On our list, you’ll find none of this greatest hits albums. Sure, the hits are great, but the real strength of a James Taylor album — or any artist’s album — is how well all of the songs flow from one to the next. And really, a record is, as behavioral scientists and game theorists might put it, a weak link proposition: an album doesn’t hold up based on how good its best song is, but rather on how good its so-called filler tracks are.
By that measure, James Taylor has issued some fantastic albums, and it makes choosing a top ten seem almost unfair. Still, the world likes lists, so here’s ours for the top ten James Taylor albums.
# 10 – Before this World
It’s patently unfair to expect a performer to remain at his or her creative peak, but it’s also not fair to dismiss that artist’s later-in-life releases simply because they were made after a supposed creative high point. Even though 2015’s Before this World isn’t anywhere near James Taylor’s most transcendent efforts (we’ll talk about those in a minute), it’s a nonetheless lovely collection of finely-tuned acoustic songs. The album is tight with harmonies and full of the legend’s signature guitar work. And, while some of James Taylor’s contemporaries struggle with vocal chords that aren’t quite what they used to be, his voice sounds as clear and as soothing as it ever has. The single “Angels of Fenway” is what draws you in, but downright beautiful tracks like “Snowtime” and especially the album’s closing ballad “Wild Mountain Thyme” are what make this record an especially good one.
# 9 – That’s Why I’m Here
In the mid-1980s, new wave and synths ruled pop radio, but adult contemporary was carving out a big niche in the music world. Taylor’s 1985 effort That’s Why I’m Here fits squarely into that more grown up category, with its meandering melodies, gentle kit drumming, and electric piano lines. The album’s vaguely autobiographical title track is a memorable one, and songs like “Only a Dream in Rio” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” are thick with wonderful vocals. The real standouts? One is “Only One,” with its repetitive chorus and superstar backup singers Don Henley and Joni Mitchell, and the other is Taylor’s cover of Buddy Holly’s “Everyday,” which is elevated thanks to one extra bar at the end of the chorus; listen and you’ll surely agree.
# 8 – Hourglass
Taylor’s 1997 effort is mostly somber, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing; it’s not like James Taylor fans look to James Taylor albums for thrashcore or anything like that. And there are some upbeat spots, like the percussion and flute filled “Jump Up Behind Me,” and the singalong beauty of “Boatman.” But more thoughtful tracks like “Line ‘Em Up” and “Gaia” dominate, and the whole thing flows like welcome a river of relaxation through the late ‘90s soundscape of sugary boy bands and angsty “alternative” music.
# 7 – Never Die Young
The 1980s were good to James Taylor: he quit drugs for good, he seemed to get his personal life on the right track, and he was writing some pretty fantastic songs. The tracks on 1988’s Never Die Young’s find Taylor right in his songwriting sweet spot. He’s clearly in love, and the gush of it all is a bit much at times, but the melodies soar, and every song is just locked in. Lifting up everything on this record are his outstanding backup musicians. The drums are always in the pocket (yes, JT fans, we know), the backing vocalists add the perfect texture, and there’s even some electric guitar. Standouts include the lovey-dovey “Sweet Potato Pie” and especially the rhythm driven “Sun On the Moon.”
# 6 – James Taylor (Live)
OK, so yes, technically this one is a greatest hits compilation. However, it’s also a James Taylor live album, and even though James Taylor seems to take off on an extensive tour every other year, some of us just don’t get out to see him as much as we’d like. For us, there’s his 1993 live double album — yes, the double album; the culled down single disc edition of the same concert is frankly just a tease. The full version features all the hits you’d want, lesser known but just as beloved tunes like “Slap Leather” and “Traffic Jam,” plus covers like the George Jones classic “She Thinks I Still Care.” Between it all, you get the light banter that means so much to devoted fans, and the crowd applause just validates your own love for the man and his music.
# 5 – Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon
It’s a James Taylor album that’s mostly known just by fans, and that’s probably for good reason: beyond Taylor’s well known cover of Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend,” there isn’t much that’s recognizable on Mud Slide Slim by title alone. But never mind that. The extensive variety of instrumentation throughout the album keeps it eminently interesting, from the piano on “Places in My Past” to the percussion on “Mud Slide Slim” to the tinkling acoustic guitar throughout. If you’re still filling out your James Taylor collection and have yet to give this one a fair shake, then it’s time to discover Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon. You’ll feel like you’ve unearthed a real treasure.
# 4 – New Moon Shine
You can talk and talk about how great Taylor’s late 1970s singles are, but “Copperline” from 1991’s New Moon Shine holds up with the best of James Taylor’s classic tracks. Yes, the whole album has a mature sound, but when did JT ever sound immature? It was popular with core fans and new fans alike, was certified platinum, and sold well for the better part of that year. It strikes the right balance between upbeat 4/4 pop songs and more cerebral ballads, but perhaps the strongest track is “Shed a Little Light,” with its a capella opening and message of inclusion that feels more relevant every day.
# 3 – JT
We’re in the top three of our Top 10 James Taylor Albums list, and really, these could easily be rearranged in a different order; your top James Taylor album just hit you at the right time in your life and stayed with you. Let’s look at JT, which is, for lack of a better descriptor, possibly the most James Taylor-est of James Taylor’s records. Released in 1977, right after he was signed to Columbia and in the middle of his famous marriage to Carly Simon, JT displays the full depth and breadth of Taylor’s abilities as an artist. You want slow and poignant? “Secret O’ Life.” Upbeat and cheerful? “Smiling Face.” Joking but also still sort of serious? “Traffic Jam.” Just flat out gorgeous? “Terra Nova.” Listen to it from beginning to end (or, more appropriately, front to back), and you really understand everything the man is capable of.
# 2 – Gorilla
We’ll refrain from calling Taylor’s 1975 album Gorilla a beast, because a silly pun just doesn’t do it justice. You can hear the relative young Taylor still working out the subtle nuances of songwriting, but the album’s frequent moments of brilliance are overpowering. The album begins with the fingerpicked opening guitar line of “Mexico,” and right away you know you’re in for something good. Taylor’s cover of Marvin Gaye’s “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” is a highlight, as is the embarrassingly relatable “I Was a Fool to Care,” but the real high point of Gorilla is “Lighthouse,” with its lush vocals deceptively complex lyrics and structure. The whole thing sounds like an artist on the uphill climb to greatness, and we get to go along for the journey.
# 1 – Sweet Baby James
Is it fair to call Taylor’s second studio album his best? Sweet Baby James was released way back in 1970, at the beginning of a career that’s still going strong more than 45 year later, and those four-plus ensuing decades have absolutely not been a long downhill slide. Still, most fans and critics alike will point to this early effort as his best: it is earnest, it is wise beyond his years, and it takes everything great about folk music and stretches it tightly but smoothly over a pop frame. As a result, the songs on Sweet Baby James sound just as fresh today as they did in 1970. There are the singles, of course: everyone and their grandmother knows “Fire and Rain” and the album’s title track, but there are also gems like “Blossom” and “Lo and Behold” and “Country Road.” Ultimately, Sweet Baby James is an album that both transcends and unites generations, because that is exactly what great music does.
The Top 10 James Taylor Albums
Written by Amy S