Over the years, Jackson Browne has written hits for everyone from The Eagles to The Byrds. A talented writer with a knack for blending the personal with the political, he’s widely regarded as one of the best singer-songwriters of the past 70 years. He may not have the same number of Top Ten hits as some of his contemporaries, but few would argue that his body of work is anything less than extraordinary. Here’s our pick of the 10 best Jackson Browne songs of all time.
10. For Everyman
When David Crosby of Crosby, Stills, and Nash fantasized about him and his pals sailing away from war and destruction to paradise on “Wooden Ships,” Browne, who’d spent some time living with Crosby on his schooner, couldn’t help but ask what happened to everyone who got left behind. He doesn’t have the answer (“I’m not trying to tell you that I’ve seen the plan/ Turn and walk away if you think I am,” he sings) but he’s at least thoughtful enough to ask the question.
9. Song For Adam
Most people are familiar enough with hits like “Doctor My Eyes” and “Jamaica Say You Will,” but for every familiar song, there’s a deep cut that warrants just as much attention. “Song For Adam” is one of them. A haunting acoustic number that finds Browne contemplating the suicide of a friend, it’s a stunningly beautiful piece that deserves every bit as much love as the album’s more well-known tracks.
8. Life in the Balance
The titular track to Browne’s eighth studio album finds him deviating away from traditional singer-songwriter territory and dabbling with MIDI worldbeat drums and sequencers. It could all have gone horribly wrong, but the song, which was written in response to the Iran-Contra scandal in which the US traded weapons for hostages, is a striking slice of social observation, showcasing Browne’s talent for blending the personal with the political to stunning effect.
7. Late for the Sky
The epic titular track to Browne’s third studio album is best known for its use in the pivotal scene in Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” in which Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle loses whatever grip he still has on reality as he watches couples dance on “American Bandstand” with a gun in his hand. Browne probably didn’t have that particular scene in mind when he wrote the song, but the doleful desolation of the lyrics make it an excellent match anyway.
6. These Days
Nico may have made “These Days” famous, and everyone from Greg Allman to Elliot Smith may have covered it since, but it was Browne who wrote it, and it’s his plaintive version that perfectly captures the sadness of the lyrics. He wouldn’t release it until 1973’s “For Everyman,” but he’d written it years before at the age of just 16. For anyone that young to have the talent to write such an insightful piece is astonishing.
5. Doctor My Eye
Despite a lengthy and distinguished career, Browne has had only two Top 10 hits. The first was “Doctor My Eyes,” the lead single from his 1972 self-titled debut. The lyrics are as melancholy and downbeat as ever, with the narrator worrying that a lifetime of stoically enduring life’s hardships has left him unable to feel anything. “Tell me what is wrong,” he asks. “Was I unwise to leave them open for so long?” But despite the subject matter, musically, it’s one of the few upbeat numbers on the album, with a bouncy riff and a very peppy guitar solo from Jesse Ed Davis. Graham Nash and David Crosby are on hand to provide their typically angelic harmonies.
4. The Pretender
The titular cut to the 1976 album “The Pretender” closes out the album with less of a bang and more of a grumble. Having already spent most of the album complaining about the state of the world, here, Browne brings it all together in one of the most miserable, misanthropic songs in his canon. If there was any hint of 60’s idealism still hanging out by that point in the ’70s, this was the song that laid it to rest. Fortunately, few people do cynicism quite as well as Browne, and despite the bummer subject matter, it’s still a hugely enjoyable listen. It didn’t make much of a dent in the charts, but it got a huge amount of airplay on album-oriented rock radio, resulting in “The Pretender” becoming one of Browne’s most famous tracks.
3. Somebody’s Baby
“Somebody’s Baby” is far and away Browne’s biggest commercial success, peaking at No. 7 on the Hot 100 on its release in 1982. It’s less profound than what we’d normally expect of him, but what it lacks in nuance it makes up for in likeability. The synths and slap bass are pure 80’s cheese, but if anything, they only add to the charm. Browne didn’t stay cheerful for long and by the following year’s “Lawyers in Love,” it was back to business as usual. It was nice while it lasted though.
2. The Load-Out/ Stay
Named as one of the best Jackson Browne songs of all time by ultimateclassicrock.com, “The Load-Out/ Stay” closed out Browne’s 1977 live concept album “Running on Empty” in style. An account of the daily drudge of life on the road (“We’ve got truckers on the CB/We’ve got Richard Pryor on the video/We got time to think of the ones we love, while the miles roll away”), it sequences brilliantly into an energetic cover of Maurice Williams & the Zodiacs’ 1960 No. 1 doo-wop hit, Stay. For some inexplicable reason, the record label decided to separate the two songs when “Stay” was released as a single in 1978, but given how beautiful they fit together, it’s best to stick to the album version.
1. Running on Empty
The 1977 live album “Running on Empty” ranks amongst Browne’s best albums. Although it’s packed with gems, the titular cut sparkles just that little bit more brightly than the others. An autobiographical song that finds him casting one eye to the past and one eye to the future (“In ’65, I was 17 and running up one-on-one/ I don’t know where I’m running now, I’m just running on”), it sums up the restless search for freedom perfectly.
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