20 studio albums. Hundreds of songs. Bruce Springsteen’s body of work spans nearly 50 years and a wider variety of styles than you might remember. There are easier artists to rank – not only because they’re less prolific, but also because they’re less consistent. That’s the thing about Bruce Springsteen. Over many decades, he’s largely maintained a singular standard of excellence and kept finding new things to say; this Friday (November 11), he releases ‘Only the Strong Survive, his paean to ’60s soul and R&B. To celebrate, we’ve done our best to sort through his entire catalogue – in all its brilliance, variety and very occasional missteps.
On March 31, 1992, Bruce Springsteen released a pair of solo albums, announcing himself to the world sans E Street Band. ‘Human Touch’ is the lesser of the two (the other was ‘Lucky Town’). The whole thing just sounds oddly… laboured. For a writer as gifted as Bruce, ’57 Channels (And Nothin’ On)’ stands out as a particularly awkward stab at social criticism.
There are some great songs on ‘High Hopes’, but we didn’t need the album to know that. Amid a host of covers, Bruce gives us re-recordings of ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’ (featuring Tom Morello) and ‘American Skin (41 Shots)’. The officially released live versions of both tracks are better.
The ‘Lucky Town’ / ‘Human Touch’ dyad wasn’t Springsteen’s finest moment, but it’s easy to summarise why ‘Lucky Town’ is the better of the two. ‘If I Should Fall Behind’ is truly lovely, and it’s not hard to see why Bruce kept it in set lists even after the E Street Band got back together.
17‘Working On A Dream’
Parts of ‘Working On A Dream’ originated during the ‘Magic’ sessions, and you can tell. That’s fine – I’m a ‘Magic’ fan – but it’s also just that. Of later Springsteen, this is one of his less distinctive, less memorable offerings, even if his Super Bowl half-time show during release week kicked all kinds of ass.
‘Wrecking Ball’ is a mixed bag: a poignant (if somewhat maudlin) title track; a hard-driving opener fraught with political irony (‘We Take Care of Our Own’), and a genuinely surprising and refreshing foray into hip-hop (‘Rocky Ground’, featuring Michelle Moore). It also needlessly repurposes two older songs – ‘Land Of Hope and Dreams’ and ‘American Land’ – that were perfect as they were before.
15‘Devils & Dust’
A world-weary record of spare, direct folk rock, ‘Devils & Dust’ has the challenge of competing with the rest of Springsteen’s vast acoustic songbook. Most interesting, perhaps, is its relationship with its predecessor, ‘The Rising’. Both are responses to 9/11, but ‘Devils…’ is more downbeat, reflecting Springsteen’s frustration with the start of the Iraq War and the re-election of George W. Bush in the few short years between albums.
‘Magic’ is one of the most accessible albums of Bruce’s entire career, warm with fuzzy guitars, dripping with hooks and bursting with big choruses. Some listeners might call it vanilla, but I prefer to say that it simply delivers. ‘Radio Nowhere’, ‘I’ll Work for Your Love’, and ‘Girls in their Summer Clothes’ are the work of seasoned vets simply locked in – and sometimes, that’s all you need from rock’n’roll. For those in search of something deeper, ‘Long Walk Home’ is one of Bruce’s more touching reflections on America’s shortcomings and potential.
13‘Letter To You’
One of the most exciting things about The Boss’s most recent record is that it was all recorded live, with the E Street Band playing in unison. That energy and immediacy carries over to the listener, continuing to crackle even where some of the songs sputter. Try not to clap along to ‘Ghosts’, which is destined to become an anthem once Springsteen starts touring again.
12‘We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions’
There’s lots to love on a tribute album that sees Bruce let loose with a new team of incredible musicians. The musicianship on ‘Old Dan Tucker’ and ‘Jacob’s Ladder’, to name just two examples, sounds boisterously fresh no matter how old the songs really are, inviting the listener right into a project that could’ve been far more esoteric. By populating the album entirely with traditional folk songs, Bruce proves how relevant their themes remain, and how tightly their concerns are woven into the American fabric. But he also pulls off another nifty trick, establishing that his own originals belong in this same songbook and conversation.
11‘The Ghost Of Tom Joad’
Bruce followed two overwrought, underwhelming solo records with this quiet gem, a literary look at America’s workers and the exploitation they’ve faced. Songs such as ‘Youngstown’, about an Ohio town that’s seen better days, burnished Bruce’s credentials as a respected political commentator, while the title track inspired a raucous cover from Rage Against the Machine. Bruce has a way of appealing to just about everyone.
‘Western Stars’ is about as good as pastiche gets. Springsteen described the album as an homage to the old “Southern California pop music”, as he put it, of Burt Bacharach and Glen Campbell, and he puts their symphonic sensibilities to good use on songs such as ‘Tucson Train’ and ‘Stones’. Is it a little cliché by now to hear Bruce croon about hitch hikin’ with a “gearhead in a souped up ‘72”? It is. But it also sounds so damn beautiful – and that, more than anything, is the point of this sonically expansive solo record.
9‘Tunnel Of Love’
Most artists would kill to write two songs as great as ‘Brilliant Disguise’ and ‘Tougher Than the Rest’. That they both appear on this overproduced record more or less excuses the stuff that hasn’t aged as well – see: the cheesy guitar leads on the title track (it’s not your fault, Nils Lofgren; it was the late 80s.) The adoption of a newer, poppier style also mirrors the album’s subject matter, in some ways: as Bruce sang about turning a new leaf in his relationships (both in his marriage and his partnership with the E Street Band), he also made music that didn’t sound like much of his earlier work.
8‘Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.’
Part of what makes ‘Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.’ such a delight is how much it really feels like a debut album. There’s a youthful ebullience behind the rhymes stuffed into ‘Blinded by the Light’, the romance of ‘Growin’ Up’, the swagger of ‘Spirit In The Night’. Is this the best songwriting Bruce would ever do? Of course not. But it’s more than good enough to hear him saying, “Hi, my name is Bruce, I’m from New Jersey, and I’ve got game.”
After spending most of the 1990s experimenting as a solo act, Bruce reunited with the E Street Band to offer listeners his response to the events of September 11, 2001. ‘My City of Ruins’ and ‘The Rising’ are among the most poignant songs in his canon, with the latter guaranteed to raise the hair on your neck when played live. Released at an epochal moment in time and supported by a massive tour, ‘The Rising’ also confirmed that Bruce’s cultural influence wasn’t waning one bit. We’ll keep turning to him when we need direction, and we’ll keep filling stadiums for as long as he plays them.
6‘The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle’
Bruce is best known as a troubadour – a storyteller – and his sheer musicality is sometimes obscured by the forcefulness of his lyrics. Not here. ‘The Wild, the Innocent, & the E Street Shuffle’ is Springsteen’s grooviest record: a funky, jazzy party album that squeezes every last ounce of energy from the E Street Band. Check the horn section on the title track, the waltzing accordion of ‘4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)’, the extravagant piano showcase on ‘New York City Serenade’ – this record reminds you that Bruce is at his best with his lifelong bandmates by his side. Pro tip: you haven’t heard ‘Kitty’s Back’ until you’ve heard it on the live film Hammersmith Odeon, London ’75.
A double album spanning 20 tracks, ‘The River’ is not Bruce’s most consistent outing, and some songs get buried in the mix. Others, though, find Bruce at his most eloquent and soulful – take ‘Independence Day’, his searing farewell to his father; ‘Wreck On The Highway’, about a life-changing brush with death; and the title track, which encapsulates an entire lifetime’s worth of hope and pain. The thing that’s most impressive about ‘The River’, though, is its sheer mastery of so many different styles. There’s boardwalk romance (‘Sherry Darling’ and ‘Drive All Night’); arena pop (‘The Ties that Bind’); traditional folk songs (‘The River’); noir (‘Point Blank’) – and more. In other words, there are touches here of everything Bruce had already done, and hints of everything he’d yet to do.
4‘Born In The USA’
Bruce’s best-selling album, ‘Born in the USA’, is also his most misunderstood, and has remained a weapon in the culture wars since its release in 1984. It should be more than obvious by now – if you just listen to the lyrics, or one of Springsteen’s many public statements – that the title track is not a celebration, but a blistering indictment of a system that abuses soldiers and then neglects them as veterans. But fans would also find ways to misread ‘Dancing in the Dark’ and ‘Glory Days’, expressions of crushing anxiety carried by infectious, stadium choruses. Few albums have ever captured the price of superstardom so succinctly – the risk that what you say might not be what people hear.
One thing that’s inarguable is the greatness of the songs, and while the very ’80s production isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, it gives the record a sense of added historical value, placing it squarely within its politically fraught moment.
There are many ways to measure a songwriter’s greatness. Some excel in inventive chord progressions; others seem to pull melodies straight out of the wind. Very few write songs vivid enough to generate feature-length movies.
‘Nebraska’s ‘Highway Patrolman’, however, supplied the basis for The Indian Runner, Sean Penn’s 1991 drama, in fewer than six minutes. It’s only one of the songs here that, with nothing but acoustic guitar and human voice, achieves cinematic scope and pathos. Springsteen’s songs have always been distinguished by their eccentric and clearly drawn characters, and ‘Nebraska’ marks his finest work in that department. These monologues –from the gambler in ‘Atlantic City’ to the defendant in ‘Johnny 99’ and the fugitive in ‘State Trooper’ – throw us smack-banger in the middle of the speakers’ lives at their most desperate moments. ‘Nebraska’ finds Bruce Springsteen as director, doing with his pen what others can only do with a camera.
2‘Darkness On The Edge Of Town’
Following ‘Born To Run’, a record all about escaping while you still can, ‘Darkness…’ is more concerned with those who stay behind. Some tracks on this record are among Springsteen’s most anguished, trading in intergenerational trauma (‘Adam Raised A Cain’), the stultifying monotony of working life (‘Factory’) and isolation (‘Streets of Fire’). There are bright spots, however. In ‘The Promised Land’, Bruce may want to “take a knife and cut this pain from my heart”, but he also keeps a steely gaze on a future that might be better, embodying the resilience that has made The Boss a lifeline for so many. It’s a record for hard times, finding room for resolve amid the shadows.
That said, ‘Racing in the Street’ is the most compelling song on ‘Darkness…’; a portrait of idle men with idle dreams who pass their time racing cars on the strip. It’s unremittingly bleak, but it could be the best song Springsteen ever wrote.
1‘Born To Run’
Sorry-not-sorry if you wanted a more surprising pick to top this list. ‘Born to Run’ is, in this writer’s opinion, probably the single best rock album of the 1970s, and easily one of the finest ever recorded. This is the land of ‘Abbey Road’ and ‘Nevermind’, of ‘Songs in the Key of Life’ and ‘Tapestry’: albums that earn and demand every last note.
It seems almost absurd to pick a best song. ‘Born to’ Run is instead a record of moments that carry you along one single journey: the introduction of Clarence Clemons’s saxophone at the end of ‘Thunder Road’; the mournful fugue that vibrates through ‘Backstreets’; the drum roll that announces the title track; the operatic wails that bring the curtain down on ‘Jungleland’. The album becomes even better when you know how fully its making captured its themes. Coming off two debut flops, Columbia Records was ready to drop Springsteen if his third album didn’t do huge numbers. Let’s all be grateful that he, like the characters in these songs, made the most of his last chance.
– Originally published in 2020