Best acoustic folk songs

October 27, 2022
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Stripped Down

the product of an artist with a unique vision, has the capability to become something else once it is put out for everyone to hear. Once a song is out in the open, it could very well undergo a transformation unlike the original artist ever anticipated. Fortunately, due to the skills of many artists, that need not be a bad thing.

Covering another artist’s song is a fantastic way for someone to demonstrate his or her musical skill in light of another’s. It seems that the notion of deconstruction is quite an accurate description of a song, for now a song written in one genre can be entirely re-interpreted in another. The Eagles’ “Hotel California”, a song coming mostly from the white-dominated ‘70’s California rock, was masterfully re-interpreted this year in the song “American Wedding” by Odd Future crooner Frank Ocean. Ocean took the music of “Hotel California”, a classic image of American societal decay, and sung over it lyrics about the decay of American romance. Though technically not a “cover”, that track nonetheless demonstrates the malleability of a song once it has been released.

The following 10 songs are prime examples of tracks that not only stand as great songs in their own right, but also as powerful re-interpretations of already great tunes. Ranging from folk to psychedelia to piano confessional, these songs all attest to the ability of music to unite people with distinct voices. As it turns out, unplugged covers aren’t just for bad coffee houses.

Note: Some of these tracks are not entirely acoustic, but in the cases in which there are non-acoustic instruments, they are not the central instrument in the song. I based my picks on songs that were either (a) entirely acoustic or (b) dominated by and large by acoustic instrumentation.

10. Ray LaMontagne - “Crazy”

Gnarls Barkley’s soul-laden 2006 hit “Crazy” was an instant smash upon its release, which no doubt contributed to the large number artists who chose to cover it, the Violent Femmes most notably. Folk balladeer Ray LaMontagne’s version of the song remains the best of the covers, having much to do with the emotive power present in his re-interpretation. There’s a longing in the song as a result of LaMontagne’s slightly husky delivery as well as the key change, which shifts the tune’s tone from soulful to yearning. The high-pitched falsetto in the chorus of Gnarls Barkley’s version is replaced by LaMontagne’s more inquisitive turn; here, it sounds much more like he’s seriously wondering if he is crazy. Given how good this is, the clear answer to that question is no.

9. John Mayer - “Free Fallin’”
(Where the Light Is: John Mayer Live in Los Angeles, 2008)

“Free Fallin’” is something of a classic rock standby, which means that more artists than one could count have probably covered it. But when John Mayer performed it in this 2007 Los Angeles concert, he took a somewhat worn (but nonetheless great) piece and put an entirely different spin on it. For this concert, Mayer began with a brief, five-song acoustic set, putting incredible turns on his own tracks like “Neon”. The set concluded with this Tom Petty cover, and Mayer’s subdued performance turned the song into something quite new. By slowing the initial version’s tempo down and including a slide guitar, Mayer transformed “Free Fallin’” utilizing a bluesiness that he did so brilliantly on 2006’s Continuum. Mayer’s career has had ups and downs, but in those five acoustic songs he may have been at his peak.

8. Bon Iver - “I Can’t Make You Love Me/Nick of Time”
(Calgary single, 2011)

Bonnie Raitt’s 1991 soft-rock single was no doubt a product of its time, and as a result it now sounds more than a little bit faded. Soft-rock, at least on the mainstream radio, has lost the popularity it once had. As a result, the song has taken the form of the piano-led confessional by PopMatters’ top two artists of 2011: Bon Iver and Adele. Though both are brilliant covers, the best of the two is Bon Iver’s. Justin Vernon’s famed falsetto is back at it again with this rendition; his gorgeous vocal adds a much needed power to the unrequited love of the song’s lyrics, which were initially dampened by the genre’s cheesiness. The cover’s emotional nakedness is what made Vernon’s breakthrough debut For Emma, Forever Ago so good, and it’s equally resonant here.

7. The Mars Volta - “Things Behind the Sun”
(The Bedlam in Goliath, 2008)

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Best Acoustic Song EVER! Blake Ian Live Evil Angel
Best Acoustic Song EVER! Blake Ian Live "Evil Angel"
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