Bruce Springsteen held a casual yet informative conversation with Eddie Vedder and Dave Grohl on Apple Music as part of Letter to You Radio, a five-part series tying into his 20th studio album of (almost) the same name.
When looking back on his own career with the E Street Band, The Boss referred to them as a “one-shot out of Asbury Park.” He elaborated that the group “didn’t come out of a scene with a lot of peers.”
It’s an accurate summation of not only Springsteen’s beginnings, but his entire career. His meteoric rise never came from chasing trends, but drawing from influences that were true to himself, then creating something new.
Yes, we had already seen the Dylan-esque poetry and wordplay bleeding out of his debut album, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. But we had never seen it combined with the jazz-rock of Van Morrison, then amplified with the bar-band muscle of E Street.
Even Springsteen’s maligned ’90s albums, Human Touch and Lucky Town, weren’t exactly in line with the rock fashions of the era. He’s never been “cool,” at least not in real time. And I mean that as the highest compliment.
So, in honor of Letter to You, we take a deep dive into a discography unlike any other — a body of work that, through the simple act of authenticity, has proven to be timeless, even if The Boss was never all that concerned with being timely.
20. We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (2006)
Brilliant Disguise (Album Art): The album cover for We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions was photographed by Danny Clinch, who recently reunited with Springsteen when he photographed the cover of Letter to You.
Over the Rise (Best Deep Cut): “Jesse James (Just Ask)” gets points for pizazz on an album that’s otherwise slowly paced. While its style may not appeal to the typical Springsteen fan, the track plays a key role in breathing a sense of life into We Shall Overcome that it otherwise tends to lack.
I’m a Rocker (Best Live Song): The gossamer-like beauty of “Shenandoah” translates notably well live, and this is thanks to the lush harmonies of the background vocalists, smooth guitar strumming, and the slow ease of the string section making the nuances of the song feel incredibly tangible — almost like something that leaps off of the stage and can be held in the listener’s hands forever.
The Line (Essential Lyric): “Freedom’s name is mighty sweet/ And soon we’re going to meet/ Keep your eyes on the prize/ Hold on” — “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize”
All I’m Thinking About (Verdict): We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions isn’t devoid of merit entirely, of course. However, as indicated by the title, the album is not purely Springsteen’s own work but rather his interpretations of songs popularized by folk artist Pete Seeger. In this case, this means that the album is largely absent of the charm and heart that makes a Springsteen album, well, feel like Springsteen. Because of this (and its heavy dose of yee-haw energy), We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions was likely more difficult for listeners to welcome into his discography than his previous releases.
19. Human Touch (1992)
Runtime: 58:49, 14 tracks
Brilliant Disguise: First, a note for all you font heads out there: the font on Human Touch (and its co-release, Lucky Town) appears to be Copperplate Gothic Bold, a font originally released by the American Type Founders in 1901. Designed with late Victorian dignity in mind, the font is asked to be a little too dominant here; despite being a record ostensibly devoted to the search for love and connection, the only piece of a person we see here is Springsteen’s hand gripping a guitar like he’s trying to hide it from the principal. The Springsteen catalog is known for its surprisingly high share of clunker-grade album covers, and this is one of them.
Over the Rise: Speaking of the 1910s, if you’re searching for a bit of unheralded glory on Human Touch, you could do worse than closer “Pony Boy”. Written in 1909 (the same year it appeared in the musical Miss Innocence), the Western staple turns melancholy in Springsteen’s hands, gaining a sepia-toned nostalgia not found in the slightly meager source material. If you liked Billy Bragg and Wilco’s Mermaid Avenue collaborations, you’ll like this one, too.
I’m a Rocker: As you might guess from its position on this list, Human Touch didn’t really manage to produce a live show staple. The title track comes closest: it last appeared during select dates of Springsteen’s 2016 tour, where it benefitted from the increased oomph provided by the E Street Band.
The Line: “I’ve stumbled and I know I made my mistakes/ But tonight I’m gonna be playin’ for all of the stakes” — “Roll of the Dice”
All I’m Thinking About: Released the same day as Lucky Town in 1992, Bruce Springsteen’s first attempt at an album without the E Street Band was the product of a famously tortuous development cycle. After beginning work in 1989 (with replacement-level session musicians derisively referred to by fans as “The Other Band”), Springsteen eventually shelved the material before revisiting it for tweaks over the years. He never did quite get the formula right; when it was finally released, Human Touch arrived with a dire blend of soft-rock inessentials and dime-store Americana ready to answer unasked questions like “What would a rejected .38 Special song even sound like?” (“All or Nothin’ at All”), “What if Chris Isaak got really into gender roles?” (“Man’s Job”), or “What if ‘Money for Nothing’ by Dire Straits was actually bad?” (“57 Channels (And Nothing’s On)”).
18. High Hopes (2014)
Brilliant Disguise: The album cover for High Hopes marked another collaboration between Springsteen and Danny Clinch.
Over the Rise: The bluesy, energetic underbelly of “Harry’s Place” makes it one of the album’s most memorable tracks. Like a Tarantino film, it’s permeated with a subtle sense of danger that one cannot peel themselves away from. Particularly given that the remainder of High Hopes is filled with sleepier, Western- inspired tracks, “Harry’s Place” stands out as something of the cool older sibling of the album.
I’m a Rocker: Harkening back to The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, “High Hopes” acts as a tour de force showcase for the E Street Band. Explosive elements that stem from the brass section, layered drumming, and electric guitar work that firmly crosses the threshold of cool becomes magnified and all-consuming in a live setting, creating an avenue for each note, beat, and rhythm to find its way into the bones of the listener.
The Line: “I wake to find my city’s gone to black/They days just keep on falling/The voices just keep on calling/The voice just keeps on calling/I’m going to dig right here until I get you back”
All I’m Thinking About: High Hopes is another album that cements the Western pivot that Springsteen has taken in recent years. It serves him well in the sense that he has always been able to thrive in creating the type of understated, nuanced soundscapes that the genre lends itself to, but at the same time, it doesn’t quite hold a candle to the glory of his previous releases.
17. Working on a Dream (2009)
Runtime: 51:20, 13 tracks
Brilliant Disguise: A lot of people understandably hate the water-colored Boss that graces the cover of Working on a Dream. But in terms of capturing the music within, it’s kind of perfect. Working on a Dream is unabashedly romantic in its exploration of lush ’60s pop, and love it or hate it, the moon, stars, phthalo blue sky, and, of course, Springsteen’s wry smile, perfectly nail the aesthetic. Also, am I crazy in thinking it kind of looks like Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book?
Over the Rise: Springsteen had already covered the more orchestral era of Tom Waits with his rendition of “Jersey Girl” on Live/1975–85. And while “Good Eye” isn’t a proper cover, its ominous imagery and electronically mangled vocals make a case for it being a long lost B-Side of Waits macabre Bone Machine. It’s a fascinating curiosity on an album that otherwise has its head in the clouds.
I’m a Rocker: This one’s tough. While Springsteen has never shied away from playing cuts off his newest albums, Working on a Dream has been strangely underrepresented since its release. Even on its own tour, only a handful of songs were played with any kind of regularity. Of those, the epic scope of “Outlaw Pete” was always pretty thrilling, even if Springsteen donning a cowboy hat at the song’s end while Nils Lofgren rushed to drop a pair of boots next to the drum platform was a bit cheesy.
The Line: I’ve admittedly never cottoned to the maudlin string arrangement in “Kingdom of Days,” but I can also appreciate its meditation on aging: “We laughed beneath the covers and count the wrinkles and the grays” feels emblematic of latter-day Springsteen, as it finds him accepting the inevitable forces of time.
All I’m Thinking About: There’s no denying that Working on a Dream accomplishes its mission: it’s light, it’s romantic, it’s sappy. Which is exactly why so many Springsteen fans hate it. But if you can meet the album on its own terms and get past the gooeyness, there are some fascinating gems here, including “Good Eye” and “The Last Carnival”, a lovely ode to E Street organist/accordionist/glockenspieler/lifer Danny Federici, who died the year before Working on a Dream was released. So, one’s opinion of the record comes down to how much sentimentality they can take. Does a wall-of-sound track about The Boss’ heaven-pleading love for a supermarket cashier sound interesting? Then boy, do I have an album for you…
16. Lucky Town (1992)
Runtime: 39:38, 10 tracks
Brilliant Disguise: Produced in complimentary style with co-release Human Touch, the cover of Lucky Town is equally dominated by the red Copperplate Gothic Bold lettering; in this case, the stretched-out album credits surround The Boss like the bars of a nervous jail. Untucked and clad in sunglasses, hands jammed firmly into pockets, Springsteen seems more focused on hiding in plain sight than he does on plotting any kind of escape.
Over the Rise: Arriving just after Springsteen’s divorce from Julianne Phillips and marriage to longtime E Street Band member Patti Scialfa, Lucky Town takes the time to consider the inherent fraughtness that comes with loving other people. That’s what makes the tender “Book of Dreams” so sweet. Commemorating his second marriage, the song finds Springsteen confronting the difficulties of interpersonal relationships with openness and gratitude for even getting the chance to do the work. Like the equally lovely “If I Should Fall Behind”, it’s among the better love songs in the Springsteen catalog.
I’m a Rocker: Much like Human Touch, Lucky Town failed to muster a song with the kind of built-in longevity needed to elbow its way into Springsteen’s always-stacked setlists. The tender-hearted “If I Should Fall Behind” is probably the closest contender; the best of the record’s handful of love songs, the song discovers added depth in a live setting as a duet between Springsteen and Scialfa.
The Line: “These days I’m feeling all right/ ‘Cept I can’t tell my courage from my desperation” — “Local Hero”
All I’m Thinking About: If nothing else, Lucky Town is the best Bruce Springsteen record released on March 31, 1992. Shorter and less overworked than its co-release, Human Touch, Bruce Springsteen’s tenth studio album found the Boss searching for a middle-age reset in the sounds of stripped-down roots rock. Some of the record’s charms come down to the relative spontaneity of the recording process; instead of waffling over the merits of the material for years and years (as was the case with the songs on Human Touch), Springsteen recorded Lucky Town in a single burst of inspiration. The result is a surprisingly autobiographical collection where the hits (the hopeful “Better Days”, the post-divorce shake-off “Lucky Town”) outweigh the misses (the humblebraggy “Local Hero”, ham-handed “Ode to the Departed”). Sometimes, that’s all you can ask, even of The Boss.
15. The Rising (2002)
Runtime: 72:52, 15 tracks
Brilliant Disguise: Springsteen has plenty of mediocre cover photos in his later career, but we’ll also chalk up the traits of this one — blocky letters, over-reliance on shutter speed — to the overblown aesthetic of the early 2000s. Lots of album art looked like this around the time of The Rising.
Over the Rise: Is it fair to call “You’re Missing” a deep cut? Springsteen did play it solo on SNL as an era-defining eulogy for those who lost their lives on 9/11. But it’s also popped up only once in concert in the past 15 years. And I’d argue that it gets overshadowed by the more anthemic tracks from The Rising. Remember, “My City of Ruins” was the DNC theme song just two months ago. So, yes, given the cornier nature of so many of album’s true deep cuts (more on that in a bit), we’ll go with “You’re Missing”.
I’m a Rocker: So many of The Rising’s best hooks rely on Soozie Tyrell’s violin, and that’s truest of opener “Lonesome Day”. As soon as you hear that intro punctuated by a single snare hit from Max Weinberg, the song becomes damn-near irresistible, especially in concert.
The Line: I mean, you read what I said about the DNC, right? So sing it with me: “Come on, rise up! Come on, rise up!”
All I’m Thinking About: Alright, I recognize that cry of “This album’s too long!” has become a lazy talking point in the world of music criticism. But this album really is too long! And I love a long Springsteen album. The River absolutely needs to be as long as it is. Western Stars absolutely needs to be as long as it is. Hell, even Magic isn’t exactly short. But for as much as The Rising’s best songs really were a desperately needed balm in the wake of September 11th, there’s a lot of filler here that’s rife with generic sentimentality or, even worse, a generic malaise that was written about before the attacks. The Rising is at its best when it meets the political moment from which it was born. So, with that in mind, let’s scrap “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day”, “Nothing Man”, “Countin’ on a Miracle”, “Worlds Apart”, “Let’s Be Friends (Skin to Skin)”, “Further On (Up the Road)”, and “The Fuse”. Then you have a perfect album and one that’s still 39 and a half minutes long!
14. Wrecking Ball (2012)
Runtime: 51:40, 11 tracks
Brilliant Disguise: Bold, freehand-painted font lets you know exactly what you’re getting as Springsteen holds up his guitar. Given the lyrical content on this one, those letters might as well read “This Machine Kills Fascists.” This is the enraged resilience record written about the 2008 financial crisis, and Bruce is taking aim at the fat cats with his six-string.
Over the Rise: The only reason “Jack of All Trades” wasn’t a single is because Wrecking Ball was supposed to be an angry Boss experimenting with new textures and tools. This track is a piano ballad with a mournful Tom Morello guitar solo and an orchestral backing track. Though it doesn’t fit the album’s sonic themes, the lyrical ones are prominent here. Whereas the rest of the record addresses the financial before the turn of the decade with rage, “Jack of All Trades” settles in on the desperation of it all (“The banker man grows fat, the working man grows thin/ It’s all happened before and it’ll happen again”). But like all of Wrecking Ball, there’s always hope that “darling, we’ll be alright.”
I’m a Rocker: While there’s definitely something special about hearing the title track performed in New Jersey or New York venues, “Land of Hope and Dreams” was built to be a live standout. Literally — Springsteen wrote it for the E Street Band’s 1999 reunion tour, and for over a decade it only lived as a recorded track on 2001’s Live in New York City. All big rallying calls for American perseverance, there’s plenty of runway for the E Street members to go ripping off into the night, including one of Clarence “The Big Man” Clemons’ final sax solos. Now that it’s his nephew, Jake, blowing those massive notes, they hit even harder.
The Line: “We take care of our own/ Wherever this flag’s flown.” It seems so simply, sickly patriotic that it should actually be kind of awful. However, like so many of Springsteen’s lyrics, “We Take Care of Our Own” is a critique of false-flag patriotism, not a blind ra-ra celebration. It’s in fact a biting indictment, one that Barack Obama spun again by using it during his 2012 presidential campaign, a promise to actually take care of those who felt abandoned by their country. We’ll let you debate about promises fulfilled, but at least it was a better political use than continually misinterpreting “Born in the U.S.A.”
All I’m Thinking About: There’s a lot of playfully weird stuff going on in Wrecking Ball, from those whoops in “Easy Money” to the rap break in “Rocky Ground”. Not all of it really coalesced to make the effort one of Springsteen’s best, but as a complete artistic statement, it still holds as a success. It leans into Celtic and folk sounds to brighten truly bitter lyrics, often couching things that should be utterly demoralizing in arena-sized celebrations. That allows it all to elevate out of the fury at its core to a plane of hopefulness — even if that’s the hope that we can burn it all down and start anew.
13. The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995)
Runtime: 50:16, 12 tracks
Brilliant Disguise: If we had to issue a grade for the cover of The Ghost of Tom Joad, it would have to be the average of two scores: the Eric Dinyer artwork gets a 100% for effectively evoking the Dust Bowl tribulation of Steinbeck’s titular character while the font choice (House Industry’s instantly dated Crackhouse) gets a 0% for being better suited to an ICP demo tape than an album of dark, desperate folk songs. So. 50% it is, then.
Over the Rise: While The Ghost of Tom Joad spends its runtime stripping the cheap gold paint off of the NAFTA-flavored economic exceptionalism that marked the Clinton Administration, the record’s most effective deflation might also be its shortest. On closer “My Best Was Never Good Enough”, Springsteen addresses an unnamed woman (maybe the country herself), listing off the empty aphorisms that often power dreams of bootstrapping up to the American Dream, before reaching the only possibly conclusion: this is all a bunch of horseshit, isn’t it?
I’m a Rocker: Opening with a harmonica peal pulled, page and all, from the Dylan playbook, the haunted title track of The Ghost of Tom Joad lands like a whispered ghost story whose ending you probably don’t want to know. Springsteen’s own hushed takes on the song are obviously good, but Rage Against the Machine’s version (seen here a few years later at Woodstock ’99) lets the terror that Springsteen hinted at finally boil over.
The Line: “I got a cold mind to go tripping across that thin line/ I’m sick of doing straight time” — “Straight Time”
All I’m Thinking About: In his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction speech, Bruce Springsteen reflected on the twin failures of Human Touch and Lucky Town by admitting that cheeriness just doesn’t suit him. “I tried [writing happy songs] in the early ’90s,” he said, “and it didn’t work; the public didn’t like it.” That’s how we wound up with The Ghost of Tom Joad, Springsteen’s desolate 1995 folk album. In lesser hands, this spiritual sequel to Nebraska and its acoustic tales of Rust Belt entropy (“Youngstown”), the Vietnam War’s racist aftermath (“Galveston Bay”), and the doomed orbit of the Mexican border (“Sinaloa Cowboys”, “Across the Border”, “Balboa Park”, “The Line”) might feel like an overcorrection. With Springsteen at the helm, they turn into murky, despairing songs in the classical folk tradition, ones that manage humanity-filled sketches of the American fringes that mostly overcome the Boss’ sometimes heavy-handed delivery.
12. Letter to You (2020)
Runtime: 58:17, 12 tracks
Brilliant Disguise: For his 20th studio release, Bruce Springsteen offers up an album cover befitting the first music of his seventies and the late-in-life reconvening of the E Street Band that helped produce it. Bundled up for the snow that swirls around him, Springsteen wears a look of anticipation; he has a message to share, and it’s more personal and hard-earned than usual. It’s such a fitting image that we can almost overlook yet another dismal font choice; aside from Bruce’s signature, we’re left with pre-distressed text treatment that offers all the gravitas of a faux vintage t-shirt on your nearest Target clearance rack. Ah, well. Some things never change.
Over the Rise: Three of the songs on Letter to You qualify for deepest cut status. Springsteen rescued “If I Was the Priest”, “Janey Needs a Shooter”, and “Song for Orphans” from pre-debut recordings for reimagining here. Of the three, “If I Was the Priest” probably benefits the most from this unintentional aging process; now, the gonzo recasting of Wild West Catholicism comes along with the longing and weariness that hits harder at 71 than it ever would’ve at 23 or 24.
I’m a Rocker: Given the realities of COVID-19 and the challenges of staging live shows in a pandemic, it might be awhile before we find out which of the songs on Letter to You really rip on stage; current projections have the record’s postponed tour starting some time in 2022. Until then, let’s say this: your favorite track on the record? That’s gonna be the best live song, too.
The Line: “Ghosts runnin’ through the night/ Our spirits filled with light/ I need, need you by my side/ Your love and I’m alive” — “Ghosts”
All I’m Thinking About: When you give The Boss five days to record an album, he’ll probably only need four. That was the case with Letter to You, which found Springsteen and the rest of the E Street Band knocking out overdub-free live studio takes with the kind of effortless precision reserved for only the most disciplined veterans. The result? An open-hearted meditation on aging (“I’ll See You in My Dreams”), loss (“One Minute You’re Here”), legacy (“Last Man Standing”), and what it means to dedicate your life to music. Figures from Springsteen’s past haunt the record, with songs calling to mind everyone from ex-Castilles bandmate George Theiss (“Ghosts” and “Last Man Standing”) to Warren Zevon (who famously borrowed the title of “Janey Needs a Shooter” for his own 1980 composition). Far from falling under the weight of memory, Springsteen instead uses his time on the record to memorialize through forward motion, absorbing the powers of these fallen friends to add urgency to the message he still needs to send. We have no indication that this will be Springsteen’s final record, but if it were? Well, it’d make for a damned fine closing argument.
11. Western Stars (2019)
Runtime: 51:00, 13 tracks
Brilliant Disguise: Featuring an image of a horse, the album cover for Western Stars is one of the few throughout Springsteen’s career where he is not pictured on it.
Over the Rise: With its vivid descriptions of dandelions growing through cracks in concrete, a shallow swimming pool, a rusted fence, and a neglected beer, “Moonlight Motel” stands out for being the kind of song that the listener feels like they can step inside of. As the song progresses against a gentle acoustic riff, these descriptions allow the Moonlight Motel to spring to life in the listener’s imagination, just like those dandelions sprung through the cracks in the concrete. This makes the Moonlight Motel more than just a song title; it’s a place that Springsteen helps us build and explore.
I’m a Rocker: The album’s title track is far from its flashiest, yet is filled with little details that carry true gravity when heard live. Electric guitar notes ripple through the track’s acoustic foreground like a stone thrown in a still pond, and the string section colors the track with a morose, western tinge. Sonic subtleties like these build up “Western Stars” into what it is, and especially when performed live, they shine just as brightly as the stars Springsteen sings about.
The Line: “I’m hitch hikin’ all day long/ Got what I can carry and my song/ I’m a rolling stone just rolling on/ Catch me now, ‘cause tomorrow I’ll be gone” — “Hitch Hikin'”
All I’m Thinking About: While Western Stars has the potential to alienate listeners who don’t cast the same warm glow of nostalgia onto old world Americana that Springsteen does on each track, it nonetheless showcases what he does best: create raw and soulful songs that are filled to the brim with heart.
10. Tunnel of Love (1987)
Runtime: 46:25, 12 tracks
Brilliant Disguise: If it ain’t broke, why fix it? So, after making millions with Born in the U.S.A., it’s not surprising that Springsteen would call up photographer Annie Leibovitz again. She’s two for two with the Boss. Aesthetically, her work on Tunnel is both a brilliant match for the somber, lonely album and yet also the time period itself. This is 1987 we’re talking about, the sobering hours of the decadent ’80s, and you can almost hear Springsteen angling to drive away to another era.
Over the Rise: Compared to the MTV-ready anthems within Born in the U.S.A., Tunnel of Love is one big ol’ scrapbook of deep cuts. Closing strummer “Valentine’s Day” is a stealth MVP of the batch, an unorthodox, meandering meditation that grooves along like a greatest hits of memories — you know, the way our minds often do when our hearts are useless. Springsteen admittedly gets a little cute with some punny allusions to his career, but that bed of synths at the end wraps it all in shimmery, red cellophane.
I’m a Rocker: It’s gotta be “Brilliant Disguise”. The whole album has always felt designed around this song — a conceit that Springsteen would certainly emulate to mixed results for its followups (see: Lucky Town and Human Touch) — and you can see why whenever it’s played live. On stage, Springsteen traditionally strips down the track, allowing the lyrical anxieties within to wiggle around without its proverbial sports coat. Come to think of it, you could say the track loses its own disguise.
The Line: Springsteen offers his thesis for the album two tracks into Tunnel of Love with “Tougher Than the Rest”. Towards the end, he sings, “Well, there’s another dance/ All you gotta do is say yes…” It’s a notion all of us know is true, but one that rings so false when the only one who makes sense is gone, and, well, there’s nothing you can do.
All I’m Thinking About: Looking back, Tunnel of Love feels like the comedown after the chaos of Born in the U.S.A. It’s the too-quiet sobering session when you realize all of those seemingly inconsequential acts you indulged upon carry the kind of weight that can shatter your soul. For Springsteen, it remains one of his most intimate hours to date, finding the great bard wandering not the backstreets, but the neighborhoods, where everyone’s seemingly happy except him. Decades later, it’s become one his most influential works, at least production-wise, having set the tone for half a dozen rockers who realized synths and reverb are an easy way to romanticize the misery of heartbreak.
09. Devils & Dust (2005)
Runtime: 50:55, 12 tracks
Brilliant Disguise: The era of Springsteen’s nondescript album photos began with The Rising and continued with Devils & Dust. At least the sepia tone and weathered border capture the music’s introspection and weariness.
Over the Rise: Sure, Devils & Dust received some much-deserved fanfare upon its release — Gold certification, a VH1 Storytellers special — but outside of the Iraq-centric title track, every last one of these (mostly) acoustic story songs is somewhat of a deep cut in the Springsteen catalog. And there’s not a single dud in the bunch. But if we’re picking favorites, “Black Cowboys” feels especially true to 2020. Not only does it provide a history lesson about a little-known aspect of American Western and Black history, but its tale of an inner-city youth in search of a better future is both hopeful and heartbreaking. No spoilers here. Just give it a listen (and a read of the lyrics sheet).
I’m a Rocker: The quieter nature of Devils & Dust has understandably kept its songs from being regular live contenders at E Street shows. But “All the Way Home” holds its own against Springsteen’s other mid-level rockers, thanks to its accelerated tempo, distorted violin, and the fact that it was originally written for Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes.
The Line: “Maria’s Bed” is a bouncy ode to a criminal, and its opening line — “Been on a barbed-wire highway 40 days and nights” — captures the American West in a way that only Springsteen can.
All I’m Thinking About: Although they were released a full three years apart, Devils & Dust often gets eclipsed by The Rising. And that’s a shame, because as a collection of story songs, it’s absolutely flawless. Every yarn has a beginning, middle, and end, with Springsteen taking it a little bit easier on his characters than he did on Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad. The expanded aural textures — warped sitar, splashes of horns, violin — also infuse it with a welcome sense of hesitant optimism, in addition to redefining what The Boss could do with his acoustic singer-songwriter albums. He’d stretch out his boots even further 14 years later on Western Stars.
08. Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. (1973)
Runtime: 37:08, 9 tracks
Brilliant Disguise: This was the album that introduced the world to the working-class storyteller that is Bruce Springsteen, a Jersey boy through and through. Presenting Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. as a postcard pulled right from a boardwalk carousel display let you know exactly where he came from — and it’s a letter that could just as well be postmarked today.
Over the Rise: The disconnect between patriotism and our country’s treatment of veterans is a constant presence in Springsteen’s lyrics. It makes its first appearance on the devastating “Lost in the Flood”, which also serves as the earliest example of the Springsteen Emotional Political Epic style of songwriting. Even if it’s a bit well-known for a “deep cut,” the song is more of a forebear for future tracks of the same vein that hold higher regard. Before we got “Born in the U.S.A.”, “We Are Alive”, or even “Long Walk Home”, we got “Lost in the Flood”.
I’m a Rocker: Perhaps it’s something of a sore spot because Manfred Mann made his first single a bigger hit than he did himself, but Springsteen doesn’t include “Blinded by the Light” on setlists too often. You’re more likely to catch “Spirit in the Night”, but on the odd night that The Boss and the band call upon little Early-Pearly, Go-Cart Mozart, Young Scott, and the rest of the gang, you’re in for a hell of a treat. Plus, it’s always fun to spot the folks half-singing along as they try to approximate the tongue-twisting lyrics.
The Line: “Janey said it was time to go/ So we closed our eyes and said goodbye to Gypsy Angel Row, felt so right/ Together we moved like spirits in the night.” — “Spirit in the Night” Man, that’s so classic Bruce that you can feel the nostalgic chills crawling up your spine right now, can’t ya?
All I’m Thinking About: Everything that makes early Springsteen great is seeded in Asbury Park. This is an artist who has been inextricably connected to his hometown, whose Everyman storytelling is as potent as his political protest anthems. All of that is felt absolutely from his very first effort. If this album were the letter written by a 5th grade Springsteen to his older self, college graduate Springsteen would look at it with a slyly satisfied smile and say quietly, “Yeah, I did it.”
07. Magic (2007)
Runtime: 47:47, 11 tracks (and one hidden track)
Brilliant Disguise: Magic has the distinction of being the best Springsteen album of the 2000s. It also has the worst album art. It’s not so much that the photograph of The Boss is all that egregious—it’s greatest crime is being unremarkable—but that it so poorly matches the tone of the songs within. Yes, so many of the tracks are politically loaded with critiques of the Bush administration (most notably, the Iraq War), but sonically, they’re packed with a celebration and momentum that fails to be captured by a picture that screams little except “available at Wal-Mart.”
Over the Rise: Despite Clarence Clemons’ most memorable sax solo this side of The River, “Livin’ In the Future” rarely gets brought up in discussions around the strongest latter-day Springsteen cuts. Even the musicians themselves haven’t played it outside of the initial Magic Tour. But sleeping on it means ignoring the album’s defining moment of ebullience; the moment where the band sounds the most E Street. And that’s really saying something, considering the song is rife with paranoid lyrics about illegal wiretapping and interrogation. Maybe the darkly comic juxtaposition is a turnoff for some listeners.
I’m a Rocker: Take it from a guy whose first Springsteen live experience was the Magic Tour in 2007: nothing on the album beats the end of “Devil’s Arcade,” when everyone except Max Weinberg has stopped playing and he performs a beefed-up version of the song’s drum outro. The remembrance of a dead soldier hits that much harder when it can physically rattle around in your brain.
The Line: The chorus of “Radio Nowhere” has since become a rallying cry for all Springsteen concerts. “Is there anybody alive out there?” he’ll often ask as a check-in with the crowd.
All I’m Thinking About: Magic examines the political turmoil of the Bush years through a personal lens, whether it’s the father and son strolling past their town’s courthouse on “Long Walk Home” or the group of friends burying their fallen comrade on “Gypsy Biker”. But perhaps more importantly, the album is unapologetically fun — somehow a summer staple, even though it was released in the fall. When it came out, the E Street band hadn’t sounded that energized since Born in the U.S.A., reminding listeners that the greatest weapon during hard times is often a sense of joy.
06. The Wild, Innocent & the E Street Shuffle (1973)
Runtime: 46:47, 7 tracks
Brilliant Disguise: Always one to stay true to his roots, the back cover of The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle feature a photo of the E Street Band that was taken in Springsteen’s native New Jersey.
Over the Rise: There’s a completely effortless sense of cool that washes over the entirety of “Kitty’s Back”. In addition to Springsteen singing with an insatiable swagger, the track allows the strength of the E Street Band to take center stage. A concoction of wailing guitars, keyboard flourishes, and brassy bursts builds “Kitty’s Back” into a carnival for the ears, creating one of the album’s most grandeur musical moments in the process.
I’m a Rocker: “The E Street Shuffle” bubbles to life in a manner that no other track on the album quite does, and that’s a quality that translates successfully when performed live. Its natural infectiousness becomes palpable, allowing every note, rhythm, and melody to be soaked in to its fullest extent.
The Line: “It’s midnight in Manhattan, this is no time to get cute/ It’s a mad dog’s promenade/ So walk tall/ Or baby, don’t walk at all” — “New York City Serenade”
All I’m Thinking About: The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle is home to some of Springsteen’s liveliest tracks to date. In addition to allowing us to learn the stories of a colorful cast of characters, they present Springsteen and the E Street Band at their most musically audacious. This envelops the album in an infectious sense of fun, and in turn, makes it completely unforgettable.
05. The River (1980)
Runtime: 83:47, 20 tracks
Brilliant Disguise: The photo of Springsteen on the cover of The River was taken by Frank Stefanko, who had previously worked with him when he shot the cover of his preceding album, Darkness on the Edge of Town.
Over the Rise: “Fade Away” offers up a delicate cocktail spiked with a double shot of brutalism, and that makes it one of The River’s most gripping tracks. The beauty of the score acts as a Trojan horse that coats the raw sucker punch that the lyrics deliver as they chronicle the unwanted dissolving of an interpersonal relationship. Aching, gorgeous, and painfully human, “Fade Away” is a track that hits the heart hard.
I’m a Rocker: “I’m a Rocker” is a lightning bolt of a song, and its energy and brightness is only amplified live. With rhythms that run through the veins and an insatiably addictive chorus that begs to be sung along to by an audience, “I’m a Rocker” is proof positive that Springsteen was always just as good at making songs a hell of a lot of fun as he was at making them soulful and reflective.
The Line: “When I’m out in the street, girl/ Well, I never feel alone/ When I’m out in the street, girl/ In the crowd, I feel at home” — “Out in the Street”
All I’m Thinking About: An artist’s first few albums can often be critical — especially for those like Springsteen, whose work was met with acclaim so early on in his career. With The River being not only his fifth album, but his fifth celebrated album, it played a role in tipping the world off to the fact that he was someone whose work was set to stand the test of time. This is likely because The River acts as a point of convergence between the two versions of Springsteen that had captured ears in his previous albums: the one who knew how to tug at heartstrings and the one who knew how to have an absolute blast.
04. Born in the U.S.A. (1984)
Runtime: 46:57, 12 tracks
Brilliant Disguise: The Iconic Cover is rare, even for artists who deliver diamond albums all throughout their career. By the time Born in the U.S.A. hit stores in the summer of 1984, Springsteen had at least three under his belt: Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, and, hell, we’ll even toss in The River. Then came Annie Leibovitz’s stroke of genius: That ass, that hat, that stance all became iconized upon arrival. It set the tone for the album, it captured the zeitgeist of the era, and it spoke to the people that Springsteen was writing about. What makes the cover even better is that some people actually thought The Boss was pissing on the flag — one of the many ways this album has been hilariously misconstrued by Americans. What a surprise!
Over the Rise: This one’s difficult. Not only did Born in the U.S.A. birth seven popular singles, but most, if not all, of the tracks have become staples within the Springsteen lexicon. Let’s go with “Downbound Train”, one of the more explicitly bummer jams off the album and one that lyrically hearkens back to his salad days. There’s reason for this as the roots of the song go back to the Nebraska sessions — one of the few successful gems to survive the Electric Nebraska sessions. What really stands out here is the use of the synth and how it embellishes the melancholy moonlight that washes over this hardworking hymnal. Today, it hurts even more to hear, particularly given that we live in an era when most of these side jobs are non-existent. Yikes.
I’m a Rocker: No, it’s not “Dancing in the Dark”. Hot take, but this writer would argue the E Street Band have always struggled to capture the spirit of that song on stage. ::ducks from rotten fruit:: No, the one you want to hear live is “I’m Goin’ Down”, what with the honky-tonk verses and that all-too-sticky chorus that was literally designed for the rafters. It’s repetitive, sure, but that’s what you want when you’re surrounded by the most devoted Bruce fans. Of course, it helps that this one tends to come soaked in suds, arriving around the time when everyone’s just chummy enough to believe they’re around best friends.
The Line: Springsteen is at his best when he’s at his most vitriolic. Needless to say, he’s just spewing venom in the opening title track, especially when he screams: “I’m 10 years burning down the road/ Nowhere to run ain’t got nowhere to go.” It’s a truth the Reagan era desperately tried to couch, and one too many administrations have turned a blind eye on in the years since. To think, we’re still hearing this song on the campaign trail.
All I’m Thinking About: Born in the U.S.A. is a blockbuster album that arrived during a blockbuster era. It’s montage music for the making of a superstar, and you can hear Springsteen huff and puff his way through every one of the tracks. Receipts aside, Springsteen never sells out, despite so many purists claiming otherwise. That bar band you fell in love with back in Jersey? Still there. “Bobby Jean”, “Glory Days”, “Darlington County”, and even “Working on the Highway” make damn sure of that. The only difference is that Springsteen got bigger, better, and ballsier. He knew he had the band, he knew he had the chops, and he went for it. It’s like Jordan’s third season with the Bulls, when you finally saw how his talents would eclipse everyone in the league. Likewise, Springsteen became The Boss on Born in the U.S.A., and all the world could do was surrender.
03. Nebraska (1982)
Runtime: 40:50, 10 tracks
Brilliant Disguise: Don’t judge a book by its cover, sure, but David Michael Kennedy’s stark, black-and-white portraits truly capture the desolation and despair of Nebraska. So, if you’re feeling melancholy looking at the album’s artwork, odds are those emotions will only be heightened after stumbling upon tracks like “Mansion on the Hill”, “My Father’s House”, or “Used Cars”. The blood-red titling only accentuates the history of violence that haunts Springsteen’s 10 tracks, particularly the gloom and doom of “State Trooper”.
Over the Rise: By now, all 10 tracks off Nebraska have either made their way on stage with the E Street Band, or have been covered to death by indie artists similarly spending time in their bedrooms. One of the oft-forgotten gems, though, is “Used Cars”, which opens the second half of the album. This achingly nostalgic chapter finds the Boss revisiting a family trip to the used car lot, and each moment is painted with blue-collar strokes and cracked rose-tinted lenses. We see their struggles, their sacrifices, and their solemnity.
I’m a Rocker: Given that “Atlantic City” is one of two singles off Nebraska, it’s not surprising that the track has become a live staple of the E Street Band. Oddly enough, the live version actually slows things down. This gives Springsteen time to patrol around, adds some swagger to the verses, and injects a little soul into the choruses. Essentially, the somber strummer becomes a hopeful gospel anthem with the refrain often doubling the original runtime. For diehard fans, it’s a sinful teaser of the what-if Electric Nebraska.
The Line: Through 10 tracks and 10 stories, Nebraska concerns itself with the maligned and the ignored, the souls we despise and the faces we abhor, all while wrestling with how they get by day in and day out. Before the drive’s over and the book is closed, Springsteen finds closure as he sings, “At the end of every hard earned day/ People find some reason to believe.” Admittedly, that’s not exactly an answer, but it’ll do — and he’s not wrong.
All I’m Thinking About: On a long enough timeline, every songwriter has a Nebraska — that record where they escape, they meditate, and they come out either different or learned. For Springsteen, some fans contend this is the last time we saw the New Jersey songwriter, who would re-emerge two years later as an unstoppable political force. Yet, when you scrape away all of that context, what you’re left with is a collection of songs that capture the dark underbelly of American history and share a few coarse truths of life along the way — truths that are as timeless as they are tragic. That’s perhaps the best way to appreciate Nebraska, the most singular experience in Springsteen’s catalog and quite possibly his most enduring.
02. Born to Run (1975)
Runtime: 39:23, 8 tracks
Brilliant Disguise: Born to Run’s album cover has become just as iconic as its songs. The image, which features Springsteen coolly leaning against saxophonist Clarence Clemons, has been replicated by the likes of Cheap Trick and, in a more surprising turn, characters from Sesame Street.
Over the Rise: Born to Run is responsible for catapulting some of Springsteen’s most recognizable tracks into the world. Yet, not to be overshadowed by the obvious heavy-hitters is “Meeting Across the River”, which stands out for presenting a bewitching urban tale about hope and misfortune against a glinting score of piano and saxophone. However, its minimalist nature does not equate to a lack of impact. “Meeting Across the River” allows the listener to revel in the particularly strong vocal performance Springsteen delivers and the aching narrative that lies within it. Together, these elements permeate the track with a quiet electricity that makes it worthy of the repeat button.
I’m a Rocker: There’s something unignorable about the kind of magic “Backstreets” drums up live. Every element, from the opening piano chords to the goosebumps-inducing crescendo that marks the transition from the verse to the chorus, feels even more vibrant and captivating than it does in the recorded version. Perhaps this is because “Backstreets” was always one of those rare songs that somehow felt greater than itself, so when a live performance allows hearing it to turn into a shared experience, it feels enchanting.
The Line: “‘Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run” — “Born to Run”
All I’m Thinking About: It’s of little wonder as to why Born to Run is an album that even those who aren’t very familiar with Springsteen’s work still know. Every single track, in its own way, contains a beguiling combination of heart and distinctive type of dreaminess that perhaps only Springsteen himself can conjure. The result, of course, is a body of work that has deservedly left the world spellbound since 1975.
01. Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978)
Runtime: 42:55, 10 tracks
Brilliant Disguise: Springsteen would go on to exude faux toughness in awkwardly posed portraits on future album covers, but Darkness on the Edge of Town finds him at his most authentic. “Frank stripped away all your celebrity and left you with your essence,” he’s said of renowned rock photographer Frank Stefanko. He’s right. The ratty undershirt, cheap blinds, and fading floral wallpaper of Stefanko’s Haddonfield, New Jersey, home (is Michael Myers lurking around the corner?) all work to paint a portrait of a young man who’s haunted, burned out, and running short on hope. It’s a long fall from the starry-eyed narrator of Born to Run. In other words — or Springsteen’s words — “the guy in the songs.”
Over the Rise: It’s hard to choose between “Something in the Night” and “Streets of Fire”, a diptych of songs that serve as the third track on each LP side and consist largely of improvised yowls. Who would have thought that Springsteen’s wordless bellowing could be just as impassioned as his actual lyrics? But “Something in the Night” has a slight edge, if only for one of Roy Bittan’s most iconic piano intros.
I’m a Rocker: On 1978’s Darkness Tour, the E Street Band bookended “Prove It All Night” — one of the more optimistic cuts on the album — with a moody intro and outro that wouldn’t be out of place in a night-walking scene from a Scorsese film. The extended buildup into something more joyful gives even more muscle to the catharsis.
The Line: It’s tempting to pick something from one of the record’s twin anthems, “Badlands” and “The Promised Land”, especially when lines like “It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive” and “Mister, I ain’t a boy/ No, I’m a man” have become anthems for so many of the Springsteen faithful. But when all’s said and done, Darkness on the Edge of Town is an album mostly about people whose dreams are out of reach or at least in question. So, it feels appropriate to pick something less life-affirming and more sobering from the blue-collar country downer “Factory”: “It’s the working, the working, just the working life” feels like an accurate summation of these peoples’ lifestyles — and the lives of so many other Springsteen characters to come.
All I’m Thinking About: Look, we could easily switch out Darkness with Born to Run as The Boss’ best album depending on the day of the week. Song for song, they’re both diamonds, and both albums find the first truly classic lineup of the E Street band coming into their own. So, it’s all a matter of mindset: are you a dreamer or a skeptic? Hopeful youth or disenchanted adult? Pessimist or an optimist? Me? I’m an optimist. But in 2020, I find myself gravitating toward the leaner, meaner album with sparser instrumentation and lyrics about real people finding themselves at a crossroads — people whose lives haven’t turned out quite as they planned. Next year, hopefully the romanticism of Born to Run will feel more relevant and not quite so far out of reach.