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Music

Six Definitive Songs: The ultimate beginner's guide to James Taylor

James Taylor inspired one of The Beatles’ greatest ballads, ‘Something’. The opening line for ‘Something in the Way She Moves’ was inspired by George Harrison to compose his most fondly remembered tune, a song that has gone on to become one of the most covered songs of all time. As it happens, Taylor seemed unbothered by the similarity between the two songs and chose to view it as a compliment, instead of a potential lawsuit.

The songwriter was hardly lacking in influence, and the journey he went on is one of the more interesting and expressive in pop. He maintained an illusion that was no different, and certainly no denser than the works he melded in his own idiosyncratic image. He was capable of writing a hit, as well as transforming another into a work of art.

Much of his personal oeuvre consists of covers that were re-fashioned to demonstrate his personal truth, in a decade that was gaining traction as one of the most facile in rock’s relatively short history. It was up to Taylor to spearhead a new movement, and he did so using the most basic of tools, and trades.

It’s difficult to summarise a career that’s still going strong, especially since it’s one that involves the malleability of music, but Taylor is worthy of appraisal and attention. In this list, we show six different songs that show the singer at different, but no less interesting, points of his personal trajectory

James Taylor’s six definitive songs:

‘Carolina in My Mind’ (1969)

In an effort to make the song as tactile as possible, Taylor used a collection of acoustic instruments, as is evident from the jaunty acoustic guitar. The vocals bounce off the piano and drums, cementing the song with a shrill vocal delivery that comes from the bottom of his gut. In a last-ditch attempt to appear more contemporary, Taylor sandwiches the tune with a selection of jaunty guitar hooks.

George Harrison sings harmony vocal, and his falsetto can be heard behind Taylor’s vocal, padding the song out with an authenticity that shows how much it owed to the American records of the era. Instead, the song holds a finesse of its own making, creating a sharp, densely cutwork that holds a regal power in its wake. Listen out for Paul McCartney’s bassline.

‘Fire and Rain’ (1970)

The Beatles’ influence is apparent on this track, especially in the way Taylor plucks his guitar a la John Lennon. Infused by a strident piano line, the drums kick the song into heavier territories, as the songwriter sings with all of his might. And yet the tune is quintessentially American in its design and backdrop.

“There was a sense of there being a community,” Taylor recalled. “Myself, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Crosby, Stills and Nash. David Geffen was in the mix a lot. Linda Ronstadt, Peter Asher, Harry Nilsson. You know, it was pretty much what they say. Things really worked well.”

‘You’ve Got A Friend’ (1971)

No, Taylor did not write this one, but he still sings it very nicely, especially during the chorus section, as his voice changes tone to showcase the dangers that spread around the world we live in. It’s less ‘comfort food’ as it is ‘comfort listening’, and the song holds one of Browne’s more amicable vocal performances. It’s less a delivery based on technique, but one based on integrity and compassion.

In his own way, Taylor’s informing the audience that they have a friend, no matter how difficult the circumstances, or how dire the situation might be. Music has often served as a comfort for people going through personal duress, and this piece is as sugary and supportive as a pop song can be, without being saccharine or twee.

‘Mockingbird’ (1973)

Taylor had the idea to come up with a rendition of the Inez and Charlie Foxx with fellow songwriter Carly Simon. The two sing nicely together, and although Simon’s vocals seem to dominate, Taylor has the more interesting delivery, scatting to the backdrop, offering a frame to Simon’s painting.
Indeed, it’s one of the more successful duets in 1970s rock. As a means of creating a new form of rock, the pair follow the musicians, and they dutifully step aside to let a saxophone wail away in the background.

If the spark between the pair seems genuine, that’s because it is. They were a couple for a period, although, like most separated couples, they haven’t spoken in some time. “I still want to heal him, I still want to make him all right,” Simon admitted to PEOPLE. “And I love him so much.”

‘Mexico’ (1975)

If ‘You’ve Got A Friend’ is the most accomplished song on the list, then ‘Mexico’ is the most fun. Indeed, it’s the closest thing in the songwriter’s canon to a Friday night anthem: heavy on rhythm, light on subtext. The drums serve as a harmony melody, bringing nuance and clarity to the tune, as the harmony vocals soar through the proceedings, nary a note wasted or done improperly.

The tune features Graham Nash on backing vocals, and the British singer acquits himself to the Latin backdrop quite nicely, demonstrating an appetite for pastoral pop. But the track is solid largely because of the skilled musicianship, every man chiming into the work.

‘Change’ (2018)

This tune is the hardest to critique, largely because it’s most recent, and the most in keeping with the geopolitics of the modern world. But it’s still a memorable number, one that was recorded almost entirely separately from composer Charlie Puth. “Mr. Puth and I spent an excellent afternoon at Conway Studios in Hollywood this past January;” Taylor recalled.”It was a delight to work with such a gifted fellow musician and I’m so excited to finally see the release of the finished piece.”

As it happens, the recording coincided with the ‘March for Our Lives’ rally, and although it wasn’t written specifically for the occasion, the song certainly suited it. Since then, it’s been adopted as a polemical rallying cry for change and peace in America.