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Best Eagles Songs: 20 Tracks That Define Californian Country-Rock
© Gijsbert Hanekroot / Alamy Stock Photo
List & Guides

Best Eagles Songs: 20 Tracks That Define Californian Country-Rock

The best Eagles songs cover emotive country-rock classics and haunting, excess-fuelled comments on the American Dream.

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Eagles, one of the most successful bands of all time, will be forever associated with a Southern California country-rock sound that captivated the world and turned the best Eagles songs, such as Desperado and California Hotel, into global hits.

The original band, formed in 1971, comprised of Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Bernie Leadon and Randy Meisner. Frey said they chose the name Eagles, because it was “the creature that flew closest to the sun”. Various new additions to the band came over some turbulent years, including guitarists Don Felder, Joe Walsh and Timothy B Schmit. In January 2016, a year after Frey’s death, Eagles re-formed, with founder member and drummer Henley joined by Walsh, Schmit, Vince Gill and Deacon Frey.

Over five decades, Eagles sold more than 150 million records worldwide, winning six Grammy Awards and five American Music Awards, and their Greatest Hits compilation was the biggest-selling album of all time.

Best Eagles Songs: 20 Tracks That Define California Country-Rock

20: The Long Run (1979)

“The bond we forged 45 years ago was never broken, even during the 14 years that the Eagles were dissolved,” Henley wrote after Frey’s death. The pair co-wrote the title track to their 1979 album, The Long Run, and the steady soulful groove, aided by Felder’s slide guitar and Hammond’s organ playing, reflected the pair’s love of soul music and the Stax sound. Henley said the lyrics were also a defiant riposte to claims that the band were “passé” by the late 70s. The song, which was produced by Bill Szymczyk, was a UK hit and the opening track on an Asylum album that held the No.1 slot for eight weeks in the US, going platinum seven times.

19: Please Come Home For Christmas (1978)

Frey, Henley, Felder and Schmidt were all talented songwriters who contributed to the Eagles’ best songs, so it was unusual for the group to record cover versions. However, they usually made a success of those they took on, including Tom Waits’ gorgeous Ol’ 55, and Love Will Keep Us Alive – written by Jim Capaldi and Paul Carrack – which was a staple of the group’s 1994 Hell Freezes Over reunion tour.

Eagles also had a festive UK hit with their version of Please Come Home for Christmas, which spent five weeks in the UK charts in late 1978. The track was their first to feature Schmidt on bass guitar, after he replaced founding member Meisner. “I used to listen to the legendary New Orleans radio station WNOE,” Henley said in 2003. “It broadcast this wonderful, eclectic mix of music. WNOE is where I first heard Charles Brown’s original 1960 version of Please Come Home for Christmas. It always stuck with me. Our version was very much like the original.”

18: Doolin-Dalton (1973)

A number of real-life personalities – including actor James Dean – have inspired some of the best songs by the Eagles and in 1973 they recorded Doolin-Dalton, a tribute to a brutal 19th-century Wild West gang of train robbers. The song, recorded at Island Studios in London, was co-written by Frey, Henley, JD Souther and Jackson Browne. It is one of several cowboy-themed songs on the album Desperado, which features the band members on the cover, dressed like an outlaw gang. Henley and Frey shared the lead vocals and Frey also played atmospheric harmonica on the track. Doolin-Dalton remained a fan favourite and the band brought it back for their History Of The Eagles Tour in 2015.

17: Best Of My Love (1974)

Glenn Frey said he used the inspiration of a tune from the great folk musician Fred Neil when he co-wrote the melody for Best Of My Love for the 1974On the Borderalbum. The lyrics were inspired in part by Henley’s break-up with his girlfriend Suzannah Martin. Henley said they wrote most of the lyrics while sitting in a booth in Dan Tana’s Restaurant in Hollywood (the maître d’ was thanked in the liner notes). The band flew Souther over to London to compose the bridge for this tender ballad, which became Eagles’ first No.1 single. “It’s a pretty song that feels true,” said Souther.

16: Witchy Woman (1972)

Frey and Henley first started working together when they toured as part of Linda Ronstadt’s backing band. “They said they wanted to form a group of their own,” recalled the singer. “I thought, Hot dog! Yes, you should put a band together. The first time I heard them sing Witchy Woman, I knew they were going to have hits.” One of the best songs by the Eagles to feature on their self-titled debut album, the brooding Witchy Woman was written by Henley and Leadon, who came up with the memorable riff. Henley said he had a mixture of Los Angeles party girls and the personality of Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of novelist F Scott, in mind when he composed a song about a seductress who has been sleeping in the devil’s bed. “It was an important song for me,” Henley said. “It marked the beginning of my professional songwriting career.”

15: I Can’t Tell You Why (1980)

In February 1980, things were looking good for Eagles. Their bass player Schmit had just made his songwriting debut with I Can’t Tell You Why, a song he said was “loosely based on my own experiences”. He finished the composition in collaboration with Frey and Henley and the band decided to record it in a soulful style that Henley called “straight Al Green”. The track featured Walsh on Hammond organ and Fender Rhodes electric piano.

“When we finally mixed it, we had a little listening party at the studio,” recalled Schmit, who sang lead vocals on the mellow, atmospheric song. “As people were hearing it, Don turned to me and said, ‘There’s your first hit.’” When Schmit later played with Ringo Starr’s All Starr Band, and used to perform I Can’t Tell You Why as part of the former Beatles star’s show.

14: Heartache Tonight (1979)

One of the reasons the group endured for five decades is that the Eagles greatest hits were well formed and often deceptively subtle and nuanced. Henley credited Frey for being the chief architect of the vocal and instrumental blend that defined the group. “We gave Glenn a nickname, The Lone Arranger,” Henley said in 2003. “He had a vision about how our voices could blend and how to arrange the vocals, and, in many cases, the tracks.” Heartache Tonight was a pulsating, guitar-driven rocker with some inventive vocal work from the great Detroit musician Bob Seger. To get the percussive sound he wanted, Henley lay on his back on the floor of the recording studio and played a marching-band-style drum on his chest, beating it with a mallet. “He did that forever,” said Schmit. “It took a long time.” The song won a Grammy for Best Rock Vocal Performance By A Duo Or Group.

13: Tequila Sunrise (1973)

Inspiring one of the greatest Eagles songs, the cocktail Tequila Sunrise was hugely popular in the early 70s. Henley said that he and Frey used to call a swig of the drink “a shot of courage”, because it gave them the nerve to talk to women in bars, back in the days when they were young aspiring stars. Frey came up with the song’s distinctive guitar riff, which he described as “kinda Roy Orbison, kinda Mexican”, but Henley said that his co-writer changed his mind about the worth of the song. In the 2003 Eagles compilation The Very Best Of The Eagles, Henley revealed that Frey “was ambivalent about it because he thought that it was a bit too obvious or too much of a cliché because of the drink that was so popular then”. Frey soon became fond of the song, on which he would ad-lib during live performances, saying, “I love the song. I don’t think there’s a single chord out of place.”

12: Wasted Time (1976)

The five-minute Wasted Time is not only one of the best Eagles songs, but one of their most mournful. Written after Henley’s bitter break-up with Loree Rodkin, it overflows with emotion and is one of the highlights of the group’s Hotel Californiaalbum. As Frey later recalled, “I loved all the records coming out of Philadelphia at that time. I sent for some sheet music so I could learn some of those songs, and I started creating my own musical ideas with that Philly influence. Don was our Teddy Pendergrass. He could stand out there all alone and just wail. We did a big Philly-type production with strings – definitely not country-rock. Don’s singing abilities stretched so many of our boundaries.” The soaring strings that accompanied Henley’s anguished vocals were arranged by Jim Ed Norman, who later became president of Warner Bros’ music empire.

11: Life In The Fast Lane (1976)

The origins of Life In The Fast Lane sound like a touch of rock-music mythology. Frey said he was sitting in the passenger seat of a Corvette driven by a drug dealer known as The Count. When the car started speeding at 90 miles an hour, Frey asked him to slow down. “Hey, man, it’s life in the fast lane,” the driver responded, inadvertently giving one of the best Eagles songs its name. “I thought, Oh, my God, what a title. I didn’t write it down. I didn’t have to,” Frey later recalled. The song, about a doomed, thrill-seeking jet-set couple, has some potent guitar playing and a blistering opening riff from Walsh, who had replaced Leadon in the band. Walsh said it was based on a “really hard” guitar lick that he used as a warm-up exercise before recording sessions.

10: The Last Resort (1976)

The Last Resort, perhaps the angriest song written by Frey and Henley, is about the destruction of the environment and includes the line, “Some rich men came and raped the land. Nobody caught ’em.” Frey, who had taken piano lessons from the age of five, plays keyboards on the song, which, released as the B-side to Life In The Fast Line, remains relevant in the 21st century.

“I think The Last Resort is still one of my favourite songs,” said Henley years later. “That’s because I care more about the environment than about writing songs about drugs or love affairs or excesses of any kind. The gist of the song was that when we find something good, we destroy it by our presence – by the very fact that man is the only animal on earth that is capable of destroying his environment.” Henley put his money where his mouth was, becoming an environmental campaigner and funding the conservation project to preserve Walden Woods in Massachusetts.

9: Already Gone (1974)

The chorus of Already Gone proved to be popular with Eagles fans eager to sing along during live performances. The catchy track was written by Robb Strandlund and Jack Tempchin, who sent Frey a tape of the song in the post. The band experimented with different versions of it, recording some in London, before nailing the definitive recording back in Los Angeles. “I got a call from Glenn Frey and he was in the studio, and he said, ‘Hey, you know that country song you wrote? I think we could make that a great rock song,’” Tempchin recalled. Felder played a Les Paul Special guitar on Already Gone to get the sound on the guitar solo that he wanted. Quickly earning its place among the best Eagles songs, Already Gone was played constantly on radio in the spring of 1974.

8: Peaceful Easy feeling (1972)

In the movie The Big Lebowski, Peaceful Easy Feeling is playing on the radio when Jeff Bridges’ hippie character pleads with the minicab driver to change the station. “I had a rough night and I hate the fucking Eagles, man,” says The Dude. “I don’t hate the Eagles like The Dude,” Bridges says afterwards, admitting, “I ran into Glenn Frey, he gave me some shit. I can’t remember what he said exactly, but you know, my anus tightened a bit.”

The mellow classic was written by Tempchin after he had played a gig in San Diego: “It was my first time in the desert, and the view of the stars was amazing… it was then that I started writing Peaceful Easy Feeling.” The harmonic guitar strumming, elegant three-part harmonies and lyrics were all key ingredients of a song that remains one of the top Eagles songs – whether or not you share The Dude’s feelings!

7: New Kid In Town (1976)

Souther specifically denied that lyrics to New Kid In Town (“Johnny come lately, the new kid in town”) were about the then rising rock star Bruce Springsteen. The song, Eagles insisted, was actually a melancholy meditation on what Henley called “the fleeting nature of fame”, using the analogy of a new gunslinger who comes riding into town with a point to prove. “We were approaching 30 and could see that the rear-view mirror was full of newcomers as hungry as we had been,” said Souther. The laidback maudlin melody was helped by the musicianship of Meisner, who played an acoustic bass known as a guitarrón (given to him by a friend from Mexico), and the superb overlapping harmonies earned the band a Grammy for Best Vocal Arrangement. Even their darkest material was full of easy-on-the-ear harmonies.

6: One Of These Nights (1975)

Frey said in 2003 that One of These Nights, another hit written with Henley, was “a breakthrough song”. It was the title track of the band’s 1975 album of the same name and moved them away from ballad-style songs towards an edgier sound. “With Don Felder in the band now, we can really rock,” said Henley. Felder’s powerful guitar work, combined with Henley’s smooth vocals, which rise to a falsetto near the end of the song, earned Eagles another No.1 hit. The song was carefully crafted, with numerous recording sessions led by producer Szymczyk in Miami and Los Angeles, which he used to hone the sound of the drone guitars and the vocals. Frey said it was his personal favourite of Eagles’ songs.

5: Lyin’ Eyes (1975)

Lyin’ Eyes was written by Henley and Frey after they had been out one night in Los Angeles and began talking about the beautiful women who were cheating on their overweight, wealthy husbands. They came up with the title as they were drinking in Dan Tana’s, when Frey commented about one such woman, “Look at her, she can’t even hide those lyin’ eyes!” The production of the song revealed Frey’s obsessive perfectionism. “Glenn, I think, took three days in the studio on the word ‘city’ at the beginning of Lyin’ Eyes,” the guitarist Felder recalled. “It would either be a little early, or a little late, or the ‘t’ would be too sharp. It literally took a long time to get that word-perfect – maybe to an extreme.” The work paid off, as Lyin’ Eyes remains one of the best songs by the Eagles– a six-minute story song that became their first crossover hit, reaching No.8 on the country charts, helped by Meisner’s acoustic guitar playing and the mandolin of Felder. The song was a favourite of Dolly Parton, who performed a version on her 1976 television show, Dolly!, saying, “Here’s a song that I wish I had written.”

4: Take It To The Limit (1975)

Bassist Meisner, who sang lead on the massive 1975 hit Take It To The Limit, was from rural Nebraska and said it was unusual for him to sing lead vocals as he was “shy and nervous about putting myself on the line”. Though one of the best Eagles songs, he would sometimes ask for it to be removed from the setlist for live shows, saying he did not “want to be in the spotlight”. Meisner’s stage fright was something that caused friction within the band. He left the group a couple of years later, after getting into a backstage fight with Frey.

Meisner said he started composing what would turn out to be one Eagles’ most beloved ballads, structured in waltz tempo, when he was at home on his own. “I was feeling kind of lonely and started singing, ‘All alone at the end of the evening/And the bright lights have faded to blue,’ and it went from there,” he recalled. After starting the song, he ended up finishing it with Henley and Frey. Country legends Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings later recorded a sweet cover version. Meisner went on to have a solo career, but his post-Eagles life was blighted by tragedy. He managed to attend the 1998 ceremony when the Eagles were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.

3: Desperado (1973)

When Henley first started working on Desperado, he envisaged an old-fashioned song in the style of Stephen Foster, the giant who composed Oh! Susanna and Old Folks At Home (Swanee River). He called it a “Southern Gothic thing”. Frey suggested making it more like a western song, with a cowboy metaphor, and something clicked. Henley said that his songwriting partner “leapt right on it, filled in the blanks and brought structure”, and he knew at that moment that they would make a successful writing team.

The moving lyrics (“Desperado, oh, you ain’t getting’ no younger/Your pain and your hunger, they’re drivin’ you home”), mournful vocals from Henley and the sweeping string arrangements that featured the London Symphony Orchestra, provided the perfect mix for one of the best songs by the Eagles. It was covered by Johnny Cash, Neil Diamond and Linda Ronstadt, and became part of popular culture. In a 1996 episode of Seinfeld, Elaine’s oddball boyfriend Brett is obsessed by Desperado and insists she is silent whenever it plays.

2: Take It Easy (1972)

“Take it Easy was the beginning of country rock,” said Frey of the No.1 tune he co-wrote with Jackson Browne when they were struggling songwriters in the same apartment building in Santa Monica. “Even though it was a complete joy to sing, I used to avoid singing Take It Easy because I just had the feeling when I was singing it that everybody thought I was singing an Eagles song,” said Browne.

Take It Easy started out as a road trip song. “This imagery of being in a car and being out in a place like Winslow, Arizona, just stuck. So many people immediately, like immediately, before that song was even a hit, were saying, ‘Winslow! I know what you mean!’ Everybody had been to Winslow, because it was like this one little speck along Route 66 – a place you had to pass through to get anywhere.” There is now a statue of Frey in Corner Park, Winslow.

Take It Easy has an infectious momentum, iconic lines and clever arrangements, including the distinctive banjo parts played by Leaden. “I got Bernie to play double-time banjo; they all thought it was a bonkers idea, but it worked,” producer Glyn Johns said. “It was already a great song, but that one little thing made it different.”

1: Hotel California (1977)

“Don Henley and I talked about Hotel California a lot. We were Steely Dan fans and how they were brave lyrically,” said Frey of the song that tops our list of the best songs by the Eagles. “We wanted to write a song that was like an episode of The Twilight Zone. That was cinematic. It follows different pictures. We decided to create something strange to see if we could do it.” Their attempt succeeded spectacularly, evoking a claustrophobic decadence and lyrical images that that described the “tarnished elegance” of life in Los Angeles.

Hotel California is not only a dissection of life in LA, it is a memorable portrait of excess and a comment on the dark side of the American Dream. The song began life with the working title Mexican Reggae; the reggae influences that were on the original four-track recording made by guitarist Felder at a house he was leasing on the beach in Malibu remained on the final six-and-a-half-minute version. As well as haunting lyrics (“Mirrors on the ceiling/The pink champagne on ice/And she said, ‘We are all just prisoners here, of our own device’”), the band also made the bold decision to conclude the song with searing guitar solos from Walsh and Felder. Hotel California was a No.1 hit around the world and won a Grammy Award for record of the year. It remains the group’s gold standard.

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