Ranking the Top 5 Jackson Browne Songs of the ’80s

It’s natural for fans to think of Jackson Browne as a ’70s artist. After all, that’s both when he first started releasing his own music and came to epitomize the singer/songwriter movement. Browne released less music in the ’80s (just four albums compared to five in the ’70s), and also made a move toward topical songwriting that deviated from the songs of love and loss that dominated his earlier output.

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Nonetheless, Browne still stepped to the fore with many classics throughout the ’80s. Here’s a look at his five best from a decade with a music scene that might not have been perfectly suited to him, but still benefited from his insight and talent.

5. “Somebody’s Baby,” Single (1982)

Browne felt ambivalent about releasing such a straightforward pop tune, so much so that he refused to include it on a studio album, a decision he later regretted. Waddy Wachtel wrote the music and thought of Browne as the ideal lyricist and performer. Maybe because he didn’t think much of “Somebody’s Baby,” he delivered one of his most relaxed and engaging vocals. The song captured the subtly romantic vibe lurking beneath the warts-and-all depiction of high school of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, the movie for which it was written.

4. “Boulevard,” from Hold Out (1980)

Browne’s 1980 album Hold Out didn’t quite match his ’70s landmark albums when it came to the graceful, longing ballads that first made his name. But he rocked as convincingly on that album as he ever had. The electric guitars on “Boulevard” have a grungy edge to them that you wouldn’t normally associate with his music. Lyrically, the song covers some of the ground as “Somebody’s Baby,” in that it’s about young folks heading out to the streets to get their kicks. But “Boulevard” looks at the scene with a more jaundiced view, seeing the danger of it all.

3. “Lives in the Balance,” from Lives in the Balance (1986)

Browne sensed a need to step away from his winning formula in the ’80s by switching to songs that were focused on issues of the day. And while he handled these songs admirably, it never felt like they were squarely in his wheelhouse. Nonetheless, “Lives in the Balance” gets it 100% right. Some of the specific issues that inspired the song might no longer be in evidence, but the general gist of it still holds true: There will always be people who pay for decisions made by others who face no consequences at all. The eloquence of his anger can’t be denied.

2. “In the Shape of a Heart,” from Lives in the Balance (1986)

This song returned Browne’s songwriting to matters of the heart, if only briefly, in a decade where he largely left them unaddressed. He certainly showed no rust with “In the Shape of a Heart.” Listen to how adroitly he shifts back and forth between the details and specifics of the narrator’s personal plight and general observations about how so many people in relationships are plagued by the same problems. As he did in the ’70s, Browne isn’t afraid of an elongated song length when singing of these matters, knowing he can keep the music dynamic enough to warrant the extra insight he delivers.

1. “Lawyers in Love,” from Lawyers in Love (1983)

Combining his focus on current events with some gallows humor and a thrilling musical construction, Browne delivered his ’80s masterpiece with this single. It wasn’t as big of a hit as it deserved to be, perhaps because it was just a little too heady for the MTV generation. The hapless narrator struggles to make sense of the trappings of modernity, as everything from the Cold War to TV sitcoms leaves him bewildered, making the impending alien invasion almost welcome to him. The degree of difficulty here is off the charts, and yet Browne makes it seem easy. Bonus points for one of the best modulations into a key change in music history.

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