Essentials: The Top 10 Laurel Canyon albums

If anyone ever invented a time machine (unlikely, if not impossible but I can dream can’t I?) there are a lot of times and places I’d go back to but Laurel Canyon any time between 1967 and 1975 would be high on the list. The name itself has something magical about it as do the surrounding areas of Mount Olympus, Wonderland Avenue and Lookout Mountain. So, it’s no wonder that around that time, the place and its environs was populated by the likes of Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Frank Zappa, Carole King, Jackson Browne, Glen Frey and Bonnie Raitt to name but a few. Legend goes that they used to drop in unannounced to each other’s homes and on one of those occasions, Graham Nash dropped in on Mama Cass only to find Stephen Stills and David Crosby singing a new song. Nash added another harmony and CSN was born. Although that whole story depends on who’s telling it and what drug they may have been on. Actually, the specific place I’d like to go back to is the Canyon Country Store where all the musicians and artists would go to shop and hangout and hold impromptu jam sessions but once again it depends on who’s telling the tale. Recently the canyon has been the subject of not one but two documentaries, the excellent two parter ‘Laurel Canyon: A Place In Time’ and the not so excellent but well worth a watch, ‘Echo Canyon’. So, Laurel Canyon plays a big part in the history of American music and Americana. There are loads of albums that came out of that environment – here is my top 10 essential Laurel Canyon albums.

Number 10: Linda Ronstadt Heart Like A Wheel (1975)
This was Linda’s fifth solo album, the last one on Capital Records before she moved to David Geffin’s Asylum label. Ronstadt’s first four albums (after she split with The Stone Poneys) hadn’t sold that many copies but her fifth was the charm and not only getting to number one on the Billboard Top 100 (spending fifty-one weeks there) but getting four Grammy nominations (including ‘Album Of The Year’ and winning ‘Best Country Vocal Performance, Female’ for Hank Williams’s song ‘I Can’t Help It If I’m Still In Love With You’. Produced by Peter Asher, the ten tracks are all covers as Ronstadt was an interpretive singer rather than a songwriter.  Whoever selected them, chose well with songs from the likes of J D Souther, Lowell George, James Taylor and Anna McGarrigle. It spawned a number of hit singles including The Everly Brothers’ ‘When Will I Be Loved’ which got to number two in the charts. Backing musicians on the album include most of The Eagles (who started out as Ronstadt’s touring band), Sneaky Pete Kleinow, Andrew Gold and Chris Ethridge as well as Maria Muldaur and Wendy Waldman on backing vocals. ‘Heart Like A Wheel’ set Ronstadt on her way to a wonderful career both on record and live on stage.

Number 9: The Byrds: Sweetheart Of The Rodeo (1968)     
The Byrds sixth album, saw the addition of Gram Parsons to the band with his background in country music adding another dimension (the sixth?!) to the band’s musical output making this album almost certainly the first to be labelled ‘country rock’ and kick-off a whole new genre of music. There had been tinges of country on the band’s previous albums but Parson joining the group, cemented the style. Recorded in Nashville and Los Angeles and produced by Gary Usher with the legendary engineer Roy Halee twiddling the knobs on some of the tracks. Apart from two Parsons songs, the rest were covers with two from Bob Dylan, ‘You Ain’t Going Nowhere’ and ‘Nothing Was Delivered’ which top and tail the album as well as songs from Merle Hagard & Jelly Sanders, Woody Guthrie and The Louvin Brothers. The critics at the time were generally favourable but the big change in direction of the band’s sound meant they lost some fans. The album wasn’t a big success only reaching number 77 on the Billboard charts and failing to dent the charts in the UK. However, time has been kind to this superb album and it’s now considered as it should be, a classic of its type and has a number of reissues over the years with the usual bonus tracks, alternative versions etc.

Number 8: James Taylor Sweet Baby James (1970)
This was Taylor’s second album and the first on Warner Brothers – it’s predecessor famously being released on the Beatles’ Apple label. Peter Asher whose sister Jane had told her boyfriend Paul McCartney about Taylor when he was London, produced the album which was recorded at Sunset Sound on Sunset Boulevard just a few short miles from Laurel Canyon although at the time Taylor was homeless, dossing down on Asher’s couch. Incredibly the album cost around $7600 to make and that included paying the musicians who included Danny Kortchmar, Randy Meisner and Russ Kunkel; I’m not sure if Carole King who sang backing vocals would have been paid! The 11 tracks were all self-penned with songs such as ‘Fire And Rain’, ‘Steamroller Blues’ and the title track going on to be staples of Taylor’s live repertoire. The album went on to sell over three million copies reaching number 3 in the Billboard charts and number 6 in the UK. One of the most mellow and laid-back albums of all time, ‘Sweet Baby James’ is the epitome of a Laurel Canyon album.

Number 7: Eagles Desperado (1973)
Although I’m including this in my Top 10 Laurel Canyon albums, ‘Desperado’, the Eagles second album was produced at Island Studios in London! Released on Asylum Records and produced by Glyn Johns (The Rolling Stones, Joe Cocker, Boz Scaggs etc.). The album with tracks such as ‘Outlaw Man’, ‘Doolin’ Dalton’ and the title track, resulted in a western concept album and the cover with the band dressed as outlaws reinforced the concept. The band, Glen Frey, Don Henley, Bernie Leadon and Randy Meisner wrote the 11 songs between them apart from ‘Outlaw Man’ which was written by David Blue although there were contributions on other tracks from J D Souther, Jackson Browne (both Laurel Canyon alumni) and Tom Nixon. ‘Desperado’ is an album of country rock that has aged well after being somewhat ignored on its release, hardly making the charts on either side of the Atlantic and over the years has become a radio staple.

Number 6: Little Feat Dixie Chicken (1973)
Lowell George the band’s singer was born in Los Angeles and at one time played with Frank Zappa who lived in the Canyon. When he left The Mothers Of Invention, he formed Little Feat with fellow Mothers Roy Estrada, Bill Payne and Richie Hayward although Estrada had left by the time the band recorded the band’s third album ‘Dixie Chicken’. The band were formed of George, Payne and Hayward along with Paul Barrere, Sam Clayton and Kenny Gradney. George wrote most of the 10 tracks on the album with help from from Payne and Fred Martin. Barrere and Payne wrote one track and there were songs from Allen Toussaint and Fred Tackett (who went on to become a band member). ‘Dixie Chicken’ is another album that was a bit neglected on release and it’s taken time for it to be seen as the classic it it. Whilst the sound of the album is more swamp rock/R&B than laid-back singer-songwriter acoustic, George’s connection to Laurel Canyon, makes this superb album eligible for this list.

Number 5: Crosby Still & Nash Crosby Stills & Nash (1969)
Whilst there could be an argument to say that ‘Dixie Chicken’ shouldn’t be on this list (I beg to differ), there’s no way the same argument could be used against Crosby Stills & Nash’s eponymous debut album. The band wouldn’t have been formed without meeting up in Laurel Canyon – either at Mama Cass’s house or Joni Mitchell’s (it depends if you’re Nash or Crosby – Stills doesn’t remember!). However, and wherever they met, rock had never heard three-part harmonies like these and there’s an argument that says it helped change the direction music was going in at the time with the trio’s superb harmonies and their mixture of melodies and rhythms. Recorded at Wally Heider’s studio in Los Angeles (where else?), the album was an immediate critical and commercial success charting all over the world, selling millions of albums and the band winning the Best New Artist Grammy. The 10 songs on the album were shared between the band with Stills having 4, Nash 3, Crosby 3 although he co-wrote ‘Wooden Ships’ with Stills and Paul Kantner. The cover of the album shows the band sitting on a on an old sofa in front of a cabin on Palm Avenue (just a hop, skip and a jump from Laurel Canyon). The photographer Henry Diltz (who of course lived in the Canyon) took the shot but when they realised that they were sitting in the wrong order: Nash, Stills, Crosby, they went back to re-shoot it only to find that the cabin had been demolished and the couch had gone – if only they had Photoshop back in 1969!

Number 4: John Phillips John, The Wolf King Of LA (1970)
Phillips was of course the creative force behind the incredibly successful The Mamas & The Papas who had numerous hits and sold millions of records between 1966 and 1969 and pre-dated Fleetwood Mac in the matter of complicated relationships within a band. Phillips had been married to one of the Mamas, Michelle Gilliam and the album chronicles in detail their breakup as well as references to Phillips’s latest girlfriend, actress Geneviéve Waite, often in graphic detail i.e. ‘Let It Bleed Geneviéve’ which is about her miscarriage! The album didn’t sell well although it’s a superb album and all 10 songs are excellent. Phillips wasn’t the lead singer in The Mamas & Papas and doesn’t have the greatest voice In the world but the production is of the highest standard and he used some of the best session musicians there were, including the legendary Wrecking Crew (Hal Blaine on drums, Joe Osborn on bass, James Burton on guitar and Larry Knechtel on keyboards) as well as Darlene Love and Fanita James on backing vocals. Phillips released other albums after ‘John The Wolf King Of LA’ but never matched the brilliance of an album that also exemplified the Laurel Canyon vibe.

Number 3: Love Forever Changes (1967)
Love hardly ever played outside of California and didn’t release a lot of material in their short time together but ‘Forever Changes’ is a truly classic album and in my opinion one of the greatest rock albums of all time. Released on Elektra Records, the 11 tracks on the album are all fairly short and perfectly formed. The creative driving force in the band was the charismatic and enigmatic Arthur Lee who contributed all but 2 tracks – those being written by the superb Bryan McLean (half-brother of singer Maria McKee) who left the band on acrimonious terms after the release of this album and died in 1998 at the age of 52 after releasing some very uneven solo material. Another album that was recorded at Sunset Sound, it went through a difficult gestation with the notoriously truculent Lee arguing with producer Bruce Botnick who at one stage brought in session musicians to force tha band to come into the studio which they finally did and finished off the majority of the tracks. It’s impossible to pigeonhole the album with a mixture of styles and textures with gentle acoustic folk songs, strings and Mariachi style horns which give the album a unique sound. To enforce the unique nature of Lee and the album, the titles of the songs are oblique and obtuse; witness: ‘The Good Humour Man’, ‘He Sees Everything Like This’, ‘Andmoreagain’ and ‘A House Is Not a Motel’ – all classic examples of the genius that is the late, great Arthur Lee.

Number 2: Neil Young After The Goldrush (1970)
Young’s third solo album after leaving Buffalo Springfield, it’s the album that made those not in the know sit up and take notice of this mercurial Canadian’s talent. Young’s first two albums had been good but not great, the first suffering from technical problems with the mix that made it sound muddy. The initial recording sessions for ‘After The Goldrush’ were at Sunset Sound but eventually moved to a studio in Young’s home in yet another canyon but this time it was Topanga. Of the 10 songs on the album, 9 were Young originals and the other was Don Gibson’s country classic ‘Oh Lonesome Me’. The feel of the album is mainly folky and acoustic except Young being Young, there’s the very rocky ‘Southern Man’ to break up the more mellow feel. Young was backed on the album by Crazy Horse: Danny Whitten, Nils Lofgren, Billy Talbot, Jack Nitzsche and Ralph Molina. Stephen Stills did some backing vocals which proved that he and Young’s on/off relationship was back on – until the next time it was off! Another album that wasn’t that well received at the time but has gone on to be regarded as a classic (as it should be) and often appears in Top 100 Albums Of All Time lists – it’s very high up on mine.

Number 1: Joni Mitchell Ladies Of The Canyon (1970)
This album doesn’t just say “Laurel Canyon” – it screams it! Written and sung by the person who almost single-handedly attracted musicians to come and live the bohemian life in the canyon, it embodies everything I would expect from the person and the area if that time machine ever comes my way. The 12 perfect songs on the album link everything together that was going on in America at the time. From ‘Woodstock’ on the East Coast that Joni never got to, due to logistical problems with the transport to the site, to ‘Ladies Of The Canyon’ on the West Coast where Canadian Joni had chosen to live. The album bridges Joni’s move from the more folky element of her early work taking her towards the more sophisticated material that was to follow. The twelve songs are all magnificent and include two of her classics ‘For Free’ and ‘The Circle Game’ as well as her biggest (and surprise) hit ‘Big Yellow Taxi’. Apart from Joni herself playing guitar and keyboards, the only other musicians are Paul Horn on clarinet and flute, Jim Horn (no relation) on saxophone and Milt Holland on percussion. So, thank you Joni for this album; without it and you, there may never have been a Lauren Canyon scene and the world would have been a poorer place for it. Now to buckle myself into that time machine.

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Great article, thank you. It will give me more music to have a listen too.

Alan Fitter

Hi Tris, glad you liked it – tough to find just 10 as you can see by the comment below.

Earl Cambron

No Doors?

Alan Fitter

Hi Earl – nearly! But I wanted 10 albums that qualify as “Americana” so didn’t think The Doors qualified – same goes for Carole King and “Tapestry – definitely a Laurel Canyon album but not Americana.