5 Folk Acts Who Wandered Down the Synth Road

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Mandolin enthusiasts Mumford and Sons have been on top of the world the past couple of years, dominating rock-driven radio with a folk sound that apparently touches the hearts of hard-rock bros around the world. Given that they have an apparently winning formula, one wouldn't expect them to change it.

But, being the artists that they are, Mumford and Sons are apparently broadening their horizons on their next record by collaborating with Big Boi and incorporating synthesizers. We'll avoid the suspect pairing of folk music and rapping, and instead focus on the group's use of synths.

How well will that go down? Well, actually it might end up being some of their best work, and here's my proof.

5. The Highwaymen, "Highwayman" It's hard to say if a supergroup featuring Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson could possibly fail. That being said, the record is very much of its time. Within their 1985 No. 1 Country hit, a cover of Jimmy Webb's "Highwayman" that lent its name to both their album and group, was peppered all the synth action you would expect from an '80s recording.

Still, the talent of the group and song's catchiness override any complaints one could have about the arrangement of it. It did hit No. 1 on the country charts, and the album was looked upon very favorably.

4. Paul Simon, "Graceland" Paul Simon reigned in the '60s playing folk music with Art Garfunkel, but his solo career had ended up being a real mixed bag through the '70s. Some of us love "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover," others cringe at its very mention.

Either way, Simon shocked the world in 1986 by recording Graceland, a mixture of '80s synths and African pop music. Not only is it still regarded as one of the greatest albums ever recorded, but it became one of Simon's highest-charting records and won the Grammys for Album of the Year and Record of the Year in 1986 and 1987, respectively.

3. Bon Iver, Bon Iver The clown prince of hipster doofuses himself beat Mumford and Sons to the punch on throwback '80s synths, littering them all over his last record. The reception for it was exceptional.

While fans may have been slightly divided on the merit of a song like "Beth/Rest," which many have described as sounding like a lost Bruce Hornsby track, the album was No. 1 on a few best-of lists in 2011 and won a Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album.

2. Neil Young, Trans Neil Young was all over the place in the '80s, and one of his most off-the-wall experiments was 1982's Trans, which featured synthesizers on almost every track. Today it isn't well remembered and at the time it baffled the hell out of fans.

That being said, it does have some great songs and proves that Young is an artist who can work within any medium. Even if the album didn't manage to garner much in the way of sales or critical acclaim, today it does have a small cult following.

1. Bob Dylan, Empire Burlesque Dylan, of course, has always been one to leave his fans scratching their heads, from his playing electric instruments at a folk festival to recording a bizarre Christmas singalong album in 2009. But the one that his fans have really been hesitant to come around to over the years is when he started employing synthesizers on Empire Burlesque in 1985.

The album received some of the worst reviews of Dylan's career, and he quickly backed off from playing songs from the album and using those synths. His next album was a return to his folkie roots, and while Knocked Out Loaded isn't held in high regard either, it does have "Brownsville Girl," which is one more song than most people like from Empire Burlesque.

That being said, Empire Burlesque is a better album than most give it credit for. Underneath the synths is some of Dylan's best songwriting of the '80s. The production might turn off many, but even the most heavily synth-washed song on the album, lead single "When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky," is actually one of this writer's favorite Dylan songs, featuring some truly exceptional lyrics.

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