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The 11 best James Taylor songs

Why have a Top 10 when you can have one more? Here are our 11 favourite James Taylor songs, ranked

Of all the velveteen voices in pop history, none can compare to that of James Taylor. Arriving in London as a teenager from North Carolina, already fighting his own demons that he would eventually overcome to balance his perfectly palatable musicality, almost 60 years on Taylor still continues to grow his craft.

With his arrival in the UK next month with His All Star Band, we rank our favourite James Taylor songs of all time.

11. Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight

(One Man Dog, 1972)

Having set himself up to be one of the 70s most promising songwriters with his first few albums, Taylor’s fourth LP, One Man Dog, came as a surprise to many. Made up of 18 short and, in some cases, unfinished tracks, the record didn’t exactly scratch the surface in terms of the tenderness and honesty of his previous work. Today it might be called a mixtape. But ‘Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight’ is its exception (and its biggest success); its sleepy pace gives him ample room to flex his melodic gift, as he well does here. A lot of sax solos in the 70s have a kind of bland, muzak quality, but the one keeping Taylor company here has a breathy warmth to it that’s understated but perfectly suited.

10. I Was A Fool To Care

(Gorilla, 1975)

A favourite of Mac DeMarco‘s, ‘I Was a Fool to Care’ is a simple ditty in which Taylor acknowledges his desires were mistakes but he has no regrets regardless. Instrumentally, its as earnest as its theme, but that short rhythmic intro is just so satisfying.

9. The Frozen Man

(New Moon Shine, 1991)

A track that reminds us of Taylor’s ability to stir emotion with six strings and not just the depth of his voice, ‘The Frozen Man’ was inspired by a National Geographic story of the discovery of sailor who had been preserved in ice for hundreds of years (though he only really looked at the photos). Though it might seem a whimsical songwriting exercise compared to some of his more personal material for Taylor, its second half can be read as a hopeful tale of returning, or thawing, from the cold depths of our own darkness. It’s supposedly one of Bob Dylan’s favourites.

8. Her Town Too (with JD Souther)

(Dad Loves His Work, 1981)

Written together with country-rock songwriting legend JD Souther, ‘Her Town Too’ has often been attributed to the duo’s breakup with Carly Simon and Linda Ronstadt respectively (no, naturally neither have ever confirmed this). The slightest groove of the bass and smooth keys give the track a cool yacht-rock feel, but the acoustic guitar licks are the what really make this track.

7. Mexico

(Gorilla, 1975)

This song is like stumbling across a photo album and finding a picture of your parents on holiday in the 70s. A folk rock classic with some extra kudos thanks to the harmonies of Graham Nash and David Crosby, ‘Mexico’ is essentially a 3-minute daydream of a tropical escape. Taylor soon admits “Oh, down in Mexico/ I’ve never really been so I don’t really know”, but the subtle Latin elements twinned with the distinctly American guitar work is an irresistible combo.

6. Fire And Rain

(Sweet Baby James, 1970)

Though sung as if looking back over a lifetime of experiences, Taylor was only 20 when he began writing ‘Fire And Rain’, which charts the sorrowful depths and euphoric highs of his life over a simply timeless guitar line. Though often looked on as an easy-listening symbol of adult contemporary pop, Taylor has fought off many demons in his life, and the biblical quality of this song opened up the door to listeners that would create a strong bond throughout his career.

5. Sweet Baby James

(Sweet Baby James, 1970)

Named in honour of his nephew James Richmond Taylor (not himself), this lullaby ‘Sweet Baby James’ is a perfect country song, though it’s also technically a waltz. So, if you want to nod off, yee-haw or dance elegantly with a parner then this one’s for you. Taylor considers it his best ever song.

4. How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)

(Gorilla, 1975)

In another dose of sweetness, the opening drum roll of ‘How Sweet It Is…’ is so recognisable it could make a pub quiz music round answer sheet before the first chord of the piano. A cover of Marvin Gaye’s Motown classic, Taylor swaps soul for the blues on his version. It has a kind of finality to it, like the closing song of a wedding.

3. Copperline

(New Moon Shine, 1991)

Shimmering with a more modern musicality than some of his classic hits, ‘Copperline’ is actually one of his most nostalgic as he looks back at his childhood. “First kiss I ever I took/ Like a page from a romance book”, he reflects as if to a partner while visiting his family home. In fact, later in the song he does return to North Carolina, but finds “All spec house and plywood/ Tore up and tore up good”. But it’s sung with inevitability more than lament, his life’s pivotal moments safe in the memory of the past.

2. You’ve Got A Friend

(Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon, 1971)

Written by his songwriting partner and dear friend Carole King, Taylor fell in love with this song after hearing it while King was writing Tapestry; given that it was supposedly written after hearing ‘Fire And Rain’, it’s hardly surprising he took a liking to it. It was kind of her to lend it to him, as it won him a Grammy and a No.1 hit. While King’s version is lead on the piano, Taylor’s version comes to life through the warm rattle of his nimble acoustic guitar work, with Joni Mitchell’s harmonies somehow elevating its magic even higher.

1. Something In The Way She Moves

(James Taylor, 1968)

It sure must take something special to inspire one of The Beatles greatest songs, and yet that’s exactly what this did when Taylor auditioned in front of George Harrison and Paul McCartney for a place on Apple records in the late 60s. Its original version, recorded in London, has a sprightly and organic feel, delivered with an energy as if it’s fresh in Taylor’s mind. He had to re-record this for his 1976 Greatest Hits compilation, which is slightly slowed down and has a higher fidelity that most probably find more appealing, but this recording has an excitement that can’t be matched and seems to foresee the lifelong journey Taylor was about to embark on.

James Taylor tours the UK from 7-17 October, visiting the likes of London, Brighton and Manchester. A limited amount of tickets are available here.