From the May 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY BLAIR JACKSON
This idea might surprise you: We are in a new Golden Age of Acoustic Guitar. Never have there been so many true virtuoso players, working in so many different styles, expanding the possibilities of the instrument with their seemingly boundless imaginations. And as listeners and fans, we have never had access to this much music, old and new. Virtually the entire history of recording is literally at our fingertips through our phones and computers. Want to compare Joni Mitchell’s early records with her later work? Want to hear 1920s recordings of Blind Blake, or the quirky folk of England’s Incredible String Band from the late ’60s? Where should you start if you want to understand all this fuss about Tommy Emmanuel? What’s the story with Michael Hedges? Just start streaming; maybe you’ll find that magical album. At the very least, the search will be interesting and enlightening.
It recently occurred to us that in these fractured and hyper times, when we are deluged with so much information from everywhere, and it is so difficult to keep up with anything before the next shiny object appears to distract us, many AG readers might not be aware of a lot of the fantastic acoustic-guitar-driven albums that have come out in the new millennium. Well, we’re here to help! We asked some of our regular writers to give us lists of their favorite acoustic-guitar-dominated recordings that came out between 2000 and 2017, and then opened the topic to you, our readers, and were greeted by a blizzard of responses—more than 1,500 total choices.
This was not, strictly speaking, a poll, in which the albums that got the most “votes” would constitute our Top 25 (or the ten honorable mentions). Otherwise, you’d probably have four by Tommy Emmanuel on here, and three by Julian Lage. Instead, our goal was to show the range of the great acoustic-guitar music that’s been made so far in this century. So we limited the picks to one album per artist (sneaking in a couple of other mentions when we felt like it) and tried to broaden the list to reflect not just the virtuosos—you’ll find plenty here—but also some of the talented guitar-playing singer-songwriters who turned up repeatedly in the survey, as well. Our picks are listed in chronological order by album release. You’ll no doubt be mystified by some choices, possibly angered by others—or by the omissions this sort of list inevitably engenders: “I can’t believe you didn’t include ___!” Honest, we’re not trying to make you mad. We simply want to turn you on to some great music you might not have heard—most of which you can access through Spotify and/or Apple Music (and no doubt other streaming services).
Alas, you will not find any classical-guitar picks here (such a list might make its way into our sister publication Classical Guitar), nor is there any Hawaiian music, or much world music in general (save for albums by Corey Harris and Habib Koité). Maybe another time. However, you will find an additional listing of ten particularly notable archival/historical albums and boxes that have come out since 2000.
Happy listening! The videos are all performances of songs from the albums mentioned.
(Lost Highway) 2000
A true phenomenon of recent music history, this old-time music soundtrack for the Coen Brothers’ quirky and fun film sold more than 8 million copies and won Album of the Year at the Grammys (as well as other honors). The soundtrack was put together by T Bone Burnett and features a stellar cast of pickers and singers, including Norman Blake, Alison Krauss, Dan Tyminski, Emmylou Harris, the Peasall Sisters, Gillian Welch, Ralph Stanley, and many more. Look for the “10th Anniversary Edition,” which includes a bonus disc with 14 added tracks.
(Solid Air) 2000
Juber took up the guitar after hearing the Beatles in 1964, and later spent three years in Paul McCartney’s Wings. So who better to render Beatles songs in wondrous solo acoustic arrangements? Not only is Juber an exceptional player, he is a spectacularly gifted arranger, adept at simultaneously playing melody, bass lines, and clever ornamentation to make his versions of Beatles classics sound both faithful and new. What he does here with “Strawberry Fields,” “Things We Said Today,” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is magical. Vol. 2 (2010) and LJ Can’t Stop Playing the Beatles (2017) are also sensational.
(Favored Nations) 2001
This solo guitar album by the French-Algerian DADGAD specialist covers many different styles and moods—from cool, jazzy numbers to plunges into Middle Eastern, Spanish, and old English music. Bensusan is one of the most fluid players you’ll ever hear, and he has a wide range of ornaments and “effects” (like making his guitar sound like an oud at one point) at his disposal, but he parses them out judiciously. Check out his fantasia on “Scarborough Fair” (dedicated to John Renbourn), and his lovely tribute to Michael Hedges. His 2013 live, career-spanning 3-CD retrospective Encore also received several votes.
Alison Krauss & Union Station
Singer/fiddler Alison Krauss is the marquee name, but guitar fans also love this band because of Dan Tyminski and dobro titan Jerry Douglas (along with banjo ace and sometime guitarist Ron Block). A bluegrass vibe shines through this nicely presented recording, though it sounds less traditional than earlier Krauss outings. Still, the playing is magnificent and covers much ground, from the dobro-banjo throwdown “Choctaw Hayride” to the seamless country pop of “The Lucky One” to the affecting Gillian Welch/David Rawlings title track that ends the album. The 2003 2-CD Live contains nearly all these songs and more.
Kelly Joe Phelps
AG readers listed a few different Phelps albums and this one captures his gritty essence as well as any of them. He has that touch of sandpaper in his voice, and a bluesy, rough-hewn intensity in both his fingerpicking (on acoustic, and resonator on “Beggar’s Oil”) and his songwriting, which runs from vivid portraits of various common-folk characters to gut-wrenching personal musings. The tasteful bare-bones instrumentation matches the dark hues of Phelps’ engaging story-songs perfectly.
Because of Hot Tuna, most people think of Jorma as a supreme blues picker, and certainly there is blues running all through this brilliant, Grammy-nominated collection. But it leans more country (as the title implies), with most tunes dating back to the ’20s and ’30s, popularized originally by the likes of the Delmore Brothers, Jimmie Rodgers, and others. Jorma gets plenty of chances to shine, but this is truly an ensemble album with an A-list band: Sam Bush (mandolin), Jerry Douglas (dobro), Byron House (bass), and Béla Fleck (banjo on a few cuts).
In an exciting meeting of two distant but related musical cultures, American bluesman Corey Harris is joined by the late, great Malian guitarist/singer Ali Farka Touré (d. 2006) who, ten years earlier, cut the groundbreaking Talking Timbuktu with Ry Cooder. This one is a seamless exploration of the nexus between African folk and Delta blues consisting of just guitars, varied percussion, and the occasional flute or fiddle (played by Touré). There are traditional blues, African tunes, and a couple in French. The recording has a live, intimate, you-are-there quality to it and the music feels wonderfully raw and spontaneous.
(Sugar Hill) 2003
Flatpicking guitar master and accompanist supreme Bryan Sutton has played with just about everybody who’s anybody in country and bluegrass, winning scads of awards along the way. He’s also made a number of albums himself, like this flawless disc of instrumentals played by a red-hot lineup including Tim O’Brien (mandolin), David Talbot (guitar, mandolin), Tim Crouch (fiddle), and Dennis Crouch (bass). The solos are fairly traded around, but Sutton definitely gets plenty of chances to show his stuff. Most of the songs are traditional reels and up-tempo kickers, but there are also a couple of affecting ballads.
(Warner Bros.) 2003
Another top vote-getter, this solo acoustic album marked quite a departure for Metheny, one of the great collaborators in modern jazz. This time out it’s just him and a Manzer baritone acoustic, and the material definitely leans more toward folk spaces than jazz. Still, it swings on his cover of Jesse Harris’ “Don’t Know Why” (a hit for Norah Jones); he does a nice job with Keith Jarrett’s “My Song”; and the album hit #1 on the Billboard Jazz chart. Even so, it won a Grammy for Best New Age album, maybe appropriate for this mostly gentle and atmospheric work.
(Favored Nations) 2003
The prolific British fingerstylist is famous for using unusual guitars, and on this solid album he employs everything from a 19th century–style Brook Creedy parlor guitar to a funky, “thoroughly non-descript” resonator he bought cheap to a sparkling custom job built around an Ovation pickup. So there are lots of timbral shadings and styles, including the slide-driven “The One-Eyed Turk,” the jazzy blues “Jam Tomorrow,” the fluttering “St. Mary’s,” and even an extrapolation off of “Auld Lang Syne.” He claimed this album was “about simplicity”; apparently he just can’t help being dazzling.
For more than 40 years, Rory Block has been putting out albums that dig way, way down into the real blues. Today few, if any, can match her when it comes to acoustic slide guitar. This album didn’t attract as much attention as her 2007 all–Robert Johnson disc, The Lady and Mr. Johnson, but her singing and playing has never been more impassioned, more feral than it is here, mostly performing her own heartfelt songs (along with two from Johnson). Her originals are, frankly, more varied than Johnson’s, with clouds of gospel and folk drifting through a few songs.
Iron & Wine
(Sub Pop) 2004
“Iron & Wine” is actually one very talented person—singer-songwriter-guitarist Sam Beam, whose solo first album, the DIY The Creek Drank the Cradle was something of an indie folk sensation in 2002 (it received several votes, too). This second album features a few other tasteful players but is still dominated by Beam’s breathy vocals and fingerpicked acoustic guitars, slide guitar, banjo, and mandolin. His lyrics are occasionally opaque, but songs like “Each Coming Night” and “Love and Some Verses” are so gorgeous and accessible, it’s easy to understand why Beam has his considerable following.
(Red Ink) 2004
Kaki King received votes for a few different albums, but since there was no consensus, we’ve chosen this one because it features some of the percussive tapping approach that wowed so many fans early on. Legs also features several pieces with other textures (such as moody electric lap steel, strings, and piano) that point in directions she would follow later, with arrangements that are more complex and more outside musicians. A few also mentioned the “soundtrack” album of her groundbreaking 2015 multimedia show The Neck Is a Bridge to the Body, also a compelling work by an artist who loves taking chances.
(Original Works) 2005
Fingerstyle god Tommy Emmanuel’s various albums from this century got the most reader votes by far, with Only (2000) the most listed of any single album. So why did we choose this live 2-CD set? Because it best shows his incredible versatility, combining many of his best-known songs (including a handful from Only) and a bunch of highly original, head-spinning covers, including his great “Beatles Medley,” “Classical Gas,” Merle Travis’ “Guitar Rag,” and lovely standards like “Mona Lisa” and “Blue Moon.” There’s mind-boggling virtuosity and exquisitely nuanced balladry. A great album to get to know T.E.!
Rodrigo y Gabriela
This Mexican duo is a worldwide phenomenon, drawing crowds of all ages with their flashy, fiery blend of Spanish-influenced nuevo flamenco, rock, and heavy metal. This album is mostly originals, but includes two notable covers: Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and Metallica’s “Orion.” Their highly rhythmic and often percussive style is on full display throughout this album, which is relentless in its drive, with no ballads in sight and just a couple of calm moments—ironically in the two rock covers. This album was one of the most-mentioned in our online poll.
Modern fingerstylist Andy McKee is a true YouTube sensation, boasting videos with several million views—including one, “Drifting,” that is approaching the 57 million mark! (The one below is different.) That percussive number appears on this superb album along with several others that showcase his rhythmic, Hedges-esque tapping and slapping. But there are also many tracks that show a more delicate, melodic side, such as “When She Cries,” “For My Father,” and the harp-guitar tune “Into the Ocean.” McKee is an unlikely star, but he’s definitely got imagination and chops galore.
This haunting indie folk-alternative album got a surprising number of votes. Though guitar is prominent, it’s rudimentary, in service of the songs, which are dominated by Justin Vernon’s high, ethereal vocals. Vernon wrote and recorded this true DIY album (playing all the instruments and doing all of the vocals himself) in an isolated Wisconsin cabin, and it built slowly over the course of a year to become a widespread success. A couple of songs eventually made their way into film and TV soundtracks, and the single of “Skinny Love” was a US and UK hit.
A stirring mix of traditional English and American ballads, originals by the veteran Brit (including luscious instrumentals), and with a moving version of Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927” (with Jackson Browne on harmony vocals) thrown in for good measure, Prodigal Son won the BBC Radio 2 Folk Best Album award in 2008. It’s a deep and tuneful record, with Simpson showing great skill and elegance on acoustic and resonator guitars (and banjo), ably aided by tasteful accordion, strings, and a few other instruments. Simpson has a classic folk voice—resonant and full of character.
Huttlinger, who died in 2016, won the National Fingerstyle Championship in 2000, enjoyed a successful career performing with many artists onstage and in the studio, and also recorded ten solo albums showcasing his guitar artistry in styles ranging from country to Celtic to Christmas carols to this one-of-kind exploration of the music of Stevie Wonder. You might expect that sweet ballads like “My Cherie Amour” and “Isn’t She Lovely” would translate easily to solo guitar, but what he does with rhythmically and melodically complex numbers such as “Sir Duke,” “Living for the City,” and “Superstition” is truly astounding.
It was a toss-up whether to choose this one or Time (The Revelator) from 2001. Every album Welch and her musical partner/foil David Rawlings make is worth hearing. Like the best folk music, this has a timeless quality to it. One song might sound like an Appalachian folk number, another like a stripped-down Patsy Cline ballad (“Dark Turn of Mind”). “The Way It Goes” sounds like mountain music, but its first line is about a drug overdose. Throughout, Rawlings’ guitar lines dance around Welch’s solid rhythm playing and often somber but soulful vocals, and their harmonies will break your heart.
Milk Carton Kids
Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan constitute one of the most interesting male duos to come along in many years. Their close harmonies are somewhat reminiscent of both Simon & Garfunkel and the Everly Brothers, and their vintage Martin and Gibson guitars blend as beautifully as their voices. Their songwriting also clearly owes a debt to Paul Simon and to early country and folk antecedents. Still, they definitely have their own highly appealing sound, and both are guitarists worth checking out.
The former member of the rockin’ alt-country Drive-By Truckers is thriving as a solo artist, thanks to confessional albums like this one, where he lays his heart on the line in a collection of evocative, obviously personal country songs. Most are anchored by his dependable acoustic picking and strumming, and this particular album has less of a full-band feel than ones spotlighting his band, the 400 Unit; the arrangements are spare and airy, allowing his plaintive singing to carry the songs. Isbell’s 2015 album Something More Than Free also received votes. At the time of the album’s release, Pitchfork magazine called it “his most gripping and his most personal album to date.”
It’s always a risk for musicians to re-record songs that are ingrained in the public mind through other versions. But leave it to Richard Thompson to pull off that feat on this intimate and engrossing solo acoustic disc, which really lets his passionate vocals, imaginative guitar work on his Lowden, and powerful songwriting shine through. The song choices from his truly vast catalog are impeccable, and include “Wall of Death,” “Shoot Out the Lights,” “Dimming of the Day,” “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” “When the Spell is Broken,” “Valerie,” and eight more. Acoustic
Classics II was released in 2017.
(Modern Lore) 2015
Lage received the second most votes of any artist in our poll (after Tommy Emmanuel), with this and the 2017 Mount Royal (with Chris Etheridge) the top choices. Here it’s just Lage and a 1939 Martin 000-18 on 12 diverse tunes, ten his own originals. Though Lage can clearly play circles around almost anyone, on this album he’s not out to show off his virtuosity (though plenty is still on display). Instead, there are calm and lyrical gems like “Ryland,” “Lullaby,” and his take on Rogers & Hart’s “Where or When,” which show how expressive he can be.
Billy Bragg & Joe Henry
(Cooking Vinyl), 2017
This unique duo collaboration—just voices and vintage guitars—was recorded at various railway stations between Chicago and L.A., and features a wonderful collection of classic train songs, such as “Rock Island Line,” “K.C. Moan,” “Lonesome Whistle,” “In the Pines,” “The Midnight Special,” “Railroad Bill,” and modern tunes like “Gentle on My Mind” and Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain.” Audible ambient noise (people, trains, etc.) crops up here and there on these live, “on location” recordings, adding to the intimate, you-are-there quality of the project. All in all, it’s an amazing slice of Americana; perfect in its imperfection.
Honorable Mention: 10 More to Check Out
10 Compilations and Vintage Performance Releases Worth Your Time
Trouble in Mind: The Doc Watson Country Blues Collection
(Sugar Hill) 2003
Though rightly associated primarily with old-time country, Doc Watson was also a formidable blues singer and guitarist, as this fabulous 17-song compilation proves. Drawing on traditional tunes and songs written or popularized by the likes of Mississippi John Hurt, the Delmore Brothers, Jimmie Rodgers, and the Mississippi Sheiks, Watson appears on this compendium solo (playing guitar, banjo, or harmonica), and also with his son Merle and bassist Eric Weissberg. Two of his best-known songs, “Deep River Blues” and “Little Sadie” are here in strong versions.
58957: The Bluegrass Guitar Collection
The title refers to the serial number of the great bluegrass guitarist Clarence White’s 1935 Martin D-28, which Rice has owned since the mid-’70s. He does that guitar proud on this extraordinary compilation of 21 old and recent tunes (spanning Bill Monroe to Béla Fleck) featuring Rice alongside such notables as Norman Blake, Doc Watson, Jerry Douglas, David Grisman, J.D. Crowe, Vassar Clements, Stuart Duncan, and so many others. Among the configurations are the Bluegrass Album Band, the Tony Rice Unit, a Rice brothers quartet, and a hot duo with Blake.
Instrumentals: The Best of the Capitol Years
(Blue Note) 2003
Leo Kottke is a fine, evocative singer, but there are always going to be fans who like his original guitar instrumentals (6- and 12-string) best. This generous 18-song compilation is for those fans and for anyone who might not know or remember how great Kottke is (and has always been). He is one of the last links to the early days of the “American primitive” guitar movement, and an utterly distinctive stylist capable of dizzying displays of speed and graceful, lilting ballads. Too bad “Watermelon” predates his Capitol years.
The Best of John Fahey, Vol. 2: 1964–1983
Though much of this collection comes from after Fahey’s supposed peak years, and it includes a number of rare and even unreleased tracks (so how is that a “best of”?), it is still shows the depth and breadth of the pioneering solo guitarist’s imagination. Fahey was always a little off-kilter and far away from the mainstream, and so is this cool compendium assembled by guitarist Henry Kaiser.
Live at Massey Hall 1971
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The second archival release from his deep vault, this solo show (acoustic guitar and piano) at a Toronto theater finds Young in the midst of his first wave of mass popularity after the success of Crazy Horse, CSNY, and his smash Harvest album. All three of those phases are represented here, but in the solo setting these “hit” songs feel even more like the personal works they all started as, and they are interspersed with less-known songs that are every bit as good as his biggies. It’s a warm and inviting album.
The Time Has Come, 1967–73
(Castle Us) 2008
One of the most popular and influential groups of the late 1960s’ British folk wave, Pentangle is the eclectic outfit that first brought widespread attention to singular guitarists John Renbourn and Bert Jansch. This 4-CD set has 32 tracks from the group’s albums (over two discs), an Albert Hall concert from 1968, and a final disc of TV appearances, B-sides, and other oddities. Pentangle never quite broke through in the US, but this box makes a good argument for why they should have.
Imaginational Anthems Vol. 1–3
(Tompkins Square) 2008
Three CDs trace the modern history of the acoustic guitar as a solo instrument, from early pioneers like John Fahey, Robbie Basho, Henry Taussig, Sandy Bull, and Peter Lang, to some of today’s best, such as Kaki King, Nathan Salsburg, and José González. Gyan Riley plays a nice piece with his father, Terry Riley (on piano), and there are colossal 12-string tunes by James Blackshaw, Mark Fosson, and Suni McGrath.
The Bootleg Series Vol. 12: The Cutting Edge 1965–66
A lot of this is electric Dylan, but spread out across the four discs are also many unreleased acoustic guitar takes of songs that ended up on three seminal Dylan albums—Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61, and Blonde on Blonde—plus several unreleased tunes. With multiple versions of historic songs, this is like an audio documentary about the moment when folk and rock merged and shook the music world. (Another notable Dylan set is the all-acoustic The Bootleg Series Vol. 9: The Witmark Demos, 1962–64, released in 2010.)
The Smithsonian Folkways Collection
There have been literally dozens of anthologies of Lead Belly recordings released through the years, but this one is just about definitive: The 5-CD set contains 108 tracks from throughout his career, on five CDs, including more than a dozen that were previously unreleased. Lead Belly was a walking archive of old American folk and blues tunes, so there is much to be learned from digesting this massive set and letting his commanding voice and guitar-playing seep into your soul. The hefty accompanying book is filled with photos and essays.
American Epic: The Collection
This 5-CD box is an incredibly rich, expanded companion “soundtrack” to the outstanding PBS series on American roots music, and contains 100 tracks recorded in the late 1920s and early 1930s, covering blues, old-time country, gospel, Tex-Mex, Hawaiian, and other regional styles from the early days of recording. Many terrific guitarists are represented, including Booker White, Gary Davis, Skip James, Blind Willie Johnson, Maybelle Carter, and Son House. But just as likely you’ll be blown away by guitarists you might not know: Mattie Delaney, Roosevelt Graves, Sol Ho‘opi‘i, and more.
This article originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.