The first thing to know is that Gordon Lightfoot is still alive, still making music.
The second is that I grew up listening to Gordon Lightfoot records, among many other things. Sundown was on a tape with Neil Diamond’s Stones on the flip side. Another tape had and Don Quixote and Summer Side of Life. Somewhere, we had Cold on the Shoulder. I listened to them all the time. Just so you know where I’m coming from.
Last, by ‘definitive’, I mean, the albums I own – which is a lot, but it’s not absolutely everything.
|United Artists Demos (1964-66)
A solid journeyman effort. Nothing really great here, but nothing terrible. Very folky, with an occasional lean toward pop. Songs that indicate his future direction are “Two Kids from Cabbage Town”, “Somebody Told a Lie”, and “Crossroads”.
Lightfoot’s first album. It feels like he’s still finding his way, but there’s some great material here, including some of his best songs – “For Loving Me”, “Early Morning Rain”, “I’m Not Sayin”, and “Ribbon of Darkness”.
|The Way I Feel (1967)
The songs are more consistent here. They don’t reach quite the same heights as the previous record, but Lightfoot has clearly started to find his voice. Standouts include “Softly”, “Go-Go Round”, “Song for a Winter’s Night”, and of course “Canadian Railroad Trilogy”.
|Did She Mention My Name? (1968)
Now we’re starting to get into some serious Lightfoot. The songs aren’t all great, but they’re all good, and this is an artist who’s started to really know where he’s going. Great songs are “Wherefore & Why” and “Did She Mention My Name?”. Good ones include “Magnificent Outpouring” and “Does Your Mother Know?”.
|Back Here on Earth (1968)
Not a lot of progress here on average, but the direction is more solid, and there are more strong tracks, including the brilliant “Affair on 8th Avenue”, as well as “Bitter Green”
|Sit Down Young Stranger (1970)
Curiously, this feels overall like a small step back, though song by song, it’s a more solid effort than the two before. It contains the wonderful “If You Could Read My Mind”, as well as “Minstrel of the Dawn” and “Sit Down, Young Stranger”.
|Summer Side of Life (1971)
Now we reach the start of a period of incredible productivity and success. All of the songs on this album are great. “10 Degrees & Getting Colder”, “Miguel”, “Summer Side of Life”, “Cotton Jenny”, “Talking in Your Sleep”, “Same Old Loverman”, “Redwood Hill” are terrific. The others are only really good.
|Don Quixote (1972)
Incredibly, even better than the previous album. “Don Quixote”, “Alberta Bound”, “Ode to Big Blue”, “Second Cup of Coffee”. I almost had to pull off the road when I listened to “Patriot’s Dream” recently – still bringing tears to my eyes four decades after I first heard it. “Looking at the Rain”, “Brave Mountaineers”, “Beautiful”, “On Susan’s Floor”. There is not one song on here that isn’t great.
|Old Dan’s Records (1972)
This isn’t quite the tour de force the previous albums were, but it’s still very good. “That Same Old Obsession”, “It’s Worth Believin”, “Mother of a Miner’s Child”, as well as “Farewell to Annabel”, “Another Lazy Mornin”, and “You Are What I Am”.
Probably Lightfoot’s biggest album, and very good, but also the weakest of this period. “High and Dry”, “The Watchman’s Gone”, “Sundown”, “Carefree Highway”, “Is There Anyone Home?”, and “Too Late for Prayin” are all excellent.
|Cold on the Shoulder (1975)
The last album of Lightfoot’s most successful period, and a very strong finish. “Bend in the Water”, “Rainy Day People”, “Cold on the Shoulder”, “The Soul is the Rock”, “All the Lovely Ladies”, “Fine as Fine Can Be”, and the heartbreaking “Cherokee Bend”. However, for the first time in a while, there’s also at least one song that’s just average.
|Summertime Dream (1976)
While this has one of Lightfoot’s biggest hits, it’s the beginning of a downturn in his albums. For one thing, this is probably the point where his voice begins to give out, turning from smooth and mellow to a scratchier tone. The best songs are “Race Among the Ruins”, “I’m Not Supposed to Care”, “Protocol”, and “Spanish Moss”.
|Endless Wire (1978)
Everyone’s hot streak has to end sometime, and this is Lightfoot’s first substantial dip. There are great songs like “Dreamland” and “Songs the Minstrels Sang”, but “Endless Wire”, for example, feels like a very uncomfortable splice of one great song, and one average one. “The Circle is Small”, while good, is a retread.
|Dream Street Rose (1980)
A step up from the last album, but not quite all the way back. “Dream Street Rose” and “On the High Seas” feel like the strong songs of the early 70s. The others feel newer, though “Hey You” is excellent. The other songs are good, but not great.
Lightfoot leans a little more toward pop, with mixed success. “14 Karat Gold” and “Heaven Help the Devil”, “I’ll Do Anything”, and “She’s Not the Same” work well. “Shadows” is good, but feels like it would have been better in his older style, as does “Thank You For the Promises”, which works less well. Some of the rest feels like good quality filler.
Unfortunately, another low point. It feels like Lightfoot has lost track of his voice and is chasing a newer style of pop. A few of the songs have the style of his older songs, but less of soul. The songs in the newer style lack melody. “Someone to Believe In” has energy. “Romance” would be very good and “Biscuit City” would be good if they were stripped down.
|East of Midnight (1986)
Here, Lightfoot has found finally a new, more commercial voice – one that recognizes that his actual singing voice has deteriorated substantially. “A Lesson in Love” is a great song in this new style. Other good songs are “East of Midnight” and “Ecstasy Made Easy”.
|Waiting for You (1993)
The long gap seems to have done Lightfoot good. He’s veered away from the more commercial tone, and seems to have settled back into a comfortable singer-songwriter style with some pop influence, and a recognition that his smooth voice is gone for good. “Fading Away” is a great song. Many of the others are pleasant, but not really memorable.
|A Painter Passing Through (1998)
Much like the previous album, but stronger overall. The standout track here is the excellent “I Used to Be a Country Singer”, but other good songs are “My Little Love”, “Boathouse”, “On Yonge Street”, and the surprising “Uncle Toad Said”.
I wish I could say that Lightfoot’s latest album is one of his best. Sadly, this is another downturn. The songs overall just don’t have the melody or lyrics of his strongest efforts, and one or two of them are downright dull. “Flyin’ Blind” is by far the strongest song, though “Make No Mistake” and “Clouds of Loneliness” are pleasant.
Here’s some of that information in graphic form for you visual learners.
So, what does it all boil down to?
- Gordon Lightfoot is a terrific singer-songwriter.
- You can’t go wrong with the album Don Quixote.