Ranking All the James Taylor Studio Albums
In 1968, James Taylor released his self-titled debut. No one noticed. A year later, he released its follow-up, Sweet Baby James. This time around, the whole world noticed. Suddenly, Taylor was the central figure in the ascendant singer-songwriter movement, a status he consolidated with the album’s follow-up, Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon. Half a century later, Taylor ranks among the most commercially successful artists of all time, with a staggering 100 million record sales under his belt. Here’s how we rank all the James Taylor albums from worst to best.
20. One Man Dog
Four albums into his career, and it seemed that James Taylor was running out of steam. Coming after Sweet Baby James and Mud Slide Slim and The Blue Horizon, One Man Dog had a lot to live up to. Unfortunately, it fell considerably short. As All Music notes, much of the album seemed sketchy and unfinished. It produced a Top 20 hit with Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight, but none of the songs had the impact of those on Taylor’s earlier albums. It still managed to reach the top ten of the Billboard 200, but it failed to resonate with fans, consigning Taylor from a leader of the singer-songwriter movement to an oldies act almost overnight.
19. Walking Man
After the disappointment of One Man Dog, Taylor badly needed a hit with his fifth studio album, Walking Man. He didn’t get one. The album stalled at No. 13 on the Billboard 200 and failed to receive a gold or platinum certification from the RIAA – his only album up until 2008’s Covers not to do so. The title track has become a fan favorite in the years since, but very few of the album’s other songs made any kind of impact.
By the end of the 1970s, fans were used to never knowing what to expect from Taylor, at least in terms of the quality of his output. Released in May 1979, Flag turned out to be one of his weakest offerings. It didn’t have many hits (bar his cover version of the Drifters’ Up on the Roof, which gave Taylor his final Top 40 hit on the Billboard 100), the song choice (which includes an awkward cover of the Beatles’ Day Tripper, a remake of his old classic Rainy Day Man, and a few forgettable new compositions) is messy, and the whole thing is a snoozefest.
17. In the Pocket
When it came time to record his seventh album, Taylor didn’t hesitate on calling on the help of some friends. Along with his then-wife Carly Simon, the album also features Art Garfunkel, Stevie Wonder, David Crosby, Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt, and several others. Unfortunately, all that star power didn’t translate to a successful album. Apart from the lovely hit single Shower the People, nothing quite hits the mark. It’s slick and polished, but inherently uninteresting. It charted at No. 16 on the Billboard Album chart (Taylor’s lowest chart position since his debut) but did eventually manage to certify Gold.
16. James Taylor at Christmas
After the success of 2004’s A Christmas Album, Taylor returned to a festive theme for the 2006 album, James Taylor at Christmas. It doesn’t have any surprises, but it’s a pleasant enough offering, with Taylor’s always lovely vocals adding plenty of warmth to seasonal classics like Winter Wonderland, Jingle Bells, and Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire). You might not be able to remember it once it stops playing, but it’s nice enough while it lasts.
In 2008, Taylor released his first full album of covers, the predictably named Covers. Described by The Toronto Star as “unpretentious feel-good music,” it’s a likable, if not entirely memorable, album that, while by no means essential, is mellow and pleasant enough not to offend.
14. Never Die Young
Three years after releasing That’s Why I’m Here, Taylor returned with his tenth studio album, Never Die Young. Commercially, it was a moderate success, peaking at No. 25 on the Billboard 200 and eventually certifying Platinum. However, it only managed to produce one charting single (the title track, which peaked at No. 80 on the Billboard Hot 100) and failed to pick up a lot of love from the press. Musically, it’s unadventurous – the vocals are as reliably good as always, but the songs sound much the same as any other album. Not a bad record, maybe, but certainly a predictable one.
In 1997, Taylor dug deep and got personal for his 14th studio album, Hourglass. Consisting of a collection of original songs that draw on his troubled past, the album was a major commercial success, peaking at No. 9 on the Billboard 200 (Taylor’s first time in the top ten for sixteen years) and winning a Grammy. Although several of the songs feel a little flat, the arrangements and vocals are flawless, resulting in a very pleasant addition to Taylor’s catalog.
12. New Moon Shine
New Moon Shine, Taylor’s 13th studio album, received a warm response from critics on its release in September 1991, with The New York Times saying that the album “finds [Taylor] near the top of his form in songs like ‘Slap Leather,’ a playfully pungent rock-and-roll critique of social and environmental ills, and ‘Copperline,’ a nostalgic ballad remembering his North Carolina roots.” Not all of the songs shine, but the album is well-crafted and executed with care. It might not be a revelation, but it’s reliable enough to please the devoted.
11. A Christmas Album
Seasonal albums are always risky, but in 2004, Taylor pulled a cracker out of the box with A Christmas Album. Created in collaboration with Hallmark and distributed on a limited release through their greeting card stores, it’s a festive treat, with producer Dave Grusin elevating Taylor’s signature folk-pop sound with just the right amount of jazzy sparkle. Not every song works (his duet with Natalie Cole on Baby, It’s Cold Outside falls flat, while his bluesy interpretation of Jingle Bells sounds out of place) but his warm vocals and intimate style are perfectly suited to this kind of festive fare.
10. American Standard
In 2020, Taylor released his latest album, American Standard, a collection of standard songs from the American canon that, as Pop Matters says, sounds exactly as you’d imagine. But while it’s predictable, there are still more than enough likable songs to keep fans satisfied, all of which are as flawlessly performed as you’d expect of such a consummate professional.
Walking Man was a critical and commercial failure, leading many to think that Sweet Baby James had lost his mojo. But then along came his sixth studio album, Gorilla. Although it fell short of the standard set by his first three records, it went a long way to redeeming his reputation. Gone was the personal, confessional songs of his previous albums, and in their place was a series of light, pleasant tracks that, while slightly generic, were performed with such care by Taylor and his all-star band (which included Carly Simon, Graham Nash and David Crosby on backing vocals, mandolinist David Grisman, saxophonist David Sanborn, Randy Newman on “hornorgan,” and Little Feat guitarist Lowell George) that it almost didn’t matter. Both of its singles (Mexico and How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)) charted in the top 5.
8. Before This World
Released in June 2015, Taylor’s nineteenth studio album is his first album of new material since 2002’s October Road, and his first album of any kind since 2008’s Covers. Despite being several decades into his career, Taylor had clearly lost none of his commercial appeal – the album soared to No. 1 on the Billboard 200, his first album ever to top the chart. Intimate, artistically diverse, and richer and more adventurous than a standard-issue James Taylor album, it’s essential listening for fans.
7. That’s Why I’m Here
After a four-year break from the recording studio, Taylor returned in 1985 with his eleventh studio album, That’s Why I’m Here. Joining in are guest vocalists Don Henley, Joni Mitchell, Graham Nash, and Deniece Williams. It was his lowest charting album since Sweet Baby James, but there’s plenty of gems to be found in the easy-listening, country-inflected tracklist.
6. Dad Loves His Work
Taylor’s tenth studio album, Dad Loves His Work, was released in March 1981 to commercial and critical success. Its lead single, a duet with J.D. Souther called Her Town Too, reached No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100, while the album eventually certified Platinum. It’s not a revelation, but Taylor’s craftmanship and the care with which he delivers each song is laudable.
Taylor’s eighth studio album, JT, was Taylor’s biggest commercial hit in years. Released in June 1977, it reached No. 4 on the Billboard 200 to become Taylor’s highest charting position since Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon. In addition to generating four top 20 singles, it also earned a nomination for the Grammy Award for Album of the Year, eventually missing out to Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors (which, all things considered, isn’t a bad album to lose out to). It’s since been certified 3x Platinum by the RIAA.
4. Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon
After the success of Sweet Baby James, expectations were riding high for its follow-up. Although it doesn’t quite meet the standards set by its predecessor, Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon is still a wonderful, intricate album. On first impressions, it’s all sweeping melodies and creamy vocals. Dig beneath the surface, and you’ll find an album thick with tension and undercut with weariness. Released in April 1971, it reached No. 2 in the US and No. 4 in the UK.
3. October Road
In 2002, James Taylor proved he had still had what it takes to make a hit with his fifteenth studio album, October Road. A relaxed, wonderfully mellow LP that puts the focus squarely on Taylor’s honied vocals and exquisite guitar picking, it became one of the singer’s best-performing albums in years, reaching No. 4 on the US Billboard 200 and eventually certifying platinum.
2. James Taylor
In December 1968, James Taylor released his self-titled debut through the Beatles’ Apple Records – the first album by a non- British artist released by the label. With a tracklist that includes Something in the Way She Moves, Carolina in My Mind, and Rainy Day Man, it couldn’t fail. Yet somehow, it did. Critically, it was a sensation, with Jon Landau of the Rolling Stone describing it as “the coolest breath of fresh air I’ve inhaled in a good long while. It knocks me out.” Commercially, it was another story. With Taylor unable to perform any promotion after being hospitalized for drug addiction, the album tanked. When Sweet Baby James turned Taylor into a star two years later, the album finally found the audience it deserved.
1. Sweet Baby James
If you know anything about James Taylor, you’ll know that Sweet Baby James was always a shoo-in for the No. 1 spot on our list. Released in February 1970, it’s home to Taylor’s biggest hits, including the sublime Fire and Rain and the gorgeous Country Road. It shot to No. 3 on the Billboard Albums Chart, won a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year, and turned Taylor into one of the leading figures in the emerging singer-songwriter movement. It’s since been named by numerous publications as one of the greatest albums of all time, and very rightly so.