10 Best Songs by The Byrds

The Byrds were one of the most significant American bands of the 1960s. They emerged out of the L.A. folk scene, featuring three singer-guitarists; James Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark, and David Crosby. Their first single as The Byrds was their chart-topping cover of Dylan’s ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’, which established the genre of folk-rock. Their clear vocal harmonies and McGuinn’s electric twelve-string guitar playing were distinctive. As rock music transformed in the 1960s, so did The Byrds – they released ‘Eight Miles High’ in early 1966, a candidate for the first psychedelic rock song, then recorded a country-rock album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, in 1968.

For all the talent that passed through the band – country visionary Gram Parsons appeared on Sweetheart of the Rodeo, while bassist Chris Hillman emerged as a songwriter on 1967’s Younger Than Yesterday – The Byrds never fulfilled their potential as album artists to the same extent as contemporaries like The Beatles or The Beach Boys. There’s plenty of great material on their early records though, as this list attests.

I’ve focused on the band’s first six albums on this list – Chris Hillman left the band after 1968’s Sweetheart of the Rodeo, leaving McGuinn as the only original member. Later Byrds albums feel more like McGuinn’s solo career, although there’s still enjoyable material like ‘Lover of the Bayou’ and ‘Chestnut Mare’.

10 Best Byrds Songs

The Byrds Mr. Tambourine Man

#10 I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better

from Mr. Tambourine Man, 1965
The Byrds’ best in-house songwriter was original member Gene Clark. The band’s debut Mr Tambourine Man was dominated by covers, but Clark’s original compositions shone. Most notable was ‘I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better’, placed second in the tracklist. Clark based the guitar riff on The Searchers’ ‘Needles and Pins’, and later stated that “This girl was a funny girl, she was kind of a strange little girl and she started bothering me a lot.” ‘I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better’ was covered by Byrds fan Tom Petty on his 1989 album Full Moon Fever.

#9 My Back Pages

from Younger Than Yesterday, 1967
The Byrds recorded so many Bob Dylan covers that they were able to release the compilation The Byrds Play Dylan in 1979. Of their Dylan covers, ‘My Back Pages’ comes closest to recapturing the magic of ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’, with McGuinn’s chiming Rickenbacker and the lovely group harmonies. The line “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now” supplied the parent album’s title, Younger Than Yesterday.

The Byrds Younger Than Yesterday

#8 Thoughts and Words

from Younger Than Yesterday, 1967
Scared of flying and worn down by band squabbles, Gene Clark quit The Byrds in February 1966. The group relied on covers to fill out 1966’s Fifth Dimension but bassist Chris Hillman emerged as a songwriter in time for 1967’s Younger Than Yesterday. Of his four songs, the highlight is the psychedelic ‘Thoughts and Words’. It’s an overlooked classic of the summer of love, with Hillman’s musings accompanied by McGuinn’s backwards guitar.

#7 Lady Friend

non-album single, 1967
David Crosby was fighting for more creative input in The Byrds by 1967. His cause wasn’t helped by unsuitable material like the self-indulgent ‘Mind Gardens’ and the menage a trois tribute ‘Triad’. The failure of the non-album single ‘Lady Friend’ also didn’t help his cause. It peaked at #82, but it’s vibrant with its fast tempo and horn section. Crosby also stoked band tensions by replacing Hillman and McGuinn’s harmonies with his own and referring to producer Gary Usher’s mix as “mush”.

The Byrds Sweetheart of the Rodeo

#6 Hickory Wind

from Sweetheart of the Rodeo, 1968
Americana pioneer Gram Parsons was only in The Byrds for one album, but made an immediate impact with country songs like ‘One Hundred Years From Now’ and ‘Hickory Wind’. Like Carole King’s ‘Goin’ Back’, which The Byrds covered on their previous record, ‘Hickory Wind’ is a nostalgic yearning for a simpler time. Parsons would revisit the song on his posthumous solo album, 1974’s Grievous Angel and it’s effectively his signature tune.

The Byrds The Notorious Byrd Brothers

#5 Draft Morning

from The Notorious Byrd Brothers, 1968
When David Crosby was fired from The Byrds during sessions for The Notorious Byrd Brothers, the band had already started work on the instrumental backing for ‘Draft Morning’. McGuinn and Hillman carried through with it, writing their own words to replace the Crosby lyrics they couldn’t remember and earning a co-writing credit. Crosby was justifiably upset, but the results are magnificent, a tale of Vietnam through the eyes of a young soldier, backed by gentle psychedelia.

#4 She Don’t Care About Time

non-album b-side, 1965
The other Byrds resented Gene Clark’s prolific songwriting and ensuing royalties in their early days, and as a result the superlative ‘She Don’t Care About Time’ was pushed out to a b-side. It’s a Byrds classic nonetheless. Clark’s lyrics are accomplished with lines like “Her eyes are dark and deep with love, her hair hangs long and fine”. McGuinn’s solo, a straight lift from Bach’s ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’, gives the song an extra dimension.

The Byrds Turn! Turn! Turn!

#3 Turn! Turn! Turn!

from Turn! Turn! Turn!, 1965
The Byrds’ second number-one single holds the record for the US chart-topper with the oldest lyrics. Folkie Pete Seeger adapted the words from the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes, traditionally attributed to King Solomon in the 10th century BC. Seeger’s adaptation added “I hope it’s not too late”, after “A time for peace”, making it an effective anti-war song. Seeger approved of The Byrds’ version – the way that Crosby and McGuinn’s guitars both emphasise the quick Bm and A chord changes at the end of the guitar riff is a great hook.

#2 Mr. Tambourine Man

from Mr. Tambourine Man, 1965
McGuinn, Clark, and Crosby met as folk artists playing solo in coffeehouses. Realising their voices blended well, they formed the Jet Set. Producer Jim Dickson obtained an acetate of an unreleased Dylan song, ‘Mr Tambourine Man’. The band weren’t enamoured with the song, but converted it to 4/4 and gave it a rock arrangement. The Byrds had only recently formed when ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ was recorded, so McGuinn was the only Byrd to play an instrument on the single. The band coalesced in time to record the rest of the album, but the single had already initiated a folk-rock boom.

#1 Eight Miles High

from Fifth Dimension, 1966
Gene Clark left The Byrds in March 1966, the same month that ‘Eight Miles High’ was released as a single. Clark recalled writing down some initial song ideas about talking with The Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones. Crosby claimed a writing credit for contributing the line “Rain grey town, known for its sound”. The John Coltrane and Ravi Shankar tapes he played on the tour bus inspired McGuinn’s psychedelic leads. ‘Eight Miles High’ is credited as the first psychedelic single, and debate has raged whether it’s about flying, drugs, or both. It’s been covered by many artists, including Hüsker Dü and Roxy Music.

Are you a fan of The Byrds? What are your favourite songs?

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  1. Had to be hard to narrow it to 10 songs- great choices. “Eight Miles High” was the song that immediately came to my mind as being the #1- and it was yours also! A great-underappreciated band.

    • I think they didn’t quite fulfill their potential – in their early years they had McGuinn, Crosby, Gene Clark, Chris HIllman, and Gram Parsons. They only really got McGuinn’s full potential, I reckon.

  2. I love The Byrds and this is fantastic list! I also agree with Hans there are so many great songs it’s hard to keep it to 10. And you mentioned “Goin’ Back”, I also dig that tune in particular.

    • They were definitely very influential – you can hear them in R.E.M. and Tom Petty. But feels like their stock has fallen a bit recently – they were better at songs than albums, I think.

  3. Turn Turn Turn
    Goin Back
    Eight Miles High
    Mister Spaceman
    Chestnut Mare
    Wasn’t Born to Follow
    My Back Pages
    Artificial Energy
    Hickory Wind
    Farther Along

  4. I cannot argue with the list because I could put their songs in a hat and pull them out in any order but I do agree with Eight Miles High as number 1. The only thing I would have is My Back Pages up but it’s a great list.
    You are right though…they never had an album to define them…especially during the first few years.
    I do like a few of their later songs…Tiffany Queen, Farther Along, and Lover of the Bayou… They took the Gram Parsons influence and ran with it. Clarence White and Skip Battin were great musicians.

    • Eight Miles High is the crazy good – I like Husker Du’s cover too, but not so much Roxy Music’s.
      I checked out Lover of the Bayou after you recommended it earlier and I liked it, but it doesn’t really feel like The Byrds after Hillman left.

      • Yea they were a different band completely.
        I am a big Clarence White fan with his bluegrass background…Gram Parsons did change them along with Hillman.
        The last version was odd they didn’t know if they were country or rock.

  5. Sound choices. For years I always had a copy of the Greatest Hits album and thought Feel a Whole Lot Better was the coolest song in the world, but had no inclination to check out the albums. Then a British rock magazine issued a more definitive collection and my eyes were opened. I have a soft spot for Bells of Rhymney, a British folk song, but there are also things like Change is Now, I See You and The World Turns All Around Her. And what about So You Want To Be A Rock’n’roll Star, the original and genuine McGuinn/Hillman song covered by everyone from Patti Smith and Tom Petty to Roxette. Done to death, you might say, but if there is one song missing from your list, I’d say that’s it.

  6. I love this Band, especially from 65 to 68. Eight Miles High is one of the best songs from the psichedelic years. Up there with Good Vibrations, Strawberry Fields, Purple Haze and Paint It Black.

      • I love CSN. Recall that I did a post on their first album a short while back. Some similarities in sound harmony-wise but otherwise a different band. Less folk, more soft-rock, bluesy, etc. It’s not that I hate the Byrds, far from it. But it’s like you and the blues. You hear it, you kinda get it but you don’t share the passion that others have. The Byrds are a pleasant diversion on the radio for me, an important band but I literally don’t own anything by them. My idea of a California sound is much closer to Jefferson Airplane if we’re talking about that era. Grace Slick had more balls than the combined guys in the Byrds.

        • That’s right – sorry. There’s very little grit in those Byrd voices – McGuinn, Crosby, and Hillman are all very smooth. Other vocal harmony bands generally had someone with a tougher voice – like Lennon, Stills, or even Dennis Wilson.

          • True. Maybe that’s why I’m not a big Beach Boys fan. Their music is pleasant enough and I totally understand Brian Wilson’s genius. But had others (including the Beatles) not touted them so much they would have been just another band. I grew up on East Coast doo-wop, early rock and roll and R&B. None of those Southern Calfiornia guys sounded ballsy enough to me. San Francisco was another story.

          • I wonder if it’s also because I grew up and playing piano and you’re more of a guitarist. I naturally gravitate to stuff like Wilson’s with complex chord structures, because those are often more fun to play on piano.

          • Yes, well, that explains people who play instruments for sure. But I think that for the masses who don’t play, it’s largely a matter of exposure. So, for example, while country music is popular everywhere in the US, it’s more ingrained in Southerners.

  7. I honestly don’t think this review gave Clarence White enough credit. After Him and Gram Parsons invented the B-bender guitar and gave The Byrds that electric guitar twang, it really made the difference in their overall sound. 8 miles high never sounded better until Clarence came on board.

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