Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every James Taylor Album (Part 1)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

James Taylor (1968, Apple)

A

It’s not his best album, but James Taylor may have never made a more inherently fascinating album than this one. It definitely has an aura of mystique about it, not in the least since it’s the first and only album he ever made for one of the most intriguing of all vanity imprints, the Beatles-owned Apple Records. What most separates this album from the rest of Taylor’s catalog, however, is its design, most of the cuts being separated by brief – and unlisted – orchestral or harpsichord interludes, such as the brief rendition of “Greensleeves” that follows the soulful opener “Don’t Talk Now.” There are also several songs that are very out of character from the James Taylor sound that would become his trademark. “Knocking ‘Round the Zoo,” for instance, sounds a bit more like Blood, Sweat & Tears than James Taylor, while the harpsichord-driven “Taking It In” vaguely recalls The Partridge Family and “Night Owl” is pure Memphis soul. The standout “Sunshine Sunshine” is similarly atypical of his later output, its orchestral baroque pop sound sounding like a fusion of Sweet Baby James and the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed; it’s actually a shame James never again tried anything quite like it as it’s very appealing indeed. But, lest you think this is a completely atypical album, there are also sounds of the James Taylor that everyone would come to love in such fine tracks as “Brighten Your Night with My Day,” “Something’s Wrong,” “Rainy Day Man,” and “Circle Round the Sun,” and the album boasts two later James Taylor concert standards in “Something in the Way She Moves” and “Carolina in My Mind” (the latter featuring Paul McCartney on bass and an uncredited George Harrison on backing vocals), though both songs are probably better-known via the re-recorded studio versions that appear on 1976’s Greatest Hits. The whole disc is rather raw and unpolished in comparison to his later work, but that just adds to the intrigue of the album.  

Sweet Baby James (1970, Warner Bros.)

A +

It may not be quite as adventurous as its predecessor, but Taylor’s sophomore outing – and his first for Warner Brothers – is a much more polished and focused affair that also demonstrates just how considerably Taylor has grown as a vocalist since his days with Apple, and his vocal performances have a real warmth here that most of those from his debut lacked. [Interestingly, both this album and the debut were produced by former Peter & Gordon (“A World Without Love”) member Peter Asher, so the disc also reveals a huge growth in Asher’s skills as a producer.] The album also boasts a phenomenal set of songs, and there are several enduring James Taylor classics included here, including the bluesy “Steamroller,” the dramatic “Country Road” (one of his more muscular ballads and one that boasts a great turn on drums from Russell Kunkel), the timeless lullaby “Sweet Baby James,” and, most famously of all, the wildly influential “Fire and Rain,” which, perhaps more so than any other song, is responsible for kicking off the confessional-singer-songwriter boom of the early ‘70s. But the surrounding cuts are solid in their own right, and there are actually quite a few underrated songs here, especially “Sunny Skies,” “Anywhere Like Heaven,” and “Blossom.” Taylor’s also got a great supporting band here, one that not only includes Kunkel but bassist Randy Meisner (a Poco alumnus who’d soon go on to spend most of the ‘70s as a member of The Eagles) and the legendary Carole King on piano.

Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon (1971, Warner Bros.)

A

Only slightly inferior to Sweet Baby James, James’ third solo outing is, like his first two albums, a very well-crafted album piece. Most of the songs here are a bit lesser-known than most of the classics contained on Sweet Baby James, but there is one very notable exception, the now-iconic chart-topping cover of Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend,” featuring Joni Mitchell on harmonies to delightful effect. Sure, the song may be a tad sappy on paper, but James’ lovely – and sporadically even soulful – vocal performance on the song ranks as one of his finest and really helps to make the song a more appealing listen than it has any right to be. The lesser-known Top 40 hit “Long Ago and Far Away,” similarly featuring Mitchell on harmonies, remains one of Taylor’s most criminally underrated singles, while album opener “Love Has Brought Me Around,” “Highway Song,” the smoky grooves of “Machine Gun Kelly,” “Places in My Past,” and the country-tinged “Hey Mister, That’s Me Up on the Jukebox” stand out the most among the surrounding album cuts. Even the brief “Isn’t It Nice to Be Home Again,” which clocks in at less than a minute, makes a surprisingly effective closing cut in spite of its brevity. Unfortunately, this would end up being the last truly great album James Taylor would make for several years.

One Man Dog (1972, Warner Bros.)

C –

A self-indulgent affair that was both a commercial and critical disappointment and brought a surprisingly quick end to Taylor’s status as the reigning king of confessional-singer-songwriter pop, One Man Dog is a return to the experimentation of his self-titled debut on Apple. The difference is that, whereas that album worked uncredited interludes in between a dozen fully-realized songs, nearly everything here feels like an interlude and only a tiny handful of tracks feel like fully-realized songs. Of the eighteen tracks, eight clock in at less than two minutes and only three songs clock in at three minutes or more (and only one of those three is actually penned by Taylor, which makes you wonder if he wasn’t suffering from a serious case of writer’s block at the time.) The lazy jazz-pop of the fabulous “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” is both the best track here and the album’s lone hit, reaching #14, and goes a very long way towards redeeming the album. “One Man Parade” and “Hymn” are both worth a spin as well, but there are few other highlights here, and, though, like his self-titled debut, this is a fascinating album piece, especially for someone like Taylor who so rarely experiments or messes with his usual winning formula, Taylor seemed to have forgotten here that even album pieces still need to be built around songs, not just a bunch of song fragments.

Walking Man (1974, Warner Bros.)

C

Taylor apparently learned his lesson from One Man Dog and is actually back to writing fully-realized songs again, not just interesting snippets, but Peter Asher – easily the best producer James has ever worked with – has been replaced here as producer with session musician David Spinozza, and Taylor is still struggling to come up with a set of songs nearly as good as those on any of his first three discs, and this would become the first James Taylor album to fail to even so much as yield a Hot 100 hit. But the album – which also boasts a guest appearance from Paul and Linda McCartney on backing vocals – isn’t without its moments, and “Let It All Fall Down” and “Hello Old Friend” are both worth a listen, while the title cut would become a minor fan favorite and a regular feature of his live act.

Gorilla (1975, Warner Bros.)

A –    

A radical improvement on its predecessor, Gorilla – helmed by Russ Titelman and Lenny Waronker – turns out to be Taylor’s finest album since Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon, even if it’s never quite as interesting overall as that album. Gorilla would also revive Taylor’s fortunes on pop radio, giving him his first Top 40 solo single in nearly three years (not counting his turn as wife Carly Simon’s duet partner on her Hotcakes single “Mockingbird’) with its breezy Top Five remake of Marvin Gaye’s “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You),” which unexpectedly reveals Taylor to be a surprisingly effective lite-soul crooner. The disc also sports a second Taylor classic in the Jimmy Buffett-like tropical pop of “Mexico,” with guest harmonies from Graham Nash and David Crosby. (The song would surprisingly only peak at #49, missing the Top 40, but remains one of Taylor’s most beloved lesser hits, as well as his one of his best up-tempo outings.) But there are other highlights here as well among the album cuts, including “Lighthouse,” the funky “Angry Blues” (featuring a guest appearance from Little Feat’s Lowell George), the torchy “You Make It Easy,” the mellow “Music,” and the catchy yet sparse ballad “Wandering,” featuring James backed only by his guitar and Nick DeCaro’s accordion.

In The Pocket (1976, Warner Bros.)

B –

An almost-too-transparent attempt to replicate the success of Gorilla, In the Pocket – produced by the returning team of Titelman and Waronker – suffers only from having a much less memorable set of songs. It certainly gets off to a very encouraging start, though, the disc opening with one of Taylor’s all-time finest originals, the both catchy and beautiful “Shower the People,” featuring then-wife Carly Simon on harmonies. Unfortunately, nothing else on the album is remotely as good as that song, and everything that follows it just seems incredibly disappointing in comparison, even the Stevie Wonder co-write “Don’t Be Sad ‘Cause Your Sun Is Down,” featuring Stevie himself on harmonica. “Golden Moments,” “Everybody Has the Blues,” and the delightful cover of R&B star Bobby Womack’s “Woman’s Gotta Have It” are moderately memorable, but though the disc as a whole is still certainly stronger than Walking Man or One Man Dog, it pales quite a bit next to Gorilla.

JT (1977, Columbia)

A

Taylor’s first outing on new label Columbia is, without a doubt, his best album since at least Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon and perhaps even Sweet Baby James, and he was deservedly rewarded with an Album of the Year nomination for this disc, solidifying a comeback that might have been unthinkable back in the days of Walking Man. Wisely reuniting with his old producer, Peter Asher, Taylor also comes up with a truly solid batch of songs here, and the disc gets off to a rousing start with one of the most carefree and upbeat singles Taylor has ever made, the lively Top Twenty hit “Your Smiling Face,” which is almost impossible to avoid listening to without at least cracking a smile, if not singing along, and hearing Taylor uncharacteristically breaking into a falsetto and vamping his way through the song’s closing bars is actually quite charming. The disc also sports a Top Five hit – if not nearly as fun a single as “Your Smiling Face” – in its easygoing reworking of Jimmy Jones’ 1960 classic “Handy Man.” Taylor also rocks out harder than ever before on the Danny Kortchmar-written “Honey Don’t Leave L.A.” and delves ever so slightly into jazz territory on the playful “Traffic Jam.” But Taylor’s, of course, most renowned for his ballads, and he turns in quite a few good ones here, including “If I Keep My Heart Out of Sight,” “Another Grey Morning,” and, best of all, the enduring and heartwarming live favorite “Secret o’ Life,” in which Taylor reveals that the secret of life is “enjoying the passage of time” and advises listeners to “try not to try too hard … it’s just a lovely ride.” This is an absolute must-own for any Taylor fan.