Career Best: Bruce Springsteen’s Best Songs

Career Best is a feature in which I look back on the career of one of my favorite artists and walk through their best albums and songs. This week we’re taking a long look at the Boss.

25. “Dancing in the Dark”: I used to hate this song, and if I didn’t hate it, I at least thought it was among the Boss’s most overrated singles. But this perfect, synth-driven anthem to finding someone, anyone in between night shifts has grown on me. The incredible, ‘80s-defining video helps- a lot (in the link above).

24. “Blinded by the Light”: This song has found most of its popularity from the cover by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, which, incidentally, is also the version where it sounds like they say “revved up like a douche” instead of “revved up like a deuce”, so make of that what you will. The Springsteen version (which is the original, thank you very much) sounds about as different as you’d expect, more stripped down and rambling, which was typical of his early music. I still to this day have no earthly idea what the lyrics mean, but the chaos Springsteen weaves with his random words is somehow intoxicating.

23. “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town”: The most brilliant version of this song is the Jackson 5 cover, but there’s a special place in my three-sizes-too-small heart for Springsteen’s version. It’s got something to do with Springsteen being unable to contain his merriment at Clarence Clemons’s Santa laugh. The joy in this song is contagious, and it’s made all the more enjoyable when you realize it was recorded in 1975, early in Springsteen’s career, and the E Street Band sounds like they’re already in peak form.

22. “Glory Days”: It’s easy to look back at Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. days as the moment he left rock music behind and went all in on ‘80s overproduction and high hats and synths. And it’s not totally off, but there’s something glorious about Roy Bittan’s keyboard synths on “Glory Days”. The chords don’t come out perfect on every play, reminding you that there’s a human back there playing them, and setting a fitting backdrop for an ode to the washed up, middle-age people who are the backbone of our country.

21. “From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)”: If The River was meant to be a mix of solemn songs and songs that celebrate the joy of rock n’ roll, it’s a tragedy that “From Small Things” was left off. Few songs capture the joy in rock better than this one. The story is classic Springsteen, but maybe this would have been better off on Nebraska rather than The River, because the main character ends up being pretty twisted.

20. “Girls in Their Summer Clothes”: Hands down one of the most gorgeous songs Springsteen recorded. I suppose this could come off a bit creepy, but “Girls” instead sounds like a loving ode to the enjoyment of the female figure. I don’t think I made it sound any less creepy with that sentence, but give it a listen; Springsteen makes it far more about the passage of time than a man’s lust.

19. “I’m on Fire”: If you had to guess the most-covered Bruce Springsteen song, would “I’m on Fire” have even been in your top 5? It’s been redone at least 21 times, which is 12 more than the next tune. Artists from Tori Amos to Kenny Chesney to Chromatics have recorded this song, but the best version still belongs to the Boss.

18. “The Promised Land”: This was Springsteen at the peak of his powers, when even throwaway tracks could tear into your heart. It includes one of his favorite themes, the hope of the American dream clashing with American realities. It also includes one of the great Big Man solos, in the top five at least.

17. “Wrecking Ball”: “Wrecking Ball” is good enough to make me forget that it’s a song celebrating the stadium of the New York Giants. It (strangely effectively) doubles as a song about new beginnings. The defiance in “Wrecking Ball” has become a theme for Springsteen recently, as if Springsteen is warding off the haters who accuse him of phoniness.

16. “Stolen Car”: Springsteen does quietness better than any other rock star or group. For him, it’s not just about a different modulation; the quiet becomes him. On “Stolen Car”, his voice being barely above a whisper is a sign of his resignation that nothing about his life is going to change.

16. “Backstreets”: And we’ve finally reached our first Born to Run track! Who knows if Springsteen ever really knew what it was like to live his life hustling on the streets? Probably whoever wrote or has read his biography, but I haven’t, so I just have songs like this to utterly and completely convince me.

14. “The Rising”: “My City of Ruins” was the song that best encapsulated the post-9/11 mindset of New York, but “The Rising” was the nation’s. The imagery was powerful and intoxicating, this picture of pulling ourselves up out of the mire together. But it’s not just about the rising; Springsteen gave us a picture of the light we were rising to.

13. “She’s the One”: Hope you like Born to Run, because there’s a lot of it on this list. “She’s the One” isn’t about love at first sight, or even about pining away for some girl who fits your image of the ideal woman. “She’s the One” is the moment you decide to do something about it.

12. “The Wrestler”: Springsteen honed his Pete Seeger folk chops on albums like Devils & Dust and We Shall Overcome, and “The Wrestler” is the best version of that version of the Boss. Describing a character using powerful metaphors is one thing, but Springsteen sings as the man describing himself with such despondent images. This man is aware that he’s not worth much to the world, and fewer things cut closer to the bone.

11. “Nebraska”: Some of the finest harmonica ever put to vinyl. “Nebraska” is the centerpiece of the spare album Nebraska, and as such it enjoys the sparest of production. The song would float off into the wind, if it weren’t for the singer’s insistence that he doesn’t have a reason for why he killed that man, just that there’s a certain amount of unexplainable evil in the world.

springsteensongs110. “Land of Hope and Dreams”: Opening with a gospel choir would seem an admission of irrelevance on any other classic rock artist’s song. For Springsteen, though, it’s just one brushstroke on a vast canvas. Most of the rest of the songs on this list boast specificity as one of their defining qualities. “Land of Hope and Dreams” is huge and broad in scope as Springsteen invites sinners of all kinds to join him on the train to heaven. I can’t speak for where Springsteen’s heart is when it comes to the finer points of reformed theology, but, regardless, this is a pretty accurate assessment of what the elect will look like: just a bunch of ragamuffins.

springsteensongs29. “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)”: There was a point in my college career when I dated someone whose parents were not my biggest fans. I’ll admit that at the time I wasn’t the best boyfriend to their daughter, but I often leaned on “Rosalita” when it seemed like the deck was stacked against me. For me, it captured what it meant to be in love and to feel like it was you and your significant other against the world. Listening to “Rosalita” now, at my wisened age of 25, Springsteen sounds like a guy who’s undoubtedly immature, but he also sounds like a guy who one day may rule the world. Maybe Rosie’s parents should have given him the benefit of the doubt.

springsteensongs38. “Atlantic City”: For some reason, I had this idea of “Atlantic City” in my head as one of Bruce Springsteen’s overproduced, late ’80s songs, even though it’s on Nebraska. It doesn’t quite have the emptiness of “Nebraska”, but it’s still a song with a hole in its heart. There’s definitely a pop song somewhere on the edges of “Atlantic City”, and maybe if someone else had this song, they would’ve taken that chorus and made it more upbeat, along the lines of “Hungry Heart”. But in Springsteen’s voice, with the layered, ghostly harmony, “Atlantic City” is a lament.

springsteensongs47. “Long Walk Home”: Magic basically ensured that Bruce Springsteen would forever be appreciated by liberals, if Born in the U.S.A. hadn’t accomplished that 20 years prior. The album is a thinly veiled invective against the Bush administration. Seen in retrospect, it plays a little more subtly, especially since Springsteen’s tone hasn’t changed much since then, implying that the same problems we had then as a country are still in place today. “Long Walk Home” is the best argument for this, both a warning and a celebration. A warning that the way to a better country will be arduous, and a celebration that if any country can do it, it’s this one.

springsteensongs56. “The River”: It’s amazing I ever got married after listening to “The River”. This song has haunted me since high school. Springsteen has plenty of songs just like this one about marriages that lose their spark, but none have anything that pierce so quickly to the heart as the opening harmonica or the eerie chorus or the unforgettable line, “Now I act like I don’t remember / Mary act like she don’t care.” I did get married, though, so I obviously know “The River” isn’t the ultimate end for every marriage. And Springsteen knows that too, since he’s also married, but I will say that it would be surprising if you could listen to this song and not think of a marriage in your life that it reminds you of. Powerful stuff.

springsteensongs65. “Born in the U.S.A.”: Probably Bruce Springsteen’s most recognizable song, with the possible exception of “Dancing in the Dark”. Even the most pop-culture-ignorant person has heard the rousing chorus. It’s incredible that “Born in the U.S.A.” survived its run on the charts and its misuse by nearly every pseudo-patriotic politician to remain one of the best rock singles ever. By now, the song’s misunderstood nature is well-documented: written as an anti-Vietnam screed and as an ode to veterans and their struggles, the song has been blindly appropriated by different groups over and over again as an anthem. If you listen to the lyrics, only veterans could use this as an anthem. For the rest of us, “Born in the U.S.A.” is a reminder of the complexities of our nation’s history.

springsteensongs74. “Jungleland”: The E Street Band deserves much of the credit for reorienting popular music’s use of instruments beyond guitar, bass, and drums. “Jungleland” may be the song most responsible. It opens with an indelible violin solo, transitions into one of the most memorable piano riffs of the ‘70s, and climaxes with the most famous saxophone part in all of rock music. Forgive all my superlatives- you’ll understand when you listen. Every song on Born to Run is an epic story, but “Jungleland” is the epic story to end all epic stories. It’s hardly one of Springsteen’s more specific stories; instead, he opts for broad images of kids trying to make it out of the war zone that is adolescence. He uses every weapon at his disposal to get that feeling across. This is the E Street Band’s finest moment.

springsteensongs83. “Darkness on the Edge of Town”: The opening piano riff gives you the idea that this is going to be an R&B song in the style of Dusty Springfield or the Staples Singers. That funkiness hangs out around the core of “Darkness on the Edge of Town”, giving an edge to the chorus when Springsteen lets out his raspy howl. It’s another sad song disguised as a happy one, though maybe it’s time to stop trying to differentiate between sad and happy. “Darkness on the Edge of Town” does have a certain bleakness, dealing with broken dreams hiding in regular American towns. But the music doesn’t let you slip into a depression about it. It is what it is, and we’ll go on living.

springsteensongs72. “Thunder Road”: 10 appreciations.
10) The reference to Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely”.
9) That piano gets louder through the first verse- how often to you actually hear instrumentation crescendo like that anymore in pop music? It’s more immediate when it sounds live.
8) He wants her to go with him to “case the promised land.” Perfect line.
7) It ends with the line “It’s a town full of losers / And I’m pulling out of here to win”, which is a pretty succinct summary of every kid’s mindset when he/she leaves home for the first time.
6) I can’t tell if Springsteen is writing from the perspective of an older man or from the perspective of a young man who thinks he’s getting old. Like someone around the age of 25 who is still in the college mindset that anything above 22 is old.
5) That harmonica is the opening to my favorite album ever, and it never fails to excite me.
4) The second-greatest sax part in all rock music at the sprawling coda.
3) He had help from Elton and Billy, but Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” made piano rock cool.
2) When Springsteen tells her, “You ain’t a beauty, but, eh, you’re alright.”
1) The command to roll down the window to feel the wind, cementing this as the all-time greatest driving song.

springsteensongs91. “Born to Run”: It’s hard to write about my favorite song. I mean, I know you’re not going to love it as much as I do (unless you already do), and nothing I write is going to convince you to make it your favorite song. You don’t adopt anything as your favorite anything because you read something. It’s usually a lot more organic than that. I don’t have a story for why “Born to Run” is my favorite song- not just my favorite Bruce Springsteen song, but my favorite song period. Some people have reasons, I guess, for why they have a favorite song, some connection to their dad or an association with a cherished memory. I don’t have any of that. But I could write about 100 appreciations for “Born to Run” like the ones I wrote above for “Thunder Road”. I could list for you all the times I’ve been stressed out or down on myself or burnt out and listening to “Born to Run” reminded me of the hope that I have, the drive to live a full life. Even though my wife probably hates this song (I’m not sure there’s a Bruce Springsteen song she likes), I could point you to all the passionate lines in “Born to Run” that I look to as inspiration for how to love her well. I don’t consider myself a “tramp”, I couldn’t care less about cars, and I’ve never loved a girl named Wendy. But I have felt like a town is a “death trap”, and that I had to get out. I have enjoyed a kiss so much that I felt like I could die happy if it never ended. And I know what it’s like to long for someplace better, “that place where we really want to go and we’ll walk in the sun.”


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