10 Essential David Crosby Tracks

David Crosby

Photo: Ben Houdijk – Shutterstock

David Crosby’s contributions to the rock and folk lexicons were 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 wasn’t daunting enough, it can be tricky – particularly for those unfamiliar – to decode just where Crosby’s contributions to the material he is featured end and begin.

This is due to his long-standing predisposition to working as a team member. Even on his recent string of high-quality solo albums, Crosby worked in a highly collaborative environment, co-writing most of his material with his son James Raymond and 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 indicates David Crosby’s late 60s/early 70s approach to songcraft. Initially written early during his tenure with Crosby, Stills & Nash, it 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 following year for inclusion on The Byrds’ final album, the self-titled, one-off reunion album released for David Geffen’s Asylum label.

The song features one of the many unusual tunings. Crosby was partial, DGDDAD, a variation on DADGAD Celtic tuning. Lyrically, “Laughing” is a voyage of the mind, offering up some 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 five 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 had already broken up several times. Following a tour in the summer of 1974, members of what was now Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young decided to pursue other projects again 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 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 of 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 drug 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 returned to work and even released a couple of albums under his own name before going quiet as a solo artist for two 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 and 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, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young members decided to release solo albums to ease creative tensions and 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 were listening for blues licks and traditional song structures – may be better served giving Stills or Young’s albums from this period a spin. Concerning straight-ahead rock, however, “Cowboy Story” doesn’t stray too far from 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. Despite 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 several formidable records throughout the 70s, with 1975’s Wind on the Water arguably a peak. “Naked in Rain” sounds like 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 off-the-wall tuning, 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, for which the group wouldn’t receive significant studio assistance from outside parties to complete tracks. Crosby brought stellar material to the sessions, including those mentioned before and “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 was initially 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 on board 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 significant 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 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. Though rooted in the concept of life and its fleeting nature, the lyrics 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 repurposing the newly vacant space.

We may live forever through the love we show one another during our lives; what comes after is merely administrative. However, 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,

10 Essential David Crosby Tracks article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2024

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