Despite the runaway success of Mumford & Sons, The Avett Brothers, The Lumineers and others, my fellow rock critics have been partially incorrect when it comes to proclaiming the comeback of folk rock in recent years. That’s because the sound never totally disappeared. It’s just that from the mid-1970s onward, it became so deeply intertwined with rock music proper that it no longer was recognized as a separate movement. This explains why, by the 1980s, R.E.M. could create what was essentially a modern iteration of vintage American folk rock, even if critics and fans alike rarely labeled it as such. (More often than not the group’s sound was regarded as alternative rock.)
Where the New Folk Rock (also commonly referred to as alt folk and neo-folk) differs is in its throwback embrace of the “folksy” part of the equation. The music of Mumford & Sons, for example, is far more rooted in acoustic instrumentation and earthy sounds. Early R.E.M were never big on banjos and mandolins; the Mums on the other hand can’t get enough of them. But this shouldn’t imply that the New Folk-Rock is a flat-out rejection of modern pop. The situation is more nuanced than that.
In general, this music offers a savvy negotiation between folk, rock and pop. This is immediately apparent with Imagine Dragons (one of rock’s biggest breakout stars of 2013). The Las Vegas outfit’s huge, soaring choruses — go straight to the smash hit “Radioactive” — have quite a lot in common with those of the Mums (as well as those of Fleet Foxes), yet these choruses often come encased in grinding hip-hop beats or audacious touches of electronica. Then there’s Jake Bugg, the cheeky British troubadour who filters his love of skiffle — a jazzy folk pop music popular in England in the late 1950s — through the dynamics of modern Brit pop and indie.
In addition to all the artists already mentioned, our New Folk-Rock playlist features key contributions from Vance Joy, The Civil Wars, Of Monsters And Men, Passenger, Hiss Golden Messenger, Phillip Phillips and more. Now get listening!