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20 Of The Best Nick Drake Songs

With his captivating use of melodic textures, mesmerising fingerpicking and masterful use of lyric, Nick Drake’s legend continues to loom large.

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best Nick Drake songs

Although Nick Drake only recorded three albums during his brief lifetime before his death on 25 November 1974, choosing 20 songs that best capture his ethereal magic is still a challenge. Drake’s captivating use of melodic textures, mesmerising fingerpicking and his masterful use of lyric makes for a body of work that has been almost entirely inducted into the folk hall of fame. Despite this challenge, we have chosen a selection of songs that not only demonstrate Drake’s consummate skill but also afford us a glimpse into the life of a man so posthumously admired.

Born on 19 June 1948 in Rangoon, Burma where his father Rodney was an engineer, educated at a prep school in Berkshire, later at Marlborough College and then Cambridge University, Drake did not fall in with the contemporary crop of artists. Conspicuously “un-street”, with no cultured Jagger cockney accent and unmistakably English in persuasion, he appeared almost as a throwback to those great 19th century romantics.

These qualities are reflected in his first album, Five Leaves Left, released on September 1, 1969 an album posthumously hailed as a classic, landing at No. 280 in Rolling Stone’s 2003 list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time and 85th in a 2005 poll by Channel 4 TV in the UK of the 100 greatest. However, despite receiving some critical acclaim at the time it graced neither US nor UK Charts.

The first two songs we have chosen to highlight are probably two of Drake’s best known, ‘Cello Song’ and ‘River Man’. Both are perfect examples of the interplay between Drake’s masterful fingerpicking and the host of instrumental collaborations that are so indicative of Five Leaves Left and the subsequent Bryter Layter. With ‘River Man’ we find Harry Robinson and Drake combining sumptuous trough guitar and ornate string arrangement. In ‘Cello Song’ Drake is supported excellently by Clare Lowther on the instrument after which the track is named.

Continuing in the spirit of collaboration we’ve also picked ‘Three Hours’, a driving number unusual for Drake’s normal meandering style. Here he is supported by Danny Thompson, whose double bass provides the beating pulse upon which Drake lays his famous lingering vocals. The final track we visit is ‘Fruit Tree’ a cautionary musing on the fickleness of fame. Drake sings that only when you are “Safe in your place deep in the earth will your worth be recognised”, a particularly pertinent prophecy for his own work.

Moving onto Nick Drake’s second album, Bryter Layter, we witness a change in approach. The earlier baroque folk style had proven unsuccessful commercially and as a result Drake was determined to make Bryter Layter more buoyant. Once again we find stand out performances alongside Drake’s mercurial playing. ‘One Of These Things First’ is accompanied by a bubbling piano and rhythm section, making for a tune as charming and effervescent as it gets. Similarly, ‘At The Chime Of A City Clock’ and ‘Northern Sky’, the ballad that both Drake and his producer Joe Boyd believed would fire him into the limelight, contains added piano, organ and harmonium that adds a delightful depth to Drake’s wandering, bleak lyrics.

The two other tracks we have selected from this album share the same name and a similar theme. ‘Hazey Jane I’ and ‘Hazey Jane II’ both centre around isolation from the world, as Drake muses on his inability to understand greater society. These two songs coupled with Drake’s previous exploration on ‘Thoughts of Mary Jane’ on Five Leaves Left, cement the growing relationship between his well-documented smoking habits and feelings of separation.

With Bryter Layter proving to be another commercial flop, Drake, who had always been shy and withdrawn, began to retreat dramatically within himself. Out of this isolation and depression came Drake’s greatest and final work, Pink Moon. In stark contrast to Drake’s previous efforts, this third album contained only Drake, bar a single piano line in the title track. Drake has often been portrayed as a shy man, yet he was extremely vocal over his art.

He had already fought with his producer for a stripped back approach and he had finally got his wish. Songs such as ‘Place To Be’, ‘Which Will’, ‘Road’ and ‘Know’ are some of Drake’s most affecting. Amongst the starkness of these tracks, the warmth of ‘From The Morning’ also make it onto our play list. ‘Pink Moon’, the title track, later used on a 1999 Volkswagen advert that would finally fire Nick Drake to commercial recognition, remains a masterpiece.

Pink Moon received good reviews, but its stripped back bleakness limited its commercial success. As Drake’s own depression now reaches its peak, we find our final batch of songs. ‘Time Of No Reply’, released years after Drake’s death was a mixture of unreleased, outtakes, demos and the final four recordings that Drake would attempt, nine months before his untimely death. Of the demos and outtakes, the bluesy ‘Been Smoking Too Long’ stands out and from the final four, ‘Hanging From A Star’ and ‘Black Eyed Dog’ are two magnificent but devastating reminders of Drake’s skills and strife. Finally, ‘Rider On The Wheel’, one of Drake’s very last recordings, is an example of his faultless acoustic work married with his whimsical lyrics.

Although Nick Drake has come to personify the image of tortured genius, a romantic but ill-fated young man whose work is a soundtrack to the fading of the leaves, his legacy of work, despite its brevity, provides us with a far more complex understanding. As these 20 tracks demonstrate, Drake is hard to pin down, a man often quite literally behind a screen of smoke and this is what makes his work so alluring.

Follow the Nick Drake Complete playlist.

12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. Adam Bayliss

    July 20, 2015 at 8:56 pm

    A good selection of songs chosen here for introducing people to Nick, but “Been Smoking Too Long” is a Robin Frederick song that he covered fairly early on. Another artist he covered on the early tapes, who I feel deserves more recognition in folk circles, is Jackson C. Frank.

    • Catalanbrian

      July 20, 2015 at 9:41 pm

      A good list with which I cannot disagree, especially with the comments on Pink Moon, my favourite album of Nick’s. And yes Jackson C. Frank deserves more exposure.

    • Jeanne McCarthy

      July 21, 2015 at 7:54 am

      I agree.Jackson CFrank, Is amazing to watch,and hear!

  2. brueso

    July 20, 2015 at 9:53 pm

    I would’ve taken off “Been Smoking” and put in “The Fly”.

  3. andrea

    July 21, 2015 at 3:19 pm

    A Great Artist… what a waste :((

  4. Barbara Bayer

    July 21, 2015 at 9:28 pm

    I loved Northern Sky and Pink Moon. Great artist gone before his time.

  5. Paul troalic

    July 21, 2015 at 11:17 pm

    Northern Sky is my fav track but I love all his music. All his albums are in my collection. Great loss to thoughtful music imo.

  6. Alisa

    August 29, 2015 at 7:33 pm

    My favorits are missing: The Day Is Done and Way To Blue – cant imagine my life without them

  7. piangrande

    August 29, 2015 at 7:36 pm

    One of my all time favs is definitely missing: Clothes of sand… so haunting and beautiful.
    But great list anyways. Really, really love Nick Drake.

  8. Peter Trenchard

    August 30, 2015 at 9:22 pm

    I have over 3000 albums in my collection covering a wide taste in music. I have often been asked have i got one special favourite. The answer is YES i do…..Five Leafs Left by Nick Drake…an absalute gem…gives me goosebumps every time i listen to it..River Man being my favourite track.

  9. Munya

    June 16, 2016 at 7:25 am

    I believe tracks like Clothes of sand, Joey, are classics. As for Jackson C.Frank the man knew what he was doing

  10. Richard Wright

    December 14, 2018 at 3:41 pm

    Love all his albums. Would add ’ Time has told me’ an incredible love song

    Time has told me
    You came with the dawn
    A soul with no footprint
    A rose with no thorn

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