Well before acts like Waxahatchee, Jessica Pratt, Angel Olsen, Big Thief, Bedouine, and more readily brought folk sounds to the indie sphere, a swath of women singer-songwriters did their part to shape the folk genre in its early years of popular prominence. The lineage of American (and British) folk music wouldn’t exist without the contributions of obscure and mainstream women musicians, starting in the 1960s with Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, and Linda Ronstadt, continuing into the next decade with the absolute watershed year in music that was 1971. The early 1970s saw the solo careers of Carly Simon, Carole King, and Sandy Denny take off. Even more singer-songwriters were making music in obscurity, many of whom only made one-off records or shelved their music careers in favor of their “regular lives” for decades—look to Vashti Bunyan, Sibylle Baier, and Linda Perhacs as examples. Then there were artists like Judee Sill, Karen Dalton, and Bobbie Gentry: wildly talented, thoroughly underrated career musicians.
All of these artists shaped the sound of folk music, as the genre was burgeoning in popularity—folk became the soundtrack of protest, counterculture, and, to some extent, rural American culture as social and political needles shifted through the ‘60s and ’70s. As the world around them fluctuated, many grappled with their own struggles: addiction, identity, and fame; all of it played out in the stellar music they wrote. The work of these women (and so many more) can easily go unnoticed as part of the foundation of the sound of folk, but in actuality, they pushed the genre into so many new places. Amongst these singers there are sounds of rock, jazz, psychedelia, and country, shaping the sound of artists in the 50+ years that followed. Here are the stories of just a dozen trailblazing albums by women folk artists, in no particular order…
Judee Sill – Judee Sill (1971)
From the outset, Judee Sill’s 1971 self-titled album exists at this wonderfully specific intersection of psychedelia and childlike whimsy. Opener “Crayon Angels” contains mentions of the astral plane, magic rings, mystic roses, and phony prophets, and followups “The Phantom Cowboy,” “The Archetypal Man,” and “The Lamb Ran Away with the Crown” all sound like fantastical fables in their lyrics. Instrumentally, the album ranges from oboes and trumpets to strings to gentle drums and shakers, with Judee’s crystal-clear voice and acoustic guitar as constants. “The Lamb Ran Away with the Crown” bridges the album’s psychedelic nursery rhymes to its more earnest, biblically inspired middle section, including orchestral ballad “Lady-O” and enduring classic “Jesus Was a Cross Maker.” Judee’s voice is stark and unadorned and bears a comfort in its plainness, reminiscent of Peter, Paul & Mary’s music for children; even so, her ability to spin a deeply honest and intimate narrative makes her music perfect for listeners of any age and any time. This album was her first, released when she was 26 after a somewhat troubled childhood and early adulthood rife with drug addiction and a stint in jail. Despite its intricacy (thanks in part to Joni Mitchell engineer Henry Lewy and production by Graham Nash), the album was not a commercial success. Her struggle with addiction continued through the ‘70s, ramping up as her music career waned. She died of overdose in LA in 1979 at the age of 35. Perhaps the most enduring statement on Judee Sill is the closing trio of “Lopin’ Along Thru the Cosmos,” “Enchanted Sky Machines,” and “Abracadabra,” ebbing and flowing from simple, imaginative ballad to gospel-like anthem to once again orchestral, harmonic masterpiece. Judee Sill’s self-titled album contains as many layers as she does, and each listen reveals new truths, with one constant: “However we are is okay.”
Vashti Bunyan – Just Another Diamond Day (1971)
Just Another Diamond Day, Vashti Bunyan’s 1971 debut, is a gift. It rings with fuzzy flute and guitar accompanying her whispery lilt. The album was her only work until the early 2000s when she returned with collaborations with Animal Collective, Ewan McPherson, Devendra Banhart, and more, plus two more LPs of her own. Just Another Diamond Day opens with its title song, previewing the gentle, ever-so-slightly melancholic sensibility of the whole album. More recently, the album’s penultimate track “I’d Like To Walk Around In Your Mind” became an oft-trending hit on cottagecore TikTok. Other highlights include “Glow Worms,” “Rose Hip November,” “Trawlerman’s Song,” and “Love Song,” but the whole 40-minute work rolls along with a quiet sweetness. It’s no wonder Vashti is covered by newer folk and indie acts so often; she’s an (unintentional) originator of freak folk, and one of folk’s most distinctive voices on the whole.
Carole King – Tapestry (1971)
Perhaps the most commercially successful album on this list, Tapestry is singer-songwriter Carole King’s beloved sophomore album. Carole had already written several pop hits for other artists alongside her first husband Gerry Goffin in the 1960s, but with Tapestry, she proved to be a hitmaker herself; the album’s lead singles, “I Feel The Earth Move” and “It’s Too Late,” both spent weeks at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1971. Tapestry also included Carole’s versions of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” which she wrote but were made famous by The Shirelles and Aretha Franklin, respectively. Because she was already a bona fide songwriter in pop and easy listening, Tapestry was made with a slew of high-profile collaborators, including Goffin, James Taylor, Toni Stern, and Joni Mitchell—and the album was recorded at A&M Studios in Hollywood, giving it a super polished sound. In spite of its commercial roots and enduring mainstream popularity (it was the basis for jukebox Broadway show Beautiful: The Carole King Story), the sound of Tapestry is as frank, intimate, and folksy as the rest of the albums listed here. Carole’s voice is unique for its plainness, and hearing her lyrics in her own voice brings a fresh sense of earnestness, particularly on songs like “So Far Away” and “Way Over Yonder.” Unlike her peers on this list, Carole’s instrument is piano rather than guitar; even so, her passion shows in the pulse of the chords she plays, setting an unimposing backdrop for her unadorned voice.
Karen Dalton – It’s So Hard To Tell Who’s Going To Love You The Best (1969)
Karen Dalton got her start in the now-legendary 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene alongside artists like Fred Neil and Bob Dylan (the latter of whom used to collaborate with her and once called her his favorite singer), and in 1969 she finally immortalized her unmistakable voice on her 10-song debut album It’s So Hard To Tell Who’s Going To Love You The Best. Not only does it show off her characteristic vocal style, in all its raspy and twangy glory, the album foregrounds her guitar prowess as well. As with many albums on this list, It’s So Hard To Tell… sounds like it was recorded by Karen alone in a room with her instrument. It’s almost alarmingly intimate, like it could lull you to sleep if not for the moments her voice swells with intensity. Karen Dalton was only 22 when the album was released, but her weary vocals and blues-inspired lyricism reflects the attitude of a weathered woman—she had also already been married and divorced twice. The album opens with “Little Bit Of Rain” and “Sweet Substitute,” immediately introducing her unique style—jazzy and country in equal measure. Mid-album refresher “Blues On The Ceiling” features a slightly fuller instrumental sound and a more assertive and mournful vocal approach. Immediately following is “It Hurts Me Too,” a heart-wrenching ode to a lover. Karen Dalton brings raw power and earnestness to It’s So Hard To Tell Who’s Going To Love You The Best, and in the decades since her debut (and since her untimely death at 55), her influence has grown. Her 1971 followup In My Own Time is recommended listening too.
Linda Perhacs – Parallelograms (1970)
Markedly more experimental than many of her genre peers, Parallelograms is Linda Perhacs’ debut album, and only release for 34 years until her 2014 followup The Soul of All Natural Things. While writing and recording the album, and in the years after, Linda worked as a dental hygienist. Much like Vashti Bunyan, music felt like too big a risk to pursue as a career, and, fearing failure, she left music for decades. Also like Vashti, her sound became something to aspire to for indie artists to come. Opener “Chimacum Rain” feels like an instant classic, somewhere between ballad and warm anthem with an environmental bent. It was later sampled by Prefuse 73 on “Rain Edit (Interlude)” and one of its lyrics was featured on beloved ‘00s TV series Gilmore Girls. Ahead of its time, “Hey, Who Really Cares” was written as a TV theme song and was covered by R&B group the Whispers. Their rendition was later sampled by The Notorious B.I.G. Especially considering her newness to music-making, Linda Perhacs has a crazy command over her voice and her songs on this album, particularly on the more offbeat tracks like “Moons and Cattails” and “Porcelain Baked-Over Cast-Iron Wedding.” Parallelograms maintains this ineffable sense of quiet intrigue. It’s what makes the album timeless, allowing listeners to hear new shades of its sound half a century after its release.
Linda Ronstadt – Hand Sown… Home Grown (1969)
For most of the singers featured on this list, instrument and voice are totally unified—you can’t really hear one without the other, whether piano or guitar. Linda Ronstadt is not that woman. Her voice rises all the way above the diverse sound of her full, countryish backing band—above the strings, guitars, bass, organ, drums, all of it. This level of vocal power paired with polished instrumentals makes Linda Ronstadt sound closer to a pop star than a folk singer. Hand Sown… Home Grown, Linda’s first solo effort, radiates energy, even in its bluesier moments. “Silver Threads and Golden Needles” is an immediate standout, setting the tone and indicating the caliber of lyricism to come. Even in her heartbreak, the music carries on with an almost-constant forward push. Even so, the pacing is just right, with ballads like “The Long Way Around” (inspiration for The Chicks?) well meshed with country anthems like “Break My Mind.” Linda had previously cut her teeth in The Stone Poneys, but with a debut solo album this polished so early in her career (and her life; she was only 24 when Hand Sown… came out), Linda Ronstadt’s success was inevitable. And in the decades since she’s risen to legend status in country and folk—beloved by her peers and covered by many an indie singer. Even through the album’s final pair of songs, Linda shows her range: she jumps from the dogmatic “We Need A Whole Lot More Jesus (And A Lot Less Rock n Roll)” (granted, a bit of a weird digression) to the album’s only tried-and-true ballad in “The Dolphins,” leaving the door open for even more new sounds in her work to come.
Carly Simon – Carly Simon (1971)
The year before her breakout single “You’re So Vain” and album No Secrets took off, Carly Simon released a self-titled debut record. It was produced by Eddie Kramer (who had already worked with Joe Cocker and Jimi Hendrix) for Elektra Records, and reflects a more folksy, less pop-oriented side of the singer-songwriter. Carly Simon includes covers of bandmate Mark “Moogy” Klingman’s “Just A Sinner” and Buzzy Linhart’s “The Love’s Still Growing,” which closes the album. “The Love’s Still Growing” and album opener “That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be” make compelling bookends, foregrounding the complexity of loving relationships; it opens somber and contemplative, and closes hopeful and resolute. “That’s The Way” was Carly’s first Billboard Top 10 hit, and “Dan, My Fling” likewise garnered audience and critical attention. Even so, the album maintains a strong sense of perspective through its lyrics and honesty through its delivery. Plus, Carly leaves room for experimentation on piano ballad “The Best Thing” and hints at her pop turn on “Just A Sinner” and “Another Door.” Carly Simon is less a product of rural country as some of her peers on this list, but she maintains a grounded folk sound, her voice unvarnished and raw throughout her self-titled album.
Joan Baez – Joan (1967)
It’s well known that Joan Baez is a vanguard of American folk and protest music. Her 1967 record Joan (her seventh studio album) solidified that status with a blend of traditional songs, covers, and originals. It’s a departure from her previous work, adding additional instruments to the traditional voice-and-guitar setup of many a folk album. The opener functions like a transition: Donovan cover “Be Not Too Hard” ebbs with simple guitar and Joan’s singular, saccharine vocals emphasizing peace and amnesty lyrically. Next is a fast-paced and cutting cover of “Eleanor Rigby,” then more laid-back “Turquoise” (another Donovan track) and ceremonial “La Colombe-The Dove,” a French anti-war anthem. Earlier album themes of peace and harmony remain, but this time she’s backed by strings, horns, and drums (the album was arranged and conducted by Peter Schickele and produced by Maynard Solomon). Rather than relying on added instrumentation to strengthen her voice, Joan feels more like an adaptation, a maturation that solidified Joan Baez as a commercial powerhouse (ironically) in addition to an leading figure in the American roots revival that took center stage at the Newport Folk Festival. Within her discography, Joan falls dead in the middle of the Vanguard years, before she recorded for the more pop-oriented A&M Records (she, Phil Ochs, and Gene Clark were some of the first folk artists to sign to A&M). Joan was not just a turning point in her career, but also a master work in classic American folk; Joan Baez’s voice is still the one to emulate decades later. It’s worth noting that the 2003 Vanguard reissue added tracks “Oh, Had I A Golden Thread” and “Autumn Leaves,” the latter of which sees Joan at her jazziest (and most French).
Joni Mitchell – Blue (1971)
There’s not a lot new that can be said about Joni’s 1971 classic Blue. It’s one of those albums that regularly shows up near or at the top of ‘greatest albums of all time’ lists, regardless of genre. It’s remained a commercial success for decades, its songs are constantly used in TV and film, and other popular artists are constantly covering songs from this album. And what’s so remarkable about it is that it doesn’t sound like the type of album you expect to have this kind of cultural dominance. Joni singlehandedly wrote and produced the whole album, and performed much of it herself, only bringing in a few collaborators on select songs, including Stephen Stills on bass and guitar, James Taylor (Joni’s one-time lover) on guitar, and Sneeky Pete on pedal steel. It was engineered by Henry Lewy, who also worked on the much more heavily-arranged Tapestry that same year. Speaking about Blue in a 1979 interview with Cameron Crowe for Rolling Stone, Joni said, “At that period of my life, I had no personal defenses. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world, and I couldn’t pretend in my life to be strong. Or to be happy. But the advantage of it in the music was that there were no defenses there either.” That raw vulnerability is what makes the album shine. Her arrangements of guitar, Appalachian dulcimer, piano, and voice leave little to hide, sonically and emotionally. Joni didn’t want to create something polished, a shiny thing that would garner even more fame and attention–she made Blue with the intention of an unvarnished product, imperfect in its rawness. You can hear her breath on “Little Green” and devastating closer “The Last Time I Saw Richard.” With Blue, whether or not she intended to, Joni Mitchell spun her emotional turbulence into something gorgeous and enduring.
Bobbie Gentry – Ode To Billie Joe (1967)
Bobbie Gentry’s Ode To Billie Joe immediately announces its blues- and funk-inspired sound with opening track “Mississippi Delta.” Right out of the gate, Bobbie’s arrangements on her 1967 solo debut feature a remarkably full range of instruments, including strings, harmonica, acoustic and electric guitar, and drums. “I Saw An Angel Die,” the album’s second song, dips into a sort of folk-pop realm, foreshadowing the earnest sound of Billy Joel ballads or even Carole King’s solo work. On jazzier cuts like “Sunday Best” and “Papa, Won’t You Let Me Go To Town With You” it sounds like Bobbie is doing her part to invent the coffeeshop genre, long before Norah Jones, Sara Bareilles, or Sheryl Crow could be heard in any given Starbucks. In spite of her ability to seamlessly and sneakily bend across genres, Bobbie scarcely loses the twang that solidifies her as a folk/country artist. Like Judee Sill, she flexes her nursery rhyme skills in “Bugs,” and tells a heartbreaking but familiar story in title track “Ode To Billie Joe.” Regardless of the sound backing her, Bobbie Gentry’s voice carries over with a sincerity and a subtlety that makes the album a special one in the folk genre.
Sibylle Baier – Colour Green (1970-73)
Sibylle Baier’s Colour Green is made up of songs recorded between 1970 and 1973, but unlike any other album on this list, her music was not actually released until decades later. Featuring nothing more than her voice and nylon-string guitar, Sibylle recorded these songs in her home on a reel-to-reel tape while her family slept, giving the songs their hushed tone. It wasn’t until her son Robby discovered the recordings, put them on a CD to give to family and friends, and gave a copy to Dinosaur Jr’s J Mascis, who then passed the CD onto Orange Twin Records, that Colour Green was finally released in 2006. Throughout the record, her voice is husky and almost conversational in its rhythm. Her lyricism matches, casually mentioning her cat on a friend’s lap in album opener “Tonight,” or detailing a trip to the grocery store in “Remember the Day.” There’s this very endearing informality that runs through Colour Green, from its recording to its lyricism to its publication. It really sounds like you’re sitting in Sibylle’s living room, seeing the world through her eyes for the album’s half-hour runtime. Uniquely, Colour Green’s power comes from its nuanced softness.
Sandy Denny – The North Star Grassman and the Ravens (1971)
Like so many of the albums on this list, Sandy Denny’s debut solo album The North Star Grassman and the Ravens came out in the watershed year of 1971. The album has a folk-rock bent, ahead of its time in its ability to make folk loud and assertive with a full band and narrative lyricism—several songs are hyper-specific portraits of friends and lost loved ones. Sandy was already a well-established folk singer and songwriter, having gotten her start as lead vocalist of British band Fairport Convention. While she was born in London, she had Scottish family who spoke and sang in Scots Gaelic. The influence shows in The North Star Grassman, with opening track “Late November” sliding in and out of a Celtic sea shanty-vibe. The album’s sound ranges vastly, though, with swinging blues-rock on “Down In The Flood” (a Bob Dylan cover) and heartfelt, more traditional folk on “Backwaterside,” “The Sea Captain,” and “John The Gun.” The evocative storytelling in the lyrics across the album culminates with penultimate title track “The North Star Grassman and the Ravens,” which Sandy wrote as a metaphor for death following the loss of a friend in the Merchant Navy. She maintains a tenuous balance between hope and tragedy, fitting for Sandy as she struggled with depression and drug and alcohol addiction over the course of her music career—leading to her untimely death at age 31. Sandy Denny’s music, like many artists in this list and in the folk world, serves as a powerful archive of her perspective and her life.