Ranking the 5 Best Warren Zevon Songs from the ’80s

The 1980s weren’t always kind to Warren Zevon‘s music, as he struggled at times to reconcile the style of music he wanted to make with the au courant sounds of the day. But his songwriting never faltered, which meant you could expect a few gems from each record.

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With that in mind, we thought we’d take a trip back through that decade and find Zevon’s five best songs from that era. Here are the choices.

5. “Jeannie Needs a Shooter” from Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School (1980)

The story goes Zevon heard an unrecorded Bruce Springsteen track called “Janey Needs a Shooter” and loved the title. He changed the name and didn’t really keep anything else. And whereas Springsteen meant “shooter” in a more figurative sense as someone who would take a chance and stand up for the girl, Zevon liked the idea of taking it literally, turning the song into a kind of outlaw anthem. And it works, so much so that you could easily hear the song slotting onto one of his ’70s records alongside some of the outsized tales included there.

4. “Splendid Isolation” from Transverse City (1989)

A concept album from Warren Zevon sounds pretty cool in theory, but it didn’t work out so well in practice. Transverse City, released in 1989, gets a bit lost in search of the big picture. Luckily, “Splendid Isolation” works well because it seems far more personal. It can be removed from the album and perfectly understood on its own, and it also steers clear of some of the more hamhanded production techniques used elsewhere on the record. Zevon’s harmonica work accentuates his funny yet moving lyrics about getting away from it all and staying there.

3. “Never Too Late for Love” from The Envoy (1982)

Found as the closing track on The Envoy, this song finds Zevon, who often played the role of pessimist in his songs, trying to lift the spirits of someone feeling down. He helps her to understand she’s not alone by telling her everybody hurts, a phrase noted Zevon fans R.E.M. fans would remember and repurpose a few years down the line. Even though this sets up as a ballad, it builds up quite a ruckus in the instrumental break, featuring some standout guitar from Waddy Wachtel. But Zevon’s lovely melody and heartfelt singing are likely what you’ll remember from it.

2. “Even a Dog Can Shake Hands” from Sentimental Hygiene (1987)

Zevon wrote and recorded this song with three-quarters of R.E.M., but we have to believe that Mike Mills, Peter Buck, and Bill Berry were mostly responsible for the music, which sounds like a looser “I Fought the Law.” Because who else could write a couplet like this: All the worms and the gnomes are having lunch at Le Dome, they’re all living off the fat of the land / Everybody’s tryna be a friend of mine / Even a dog can shake hands. Zevon’s skewering of show business shenanigans still sounds strikingly accurate.

1. “Play It All Night Long” from Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School (1980)

Zevon’s portrait of the American South, found on his 1980 album Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School, can still sear your speakers with its uncompromising bleakness. You’ll have to decide whether it’s a parody or not. What can’t be denied is its music is as fierce as anything he ever recorded, with David Lindley’s gorgeous pedal-steel work managing to find some open spaces above the grinding rhythm. There is a lifetime worth of one-liners to be found in this single track, and it will have you heading for the dictionary to find out just what the heck Brucellosis is.

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