10 Essential David Crosby Tracks

David Crosby

Photo: Ben Houdijk – Shutterstock

David Crosby’s contributions to the rock and folk lexicons are so expansive that merely sorting through them can be an ordeal in and of itself. First emerging on the scene in 1964 as a member of The Byrds, Crosby’s relentless artistic instinct and knack for collaboration have brought him in and out of several of rock’s most significant outfits, including Crosby, Stills & Nash and its various offshoots. As though the sheer vastness of his output weren’t daunting enough, it can be tricky – particularly to those unfamiliar – to decode just where Crosby’s contributions to the material on which he is featured end and begin.

This is due to his long-standing predisposition to working as a member of a team. Even on his recent string of high-quality solo albums, Crosby works within a highly collaborative environment, co-writing most of his material with his son James Raymond as well as members of his Sky Trails and Lighthouse bands. Today we’ll be looking, in no particular order, at 10 more David Crosby songs that speak to the immense talent of the iconic songwriter.

10. “Laughing” – If I Could Only Remember My Name (1971), Byrds (1973)

“Laughing” as a track is indicative of David Crosby’s late 60s/early 70s approach to songcraft. Initially written early during his tenure with Crosby, Stills & Nash, but would not appear on record until the release of Crosby’s solo debut album, If I Could Only Remember My Name in 1971. The tune would be re-recorded the next year for inclusion on The Byrds’ final album, the self-titled, one-off reunion album released for David Geffen’s Asylum label.

The song itself features one of the many unusual tunings to which Crosby was partial, DGDDAD, a variation on DADGAD Celtic tuning. Lyrically, “Laughing” is a voyage of the mind, offering up a number of abstractions in a vein not dissimilar to that of one of Crosby’s most well-known Byrds contributions, “Mind Gardens.” In late 2021, an acoustic demo version of the song was made available for streaming,

9. “Bittersweet” – Wind on the Water (1975)

In 1974, only 5 years after the release of the first Crosby, Stills & Nash album, the group had ascended to superstardom, recruited Neil Young, released a slew of solo albums, and already busted up a number of times. Following a tour in the summer of 1974, members of what was now Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young decided to pursue other projects once more after a botched attempt at a follow up to 1970’s Deja Vu. This led to David Crosby and Graham Nash signing a contract with ABC Records as a duo, Crosby & Nash.

The pair’s first project for ABC, 1975’s Wind on the Water, featured some of the best songwriting of Crosby’s career. This is apparent early on during the album, specifically in the minor-key piano ballad “Bittersweet,” which sees the songwriter grappling with life’s tough decisions and analyzing the implications of those choices.

The Crosby & Nash records really give the duo room to breathe as songwriters outside the almost suffocating density of Stephen Stills’ talents as a musician and writer. There is a levity to the tracks that seem to indicate an absence of pressure, a notion one would never glean from a Crosby, Stills and Nash album.

8. “What’s Broken” – Croz (2014)

David Crosby’s output as a writer and recording artist suffered greatly during his well-documented years struggling with substance abuse. While he continued performing and recording, his musical contributions began to wane significantly from the mid-70s to the mid-80s, until 1985 when he was ultimately arrested on drugs and weapons charges. He would spend nine months in a Texas prison where he would dry out and regain his spark.

Upon his release he got back to work, and would even release a couple of albums under his own name before going quiet as a solo artist for 2 more decades. 2014’s Croz announced Crosby’s return to solo territory in a big way. His first collaboration of many under his own name with his son James Raymond, Croz introduces a modernity and sonic richness previously absent from Crosby’s material as well as that of parent groups CSN and CSNY.

Marrying his trademark spacey introspection with a sleek, Steely Dan-esque production and presentation, Crosby’s more recent work introduces a magnificent third act in an already overwhelmingly fruitful career. “What’s Broken,” as a track, wrestles with a dormant anxiety and feelings of self-worth, surmised in the chorus lyric:

“Who wants to see an abandoned soul?/ Who wants to try and open it?/ Who wants to know what desperate is?/ Who wants to buy what’s broken?/”

7. “Cowboy Movie” If I Could Only Remember My Name (1971)

In 1971, the members of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young made the decision to release solo albums to ease creative tensions and to provide the songwriters with a degree of autonomy. While the exercise did little to stifle the quartet’s infamous in-fighting, the resulting records did fare better artistically than those of KISS, who would employ a similar technique in 1978. Crosby’s solo release, If I Could Only Remember My Name, was an outlier among the four releases due to its abstract, avant-garde approach and collaborative nature. Drenched in reverb-soaked harmonies – often layered a dozen times over – If I Could Only Remember My Name was a pioneering release in various sub-genres, and helped shape the sound of countless acts in the modern day, including Fleet Foxes and Sufjan Stevens.

Those whose views are more closely aligned with the album’s earliest reviewers – who themselves were listening for blues licks and traditional song structures – may be better served giving Stills or Young’s albums from this period a spin. With regard to straight-ahead rock, however, “Cowboy Story” doesn’t stray too far the mark. With Crosby’s sputtering rhythm augmented by the blistering leads of Grateful Dead mastermind and Crosby cohort Jerry Garcia, the semi-autobiographical tune circles a static chord progression and recounts the dysfunction of what at the time was perhaps the most famous band in America with the eloquence and good humor listeners have come to expect from the folk-rock legend.

6. “I Think I” – For Free (2021)

If there’s any track most representative of the personal growth undergone by the self-proclaimed “world’s most opinionated man” over the years, it’s this sprightly cut from his most recent LP, 2021’s For Free. The track seems to spearhead the album’s recurring theme of perseverance through feelings of inadequacy and uncertainty. In spite of his advanced age – Crosby turned 80 last year – and his many years of hard living, Crosby is in fantastic form vocally, a characteristic he attributes to having steered clear of cigarettes over the years. Acoustic-based with a driving tempo, “I Think I” is pure folk in execution, and pure Croz in its deep-diving introspection.

5. “Naked in the Rain” – Wind on the Water (1975)

Crosby & Nash released a number of formidable records throughout the 70s, with 1975’s Wind on the Water arguably representing a peak. “Naked in Rain” sounds as though it could have been an outtake from the sessions for If I Could Only Remember My Name, and who’s to say that it wasn’t? For this cut, Crosby broke out another of his off-the-wall tunings, DADDGC, which he would utilize once more for the Crosby, Stills and Nash reunion album, CSN, a couple of years later on the song “In My Dreams.”

“Naked in the Rain,” with its sparse arrangement, jazz-influenced changes, and soul-searching lyrics, is classic Crosby. With bodies of work as vast and as influential as those of the members of CSN, it isn’t hard to see why some listeners might cut corners in their exploration of said work. But in defining these musicians as artists and songwriters, one would be remiss to gloss over Crosby and Nash’s material as a duo, as it features many gems that would likely have gone on to become iconic had they seen inclusion on a CSN or CSNY project.

4. “Anything at All” – CSN (1977)

In 1977, the original Crosby, Stills & Nash lineup reunited for what was only their second album in the trio format. CSN was met with high praise and remains the trio’s best-selling record. It would also be the final album with which the group wouldn’t receive significant studio assistance from outside parties in the completion of tracks. Crosby brought stellar material to the sessions, including the aforementioned “In My Dreams,” and the excellent opening track “Shadow Captain,” which drew inspiration from his passion for sailing. However, few tracks encapsulate the essence of David Crosby the way that “Anything at All” does.

Bathed in the echo of atmospheric piano chords, Crosby’s vocals enter the mix as though emerging from a cloud of smoke, imploring the listener to take advantage of his far-reaching expertise on any and all subjects. With a wink and a nod, Crosby substantiates his continued standing as the coolest guy in the group, and possibly in the world.

3. “Delta” – Daylight Again (1982)

The 80s were a troubled time for Crosby, Stills & Nash, Crosby in particular. His substance abuse issues had taken over much of his day-to-day life, and he lacked the attention and interest to put together much substantial content. Because of this, 1982’s Daylight Again had initially been recorded without Crosby’s participation, and was slated to be the first Stills & Nash album. Atlantic Records, however, insisted on a CSN album, and Crosby came onboard at the last minute with two songs.

One of these songs was “Delta,” a rich ballad on which Crosby takes a rare turn as a pianist. Although the song was written solely by Crosby, he credits Jackson Browne with forcing him to see the song’s creation through. As Crosby himself tells it, after showing some lyrics to Browne, the two set up shop at Warren Zevon’s house where Browne hovered over Crosby at the piano bench, putting the brakes on Crosby’s frequent detours to his pipe until the song was complete. The result is the finest work Crosby produced in the era, and a captivating cry for help from a man who realizes that he just may have overplayed his hand.

2. “Wooden Ships” – Crosby, Stills & Nash (1969)

Crosby, Stills & Nash were major players in the late-60s/early 70s countercultural scene out west. As such, they formed close relationships with many of their contemporaries, including groups such as the Grateful Dead, The Mamas & the Papas, and Jefferson Airplane. “Wooden Ships” – which has become a staple in the CSN(Y) catalog right along with classics such as “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” “Woodstock,” and “Teach Your Children” – has its origins in the group’s relationship with Jefferson Airplane, rhythm guitarist Paul Kantner, specifically.

The song was written aboard Crosby’s ship, the Mayan, in 1968 by Crosby, Stills, and Kantner. The music was Crosby’s, while many of the lyrics are said to have been contributed by stills and Kantner. A driving rocker that makes use of start-stop dynamics, “Wooden Ships” is reflective of the era in which it was written, with several references to nuclear holocaust: for many, an anticipated consequence of the ongoing Vietnam War, which strained relationships with the heavily nuclear-armed Soviet Union. The track’s colorful lyrics integrate the psychedelia of the 1960s with darker political commentary, the latter of which the group would continue to explore on subsequent releases.

1. “I Won’t Stay for Long” – For Free (2021)

The final track on Crosby’s 2021 LP For Free sees the legend looking his own mortality square in the face. There is no pretense here, and Crosby makes no bones about acknowledging the fact that he is on borrowed time. The song begins as a stark piano ballad, providing ample space for the emotional nuance that Croz brings vocally. The track builds over its four-minute runtime, but never approaches cheesy or overblown territory.

The mix is very well balanced, and each instrument has its place. The lyrics, though rooted in the concept of life and its fleeting nature, don’t necessarily dwell on the idea of loss and separation. Rather, the focus is on the ones with whom we share our lives. Losing our loved ones does not predicate the materialization of a negative force in our lives, but of a space in our hearts that was once filled with the things that matter most. Coping with this loss doesn’t necessarily entail taking down a dragon as much as coming to terms with the idea of repurposing the newly-vacant space.

It is through the love that we show one another during our lives that we may live forever, what comes after is merely administrative. Though what comes after could also be when the adventure truly begins, depending on where your beliefs fall. Crosby himself perhaps says it best at the close of the song’s first verse,

“I’m facing the squall of a thousand-year storm/ I don’t know if I’m dying or about to be born/ But I’d like to be with you today/ Yes, I’d like to be with you today/”

“I Won’t Stay for Long” could serve as an appropriate close to a career that has spanned decades and influenced millions. Luckily for us, at the time of writing, Crosby, Raymond, and company have purportedly been hard at work in the studio on a follow-up to For Free, which hopefully we will see later this year. Even at this stage in the game, Crosby seems only to be ramping up his musical productivity. Whether we see another ten albums from the icon or just one, we can rest assured that there already exists plenty of material suitable for a third entry of a list such as this. With a career like David Crosby’s, the subsequent musical bounty is essentially limitless.

10 Essential David Crosby Tracks article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2021

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