Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every James Taylor Album (Part 2)

by Jeff Fiedler

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

Flag (1979, Columbia)

B

Taylor’s final album of the Seventies is not nearly as good as JT, and it does admittedly have some embarrassing moments scattered along the way – namely, the weak cover of the Beatles’ “Day Tripper” and the shuffle “Is That the Way You Look?’ – but it’s also not nearly as bad as most critics out to be, either. “Company Man” gets the disc off to a fine – and surprisingly hard-rocking (well, by Taylor’s standards, anyway) – start, and “Johnnie Comes Back” keeps the up-tempo rock going, but the disc goes off the rails for a bit after that, beginning with the aforementioned “Day Tripper,” and it doesn’t really get on track until the second side, which is really rock-solid, beginning with the clever ballad “B.S.U.R.” and followed by a gorgeous re-recording of “Rainy Day Man” from his debut album, the fine original “Millworker” (also included in the stage musical Working), a devastatingly pretty (if fairly radically re-arranged) cover of the Drifters’ “Up on the Roof” (performed here as a slow ballad complete with strings), the very-left-field but lovely “Chanson Francaise,” and the fitting closer “Sleep Come Free Me.” Sure, it’s spotty, but if you jump right from “Johnnie Comes Back” to “B.S.U.R.,” you might be pleasantly surprised at just how much good material is actually here.

Dad Loves His Work (1981, Columbia)

A –

James Taylor’s first album of the Eighties was recorded and released amidst the unraveling of his marriage to Carly Simon, so it’s perhaps not surprising that there’s a very clear sense of melancholy to the most emotionally naked songs here. It’s not his catchiest set of songs, but unlike Flag, there are no bad songs here, either, and it makes a pretty solid album piece as a whole, if not the happiest of ones (although the mood lightens on occasion, even including a Jimmy Buffett co-write in “Sugar Trade.”) The album also includes one of Taylor’s hardest-rocking numbers in “Stand and Fight.” Other highlights include the catchy “Hour That the Morning Comes,” “Hard Times,” “Summer’s Here,” and the chilling near-acapella closing cut “That Lonesome Road.” But the best song of all here – though a terribly sad one – is the wistful J.D. Souther duet “Her Town Too,” which is Taylor’s prettiest original ballad since “Secret ‘o’ Life” and deservedly became Taylor’s biggest self-penned hit since “Fire and Rain,” stopping just one spot shy of reaching the Top Ten. Unfortunately, it would also be the last Top 40 hit he would ever have.

That's Why I'm Here (1985, Columbia)

B +

After a shockingly long four-year absence, the longest he’d ever gone between albums up to this point, Taylor finally re-emerged in the mid-‘80s with this new full-length. Not much has actually changed (although he’s certainly in a happier mood here than he was on the previous disc), though Taylor’s sound is noticeably a bit more mellow this time out and he’s all but abandoned any light-rock numbers (a la Dad Loves His Work’s “Stand and Fight” or Flag’s “Johnnie Comes Back.” But the music landscape had changed and Taylor had been away for much too long, and the album failed to give him a major crossover hit, though it did get some respectable airplay on adult-contemporary stations, especially the glossy, easygoing, light-R&B makeover of Buddy Holly’s “Everyday.” Other standout cuts include “Only One” (a minor adult-contemporary hit featuring Joni Mitchell and Don Henley on backing vocals), “Only a Dream in Rio,” “Song for You Far Away,” and the sunny title cut. But, as solid as this disc is for its first six or seven tracks (the cassette and CD editions add a cover of the standard “My Romance” to the middle of the disc), the album’s second side is too spotty and goes off the rails entirely after “Only One,” which is followed by the cringe-inducing “Mona,” a tribute to a deceased pig (no joke), and a dreadful cover of Gene Pitney’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” Taylor, perhaps realizing that that was no way to end the album, tries to salvage the affair by ending the disc with a brief reprise of the fine title cut, but by that point, it’s too little too late. 

Never Die Young (1988, Columbia)

C +

Better than One Man Dog and Walking Man but not quite as memorable as In the Pocket or Flag, Taylor’s final outing of the ‘80s doesn’t contain any surprises, although the absence of any cover song is a bit of a shock since most of his post-“Fire and Rain” hits had been covers and Taylor had seldom released an album without one. Never Die Young is almost equal parts comprised of Taylor’s trademark ballads and easygoing grooves tailor-made for adult-contemporary radio. The inherent problem with the album is that there just aren’t many hooks to latch onto – few of the songs even so much as have choruses that repeat – so while the album sounds great, it doesn’t make for nearly as good radio fodder as the previous album, which had some obvious singles in the likes of “Everyday,” “Only One,” and the title cut. This isn’t to say Never Die Young is without its moments – the title cut is quite appealing, even if it’s not nearly as catchy as it could have been, and “Sweet Potato Pie,” “Home By Another Way,” and “Letter in the Mail” – all buried in the album’s second half – all fare reasonably well, but the lack of strong single material ultimately means that this is his most disappointing album for Columbia yet. 

New Moon Shine (1991, Columbia)

B +

A very reassuring step back in the right direction, New Moon Shine seems like a more fitting follow-up to That’s Why I’m Here than Never Die Young turned out to be. You’ve got a charming cover in the remake of Sam Cooke’s “Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha,” a greater mix of styles (including a return to harder territory on the fun and surprisingly fast rocker “Slap Leather”), and, most importantly, a greater emphasis on hooks, this disc easily containing more in the way of memorable choruses than Never Die Young has, “Copperline,” the Cajun-tinged “(I’ve Got to) Stop Thinkin’ ‘Bout That,” the gospel-laced MLK tribute “Shed a Little Light,” and “The Frozen Man” all being quite solid. It’s certainly not as essential a listen as JT or even Dad Loves His Work, but the fact that Taylor is challenging himself a bit more here and has come up with stronger melodies this time around as well makes this his best – and certainly his most fun – album since at least That’s Why I’m Here, if not Dad Loves His Work.

Hourglass (1997, Columbia)

B +

Every bit as solid as New Moon Shine and a 1998 Grammy winner for Best Pop Album, Taylor doesn’t deviate any here from his formula of recent years (although he does surprisingly – very surprisingly – work a particularly strong obscenity into the lyrics of “Enough to Be on Your Way”), but the songwriting remains fairly good. The slight samba of “Line ‘em Up,” the R&B-flavored, bilingual “Ananas,” the playful “Jump Up Behind Me” (featuring Sting), the gently-rocking “Yellow and Rose” (featuring Shawn Colvin), the aforementioned “Enough to Be on Your Way,” and, best of all, the easygoing grooves of “Little More Time with You” (featuring Stevie Wonder on harmonica) are all very appealing indeed. Like That’s Why I’m Here, the disc ends on a relatively weird note with a cover of the standard “Walking My Baby Back Home” (which is not bad but doesn’t exactly fit in, either) and a hidden track about a hangnail, so the disc would definitely have ended on a stronger note had they stopped at “Yellow and Rose” or “Boatman,” but even if it’s not exactly a classic, this disc is yet another fairly memorable late-career outing from the legendary singer-songwriter.

October Road (2002, Columbia)

C

If you’re judging this album simply on the basis of the lyrics, you could conceivably make a case for this being Taylor’s strongest or most interesting album since Dad Loves His Work. Unfortunately, songs also have melodies, and this album is remarkably short on memorable melodies, which makes it especially hard to remember any individual tunes here, and even the best songs here – most notably “Whenever You’re Ready,” but also “On the 4th of July,” “My Traveling Star,” “Carry Me on My Way,” and “September Grass” – pale quite a bit next to easily hummable songs from the last two discs like “Little More Time with You” or “Copperline.” There are also two tracks here that don’t seem to fit in at all, the jazzy “Mean Old Man” and, much more problematically, a rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” that closes the album – a very weird way to end an album that otherwise contains no seasonal songs and was released during the summer months.  It’s much too artful and pretty an album to actually be called a bad album, but it’s hard to call this a great album, either, if solely because the songs are just so painfully hard to remember.

Covers (2008, Hear)

C +

Considering his legendary status as one of the first and most influential of the confessional singer-songwriters that emerged in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, it’s rather ironic that so many of James Taylor’s biggest hits are, in fact, covers, including Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend,” Jimmie Jones’ “Handy Man,” Inez and Charlie Foxx’s “Mockingbird,” and Marvin Gaye’s “How Sweet It Is (to Be Loved By You)” – in fact, a full seven of his fourteen Top 40 hits to date are covers. So it makes perfect sense for someone like Taylor to do a full disc of covers. Unfortunately, this disc isn’t quite as good as you might hope it would be, in large part because some of the selections just don’t fit Taylor at all, namely “Hound Dog” and Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” (perhaps better known as being one of the Rolling Stones’ earliest singles). Jr. Walker & the All-Stars’ “(I’m a) Road Runner” would seem to be a better fit – Taylor traditionally sounded surprisingly good doing Motown covers – but it’s not nearly as fiery as it ought to be, especially coming from a guy who can sing the blues as effectively as he did on “Steamroller” back in the day. But there are good moments as well, among them his versions of Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman,” the Drifters’ “On Broadway,” and, best of all, the Temptations’ “It’s Growing,” which sounds as perfect for Taylor as “How Sweet It Is” was. Despite its spotty nature, there’s still enough here to make it a moderately appealing disc, even if it’s ultimately inessential. 

Before This World (2015, Concord)

B –

An ever-so-slightly rawer-sounding effort than any of his most recent studio outings for Columbia, Taylor’s first album of original material for his new label has an even more intimate feel to it than usual for a late-career Taylor studio disc, which alone makes the disc a bit more interesting than normal. But Taylor’s still repeating himself quite a bit here (to the extent that Sting and Yo-Yo Ma, who both made unexpected cameos on Hourglass, both pop up again here on the title cut) and doesn’t really shake things up any, and this album, like October Road before it, suffers quite a bit from a real lack of memorable melodies, with few individual songs really standing out (though “Today, Today, Today,” which features Taylor unusually playing harmonica as well, the brass-laden “Stretch of the Highway,” and “Snowtime,” which pleasantly vaguely recalls his 1975 single “Mexico,” are mildly noteworthy.) The material is nonetheless slightly better than that from October Road, however, and the album is more coherent as a whole as well, lacking any songs that sound out of place, so this disc comes more recommended than his last outing. 

Compilations:

The 2003 package The Best of James Taylor from Warner Brothers tries hard to be the new definitive Taylor hits package, but it’s got a rather questionable track selection. “Long Ago and Far Away,” which was sadly left off of Taylor’s first hits package, is luckily included here, but the disc is limited to just four songs from his albums with Columbia, the near-Top-Ten-hit “Her Town Too” strangely being passed over while the non-hit “Only a Dream in Rio” is included, which makes absolutely no sense at all. Your better bet is to first pick up the iconic 1976 package Greatest Hits, which rounds up the best of Taylor’s solo sides from Sweet Baby James through In the Pocket (“Long Ago and Far Away” being the only Top 40 hit from these albums missing in action here) and couples them with new re-recordings of “Something in the Way She Moves” and “Carolina in My Mind” that are arguably stronger-sounding than the originals. Then pick up the best of Taylor’s later years by grabbing Columbia’s 2000 hits package Greatest Hits, Vol. 2, which does a fabulous job of rounding up the highlights from Taylor’s albums from JT through Hourglass, with the only glaring omission of any note being That’s Why I’m Here’s “Only One.”

Live Albums:

Strangely, Taylor didn’t release a live disc in the U.S. until 1993’s double-disc set Live. Other live discs have followed it – including a collaborative live album with Carole King – but they seem a bit too brief in comparison, and Live remains his most satisfying concert release to date.

Miscellaneous:

Avoid the 1971 archival package James Taylor and the Flying Machine, a crude cash-in disc which includes pre-Apple recordings of songs better heard on his debut.  Sadly, three of Taylor’s fourteen Top 40 hits have never been included on a Taylor studio disc or compilation in the U.S. These include the Carly Simon duet “Mockingbird,” a Top Five hit included on her album Hotcakes; a second duet with Simon, a cover of the Everly Brothers’ “Devoted to You,” included on her album Boys in the Trees; and, lastly, a cover of Sam Cooke’s “(What a) Wonderful World,” performed as a duet with Simon & Garfunkel and included on Art Garfunkel’s solo album Watermark