John Denver's 10 Best Songs: Critic's Picks

Tony Russell/Redferns
John Denver

Henry John Deutschendorf Jr. definitely is not a name that any record company, manager, or publicist would have an artist use as their stage name. A member of one of his favorite musical acts, The New Christy Minstrels also agreed, urging the developing folk singer to adopt a more marketable name. He chose John Denver and the stage was set for one of the biggest decades of any artists’ career.

In the early 1970s, America was beginning to long for a simpler way of life – as evidenced by the success of television series The Waltons and Little House On The Prairie. At the heart of that era from a musical standpoint was the easy-going and gentle sound that Denver personified. Whether it be love songs, nostalgia, or paying tribute to the area where he was from, Denver became one of the biggest-selling acts of his time, dominating Pop, AC, and Country playlists, while also becoming a huge TV and movie star. It goes without saying that many of the compositions in our list of essential John Denver songs come from the 1970s, but a few later recordings show that his music -- and talent -- were timeless pieces of Americana -- before that was a word or a format.

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10. John Denver - "Fly Away"

On paper, a collaboration between John Denver and Olivia Newton-John couldn’t miss in 1975. As it turned out, this sweetly nostalgic number -- featuring her soaring harmonies -- was a sure-fire piece of ear candy. A Top- 20 hit on both the Country and Pop charts, this performance quickly found its’ way to the top of the Adult Contemporary lists. Denver said he felt the song would have appeal to his average listeners, and his forecast turned out to be very much accurate.

9. John Denver - "I'm Sorry"

From a chart standpoint, this 1975 hit was Denver’s crowning achievement -- a number one on the Country, Pop, and AC chart. The regret-filled ballad made an impact with many listeners at the time, and proved to be one of his more dramatic performances. 

8. John Denver - "Don’t Close Your Eyes, Tonight"

Sometimes, what an artist does to try to breathe life in his or her career turns out to be a noteworthy move. By 1985, Denver was no longer the chart draw that he once was. This was perhaps his best moment at attempting to remain relevant in a changing marketplace, with a performance about a man wanting his lover to shed her emotional baggage -- and give him the chance to freely be her man. A John Denver song that was a minor hit at AC, it’s a performance well worth seeking out. 

7. John Denver - "Annie’s Song"

This 1974 evergreen became one of Denver’s biggest international hits, topping the charts in the United Kingdom. His heartfelt tribute to his first wife also inspired fans in other formats, and remains one of the most enduring wedding songs of that period. And, of course, since the song doesn’t mention "Annie" by name, that makes perfect sense.

6. John Denver - "Some Days Are Diamonds"

After a run as one of the biggest artists in Pop and Country in the 1970s, Denver made a rare Nashville stop for this 1981 single, produced by Larry Butler -- who was on a roll at the time due to his record-breaking run with Kenny Rogers. Denver handled the earthier sound well, and the result was one of his most "Country" songs.

5. John Denver - "Rocky Mountain High"

Denver admitted that this one took a while to pen. He labored over the song for close to a year before releasing it the day before Halloween in 1972. Denver’s ode to the Colorado mountains that he loved -- and preserving them -- has been adopted by the Colorado State Assembly as one of their two state songs. 

4. John Denver - "Thank God I'm A Country Boy"

The lyrics and the melody ring with happiness, and fans around the world reveled in Denver’s joyful paean to all things rural. Interestingly, the song wasn’t written by Denver. That distinction falls to John Martin Sommers, who played in the singers’ band. Of all John Denver's songs in his catalog, this one still makes us smile.

3. John Denver - "Sunshine On My Shoulders"

The first John Denver song to top the charts (as a recording artist) was one of the most glorious and stunning records released in the early 1970s. Originally, the song was a B-side of one of his earlier singles, but the song would have its’ time. With the Vietnam War winding down and America embroiled on Watergate updates on the evening news, listeners clung to Denver’s inspirational lyrics of hope. 

2. John Denver - "Take Me Home, Country Roads"

Think about this for a moment. Had Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert proceeded with their original plans, this song would have had a much different sound. The two had written the song inspired by the backroads of Maryland while visiting family. A duo they were playing in, Fat City, opened for Denver in Washington, DC, and the trio were involved in an automobile accident. After they got back to their house, they started playing songs -- and Denver was struck by the sincerity of the lyrics. After re-writing some of the lyrics, he would record the song the next month, giving him his first taste of recorded success. The duo’s original plan? To pitch the song to Johnny Cash

1. John Denver - "Back Home Again"

Denver crafted a lyrical masterpiece with this 1974 single that talked about the safe harbor of going back home. The sentimental ballad earned him his first number one Country record, and also netted the singer the Song of the Year trophy from the Country Music Association in the fall of 1975, and helped lead to his being named Entertainer of the Year at the awards show -- which ruffled some feathers in Nashville, as Denver was not one of the establishment. One artist who definitely had a problem with Denver’s wins was Charlie Rich, who burned the envelope containing his name as the Entertainer of the Year winner -- even though Rich’s records had as much cross-over appeal at the time as Denver’s.