The Most Underappreciated James Taylor Songs

James Taylor remains one of music's most indelible singer-songwriters. Across 40 years in the music industry, the Boston-born musician has garnered six Grammys, gone platinum 14 times, and been covered by countless artists including Elvis Presley and even Taylor Swift. With hit songs like "Carolina in My Mind" and "You've Got a Friend," it's hard to imagine there's more to discover. However, 20 studio albums mean that there are surely going to be songs that fall through the cracks.

Though Taylor is most well-known for his nostalgic lullabies and soft-rock folk tunes, a deep dive into his discography proves that he contained many multitudes as a musician and songwriter. From unique covers of classic songs to down-and-dirty rock 'n' roll, you never quite knew what you were going to get when beginning one of his albums. Even hardcore James Taylor fans might be pleasantly surprised. 

Knocking 'Round The Zoo

James Taylor's eponymous 1968 debut album features many songs that fans adore to this day, such as "Carolina In My Mind" and "Something In The Way She Moves." One song that has been forgotten to time is "Knocking 'Round The Zoo," a bouncy blues track that was instrumental to Taylor's career. It was included in the demo that convinced then-Beatle Paul McCartney and producer Peter Asher to sign him onto Apple Records, making him one of the label's first artists.

The song's playful lyrics are a metaphor recalling Taylor's nine-month stint under psychiatric observation at Boston's McLean Hospital. The artist was admitted after a bout with depression during his senior year of high school. Among many coded references, Taylor speaks of "bars on all the windows" and says "the keeper's trying to cool me," both of which could describe a zoo as well as a ward cell.

Despite the dark subject matter, the song's instrumentation is remarkably upbeat and a progenitor of the sound Taylor would pursue in later albums. Mental health awareness might be a major topic nowadays, but Taylor had the gumption to explore it before he became a household name.

Suite for 20 G

Sitting alongside hits like "Fire and Rain" and "Country Road" is "Suite for 20 G," the final track off of James Taylor's seminal album "Sweet Baby James." His sophomore effort was what broke him into the mainstream; however, it would be incomplete if not for its final recording which, according to Taylor biographer Timothy White in his book "James Taylor: Long Ago and Far Away," was rather slapdash. "Ultimately, we didn't have the last tune," Taylor is quoted saying. "I had a lot of various other things, so I strung them all together and we named it after the balance of record company cash waiting for us." Taylor received $20,000 — the titular 20 G — as payment for completing the record.

Admittedly, the three-song suite is fairly disparate. Act I's sweet and simple appeal is reminiscent of Taylor's musical bread and butter, while Act II, according to music critic Bob Lefsetz, is a more somber rumination on longing to be "free in the mind." Finally, Act III kicks into high gear with some of the album's only brass accompaniment. Despite this lack of cohesion, it's surprising how well they are stitched together musically. Part of this comes down to an incredible session band, including beloved singer-songwriter Carole King on piano and backup vocals.

You Can Close Your Eyes

Stephen Holden of The New York Times once wrote that "James Taylor may be the foremost contemporary composer of... American lullabies." In his list of Taylor's all-time cradle songs sits "You Can Close Your Eyes," a tune that, despite being covered by a number of different artists, still feels under the radar next to other hits like "Your Smiling Face" or "Carolina in My Mind." The eighth track off of Taylor's third album, "Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon," deserves a spot in everyone's collective consciousness.

Written for legendary musician and then-girlfriend Joni Mitchell, Joe Taysom of Far Out describes the song as "Taylor comforting his partner in her hour of need." Taylor writes, "This old world must still be spinnin' around / And I still love you." The narrator's loyalty and humility ("I don't know no love songs") is reflected in the song's arrangement, featuring just Taylor plucking an acoustic guitar and providing luscious backup vocals. It's about as intimate as Taylor has ever been, which is likely why it makes for a great duet. Taylor himself has performed the song with Mitchell, his later-wife Carly Simon, and even collaborators Carole King and Bonnie Raitt. With its soothing reassurance, "You Can Close Your Eyes" shines as one of Taylor's most lyrically beautiful and musically ascendant recordings.

The Hymn Song Cycle

James Taylor's album "One Man Dog" culminates in a series of six songs, referred to as a "ten minute song cycle" by Rolling Stone's Jon Landau. Unlike the majority of Taylor's work, each one of the final six songs transitions in and out of each other as though they are all meant to be heard in succession. Because of this, it is easy to consider this sequence a large but single work from Taylor, one that has barely been acknowledged even by hardcore fans.

The cycle begins with "Hymn," a song that, as interpreted by James E. Perone in "The Words and Music of James Taylor," introduces the sequence's three main motifs: religion, drugs, and the love of a woman, each seen as a way to seek truth in the world. These are each further explored in subsequent tracks: "Fanfare" details a budding romance (believed to be inspired by Taylor's then-recent marriage to singer-songwriter Carly Simon); "Little David" is effectively a gospel track; and "Mescalito" speaks of peyote's eye-opening wonders. The cycle culminates in "Dance" and the instrumental "Jig," both of which reject all of these vices in favor of simply dancing your cares away. Though all six songs could not be further apart musically, they all coalesce into a rapturous journey to finding personal freedom.

Let It All Fall Down

James Taylor's fifth album, "Walking Man," garnered poor reviews and low album sales at the time of its release in 1974. However, one would be remiss to ignore the album's third track, "Let It All Fall Down." Despite being Taylor's first of few political anthems, Stephen Holden from Rolling Stone described the soft pop tune as "one of the most cogent and sobering musical expressions of thwarted political idealism to come out of the Nixon era."

According to Timothy White's biography, "James Taylor: Long Ago and Far Away," Taylor indeed wrote the song as a dig at Richard Nixon specifically, whom he disliked following Watergate and the Vietnam War. "The country was feeling how petty and small-minded the whole thing seemed," Taylor said, "that the main job of power was to hold on to power through dirty tricks." The song was poised to be a timely takedown until Nixon resigned but one day following its release, dooming it to futility.

Regardless, the musician's lyrics are some of his most cutting. Taylor not only criticizes Nixon but also a country that would vote him into power, singing, "He seems to tell us lies / And still we believe him / Then together he will lead us / Into darkness, my friends." It's a cynical lament that still delivers an infectiously catchy hook, showcasing Taylor's range as a songwriter.

You Make It Easy

James Taylor's music was never coy about tackling difficult topics, but few songs in his catalog are as thinly veiled as "You Make It Easy," a nostalgic waxing on adultery. The song sits smack in the middle of "Gorilla," Taylor's sixth and most underappreciated album with Warner Bros. The record features Taylor's beloved cover of "How Sweet It Is" but also other hidden gems like "I Was a Fool to Care" and "Sarah Maria."

The song is notably out of character for the musician, both in music and lyrics. Guitar takes a backseat in the song's arrangement, which instead uses piano and strings to craft a more conventional jazz waltz. Legendary saxophonist David Sanborn additionally complements the song's musicality with a solo as sultry as Taylor's lyrics. Taylor's songwriting flirts with the idea of adultery and, as Timothy White notes in his biography of Taylor, "the sinful fantasies Southern California affords." The musician had just moved to Beverly Hills with his then-wife and collaborator, Carly Simon, as well as their young daughter, Sally. Though the song's protagonist never gives in to his desires ("I'll head home and sleep it off just like every time before"), Taylor would cheat on Simon multiple times over the course of their marriage. Perhaps these circumstances contribute to what Bud Scoppa of Rolling Stone calls "the most overtly urgent vocal [Taylor has] ever recorded."

A Junkie's Lament

"Heroin should've killed me about five times, but it never did," James Taylor told Rolling Stone. "I've got a lot of recovery songs." Indeed, the beloved singer-songwriter has often been inspired by his lengthy and crippling addiction to heroin, including in hits like "Fire and Rain" and "Rainy Day Man." One of his lesser-known songs about addiction, "A Junkie's Lament," is one of his most sobering. "This one's a warning not to think of a junkie as a complete functioning human being," continued Taylor.

The song is written from the perspective of a person whose friend, Ricky, is relapsing. "Ricky's been kicking the gong," Taylor writes, referencing a slang term for smoking opiates. "Lickety split, didn't take too long ... So sad to see the man losing ground." After a while, Ricky is so beyond the deep end that the narrator has lost all goodwill toward him. "Even if he seems the same to you / That's a stranger to your door / Ask him what he's come here for." It's this harshness that has Alex Hopper of American Songwriter describing the James Taylor deep cut as very honest and edgy for Taylor, especially in light of his previous work. Add Art Garfunkel on vocals, embedding his soft touch into the song's harmonies, and you have one of Taylor's most tragic yet oddly soothing songs.

Terra Nova

James Taylor has always had a musical reverence for the natural world. From simple metaphors ("Sunshine Sunshine") to more longing remembrances ("Carolina in My Mind"), the musician always finds ways to harken back to his childhood spent breathing in the North Carolina air. Nowhere can this be felt more achingly than in "Terra Nova," which was written while Taylor resided on his property in Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. As detailed in Timothy White's biography, Taylor's views of the sea and occasional trips sailing off of the harbor were some of his happiest memories. 

"Terra Nova" is anchored by a strong longing to escape the "cave of concrete" and retreat to the bliss of Cape Cod. As described by Taylor biographer Mark Ribowsky in "Sweet Dreams and Flying Machines," the song tells of "burning off the haze to find what really matters: to 'come home and stop yearning' for what wasn't there.'" You can feel the wistfulness in every lyric, especially Taylor's killer hook, "I ought to be on my way by now," sung with a timbre that evokes road trips across the countryside.

However, the true highlight of the song is its coda. "Terra Nova" is the only song in Taylor's entire catalog to be co-written by then-wife Carly Simon, who lends her vocals on a micro-duet. The two's harmonies repeat and reverberate like a sense of peace washing over you, the same kind they long for in their lyrics.

Brother Trucker

James Taylor wrote three original songs for "Working," a musical from "Godspell" composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz. Directly adapted from Studs Terkel's interview collection of the same name, the docu-musical follows the ups and downs of working-class life from the perspective of blue-collar characters. Though musicals were undiscovered territory for Taylor, the material was thoroughly within his wheelhouse and would inspire one of his biggest hits, "Millworker," later released on 1979's "Flag." The soulful character song would survive the musical's bombing on Broadway and has since been re-recorded by many artists, but Taylor's other "Working" contribution, "Brother Trucker," has never quite received the same love.

Taylor's ode to big-rig truck drivers is as strong as any of Taylor's best material. It's got a catchy hook and playful lyrics ("One part man and one part mule / One part fossil fuel"), this time channeled into the gruff machismo that comes with being out on the open road night after night. However, it isn't without its harsh, impoverished realities. Taylor writes, "I don't make no teamster dough / 'Cause the A.F.L. and the C.I.O. / Still don't own the road." Though the song doesn't reach the same emotional heights as "Millworker," it still evokes humanity in its subject and does so effortlessly.

The Frozen Man

Amidst a career of chart-topping hits, few James Taylor songs feel like stories from another world. The artist was well-known for being autobiographical in his work, but "The Frozen Man" proves he can be just as poetic when reaching beyond his own experience. The fifth track off of 1991's "New Moon Shine," Taylor was inspired to write the song after eyeing an article in National Geographic about John Torrington, a man whose body had been excavated from ice after being frozen for over 100 years.

Though Taylor didn't read the full article (he humorously admitted to only reading the captions during a performance of the song in 2007), it was enough for him to write a wistful tragedy that, as described by Joshua Starr of online science fiction magazine TOR, "focuses on the pathos ... inherent in the protagonist's situation." Taylor's narrator, renamed William James McPhee, is a sailor who is not only exhumed but reanimated. He has become a societal science experiment ("It took a lot of money to start my heart") while learning he has outlived his wife and daughter ("I saw my wife and my daughter ... both of them dead and gone"). The song's lyrical storytelling poses a melancholic take on mortality and letting history lie, musically anchored by Taylor's stellar guitar work and wonderous, piercing strings atop the arrangement.


"Gaia" once again sees James Taylor escaping modern life to revel in the beauties of the natural world. Inspired by the "Gaia hypothesis," planetologist John Lovelock's theory that Earth's living and nonliving organisms are interconnected in one large ecosystem, Taylor describes his mid-tempo pop tune in Timothy White's biography as "your basic tree huggers' anthem."

The song follows a narrator who regrets his reliance on technology ("Run, run, run, run said the automobile ... Foolish school of fish on wheels") and finds appreciation for all that exists as part of Gaia, named after the Greek goddess of the Earth. Taylor is left "helpless and speechless and breathless" by his view atop a mountain hiking trail and laments that "someone's got to stop us now." His spiritual revelation is embodied by the arrangement's immersive and layered backup vocals, filling the soundscape like how Gaia fills the world with oxygen.

In his biography on Taylor titled "Fire and Rain," writer Ian Halperin groups "Gaia" into a series of songs on the album "Hourglass" that were "Taylor's attempt to try and shed light on the life's spiritual side without believing in God." Taylor's lyrics do feel devout in their wide-eyed embrace of Gaia, but his folk vocals keep the track grounded in a hopeful earnestness that resonates in today's tech-reliant world.

Hard Times Come Again No More

Real fans know that, technically, this isn't a James Taylor song. This cover of Stephen Foster's Civil War-era parlor song was originally conceived by Edgar Meyer, Mark O'Connor, and Yo-Yo Ma as part of their album "Appalachian Journey." However, Taylor's vocals fit so perfectly in their arrangement that, by all accounts, it is a James Taylor song. At the very least, it was enough to be included in Sony's "The Essential James Taylor" compilation album.

Taylor is no stranger to covers -– he even included his take on one of Foster's songs, "Oh Susannah," on "Sweet Baby James" -– but this song feels especially suited to Taylor's sensibilities as a songwriter. Foster's original song sympathized with those living in poverty. "Let us pause in life's pleasures and count its many tears / While we all sup sorrow with the poor." Many of Taylor's songs speak of working-class strife, much of which comes from living below the poverty line, so it's fitting that Taylor provided his voice to this tightly performed arrangement. Despite its sparse instrumentation, each of the four instruments plays a vital role in infusing the cover with its own strong Americana origins.

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

No artist is above a good Christmas album, including James Taylor. In 2006, he released "James Taylor At Christmas," a collection of Christmas covers that brought his soulful style to many of the holiday season's most popular standards. One of his renditions was that of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," a song first made popular by Judy Garland in the film "Meet Me in St. Louis." Harkening back to the song's first appearance, Taylor chose to retain its original lyrics in his version: "Someday soon we all will be together, if the fates allow / Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow."

Years after Garland, Frank Sinatra would record his seminal version; however, he slightly altered the lyrics to be "Someday soon we all will be together, if the fates allow / Hang a shining star upon the highest bough." Taylor maintaining the song's original flavor is not just a savoring of history but also a breath of fresh air amidst many falsely cheery covers. Adding a dash of melancholia balances out the festivities and slots the song comfortably in Taylor's often somber style. Add a light swing to the arrangement and you have a necessary inclusion to your Christmas playlist.