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Jackson Browne's 15 Best Songs: Critic's Picks

Billboard logo Billboard 2018-10-09 Morgan Enos
a man standing on a stage: Jackson browne © Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images Jackson browne

Happy 70th birthday to Jackson Browne, the celebrated Angeleno singer/songwriter whose career spans five decades. From his self-titled 1972 debut (No. 53 on Pop Albums) to 2014's Standing in the Breach (No. 15 on Billboard 200), Browne’s been a Billboard presence from the very beginning.

Browne’s songs, at their best, mix the personal and the political until the two become indistinguishable. It's that ability that made him eminently coverable in the '70s: Browne's songs have been recorded by everyone from the Eagles to The Byrds to Nico.

But Browne's always been the rightful presenter of his own work. With all genuflection to the Beach Boys, no other act may qualify more as an ambassador of 1970s Southern California; whether onstage or on the page, his mellow, mature approach to untying spiritual knots has almost no match. And excellent later discs like 2002's The Naked Ride Home and 2008’s Time the Conqueror have only bolstered his legacy.

No matter the political climate or your own emotional headspace, there's a Browne song for your state of mind. Feeling introspective? "For a Dancer" or "These Days" are practically archetypal rainy-day songs. Agitated by the daily news cycle? Browne’s got you: queue up "Lives in the Balance" or "The Drums of War." If you’re in a lighter mood, the effervescent "Somebody’s Baby" or "Never Stop" are the sound of a spring restored to your step.

In honor of a true songwriter’s songwriter entering his seventh decade, here are his 15 greatest songs, ranked for your approval.

15. "The Load-Out" / "Stay" (from Running on Empty, 1977)

Clocking in at more than eight minutes, this audio vérité medley was a peculiar song for Browne to record at all -- especially one to become a No. 20 Billboard Hot 100 hit. But if you stick with this slowly building ode to the road crew, recorded live in concert on a sticky August night at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Maryland, it creates a singular atmosphere; you need never have experienced touring life to feel "The Load Out"'s road-weary camaraderie. It segues into the doo-wop standard "Stay," originally by Maurice Williams, at the end, with Browne adjusting the lyrics: "We want to play / Just a little bit longer." You can practically smell the cheap beer in the nosebleed seats, fans catching the buzz of one last encore.

14. "Somebody’s Baby" (from Fast Times at Ridgemont High OST, 1982)

"Somebody’s Baby” was Browne’s highest-charting single of his career, hitting No. 7 on the Hot 100 and remaining on the chart for 19 weeks. And like "The Load-Out," it doesn't quite resemble his most profound, nuanced work. But it reveals another dimension of Browne: the pop craftsman. Uber-cheesy synths and slap bass don’t negate the song’s charm: it’s impossible to envision it without them. Ditto for its visual context: "Somebody’s Baby" was recorded for a montage scene in the 1982 coming-of-age classic Fast Times at Ridgemont High, capturing its adolescent blur of fevered hormones and weed smoke.

13. "Doctor, My Eyes" (from Jackson Browne, 1972)

Browne’s first hit was perhaps the bounciest single about psychic disaffection ever written. The cynical "Doctor, My Eyes" casts Browne as a glum oracle who has "seen the years" and "the slow parade of fears" to the point which he questions the ability of sight at all. But this unhappy POV is pepped up by Russ Kenkel's congas and a blazing solo from guitarist Jesse Ed Davis; the results shot up to No. 8 on the Hot 100.

12. "Lives in the Balance" (from Lives in the Balance, 1986)

As much a CNN news ticker as a song, "Lives in the Balance" wastes no time with its messaging. The backing music, with its sequencers and MIDI worldbeat drums, sounds less like a folk protest ballad than the soundtrack to Law and Order. This would be a recipe for disaster for most songwriters, but "Lives in the Balance," written as a response to the Iran-Contra scandal in which U.S. officials traded arms for hostages, is Browne’s most authentic dispatch of political anger. "I want to know who the men in the shadows are," Browne demands. "I want to hear someone asking them why."

11. "The Naked Ride Home" (from The Naked Ride Home, 2002)

The title track to Browne’s best album of the 2000s begins as a licentious invitation before revealing new layers. The song drops in on the narrator proposing the titular ride, "knowing she never could pass on a dare." It becomes a grander rumination on trust, vulnerability and how we fail to open up to those we love. And according to Browne in a 2010 interview with Uncut, it was meant to "play a trick on the listener,” explaining the a-ha moment in the final verse: "You don’t find out until the end that these are married people,” he says.

10. "Running On Empty" (from Running On Empty, 1977)

From Paul Simon to James Taylor to The Boss, there was practically limitless real estate in the ‘70s for soft-rock jams about young men wandering, searching and gunning it in search of freedom. "Running On Empty" finds him lost in the past: "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." Because it doesn't necessarily find any grand answers or catharsis, with all due respect to Bruce, "Running On Empty" is the small-town-restlessness jam of all time.

9. "For Everyman" (from For Everyman, 1973)

This majestic, understated ode to inclusion was written as a response to David Crosby: for a few months in 1972, he even lived with him on his schooner, The Mayan. Croz had recently written the haunting "Wooden Ships," a fantasia about him and his seeker pals sailing away from war, suffering and destruction to a paradisaic foreign land. But Browne felt Croz only had it half-right: what about everybody else? In his response song, Browne doesn't patronize or claim to have all the answer: "I'm not trying to tell you that I've seen the plan/ Turn and walk away if you think I am." Because it's empathetic rather than self-preserving, Browne’s song restores the chunk that was missing from "Wooden Ships"; perhaps recognizing this, Crosby stepped up and sang backing vocals on "For Everyman."

8. "The Barricades of Heaven" (from Looking East, 1996)

This highlight from Browne’s underrated Looking East begins with a typical teen rock n' roll origin story, shouting out real Orange County clubs that became Browne’s set and setting: "Life became the Paradox, the Bear, the Rouge Et Noir." But it doesn't take long for Browne to imbue these mundane details with knee-wobbling, cosmic language: "Better bring your own redemption when you come/ To the barricades of heaven where I’m from." Browne raises the stakes so subtly that you barely notice: with a few swipes of the pen, "The Barricades of Heaven" casually paints a young man’s newfound freedom as meteorically, exhilaratingly scary.

7. "These Days" (from For Everyman, 1973)

"I wrote this song when I was about 16," Browne revealed before leaning into his calling-card, "These Days," on his 2005 live album Solo Acoustic, Vol. 1. "Though not precisely in this form." A shoe-scuffling ode to isolation and quietude that almost any coffeehouse singer or guitarist could reasonably pull off, "These Days" ended up taking many forms: Nico, Elliott Smith and Greg Allman, among others, have all given this downcast classic their own autumnal shades.

6. "Late for the Sky" (from Late for the Sky, 1975)

Most well-known for its usage in a scene in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver in which Travis Bickle watches couples dance on American Bandstand alone with a gun in his hand, "Late for the Sky" is a long, long walk home. Browne writes without concrete details, a rare move for this songwriter, yet maps out a vast plain of regret and desolation with just a few words: "The words had all been spoken/ And somehow the feeling still wasn't right." His long-time cohort, David Lindley, answers every doleful lyric with a pained lead guitar run, each a perfect twist of the knife on Browne’s bluest song.

5. "Looking East" (from Looking East, 1996)

If "Late for the Sky" represents a slow, sad twilight, then "Looking East," released two decades later, finds Browne determinedly facing the rising sun. The lyrics chalk up society’s ills to a "spiritual famine," concluding "There’s a God-sized hunger underneath the questions of the age." There’s a tint of outrage at the American political system in this indictment, but Browne thinks universally, banding all living things together for the great something that’s bound to hit: "Power in the insect/ Power in the sea/ Power in the snow falling silently." You'll feel it, too.

4. "Fountain of Sorrow" (from Late for the Sky, 1974)

A masterpiece of writing universally from a very specific vantage point, "Fountain of Sorrow" failed to chart on the Hot 100, but remains a fan favorite to this day. It begins with Browne stumbling across some photos of an old flame; if you've heard this sort of setup a thousand times, it's just a springboard for Browne to work his unique magic. This very specific scene unfurls into a look at how lovers and friends navigate their dashed expectations of each other, and maintaining perspective while sadness and disappointment "springs from your life/ Like a fountain from a pool." It’s the most empathetic, nuanced breakup account Browne ever penned.

3. "The Pretender" (from The Pretender, 1976)

While its sister song "Before the Deluge" observes an apocalyptic scene from a far-away, macrocosmic viewpoint, "The Pretender" is the same song from an up-close, character-driven viewpoint. Its protagonist does what any of us do in young adulthood. He’s going to "rent himself a house in the shade of the freeway," "pack his lunch in the morning” and commute to his 9-to-5 before "the morning light comes streaming in" and he repeats the whole exercise. It zooms out from there, with detailed images of veterans and junkmen, all part of the same bleak, cosmic dance what happens when we conform under pressure in a "struggle for the legal tender." If the almighty dollar is our national religion, here’s your sermon.

2. "Before the Deluge" (from Late for the Sky, 1974)

On the surface, "Before the Deluge" is pretty clearly a Biblical analog: the denizens of the Earth simply going about their business prior to being wiped out in the Noachian Flood. Instead of making a tired point about warning or repentance, "Before the Deluge" is about the point in the human experience in which idealism gives over to realism: "In the end, they traded their tired wings," Browne sings, "for the resignation that living brings." Does "Before the Deluge" seem to express that protests and pickets will inevitably give themselves over to life’s mundane realities, or does it teach us to guard "the light that’s lost within us" with everything we’ve got? More than 40 years later, "Before the Deluge" still treads murky, open-ended philosophical waters; Browne never wrote with such mythical grandeur before or since.

1. "For a Dancer" (from Late for the Sky, 1974)

The Jackson Browne song that belongs in the time capsule has no satire, no political commentary and nothing to do with love. "For a Dancer" is gorgeous, wrenching meditation on what happens when we die. Browne wrote it about a late friend, a triple-threat ice skater, tailor and dancer who passed away in a house fire; it’s both an homage to his friend’s talent and an elegy to the series of dances we all perform in life. At the end of our various social, professional and romantic performances, Jackson seems to say, then there’s finally "one dance you do alone." It’s a song with real utility: if you feel caught in the situations described in "The Pretender" or "Fountain of Sorrow," this is your dose of perspective on how life's whole program plays out. And nobody could write it like Browne.

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