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Best Jackson Browne Songs: 10 Bar-Raising Singer-Songwriter Classics
ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo
In Depth

Best Jackson Browne Songs: 10 Bar-Raising Singer-Songwriter Classics

Relentlessly honest, the best Jackson Browne songs prove how their creator led the way for wider developments in music as the 70s ticked on.

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“The process of writing a song is self-examination and enquiry into what you really want, or really hope you’ll find,” Jackson Browne said in 2022, reflecting on nearly 55 years of unconventional songwriting. The best Jackson Browne songs are like that: their vulnerability comes from the process of discovery. You listen, and suddenly his questions are yours.

Browne came of age – literally – at a febrile time, artistically and politically. Emerging first in New York City, he played with Nico and Tim Buckley when still a teenager in the late 60s. These two giants of the avant-garde had a lasting impact on him; Browne’s music can be elusive. Though it doesn’t have the sonic excesses of some of Nico and Buckley’s work, he often incorporates a strange, sometimes uncanny atmosphere, or uses contradictions between lyrics and musical feel.

There is also a fervent activist voice is what he does. “Before I’d made any records I attended rallies, heard people speak and joined things for social change because of the beliefs I was brought up with,” he has said. “My belief was that it was the responsibility of a citizen to take part in that process.” Yet Browne’s protest music isn’t simplistic or even straightforwardly angry; it combines screeds against injustice with textured emotional insights.

The best Jackson Browne songs may never have made him one of the world’s most famous singer-songwriters, yet that suits him. In the end it’s the music and the words that linger. “I always had a deep distrust of fame,” Browne said in 2021. “I knew that it was a lot of horseshit. But it was the logical result of becoming recognised for what you do, if your music is loved. Finding my way musically has been an incredible gift.”

Listen to the best of Jackson Browne here, and check out our best Jackson Browne songs, below.

10: Fountain Of Sorrow (from ‘Late For The Sky’, 1974)

Allegedly about Joni Mitchell (with whom Browne had a brief relationship around the time of her For The Roses album), Fountain Of Sorrow is an epic unpicking of how affairs are retained and distorted by memory. “This talks about disappointment, but in a forgiving way,” Browne has said of this inclusion among the best Jackson Browne songs. “It acknowledges that people are always looking for something in each other that they may not find, and says that not only is that OK, but what’s more enduring is the goodwill and acceptance of each others’ right to be on this search and to make your own choices, and that one’s longing or sorrow is part of your own search – not a byproduct of somebody else’s.”

9: The Load-Out/Stay (Medley) (from ‘Running On Empty’, 1977)

Though technically two different songs, The Load-Out/Stay are most known in their conjoined form, as they appear on Browne’s 1977 live album, Running On Empty. The relationship between the two songs was so strong that, even when Stay was released as a standalone single, radio still preferred to play the longer medley version.

Beginning as a tribute to the roadies and backstage workers who are rarely ever seen, and as a mediation on the ebbs and flows of performance, the medley then blooms into a celebration of the connection between artists and fans with Stay. Stay is a reinterpretation of the 1953 doo-wop song by Maurice Williams and The Zodiacs, to which Browne adds new lyrics. Immediately received as one of the best Jackson Browne songs, it also features frequent Browne collaborator David Lindley, who contributes an astonishing flamboyant falsetto at the fade.

8: Colors Of The Sun (from ‘For Everyman’, 1973)

“I’m not very prolific,” Jackson Browne said in 1973, at the time of his second album, For Everyman. “The last year or two it’s been hard, as I don’t like being pressured. A second album is always a product of a short period of time.” Browne realised he found it difficult to create something to order, and had been much more comfortable with the much longer lead-in time for his debut album, 1972’s Jackson Browne.

However, Browne soon rose to the challenge, with help from his friends – the album contains contributions from Joni Mitchell, David Crosby, Bonnie Raitt, Glenn Frey, Elton John and Don Henley. Colors Of The Sun is one of For Everyman’s most elegiac pieces, a great example of how Browne injected complexity into the singer-songwriter genre, with Henley on harmony vocals, and a fantastic organ contribution from Spooner Oldham – who had performed on some of Aretha Franklin’s classic Atlantic Records recordings.

7: Late For The Sky (from ‘Late For The Sky’, 1974)

Jackson Browne’s music has been popular on film soundtracks, and Late For The Sky, the title track from his third album, was memorably used in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. It was a perfect fit. Scorsese and Robert De Niro created, through Travis Bickle, a cinematic depiction of violent isolation; using this song by Browne, a lyrical mediation on romantic loneliness, the inner world of Bickle was suddenly understood.

Two major circumstances affected Late For The Sky. The first is that Jackson Browne became a father (“He’s a real kick up the ass,” Browne said of his son Ethan, in 1974); and the second is that his record label halved the budget available to him compared to what they allowed for Browne’s previous album, For Everyman. The result of these factors is an immediacy, an intimate humanity and a close-quarters feel to the record – something particularly striking on this entry among the best Jackson Browne songs.

6: Running On Empty (from ‘Running On Empty’, 1977)

Running On Empty was a live album with a difference: none of its songs had appeared on previous studio albums. Rather, the tracks were recorded in an on-the-fly way that reflected their creation – not just onstage, but backstage, in various hotel rooms, even on a tour bus. Taken together, all the album’s songs have a theme of life on the road, creating a unique portrait of a musician’s itinerant ways.

The album’s title track, one of the most characteristic of the best Jackson Browne songs, began life as an observation on his car’s petrol tank while driving to the studio during sessions for his 1976 album, The Pretender. “I was always driving around with no gas in the car,” Browne said. “I just never bothered to fill up the tank.”

5: Shadow Dream Song (1967)

In 1966, Jackson Browne signed to Elektra Records. The following year, in order to drum up interest in Browne’s compositions, the label pressed a promo collection with 30 Jackson Browne songs and ten by fellow artist Steve Noonan. Known as the “Nina Demos”, this double album is impossibly rare, and personally disliked by Browne. “I sang them all in four hours and they were really bad,” he told Rolling Stone in 1974. “I just couldn’t sing. They’re still floating around somewhere. I personally have maimed 40 of them, but there were a hundred printed. They’re ugly.”

Fans respectfully beg to differ, drawn to the unvarnished quality of Browne’s voice and the overall raw charm of the songs, many of which – including Shadow Dream Song, which was released in versions by Tom Rush and Cher & Gregg Allman – do not otherwise exist as Browne studio recordings. They are the artist at his most vulnerable, and are testament to the huge variety of styles in the best Jackson Browne songs.

4: Lives In The Balance (from ‘Lives In The Balance’, 1986)

“I imply that the truth is kept from us on a regular basis,” Browne said at the time of this song’s release. “I flat out say the government lies.” Lives In The Balance is a searing protest song against the US’s foreign policy of the period, which Browne felt was manipulative, exploitative and purposefully hidden from public view.

Musically, it is one of Browne’s most unusual works. It features members of the Latin American folk group Sangre Machehual playing charango, tiple, zampoña and nylon string guitar. “The thing people are amazed by,” Browne said in 1990, “is this beautiful, melodic music coming out of these bamboo-like instruments. It’s an emotional thing. It’s hard to describe, but people react to it in a very emotional way. It’s a passionate sound, and when I heard it, I said, ‘That’s the sound for Lives In The Balance.’”

3: Somebody’s Baby (from ‘Fast Times At Ridgemont High’ soundtrack album, 1982)

Fast Times At Ridgemont High was one of the few 80s teen movies directed by a woman (Amy Heckerling, who would later direct Clueless), and she was very particular about the soundtrack, wanting to move towards contemporary artists such as Talking Heads, The Go-Go’s and Oingo Bongo alongside more established artists such as Jackson Browne. “I was one of those obnoxious teenagers that thought that the music I liked was great, and everything else sucked,” she said.

This classic track is a testament to how Browne was willing to develop his style as the 80s began. Danny Kortchmar, who co-wrote Somebody’s Baby with Browne, recalled how “he changed his general approach and came up with this fantastic song. It’s a brilliant lyric. I think it’s absolutely wonderful. But it’s atypical of him – he wasn’t sure what to make of it himself. He didn’t want to put it on his album that he was making because it was atypical of what he did, but it ended up being something that got requested a lot and he ended up playing it live, and taking it to his heart. And now he plays it all the time.”

2: Doctor, My Eyes (from ‘Jackson Browne’, 1972)

Browne’s first single, Doctor, My Eyes was a song he worked on over many months. It was inspired by actual events. “I did, in fact, have something happen to my eyes,” Browne has said. “They became red, I could barely see – I didn’t know what it was. They gave me some drops: ‘Keep your eyes shut for a few days.’ By the time I wrote this, I could see again. But it was a metaphor for having seen too much, a loss of innocence.”

Doctor, My Eyes is a masterclass in sonic contradiction: it has an upbeat feel that’s in tension with the cynical, world-weary lyrics. Browne has said he was inspired by a “Beatles beat”, particularly the “Woke up, got out of bed…” section in A Day In The Life. Doctor, My Eyes was covered by Jackson 5 in 1972, and the Motown icons created a bubblegum pop gem from it – proof of the incredible adaptability of the best Jackson Browne songs.

1: These Days (from ‘For Everyman’, 1973)

Written by Browne when he was just 16, These Days had several major outings before Browne recorded it himself. First recorded by Nico for her 1967 album, Chelsea Girl (with Browne playing guitar), it was also covered by Tom Rush, Jennifer Warnes and Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Jackson Browne has said that hearing others record his songs was a push for him to become a singer-songwriter. “I only wanted to sing [my songs] myself when I heard other people doing them, because I thought, I could do this the way I want to hear the songs,” he said. “I heard someone record a song of mine and thought, No, it doesn’t really go that way.”

By 1973, when Browne recorded it, These Days had evolved considerably, with different lyrics and a slower, less baroque arrangement. In its journey, the song has became more positive than Browne’s early demo had been. “Over the rest of my teenage years and into my 20s I developed a kind of optimism, a kind of resoluteness,” Browne said, “so I changed [the lyrics] to ‘I’ll keep on moving, keep improving’. That’s more to me what life is made of, the idea that I’ll get through this, I’ll continue looking.”

Topping this list of the best Jackson Browne songs, These Days had changed from a quintessential 60s psychedelic hangover into a Californian beacon of hope, Browne leading the wider developments in music as the 70s ticked on. Along with the rest of the For Everyman album, the song was key in the development of country-tinged, slow Southern rock, placing Browne alongside Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, The Allman Brothers Band and Neil Young as a giant of the genre.

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