Nick Drakes Five Leaves Left

10 Best Nick Drake Songs

English folk singer-songwriter Nick Drake barely sold a record during his lifetime. But since his premature passing in 1974, at the age of 26, his acclaim and legend have grown. His gentle delivery, virtuoso fingerpicking, poetic lyrics, and sophisticated lyrics are unique. Drake was born in Yangon, Myanmar, the son of a British engineer. Drake’s sister Gabrielle became a successful actress.

I’ve broken from tradition for this article. Since Drake’s catalogue isn’t very diverse, I’ve quoted some lyrics from each song, rather than provide a synopsis. Here’s some background about each of his three studio albums:

Nick Drake Albums

Nick Drakes Five Leaves Left

Five Leaves Left (1969)

Nick Drake’s debut features stirring arrangements from his university friend Robert Kirby. It’s his most insular and cryptic album – I’d suggest starting with one of the other two.


Nick Drake Bryter Layter

Bryter Layter (1970)

Drake’s second album is again heavily orchestrated but sunnier and jazzier. Of particular note is Drake’s successful collaboration with John Cale. Fresh out of the Velvet Underground, Cale adds his classical sophistication to ‘Fly’ and ‘Northern Sky’.


Nick Drake Pink Moon

Pink Moon (1972)

In comparison, Pink Moon is austere, with Drake accompanying himself on guitar. The lack of accompaniment spotlights Drake’s impressive guitar technique, and the songs are often terrific.

10 Best Nick Drake Songs

#10 Place To Be

from Pink Moon, 1972

Now I’m darker than the deepest sea
Just hand me down, give me a place to be

Place to Be

#9 Hazey Jane II

from Bryter Layter, 1970

Let’s sing a song for Hazey Jane
She’s back again in your mind

Hazey Jane II

#8 At The Chime Of A City Clock

from Bryter Layter, 1970

But at the chime of a city clock
Put up your road block
Hang on to your crown.

At the Chime of a City Clock

#7 One Of These Things First

from Bryter Layter, 1970

I could be yours so true
I would be, I should be, through and through
I could have been
One of these things first

One of These Things First

#6 Road

from Pink Moon, 1972

You can take a road that takes you to the stars now
I can take a road that’ll see me through

Road

#5 Pink Moon

from Pink Moon, 1972

Saw it written and I saw it say
Pink moon is on its way

Pink Moon

#4 River Man

from Five Leaves Left, 1969

If he tells me all he knows
‘Bout the way his river flows
I don’t suppose
It’s meant for me

River Man

#3 Fly

from Bryter Layter, 1970

Now if it’s time to recompense for what’s done
Come, come sit down on the fence in the sun

Fly

#2 Things Behind The Sun

from Pink Moon, 1972

Take your time and you’ll be fine
And say a prayer for people there
Who live on the floor
And if you see what’s meant to be
Don’t name the day or try to say
It happened before.

Things Behind the Sun

#1 Northern Sky

from Bryter Layter, 1970

I never felt magic crazy as this
I never saw moons, knew the meaning of the sea
I never held emotion in the palm of my hand
Or felt sweet breezes in the top of a tree
But now you’re here
Brighten my northern sky

Northern Sky

Did I miss your favourite Nick Drake song?

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14 Comments

  1. Wow, I have to say Nick Drake who I only knew by name is instant love, based on my very first impression. I love his airy vocals that remind me a bit of Donovan. “Pink Moon” and “Northern Sky” are great songs. I need to further check him out – and find the time to to do so – minor detail! 🙂

    • I haven’t featured him on my blog for ages, but he’s a longtime favourite. Different from the other contemporary English folk artists from his era, like John Martyn, Sandy Denny, and Richard Thompson.

  2. Nick Drake is one of my favourite artists. And this time I strongly disagree as Five Leaves Left is, in my opinion, his best album. Cello Song and Day is Done are outstanding.

    • I wonder if I just don’t like Robert Kirby’s arrangements much, I think he didn’t do River Man?

    • He kind of only has one gear, autumnal songs with picked acoustic guitar. It’s a good gear though.

  3. I love Nick Drake, but I have never been able to get on with the arrangements on the first two records. They’re too heavy-handed and sacchrine for my tastes, and I feel that the strings and other non-guitar instruments are given too much space in the mix. It’s not that they’re badly done or anything–I think they work well on some tracks, such as River Man–but when I hear the songs played simply with voice and guitar I think they sound better. Most of his songs have a hypnotic quality, especially the guitar work. So IMO the complicated arrangements take away from Drake’s biggest strength.

    For those reasons, my list ends up featuring Pink Moon far more than the other two.

    Things Behind the Sun
    Hazey Jane
    From the Morning
    Pink Moon
    Northern Sky
    Place to Be
    Fly
    Which Will
    Free Ride
    Voice From the Mountain
    Honourable mention for the home tape recorder cover of Milk & Honey, which is one of my absolute favs, but since he didn’t write it I guess it can’t go on the list.

    • I think River Man, Fly, and Northern Sky all come from different arrangers rather than Robert Kirby – they’re on both of our lists.

      Covers are allowed – although I’ve never heard that one.

    • That one bothers me for some reason that I find hard to explain. Like it’s kind of lightweight, Drake’s often a little romantic, but there’s no undercurrent of darkness to balance it out in that song.

  4. I don’t think I could argue with this list but, then again, you could put another ten up and I still wouldn’t. There’s a magic in each of those relatively few songs he left us with that speaks to something deep within me. In terms of songs that are MIA here, Time Has Told me and Rider on the Wheel are always gonna sit in my top ten

    • There are a few songs from him I don’t like much, like Horn and Poor Boy. But generally, I like almost everything in his catalogue.

  5. It’s too bad he had depression so bad. I’ve only listened to Bryter Layter all the way through but I need to listen to all of them. Pink Moon seems to be the song that most everyone knows because of a commercial. I read where he was going to or possibly working on a 4th album when he died.
    I like Northern Sky as well.

    • I guess his music wouldn’t have been the same if he didn’t have depression.

      There are a couple of different albums of outtakes out there- I have Made to Love Magic, but there’s also Time of No Reply.

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