Don McLean, for better or worse, will forever be linked to his 8-minute and 33-second long magnum opus, "American Pie." There's no question it's the single best-selling record of his career, and that it captured the imaginations of millions of listeners, as they tried to decode the many metaphors that make up the biggest share of the song's lyrics. While the song's production is undeniably more rock than folk, McLean is and always has been a folk singer at heart. His roots are more in the Weavers and various cowboy singers than in anything else.
For new listeners, the American Pie album (1972) is probably one of the best places to begin to explore McLean's music. It's one of his most consistently high-quality records of new material. Most of the songs are acoustic-guitar-based, and cover a variety of subjects from lost love to war to of course, Vincent Van Gogh. Rather than list highlights, it's easier to say that about the only song on it that isn't completely successful is "Everybody Loves Me, Baby." Still, I would be remiss if I didn't at least mention "Vincent" and the beautiful round, "Babylon."
Other LPs of McLean's have explored different themes and styles, ranging back and forth between folk and pop/rock/country, and while each one contains at least one or two certifiable gems, they're mostly uneven, which is a genuine shame, considering the depth of the man's talent. It was obvious that throughout his career his record companies never knew exactly what to do with him, and he would deliberately do what he could to resist their various commercial pressures, whether that meant the net result was good or bad. I hate like h*ll to see him relegated, as he seems to be now, to the PBS fund-drive "oldies" category.
All of that being said, the one other album I can recommend without any hesitation at all is the last of the handful of records he did for United Artists at the outset of his career - the live 1976 2-LP set Solo, available on a double-CD set from BGO Records. This album was compiled from concerts he played throughout England, with nothing but his voice, his acoustic guitar and his banjo, and it's the way he was meant to be heard. It contains material from the beginning of his career up through his Homeless Brother album, and he does stellar jobs on each song. He also sprinkles his set with a few traditional tunes and some songs by others (like Bob Dylan and, believe it or not, Dale Evans), but it's primarily a McLean evening. The crowd loves him and it shows in how he feeds off of that, taking his performance to a whole different level. An extremely good album of extremely good songs, particularly "Bronco Bill's Lament," "And I Love You So," "Circus Song," "Vincent," "Till Tomorrow" and the medley that contains his "Castles in the Air" and "Three Flights Up." One caveat - when he performs live, McLean likes to let the vocal fall a beat or more behind the accompaniment. He makes it work, absolutely, but if you're looking for pristine, just-like-the-studio-versions of these songs, you may be taken aback a bit.