10 Best Don Henley Songs

Don Henley was a star even before he began his solo career. He became the Eagles lead singer over the course of their 1970s tenure, fronting hits like ‘The Best of My Love’, ‘One of These Nights’, ‘Hotel California’, and ‘The Long Run’.

Yet his lopsided skillset meant that he needed assistance as a solo artist. He’s a skilled singer and lyricist, but leans on other collaborators for music. He was fortunate to work with talents like Tom Petty sidemen Mike Campbell and Stan Lynch, Danny Kortchmar, and Bruce Hornsby during the 1980s. He adapted better than most boomer stars to the 1980s, embracing synths and delivering cynical social commentary.

These songs are all taken from Henley’s 20th century output, mainly from 1984’s Building the Perfect Beast and 1989’s The End of the Innocence. Henley’s released two albums this century – 2016’s Cass County is fun, with Henley returning to his country roots.

10 Best Don Henley Songs

#10 Talking To The Moon

from I Can’t Stand Still, 1982
Henley’s first solo album is surprisingly diverse. He takes in country, gospel, and folk. Only a couple of tracks like ‘Johnny Can’t Read’ hint at the cynical social commentary he’d specialise in through the rest of the 1980s.

‘Talking to the Moon’ is a lovely country-tinged piano ballad. Co-written by Eagles associate JD Souther, it’s surprisingly tender for Henley.

#9 The Garden of Allah

from Actual Miles: Henley’s Greatest Hits, 1995
‘The Garden of Allah’ is Henley’s most ambitious solo track. It’s an attempt at a big artistic statement, like ‘Hotel California’. It mostly works, although I imagine it’s polarising with its self-importance, seven-minute running time, and Henley’s monologues. Henley portrays the devil, visiting California and finding himself superfluous. Sheryl Crow sang backing vocals on The End of the Innocence. Now a star in her own right, she provides the chorus echoes here.

I love those Bavarians, so meticulous
Y’know, I remember a time when things were a lot more fun around here
When good was good, and evil was evil
Before things got so…fuzzy

The Garden of Allah

#8 New York Minute

from The End of the Innocence, 1989
‘New York Minute’ displays some of Henley’s weaknesses. It’s lengthy (far longer than an actual New York minute!) and self-important. But the big harmonised chorus is one of his most memorable solo moments. A cappella sextet Take 6 provide the gospel harmonies.

#7 All She Wants to Do is Dance

from Building the Perfect Beast, 1984
Surprisingly, ‘All She Wants to Do is Dance’ was written entirely by Danny Kortchmar. The smart-assed commentary on US intervention in Latin America sounds like it came straight from Henley’s pen.

It grew from Kortchmar playing around with his new Yamaha DX7 synthesizer. It became a top ten hit, with many listeners presumably missing the political commentary.

Crazy people walkin’ round with blood in their eyes
And all she wants to do is dance, dance, dance
Wild-eyed pistols wavers who ain’t afraid to die
And all she wants to do is… dance

All She Wants To Do Is Dance

#6 The Last Worthless Evening

from The End of the Innocence, 1989
Henley successfully reinvented himself as a pony-tailed adult-contemporary balladeer on The End of the Innocence. Anecdotally, this song was inspired by Henley’s unsuccessful attempts to chat up Michelle Pfeiffer at a party. Everyone was keen to meet the newly divorced star. Henley walked up to her and requested a cigarette. She gave him one without looking at him. As he walked away, Jack Nicholson remarked “well played, Henley”.

#5 Sunset Grill

from Building the Perfect Beast, 1984
Another synth-based song from Building the Perfect Beast, ‘Sunset Grill’ is impressively weird for a top 40 hit. Randy Newman arranged the wall of synths.

They’re complemented by Pino Palladino’s jazzy fretless bass and Henley’s yearning vocals. There’s an impressive bridge where Henley sounds vulnerable singing at the high end of his vocal range.

“When they see the place, a lot of people are kind of disappointed, you know?” said songwriter Henley, chuckling. “I guess they’re expecting more of a diner thing, with some neon. I took Pino Palladino by there and he took one look at the place and said, ‘All those chords just for that?’ “


#4 The Heart of the Matter

from The End of the Innocence, 1989
As with ‘The Boys of Summer’, ‘Heart of the Matter’ put words to a Mike Campbell demo. Henley wrote the lyrics to ‘The Heart of the Matter’ with JD Souther. Both men had recently broken up with their fiancées – the song captures their feelings about seeing them with new partners.

There’s lovely 12-string guitar – the sus4 and sus2 chords in the intro are full sounding and lovely. Three are relatable lyrics from Henley and Souther. Lorde later cited “What are those voices outside love’s open door/Make us throw off our contentment/And beg for something more?” as “the most incredible f***ing question of the universe.”

#3 Dirty Laundry

from I Can’t Stand Still, 1982
‘Dirty Laundry’ is an attack on sensationalist journalism. Henley had experienced unwanted media attention firsthand, after a 1979 incident when a 16-year-old prostitute overdosed at his home. She was found naked, claiming she overdosed on cocaine and quaaludes.

‘Dirth Laundry’ is witty, with Henley singing “it’s interesting when people die/give us dirty laundry”. There’s plenty of musical muscle with Joe Walsh and Steve Lukather supplying guitar solos. Also from Toto, Steve Porcaro is on keyboards and Jeff Porcaro on drums, while Timothy B. Schmitt is on bass and backing vocals.

#2 The End of the Innocence

from The End of the Innocence, 1989
Henley recruited pianist Bruce Hornsby as a collaborator for the title track of his 1989 album. Hornsby, fresh off the hit ‘The Way It Is’, wrote the music. It’s autumnal and gorgeous, a perfect backdrop for incisive Henley lyrics like behind some of Henley’s strongest lyrics like “they’re beating plowshares into swords, for this tired old man that we elected king”. Jazz legend Wayne Shorter provides the soprano sax solo.

#1 The Boys of Summer

from Building the Perfect Beast, 1984
Mike Campbell wrote the demo for ‘The Boys of Summer’, playing around with a LinnDrum drum machine and Oberheim OB-X synthesizer. When he presented the music to his bandleader, Petty felt that it didn’t fit.

Campbell instead showed it to Henley. Henley topped the track with insightful lyrics about the deceit of nostalgia. He reflecting on the shattering of 1960s hippie ideals. The result is magical, one of the best songs of the 1980s.

I was driving down the San Diego Freeway and got passed by a $21,000 Cadillac Seville, the status symbol of the right-wing upper-middle-class American bourgeoisie – all the guys with the blue blazers with the crests and the grey pants – and there was this Grateful Dead “Deadhead” bumper sticker on it!

Don Henley, NME, 1985

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  1. Thanks for this. He is easily the most talented Eagle.

    Great list. I would have Summer and Innocence one and two like you do. I’ve never cared for Dirty Laundry , but I am splitting hairs at this point.

    Thanks again and keep up the great work.

    • Henley adapted better than almost any other boomer rock star to the 1980s. I think Walsh might outshine him as a solo artist, but he only wrote a handful of songs for the Eagles.

  2. The albums were half decent. But the “greatest hits”, basically your list, are very good. The Boys of Summer is an excellent video too.

    • Yeah, the albums have enough good tracks to make them worthwhile, but take away the best 4-5 tracks from his two big albums, and the rest if kind of just OK. A lot of reliance on Danny Kortchmar bluesy songs.

  3. I dislike him like I dislike Nugent and Madonna but I like his music much more than those…his solo stuff… he is a very good songwriter and singer although as a drummer he is very mediocre to me anyway.
    Your list is good…the only one I am unfamiliar with is The Garden of Allah. I’m glad you didn’t include the Eagles. I can honestly say that I like his solo albums better than the Eagles. I realized how good his writing was on The Heart of the Matter when it was released. Excellent song and album.

    • Yeah, it’s funny that he uses outside drummers for most of these songs – Stan Lynch is a big improvement.

  4. While I wouldn’t want to hang out with Don Henley, he’s a great songwriter and I’ve always liked his voice. I share your enthusiasm for “The Boys of Summer” and also like your remaining picks. I probably would have substituted the last two songs with the title track of “I Can’t Stand Still” (a song I initially didn’t like much but have come to dig over time) and “If Dirt Were Dollars,” off the “End of the Innocence” album.

    • I read a story where he was encouraging Stan Lynch to write lyrics. Lynch submitted his lyrics, and Henley corrected them.

      Sounds like you know his catalogue really well – I didn’t know those two songs until I went through his albums recently.

    • It’s kind of a good cover, how it’s the same but different. It’s much more punk, but the singer sounds a lot like Henley. I guess it made sense how they changed deadhead to Black Flag.

      • Exactly. People make covers that don’t change anything- like the Weezer cover of Toto’s Africa or the recent cover of Kate Bush’s running up that hill. What’s the point if you don’t give it a different angle/spin?

        • I guess money could be the point? But yup, good to bring a different spin. I guess folk singers often share songs.

  5. I basically agree with your rankings. “Building the Perfect Beast” is a tremendous album, featuring two of my favorites “All She Wants to Do is Dance: and “Sunset Grill”, as well as “The Boys of Summer” of course.

  6. On the subject of covers, please check out the version of “Living in a haze” by milky chance and the Beaches. My favourite song of 2024 so far.

      • It was a milky chance single last year. Then I guess he got together with the Beaches to make this one. So I suppose it is technically a cover. Or at least a re-make. My daughter dates the beaches guitarist. Not the lead singer.

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