Sunday, January 14, 2024

The 100 Best Songs From Bruce Springsteen’s Classic Years (1973-1985).

Like few others, Bruce Springsteen is a legend in his own time. In terms of a rich & meandering continuing catalog, only Bob Dylan & Neil Young can match him on depth, quality, & interest. & yet, when we think of Dylan, we think of pre-motorcycle crash Dylan, like when we think of Neil Young, we think of those 1970s pre-Zuma years Young. Springsteen has a classic period himself, from 1973 to 1985, where nearly everything he released was great, if not worth listening to.

His ten-year-or-so run is one of only several such great runs in rock--Elvis's pre-Army recordings, Chuck Berry's Chess recordings, The Beach Boys through "Good Vibrations," the Rolling Stones' work up through Exile On Main St., Led Zeppelin up through Physical Graffiti, plus a few perfect, shimmering catalogues like the output of The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, The Velvet Underground, Joy Division, The Smiths, & Nirvana. Oh, & the complete recordings of a few visionaries like Robert Johnson, Hank Williams, & Buddy Holly.

Springsteen is the latest of the great classic rock giants to fall in this category; like his contemporaries David Bowie & Billy Joel, he's a deceptively late bloomer with a performing career going back well into the 1960s. Here, I count down Springsteen's 100 greatest studio recordings from this magical classic period. Luckily for me, the perfectionist Bruce released less than 100 album tracks in this period--68 in total--plus 8 standalone B-sides not released on albums, bringing the total to 76. This left room for 24 of the songs--nearly a full quarter of the list--for tracks from this era that were outtakes or unreleased tracks. The latter proved the hardest part because there are so many great outtakes from this period, they could almost make their own list of 100.

I tried to rank each song based on its influence, popularity, musical excellence, & historical importance. Obviously 100 different Springsteen fans are going to make 100 different lists, so some subjective judgment must factor in the mix as well. All of which is to say that if there are some (many?) that you don't agree with, then that's idea. I'd love to see your list.

Of course Springsteen's been making amazing music since 1985--albums like Tunnel Of Love, The RisingMagic, & Wrecking Ball; songs like "Brilliant Disguise," "The Ghost Of Tom Joad," "Radio Nowhere," & "The Land Of Hope & Dreams"--but there's something magical & consistent about that first decade or so. It is the music on which Springsteen built his legend & this is the best of the best.

100. Mary Queen Of Arkansas [Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., 1973]

A big blotch on Springsteen’s debut—& the album’s longest song, to boot—the overwrought singing is second only to the ramshackle guitar that he seems to have lifted from Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’ folk album. The original demo he made for John Hammond looks like a masterpiece next to this flailing disaster.

99. New York City Serenade [The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, 1973]

The most overrated Bruce Springsteen song of them all. I know it’s got its passionate supporters—I’ve friends with some of them—but to me, it’s an overlong, shapeless, pretentious mess. It's just a terrible song.

98. Meeting Across The River [Born To Run, 1975]

The second most overrated Springsteen song of them all. If it didn’t happen to be the lead-in to the masterful finale of Springsteen’s masterpiece album, no one would even remember it. Springsteen always has had a touch of drama in his music, but going full Leonard Bernstein in this track is a bridge (across the river) too far.

97. Wild Billy’s Circus Story [The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, 1973]

The best thing about this song is its imaginative title & interesting use of tuba. The song, however, can’t live up to either—it simply doesn’t tell a story. It should be called “Wild Billy’s Circus Character Sketches.” It’s a sprawling, dusty road to nowhere. Actually, the road in the song goes to Nebraska, which, for a modern listener, sticks out at the tail end of the song like a prophecy of his 1982 album.

96. Crush On You [The River, 1980]

Even Springsteen says that this saccharine throwaway should have been left off in favor of “Be True.”

95. I’m A Rocker [The River, 1980]

Springsteen has spent a career pushing his own personal narrative to the edge of his songs. Here, he breaks down the fourth wall & comes out sounding like a song conceived to move along the plot lumbering musical in its second act.

94. Drive All Night [The River, 1980]

A favorite of many, I know, but to my ears, it’s overlong & underbaked. Does Bruce really need eight minutes to declare that he’ll drive all night to buy you [checks notes] shoes? Especially when he could have included “Meet Me In The Street” & “Where The Bands Are” or “I Wanna Be With You” and “Roulette”—or any pair of superior songs from these sessions.

93. The Big Payback [UK B-side, “Open All Night,” 1982]

A Nebraska throwaway, it’s interesting in the Springsteen canon for reversing the usual price to be paid (see: “Badlands,” “Darkness On The Edge Of Town,” “The Price You Pay,” among countless others), & singing about waiting for a payback. (Needless to say, it’s one of his more comic songs.) Other than that, the most interesting thing about it is the way Springsteen shades his voice in the last verse like he’s conjuring the ghost of Buddy Holly.

92. The Angel [Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., 1973]

Generally considered one of the worst Springsteen tracks ever, I have a place in my heart for “The Angel.” The song is an exercise in lyrical mysticism that’s saved by its brevity. It’s a loading ground for imagery, some of which works & some of which doesn’t, but I’ll always come back for the roadside attendant who nervously jokes & the woman who strokes the Angel’s polished chrome.

91. You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch) [The River, 1980]

One of Springsteen’s emptier “comedy” songs, if only because it’s a one-note joke that ceases to be clever before the song is over. Still fits in well with his lighthearted rockers from The River, though.

90. Johnny Bye-Bye [B-side, “I’m On Fire,” 1985]

From Elvis to Chuck (& then back to Elvis). This is a rewrite of Chuck Berry’s lesser-known sequel to “Johnny B. Goode” called “Bye Bye Johnny.” Springsteen takes enough of the song’s lyrics to give Berry a co-writing credit, as he turns Johnny B. Goode into Elvis’s corpse. As rock myth-making, it’s excellent, but as rock music to listen to, it’s surprisingly listless.

89. Darlington County [Born In The U.S.A., 1984]

A talltale-turned-singalong that suffers not from its own quality (it’s a perfectly good Springsteen song), but because the rest of the album that surrounds it is so much better. One can imagine “This Hard Land” or “My Love Will Not Let You Down” being a better replacement, but then we wouldn’t have the line “Our Pa’s each own one of the World Trade Centers.” Who could have foreseen that Springsteen would write an release an album enshrining these buildings less than two decades later?

88. Used Cars [Nebraska, 1982]

Even when Bruce strips away the instrumentation, his eye for detail remains. This song is chockful of such moments: The mother fingering her wedding ring, the salesman unable to look the father in the eye when failing to give them a deal, the dirty streets that the narrator is born, even the fact it takes place on Michigan Avenue in an echo of America’s great automotive empire. The way in which these details weave together to form a tactile portrait of shame that paints a gray America that often goes unnoticed, & willfully so.

87. Ramrod [The River, 1980]

One of the eight greatest songs of all-time…according to Stephen King. What does he hear in it? “It’s just straight-ahead rock & roll, I think it’s what Bruce Springsteen does best,” he once explained, “It’s just guitar-driven balls to the wall rock.” I’m putting that in to throw a bone for everyone who loves this song. I think it’s a fine rocker, but it feels like a filler track for an album that shouldn’t have needed any. “I Wanna Be With You” would’ve worked better, or perhaps “Loose Ends,” which was slated to be on the original one-disc lineup of The River. Instead, we have this pretty good car song. That the guy who wrote The Shawshank Redemption apparently loves. & since I love The Shawshank Redemption, I will give “Ramrod” a pass.

86. Working On The Highway [Born In The U.S.A., 1984]

Bruce chases the ghost of Eddie Cochran—a call-&-response rockabilly rave-up that sounds like it was recorded in an echo chamber. Cochran’s influence (at least to my ears) is what makes it sound like the child of “Summertime Blues,” which Cochran recorded by himself overdubbing the tracks. Here, Springsteen took a more sober song, “Child Bride,” & turned it into a slice-of-life parable sandwiched between the lead character going from a boring job on the highway to a mandatory sentence on one. Killer build on the bridge, too.

85. Something In The Night [Darkness On The Edge Of Town, 1978]

Darkness On The Edge Of Town showed off Springsteen’s expertise at creating tension & release, mastered in the title track, but preceded by this & “Streets Of Fire.” Both are fine songs, but this one is a tad more overwrought with the wordless yelling on top & the chiaroscuro of the open verses & dense refrains. Despite some stellar lyrics in the bridge—“Well, nothing is forgotten or forgiven”—the song is a bit of a slog.

84. Turn Out The Light [B-side, “Born In The U.S.A.,” 1984]

As a true-life narrative, “Turn Out The Light” is devastating. But as the B-side of “Born In The U.S.A.,” it’s perfect. If any doubts were left about the A-side’s supposed blind patriotism, this song gave away the game.

83. Streets Of Fire [Darkness On The Edge Of Town, 1978]

The sister track of “Something In The Night”—both brooding street epics with a quiet verse/loud refrain that would make the Pixies proud. Why is this one slightly ahead? Because I love the way he shouts “I HEAR SOMEBODY CALL MY NAME.” It’s a rare unguarded moment for the usually-refined Studio Bruce (as opposed to the wild & innocent Live Bruce).

82. Jackson Cage [The River, 1980]

What is a Jackson Cage? I always assumed it was a bar if not a metaphor for one of Bruce’s oldest themes—breaking out from the crummy small town in which you were born. It holds is place on the first side of The River, but remains a fairly generic rocker with a riddle of a refrain.

81. Fade Away [The River, 1980]

One of the strangest choices to follow a hit single in modern times. After “Hungry Heart” became Bruce’s first Top 10 (& Top 5) hit, propelling The River to become his first #1 album, the powers that be chose “Fade Away” as a follow-up single. The surprise isn’t so much the song itself, which is fine enough, but what it was picked over: the rocking “The Ties That Bind,” the rollicking “Sherry Darling,” the celebratory “Out In The Street,” & the masterful title track, to name a few. Instead, they apparently chose to showcase Bruce’s quieter side. While the track still made it to #20, perhaps the true proof that it was not a keeper is that its B-side, the stunning “Be True,” made the Top 50 as DJs started playing the flipside instead.

80. Stand On It [B-side, “Glory Days,” 1985]

Jerry Lee Lewis reborn as a southern Florida kid named Jimmy Lee & then as a girl named Mary Beth who likes to race in the streets. But best is the third verse that tells the story of Christopher Columbus—a very rare subject in rock & roll. (The only other song I can think of that addresses it is the Jimmy Jones oldie “Good Timin’.”)

79. Mansion On A Hill [Nebraska, 1982]

Lifting its title from a Hank Williams ballad, in which the Hank’s singer laments the loss of his girl to the rich man with the big house on the hill. For Springsteen, the song is entirely one-sided: The kids play in the shadow of the mansion on the hill, with no other connection to it except for the fact that they share the same town. In both cases though, the mansion is the star of the show, oblivious to the drama it inspires.

78. Cadillac Ranch [The River, 1980]

Inspired by a real-life sculpture in Amarillo, Texas, of ten Cadillacs buried nose-first halfway & inclined at the same angle as the pyramids of Giza, “Cadillac Ranch” is piece of art about art, a meta-criticism of pop music about pop art. But this being pop, don’t expect any big revelations on this throwaway singalong: “I’m gonna pack my pa & I’m gonna pack my aunt / I’m gonna take them down to the Cadillac Ranch.”

77. Held Up Without A Gun [B-side, “Hungry Heart,” 1980]

At around 81 seconds, this is the shortest song Springsteen released in this period, but what it lacks in length, it more than makes up for with punch. It borrows a key lyric from Woody Guthrie’s talking blues—“Some folks’ll rob you with a fountain pen”—& turns it into a fierce rave-up that wouldn’t feel out of place on a Clash album. Be sure not to miss an apparent dig at his first manager Mike Appel: “Man with a cigar says, ‘Sign here, son,’” followed by Springsteen’s warning to his younger self: “Watch out!”

76. Does This Bus Stop At 82nd Street? [Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., 1973]

Early Springsteen at his most arbitrarily word-packed. Some dismiss it as too slight, but to me, this plays like an early Springsteen sketchbook, overflowing with energy & ideas. It wasn’t until The Beastie Boys that things as separate as Joan Fontaine, the Panthers, VistaVision, & interstellar mongrel nymphs coexisted in a new musical world. In the words of Mary Lou: “Man, the dope’s that there’s still dope.”


75. Kitty’s Back [The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, 1973]

One of Bruce’s earliest (& jazziest!) epics. While not as smooth as others from this period, “Kitty’s Back” provides excellent tension & release when the horns & rhythm section when at the end of the first verse. It’s a deft balance between the nimble verses & the storming instrumental sessions, & the whole thing is not as tight as the band was even months later. Still, it’s hard to deny the impact of when Kitty struts back like the Prodigal Kitten.

74. Open All Night [Nebraska, 1982]

Proof that even when Springsteen was in full Woody Guthrie mode, Chuck Berry remained his second mind. The driving (literally) rhythm of the track is coupled with the lyrical twist & turns originated by Berry. & then of course, there are the direct illusions to Berry songs: “Wee Wee Hours” (“In the wee wee hours, your mind gets hazy”), “Too Much Monkey Business” (“wipe the windshield, check the gas”), & “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” (“them big brown eyes”). The proper names added to the narrative—the Route 60 Big Boy’s & the Texaco roadmap—only make the narrative feel more lived-in.

73. A Good Man Is Hard To Find (Pittsburgh) [Outtake, Born In The U.S.A., 1982]

A rare Springsteen song from this era with a female perspective, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find (Pittsburgh)” is one of his most quietly-affecting Vietnam songs. Unseen throughout the song is the little girl sleeping in her bedroom who will have to “learn about the meanness in this world,” lifting a lyric from Charlie Starkweather’s mouth in another song written around this time, “Nebraska.” But this song sees the meanness from the other side—& beautifully captures the results of the meanness, as opposed to witnessing the causes.

72. I Wanna Marry You [The River, 1980]

A lovely wistful ballad that finds Springsteen pushing unironic earnestness right up against overwrought romanticism. Keeping his focus on the vocals & the Phil Spector-like production values, he’s able to stay on course where others would fall into caricature or irony. The result is like a vintage girl group style song—sung from the other side of the wall.

71. Adam Raised A Cane [Darkness On The Edge Of Town, 1978]

Many heard the darkness & edginess of Darkness On The Edge Of Town as Springsteen’s rebuke to punk rock. While Springsteen was never a punk himself—while his alliance was with the garage rock bands that pioneered the punk sound, he was rocking enough for his biographer Dave Marsh to posit that Springsteen helped set the stage for punk. Although I’m highly skeptical of that claim, it’s an interesting framing device for this song: Springsteen as Cain, having to prove himself against his overpowering parent. Coupled with Springsteen’s fraught relationship with his own father, it’s no wonder that he screams like a man who’s face-to-face with his sins.

70. State Trooper [Nebraska, 1982]

For Springsteen, the open road is the most real symbol of freedom. But what happens when you drive on that open road with a state trooper on your tail? Sheer & utter paranoia that simmers with fear & loathing until it suddenly speeds away with a madman’s shrieking yelp.

69. Janey Don’t You Lose Heart [B-side, “I’m Going Down,” 1985]

Pitch-perfect pop with an opening couplet that maps right onto the opening lines of another pop masterpiece of the era, Modern English’s “I Melt With You.” But the hushed “nah-nah-nah-nah-nah” is what makes it, throwing it back into a Motown feel.

68. Cover Me [Born In The U.S.A., 1984]

Originally written for Donna Summer, “Cover Me” is generally considered not one of the better songs for most Springsteen fans. I don’t understand why not. It has the difficult task of following the title track on Born In The U.S.A. & does it with aplomb, plus it was the second single taken from the album—which is to say, before “Born In The U.S.A.” & “Glory Days”—& charted higher than both. His echoed, punchy delivery makes it, as though he’s leading an army march through the, well, rain & driving snow.

67. Night [Born To Run, 1975]

The forgotten song on the Born To Run masterpiece, which is to say a song that could have been the best song on many other artists’ normal albums. I always appreciated how much it packs into its brisk three minutes, including lovely urban imagery & a wailing saxophone solo. My only quibble is not so much a complaint as it is a years-long mishearing: I had always thought the song was a portrait of a woman leaving work, but closer studying has demonstrated that it’s just another guy on the album. Either way, for an album with songs that could have occurred across a single summer night (as Springsteen has suggested), “Night” is a great portrait of the downtown business world of the city.

66. Roulette [Outtake, The River, 1980]

What if Bruce Springsteen was born 10 years later & cut his teeth at CBGB's instead of the Seaside Bar? “Roulette” provides an answer--louder, faster, & sloppier than ever. With his sputtering vocals, Bruce nearly derails the song, leaving an unhinged version of a song that was far too rough to ever be included with one of his often all-too-meticulous album tracks. It's a pity though, this one rocks like few others.

65. My Love Will Not Let You Down [Outtake, Born In The U.S.A., 1982]

A promise to his fans that went unreleased for over a decade until it turned up on the Tracks compilation. That was enough of an impetus for Springsteen to hear it anew & include it in his life show, becoming more an anthem of most songs that were released on Born In The U.S.A. & its adjacent singles.

64. Candy’s Room [Darkness On The Edge Of Town, 1978]

One of Springsteen’s sexiest songs &, with its impressionist, hi-hat driving lead-in, one of his most sonically unique. Although Springsteen always denied it was about a prostitute, the song lends itself to this interpretation, with the protagonist being the one who wants to be Candy’s real love. Or is he mistaking her attention for something else? When she speaks in the song, she says, “Baby if you wanna be wild, you got a lot to learn.” The implications of these words are unclear, but it’s apparent that Candy is fine to teach everything the singer needs to learn.

63. My Hometown [Born In The U.S.A., 1984]

The closing track on Springsteen’s Born In The U.S.A. masterpiece, which pointed the way to some of his quieter, more introspective music to come. As a kid, I always found this song a boring dirge, but it was always considered one of the finer songs of the period, comfortably making the old (& controversial) Greatest Hits over “Cover” and “I’m On Fire.” Now as an adult, the song plays much better—a portrait in miniature of a thousand ’80s rustbelt towns, which could also double as an epitaph. The opening & closing boy on his father’s lap brings it all home in a way that feels sincere where others would have fallen back on cheap sentimentality.

62. Two Hearts [The River, 1980]

A tale of love that was evocative enough to land the title of Dave Marsh’s once-definitive biography of the Boss—until the Boss wrote his own version of the story.

61. Bobby Jean [Born In The U.S.A., 1984]

One of the minority of non-single tracks off of Born In The U.S.A., this is one of the tracks most revered by Springsteen fans today (probably because it’s one of the few that didn’t get overplayed). The main riff is kind of cloying, but the well-studied lyric of love & loss more than makes up for it.

60. She’s The One [Born To Run, 1975]

I always found this exercise in Bo Diddley-ism to be overrated until I finally realized that the whole song is an excuse just to get to the final minute or so when Springsteen shouts a triumphant “Hey!” over the cacophony of sound like Moses parting the Red Sea.

59. Factory [Darkness On The Edge Of Town, 1978]

One of Springsteen’s more underrated songs, a largely monotonous song to reflect the largely monotonous nature of its subject matter. Where other songs rock, this song just sort of trudges through its existence; you could see the underworld workers of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis fitting right in to its cadence.

58. For You [Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., 1973]

One of Springsteen’s most glorious early word-filled sagas, “For You” is supposedly about a girlfriend who’s suicidal, but even if so, that’s like saying Moby Dick is about a whale. The surreal imagery is among his early best—the singer hanging out of reach with salt on his tongue, the band playing the homecoming song, the girl stretched out on the floor. I bet even the carpetbaggers would want to stay on the singer’s back just to hear what was coming next.

57. The E Street Shuffle [The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, 1973]

The E Street Band 1.0: Jazzy, funky, unintimidated by the clavichord—& the fact that it’s all done over what’s essentially a 12-bar blues chord sequence tells you everything you need to know. That & one of Springsteen’s most irresistible images: Little Angel stepping a shuffle like she ain’t got no brains.

56. My Father’s House [Nebraska, 1982]

A haunting ballad made to sound like it was part of Springsteen’s legendary original Nebraska tape, but was an imposter. That said, it was a damn good imposter—like many of Springsteen’s best songs, he took turmoil from his own life & then spun a tale of characters who at once felt like archetypes as well as real-life people. It’s a story that’s been told a thousand times by a thousand different people, but Springsteen’s sparse harmonica & guitar (& tons of echo) makes it sound impossibly new.

55. From Small Things (Big Things Come) [Outtake, The River, 1979]

“Ah, 1-2-3-4—1, 2, 3, 4—” the Boss counts off twice only to do the entire first verse with just his voice & electric guitar. When The E Street Band tumbles in, the song restarts as a fantastic rockabilly low-brow comedy of manners, starring a girl who quits high school & the men who love(d) her. At the story’s climax, she shoots her second lover on the sunny Florida road because “she couldn’t stand the way he drove.” Not to get too Freudian here, but it seems to me that a songwriter who places so much value on the ability to drive is living out some deep-rooted castration fears here.

54. Loose Ends [Outtake, The River, 1979]

Once upon a time, The River was a single record called The Ties That Bind. It was a great record too, albeit missing some of the punch & gloss of the two-record album released in its place. Perhaps the greatest loss was the album’s finale, “Loose Ends,” which takes the image of the opening song—the ties that bind—& flips it on its head until the ties become a noose around the head of singer & his lover. Plus there’s some great power pop ringing guitar (think Tom Petty at his Byrds-iest) & a great sax solo by Clarence.

53. No Surrender [Born In The U.S.A., 1984]

Perhaps the best song off of Born In The U.S.A. that was never released as a single, “No Surrender” takes the imagery of the battlefield & rams it into the defiant strength of friendship. I chose the best line of the song for my high school yearbook statement as I’m sure thousands have before & since: “We learned more from a three-minute record, baby, than we ever learned in school.”

52. Santa Ana [Outtake, The Wild, The Innocent, & The E Street Shuffle, 1973]

Western legends as folk-resting easy. One of Springsteen’s finest early songs, he tells a tale about Sam Houston, the giants of science, & outer space aliens, all tied together by Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez’s restless drumming.

51. Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out [Born To Run, 1975]

The third in the trilogy of Born To Run songs everyone knows—after the title track & “Thunder Road”—“Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” may have only made a minor dent in the charts (#83 in Billboard with nothing even close to a bullet), it made up in volume for its E Street Band mythology. Essentially a story of Scooter/Springsteen meeting the Big Man/Clemmons somewhere uptown. Clearly, this is Clemmons’ show, but the whole thing works on account of the horn section, which reached for Stax & lived up to its ambition. Lucky for Springsteen, Little Stevie was in the studio, where he composed the horn part on the spot & taught it to the players by singing it to them.

50. Ain’t Good Enough For You [Outtake, Darkness On The Edge Of Town, 1978]

One of Springsteen’s finest pop songs. Probably a bit too light for the brooding Darkness On The Edge Of Town, but it sounds great everywhere else since. It contains a melodic hook that is at once accessible & memorable without being too cloying—it’s the engine that propels the song. It’s also one of Springsteen’s funniest songs, with clever rhymes showing how he can never win with this girl: “If we go out, you say I’m such a bore / If we stay in, say ‘What are we living for?’” At least the singer got a memorable song out of it.

49. Where The Bands Are [Outtake, The River, 1979]

Power pop that owes as much to Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers as it does to the swamps of Jersey. The premise is simple enough—the singer wants to hear the bands play—but the intensity of his request is thrilling: “I want to BREAK MY CHAINS, somebody BREAK MY HEART, somebody SHAKE MY BRAINS.” For everyone who’s ever gone out for the evening hoping to experience music that might just change your entire life, this one’s for you.

48. Point Blank [The River, 1980]

By the time Springsteen was writing songs for The River, he was an expert at looking under the façade of his characters, capturing the brooding tension broiling underneath. No song does this more successfully than “Point Black,” a Spanish-tinged song that starts the album’s second disc. For the first verse, he plays it straight, before half-speaking a tale of jaded hardships. By the final verse, the music & melody creep back in as the song build into its emotional climax, where the singer witnesses his lover dancing in the shadows, like another stranger. The result is more than a song, but a mood—& a deep one at that, which peels back its layers to reveal the implications of a love shot to the bone.

47. Meet Me In The City [Outtake, The River, 1979]

When Springsteen was gathering material for The Ties That Bind, his excellent set of outtakes from The River, “Meet Me In The City” was chosen as a lead single. With its cheesy keyboard riff, restless drive, & elusive lyrics, it at first sounds like Blondie, until the pre-chorus, when it becomes something wonderful: “If you’re sick, if you’re tired if you’re bored,” the singer shouts, “Then check the line, check the time, check the action, check the score.” Springsteen has long since stopped cramming his songs with lyrics, so hear this rush go by is exhilarating. It also conjures the sound of the city, the rapid-fire lyrics giving way to the open call of the refrain. For the singer of “Meet Me In The City,” he will do anything to get to the city to meet his lover, killing floors & keyboard hooks be damned.

46. Out In The Street [The River, 1980]

The title track of the Springsteen musical they will hopefully never make. But more than any other song, “Out In The Street” captures the sound of a crowd of people moving in synchronicity—in this case escaping the stress of work for relief of the street. 

45. Downbound Train [Born In The U.S.A., 1984]

One of Springsteen’s great hard-luck songs about a man who works in the carwash where all it ever does is rain. The ghostly synthesizers rise from the song’s rainy mist, while Max Weinberg’s drums really sock it home, especially once he comes in after the extended, impressionist bridge. The result is the second song on Born In The U.S.A. to end on a railroad gang—here’s looking at you, “Workin’ On The Highway”—only this one ends with pathos, not comedy.

44. The Ties That Bind [The River, 1980]

The opening song to The River & the title track to the original 1-disc version of that album. Luckily, he redid the vocal as he revamped it for The River, making it sound more confident & less hesitant. The E Street Band are tighter than ever here & function like a natural extension of Springsteen himself, an instrument that he plays. The idea of ties binding us together is a very Springsteen-ian ideal, especially when it’s captured here with fast guitar changes & one of Clemmons’ effortless solos. It’s just a shame he couldn’t make room for “Loose Ends,” the desperate end (& answer record) to the tale begun by “The Ties That Bind.”

43. I Wanna Be With You [Outtake, The River, 1979]

Perhaps the best rocker left off of The River, “I Wanna Be With You” seems simple enough—the singer wants to be with the girl—but the specifics jump out at you on repeated listens. He loses his job for dreaming about the girl. He gets kicked out of his house for wanting to be seen with the girl (note he doesn’t want to kiss her or even hang out with her, the biggest he can dream is being seen with her). & in the final verse, he claims to come when she calls, he pleads his case to her on the street. But at no point is there any sign of interaction between the singer & the girl. Does she even exist? Or is this a study in obsession? Surely it wasn’t intended this way, but it adds an extra punch to a song not that the girl’s love is reconciled—it’s that the girl may not exist in the first place.

42. Reason To Believe [Nebraska, 1982]

Two years before “Born In The U.S.A.,” this was the most misunderstood song in the Springsteen canon. Many saw it as a message of hope at the end of hopeless world of Nebraska, but Greil Marcus set them straight in his classic review of the album: The song begins with a man on the side of the road poking a dead dog with a stick. The song is an exercise in irony, not redemption.

41. Lost In The Flood [Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., 1973]

A solid-enough piano ballad that comes close to overreaching without quite getting there, until the entire band crashes in at the exact two-minute mark & it becomes something else entirely—a street epic with cops & guns & kids & blood that feels like an early draft for “Jungleland.” Plus, there’s a moment towards the end when Springsteen barks in a rasp that sounds uncannily like Delta Blues founder Charley Patton.

40. I’m On Fire [Born In The U.S.A., 1984]

The Boss at his sexiest, even without the music video playing (easily his best). He tried to write a song in the style of Johnny Cash, only to score a Top 10 hit & then have it reclaimed by folk & Americana singers 20 years later. They could hear the “boom-chicka-boom” sound that was only implied in Bruce’s brooding original.

39. Because The Night [Outtake, Darkness On The Edge Of Town, 1978]

An unfinished song that would have landed on just another scrapheap of Springsteen’s coulda-woulda-shouldas, engineer Jimmy Iovine brought the demo to Patti Smith, who finished the song, recorded it, & scored her biggest hit to date (#13). Smith’s will always be the definitive version, but as a song it’s hard to get wrong (just check out Natalie Merchant’s cover of it in the 10,000 Maniacs’ MTV Unplugged show). & as usual, in his version, Bruce can more than deliver the passion.

38. Independence Day [The River, 1980]

Independence Day, Part 2: Adulthood. As we have already seen, several key Springsteen songs draw on his rocky relationship with his father (“Adam Raised A Cane,” “My Father’s House”), but “Independence Day” is the best. It uses the biggest American holiday of them all as a framework to mirror the singer’s own need to go his own way. It serves as a reminder that even a harsh parent (like England) can still be a parent, & that the thrill of newfound independence can be undercut by the feeling of loss.

37. 4th Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy) [The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, 1973]

Independence Day, Part 1: Adolescence. A love letter to the Asbury Park beachfront fairground, filled with rich detail & all the long-lost nostalgia of Raymond Abrashkin’s 1953 film about Coney Island, Little Fugitive. From the fireworks to the pinball machines, the boardwalk, & the Tilt-a-Whirl, the song is a vivid snapshot of the scene, all focused on the singer turning to the title character to love him after he admits: “That waitress I’ve been seeing lost her desire for me.” The invocation of fate through the guise of Madam Marie’s fortune-telling stand. “The world has lost enough mystery as it is,” Springsteen said upon the real Madam Marie passed away in 2008 at the age of 93. “We need our fortunetellers.”

36. Highway Patrolman [Nebraska, 1982]

A parable about two brothers, & the blurred lines between right & wrong. It was adapted into a film in 1991, but that was superfluous—the song is the film.

35. So Young & In Love [Outtake, Born To Run, 1974]

Recorded the same day as “Born To Run,” “So Young & In Love” is perhaps the best encapsulation of the joy that Springsteen brought to rock & roll. The song had a buildup worthy of Gary “U.S.” Bonds, plus a saxophone leading the charge. & those lyrics are earnest enough to make Jonathan Richman blush; in fact, it provides a set piece with the Modern Lovers’ “Dignified & Old.” Unfinished lyrics & a key line given to another song (“Rat traps filled with soul crusaders”) are the only things preventing it from what could have been a killer B-side.

34. Spirit In The Night [Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., 1973]

Outside of Nebraska, Bruce Springsteen is a tough sell to the hipsters. He’s just too big, too popular, too much of a standard-barer to be loved, while his contemporary peers like David Bowie & Lou Reed are the exact opposite. I fell in love with Springsteen’s words—there’s just so much going on in his early stuff that it threatens to topple over at any second. I had a good friend who never cared for Springsteen until I put “Spirit In The Night” on in her car & simply told her to just try & follow everything that was going on. By the time the singer & Crazy Jane were making love in the dirt, she was a convert for life.

33. Thundercrack [Outtake, The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, 1973]

Bruce Springsteen’s original epic closer, back when “Jungleland” was just a glimmer in his trademark wood-finished Fender Esquire’s tuning peg. On paper, it doesn’t sound like much—it begins as a sing-a-long round & two identical verses, with an extended instrumental section in between; oh, & it lasts eight & a half minutes. But such are the humble things from which legends are born. The entire thing focuses on a girl dancing to the music—she moves up, she moves back—like the soul sister of Angel stepping a shuffle in “The E Street Shuffle.” But the real focus is on the music she dances to—Springsteen plays some blistering lead guitar, perhaps the most extended & impressive up to this point in his career. His instrument wails, it collapses, it soars back up, it pitter-patters, it dives into silence, signaling Clarence Clemons to kick off the second verse (same as the first!). This is likely the fullest dynamic we get of Springsteen & early drummer Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez (who Springsteen called back into the studio in the ’90s to complete the track). Between Springsteen’s compass & Lopez’s motor, David Sancious’s piano, Danny Federici’s organ, & Gary Tallent’s wall-scaling bass runs fill in all the spaces in between & more. Springsteen had crafted it as a set closer that would throw everyone off, & he gets it. Now if someone could just explain to me how it was left off The Wild, The Innocent, & The E Street Shuffle while the complete mess of “New York City Serenade” was included.

32. I’m Goin’ Down [Born In The U.S.A., 1984]

Like “Pink Cadillac” & a few others, “I’m Goin’ Down” is the record of a sound—clustered like Phil Spector’s tidal wave mono but drenched Sam Phillips’ Sun Records reverb, for a song that is impossible not to sing along (& dance along) to. Released as the second-to-last single from Born In The U.S.A., it kept up the album’s Top 10 streak at #9, which is not bad for a little record that no one ever talks about (or dances to) any more.

31. Wreck On The Highway [The River, 1980]

With a title stolen from Roy Acuff’s 1943 country hit & a melody lifted from a thousand folk songs before & after, “Wreck On The Highway” is a reckoning of what happens when Springsteen’s ideal of freedom—the open highway—becomes the place that forces you to pay the ultimate price. In Acuff’s song, the singer’s worried about nobody praying, but Springsteen takes it on as a personal cross to bear. The song ends with him lying awake in bed thinking about the wreck, before the mood is extended by a mournful instrumental coda.

30. Stolen Car [The River, 1980]

I always loved the “Stolen Car” from the one-disc original album that became The River, before it was replaced by this more austere version. The outtake shows the song’s roots as a country ballad, before it took on its strained, spooky quality, in which the synthesizers threaten to deplete the song’s soul. It ends the album’s third side like a phantom, leading it into the silent darkness between the mournful “Fade Away” & the rocking “Ramrod,” which gets the album back on the road in a new (presumably unstolen) car.

29. The Price You Pay [The River, 1980]

Springsteen’s great lost anthem. This song should be up there with “Darkness On The Edge Of Town,” “The River,” & “Born In The U.S.A.” for its encapsulation of the post-Born To Run jadedness creeping into his songwriting. Many his songs mention having a price to pay, so it was only a matter of time before he wrote this song. Here he shows off his rare ability to stand strong & stately in sober verses, just to get to a singalong chorus everyone can understand. & if the refrain can’t quite redeem the verse, maybe that was the point all along.

28. Seaside Bar Song [Outtake, The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, 1973]

The greatest song ever written about a Bo Diddley concert comes down to one great leadup to an even greater exclamation: You lay back, cut loose your drive power, your girl leans over & says…


27. Sherry Darling [The River, 1980]

From The Premiers’ “Farmer John” to The Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann” & The Bar-Kays’ “Soul Finger,” I have always been a sucker for live-in-the-studio songs. “Sherry Darling” may be the best of them all, for the way the crowd rises & falls like the live audience of a well-written sitcom. This may be because, with the release of his first double album (& first album to have more than 10 songs), Springsteen seemed to feel more at ease to include light comedy into the mix. The result is an exhalating study of a man who has to fit his mother-in-law’s big feet in the back of his car on Monday mornings. The scene is worthy of a Normal Rockwell painting.

26. Nebraska [Nebraska, 1982]

Anyone who knew Springsteen from hungry, romantic rocking songs like “Born To Run,” “Prove It All Night,” & “Hungry Heart” were in for a shock when the needle first touched down on his 1982 release, Nebraska. Wasting no time, it starts with the title track, telling a version of Charlie Starkweather’s murder run from the 1950s, as based on Terrance Mallick’s weird & compelling fictionalized film of the events, Badlands (which predated Springsteen’s song of the same name by five years). He sings it first person, from Starkweather’s point of view, with evocative imagery (“Midnight in a prison storeroom with leather straps across my chest”), until he reaches a conclusion that has echoed through Springsteen’s work from then on: “Well sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.”

25. Jungleland [Born To Run, 1975]

Springsteen’s greatest epic. My only issue with it is this: If Born To Run is an album, as Bruce himself described, as the events over one long summer night, why is the city’s hokey team—the Rangers—having a homecoming in Harlem?

24. Darkness On The Edge Of Town [Darkness On The Edge Of Town, 1978]

A fitting dark closer to a dark album, this song uses harsh dynamics to link its brooding verses to its unleashed refrains. The latter is what allows Bruce to sound his most rocking (or out of control), which is at once exciting & also an interesting tip of the hat to punk rock. The song fixates on a broken community, where everyone has a secret they can’t face, until they cut it loose or let it destroy them. The song ends with him on a hill, standing on the line between dreams won & lost, ready to pay the cost. In other words, all ready to dive down into his next work, The River.

23. Pink Cadillac [B-Side, “Dancing In The Dark,” 1984]

I listened to this song my whole life, but never really heard it until I put on the 45 B-side of “Dancing In The Dark” after someone gave me the record. The fact I was listening to it on an orange-&-beige Fisher-Price record player that was at least as old as the record itself only made it better. It hit you in the face in a mad, echoed, half-garbled rockabilly rave-up, which was at once was driving, sexy, stupid, & liberating. I’ve heard the song remastered, but the fuzz of the original issue still trumps it all—even if I might’ve missed the line about how the singer knows that Adam was really tempted by Eve’s pink Cadillac.

22. Growin’ Up [Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., 1973]

A portrait of the artist as a young man. From New Jersey.

21. Prove It All Night [Darkness On The Edge Of Town, 1978]

One of the great mysteries of Springsteenism: How did “Prove It All Night,” the lead single from Darkness On The Edge Of Town, stall at #33 on the Billboard charts? Along with its other shoulda-been-a-hit “Badlands” (#42), this was a song that was finding Springsteen channeling his soon-to-be-classic sound with intelligent lyrics that resonated deeper than nearly everything else on the radio. & even though it’s a triumph from top to bottom, for me, it’s the offhanded, second “I kissed her” at the end of the first verse that makes the song.

20. Dancing In The Dark [Born In The U.S.A., 1984]

Springsteen’s only #1…on CashBox. & Record World. Just not Billboard. That’s where it was his biggest hit to date—at #2. (Fun fact: The Boss’s only Billboard #1 song is Manfred Mann’s Earth Band cloying cover of “Blinded By The Light.”) But in “Dancing In The Dark,” Springsteen is finally able to channel his restlessness into a net positive, the brooding verses breaking the tension at just the right spots to light the fire he sings about. & when you see him perform this live, you get to be the one dancing in the dark, & the song comes full-circle.

19. Johnny 99 [Nebraska, 1982]

A monster of a rockabilly song, jampacked with detail—just check out the killer bridge: The fistfight breaking out in the courtroom, Johnny’s girlfriend getting dragged away, Johnny’s mother begging the judge to not to take her son. & through it all, it is Johnny who turns from mad villain to ethical hero, asking to be put on the executioner’s line.

18. Glory Days [Born In The U.S.A., 1984]

At their heart, Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band were always like the best local bar band in the world. Here, in the wistful nostalgia of the song & the production values of the music video, they finally become it. Boring stories not included.

17. Be True [B-side, “Fade Away,” 1981]

I’ll just say it. The proof of “Fade Away” being a rotten choice for a single is that its B-side, “Be True,” jumped to #42 on the charts. (This means that “Be True” was as big of a Billboard hit as “Badlands.”) Not only was “Be True” the better song on the single, it was better than the vast majority of songs on The River; even Springsteen has been quoted that he regrets including “Crush On You” over “Be True.” The song is one of Springsteen’s finest power-pop moments, marking one of the most forgotten songs to employ the full “Born To Run” treatment of full E Street Band, plus glockenspiel. Lyrically, it uses the movie-as-romance metaphor to carry the song through the singer’s plea to a girl who gathers pictures of all her leading men. The singer, of course, is the one who will be true—which perhaps is another way of saying he has the faith to make it real.

16. Racing In The Street [Darkness On The Edge Of Town, 1978]

Springsteen turns an anti-racism anthem into a, well, pro-racing anthem. Martha & The Vandellas’ “Dancing In The Street” has been covered countless times by everyone from the Mamas & The Papas to Van Halen to David Bowie & Mick Jagger (all with versions that hit the Billboard Hot 75), but never before like this. Springsteen turns the ’60s siren of optimism & recasts it as a ’70s foghorn of dread until it becomes an inverted shell of itself. At its heart, it’s a classic Springsteen song—dudes racing cars & the getting the girl—only it stretches out the canvas to reveal the disappointing long-term effects of such a lifestyle. Mirroring the lyric, the song features a coda with Roy Bittan’s piano coming out once again as the MVP.

15. Blinded By The Light [Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., 1973]

Springsteen was handing in his first album when the record company said, to quote the great Tom Petty, “I don’t hear a single.” Luckily for Bruce, the future was wide open. He got a rhyming dictionary & spouted out the wordiest song with more internal rhymes than you can shake a “brimstone baritone anti-cyclone rolling stone” at. He just keeps going, piling the energy on with each word, each line, each verse, & just when you think it just has to end, you take a right at the light & go straight on through night—& then still have another verse ahead. In his Rolling Stone review of the album, Lester Bangs reckoned that this album had more words on it than any album that year—this song makes you wonder if the same holds true for every year.

14. Atlantic City [Nebraska, 1982]

With the most memorable opening lyric of the decade—“Well they, blew up the Chicken Man in Philly last night” (which actually happened with mobster Phil Testa was killed by a rival with a nail bomb)—Springsteen weaves the best & most popular song off of the stark Nebraska (& as some like to tell it, his finest music video). Featuring one of several reoccurring lines throughout the album (“debts that no honest man can play”), it’s a film noir study of people brought to extremes through bad luck & bad choices until only desperation remains.

13. Hungry Heart [The River, 1980]

Springsteen finds his pop voice—& scores his first Top 5 US hit. This is the full-band Springsteen classic sound shaped into pure pop/rock music, complex enough that everyone finds something to do without feeling superfluous, yet simple enough to have been originally written for The Ramones.

12. Backstreets [Born To Run, 1975]

A tale of friendship that feels like the prequel to “The Promise.” “Backstreets” contains some of Springsteen’s most impassioned singing (bringing himself to the edge of screaming), sounding like a wounded animal lit on fire. With its tight lyrics—“Catching rides to the outskirts, tying fait between our teeth/Sleeping in that old abandoned beach house, getting wasted in the heat”—& the way the music rises & falls make it as relentless as the song’s story. & with Roy Bittan’s phenomenal piano work, it further proves that that Born The Run isn’t a guitar album—it’s a piano album disguised as a guitar album.

11. Rosalita (Come Out Tonight) [The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, 1973]

Springsteen & The E Street Band’s first epic rocker. Springsteen takes the most cliché story in rock & roll music—I wanna date her but her folks say no—& stretch it out into the size of a novel with as many characters to match. We may not learn much about Sloppy Sue & Big Bones Billy, but they’re part of it, setting the scene like the characters in Bobby Darin’s “Splish Splash.” Meanwhile, the music careens from driving rock to light funk to even a childlike playground taunt & a football team huddle, all without ever taking its eye off the ball. The highlight is the bridge where Rosalita is locked in her room & the singer comes to save her like a superhero. While her parents have dismissed him as a loser, he declares: “WELL THE REDCORD COMPANY, ROSIE, JUST GAVE ME A BIG ADVANCE!” Ironically, it was the lackluster sales of this album that led Springsteen to nearly be dropped from his record company, until another epic song brought him roaring back. But that’s a whole other story.

10. The River [The River, 1980]

Springsteen’s finest ballad. It’s the tale of two young lovers forced to grow up fast in a harsh world. The river is the central image of the song—always changing, always staying the same—as it becomes the place where they first fall in love & then as the place they can go for rejuvenation. The details make the song—the union card, the wedding coat—& Springsteen leads the band confidently around the song’s twisting moods. The story itself is the story of Springsteen’s sister taken almost verbatim, shocking her & her husband when they heard it. But, after over a half-century, that couple remains together—perhaps in part because of the river. All that, plus it’s a pop song so good that Greil Marcus recalls Springsteen debuting it during the “No Nukes” concert & how the audience were able to sing along by the second chorus. If that’s not a sign of masterful pop songwriting, I’ll never know it.

9. This Hard Land [Outtake, Born In The U.S.A., 1982]

The great lost Springsteen classic. When making Born In The U.S.A., Springsteen found himself with an abundance of riches, leading him to poll his friends on which songs should be included. Across his various friends & bandmates, there were four songs that were unanimous: “Born In The U.S.A.,” “Glory Days,” “Downbound Train,” & “This Hard Land.” Somehow, someway, “This Hard Land” got lost along the way. This is too bad since it holds its own with “Born In The U.S.A.” & all of the other tracks on this album. In fact, it holds its own with Springsteen’s entire catalog. While some prefer the 1995 version released on the Greatest Hits CD, the original version from the Born In The U.S.A. sessions that was released on Tracks is far superior. In the former, Springsteen sounds a bit more jaded, going through the motions of a song that he was happy to revisit, but seemed somewhat arbitrary, a song he meant to put down somewhere, anywhere, & this was a chance. The original version is more organic, twisting the words & discovering what they mean as he sings them. & the band is right there with him, taking their enormous, rollicking sound with them.

8. The Promise [Outtake, Darkness On The Edge Of Town, 1978]

Springsteen’s greatest song not originally issued as an album track or B-side. “The Promise” is the missing link that ties together Springsteen’s early years & middle years. The song takes the secret broken promise at the heart of Darkness On The Edge Of Town to the point where Springsteen refused to finish it because he said he didn’t like to write songs about lawsuits. He was referring to his own elongated legal battle with his first manager, but “The Promise” steers clear of any direct accusations. Instead, it namechecks characters from his earlier songs—Johnny (from “Incident On 57th Street”), Terry (from “Backstreets”), Billy (from “Seaside Bar Song” or “Spirit In The Night”—take your pick), & holds them up against himself. Over the course of the song, the singer touches upon nearly all of the main themes of Springsteen’s music—he drives at night, he watches movies, he builds his own racecar, he follows a dream, he pays the cost, he carries the broken spirits of everyone else who couldn’t make it; he ventures back down Thunder Road, only this time, the mythical road of promise has become a spiritual dead-end. It’s as though the characters from “Backstreets” try their hand at “Racing In The Street,” have a falling out of sorts, & throw it all away. Meanwhile, the music is exquisite, finally capturing that great white whale of Phil Spector’s Wall Of Sound, but doing so in increments so that the song simply expands as you keep listening like an irreversible phantom, different instruments coming out of the fog at different times—a third guitar, a fourth guitar, a glockenspiel, some organ, a bunch of strings—in a way that feels organic & all-encompassing. But it’s the melody that makes it, sometimes unassuming, sometimes haunting, it has the simple grace of John Fogerty & the primal chord structure of Bob Dylan. Finally, with its innocence being cashed in for something more stoic, it points the way to songs like “The River,” “The Price You Pay,” & “Wreck On The Highway”—not to mention the entire Nebraska album that lay further down the (thunder) road.

7. Promised Land [Darkness On The Edge Of Town, 1978]

Springsteen’s coming-of-age song. Masked in a title taken from a Chuck Berry song, the singer turns the page from youth to manhood, anchored in a belief in his country. Appropriately, the song contains a central lyric that draws the line between youth & manhood: “I do my best to live the right way/I get up in the morning & go to work each day.” This is the standard against all protagonists are judged in Springsteen’s work, which is to say in the Promised Land. Like the best songs on the Darkness album, there’s happiness, determination, & even a bit of patriotism, but it’s obscured by the dark haze of a thousand dust storms. The music keeps things defiant even when the lyrics get bogged down with cynicism. The extended music break of Springsteen’s guitar solo making way for Clemmons’ saxophone solo, which itself makes way for Springsteen returning to the harmonica riff at the start of the song is an absolute triumph. It’s among the most powerful of Springsteen’s instrumental sections, which in turn leaves the singer, appropriately, driving headfirst into the dark cloud of a storm.

6. Incident On 57th Street [The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, 1973]

Springsteen’s greatest romantic epic, weaving the courtship of Spanish Johnny & Puerto Rican Jane. Despite its length & seeming complexity, most of the song is a single three-chord progression, although the window-dressing it receives from David Sancious’s piano brings it to the next level—it is easily his finest performance in a short stint in E Street Band that was filled with them (with a strong assist from Danny Federici on organ & second piano). The song’s streetwise, Bernstein-esque love story builds upon the themes of “Linda, Let Me Be The One” as well as sets the course for great (if overblown) “Jungleland,” which Springsteen saw as the continuation of “Incident On 57th Street.” The latter song works so much better because it is so focused, instead of trying to be everything all the time, it sticks to its own tempo & malt-shop chords & lets the music & the lyrics tell the story themselves. Thanks to the driving but impressionistic drumming of Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez, the breakdown verse sounds just as exciting as all of the other instruments even though Lopez sounds like he was playing a bunch of bottles on the side of the street. “Born To Run” might be better & “Jungleland” might be bigger, but “Incident On 57th Street” marks the arrival of Springsteen as a visionary of the rock & roll saga.

5. It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City [Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., 1973]

If “New York City Serenade” hinted at what New York City could mean, “It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City” was a portrait in miniature. The finest song off of Springsteen’s debut album, it has swagger & coolness, as rhythms of traffic jams make way for the heartbeat of the sidewalk. All of this is propelled by Springsteen’s restless strumming held in place by Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez’s restless drumwork, which allows for David Sancious’s perfect jazz piano the sounds of people running all around the streets, car horns honking, & the pitter-patter of the subway train. & so, the singer witnesses the pretty girls, the homeless beggars, the gritty guy talk; he sees the devil appear like Jesus through the steam on the street. The claustrophobic bridge of the song traps the singer in the circle level of Manhattan where the simple act of fighting your way to the door can feel like a complete exodus, in which the light back on the street like a new day dawning. If you still need proof of this song’s greatness, consider this: “It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City” is the first song Springsteen sang to Columbia A&R/producer/legend John Hammond, Sr. (among his discoveries were Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Bob Dylan, & Aretha Franklin), at his half-hour audition. Directly after the one song, Hammond signed him on the spot.

4. Born In The U.S.A. [Born In The U.S.A., 1984]

The greatest misunderstood anthem of American rock & roll. “Born In The U.S.A.” had its humble beginnings on the tape of demos that would become Nebraska, but was so unremarkable it was never even considered for release on that album. Guiding his band through essentially one take of it in the studio (he told drummer Max Weinberg to just keep it going at the end), the song snapped together as a fist-pumping rocker that obscured its origins as an anti-Vietnam ballad. Anyone listening to the words could catch it, but most were just waiting to rock out on the refrain. Hence, everyone from President Ronald Reagan on down hailed it as the second coming of “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” This infuriated Springsteen, but it’s been noted that, once you have a stadium of people flying flags & singing “I WAS BORN IN THE U.S.A.” with full heart, it simply becomes a patriotic song. This is a rare time in rock where a song transcends itself & becomes something different than had been previously intended, which puts it among the ranks of John Lennon’s “Imagine” & Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” No matter how you hear it, this is perhaps the most rocking song Springsteen had ever recorded up to this point & perhaps the best single track of the E Street Band in their perfect form—in one room, together, listening to each other as they chart their way through a song that they can only complete as a small but strong collective community.

3. Badlands [Darkness On The Edge Of Town, 1978]

The moment when Springsteen’s innocence fails him. Between the star-making Born To Run album of 1975 & its late-arrival follow-up Darkness On The Edge Of Town in 1978, Springsteen saw a promising breakthrough hit the skids when he got into a nasty extended lawsuit with his original manager. “Badlands” is the first song from the album that Springsteen made after emerging from his darkness. It begins with an almost stately, heralding riff, before he sings the opening words that will frame the whole album: “Light’s out tonight.” But for all the collisions & crossfires, Springsteen doesn’t see his American dream whither away exactly—it’s still there, just more complicated. “Talk about a dream, try to make it real” he sings over Max Weinberg’s pounding drums, “You wake up in the night with a fear so real.” While these lyrics are probably the most famous lines from the song (& literally becoming the title of a book of Springsteen interviews), the more telling lyric comes a few lines later in the refrain, when he announces that the broken hearts stand “as the price you’ve gotta pay.” Along with the album’s lead single, “Prove It All Night,” Springsteen started to sing of a world where nothing is given for free—you must pay the price for everything & proof is the closest thing you have to security. These themes would continue in later songs like “The Price You Pay” & “Living Proof,” among others, but here it speaks to a place where, even if you’re in the Badlands, you gotta live it everyday.

2. Thunder Road [Born To Run, 1975]

Alongside “I Saw Her Standing There,” “Like A Rolling Stone,” “Respect,” “Gimme Shelter,” & “What’s Going On,” “Thunder Road” is one of the great album kickoffs in history. Beginning with Springsteen’s harmonica over Roy Bittan’s ringing piano, it begins almost as a country tune, before morphing into a mid-tempo Roy Orbison-style rocker, then shifting again into rock music cruising down the highway, before ending with an orchestral bid for greatness that was beaten only by Derek & The Dominoes’ “Layla.” Springsteen often played the song as the harmonica-&-piano ballad that it begins as, which gives an interesting perspective to the song, but it is always best heard in the classic full band studio performance. Springsteen’s overlayed guitar playing sounds magnificent, new hire Max Weinberg’s drums fits right in with veteran Gary Tallent’s bass to provide a flawless rhythm section, with Bittan’s rolling piano & Danny Feredici’s keyboards & glockenspiel powering the song from without & within, with Clarence Clemons’ saxophone jumping in to help propel the final sendoff tag. Oh, & I forgot to mention that the song contains the greatest couplet in rock & roll: “There were ghosts in the eyes of all the boys you sent away/They haunt this dusty beach road in skeleton frames of burnt-out Chevrolets.” In other words, Bruce strikes his perfect balance between his early, wordier songs & his tighter anthems to come.

1. Born To Run [Born To Run, 1975]

When you’re making a list of the greatest Bruce Springsteen songs, there can only be one number one. “Born To Run” is not only one of the great rock songs of all-time, containing a rocking, Spector-influenced sound & lyrics about breaking free, but it marks a rare time that an icon’s own story is told through their greatest song. When Springsteen began making his third album in 1974, he had nothing to show for himself but two underperforming albums & a few spots around the country where he could draw a show for his epic concerts. At the threat of being dropped by his label, Springsteen knew it was do-or-die time. He buried himself in the studio for six months working on this song, allowing pianist David Sancious to go out on top & drummer Ernest Carter to play on the only studio song that would make it to a Springsteen album, crowning with a drum fill so complicated that his beloved replacement, Max Weinberg, stopped attempting to imitate it after years of trying. Danny Feredici is credited with playing the shimmering glockenspiel notes that soon became a hallmark of Springsteen’s enormous sound. & Gary Tallent continued his role as the E Street Band’s survivor & the most underrated bassist of his time. All of this was to power a song that was so impressive, when the studio powers-that-be heard it after six months of recording, gave their blessing for Springsteen to go back in the studio to keep working. In this way, “Born To Run” was Springsteen’s ticket of a town full of losers & into rock immortality.

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