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10 Essential James Taylor Songs

We pull out the best from the American singer-songwriter’s 52-year recording career

Narendra Kusnur Mar 12, 2020

American singer-songwriter James Taylor. Photo: Bryan Ledgard

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On February 28th, American singer-songwriter James Taylor released American Standard, a collection of golden gems from the Great American Songbook. Besides receiving rave reviews, the album peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard Top 200 charts, making him the first-ever artist in history to have a top 10 album over six consecutive decades.

Today, on March 12th, Taylor celebrates his 72nd birthday. To mark the occasion, we compile 10 favorites, culled from a recording career of almost 52 years. Though known for his original songs, the singer has rendered some great versions too, and this list contains a couple of them.

One thing that doesn’t seem to have changed over the years is Taylor’s voice quality. The songs on American Standard – from “Moon River” and “The Nearness Of You” to “God Bless The Child” and “Almost Like Being In Love” – sound like they were recorded 40 or 45 years ago.

So here we go, with some really precious songs:

1. “Carolina In My Mind”

From Taylor’s self-titled 1968 debut album, “Carolina In My Mind” is a wonderful song about homesickness and a yearning to be in his home district, North Carolina. He touched a chord with the words, “In my mind I’m gone to Carolina, can’t you see the sunshine, can’t you just feel the moonshine, ain’t it just like a friend of mine, to hit me from behind, yes I’m gone to Carolina in my mind.” The song did moderately initially but became a concert favorite after a while. Taylor plays it at most shows.

2. “Fire And Rain”

This song from the successful 1970 album Sweet Baby James was written as a dedication to a childhood friend, who suffered from substance abuse and eventually committed suicide. It also talks of the ups and downs of life with reference to “sunny days” and “lonely times.” The song is considered one of Taylor’s most popular ever.

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3. “Sweet Baby James”

The title song of Taylor’s successful 1970 album was written for his brother’s son, also named by James. A cross between a cowboy song and a lullaby, “Sweet Baby James” was conceived when the songwriter was driving through North Carolina to meet his nephew. In interviews, Taylor has described it as his best song ever.

4. “You’ve Got A Friend”

Originally written by Carole King for her 1971 album Tapestry, this was recorded around the same time in a slightly different version by Taylor on his album Mud Slide Slim And The Blue Horizon, using Latin percussion instruments congas and cabasas. King was said to have written this song as a response to “Fire And Rain,” and is one of the most popular songs for both singers, with lines that talk of friendship and always being there.

5. “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight”

The song’s opening lines sum up its mood, as Taylor sings, “Do me wrong, do me right, tell me lies, but hold me tight, save your goodbyes for the morning light, but don’t let me be lonely tonight.” Written for the 1972 album One Man Dog, the song has a tinge of sadness, highlighted by Michael Brecker’s marvelous saxophone towards the end.

6. “Your Smiling Face”

One of Taylor’s pumped-up, rock-friendly songs, “Your Smiling Face” was a hit from the 1977 album JT. Though it was initially assumed that he wrote it for his wife, singer Carly Simon, it was later revealed that it was meant for their then three-year-old daughter. Danny Kortchmar’s electric guitar and Leland Sklar’s funky bass lines give it a feel different from many Taylor songs.

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7. “Copperline”

Co-written with American poet-novelist Reynolds Price, “Copperline” was the opening song of the 1991 album New Moon Shine. It had a cult following through the 1990s, but its popularity increased after Taylor presented it at the 2004 Crossroads Guitar Festival organized by Eric Clapton. The live DVD, in fact, attracted new audiences to Taylor’s music.

8. “Enough To Be On Your Way”

From the 1997 album Hourglass, Taylor wrote this song in memory of his brother Alex, who died of alcoholism-related illness. His lines are philosophical as he sings, “So the sun shines on his funeral, just the way as on a birth, like it shines on everything, that happens here on Earth.” The message here is how one should be moving on, after an incident of grief.

9. “Far Afghanistan”

On this song from the 2015 album Before This World, Taylor delivers an anti-war message, talking of how soldiers are sent for battle. He describes how they are brainwashed with different stories, but don’t have a clue about what’s actually happening in enemy land. The song was inspired by the U.S. role in Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11.

10. “Moon River”

We end our list with Taylor’s version of the evergreen “Moon River,” composed by Henry Mancini for the 1961 film Breakfast At Tiffany’s. The song has had numerous versions, including ones by Audrey Hepburn, Frank Sinatra, Andy Williams, Louis Armstrong, Elton John and Frank Ocean. The best thing about Taylor’s rendition is the way he makes it sound like his own. That’s something he does all through the American Standard album.

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