Best James Taylor Albums, Ranked

3. Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon (1971)

“This is no time for levity. Do you understand what happened to Machine Gun Kelly?”

James Taylor, “Machine Gun Kelly”

I just put on my headphones, laid on my bed, and listened to all 37 minutes of this album. Straight through. I’m still searching for the words to describe it.

It’s dirty and rough. But it’s from the soul and it’s pure. It sounds like a college kid who got his friends together and recorded an album in his garage… in the best possible way.

This album is an absolute pouring out of the heart from Taylor (see “Hey Mister, That’s Me up on the Jukebox”).

It’s filled with soul. Like James sings in the title song, “there ain’t nothing like the sound of sweet soul music to change a young lady’s mind”. Every song on this album is the essence of sweet soul music.

The album is highlighted by the smash hit “You’ve Got a Friend”, written by his good friend Carole King. This song is so perfect. With dueling guitars, soft drums, bass, and to top it all off: bongos. There are some songs that you just think “there is no other artist that could do this song justice”. This is that song. 1971 James Taylor is the best thing that ever has and ever will happen to this song. Young Michael Jackson even has a version that came out in ‘72, and it isn’t 1/100th of this version.

One of the best songs is the ominous, yet groovy “Machine Gun Kelly”. The song starts with James saying with a smile in his voice “this is no time for levity. Do you understand what happened to Machine Gun Kelly?” The song is about a small town criminal, Machine Gun Kelly. He is described as a “simple man”. But his wife, on the other hand, is “hard as hell”. Katherine Kelly decides that Machine Gun needs to “make it in the world of crime”, and plans a large heist that gets Machine Gun imprisoned for life. It’s a lighthearted tale, but it’s deeper meaning has been interpreted in several different ways. In my view, James is warning us to not let somebody else make our decisions for us. Don’t be pushed around. Do something only if you think it’s right, not because somebody else is telling you to.

The last song I’ll mention is the emotional lullaby, “You Can Close Your Eyes”. I may or may not have learned this song on the guitar specifically so I can play it to my kids (if I someday have kids) when they go to bed. This song can and will make me cry. Not many songs get more emotional than this.

Hidden Gems: “Hey Mister, That’s Me up on the Jukebox” and “Machine Gun Kelly”

Bonus: If you can figure out what the heck “Soldiers” is about, please let me know.

2. Never Die Young (1988)

Before you get mad at me for putting at #2 an album most have never heard of, keep in mind that I am looking at the whole album, not only the hits from each.

Of all the James Taylor albums, none makes me happier than Never Die Young.

Never Die Young is the complete opposite of Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon. It is clean and full. It is uplifting and fun. It experimental and a huge step away from the classic James sound. The only thing they have in common is the superhuman writing.

I mean it. The writing on this album surpasses what I thought was possible for a human. I have not even begun to get my mind around the depth of each and every song on this album. The lyrics to these songs could rival any book of poetry you can throw at me.

I also must confess, this is my favorite JT album.

Where to start? The beginning. The opening riff from the title song “Never Die Young” is inspiring. It sets the perfect tone for the album. “Never Die Young” is a tune about two lovers who are so perfectly made for each other but never find each other. Or maybe it’s about that mythical “perfect couple” that everybody idealizes and roots for (hence the “hold them up / hold them up” line). James has said on one occasion that the latter is the real meaning. But in a 2006 Boston Globe article he is reported to have mentioned that “it sometimes takes him a long time to understand [his own songs], and there are some like ‘Never Die Young’ that he hasn’t figured out yet.”

“T-Bone” is a bluesy song that talks about recovering from drug addiction. It is titled after his friend and bass player Tom “T-Bone” Wolk, who toured with Taylor on multiple occasions.

Other hits from the album are “Sun On the Moon” and “Sweet Potato Pie”, an especially groovy love song. Taylor has recorded a duet with Ray Charles singing “Sweet Potato Pie”. He regularly performs both of these songs in his concerts.

My favorite song on the album, “Home by Another Way”, is a tune about the wise men from the Christmas story. James references the warning the magi received in a dream to go home another way (because of Herrod’s plan to kill Baby Jesus), and offers the advice that “maybe me and you / can be wise guys too / and go home by another way”. I highly recommend this song.

All in all, this is an extremely solid and beautiful album. Maybe I’m stretching by putting it at #2, but I don’t think so. If you disagree, let me know.

Hidden Gem: “Home by Another Way”

Bonus: “Letter in the Mail” is Taylor’s personal favorite on the album.


#1 and Honorable Mention on next page:

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2 thoughts on “Best James Taylor Albums, Ranked

  1. I worked James Taylor 5 times when he was front act at the Guthrie. He told Sue the promoter that if he ever made it BIG he would pass up a chance to do do a show in a large venue in the Twin Cities and do a double bill at the Guthrie to pay her back a little for her help when he was starting out. He was true to his word. He could have sold out arenas but he did a two show day at the small venue Guthrie. He’s as nice a person as he is a talent.

    Liked by 1 person

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