Ranking the 5 Best Songs on ‘Running on Empty,’ Jackson Browne’s Masterpiece Album about Life on the Road

Perhaps as a way of combating his image as the king of the sensitive singer/songwriters, Jackson Browne changed things up with Running on Empty in 1977. He recorded the newly written songs for the record on the road, either backstage or on stage.

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And instead of focusing solely on matters of the heart, the album features songs about the glory, decadence, and melancholy of traveling. Here are our choices for the best five songs on Jackson Browne’s landmark album Running on Empty.

5. “The Load-Out/Stay”

We decided to combine these two songs as one on the list because it’s rare that you hear one separated from the other on classic rock radio. Browne used “The Load-Out,” with its somber piano chords, to try and convey just how much effort top artists put into delivering a standout show for the fans. And that’s not just the band, but all the roadies and crew as well, a group which Browne nobly shouts out during the song. After that, “Stay” allows him to break out of all the earnestness and send the crowd home dancing.

4. “The Road”

Danny O’Keefe is one of those underrated songwriters other artists know well, but not enough fans do. That’s why Browne did him a major solid by including this track on what would become a hot commodity of an album. But there was reciprocal benefit, because O’Keefe’s lyrics are so on point for the theme of what Browne is trying to get across on Running on Empty that you might swear that Jackson wrote them. There’s a nifty bit of sleight of hand in the recording, as it begins in a hotel room before opening up to the band playing it in front of a live audience.

3. “Rosie”

Browne gets the reputation as being a bit dour from time to time, but it’s really undeserved. If you flip through his catalog, you’ll find many examples of humor sneaking through his songs, even when he dresses it up in respectable musical clothing. For example, if you just kind of got swept away in the piano work and soulful harmonies and didn’t pay close attention to the lyrics of “Rosie,” you might think it’s an ode to a beloved female. But the lyrics reveal the girl in the song left this guy behind, and “Rosie” is instead a sly reference to his last resort on a lonely night.

2. “Love Needs a Heart”

Lowell George co-wrote this track with Browne and Valerie Carter. George received his most renown as a member of the boogeying rockers Little Feat. But he was also known for his ability to drop a tender, bereft ballad in amidst the partying numbers, both with that band and in his brief solo career. If you know songs like “20 Million Things” from George, you’ll hear a lot of those vibes in “Love Needs a Heart.” The lyrics personify the emotion and portray it as a somewhat vengeful mistress: Love won’t come near me / She don’t even hear me / She walks past my vacancy sign.

1. “Running on Empty”

The title track is one of those songs that has been played so often over the years that you can start to take it for granted. We’d advise you to listen once again and discover all over what Browne was able to accomplish. He’s not just writing about rock and rollers on the road, although you can certainly take it as that if you wish. Instead, he seems to be trying to capture the wanderlust of an entire generation, and empathizing with the fact they’re not so much running to some idyllic destination as they are running from the disappointments in their past.

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