz in to his tunes, here and there. But the imagery is, as you say, quite psychedelic, unfortunately he kind of got lost in the sauce a few albums later.
    The Incredible String Band were the most unique in this genre, from a psychedelic perspective. It should be noted that Robin Williamson, Donovan, and Bert Jansch (Pentangle), in addition to all being Scotsmen, were friends and lived with each other at different times back in the day of playing in the British coffee house circuit, trying to make names for themselves. “Bert’s Blues” supposedly was inspired by a disagreement Bert and Donovan had over a woman. (“Legend of A Girl Child Linda” is a reference to the woman Donovan would eventually marry and perhaps is still with. For a time she was off with Brian Jones of the Stones till he managed to get her back, or something like that. He and Linda produced a good documentary about his life with interviews with them both and others. But the String Band albums beginning with this one and culminating in Wee Tam, the Big Huge, and Changing Horses, were guided tours through the actual psychedelic experience. Most psychedelic groups talked about their experiences and the imagery associated with those experiences. Jimi Hendrix named his band based on his “Experience” with taking LSD after moving to London, telling everyone it was the best thing since sliced bread (or perhaps the Dancing Plague in 16th century Europe supposedly caused by the ingestion of bread made from rye flour from damp seed on which ergot fungus had grown [that being the primary ingredient and precursor of LSD]).
    Reading Timothy Leary, Richard Albert (Baba Ram Das), and Ralph Metzner’s book, “The Psychedelic Experience”, written when they were all teaching at Harvard, before going off the deep end, one can learn about their assessment of what the actual effect of the psychedelic drugs are, the doors it opens, and the one’s it closes. (The idea being not to end up on the wrong side of a closing door.) The book is very helpful in understanding the experience. Whereas the String Band’s songs were meant to actually provide a roadmap for how to pass through the various stages of the experience to get to the “clear” state as mentioned by Leary and the boys and the Tibetan Book of the Dead. “The cross of the earth, let me go through, the four winds point them, let me go through, body to body, with seas to anoint them . . . keep on walking where the angels showed, all will be one, all will be one, traveling where the Saints have trod, over to the old golden land.” (Job’s Tears from Wee Tam the forth album).
    This is my two-cents from one who made it through, and prospered.

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