Jackson Browne was the consummate '70s Los Angeles singer-songwriter, more than any of his peers, contemporaries, musical ancestors and followers. He was sensitive, boyish-looking and wrote incredibly melodic songs about the politics of the heart. Plus, he filled his records with L.A.'s greatest studio musicians.
As the '70s wound down and Browne started to explore issues outside of his own head and heart, his albums reflected this shift, as they became increasingly more political, and less melodic, throughout the '80s. The main subject of the Top 10 Jackson Browne Songs is Jackson Browne. Nobody knew him better.
"Before the Deluge"From 'Late for the Sky' (1974)
Much of Jackson Browne's songs on his terrific third album play like a deep, despairing farewell to an old love. This song -- one of the album's many centerpieces -- piles on the apocalyptic dread. It could be heralding the end of a relationship ... or maybe something much, much bigger. In a way, it foreshadows themes of growing up and out of youthful idealism found on The Pretender, and Running on Empty, but with more widespread and cataclysmic results.
"You Love the Thunder"From 'Running on Empty' (1977)
Running on Empty is one of the most revolutionary live albums ever made. Instead of going through their usual set of hits and favorites, Browne and his band recorded new songs onstage, backstage, in hotel rooms, on the bus, at soundchecks and wherever else inspiration might have hit them. Fittingly, most of the songs are about touring; the album doubles as a concept album about being on the road. This one, which was released as a single, sympathizes with the wives, girlfriends and groupies who are along for the ride.
"Here Come Those Tears Again"From 'The Pretender' (1976)
At times, Browne's fourth album plays like a eulogy for his wife, who killed herself in early 1976; at other times, it plays like a eulogy for his growing disillusionment with the leftover and broken promises from the idealistic '60s. This song -- one of the best Jackson Browne songs, a Top 25 single co-written by his late wife's mother -- falls into the former category, as Browne futilely tries to hide the scars of his broken heart. He's bitter, angry and not ready to forgive. But most of all he's at his most revealing here.
"Doctor My Eyes"From 'Jackson Browne' (1972)
Browne's first single, and one of only two Top 10 hits he's had, is one of the most musically upbeat songs he's recorded, despite the bummer subject material. It's basically a precursor to the searching, longing and disenchanted character who showed up in so many of Browne's songs in the '70s. It's a little heavy-handed, as far as the sentiment goes -- "Tell me what is wrong," he sings. "Was I unwise to leave them open for so long?" -- but it sets the template for almost every Top 10 Jackson Browne song.
"Late for the Sky"From 'Late for the Sky' (1974)
Browne's epic opener to his third album sets the tone for a record that plays like one long breakup montage. This is a key track in the story -- the moment where that tiny glimmer of hope is wiped out by cold, hard reality. The song also plays a pivotal part in the movie Taxi Driver, underscoring a scene in which Robert De Niro's brooding sociopath loses what's left of his loose grip on reality. Not sure if this is what Browne had in mind for the song, but it serves a similar purpose.
"These Days"From 'For Everyman' (1973)
One of the most enduring classics on this list of the Top 10 Jackson Browne Songs had a long history before it showed up on his second album. Velvet Underground playmate Nico first recorded it on her 1967 album Chelsea Girl; Gregg Allman released a version on his 1973 album Laid Back. But it's Browne's sad, plaintive take of the song -- which he wrote while still a teen growing up in the mid '60s -- that nails the melancholic tone of the lyrics.
"The Pretender"From 'The Pretender' (1976)
The closing track of Browne's fourth album is also a summation of sorts of the previous seven songs, a nearly six-minute breakdown of one man's occasionally harsh, and almost always dishonest, survival instincts. He lies, he cheats, he screws, and tomorrow he'll do the same damn thing, even if he knows there's something morally wrong at the core of it all. All that '60s idealism had finally given way to mid-'70s cynicism, worn down by war, Watergate and crushing dreams. It's Browne at his most misanthropic.
"Somebody's Baby"From 'Fast Times at Ridgemont High: Music from the Motion Picture' (1982)
Browne's biggest hit -- it reached No. 7 in 1982 -- is also one of his most unlikely songs, a sweet, and surprisingly despair-free, love song from a teen-targeted movie best known for breakout performances by Sean Penn and Phoebe Cates' boobs. There's nothing too complicated here -- just four minutes bursting with Browne's most likable composition and performance in years. It was a welcome, but short-lived, diversion after 1980's difficult Hold Out album. The next year he released the politically loaded Lawyers in Love and has stayed on that path, more or less, ever since.
"The Load-Out"/"Stay"From 'Running on Empty' (1977)
Running on Empty is a live concept album about being on the road (see No. 9 on our list of the Top 10 Jackson Browne Songs). What better way to end it than with this two-song medley that pays tribute to the roadies and fans? "The Load-Out" runs down the daily monotony of tour life ("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") before giving way to an exuberant cover of Maurice Williams & the Zodiacs' 1960 No. 1 doo-wop hit featuring vocals by members of Browne's band. Criminally, the songs were split when "Stay" was released as a single in 1978, with "The Load-Out" shoved to the flip side on later pressings.
"Running on Empty"From 'Running on Empty' (1977)
The opening cut, title track and first single from Browne's live concept album about being a touring musician is a perfect metaphor for both the LP and Browne's increasingly demanding schedule (the song was written while he was recording The Pretender). It's one of his most autobiographical songs -- check out the years and ages he runs through in the song -- and a sign of things to come. "I don't know where I'm running now, I'm just running on" turned out to hold some truth: After three classic albums in a row, Browne turned to mostly political subjects in the '80s with a string of mediocre records.