Today is James Taylor's birthday (thanks to the Awl for the reminder). If you know anything about JT, you probably associate him with saccharine dad rock.
The reason for that, of course, is because Taylor's legacy is tied to big hits that are harmless and pleasant on the surface — "Fire And Rain," "You've Got A Friend," and "Mexico" — but his best stuff is about battling back sadness.
Today, as I understand it, James Taylor is deeply uncool. But get over yourself for 20 minutes and on this, the occasion of his 65th birthday, try giving some of his deep cuts a spin.
1. "Country Road"
Imagine you're a kid, heading across country with your parents and your dad sticks this in the cassette player. You're sitting in the back seat, looking out of the window with your forehead pressed against the cold glass as you watch dark fields roll by.
2. "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight"
Chances are you've heard this song — just not by James Taylor. The Isley Brothers, Isaac Hayes, Nancy Wilson and Eric Clapton have all covered it. Taylor's particular talent in penning songs that were ripe for more soulful interpretations can't be overstated. As one Rolling Stone writer put it in a remarkable 1971 review of Taylor's Mud Slide Slim And The Blue Horizon, "James is one of that rare species which perfectly synthesizes the white and black strains of American music."
3. "Machine Gun Kelly"
"This is not a time for levity—do you understand what happened to Machine Gun Kelly?" A woman. A wicked woman happened to Machine Gun Kelly and ruined his life. At least that's the story in this take on the gangster's tale.
4. "Traffic Jam"
This is so unlike JT that it's kind of a weird delight.
5. "Shower The People"
Okay this one is pretty cheesy. But even underneath all the cheery sunshine and smooth guitar there's a lot of darkness spun by a man who was fighting addiction and the trappings of success.
6. "Secret O' Life"
Oh sure, this songs sounds like it's a song about how nice life is, but it's actually about how we're all going to die one day so we might as well cool it.
7. "Mud Slide Slim"
A great cut from Mud Slide Slim And The Blue Horizon. Ben Gerson wrote in a 1971 review of the album: "James, Yankee that he is, takes the classic American way out: 'I'm gonna cash in my hand and pick up on a piece of land/I'm gonna build myself a cabin in the woods/ And it's there I'm gonna stay until there comes a day/When this old world starts changing for the good.'"
8. "Your Smiling Face"
Think about the swagger you get from being in love.
9. "Something In The Way She Moves"
This song allegedly inspired George Harrison to write The Beatles' "Something," which is plausible since they were label-mates and the first lyrics are the same.