Throughout the 1970s, singer-songwriter John Denver masterfully blended folk, Americana, and country genres while churning out hits like ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’ and ‘Annie’s Song.’
For the entire decade, Denver often found himself in either the top spot on the charts or the top ten. There was good reason for this. Listeners loved his zest for life. While country music often produced melancholy ballads, Denver’s work was inspiring and celebratory, highlighting the importance of America’s beautiful natural landscape and life’s simple pleasures.
His work has stood the test of time, and new generations continue to enjoy and value his soothing voice and gentle fretwork. So take a seat, and check out our ranked list of the best John Denver songs.
Table of Contents
9. We Wish You A Merry Christmas
Kicking off our list is his jovial rendition of ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas.’ In 1979, he received the pop-culture honor of the day by being invited to appear in a Muppets Christmas special airing on TV featuring covers of several popular festive songs, including ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas.’ Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, and Fozzy Bear, among other classic Muppets, sang with him in the holiday-themed special. Other Christmas songs covered were ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ and ‘Deck the Halls.’ Denver applied his folksy acoustic sound to the instrumentation and effortless, clean vocals to the lyrics, resulting in one of the best renditions of the Xmas tune you’ll ever hear.
Related: In the festive spirit? Check out more famous Christmas songs.
8. Perhaps Love
Ruminating on the importance of love in relation to human existence, Denver didn’t think ‘Perhaps Love’ would be a mainstream success like earlier hits from his ’71 Poems, Prayers, and Promises album. He recorded a special take on the song with classical singer Placido Domingo. Denver’s management team sent a copy of the recording to radio stations, but they didn’t plan on adding it to the rotation until one day, a station’s equipment was down, and they needed a filler song while they figured out the problem. They cued up ‘Perhaps Love,’ and suddenly, their call lights began flashing. Listeners loved Domingo and Denver’s collaboration so much that stations added the inspirational track to their regular rotation.
Colored by dancing flute work and light bassy percussion occasionally vibrating along with the rhythm, ‘Calypso’ is one of Denver’s later tunes celebrating the freedom of the sea. As a lover of nature, he was a big fan of Jacques Cousteau’s work conducted while aboard the ship, Calypso, which the song is named after. Cousteau was one of the first people to study how pollution affects the natural world, especially the oceans. This tribute to the historical figure was loosely structured to reflect traditional elements of popular sea shanties. This uplifting tune contains poetic lines like riding “on the crest of a wild raging storm” and working “in the service of life and the living.”
Related: Check out more sea shanty songs.
6. Sunshine On My Shoulders
Denver’s debut album, Poems, Prayers, and Promises produced several hits, and though ‘Sunshine on My Shoulders’ spent just one week at number one in the States, the single left a lasting impression on country music listeners who had a penchant for feel-good ballads at the time. The ’71 single was written over the course of a particularly calm, dreary Minnesota day. As the rain was falling, an outdoorsman type, Denver started daydreaming about warmer months when the sun would start shining again. Celebrating life’s simple pleasures, this gentle, emotive song gained more popularity when it was used for a touching drama series called Sunshine about a woman’s brave battle with a rare form of cancer.
5. Leaving, On a Jet Plane
Written early on in his career before he struck out on his own as a solo artist, Denver penned ‘Leaving, On a Jet Plane’ while waiting to board a flight at an airport. He was a member of the Chad Mitchell Trio at the time, in the late 1960s. Though they released a version of the track, when Peter, Paul, and Mary picked it up and released their own rendition, it went straight to number one. The hit helped to kickstart his career as a solo act. During his first few small club gigs, the promoters would often tag his name on posters with “writer of ‘Leaving, on a Jet Plane’.” Despite its hit status, many listeners don’t realize this is a Denver original.
Related: Of course, this classic appears on our list of bittersweet tunes about leaving.
4. Thank God I’m a Country Boy
Denver’s penchant for writing in a ‘country-western fashion’ – rather than modern country structure – caused the mainstream country music industry to sometimes shun his work (even though folk, Americana, and popular music audiences embraced his music). He scored yet another number one hit with his twangy single ‘Thank God I’m a Country Boy,’ and officially won over the country music industry for good. The boom-chuck-style rhythm guitar backed up his celebratory lyrics, relishing in the cowboy lifestyle. The tune originally appeared on his Back Home Again album.
3. Rocky Mountain High
John Denver’s real name is Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr., not exactly stage name material. When he picked his pen name, he chose to honor his favorite state, Colorado, for all its unbridled terrain and wild nature. His ’73 top ten hit ‘Rocky Mountain High’ also pays homage to the western state. Despite its popularity, it became notorious when many radio stations banned it, erroneously thinking it was about drug use. While appearing at a Senate hearing in regards to the creation of a national panel in charge of labeling music deemed unsafe for children, Denver referenced the misinterpretation of his song as a reason why no panel should exist: “[the song’s banning] was obviously done by people who had never…experienced the elation, celebration of life, or the joy in living that one feels when he observes something as wondrous as the Perseid meteor shower…”
Related: Scale new heights with more mountain-themed tracks.
2. Annie’s Song
Denver wrote ‘Annie’s Song’ while on a ski trip. As he rode the lift, a breathtaking view of snow-capped mountains caught his attention, and lyrics and images started to flow one after the other. As the song took shape, it became a declaration of love for his wife, Annie, after they went through a temporary but rough marriage separation. Though the tune came to him quickly, he did have to change the opening instrumentation. His manager pointed out that the melody was an exact sequence from Russian composer Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. With its poetic stanzas and soaring string section, ‘Annie’s Song’ topped the charts in the US and UK.
1. Take Me Home, Country Roads
While on tour, performing several dates at intimate, early-’70s music venues like Washington, D.C.’s Cellar Door, John Denver made a pit stop at Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert’s residence, two industry songwriters who were also friends of his. While visiting, Denver mentioned he was looking for new material to include on his forthcoming album, Poems, Prayers, and Promises. Danoff and Nivert played him a partly-written tune inspired by taking a long drive through some of America’s rural backroads. After helping them finish writing it, Denver played ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’ as an encore for his Cellar Door show the following night. He received a standing ovation that lasted several minutes, and the folksy track became his first hit in ’71 and, subsequently, his signature tune.
Related: See more songs about wanting to go home.