There is bands that you love and then there is Bruce Springsteen. The Boss has acquired a fanbase that see him as their friend, confidante and saviour. Springsteen inspires a loyalty that you just don’t get with any other artist.
Trying to rank such a rich body of work is a fool’s errand. Luckily, I am that fool. I have decided to slim this list down to just the top ten because, to be honest, nobody needs to be reading something I have written for longer than five minutes or so. Whether you’re a Wendy, a Mary or a Janie, strap your hands ‘cross my engines and let’s go downtown…
10. Magic (2007)
Key Track: Terry’s Song
What They Said: “At this point, I’m not competing with 50 Cent or trying to get on MTV. I’m playing for myself and my band and my audience” – Bruce Springsteen
Springsteen has released some astonishing work as a solo artist but he tends to save his best stuff for his albums with the E Street Band. Magic was the first full band album since the game changer that was The Rising. While it would never hold the same mystical appeal as the latter, Magic is still a successful album in it’s own right with ‘Radio Nowhere’ an insistent and catchy lead single and songs such as ‘Livin’ in the Future’ and ‘Girls in Their Summer Clothes’ recapturing some of that old E Street Band magic (excuse the pun).
It was also the last great Bruce Springsteen album to feature the legendary sax player Clarence Clemons. If nothing else, listen to ‘Terry’s Song’, a beautiful acoustic lament about Springsteen’s long time assistant Terry Magovern who had passed away shortly before the albums release.
9. Nebraska (1982)
Key Track: Atlantic City
What They Said: ‘Nebraska was one of the most challenging albums ever released by a major star on a major record label’ – Allmusic
Nebraska was recorded as a series of sparse demos by Springsteen with the intention of fleshing out the songs into full band music with the E Street Band later. However, The Boss decided that the demos were powerful enough by themselves and it’s difficult to argue with the results.
It is true that Nebraska demands numerous listens before it really starts to reveal itself and there is an argument that it isn’t worth the effort. Having said that ‘Atlantic City’ is one Springsteen’s most affecting songs and ‘State Trooper’ is as dark as it is memorable. Nebraska as an album isn’t quite essential but certain songs from it definitely are.
8. The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle (1973)
Key Track: Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)
What They Said: ‘This guy may not be God yet, but he has his sleeveless undershirt in the ring’ – Creem magazine
I have to confess this is the only Springsteen album that I think might just be overrated. Springsteen’s sophomore effort is critically lauded across the board but it lacks the raw energy of its predecessor Greetings from Asbury Park, and the sheer star power of the album that followed it; Born to Run.
In ‘Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)’ it boasts a song that is still a staple of Springsteen’s live set and there isn’t anything on this album that falls below the 7/10 mark. There just aren’t enough 10/10 tracks on there for me.
7. The River (1980)
Key Track: The River
What They Said: ‘Got a wife and kids in Baltimore Jack, I went out for a ride and I never went back’ – Opening lines from ‘Hungry Heart’
Ahh the double album. With a few notable exceptions there is a general rule that can apply to all of them. Namely, that if you trimmed some of the filler and made the double album into a single record, you would come up with a better overall product. While that is unfortunately true of The River, that doesn’t change the fact that Springsteen’s fifth album contains some of his very best songs. ‘Hungry Heart’ marks a musical evolution into pure, old fashioned pop music, ‘Independence Day’ is a stunning, maudlin ballad and the title track, ‘The River’, is quite simply one of the best songs ever written.
The River would work better as a single album but as a body of work it is still extraordinarily good.
6. The Rising (2002)
Key Track: Waitin’ on a Sunny Day
What They Said: ‘A brave and beautiful album of humanity, hurt and hope from the songwriter best qualified to speak to and for his country … A towering achievement’ – Uncut magazine
For an artist to release an album that so defines the time in which it is written is remarkable. For an artist to soothe the broken heart of a nation is exceptional. For an artist to do all of that on their 12th album at the age of 53 is unheard of.
When Bruce Springsteen recorded this group of songs as a response to the devastating terrorist attacks on 9/11, he surely didn’t realise that he would capture the zeitgeist so perfectly but songs such as ‘My City of Ruins’, ‘Lonesome Day’ and ‘The Rising’ allowed a nation to grieve whilst also daring to hope for the future. It helped that The Rising was Springsteen’s best collection of songs since Born in the U.S.A. almost 20 years earlier.
5. Live 1975-1985 (1986)
Key Track: The River
What They Said: ‘If nothing else, this set is an extraordinary demonstration of how Springsteen’s telepathic command of a concert audience has increased in direct proportion to the size of his stage.’ – Rolling Stone
I’ve always found live albums a little disappointing. Aside from masterpieces such as Thin Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous, they tend to be self indulgent, mediocre affairs. However, Springsteen’s live anthology Live 1975-1985 is the bottle of barrel-aged whiskey on a shelf full of Lambrini. A whopping 40 songs showcase the most productive stage of Springsteen’s career and finds the E Street Band in their pomp. Not only does the record serve up stunning versions of studio favourites, it also features a number of unreleased songs, as well as covers of songs as disparate as Edwin Starr’s ‘War’ and Tom Waits’ ‘Jersey Girl’.
The jewel in the crown is the 11 minute version of ‘The River’ which features an incredible spoken word intro from Springsteen about his experiences of being drafted for the Vietnam war. As good as live music gets.
4. Born in the U.S.A. (1984)
Key Track: I’m on Fire
What They Said: ‘I never felt like I ever played a note for the money. I think if I did, people would know, and they’d throw you out of the joint. And you’d deserve to go. But at the same time, it was a part of the dream.’ – Bruce Springsteen
Success is a curious thing. For many artists, the acquisition of success often involves losing the very thing that made you so successful in the first place. History is littered with bands who perhaps compromised their vision in exchange for fame. Green Day, Kings of Leon, U2, they all chased the dollar and they have all tarnished their legacy in one way or another. On Born in the U.S.A. Bruce Springsteen accomplished something very difficult. He made one of the most successful albums ever whilst still putting out a great rock record.
The title track we all know but it is songs such as ‘I’m on Fire’ and ‘My Hometown’ that have endured the most. This album probably works best if you didn’t live through it. I got to listen to it many years after the hype had dissipated and I loved it instantly.
3. Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978)
Key Track: Darkness on the Edge of Town
What They Said: ‘Darkness was my samurai record, all stripped down for fighting, my protagonists in these songs had to divest themselves of all that was unnecessary to survive’ – Bruce Springsteen
The first five Bruce Springsteen albums are arguably as good as every other recording album in the history of music. The 4th album of that quintet, Darkness on the Edge of Town, contains perhaps Springsteen’s finest ever song. The title track to this 1978 masterpiece is a songwriter not just hitting his stride but racing into glory.
Elsewhere, songs such as ‘Badlands’, ‘Adam Raised a Cain’ and ‘Prove It All Night’ have gone down in history as some of Springsteen’s finest moments. An album that drips with the streets of New Jersey.
2. Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. (1973)
Key Track: Growin’ Up
What They Said: ‘Some of [his words] can mean something socially or otherwise, but there’s plenty of ’em that don’t even pretend to, revelling in the joy of utter crass showoff talent run amuck and totally out of control’ – Lester Bangs
It is true that Asbury Park is the sound of an artist finding their feet. You can hear the Dylan and Van Morrison influences a mile off but it is also true that Bruce Springsteen was a live veteran by the release of his debut album and that as a collection of songs, Asbury Park is actually better than anything that Dylan or Van the Man put out in their own career.
Asbury Park is all killer no filler, from the jaunty opening notes of ‘Blinded by the Light’ through to the final chords of ‘It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City’. As debut album go, it is one of the best and it finds Springsteen eager to share his craftsmanship with the world. A stunning album.
1. Born to Run (1975)
Key Track: Thunder Road
What They Said: ‘The album where I left behind my adolescent definitions of love and freedom—it was the dividing line’ – Bruce Springsteen
Sometimes, the universe aligns in a way that produces art that will last forever. Born to Run finds one of the greatest recording artists of the 20th century broke, starving and desperate but with enough experience to know how to write great rock music. The result is an album that never strays far from perfection and often flirts outrageously with genius.
Every song here tells a story that other musicians fail to tell over the course of a career. The title track is the most well known moment but ‘Jungle Land’, ‘Backstreets’ and ‘Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out’ are just as iconic. The moment that the album truly shines however is ‘Thunder Road’. A song that is as timeless as it is touching, the opening track from ‘Born to Run’ is, quite simply, a masterpiece.
Artwork, track listing, attitude. Everything about Born to Run just fits. I don’t believe in fate and I don’t think I believe in God but for one album, Bruce Springsteen courted both.
And there we have it. Ten albums that have defined, not just my life, but a generation, rock ‘n’ roll music, and an entire country. Bruce Springsteen has produced a body of work that will last forever. Cherish it.