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James Taylor

     James Taylor (Apple, 1969)
      Sweet Baby James (Warner Bros., 1970)
     Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon (Warner Bros., 1971)
   One Man Dog (Warner Bros., 1972)
   Walking Man (Warner Bros., 1973)
     Gorilla (Warner Bros., 1975)
   In the Pocket (Warner Bros., 1976)
      Greatest Hits (Warner Bros., 1976)
     JT (Columbia, 1977)
   Flag (Columbia, 1979)
    Dad Loves His Work (Columbia, 1981)
   That's Why I'm Here (Columbia, 1985)
   Never Die Young (Columbia, 1988)
     New Moon Shine (Columbia, 1991)
    James Taylor (Live)
(Sony, 1992)
    JT/Flag/Dad Loves His Work (Sony, 1995)
  James Taylor & the Original Flying Machine (Gadfly, 1996)
    Hourglass (Sony, 1997)
     Greatest Hits Vol. 2 (Sony, 2000)
    New Moon Shine/Never Die Young/That's Why I'm Here (Sony, 2000)
    October Road (Sony, 2002)
     The Best of James Taylor (Warner Bros., 2003)
    James Taylor At Christmas (Columbia., 2006)
     One Man Band (Hear Music, 2007)
     Covers (Hear Music., 2008)

James Taylor's 1969 debut was one of the first releases on the Beatles' Apple label. Though nearly capsized by heavy-handed orchestration, it was an eye-opening collection of songs whose highlights—"Knocking 'Round the Zoo," "Something in the Way She Moves" and "Carolina in My Mind" point toward the path he'd pursue in the next decade. Sweet Baby James, Taylor's landmark second release, heralded the arrival of pop music's sensitive phase. "Fire and Rain" epitomizes the singer/songwriter stance: acoustic-based autobiography, where the arresting musical sparseness casts Taylor's gentle melodies and warm, unassuming vocals in full relief. On "Steamroller Blues," he effectively mocked the straining pomposity of then-current white bluesmen—though Taylor became entrapped by his own laid-back image soon enough. (Following this breakthrough, early demo tapes surfaced of the Flying Machine, Taylor's Greenwich Village band with Danny Korchmar. These green versions of some of the Apple album songs are not worth your investment.)

It's easy to hear Taylor's reflective bent as self-satisfaction; he's never really pushed himself musically (in the way, for example, Joni Mitchell has). The fact that Taylor actually improved in the role of MOR crooner is the saving grace of his recording career. Mud Slide Slim cemented Taylor's superstar status. But the hit reading of Carole King's "You've Got a Friend" drops some strong hints about the inherent flaccidity of this mellow troubadour approach that the rest of the album doesn't heed (save for "Long Ago and Far Away," with Joni Mitchell's backing vocals).

Taylor spent the next few years casting around for a broader-based sound; One Man Dog is so wispy it nearly evaporates, while Walking Man sums up the confusion of this period with its near-stationary title track. (The less said about James and Carly Simon's hit version of "Mockingbird," the better.) Gorilla is where Taylor regained his balance. "Mexico" introduces a welcome strain of humor, the title track is a natural children's song, and "You Make It Easy" positions Sweet Baby James as a posthippie torch singer. And despite the generic clunk of its track, Taylor handles the hit remake of "How Sweet It Is (to Be Loved By You)
" with such breezy vocal ease that even Marvin Gaye expressed admiration. Apart from the sturdy "Shower the People," In the Pocket misses the mark. Greatest Hits marked a record-label move, but at a fortuitous juncture when such a summing-up would include nothing but gems.

As so often happens with first efforts for new labels, JT ranks right up there with his best. Taylor reached back for another upbeat pop classic to tenderize, and nails down "Handyman" with his most insinuating vocal performance ever. A slight rock influence sparks the rest of JT, though the goofy blues-rap "Traffic Jam" and the relaxed pace of "Your Smiling Face" feel as familiar as faded denim. Flag turned out to be a verb rather than a noun, but Dad Loves His Work finds JT back on the beam. It was led by the gently incisive divorce song "Her Town Too," among his finest pieces of writing and his last hit single.

Late-Eighties albums That's Why I'm Here and Never Die Young offer little beyond pleasantry. Instead of fading into the sunset, though, Taylor reemerged in 1991 with New Moon Shine, his most focused and tuneful release in more than 10 years; the reflective "Copperline" and the frisky "(I've Got to) Stop Thinkin' 'Bout That" would stand out on any of his albums. In "Slap Leather" and "Native Son" he provides affecting and still-relevant takes on the human cost of the first Persian Gulf war.

Taylor settled comfortably into his 1990s role as an elder statesman of song. (Live) ably commemorates the warmth of his relationship with his audiences, though ultimately it can't escape souvenir status. Both Hourglass and October Road are brimming with the acceptance and grace that Taylor's younger self—frequently referenced here lyrically and melodically—often had trouble locating. "I had to have my way/Which was bleak and gray," he admits in "Mean Old Man," a song about how much life can lie on the other side of these feelings.

One Man Band is a solid live CD-DVD set recorded near Taylor's home in the Berkshires; it presents on some of his best-known cuts—"Fire and Rain," "Sweet Baby James"—in a stripped-down acoustic setting. On Covers, Taylor delivered intimate, laid-back performances (often backed by a full band)
of a range of classics, including Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away," Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne."

Taylor's first hits collection, released in 1976 but still in print, featured re-recorded versions of "Something in the Way She Moves" and "Carolina in My Mind." Greatest Hits Vol. 2 may lack the chart firepower of its predecessor, but strongly rebuts the notion that there are no second acts in American creative life. The 20-song Best of James Taylor is the first career-spanning domestic collection—it's a good introduction to Taylor's catalogue, but in his quiet, easygoing way, James Taylor has amassed too great a legacy to be adequately represented by a single disc.

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).

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