In 1974, a random phrase popped into Bruce Springsteen’s head as he was writing, one that seemed to match the music he was hearing in his mind. It took Springsteen six months to turn that phrase, “Born to Run,” into a song, and it was a watershed moment for his work: the first time he wrote a song with the studio in mind rather than how it would sound onstage. That’s when he finally figured out how to combine the crackle and power of the epic songs he wrote with the skill of compression, distilling the energy into a brisk 4:31 without losing impact.
Figuring out how to make “Born to Run” work affected Springsteen’s songwriting process not only for the rest of the album of the same name, but for the rest of his career. The themes and characters he established on that song formed the basis of his work and persona, and for the past 43 years he’s continued to write about love, faith, hope, struggle, meaning, and identity. He has explored the dark side of the American dream, broken promises, and the possibilities of salvation and redemption. Just as important, he’s exalted the “the majesty, the mystery, the ministry — of rock and roll!” as he used to declare onstage, capturing the heat and joy of a busy dance floor on a Saturday night, and his wholehearted belief in rock music as nothing less than a genuine force of liberation.
While on tour in 2015, Springsteen would describe his first four albums as “outsider records.” Greetings From Asbury Park and The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, from 1973, were full of tales of Jersey Shore legends and had strong moments, but were musically and lyrically unfocused, the work of a young songwriter trying to find his voice. Yet just two years later, when he produced 1975’s Born to Run — and later, 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town — Springsteen knew who and what he wanted to write about. On those records, the characters were yearning for escape, looking for a way out, trying to make sense of their lives. Then, of course, there’s Born in the USA, 1984’s million-selling, seven top-ten-hits album that turned Springsteen into an international superstar. He’s referred to the record’s “grab-bag” nature in the past, but there’s more thematic unity than appears on first glance, and the record still holds true to many of his core motifs: loyalty, faith, and songs that will get people dancing.
Although it’s been two years since he’s released any new music, Springsteen, who turns 67 later this month, shows no signs of slowing down. He’s still selling out stadiums and making good use of his full catalogue, routinely running his shows up to and past the four-hour mark. It would be no surprise if this list gets updated in ten years with another 50 songs. As the man himself says: Faith will be rewarded.
Wrestling the entirety of his catalogue into an ordered list, then, was a monumental task — this is a man who readily admits he has sometimes worked hardest on songs that didn’t make his records. With that in mind, all of the commercially available material was given equal consideration, whether catalogue classic, outtake, or recently released composition. The ground rules: This list consists of all original, officially released Bruce Springsteen compositions, whether an official album track or an outtake. That includes Tracks, The Promise, and The Ties That Bind box sets, but excludes all covers (even those strongly associated with Springsteen, as well as The Seeger Sessions.) Where multiple versions of a song exist, they’re addressed within the same listing. The five early tracks coming out later this month on Chapter & Verse, the CD accompanying Springsteen’s biography Born to Run, are excluded simply because of timing. This leaves us with 314 Bruce Springsteen songs to discuss. Here we go.
314. “Mr. Outside,” The Ties That Bind. Two minutes and sixteen seconds of a half-formed thought that was probably recorded in the corner of Springsteen’s Telegraph Hill bedroom. I say “probably” because there were no notes provided or context given. Why was this throwaway included in a deluxe box set? Why was this even released?
313. “Mary Queen of Arkansas,” Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. This is a terrible song. The music is maudlin, the lyrics overwritten.
312. “The Angel,” Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. How are “The Angel” and “Mary Queen of Arkansas” on the same record? This song’s only saving grace is the introduction of the phrase “hubcap heaven” into the vernacular. If you wipe the dust off that inscription over there, you’ll see that “the interstate’s choked with nomadic hordes” was the first public outing of a line Springsteen would put to much better use in “Born to Run.”
311. “This Is Your Sword,” High Hopes. More like “This Is Your Cliché.” Don’t get me wrong, I want Springsteen to release as much original music as possible for as long as he wants to make it, but High Hopes feels so haphazard because of songs like this. It’s an attempt to make something out of nothing. The music is saccharine and there’s a tremulous quality to the vocals, which don’t add anything.
310. “Bishop Danced,” Tracks. Early songs aren’t automatically assigned holy status. “Bishop Danced” is definitely interesting as an artifact — it was recorded live at Max’s Kansas City in 1973, probably as a publishing demo — but it’s a mess. This song makes no sense, even in the most impressionistic, symbolic interpretation of its lyrics, and the melody is bland.
309. “Zero and Blind Terry,” Tracks. Again, just because a song is old doesn’t mean that it deserves worship. This was Springsteen’s first attempt at writing a large romantic epic, and there’s a good reason why it was an outtake.
308. “Red Headed Woman,” MTV Plugged. This number was introduced on the Joad tour as, and I quote, “A great song about a great subject: cunnilingus.” Although I absolutely applaud the sentiment from a feminist standpoint, I can’t applaud the actual song because it’s cheap, cloying, and simply not good. Springsteen has several jokey songs that get played live for a brief period of time, but never get recorded because sanity prevails. Among these are “Pilgrim in the Temple of Love” (about Santa Claus at a strip club) and “Sell It and They Will Come” (about the advent of home-shopping channels). That’s where this song belongs.
307. “Hunter of Invisible Game,” High Hopes. Lyrically, this one starts out promisingly — I want to know why he built an ark of gopher wood — but then Bruce mentions railroad tracks, so it’s clearly not biblical. It’s an interesting idea that feels complete, but isn’t. Not the worst offender on this grab bag of an album, but it’s close.
306. “American Land,” Wrecking Ball. Springsteen began performing this song toward the end of his 2006 Seeger Sessions tour, and announced that it was “an original Springsteen song inspired by ‘He Lies in the American Land,’ a poem by immigrant steelworker Andrew Kovaly, and set to music by Pete Seeger.” (Kovaly wrote “He Lies in the American Land” in Slovakian, his native language, and Pete Seeger wrote an English version of the song.) Seeger’s song is an amazing, atonal dirge, and the story is heartrending: A new immigrant comes to America, works in the mines, makes enough money to send for his family to join him, but dies before they arrive. As originally written, “American Land” would fit comfortably alongside many of the songs on Tom Joad. It is direct, dark, and very bleak. As transformed by Springsteen, the song bears no resemblance to the original in voice, tone, or intention. The music is Pogues lite. (Irish Springsteen fans have described it as, “This is what people think Irish music sounds like.”) The lyrics are impenetrable, as if he wanted them to feel like a poem. A poem is not a song and vice versa. Bruce pretty much invented the overly wordy rock song and made it work — ahem, “Blinded by the Light” — but the most intelligible word in this four-and-a-half minute shoutfest is “beer.” It’s St. Patrick’s Day for the non-Irish. It’s one of the blandest, least interesting things Springsteen has ever done, especially given the material that inspired it.
305. “The Way,” The Promise. “The Way” is hidden song at the end of The Promise, tacked on after “City of Night.” It’s a slow, lugubrious ballad with a decent vocal delivery and a solid sax solo. The lyrics describe all the ways his lover belongs to him — until the end, when it gets creepy: “I’d lock you deep inside till the last rains fall/And hide you from the emptiness of it all.” This is probably why, in 2010, Springsteen told a caller on “E Street Radio,” “I would like to see it placed in a David Lynch film over a sexually perverse scene. That, to me, is its righteous home.”
304. “Queen of the Supermarket,” Working on a Dream. Bruce Springsteen wrote a song about the Whole Foods in Middletown, New Jersey. It’s an unnecessarily ornate rewrite of “Customer” by the Replacements, but I could have gotten behind it if he had gone somewhere assured or interesting. Saying “fucking” in the last verse does not accomplish that. Like much of Working on a Dream, there are too many Brian Wilson fantasies pursued here. If you’re Bruce Springsteen and you want to replicate the Wall of Sound, hire an orchestra and go for it. Don’t stop halfway.
303. “Surprise, Surprise,” Working on a Dream. A birthday song that’s used to fulfill Springsteen’s ambition of writing a Raspberries song.
302. “Lift Me Up,” The Essential Bruce Springsteen. There are many vocal styles at which Bruce Springsteen excels. Falsetto is not one of them.
301. “Working on a Dream,” Working on a Dream. Melodically, it’s reminiscent of “Wichita Lineman.” Unfortunately, the lyrics are a dim approximation of every amazing song Springsteen has written about ambition, hope, and faith. He also whistles in two lines.
300. “Sad Eyes,” Tracks. This is not the ‘78 “Sad Eyes,” but rather the polar opposite, an uncharacteristically mean account of a man deliberately toying with the affections of a vulnerable woman. Springsteen has said that he was thinking of Dionne Warwick when he wrote the melody in the ‘90s. Let’s hope it stays there.
299. “Reno,” Devils & Dust. This song rose to general attention due to a single lyric: “$250 up the ass.” Frankly, it wouldn’t matter if Springsteen filled a song with obscenities as long as it was in service to the art, but “Reno” is just boring. What’s most disappointing is that he chose to cash in that chip on this particular song.
298. “Harry’s Place,” High Hopes. A leftover from the Rising era that sounds like it was recorded in the ‘90s. Clarence’s sax solo is the only redeeming factor.
297. “Kingdom of Days,” Working on a Dream. An overly earnest paean to Mrs. Springsteen and a tribute to growing old together, but again, Bruce attempts to cram the Wall of Sound into a space where it doesn’t fit. It would be perfect for an AARP commercial, which is less of a diss than it might seem.
296. “Let’s Be Friends (Skin to Skin),” The Rising. It seems like this one was supposed to capture a modern R&B feeling in a song about adult romance and second marriages. The harmonies are great, but the rest of it is cringeworthy.
295. “The Fuse,” The Rising. It’s hard to figure out what’s happening in this one, or how it fits into the overall thematic arc of the album. There are some very interesting textures and the languid tone definitely conveys a specific emotional detachment. Points off for “come on, let me do you right,” and for the need to emphasize the cunnilingus line.
294. “Loose Change,” Tracks. Another one of the ‘90s songs Springsteen wrote on bass, “Loose Change” is the tale of a man at odds who needs to keep moving, but doesn’t know what he’s looking for.
293. “Trouble in Paradise,” Tracks. Probably the first post–E Street Band track that Springsteen recorded, featuring Roy Bittan, Randy Jackson (yes, the one from Idol) and Jeff Porcaro. It’s not right to blame the drummer of Toto for the composition’s bland sound — even though it’s certainly convenient — because Roy also shares a writing credit. Sometimes that worked well (“Roll of the Dice,” “Real World”), sometimes it didn’t.
292. “This Life,” Working on a Dream. Springsteen attempts to fulfill his Wall of Sound and Brian Wilson fantasies, which would be great if it were behind material that actually could stand up to the challenge.
291. “Night Fire,” The Ties That Bind. This River-era outtake feels like the worst of ‘70s rock radio. Docked for the insipid guitar solo and the forced crooning on the vocals.
290. “With Every Wish,” Human Touch. Man gets girl, man gets jealous, man loses girl, man is willing to try it again. The arrangement is slightly interesting, at least: a low-key vocal recitation against strings, snare, bongos, and the occasionally compelling trumpet line.
289. “Whitetown,” The Ties That Bind. Like “Jackson Cage,” it’s not entirely clear what “Whitetown” is about. Is it a commentary on the racial divide in middle-America factory towns? Is it an allegory about suburban life? Plus, it’s set within a power-pop background that owes a couple of royalty points to the Raspberries.
288. “What Love Can Do,” Working on a Dream. “It was sort of a ‘love in the time of Bush’ meditation,” wrote Springsteen on his website about this one. That concept definitely has potential, but the final result feels too vague.
287. “Tomorrow Never Knows,” Working on a Dream. A song about growing old together, like many others on the album. This time, it’s set over a breezy country melody.
285. “Wrecking Ball,” Wrecking Ball. Springsteen played the last concert at Giants Stadium, so he wrote a song about the place. It seemed like that would be the last we’d heard of the thing, but no, it came back again and again, and then surfaced on this record. There are a lot of nice ideas here — especially the line “when all of our victories and glories have turned into parking lots.” (It reminds me of my late, lamented Shea Stadium, and I’m sure it does the same for other fans in similar shoes.) A song about how Americans love to tear things down certainly makes sense with the rest of the album, but that’s not what this song is. “For most, music is primarily an emotional language; whatever you’ve written lyrically almost always comes in second to what the listener is feeling.” Bruce wrote that about “Born in the U.S.A.” but it also describes the audience’s reaction to “Wrecking Ball.” It’s a bunch of disparate, unconnected ideas soundtracked against energetic and inspiring music, and eventually, the lack of substance in the lyrics starts to wear thin.
284. “Living on the Edge of the World,” Tracks. A great idea trapped an annoying, cloying, unnecessarily busy musical landscape. Recorded in ‘79, Springsteen would thankfully steal the verses for “Open All Night,” and later cannibalize the rest for other superior numbers.
283. “Outside Looking In,” The Promise. Let’s borrow a rhythm line from “Peggy Sue,” but put some more energy behind the vocal.
282. “Goin’ Cali,” Tracks. The title is awful, but the idea held promise. Plus, it would have been good for denizens of the East Coast to hear more stories about the hypnotic power of the West. The song has some interesting passages, which Springsteen would later plunder for “Living Proof.”
281. “Cindy,” The Ties That Bind. A cloying tale of unrequited young love that made it as far as the single-album version of The Ties That Bind.
280. “Breakaway,” The Promise. As an early Darkness demo, it’s easy to understand why “Breakaway” never went any further than the studio. Springsteen would borrow bits and bobs — cars, characters, choices — and employ them in better fashion elsewhere.
279. “Outlaw Pete,” Working on a Dream. If “Outlaw Pete” is meant to mark the moment when Springsteen — who is not unknowledgeable about Westerns — finally realizes his Ennio Morricone fantasies, this is insanely disappointing. The music is pedestrian and the story is unconvincing. We don’t have any reason to root for or against Outlaw Pete; there’s no reason to hate, fear, or admire him. He’s neither a hero nor an anti-hero. He’s just a cartoon. Bruce can write humorous, jokey songs if that’s what he wants to do, but they should be released as one-offs. Don’t open a record with a song like this. It also bears an uncanny resemblance to KISS’s “I Was Made for Loving You.”
278. “The Hitter,” Devils & Dust. The lyrics and story are strong, but the instrumentation is monotonous and uninteresting, making it a slog to get through the song.
277. “Death to My Hometown,” Wrecking Ball. The title is so promising, but the affected Irish accent, equally affected Irish music, and clichéd lyrics kill this one.
276. “Swallowed Up (in the Belly of the Whale),” Wrecking Ball. The whale is used as a metaphor for big banks, the economy, and the decay of the social safety net. That’s all well and good, but these subjects were more than adequately addressed on the rest of the record. (Note: This song was only on the bonus special edition.)
275. “Someday (We’ll Be Together),” The Promise. Let’s admit it: There is too much sleigh bell in the Darkness outtakes.
274. “My Lucky Day,” Working on a Dream. Another pleasant ode to love and partnership that’s arranged against a driving rock beat.
271. “Down in the Hole,” High Hopes. This one was left off The Rising because the themes of anger and loss had already been addressed. Though the song is certainly not memorable, Federici’s performance remains unmistakable even after all these years.
270. “Cross My Heart,” Human Touch. A low-key, down-tempo, country-flavored track about commitment and betrayal. Again, these themes are dealt with far better on the rest of the album.
269. “Party Lights,” The Ties That Bind. It’s easy to imagine Bruce and Steve playing something like this on the stage at Le Teendezvous back in the day, and the harmonies are priceless. The most notable thing about this song: He’d crib straight from it for the last verse of his version of Tom Waits’ “Jersey Girl.”
268. “Come On (Let’s Go Tonight),” The Promise. This 1978 outtake uses the same melody as “Factory,” except it’s more countrified and dominated by Lindley’s fiddle. The lyrics are a combination of “Factory,” other similarly fatalistic themes, and a line about Elvis Presley that would later get recycled in “Johnny Bye-Bye.”
267. “30 Days Out” (B-side). Released as a B-side to “Leap of Faith,” this is another pleasant, soul-flavored number from the ‘90s.
266. “Cynthia,” Tracks. If the Sir Douglas Quintet overdosed on saccharine, “Cynthia” would be the result.
265. “Paradise,” The Rising. A haunting, ambitious attempt to portray multiple perspectives of the afterlife.
264. “One Way Street,” The Promise. This 1978-era outtake has a delicate horn arrangement in its favor, but it would have been better handed off to Southside Johnny.
263. “The Little Things (My Baby Does),” The Promise. According to the studio logs, “Little Things” was put down in one take, which is easily the most interesting thing about it. Sure, I could listen to the E Street Band fake their way through any number of faux Brill Building–type songs, but this doesn’t go anywhere.
262. “Mary Mary,” American Beauty EP. As Springsteen tells it, “Mary Mary” came very close to making High Hopes. Lyrically it’s interesting, but he’s still playing in that area where the Wall of Sound and Pet Sounds have a cup of coffee together. He doesn’t make a strong case for either.
261. “Gloria’s Eyes,” Human Touch. Every time I hear the intro to this song, I think it’s A Flock of Seagulls for a couple of seconds.
260. “Soul Driver,” Human Touch. “Soul Driver” is the only song in Springsteen’s catalogue that sounds like it was written by anyone but him until the vocals kick in. The instrumentation of the intro sounds like a medley of ‘80s alternative bands.
259. “Silver Palomino,” Devils & Dust. A heartbreaking acoustic dreamscape, dedicated to a family friend and the sons she left behind.
258. “Your Own Worst Enemy,” Magic. An important song that critically captures the paranoia of the early ‘00s, but it’s buried behind Springsteen’s Pet Sounds fixation, which is just overkill. Nevertheless, Federici is utterly delightful in the last minute or so.
257. “Real Man,” Human Touch. The synthesizer intro is awful and cringeworthy, and Springsteen is so artificially bright that he’s completely unbelievable. The lyrics can’t save this one either — as with many of the other tracks on Human Touch, he covers the same themes in several superior songs, then rehashes them on lesser tracks that should have been cut from the record.
256. “Jesus Was an Only Son,” Devils & Dust. On tour, Springsteen introduces this quiet, country-gospel-ish number by saying, “I wrote this song trying to imagine Jesus as someone’s son.”
255. “Nothing Man,” The Rising. A worthy idea, but it’s accomplished more successfully on the rest of the album.
254. “The Brokenhearted,” The Promise. Bruce goes all-in on his Orbison obsession, with some interesting Spanish-flavored brass in the background.
253. “When You Need Me,” Tracks. A Tunnel-era outtake, it’s another discussion about love and commitment, this time with a pronounced country influence. The lyrics are less complex than the other songs on the record, which is probably why it didn’t make the cut.
252, “City of Night,” The Promise. “A Mr. Waits for you on line one, Bruce.”
251. “Ricky Wants a Man of Her Own,” Tracks. People are a little too invested in Ricky’s burgeoning sexuality, if you ask me. The song’s lively pop melody would have been better used with a different set of lyrics.
250. “American Beauty,” American Beauty EP. The title track of the 2014 Record Store Day exclusive, one of four outtakes left over from High Hopes. Springsteen himself called this one “Exile on E Street” with regard to his vocals, but it’s more like something left over from a Keith Richards solo album, which is not a terrible thing.
249. “The Time That Never Was,” The Ties That Bind. A ballad about regret, delivered with real pathos and power. The vocal quality is definitely noteworthy, but it hit the cutting-room floor in favor of songs on The River with similar themes.
248. “Little White Lies,” The Ties That Bind. Brisk and frenetic, the track is most remarkable for Springsteen’s precise vocals.
247. “Waiting on a Sunny Day,” The Rising. On an album about 9/11, Springsteen opens with “Lonesome Day,” the song about the next day. That track is followed by “Into the Fire,” a song about the first responders who were racing up the stairs into the Towers while everyone else was heading to safety. “Waiting on a Sunny Day” comes next. In this context, a light, fluffy number about hope and optimism is both crucial and welcome. But let’s be clear: “Sunny Day” is not a great song, nor an important or interesting one.
246. “Stray Bullet,” The Ties That Bind. The title is evocative, but the vocals feel unnecessarily overwrought. Melodically, Bittan and Clarence Clemons bring their A game. Absolutely majestic performances from both of them.
245. “Matamoros Banks,” Devils & Dust. A tale of a tragic attempt to cross the border into the States to reunite with a lover. It’s a song about longing and an aching heart, and about what happens to a dead body in the Rio Grande. As is true with all of Springsteen’s deeply sorrowful songs about the migrant experience, it’s astonishing to consider the mind-set he had to inhabit to write and record it. A heartbreaking song to listen to once, let alone multiple times.
244. “Mary Lou,” Tracks. A.k.a. “Be True” with an interesting melody, but overwrought vocal delivery.
243. “Lucky Man,” Tracks. The soulful growl, understated melody, and lonely guitar notes hanging out in the corners make this one interesting. Probably should’ve made the cut for Tunnel of Love.
241. “Santa Ana,” Tracks. A very early staple from the live set that didn’t quite translate to the studio, but it’s a useful document of Springsteen’s songwriting process.
240. “When You’re Alone,” Tunnel of Love. An unkind song told by a bitter, scorned man. The tune seems much nicer than the story actually is.
239. “My Lover Man,” Tracks. The rare Springsteen song written completely from a woman’s point of view, “My Lover Man” tells her perspective on a relationship gone wrong. It otherwise sounds almost exactly like “Brilliant Disguise,” but was written in the ‘90s. Bonus points for the freak-out that ensues whenever homophobic fans discover it for the first time.
238. “The Honeymooners,” Tracks. Another acoustic number, delivered in a matter-of-fact recitation of events with a delicate, country-ish melody. The fact that this emotionally truthful account of a wedding day didn’t make it onto Tunnel of Love says a whole lot, but it should have.
237. “The Line,” The Ghost of Tom Joad. The narrator should have a drink with Joe Roberts from “Highway Patrolman.” Springsteen is so good with shades of gray between the black and the white, and he’s not afraid to illuminate them here. It’s a poignant, heartbreaking story, but the synthesizer weighs everything down.
236. “Maria’s Bed,” Devils & Dust. The music — a delicate country exploration with mandolin and slide — is more intricate and interesting than the lyrics.
235. “The Long Goodbye,” Human Touch. It’s unfortunate that the music is so standard because this is a remarkably revealing song about leaving New Jersey for California. “Well I went to leave 20 years ago/Since then I guess I been packin’ kinda slow/Sure did like that admirin’ touch/Guess I liked it a little too much.”
234. “My Best Was Never Good Enough,” The Ghost of Tom Joad. A two-minute talking-blues number to close the end of the record. The title absolutely says it all.
233. “Dry Lightning,” The Ghost of Tom Joad. The electricity manifests, but doesn’t quite connect. The mariachi-inspired melody in the background is just enough to knock it up a few spots.
232. “You’ve Got It,” Wrecking Ball. A standard tale of romantic longing that’s elevated by some tasty slide guitar and horns on the bridge.
231. “You’ll Be Comin’ Down,” Magic. A shining piece of pop confection, but there’s a lot of darkness hiding between the notes.
230. “Wrong Side of the Street,” The Promise. The music is stronger than the lyrics, which ineptly flounder around the same territory as “Candy’s Room.”
229. “Cautious Man,” Tunnel of Love. Man settles down, man panics, man runs, man realizes there is nowhere to run to, man comes back home. In both theme and sound, “Cautious Man” would have fit well on Nebraska.
228. “Life Itself,” Working on a Dream. One of the more genuinely interesting numbers on the record. It’s another reflection on mortality, arranged over pleasingly textured guitar layers.
227. “I Wish I Were Blind,” Human Touch. A milquetoast rumination on jealousy and heartbreak. Springsteen covers the same themes more dynamically and with greater interest in other songs.
226. “Two for the Road,” Tracks. A charming, countrified number that harkens to the early days of Springsteen’s marriage: “It takes one for the running but two for the road.”
225. “Black Cowboys,” Devils & Dust. It would have been fantastic if Springsteen had written a song about black cowboys, but in this song, they’re just a metaphor for escape. A sad tune, but ultimately successful.
224. “Balboa Park,” The Ghost of Tom Joad. You won’t be surprised to learn that a song about underaged, undocumented immigrants working as child prostitutes in San Diego’s Balboa Park doesn’t have a happy ending.
223. “Sinaloa Cowboys,” The Ghost of Tom Joad. It’s tough to decide which story on Tom Joad is the most heartbreaking, but “Sinaloa Cowboys” might be it. Two Mexican brothers come to the U.S. and find work in the orchards, “doing the work the hueros wouldn’t do.” Despite their father’s warning — “for everything the North gives, it exacts a price in return” — they start cooking meth in an abandoned chicken ranch for the men from Sinaloa. When the lab explodes, Miguel carries his dying brother to where they’d buried the proceeds of their work, digs up the money, and buries his brother in the now-empty hole.
222. “Car Wash,” Tracks. An utterly charming, unexpectedly specific story, told within two minutes.
221. “Galveston Bay,” The Ghost of Tom Joad. “I wanted a character who is driven to do the wrong thing, but does not,” Springsteen notes in his 1998 book, Songs.
220. “Good Eye,” Working on a Dream. Springsteen once again toys with the texture of distorted vocals through a bullet mic, much like did to reinvent older tracks on his 2005 Devils & Dust tour. Lyrically, it feels more like a demo than an actual finished thought, but even so, the track is one of the more interesting ones on the record.
219. “Rockaway the Days,” Tracks. The cheerful music doesn’t fit the grim story of an ex-con letting his temper getting the best of him. Everyone turns his back on him, and the outcome is sadly predictable.
218. “Over the Rise,” Tracks. “Over The Rise” is a boppy, bass-filled little number that came out of the same home-demo sessions that gave us “57 Channels.”
217. “Missing,” The Essential Bruce Springsteen. This song was composed for The Crossing Guard, a 1995 movie written and directed by Sean Penn. Springsteen should write more theme songs for movies. This one has great atmosphere, along with tension and texture added by percussion and a wicked scratch-guitar riff.
216. “Worlds Apart,” The Rising. A song about love between two worlds — between a Western soldier and a local woman — during wartime. Tape loops, Qawwali singing, and Arabic rhythms open the track, which then expands to layer a rock melody on top. By the end, it’s got a guitar solo, harmonica, and a haunting organ melody line. On the tour to support The Rising, “Worlds Apart” was an unexpectedly tremendous live number, rhythmic and powerful, with various instrumental bridges (violin, then guitar) used to replicate the textures of the recording without duplicating it.
215. “Happy,” Tracks. It’s a love song, but it’s a “all these terrible things could happen BUT we’re in love so maybe they won’t” kind of love song. Springsteen has a lot of songs about love and relationships viewed through less than rose-colored lenses, but this one feels like it has shadows in unexpected places, which is of course why it was an outtake. (P.S. If you used this for your wedding, please don’t write in and complain. Thanks.)
214. “Hey Blue Eyes,” American Beauty EP. This is phenomenal political commentary. It’s acrid and biting, but still a good song with artful lyrics and a neutral vocal delivery that lets the words tell the story. Docked because Springsteen didn’t have the cojones to put it on the actual record (even though it dates back to Magic), so he stuck it on a Record Store Day limited-edition EP instead. He might as well have hid it under a rock.
213. “Chain Lightning,” The Ties That Bind. A bass line straight out of the garage, some Farfisa organ, baritone sax, Link Wray guitar licks, vocals that sound like Bruce just drank a shot of whiskey, and the whole E Street Band chiming in with “Chain lightning!” on the choruses. And that giggle at the fadeout! It’s a more primal “Ramrod” and there probably wasn’t room for both.
212. “Gotta Get That Feeling,” The Promise. The E Street Band meets the Wrecking Crew, in the most glorious fashion.
211. “Leah,” Devils & Dust. A sweet love song with beautiful trumpet, courtesy Mark Pender of the Asbury Jukes and the Max Weinberg 7.
210. “Janey, Don’t You Lose Heart,” Tracks. It’s a fine tune, but it’s too similar to “Be True,” a better, more interesting song. The only saving grace is Clarence’s rich and heartfelt sax solo.
209. “Part Man, Part Monkey,” Tracks. Although it wasn’t actually recorded until 1990, this faux-reggae song was placed on the set list during the Tunnel of Love tour. It was inspired by Inherit the Wind, although Springsteen took the story in an entirely different direction. The song serves its purpose and the white-man-reggae aspect isn’t too annoying, but it just feels like he’s trying too hard. (The ‘88 live version is better.)
208. “Brothers Under the Bridges (’83),” Tracks. Not to be confused with “Brothers Under the Bridge,” which is an underrated song about homeless veterans, “Brothers Under the Bridges (’83)” is a country-ish song that draws its themes from “No Surrender” and “Bobby Jean.”
207. “It’s a Shame,” The Promise. The same sentiments are better expressed in “Talk to Me,” though Southside could definitely cut a mean version of it. Springsteen’s longtime manager Jon Landau is actually on drums for this one.
206. “Book of Dreams,” Lucky Town. In Songs, Springsteen notes that “Book of Dreams” is one of several songs on the record about second chances. Fittingly enough, it captures the thoughts running through the mind of a man about to get married for the second time. The melody is light, hopeful, and optimistic, and there’s a strong quality of longing in Bruce’s vocals.
205. “The Big Payback,” The Essential Bruce Springsteen. More rockabilly fun, recorded at home post-Nebraska. It would be a great Nick Lowe song.
204. “I’ll Work for Your Love,” Magic. With such dubious religious imagery, the overall concept is fine but not memorable. It’s better as an acoustic “thank you” to fans, as Springsteen offered several times in preshow solo spots, but it’s still not as good as any number of his other songs about the covenant between performer and audience.
203. “Secret Garden,” Greatest Hits. Springsteen calls it “darkly erotic,” but the syrupy, cloyingly repetitive synth line makes this song about as erotic as a ‘70s sex scene in a soap opera.
202. “Factory,” Darkness on the Edge of Town. After all those years of telling stories onstage about his father, Bruce wanted to write a song about him, but he wasn’t quite ready. So, we got “Factory.” Springsteen has written so many sympathetic, illuminating songs about the plight of the blue-collar worker — some of which are right alongside “Factory” — and yet it completely eludes him here. There are some very good lines (“Through the mansions of fear, through the mansions of pain”) that reflect how he had begun to connect to country music, but this one should have been relegated to the outtake pile.
201. “Meet Me in the City,” The Ties That Bind. A great little ‘80s rave-up, with some strong lyrics and crowd-participation moments, but I’m still trying to figure out how how he went from the subway station to the killing floor. Seems a bit extreme for just parole violation, if you ask me.
200. “Gave It a Name,” Tracks. Springsteen liked this Human Touch outtake so much that he re-recorded it for the box set when the master couldn’t be found. It’s still definitely an outtake, though. The idea doesn’t feel sufficiently formed.
199. “Empty Sky,” The Rising. It’s all captured so honestly: the dichotomy of conflicting emotions in mourning, the tension between wanting revenge and the stunning weight of loss. The instrumentation is also absolutely stellar. Bittan and Federici drive this thing, and Danny powers through the last 30 seconds with an ethereal, stunning riff. Put on your headphones for this one. It’s worth it.
198. “Terry’s Song,” Magic. A heartbreaking and very personal tribute to Terry Magovern, Springsteen’s longtime assistant and right-hand man, who died shortly before Magic was released.
197. “Without You,” Blood Brothers EP. A pleasing little doo-wop-inspired ditty, recorded by the temporarily reunited E Street Band in 1995, when Springsteen got the band back together to record a track or two for his greatest-hits album. (You can see footage of this process on the Blood Brothers DVD.)
196. “Dollhouse,” Tracks. Jangly and frenetic, this is a song you could dance to in the rec room. Bruce brings the teen-idol stance right to the front, and it’s got great harmonies. Plus, he successfully addresses the subject that dodged him for quite some time: healthy adult relationships.
195. “When the Lights Go Out,” Tracks. “When the Lights Go Out” came out of demo sessions Springsteen held soon after he’d given the E Street Band their walking papers. He was ready to make music with another band, but didn’t have anything pulled together just yet. As he told MOJO in 1999, “In the meantime, I wrote about half a record on the bass, where you had a note and you had your idea,” which perfectly describes this song, one of the stronger numbers from that period.
194. “Devil’s Arcade,” Magic. Despondent and forlorn, but still very rock and roll, “Devil’s Arcade” is part of a trio of songs Springsteen wrote about soldiers killed in Iraq. The intensity of the rhythm section as he repeats “the beat of your heart” is both stirring and deliberately uncomfortable.
193. “57 Channels (and Nothin’ on),” Human Touch. On Human Touch, it’s a fun, two-and-a-half-minute, bass-heavy romp. After all, Springsteen wrote the song to poke fun at the kinds of things written about him in the gossip sections. On tour, however, it transformed into a political statement about the L.A. riots. Borrowing techniques from U2’s ZooTV tour and Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy’s “Television, the Drug of a Nation,” they looped news broadcasts and heavy guitar feedback onstage, turning that bass-heavy romp into an attempt at pointed commentary.
192. “Ain’t Good Enough for You,” The Promise. A period piece that’s almost in the same vein of “Seaside Bar Song.” It’s deliberately meant to sound like it comes from another era. Give a good listen to the earnest and hopeful vocals, underpinned by bright piano and baritone sax as the E Street Band sings backing vocals, with those party noises on the bridge. If the song had actually made it onto Darkness, one would hope that Springsteen planned to cut the Jimmy Iovine line.
191. “The Wall,” High Hopes. A heartfelt tribute to friends from the Jersey Shore who went to Vietnam and didn’t come home. Springsteen directly holds accountable those that sent them there.
190. “Iceman,” Tracks. This mournful and dramatic outtake has the dubious distinction of being a song that Springsteen completely forgot. When he was putting the box set together, he asked around for some suggestions, and a friend gave him a tape with the song on it. As he told MOJO in 1998, “[It] was just something that I didn’t get at the time I did it.” The last verse has real power — and musically, it’s a complete thought — but the song was too much to include on Darkness, and it didn’t make sense for anything that followed.
189. “Spanish Eyes,” The Promise. Sultry and heated, this underrated song should have been used for something, even if it never fit on Darkness. Take note of the maracas and those beautiful little flourishes from Bittan on the piano. Springsteen has only played it live once, in Madrid. The modern rendition is missing the heat of Bruce circa ‘78, but he still manages to bring it.
188. “Countin’ on a Miracle,” The Rising. In Songs, Springsteen described this track as “hope in vain, still waiting on, insisting on life.” It is absolutely all of those things — a building, soaring, buoy-you-up tune. The horn line alone is life-affirming.
187. “We Are Alive,” Wrecking Ball. No one knows why a dead man’s moon throws seven rings, but for a somewhat depressing story, it’s a surprisingly uplifting moment.
186. “Dead Man Walkin’”, The Essential Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen’s dark and beautifully concise contribution to the soundtrack of the 1995 movie of the same name, which earned him an Oscar nod.
185. “Easy Money,” Wrecking Ball. Remember the Banker’s Hill party referenced in “Shackled and Drawn”? This is that, but set to a properly countrified tale of actual evil villains.
184. “Save My Love,” The Promise. An affectionate, piano-drenched love letter to a distant love. Extra points for Springsteen’s use of radio and rock and roll as metaphor to declare fidelity, in both senses of the word.
183. “Ain’t Got You,” Tunnel of Love. No matter how often Bruce insists the songs on Tunnel of Love weren’t autobiographical, there’s a little bit of the subconscious at work in this one. He opens the record with this problem statement: Despite everything that might follow, love still eludes him. The vocals are an utterly irresistible mix of Elvis and Orbison, which really shine against the song’s sparse background. It’s heartbreak wrapped up in a rockabilly overcoat.
182. “Straight Time,” The Ghost of Tom Joad. It’s not just the specificity of the details that makes this one so painful, but the details Springsteen chooses to focus on. It’s not a linear story: He’s showing vignettes, faded Kodachrome images flashing one by one. The last verse is deliberately left open to interpretation, which amplifies the impact of the rest of the song.
181. “None But the Brave,” The Essential Bruce Springsteen. A wistful, spirited remembrance of the Jersey Shore club scene.
180. “This Depression,” Wrecking Ball. Simple but powerful, “This Depression” captures the powerlessness of the disenfranchised, as Springsteen’s voice achingly modulates with Morello’s guitar.
179. “Shackled and Drawn,” Wrecking Ball. “Up on Banker’s Hill the party’s going strong,” Springsteen sings in this darkly humorous tale of the have and have-nots in modern times. Even the music is sarcastic, if that’s possible. How else would you describe this exaggerated, knee-slapping, electronic folk number?
178. “The Last Carnival,” Working on a Dream. “The Last Carnival” was written for Federici, who died in 2008. Springsteen invokes Wild Billy and two kids running away to join the circus, over a quiet acoustic background, with an ethereal chorus against a fairground calliope until fadeout. Danny was the longest tenured member of the E Street Band — he stuck with Bruce through the thin times, the bad times, and the good times — so the analogy could not be more heartbreakingly apt.
177. “Heaven’s Wall,” High Hopes. Bruce toyed with the idea of a gospel album, brought the closest thing he’s ever had to a gospel choir on the road with him, and this song was an excuse to play in that sandbox for a bit longer. The guitar duel between Springsteen and Tom Morello is the most interesting part, to be honest.
176. “Souls of the Departed,” Lucky Town. Springsteen approaches the first Gulf War and Los Angeles gang wars with a dark, haunting melody, using low chords, slide, and a deep blues harmonica to tell a tale of harsh reality and grim choices.
175. “Trouble River,” 18 Tracks. It’s another soul shouter, a kissing cousin to “Seven Angels.” Wait for that “WOO!” at the three-minute mark and rejoice.
174. “The New Timer,” The Ghost of Tom Joad. The melody sounds like the rhythm of a freight train. It’s a story about the modern hobos, about a man who leaves his family in search of work. “New Timer” was inspired by Journey to Nowhere, an amazing book by Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson. Like that book, the song shows rather than tells. As Springsteen wrote in the book’s second printing, “What would I do to take care of my family? What wouldn’t I do?” The equanimity of the vocals is the song’s overarching strength.
173. “TV Movie,” Tracks. A fun rockabilly romp, recorded at the same time as “Stand on It” and “Pink Cadillac.” Listen carefully for Professor Roy Bittan tearing it up in the background, doing his best Jerry Lee Lewis impression.
172. “All or Nothin’ at All,” Human Touch. A sexy, fun little number with a backbeat you can dance to. Bonus points for not sounding overproduced or mechanical, like so many of the other songs on this record.
171. “Bring on the Night,” Tracks. This one was left off both Darkness and The River, probably because the ideas it captures weren’t quite finished thoughts. Later, Springsteen successfully cycled back through them with “My Love Will Not Let You Down.”
170. “Further on (Up the Road),” The Rising. The world’s greatest bar band doing their thing with a song about moving forward, keepin’ on, and taking next steps.
169. “My Beautiful Reward,” Lucky Town. This country-and-western-flavored track is the artful conclusion to a record full of longing and unanswered questions. It’s about a lifetime spent searching for answers, but ultimately coming up empty-handed.
168. “Devils & Dust,” Devils & Dust. Yet another song written from the perspective of the veteran, this time from the second Iraq war. It’s a gritty, evocative tribute that wholeheartedly supports the soldier while questioning the conflict.
167. “The Man Who Got Away,” The Ties That Bind. So much lost potential. It’s another song about viewing life through movie metaphors (like “Be True”), except this time, it’s an action movie pit against a Motown melody. Garry Tallent does his best James Jamerson and Phantom Danny Federici holds forth until Professor Roy Bittan brings us home at the end. Springsteen’s cadence is on-point throughout, just so dialed in. How did this get left behind?
166. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find (Pittsburgh),” Tracks. Springsteen knew that the Vietnam War affected not just the soldiers who came home, but also the ones who didn’t — and the people who were left behind. It’s an unsettling, powerful, thoroughly convincing song.
165. “Rendezvous,” Tracks. Listen to the studio version on The Promise and you’ll understand why it never made the record. Compared to the bright verve of the live version, this just didn’t cut it.
164. “Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?,” Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. For a kid from New Jersey, Springsteen understood the city as well as any native son, but he also had the blessing of not taking the place for granted. He saw the details that locals overlook after a while. Although charming in its naïveté, “82nd Street” lacks depth and it certainly hasn’t aged well. That said, “Man, the dope’s that there’s still hope” is an all-time great lyric.
163. “The Big Muddy,” Lucky Town. “Sooner or later it all comes down to money,” Springsteen sings against a meandering, languid track, a tale of blurred lines and rationalizations. There’s some lovely, unexpected Ry Cooder–esque guitar in the middle of this one.
162. “Stand on It,” Tracks. The story goes a little something like this: One night during the Born in the U.S.A. sessions, Bruce picked up a guitar and started writing a series of rockabilly songs. He was trying to capture the ability to make his audience laugh, an element he admired in his favorite performers, like Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis. All else aside, “Stand on It” is definitely three minutes of entertainment.
161. “All the Way Home,” Devils & Dust. Springsteen revisits the song he gave to Southside Johnny in 1991. His modern, low-key, alt-rock rendition stands in stark contrast to Southside’s soulful take.
160. “Racing in the Street (’78),” The Promise. With this version included, Darkness becomes a completely different album. It aches, to be sure, but it’s got hope glimmering in every note. The band plays at a lively pace, with David Lindley’s violin taking pride of place.
159. “Leavin’ Train,” Tracks. “Your eyes look like a leavin’ train,” Springsteen shouts, alongside a driving melody that feels like a train gaining speed. Although it has its good parts, this ‘90s-era outtake suffers from weak and anemic drums that don’t match the vigor of the rest, and the opening guitar lick feels too hair metal.
158. “Code of Silence,” The Essential Bruce Springsteen. An evocative, solid rave-up. (Kudos to Pittsburgh’s own Joe Grushecky for co-writing it.)
157. “Gypsy Biker,” Magic. Not all homecoming songs are about triumph. “Gypsy Biker” is a powerhouse when performed live, but we’ll never see it in concert again … unless Springsteen does an all-Magic tour.
156. “Two Faces,” Tunnel of Love. The song sequencing on Tunnel of Love is at its most genius with this track, hidden between “Tunnel of Love” and “Brilliant Disguise.” It’s about self-destructive tendencies that Springsteen didn’t even know that he had. As he told Peter Ames Carlin, “I realized I didn’t know how to be married.” He reveals these feelings over a minimal background, acoustic guitar, and the synth buried low. His vocals are laid bare, nothing buried in the tune, his voice on the edge of anguish.
155. “Magic,” Magic. This one is arranged with sounds you don’t expect in order to be discomfiting and uncomfortable. It’s certainly an appropriate mood for a song with the line, “Trust none of what you hear/and less of what you see.” Bruce is trying so hard to reveal that something is happening over there while the government is making us look over here. Then, he reinforces the point by going into “Last to Die,” a song about the never-ending body count.
154. “Frankie Fell in Love,” High Hopes. A glimmer of hope buried within this grab bag of a record, “Frankie Fell in Love” brims with exuberance and fun. It’s got a great melody, great vocals, great performance. How it didn’t become a set-list stalwart is beyond me.
153. “Man’s Job,” Human Touch. “Man’s Job” is Springsteen’s attempt to write a modern R&B ballad, something that gives him an excuse to bring Sam Moore to sing on backing vocals, along with Bobby King. The song has an infectious backbeat, and Bruce relishes the challenge of singing with another strong vocalist. And, of course, it lets him indulge his Sam & Dave fantasies.
152. “From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come),” The Essential Bruce Springsteen. A delightful classic rockabilly romp from end to end.
151. “Long Time Coming,” Devils & Dust. Most musicians can only wish they had random songs like “Long Time Coming” lying around. As an opening track to 2005’s Devils & Dust, it’s sweet enough, with interesting imagery. It’s too bad Springsteen detracts from it all by throwing in “Ain’t gonna fuck it up this time,” which is cheap, jarring, and just plain out of character for the song’s tone.
150. “Seven Angels,” Tracks. The vocals, equal parts dominant and relaxed, sell this ‘90s-era outtake. Springsteen shouts and screams and testifies with great driving percussion behind him, as guitars play in keys matching the organ. Underrated and overlooked.
149. “Highway 29,” The Ghost of Tom Joad. The tensile quality of the vocals gets you on this one, growing from verse to verse as the narrator’s situation gets worse, and then much worse. The keyboards and fingerpicking are so deep and buried, you feel them more than you hear them.
148. “Girls in Their Summer Clothes,” Magic. Bruce realizing his Brian Wilson fantasies and cribbing from Jagger and Richards in tribute. It’s a more than respectable pop song.
147. “Walk Like a Man,” Tunnel of Love. Springsteen’s relationship with his father has traveled galactic light years. He’s moved from telling stories about him, to writing about people like him (“Factory”), to writing songs about him directly (“Independence Day”), to this poignant, partly autobiographical number. Take note of the verse about Freehold: “We lived in the shadow of the elms” refers to his childhood home adjacent to St. Rose of Lima. The house is gone, but the tree still stands.
146. “Lonesome Day,” The Rising. Bruce’s song-sequencing instincts are highly underrated, never more so than with this record. The Rising doesn’t charge in with songs about faith or revenge, but rather with the one song that’s about the day after — the first day of everyday life for the person left behind. It’s upbeat but driven, capturing the force of will needed to put one foot in front of the other after your heart is ripped out of your chest.
145. “A Night With the Jersey Devil,” (online-only single). Bruce Springsteen absolutely, genuinely loves Halloween. Whenever he plays on Halloween, there’s always something special in the set list: In 1980, he had his roadies (dressed up like ghouls) carry him onstage in a coffin, and when he climbed out, he led the band in “Haunted House” by Johnny Fuller. Here, Bruce manages to combine both Halloween and New Jersey legends — the Jersey Devil is basically a Satanic Bigfoot — running his vocals through distortion and a bullet mic over a stop-time blues beat. It’s a lot of fun.
144. “Across the Border,” The Ghost of Tom Joad. We don’t know if the narrator is dying, going home, or crossing an actual border to go home, but you will weep by the end of this song. The track features gently loping acoustic guitar, layered with accordion and the most soothing vocals, like a mountain stream.
143. “Johnny Bye-Bye,” Tracks. Springsteen learned so much from Elvis Presley, including what not to do. “Johnnie Bye-Bye” is about exactly that. With a strong assist from Chuck Berry, the Boss pays tribute to the King with this simple, pointed, almost-rockabilly track. He initially recorded the demo with a drum machine and could have re-recorded it with real drums at any point, yet chose not to. The mechanical drums against Berry’s riff creates a deliberate emotional isolation that very much fits the lyrics. (If you ever go to Memphis, play it right as you turn onto Elvis Presley Boulevard on your way to Graceland. It’ll add yet another dimension to the track.)
142. “The Wrestler,” Working on a Dream. Springsteen deservedly won the Grammy and the Golden Globe for this song, which he wrote for the Mickey Rourke/Darren Aronofsky film of the same name. Springsteen’s gift of compression aids him both lyrically and musically, and he captures so much atmosphere and emotion in under four minutes — just enough time for the credits to roll.
141. “Mary’s Place,” The Rising. The theme of “Mary’s Place” is right in Springsteen’s wheelhouse, which is why it’s disappointing that the results are so uneven. The core of the story — “Tell me how do you live brokenhearted?” — displays phenomenal insight. The idea of using music as a form of prayer is a beautiful sentiment. The invocations to “turn it up” and “let it rain” offer absolution and immersion of very similar types.
140. “Leap of Faith,” Lucky Town. The melody is a little cloying, and combined with all of the mixed biblical allusions (the Red Sea, the holy land, Moses, parting waters, and Jesus all make an appearance), this track isn’t as strong as the rest of Lucky Town.
139. “Roll of the Dice,” Human Touch. An awful lot of gambling metaphors set against a standard rock melody. The best line is in the last verse: “I’m a thief in the house of love and I can’t be trusted.”
138. “We Take Care of Our Own,” Wrecking Ball. A strong, straightforward anthem. Springsteen minces no words with this one, though it loses a few points for extraneous electronic effects and textures that add nothing to the composition.
137. “All That Heaven Will Allow,” Tunnel of Love. An optimistic track, both lyrically and musically. The tune sounds fresh and hopeful, and Springsteen’s delivery is playfully relaxed. I always liked the detail on the line, “But I swear I left my wallet/Back home in my workin’ pants.”
136. “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch),” The River. Two versions of this song exist, with the same lyrics and the same title, so they’re both addressed with this listing. First, an early rockabilly version was cut early in the 1980–81 recording sessions that led up to The River. It’s always fun to hear Bruce try to be Elvis or Jerry Lee (more Jerry Lee here), and he stretches out of his comfort zone with interesting results. The River version is just a straight-ahead rocker, so it fits better with the record overall, but the rockabilly version absolutely has more depth.
135. “Jack of All Trades,” Wrecking Ball. The quietest song on the record, but easily the angriest. Exhaustion and desperation tinge Springsteen’s voice as he drives the melody toward a neat, Coplandesque bridge. He asks a lot of questions here without actually asking any actual questions. “Jack of all Trades” also has the honor of being number-two on the list of most misunderstood Springsteen songs, because people always applaud enthusiastically at the line, “If I had me a gun, I’d find the bastards and shoot ‘em on sight,” which is not a line to applaud in any fashion for any reason.
134. “Wild Billy’s Circus Story,” The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle. The power of this song lies in its specificity, the little details and the big ones. “It was also a song about the seduction and loneliness of a life outside the margins of everyday life,” Springsteen writes in Songs. He sets the tone with tuba, accordion, acoustic guitar, and mandolin, telling the story of a circus from setting up and settling in to packing up and moving on. “Hey son, you wanna try the big top? All aboard, Nebraska’s our next stop.”
133. “Shut Out the Light,” Tracks. An unfortunate outcome of “Born in the U.S.A.” domination: Springsteen’s other tremendous songs about Vietnam veteran homecomings are sadly overlooked. This stunning chronicle was actually a non-album B-side for “Born in the U.S.A.,” sharpening a very real point. He sings in a deliberate, flat, almost-monotone manner, echoing the character’s inner emotional state.
132. “For You,” Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. A song that feels dramatic the first time you hear it, especially if you’re a teenager. The tragic tale of lost love and suicide is intense, but decades later, it’s more histrionic and less believable.
129. “Darlington County,” Born in the U.S.A. The twangy, sprightly lilt makes this one feel a sibling to “Working on the Highway,” with a little more humor. The track would unintentionally become more meaningful 20 years later, due to the lines “Our pa’s each own one of the World Trade Centers/For a kiss and a smile I’ll give mine all to you.”
128. “Mansion on the Hill,” Nebraska. Nebraska resounds with biblical imagery, so here’s yet another very deliberate reference that draws from Appalachian mountain balladry. In Songs, Springsteen notes how he wrote from a child’s point of view, drawing from an early memory of a big white house positioned back above the road, a house that became a symbol of, and a repository for, his dreams.
127. “Local Hero,” Lucky Town. According to Springsteen, “Local Hero” was based on the experience of seeing his photograph displayed at the CVS on Main Street in Freehold. Wrapped up in some assertive, bold acoustic playing, it’s a wry, self-deprecating reflection of the by-products of fame. You won’t forget the payoff line: “These days I’m feeling all right/’Cept I can’t tell my courage from my desperation.”
126. “Jackson Cage,” The River. I’ll be honest: Even after all these years, I’m still not sure what the Jackson Cage is meant to be. Yes, it’s a metaphor for being trapped by the circumstances of one’s life and yearning for a way out. But Springsteen also talks about “crossed swords on the killing floor” (a phrase he likes to use, but rarely deploys with success), which seems a bit brutal, all things considered. It’s a solid melody and a fine performance, but when I hear it, I mostly just think of “Roulette” and the other songs that didn’t make The River. What distinguished this particular cut in his mind?
125. “Give the Girl a Kiss,” Tracks. This is the kind of song Springsteen thinks about when he describes why The River needed tracks that evoked an E Street Band show. Initially recorded for Darkness, it sounds like a cover — and to be fair, it’s based roughly on a Shangri-Las song with a similar title — but it’s a glorious, raucous celebration of the music at the roots of the band, featuring the Horns of Love to boot. Clemons’s wonderfully deep bass voice sings us out at the end.
124. “You’re Missing,” The Rising. In Songs, Springsteen describes this track as “the daily details of loss.” It’s a recitation of the small things, but his vocal delivery carries remarkable emotional tenor. The disbelief manifests itself in his voice.
123. “Held Up Without a Gun,” The Essential Bruce Springsteen. Eighty fabulous seconds of balls-out raving about the late-’70s gasoline crisis.
122. “Livin’ in the Future,” Magic. When Springsteen introduced this song on the 2008 Magic tour, he said, “This is a song called ‘Livin’ in the Future,’ but it’s about what’s happening right now.” It’s probably the most sarcastic of his compositions. The good-time sax solo and get-down party music juxtapose with the lyrics in such a strong way. Bruce wants us to understand the hypocrisy of violating basic American civil liberties in the name of keeping America safe.
121. “Lucky Town,” Lucky Town. With all those clever turns of phrase, this song gets better every time you listen to it. The singing and performances feel loose and relaxed, but it’s quite deep. “Lucky Town” fits right in alongside the album’s other songs about relationships, growing up, and commitment. It’s one of the twangier numbers, both in instrumentation and vocal delivery. This tale of the inveterate rambler rolling to a stop is a keeper.
120. “Fire,” The Promise. Springsteen wrote “Fire” for Elvis. Think about that again: He wrote it for Elvis Presley. It’s so sad that the song went to Robert Gordon, not just because Elvis died before Springsteen ever got a response, but also because this is the closest to the King that Springsteen would ever let himself be.
119. “Paradise by the ‘C’,” The Ties That Bind. Star time! “Paradise” is Springsteen’s only all-instrumental composition, and it exists solely to put the spotlight on the Big Man. (Don’t he look great? He lost a lot of weight.) For a long time, you only knew about this song if you were there back in the day, or you bought the Live 1975–1985 box set. (Its inclusion was one of the things they got right with that release.) It was played frequently on the ‘78 tour and in Europe in ‘88, but hasn’t surfaced since. For reasons beyond anyone’s understanding, a studio version was included in the The Ties That Bind box set, even though it is highly unlikely the song was actually recorded during that period. It was probably thrown on just because Bruce misses Clarence.
118. “Nebraska,” Nebraska. Springsteen talks about knowing that he’d found “the record’s center” when he finished writing this song, and points to the “small detail — the slow twirling of a baton, the twisting of a ring on a finger” as the reason the story resonates. The track has its basis in the Starkweather killings; he saw Badlands, which led him to a book written by a local journalist named Ninette Beaver, whom he would also interview. The vocal delivery is what ultimately sells “Nebraska,” so empty and detached, discouraging any suggestion that the song glorifies violence.
117. “Hearts of Stone,” Tracks. Bruce is hurting, and he’s going to tell you all about it. Sit down real close and listen good. Van Zandt perfectly colors the chorus on backing vocals, and the entire band is feeling it, slow and steady, with perfect, soulful precision.
116. “Seaside Bar Song,” Tracks. It’s a song about the time Bo Diddley played a gig down the Shore, and everyone danced nonstop inside the club and outside in the sand. If you could bottle the sound of that one night, this is what it would be. There’s Bo Diddley guitar, Farfisa organ, Springsteen exuberantly tumbling through the lyrics, and a buoyant sax solo. “Daddy, can’t you turn up the radio any louder?”
115. “I’m on Fire,” Born in the U.S.A. Definitely one for the ladies. “I’m on Fire” is a tale of smoldering lust, sung in a seductively sullen croon against an insistent backbeat.
114. “Frankie,” Tracks. This seven-minute epic outtake was first performed in the spring of 1976. Springsteen has such strong instincts about arrangements that the listener never gets lost, and to be sure, “Frankie” has some ambitious and wonderful moments. (Even if he did them better, both musically and thematically, on “Kitty’s Back” and “Rosalita.”) The song ranks where it does because witnessing the E Street Band perform it is a tremendous moment, provided the bozos next to you don’t talk through the whole thing.
113. “Radio Nowhere,” Magic. A perfect single, a heartfelt paean to the days of catching AM signals across the country, an anthem to the power of the radio airwaves. Bonus points given for Springsteen finally figuring out how to use “Is anybody really alive out there?” in a song. The Elvis invocation closes the loop, reaffirming Springsteen’s connection to the days when Dewey Phillips was broadcasting on WHBQ, when Cousin Brucie was on WABC in New York, when Kid Leo was coming out of Cleveland on WMMS.
112. “Crush on You,” The River. The song owes a lot to punk rock. It’s fun, breathless, and exciting, as Springsteen spits out the words with exaggerated deliberateness and Clemons blows his best King Curtis riff in the background. A highly underrated number in the catalogue.
111. “Thundercrack,” Tracks. A legend in fan circles, Springsteen wrote “Thundercrack” back in the days when no one knew who he was. He wanted to leave audiences with something they weren’t expecting, something that would change directions multiple times: “It was just a big, epic show-ender that was meant to leave the audience gasping a little bit for their breath,” he told MOJO in 1998. It’s a boundless, fantastic adventure, with swooping organ, jazzy drums, harmony vocals, tasteful guitar solos, reprises and bridges and instrumental breaks, multiple sax solos, and plenty of opportunity for audience participation. The first time I heard this song live, at Asbury Park Convention Hall, a couple thousand people circled their hands in the air “round and round and round and round.” It was nothing short of sheer magic.
110. “Where the Bands Are,” Tracks. Disc two strikes again! That side harmony on the choruses is straight out of the Van Zandt Power-Pop Playbook. The song is a sympathetic celebration of music fandom, delivered with earnest, ebullient vocals, and half a dozen little sonic touches: hand claps, oooh-ooohs, aaah-aaahs, heys, and compact sax solo.
109. “I Wanna Marry You,” The River. “I Wanna Marry You” is a beautiful ballad, full of the hope and optimism that comes with new love. It embodies the sultry, languid attitude of a cocksure young Casanova, with the music to match. There are maracas (“The instruments of love,” Springsteen declared while introducing the song in 2015), there is a cha-cha beat, and there is that one moment before the last verse when Springsteen pauses and takes a breath: “Oh darlin’,” he sings, mustering all of the hope and innocence and desire of the previous verses, channeling his best Roy Orbison.
108. “Don’t Look Back,” Tracks. This is what it sounds like when Springsteen pursues his power-pop agenda, even though the vocal delivery belongs on a rock-and-roll number. The song didn’t work convincingly enough to make it onto Darkness — and when Bruce gave it away to the Knack, they also sidelined it. For all of its good points, “Don’t Look Back” isn’t really about anything, which is probably why it got cut. Nevertheless, “You gotta walk it, talk it, in your heart” is a perfect, unforgettable line.
107. “Wages of Sin,” Tracks. This song catches you by surprise. It opens with random guitar strumming, then the band comes in solemnly, with an almost-orchestral sound. They’re on their A-game here, as the anguish in Springsteen’s voice tinges the composition with an atmosphere of doom and regret about the unfixable parts of a relationship.
106. “I’m a Rocker,” The River. A nearly picture-perfect representation of the band in the early ‘80s. “I’m a Rocker” has a playful melody, open and expressive vocals, and a fun story. Only the E Street Band could get away with something so unabashedly corny and unironic.
105. “Be True,” Tracks. Hidden on the B-side of the “Fade Away” single (with that classic Joel Bernstein photograph of Springsteen on the Asbury Park boardwalk), “Be True” is a brilliant gem of a pop single, so wistful, delicate, and plaintive. Clarence’s solo at the end is the cherry on top.
104. “Used Cars,” Nebraska. “Now the neighbors come from near and far/As we pull up in our brand-new used car.” That’s a Hemingway short-story contest winner right there.
103. “So Young and in Love,” Tracks. Bruce does his best Jackie Wilson imitation on this track, and he pulls it off with aplomb. Technically, it’s just a few steps from his rewritten version of “A Love So Fine” by the Chiffons. (Recognize the “rat traps filled with soul crusaders” line?) The vocals are full of exuberance and ecstasy, and Clemons is the unequivocal star, his sax running a counterpoint beneath the vocal melody. “Meant to blow your head off,” Bruce told MOJO in 1998.
102. “Brothers Under the Bridge,” Tracks. Not to be confused with “Brothers Under the Bridge (’83),” this Joad outtake considers the experience of Vietnam veterans after they returned home. It’s rock arrangement, but this is a folk song, pure and simple, sad and true.
101. “Youngstown,” The Ghost of Tom Joad. The intricate subtlety of the background instrumentation is simply outstanding: pedal steel and strings, brushes on the cymbals. The same words appear in every chorus, but they imply different emotional states based on the preceding verses. Plus, can you name another song that mentions the Monongahela Valley and the Mesabi Iron Range?
100. “Spare Parts,” Tunnel of Love. Songs about coitus interruptus weren’t exactly chart-toppers in 1988, but the raw emotion in Springsteen’s voice absolutely sells “Spare Parts.” He’s hurt and angry and the music backs it all up. Fierce harmonica and a quick pace mirror Janey’s stream of consciousness, as anguish pushes her to the very edge. She’s thinking about drowning her child, thinking about jumping right in with him — but then she decides against it and goes home, hocking her wedding dress and ring so she can get on with her life. Go, Janey.
99. “Talk to Me,” The Promise. The sound of summertime on the Jersey Shore, period.
98. “Lost in the Flood,” Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. The first of the great epics. It almost overreaches — “nuns run bald through Vatican halls” and all that — but the song ultimately tips the right way because the music is both grand and understated. It swells when it should, then drops back down in the next measure. “He leans on the hood telling racin’ stories, the kids call him Jimmy the Saint,” is the moment when the melody explodes to life, as David Sancious hits the notes like he’s playing in a distinguished symphony hall. When it’s performed live, “Lost in the Flood” is the E Street Band at its finest: thundering mightily, but with absolute control, able to stop at the lift of a hand or the strike of a heel.
97. “Pink Cadillac,” Tracks. Springsteen put it best in the notes he sent to Jon Landau with the Nebraska cassette: “Self-explanatory.” The music is down and dirty, embodying the sound of bar band in the corner of a dive with a packed dance floor “on a Saturday night.” Extra points for “My love is bigger than a Honda/It’s bigger than a Subaru.”
96. “The Wish,” Tracks. Directly autobiographical, “The Wish” is the touching story of how Adele Springsteen used money the family didn’t have to buy Bruce a guitar. The best moment comes at the end, when he switches from past tense to present tense: “Well, tonight I’m taking requests here in the kitchen.”
95. “Two Hearts,” The River. Here’s one of the lighter moments on The River, a bridge between the heartrending ballads and tales of misery. It’s a fairly straight-ahead proposition: “Two hearts are better than one.” Springsteen tells a tale that could be about anyone, male or female, about thinking you’re tough enough to not need a companion. His voice is open and full of yearning, Van Zandt adds delightful harmony vocals in counterpoint, and a quasi-Farfisa organ noodles in the background. That’s probably the best part of the track, which is suiting, since it’s the last thing you hear before one final drum roll closes things out.
94. “Man at the Top,” Tracks. “The real dream is not the dream, it’s life without complications. And that doesn’t exist,” Springsteen told Rolling Stone in 1987. There’s a little gospel flavor on this Born in the U.S.A. outtake, but the melody is almost too lightweight for the lyrics. When it’s performed live without the extraneous ornamentation, you feel its bones and the strength of the composition. (Yes, he’s only done it three times, but it was still breathtaking.) Regardless of form, the line “Here comes a kid with a guitar in his hand/Dreaming of his record in number-one spot” always tugs at the heartstrings.
93. “Downbound Train,” Born in the U.S.A. This would be a sad story of lost love and regret, but two elements elevate it: the lonely, hollow organ chords underneath the main melody, and the bridge. When the rest of the band drops out, it’s just Springsteen’s voice and the aforementioned organ notes, which, bereft of surrounding instrumentation, sound like a train whistle echoing in the distance. So simple, yet so compelling.
92. “Into the Fire,” The Rising. The first song Springsteen wrote for the album. In Songs, he suggests it was “a folk blues with a gospel chorus, the grittiness and sacrifice of the blues giving the gospel elements … their meaning.” He continues: “The picture I couldn’t let go of was the emergency workers going up the stairs as others rushed down to safety. The sense of duty, the courage. Ascending into … what?” My brother is a firefighter, and I cannot listen to this song without choking up.
91. “Back in Your Arms,” Tracks. We saw Bruce working this one on the Blood Brothers DVD, it was filmed during the Greatest Hits recording sessions, and then it disappeared until Tracks. He has a considerable amount of pride and vanity around his soul voice — it’s no small thing to directly emulate your idols — and he goes full-throttle here, invoking Otis Redding’s “These Arms of Mine” and “That’s How Strong My Love Is.” Big shoes to fill, and this is a worthy attempt.
90. “Better Days,” Lucky Town. An optimistic, boisterous statement of intent. Better days didn’t simply show up; he’s willing them into existence. “Tonight I’m laying in your arms carvin’ lucky charms,” Springsteen sings, “Out of these hard luck bones.” The affirmation reappears in the third verse, when he roars, “This fool’s halfway to heaven and just a mile outta hell/And I feel like I’m coming home.” The melody consists mostly of a sequence of organ chords, with a handful of guitar notes sprinkled over the top. The emotion in the vocals is what sells the song.
89. “Something in the Night,” Darkness on the Edge of Town. One of Springsteen’s great driving songs. The first verse says it all: “Turn the radio up loud so I don’t have to think at all.” Bruce pulls a great soulful vocal out from the center of his chest, while the E Street Band nails a complex orchestral performances that’s so subtle and nuanced you almost don’t feel it. The band drops away before the end, leaving a kick drum behind Springsteen while he reveals the story’s end. Everybody jumps back in, though, as Bruce keens with anguish to close the track.
88. “One Step Up,” Tunnel of Love. Springsteen notes that this is one of four songs on Tunnel of Love that “tell the story of men whose inner sense of themselves is in doubt.” Doubt is the key element here, reflected in the uncertain pace of the vocals, as Springsteen sings over a quietly repetitive acoustic guitar.
87. “Meeting Across the River,” Born to Run. Springsteen at his most dramatic and deliberately cinematic. It’s more musical theater than rock and roll, more jazz than anything else. Bruce’s voice is the main instrument, accompanied by a haunting, unforgettable trumpet melody that’s backed by double bass and piano. Although it’s been performed without going straight into “Jungleland,” the stars align for a split second every time it is.
86. “Valentine’s Day,” Tunnel of Love. A song called “Valentine’s Day” that you would never want to hear on Valentine’s Day. It’s a story about running away, about fear, about facing what you know you want. It’s not manic or driven, but gently loping. Springsteen’s voice hovers naked above the mix, full of hope.
85. “I Wanna Be With You,” Tracks. Pure pop for modern people. The song opens with a near-perfect, suspenseful intro that features eight beats of guitar chord, before Springsteen’s “Hey!” brings in Bittan’s power chords. That’s when the vocals slam the door open: “Let the frozen cities crumble, crumble and fall.” Bruce sings with a determined abandon, openly declaring his love. He loosens up even more in the last verse, just after a warm and bubbly sax solo from Clemons. The title gives it away, but “I Wanna Be With You” is meant to be an unabashed Raspberries tribute. It more than succeeds.
84. “Blinded by the Light,” Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. In a simple and unadorned way, Springsteen uses language as another instrument: “Madman drummers bummers and Indians in the summer,” “in the dumps with the mumps as the adolescent pumps,” those mmms functioning as a bass line. As an opening salvo, “Blinded by the Light” remains impressive, even if a little bit naïve. It’s an impressionist painting of Jersey Shore life and its characters.
83. “If I Should Fall Behind,” Lucky Town. The number-one wedding song for Springsteen fans offers a lovely, simple promise: “I’ll wait for you/And if I should fall behind wait for me.”
82. “Cover Me,” Born in the U.S.A. Springsteen has a habit of writing songs for other people, then liking them so much he hangs on to them. “Hungry Heart” is probably the most well-known — he famously wrote it for the Ramones — but “Cover Me” is another great example. He wrote it for Donna Summer, as he explains in Songs: “She could really sing and I disliked the veiled racism of the anti-disco movement.” Rhythmically, you can hear how this song was meant for Summer. The E Street Band is perfectly dialed into that groove, but Bruce plants it firmly back on his side of the road with sharp, incisive guitar solos that slice right through the beat.
81. “Murder Incorporated,” Greatest Hits. A full-throttle rocker, the kind of song that the E Street Band eats for lunch. Initially an outtake from Born in the U.S.A., “Murder Incorporated” is supposed to be a metaphor for “the paranoia and compounded violence of life in America,” but when it’s played live, most people are too busy shaking their asses to think about any larger meaning — and that’s totally okay.
80. “It’s So Hard to Be a Saint in the City,” Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. “Saint” is a street epic. It’s a view of New York through the eyes of a kid who arrived from somewhere else, who sees significance in the mundane. Springsteen delivers the best of his street-hipster cool alongside a musical arrangement that does the story justice.
79. “Ramrod,” The River. Just so much fun. “Ramrod” is loose and dirty. It’s the E Street Band as a good-time, party-rock bar band. It’s Tallent and Clemons anchoring the song, swinging deep and low along the bottom. It’s Federici swinging in the back with that Farfisa-like beat. This unequivocal gem is positioned on The River right between “Stolen Car” and “The Price You Pay,” giving the listener some life and a glimmer of hope.
78. “Out in the Street,” The River. Springsteen has a special knack for capturing the ritual of getting ready to go out on the weekend. It’s there in “Night” on Born to Run, and it’s on this track from The River. “Out in the Street” is full of excitement and anticipation, that feeling of changing out of work clothes and into party clothes, heading out the door and leaving the week behind. Springsteen’s voice is eager and full of promise, and Clarence’s sax solo is the sound of your friends honking at you from downstairs to get out here already. To understand what makes “Out in the Street” so great, just listen to the second verse: “And Monday when the foreman calls time/I’ve already got Friday on my mind.” It’s a blatant and direct lift from the Easybeats’ “Friday on My Mind,” which Springsteen might have played during his days gigging up and down the Jersey Shore in cover bands. He would return the favor in 2014, when he finally covered “Friday on My Mind” while touring in Australia. It was a ferocious, note-perfect tribute.
77. “The Fever,” 18 Tracks. Springsteen gave this one away, folks. He wrote it and gave it to Southside Johnny, who recorded and released a fine version, to be sure. “Fever” was recorded as part of the Wild & Innocent sessions, and it was distributed to friendly radio stations to build anticipation for the next record. If you lived in a Springsteen stronghold, you might have known it already, or maybe you heard it live on the ‘78 tour. It’s a loose and languid song, and it embraces a different kind of smoldering soulfulness than the Asbury Jukes version. (Southside is more Otis, Bruce is more Sam Cooke.) The E Street arrangement is jazzy, dominated by piano, organ, cymbals, finger snaps, and the best part, the band singing on the choruses. “Fever” is also a vivid snapshot of the E Street Band at a very particular place and time, when they were still lost boys. There’s something melancholy and wistful about that.
76. “Loose Ends,” Tracks. The pure pop sensibility of “Loose Ends” is undeniably fabulous, the story is heart-wrenching, and the verses are solid … but there’s something about the language that feels awkward. See: “It’s like we had a noose and baby without check/We pulled until it grew tighter around our necks.” Though it’s a fascinating premise, it doesn’t scan as smoothly as it should.
75. “Last to Die,” Magic. “We don’t measure the blood we’ve drawn anymore/We just stack the bodies outside the door,” Springsteen sings, wondering when the killing will end. His voice is filled with a mixture of resignation and desperation, which crashes against a frantic, agitated, full-on rock performance. The emotion of “Last to Die” feels less abstract and more personal, and I’ve often wondered if the anguish doesn’t come from Bruce’s personal guilt about avoiding the Vietnam draft, about watching his friends, neighbors, bandmates, and fellow musicians go off and never come back.
74. “Living Proof,” Lucky Town. “Children are the ‘living proof’ of our belief in one another, that love is real,” Springsteen notes in Songs. Written not long after the birth of his first child, Bruce reaffirms that question he has attempted to answer throughout his career: “I want to know if love is real.” The song is solemn, but offers a declaration: This is truth, this is understanding, this is life. His voice carries exultation and relief, buoyed by ringing, heraldic guitar chords. Yes, the synthesizer comes in eventually, but the guitar and vocals are righteous enough to overlook it.
73. “Restless Nights,” Tracks. Opening disc two of Tracks, also known as “Steve Van Zandt’s Favorite Springsteen Record,” this luscious pop melody belies dark lyrics. (“My baby, she has restless nights.”) There’s a shimmering organ line from Federici on the bridge, a nice little guitar solo, and some tight harmonies.
72. “Sherry Darling,” The River. Springsteen’s introduction at the Agora on August 9, 1978, tells you everything you need to know: “There was this kind of music not widely known but it was called Fraternity Rock — and you don’t know what that is. Now Fraternity Rock, that was like ‘Louie Louie,’ that was like ‘Farmer John’ by the Premiers, that was a song by the Swingin’ Medallions called ‘Double Shot of My Baby’s Love’ — no hits up here, right. Anyway, the big, the big thing that these records had, you see, was that on it the audience was at least twice as loud as the band. […] I think you got the idea! So when Clarence holds up the ‘applause’ signs — no, I mean when you feel it! When it moves you! This is called ‘Sherry Darling.’ It should’ve been a single, it should’ve been released in the summertime.”
71. “Light of Day,” MTV Plugged. This particular version of “Light of Day” does everything it can to ruin what it means to be a barnburner. Springsteen’s vocals are about the only good thing of note. (And this isn’t blind hatred of the ‘92 band, just this exact performance.) It ranks as high as it does for two reasons: the power of the actual song, and how it absolutely improves any concert set list.
70. “Wreck on the Highway,” The River. Springsteen openly admitted that he stole the title of this song from Roy Acuff, but he liberally borrowed other elements from country music as well: the melody, the organ riff, and the stark brutality of the story. “On a rainy highway the character witnesses a fatal accident. He drives home, and lying awake that night next to his lover, he realizes you have a limited number of opportunities to love someone, to do your work, to be a part of something, to parent your children, to do something good,” he writes in Songs. It’s the last track of The River, and after the vocals conclude, Springsteen uses an extended instrumental outro for the entire final minute. After such an intense, emotional experience, the listener needs to breathe and recover.
69. “Highway Patrolman,” Nebraska. An unflinching portrait about hard choices, family ties, and our essential humanity. I thought a lot about this song’s unabashed sympathy for its characters around the time a Fraternal Order of Police leader called Bruce a “floating fag” for writing “American Skin.”
68. “My Father’s House,” Nebraska. This one hits you right in the gut. You don’t exactly know what’s going on, what inspired the longing and the fear in the song’s lyrics. In 1990, Springsteen offered an unexpected explanation: He used to drive by one of his childhood houses all the time, and when he started seeing a therapist, he asked why he was doing it. The therapist explained, “You’re going back thinking you can make it right again. Something went wrong, and you keep going back to see if you can fix it.” Springsteen replied, “That is what I’m doing.” And the therapist told him, “Well, you can’t.”
67. “Real World,” Human Touch. Co-written with Bittan, this song remains phenomenal despite suffering from the worst of ‘90s production values. There’s a random clanging doorbell on the eighth downbeat, what sounds like the cheapest Casio keyboard mucking up the melody, and the pace is entirely too rushed. But Springsteen’s vocal delivery is straight and powerful, while the lyrics stand with some of his best work. Alongside “Human Touch,” it’s a moving and honest continuation of his post–Tunnel of Love emotional state. Plus, a decent guitar solo covers up the worst of the production garbage. “Real World” ultimately triumphs as a solo piano performance, and I’m sure there’s a version with the full band that’s just dying to come out.
66. “Seeds,” Live 1975–1985. The most underrated of Springsteen’s overtly political songs, “Seeds” is a new riff on The Grapes of Wrath, the story of a hopeful family that tries to follow the oil boom to Texas and comes up empty-handed. It’s bitter, precise, and brutal, with the music to match. Bruce spits out the words, while Nils Lofgren strums big, melodic chords. This one still comes out on tours when he wants to make a particular point, but nowhere near often enough.
65. “Night,” Born to Run. It doesn’t matter if you never worked a blue-collar day in your life, there is no way you cannot identify with “Night.” The melody is the sound of the night itself, that time when you’re only accountable to yourself, when you can be whomever you want: “You work nine to five and somehow you survive till the night.” The song has mystery and madness and love — there’s always a girl — as Bruce takes you with him through the rat traps and the soul crusaders and the chromed invaders. You can’t help but believe.
64. “I’m Goin’ Down,” Born in the U.S.A. This is the dark horse of the record, which is a pity. “I’m Goin’ Down” is another one of those tracks that balances a bouncy, almost-rockabilly tune with darker lyrics. It’s a story about a relationship on the verge of deterioration, wrapped up in a three-and-a-half minute pop song. It isn’t performed often, but it’s an awful lot of fun when it does show up.
63. “Blood Brothers,” Greatest Hits. Springsteen wrote this song “on the eve of recording with the E Street Band again,” just before they went into the studio to record bonus tracks for Greatest Hits in 1995. A bit surprisingly, this ode to E Street isn’t a hard-driving anthem about the redemptive power of rock and roll. It’s a quiet, gently lilting, contemplative number that’s full of hesitancy and uncertainty. “Blood Brothers” makes no attempt to revise history. “We were women and men,” reminds us that Patti Scialfa wasn’t simply an E Street auxiliary, and there’s brave ambivalence in that last verse: “I don’t know why I made this call/or if any of this matters anymore after all.” It’s been played live (for paying audiences) exactly three times: the last show of the Reunion tour, the last show of the Rising tour, and to open the set in the second show after Federici’s passing, in 2008. There’s also an alternate version on the Blood Brothers EP, which is the diametric opposite of this one. It sounds more modern, with an almost Gaelic atonal chanting of the first verse.
62. “County Fair,” The Essential Bruce Springsteen. With some of Springsteen’s outtakes, the hype is less about the quality than elusiveness … and then there are the others, which absolutely earn it. “County Fair” belongs in the latter class. Springsteen creates an entire world in less than five minutes. It’s all there, from the crickets in the intro and the AM-radio crackle of the recording to the soft heat of a summer evening in the tone of his voice. Take note of the crafted, elegant detail: the banner across Main Street, the stuffed bears, James Young and the Immortal Ones, “just two guitars, baby, bass and drums.” Sadly, this Born in the U.S.A. outtake just didn’t fit the vision of the album.
61. “Open All Night,” Nebraska. “In which the hero braves snow, sleet, rain, and the highway patrol for a kiss from his baby’s lips,” Springsteen noted when he sent the original Nebraska demos to Landau. “Open All Night” is the soundtrack of driving the New Jersey Turnpike in the middle of the night, radio relay towers glowing red in the distance. The unadorned version of the song absolutely cooks, but Springsteen has struggled with the live rendition over the years, most recently tarting it up in an over-the-top big-band rendition, completely unnecessary for a song with the key lyric, “Hey ho, rock and roll, deliver me from nowhere.”
60. “The E Street Shuffle,” The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle. The cacophony of the opening brass and the funk of the chicken-scratch guitar send a clear message: The E Street Band has arrived. The tales are sharper, the details more specific, the scenarios a little less fanciful, the music tighter, and Springsteen’s vocals more controlled. It’s a microcosm of the elements that would mark his best compositions from now until forever: horn lines, rock-solid bass lines, party noises, and a key lyric for crowd response. (“Everybody form a line.”) When “Shuffle” shows up on a set list, the instrumental outro with horns, percussion, bass, and guitar can still push the E Street Band to the top of their game.
59. “Bobby Jean,” Born in the U.S.A. “‘Bobby Jean’ was a good song about youthful friendship,” is as far as Springsteen goes in Songs. You can’t really blame him for being vague. The beauty of the song is its universality — there’s a reason the name in the title is ambiguous — because everyone can identify with early friendships that must inevitably change. Of course, the last verse seems like it was inspired by Van Zandt’s 1983 announcement that he’d be leaving the E Street Band, but it could very well be about anyone you know, anyone who hits the road to find what they need. The absolute highlight of the track is Clemons’s heartrending solo, warm and rich against the backdrop of the lyrical, repetitive melody. Buon viaggio, mio fratello.
58. “Candy’s Room,” Darkness on the Edge of Town. “Candy’s Room” is often a precursor to “She’s the One” during live shows, since they’re similar tales of naked lust and desire. But “Candy’s Room” is more about taking action — he’s going to walk the darkness of Candy’s hall — and the music conveys that theme brilliantly. Weinberg rides the hi-hat on the intro, and Springsteen quietly delivers the opening lines before gets to the good stuff, before he tells us what it’s like being with Candy. The drum roll is fast-paced until the entire band comes in on the midpoint, and then once again before they break for the guitar solo, so elegant and full of tension. Bittan comes in at the end to heighten the song’s energy, and then the drums return, pushing forward until that very last note, crashing the cymbals as the guitar notes soar into the distance.
57. “The Ties That Bind,” The River. Want to know why the first version of The River was called The Ties That Bind? This song is album’s mission statement. True to its name, it’s a brisk, hopeful rocker with a clear and unadorned vocal delivery.
56. “Reason to Believe,” Nebraska. “Reason to Believe” is song about blind faith and dogged belief. I always appreciated the balance of its construction: In the second verse, Johnny walks out on Mary Lou; in the fourth verse, a man gets stood up at the altar, subverting expectations. When Springsteen sent the demos to Jon Landau, he noted that the song was “culled from my own experience driving down Highway 33 on my way to Millstone.” It’s fascinating to consider how a dude poking a dead dog with a stick on the side of the road could result in this (or any) song.
55. “Take ‘Em As They Come,” Tracks. This River outtake is one of the great lost Springsteen songs. It’s another dark tale paired against a bright, classic pop melody with aching vocals. (Bruce sings his own counterpoint coming out of the left channel.) At the end, the song kicks into another instrumental refrain, with Weinberg driving the beat for a few seconds before a melody swings back for the true reprise.
54. “Streets of Fire,” Darkness on the Edge of Town. A deliberately overwrought song. All of the restraint exercised on the rest of Darkness is abandoned in “Streets on Fire” because the main character has stopped fighting fate. Springsteen toggles convincingly between world-weary and strung-out before blasting unrestrained into the choruses. Federici backs all of this with solemn, churchlike chords, and the whole band comes in swinging. Bonus points for the tightly wound guitar solo.
53. “Rocky Ground,” Wrecking Ball. The most interesting, forward-thinking, experimental song of the post-reunion era. And somehow, it still has bona fide ties to everything that came before it. It’s not surprising that Springsteen would want to experiment with loops and mechanical beats to see how they could be applied to his creative process. It’s not surprising that the man who wrote “madman drummer bummers like Indians in the summer” would try his hand at rapping after all those years of listening to it. (Even though he ultimately asked Michelle Moore to handle the rap verse.) And after a few attempts to work with traditional gospel constructs, it’s not surprising he’d try to write something more contemporary. “Rocky Ground” is undeniably fresh, inspirational, and uplifting. It soothes your heart and uplifts your spirit, which is exactly what gospel is supposed to do.
52. “Johnny 99,” Nebraska. Nebraska pulls so much straight from folk music, but more than any of the other tracks on the record, “Johnny 99” has an aching, timeless feel to it. If you swapped out the references, this could be any tale of a man falling afoul of the law, getting trapped by his own mistakes. You can easily imagine hearing it next to a campfire, sung by a lone cowboy roaming the Plains with a guitar strapped across his back. Springsteen played it solo acoustic in the Enormo-domes on the Born in the U.S.A. tour, but it’s maddening that modern versions have run the gamut from zydeco to an exaggerated countrylike melody, all of which does the composition a grave disservice.
51. “Kitty’s Back,” The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle. There’s a reason why this song was performed when the E Street Band were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The horns are hot from the first note, the guitar intro is already on fire. The gauntlet is immediately thrown down. “Kitty’s Back” is a seven-minute, free-jazz exploration: Springsteen scat singing, the baritone sax holding the line, the other brass and the guitar playing the melody. Sancious’s keyboards are languid, and this is Vini Lopez’s best percussion work. When performed live, though, the song becomes something else. That’s when it lets its hair down, when it soars, when it becomes a fleeting, totally unique experience. Federici was in his element in those moments, playing with an energy and a deftness that broadcasted his instinctive, deep-seated feel for the music. Whenever Bruce would let “Kitty’s Back” out on a long leash in concert, he would shout and nod and pump his fist while Bittan and Danny played it back and forth. The fans snapped their fingers and sang back, “Here she comes, here she comes,” before Bruce and the band explode: “Kitty’s back in town!” And then, right after the final coda hit — “Oooooh, all right, all right” — the horns sneak in for one last gasp.
50. “Long Walk Home,” Magic. Without a doubt, this is one of the best and most important songs Springsteen wrote in the ‘00s. “Long Walk Home” is about the framework of the country ceasing to support the people who built it. He’s pointing out the cracks in the foundation, stating unequivocally that the situation is unacceptable. The lyrics are concise and precise; the images evocative and heartrending. It’s almost cinematic. This isn’t a song where the music and the lyrics are deliberately at odds. The E Street Band are sounding the goddamn alarm, telling you to wake up and pay attention. The guitars are a combustion engine, driving the energy up and pushing the song forward. The most breathtaking moment is the handoff to the sax solo, both at the bridge and the end: Bruce stops soloing under the rhythm line, and after just a breath, Clarence comes in for his solo, picking up the baton like he and Bruce are a pair of relay runners.
49. “Cadillac Ranch,” The River. Few songs capture the buoyant, loose fun of the E Street Band better than “Cadillac Ranch.” This one got its title from a renegade art installation just outside of Amarillo, Texas, which consists of ten vintage Cadillacs buried nose-first into a cornfield.
48. “Spirit in the Night,” Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. Springsteen abandons the rhyming dictionary to tell a story about Wild Billy, G-Man, Hazy Davy, and Killer Joe on a soft summer night, lightning bugs flickering in the distance. And if that’s not enough, it’s lit up by an elegant, soft solo from Clemons.
47. “Drive All Night,” The River. It’s slow-dance time. “Drive All Night” is a straight soul crooner, a chance for Springsteen to live out his Sam Cooke fantasies. He’s lost his love, but there’s still hope: “I swear I’d drive all night again/Just to buy you some shoes,” Bruce sings, breathless and utterly believable. Clemons’s sax solo represents the aural embodiment of that bright, soaring hope.
46. “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy),” The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle. For so many diehard fans — the ones who make pilgrimages to the Jersey Shore so they can stand on the boardwalk and pose for photographs next to Madam Marie’s — this song is sacred ground. Even non-fans who grew up hearing “Asbury Park” on FM radio will smile wistfully when it’s played. Still, one has to wonder if this song would be as important if it didn’t have the words “Asbury Park” in the title. There are better boardwalk songs, better beach songs, and better tales of Shore legends. (Just look one spot above, at “Growin’ Up.”) Bonus points for Federici’s accordion, which embodies the sounds of the Shore.
45. “Growin’ Up,” Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. The best song on the first record. “Growin’ Up” has the tightest structure, the most self-aware humor, the most sophistication, and the strongest songwriting. It runs the emotional gamut from caution to the balls-out confidence of “When they said sit down, I stood up.”
44. “My Hometown,” Born in the U.S.A. For all of Springsteen’s songs about his native state, this one reveals more about life on the Jersey Shore than any of the tales that preceded it. Bruce writes eloquently about his relationship with his father, the race riots in Asbury Park, the economic aftermath of white flight, and its ensuing impact on his generation, his neighbors, and his titular hometown.
43. “Glory Days,” Born in the U.S.A. People love this number for its old-timey singalong style, the repetition of the organ chords, and its general celebration of drinking, beer, and baseball. But it’s a fastball, Bruce, not a speedball.
42. “Roulette,” Tracks. Directly inspired by the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, “Roulette” is instantly fraught and tense. Springsteen cuts right to the heart of the action in the first line: “We left the toys out in the yard.” It’s like a camera zooming into tight focus. On The River documentary, Bruce admits it was a mistake to leave this song off the album. It was literally the first song recorded in those sessions; it should have replaced “Jackson Cage” in a heartbeat.
41. “My Love Will Not Let You Down,” Tracks. A passionate anthem about love, loyalty, and commitment that’s just as much a promise from Springsteen to his audience. When this song shows up in a set list, it’s going to be a great night.
40. “Independence Day,” The River. For years, Springsteen told stories on tour about his relationship with his father, whether to preface covers like the Animals’ “It’s My Life,” or originals like “Growin’ Up,” “Factory,” and “Rosalita.” A typical recitation from the ‘78 tour was something like: “My father used to sit in the kitchen … but I’d never get through the kitchen without an argument, you know, we’d always have an argument, no matter what time I came in.” All of those stories were buildup to the story Bruce was finally ready to tell when he got to The River. The art of “Independence Day” lies in its direct simplicity: The lyrics are the focal point, accompanied by a light melody. There’s a measured equanimity to the vocals that matches the tone of those lyrics, rousing yet another one of those heartrending moments.
39. “Fade Away,” The River. One of The River’s tours de force, this compelling ballad is driven by 12-string acoustic, Federici’s heartrending organ melodies, and Bittan anchoring things on the other side. Springsteen delivers a perfectly pitched vocal, full of anguish and longing, while Van Zandt adds harmonies in the chorus.
38. “Human Touch,” Human Touch. After the emotional chaos that was Tunnel of Love, “Human Touch” is about what happened when Springsteen climbed out of the wreckage. It’s a frank and hopeful assessment of what he hoped would happen next. “We’re all riders on this train” is one of his most important lines — it’s straight from gospel, from the blues, from Elvis. He’ll keep coming back to that metaphor. The live version is phenomenal, trading an overabundance of ‘90s synth-cheese for loud guitars. The song has a more urgent pace, and the final solo is fervent and direct. If you only like Springsteen because he reminds you of your misspent youth, you’ll write off “Human Touch,” but if you’re interested in who he became as he grew up, you can’t skip this.
37. “No Surrender,” Born in the U.S.A. Van Zandt didn’t always win his disagreements with Springsteen, but we all benefitted when his opinion prevailed. “No Surrender” is one of those victories. Springsteen wasn’t going to include the song on Born in the U.S.A. — “It was a song I was uncomfortable with,” he writes in Songs, “You don’t hold out and triumph all the time in life.” — until Van Zandt talked him into adding it. Why? “The portrait of friendship and the song’s expression of the inspirational power of rock music was an important part of the picture.” The song sounds less dated than many of its contemporaries, in no small part because “We learned more from a three-minute record, baby, than we ever learned in school” is a line that will always resonate.
36. “The Rising,” The Rising. Majestic and profound, “The Rising” is truly a modern classic. The song has swung from tribute to triumph to remembrance, and powerfully so.
35. “My City of Ruins,” The Rising. Inspired by the decay of his adopted hometown, Springsteen’s first true gospel song is a stunning piece of work. “My City of Ruins” debuted at a series of Christmas benefit concerts held in the Asbury Park Convention Hall in 2000. It’s incredibly significant that Springsteen chose to use an African-American musical form to commemorate Asbury Park, a locale which has such a terrible history with regard to race relations. (You can see physical scars today, if you drive up Springwood Avenue past the train station. The empty lots and boarded-up windows are still there.) A great song like this one can transcend its original meaning, too. When Springsteen chose to perform this song for America: A Tribute to Heroes, it was presented with quiet solemnity. At the first Jazzfest after Hurricane Katrina, it was about anger and survival. During the first E Street Band tour after the Clemons’s death, it was the moment when Bruce announced the band’s “roll call,” which culminated with, “Are we missing anybody? Are we missing anybody?” as spotlights hit an empty organ (for Federici, who died in 2008) and the Big Man’s empty spot on stage-right.
34. “State Trooper,” Nebraska. “It’s kinda weird,” is how Springsteen described “State Trooper” when he sent his bedroom cassette to manager Jon Landau. Bruce recorded Nebraska at home because he’d been frustrated by previous recording studio experiences: “I decided I needed a way to find a way to hear my songs before I brought them into the studio,” he explains in Songs. So he sent out his guitar tech to pick up a four-track tape machine, set it up in his bedroom, and recorded a series of demos. Would “State Trooper” have emerged from a traditional studio setting? Probably not. Springsteen would have overthought it. The songs that ended up on Nebraska were inspired by the dark nights of the soul that came out of his exploration of country music, film noir, Southern Gothic, and The Executioner’s Song. In other words, tales in which people completely lose their way. The song’s most striking element is not the eerie howls at the end, but the hypnotic rhythm, borrowed straight out of “Mystery Train.” It’s the sound of blood pounding in your temples. “State Trooper” doesn’t need those howls to make you feel like you’re on the edge of the world. And, of course, it has so many parallels to Suicide’s “Frankie Teardrop.” Springsteen and Suicide vocalist Alan Vega met when they both worked at the Power Station in the ‘80s, drinking vodka in the bathroom and chewing the proverbial fat. When I interviewed Vega in 2005, I asked him what he thought when he first heard this song. His response? “Good for him, that he listened to me and managed to make it commercial!”
33. “Adam Raised a Cain,” Darkness on the Edge of Town. Springsteen’s Catholic-school upbringing usually manifests itself in the women he writes about — there’s a reason almost everyone is “Mary” or “Maria” — but here he turns to the classic biblical metaphor of internecine jealousy to explore a relationship between fathers and sons. He needed a device to hide behind, though. He wasn’t quite ready to write about his own father. It’s an intense song, driven and heated, with the best moment coming on that last refrain, where Springsteen deliberately hops off the rhythm for a beat, just to demonstrate how he’s absolutely in control of his performance. The E Street Band aren’t just a quaint throwback on backing vocals, either; they underscore the song’s deliberately masculine atmosphere.
32. “Because the Night,” Live 1975–85. This particular entry is tough. The track is undoubtedly high in the canon, but Springsteen never recorded a decent studio version. (The one on The Promise is turgid at best.) I hate being one of those “Oh, you shoulda heard it in ‘78” people, but in this case it happens to be accurate. The officially released version on Live 1975–85 is less about heat and more about athleticism. Those ‘78 versions pulse and shimmer with lust, which is the whole goddamn point of the song. Try the ones from the Roxy, the September 21 show in Passaic, or the official Cleveland Agora bootleg.
31. “The Price You Pay,” The River. Springsteen issues an immediate challenge in the first line: “You make up your mind, you choose the chance you take.” Another track that harkens to the country music he immersed himself in during this period, “The Price You Pay” has a regal, gently loping syncopation, driven by the interplay between piano and 12-string electric. It is magnificent.
30. “Dancing in the Dark,” Born in the U.S.A. This is a phenomenal pop song. The melody is light and catchy, there’s wonderful energy in Springsteen’s vocal delivery, the E Street Band’s rhythm section is on point, and Clemons gifts the track with a lovely sax solo at the fadeout. Yes, sure, fine: It’s got ‘80s production, compression, and abundance of synthesizer. That doesn’t matter. The bones of “Dancing in the Dark” are solid as all get-out.
29. “Land of Hope and Dreams,” Wrecking Ball. When Springsteen got the band back together for the reunion concerts in 1999 and 2000, they played this song at the end of the set. “Land of Hope and Dreams” ties together everything that came before it — everything that had happened, both onstage and off-, in the years since the band started playing and the audience started showing up. It was a brand-new song at the time, and Springsteen went all the way back to the roots of rock and roll with it. The metaphoric train comes straight out of gospel: There’s a direct line between Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “This Train,” Elvis’s “Mystery Train,” Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” and, well, this train. Sister Tharpe tells you right off that “this train is a clean train,” but Bruce is having none of that; his train is big enough for saints, sinners, losers and winners. He’s giving an updated version of “Nobody wins unless everybody wins.” Still, it is like gospel because it fills your heart, lifts you up, and gives you hope. The studio version on Wrecking Ball captures the best parts of all of the versions: It has more complexity than the original Live in New York City rendition, more texture, and more space for the lyrics and the melody. It’s more of a composition than a straight rock and roll song. Docked a few points because Springsteen’s vocals feel too thin, though it gains them back for using a sax solo played by Clemons, who always deserves the moment.
28. “Point Blank,” The River. The influence of film (especially American noir) on Springsteen’s writing comes to the forefront in “Point Blank.” The title is evocative, the music full of pathos and mystery, the vocals delivered with an initial detachment that’s clearly at odds with the first-person narrative. Bittan is the MVP once again, delivering a calm and measured performance. Federici slides in on the second verse with another brilliant layer of coloration, which expands the depth of focus, before he takes that smooth, dark solo at the end of the verse. And who could forget that dissonant, deliberately jarring melody line on guitar during the choruses? Or that steady chime of the triangle in the background?
27. “Incident on 57th Street,” The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle. The grandest of Springsteen’s romances, “Incident on 57th Street” is the saga of Spanish Johnny and Puerto Rican Jane. It’s Romeo and Juliet. It’s West Side Story. It’s remarkably lush, dominated by Sancious’s piano and Federici’s organ, as Springsteen carefully walks us through the action: “Oh, good night, it’s all right, Jane, I’ll meet you tomorrow night on Lover’s Lane,” he sings. “We may find it out on the street tonight, baby.” The band crescendos up and up, carrying the lovers into the sunset, a small but tasteful guitar solo fading into the most delicate sprinkling of piano notes. And then, “Rosalita.” Few transitions are so unexpected, so joyful, so life-affirming.
26. “Hungry Heart,” The River. A terrific, expansive pop single in the tradition of the Brill Building. Springsteen wrote “Hungry Heart” after a night hanging out with the Ramones at the Fast Lane in Asbury Park, and luckily thought to mention this to Jon Landau before sending it over to them. Yes, the recording was sped up ever so slightly to make the track radio-friendly, which clearly worked — it was Springsteen’s first top-ten single, making it to as high as number five on the Billboard Hot 100.
25. “Stolen Car,” The River. A breathtaking and wretched song, but absolutely gorgeous from a production and composition standpoint. “Stolen Car” is delicate and simple, with drama created from a minimal melody performed on piano and timpani (or Max Weinberg using mallets, at least), plus Springsteen’s straight-ahead vocals.
24. “She’s the One,” Born to Run. “She’s the One” is liquid lust. Bruce puts on the Roy Orbison voice for all that he’s worth, and then there’s that rhythm, blatantly lifted straight from Bo Diddley’s “Mona.” The rhythm section generates deep, dark blues, matched against the delicate layers of keyboards. (Bittan more than earns his “Professor” title with this track.) The last 30 seconds of rhythm, bass, and honky-tonk piano is almost the best part. It’s the E Street Band in lockstep, operating seamlessly as a single organism.
23. “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” Born to Run. The intro riff — the horns followed by a roll on the snare — is one of the crispest, most classic, most Springsteenian intros ever. The studio recording of “Tenth Avenue” marks the moment when Steve Van Zandt was put on the E Street payroll, when he stepped up and sang the horn charts to the Brecker Brothers. More important, the song is the origin story of Bad Scooter and the Big Man: “I want to tell you the story about the band,” is how Bruce would introduce it in 2009. It is the first song they played at the Super Bowl. It became the moment of tribute for the Big Man after his passing. It is the legend of E Street, and that is no small thing.
22. “American Skin (41 Shots),” High Hopes. A stunning, remarkable, impossibly tragic song. “American Skin” is yet another misunderstood composition — in this case, whenever it’s criticized as a condemnation of police officers. The album cannot possibly capture those moments, when you’re standing in an arena or a stadium, wondering if it’s being performed in response to something else.
21. “Tougher Than the Rest,” Tunnel of Love. Proof that Springsteen’s grown-up love songs are as brilliantly hopeful as the ones he wrote ten years earlier. “Tougher Than the Rest” is a touching sentiment, covered in too much synthesizer, but it’s worth it for every second of warmth and vulnerability in his voice. These days, Bruce plays this song when Patti’s back on the tour, or just when she’s there. It’s about the hope in that connection, too.
20. “Brilliant Disguise,” Tunnel of Love. Springsteen wrote an entire album about the empty spaces in his marriage without realizing it until he was done. This is part of what sent him into therapy — and I’m not telling tales here. He’s been talking about it since 1990. But subconscious or not, what a song. The guitar dominates the synthesizers, while Bruce’s voice is flecked with that country-flavored Orbisonian pathos. (Is that a word? It should be.) “I wanna know if it’s you I don’t trust/’Cause I damn sure don’t trust myself” is heartrending every single time.
19. “The Promise,” 18 Tracks. “I don’t write songs about lawsuits,” Springsteen once said, when someone asked why he never played “The Promise” any more. He’s not being totally sincere, though. The song isn’t about the lawsuit; it’s about the fear Bruce felt in the middle of his chest when he realized that someone could stop him from doing the only thing he knew how to do. The performance is naked and unvarnished, just him and the piano, singing from that place next to his heart. The alternate version that surfaced on 2010’s The Promise is different. It’s no longer about Springsteen. It’s about someone else, another character, drawn from the people he saw on the Circuit. The instrumentation leans toward country rock, and the vocals are louder and more confident.
18. “Prove It All Night,” Darkness on the Edge of Town. “Prove It All Night” is a call to action. The hidden gems aren’t what you would expect: Federici’s gently rolling organ buried in the mix, Bittan’s precise piano chords, Weinberg mixing a simple 1-2 rhythm with the occasional tiny flourish. We’ll forgive the impressionistic liberties taken in Springsteen’s lyrics, if only for the song’s satisfying classic-rock dynamic. I’ve long wondered why he wants her to put her hair back in a long white bow to meet him in the field behind the dynamo. Is it to make sure he recognizes her? How many people are out there in that field? And what, pray tell, is a dynamo?
17. “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” Darkness on the Edge of Town. Two things elevate this track: the intensity of Springsteen’s vocal delivery, and the range of emotion from the verses to the choruses. It’s not just anger — it’s frustration and resignation. The verses are quietly matter of fact, but the choruses explode with depth and emotion. The E Street Band is on top of their game: Federici’s organ sneaks into the corners, while Bittan’s piano meanders with purpose through the choruses. If you listen carefully enough, you’ll even hear Clarence Clemons on triangle.
16. “Tunnel of Love,” Tunnel of Love. “Tunnel of Love” is stuffed with so much fear, sorrow, and confusion. There’s genius and artistry in the song’s construction: the introduction mimicking the sounds of the carnival fairway, the first verse on a neutral instrumentation, the action pick-up in the second verse. The tension in Springsteen’s vocals increases from verse to verse, his voice breaking ever so slightly on the last one, fully aware of the heartbreak that’s sure to follow. And all throughout, the music swirls around you like a Tilt-A-Whirl. What’s amazing about “Tunnel of Love” is how the sentiment hasn’t aged. It doesn’t seem overwrought or foolish; it still cuts you straight through the heart. Bonus points to the version from the 1988 tour with the Horns of Love, tingeing the song with that much more bittersweet flavor.
15. “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” The Ghost of Tom Joad. Springsteen sings with a quiet, solemn conviction that makes you feel like he’s telling a story he saw with his own eyes. It’s written like a movie, each verse cutting to another scene: current events, snapshots of the past, and parts that could be a mixture of both. The electric version that Springsteen recorded with Tom Morello for High Hopes maintains the core elements of majesty and solemnity from the original, turned up to 11.
14. “Streets of Philadelphia,” Greatest Hits. Let’s hear it for one of Springsteen’s greatest opening lines: “I was bruised and battered/I couldn’t tell what I felt.” Over a solemn, measured backbeat and minimal melody, he relays this tremendously poignant story, choosing just the right elements to work into the song. “Streets of Philadelphia” won the 1994 Oscar for Best Original Song, and deservedly so.
13. “New York City Serenade,” The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle. The dramatic piano chords that open “New York City Serenade” deliberately make a statement and set a tone before drifting off into the gentle, lilting melody of the song’s body. It grabs your heart, squeezes, and doesn’t let go. “Serenade” is almost ten minutes of grandeur and desire. It’s one of the best songs about New York City, but it’s also a song that could have only been written by someone who wasn’t from there, for whom the city was life and escape and hope. When the strings soar, your spirit sings. “So walk tall or baby don’t walk at all.” Words to live by.
12. “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight),” The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle. “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” is the most legendary of Springsteen set closers and encores, the ultimate Jersey Shore legend. It is chaos and escape and freedom and defiance and revolution. The E Street Band fire on all cylinders here, and Springsteen is at his beach-beatnik best as he issues the challenge to Rosie: “I ain’t here on business, I’m only here for fun,” and “Windows are for cheaters, chimneys for the poor, closets are for hangers, winners use the door!” Clemons’s sax is the glue holding the story together, carrying us from verse to verse, while the rest of the band surges and drops back in turn, that unmistakeable mélange of bass and organ and piano carrying Bruce to the edge. Springsteen wrote about “Rosalita” in Songs, noting that the line “Someday we’ll look back on this and it will all seem funny” was “a peek into the future … not that it would all BE funny, but that it would all SEEM funny. Probably one of the most useful lines I’ve ever written.”
11. “This Hard Land,” Greatest Hits. One of the most unknown, underrated songs in the non-diehard catalogue. “This Hard Land” is absolutely sublime, a rollicking tale of friendship and loyalty, delivered with a classic country-rock melody. The first time you hear it, the song feels old and familiar. Bruce’s voice is warm and affectionate and Bittan’s work is Coplandesque, rolling and grand, as expansive as the Great Plains.
10. “Atlantic City,” Nebraska. “Atlantic City” immediately drags you to the action: “Well, they blew up the Chicken Man in Philly last night.” Boom! You’re there. The fading glory and distant memories of Atlantic City are right in Springsteen’s wheelhouse, and he knocked this one out of the park. “I wanted the music to feel like a waking dream and the record to move like poetry,” he wrote of Nebraska in Songs. He absolutely succeeded. Bonus points for the best video he ever made.
9. “The River,” The River. There are so many reasons why this is one of Springsteen’s best compositions. The title seems so simple and direct, except that the nature of the river changes from verse to verse. It’s a device of escape, of purification, of redemption, of solace. The first time I heard this song in Europe, the rapt applause made me remember that this is a story as old as time, as old as dirt, as old as humankind. It was an awe-inspiring, unifying moment. Instrumentally, the track is unparalleled. The harmonica opens the track, keening like a train whistle high in the distance. It’s accompanied by an elegant 12-string guitar, the dueling melodies on organ and piano, and the barely controlled emotion lurking behind Springsteen’s voice. The fact that he based “The River” on his sister’s life is actually the least interesting thing about it.
8. “Racing in the Street,” Darkness on the Edge of Town. The depth of the sadness contained in “Racing in the Street” can be utterly overwhelming. It’s there from the first note, when Bittan’s solemn chords set the tone before Springsteen begins to sing, his voice tinged with reminiscence, regret, and resignation. The song gradually builds: just piano and vocals in the first verse and first chorus, then the E Street Band steps in, one at a time, slowly raising the emotional tension. Weinberg hitting the stick against the edge of the snare, then Federici hitting a handful of organ riffs, then Tallent adding the bottom, and Weinberg switching to the skins. The song cycles back to the stripped-down approach for the last verse, as the E Street Band vocally sustains a quiet, one-note chorus in the background. The most tremendous moment of “Racing in the Street” belongs to Bittan, when he steps in to perform a brilliant, deeply expressive solo for the song’s last minute. Federici comes in with organ, Weinberg offers a simple rhythm alongside Tallent, and there’s some soft coloring from guitar, but the major emotional note is carried by Bittan’s piano, bringing the song to its fitting, majestic conclusion.
7. “Jungleland,” Born to Run. This is the culmination of Springsteen’s street epics. He pulls together all of the characters, elements, and scenes he’d previously written to create his masterpiece of the genre. It’s one of his definitive songs, but it’s also one of the most inscrutable, which explains why it didn’t get played on the radio much. “Jungleland” is not a single; it’s that song that outsiders know about, but don’t know. In other words, it’s Springsteen’s covenant with the early fans. It’s for and about them — “the hungry and the hunted” — and it’s written in code, the way troubadours would transmit news to peasants without the nobility catching wind of a message. Magic Rat and Barefoot Girl escape the Maximum Lawmen. The “opera out on the Turnpike” is the old Garden State Arts Center. Kids flash guitars just like switchblades. The performance is phenomenally operatic, with so much color, shading, emotion, and tension. Bittan is the MVP — on piano, organ, and Fender Rhodes — and when the guitar does come in, Bruce is at his fiercest, accompanied by the drums so regal and precise. And, of course, there’s that heartrending sax solo. In many ways, “Jungleland” is Clarence’s song. His solo emotionally dominates the track, so much so that Springsteen waited a year after the Big Man’s passing to play it live again.
6. “Backstreets,” Born to Run. “Backstreets” is full of urgency, longing, and disappointment. It’s a song about the point of no return, when you realize your youthful innocence is gone for good. It’s about betrayal, a feeling contained in the languid electric twang guitar that’s underneath the other melody lines. It gives the song its heat, alongside the intensity generated by the organ and the piano. And then there’s the breathless, heated quality of Springsteen’s vocals, deliberately obscured by the instruments in the verses, then pumped way up to the top of the mix on the choruses. The guitar solo, so tight and compact, is one of Springsteen’s finest.
5. “The Promised Land,” Darkness on the Edge of Town. “The Promised Land” seems simple on the surface. Its artfulness lies in the way it slowly builds tension from verse to verse, supported by the consistent forward movement of the chorus. The words of the chorus don’t change, but its meaning is morphed by each preceding verse. Right before that last one, there’s a combination of three solos — guitar, saxophone, and harmonica — that clear the way for the power of that final verse, set further apart by the E Street Band’s quiet, unified vocal harmony. “Blow away the lies that leave you nothing but lost and brokenhearted,” Springsteen commands, before the harmonica solo kicks in, a clarion call meant to marshal him for whatever’s on the other side of the storm. It calls to mind an insight Springsteen offered to Rolling Stone in 1978: “All my songs are about people at that moment when they’ve got to do something, just do something, do anything.”
4. “Badlands,” Darkness on the Edge of Town. One of Springsteen’s definitive anthems, “Badlands” is a call to attention, a rallying cry, the drumbeat measured behind an impassioned vocal. “I was searching for a tone somewhere between Born to Run’s spiritual hopefulness and ‘70s cynicism,” Springsteen wrote in Songs. It’s got love, hope, faith, deep-seated belief, and one of his best lines: “It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.”
3. “Born in the U.S.A.,” Born in the U.S.A. For anyone who bothers to listen, “Born in the U.S.A.” is quite simply one of Springsteen’s most compact and unambiguous songs. Don’t trust those who dismiss the track as simplistic or jingoistic. It gets written off as a victim of ‘80s production values, which is also shortsighted criticism; the 2014 remastered version did a lot to remedy the worst compression-based hisses. Still, it’s pointless to fixate on overprocessed synthesizer. Roy Bittan is still playing that synth, and the song is still built on Max Weinberg’s snare drum, a simple downbeat that borrows as much from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” as it does “Street Fighting Man.” On top of all of that, Tallent’s bass rumbles with the same ferocity as his partner in the rhythm section, but with such insane power. (If you ever stand close enough to the stage during a live Springsteen show, especially in a stadium, the boosted bass will drive straight through you, especially on that last chorus.) It’s a downright transformative experience to watch Springsteen perform the song anywhere in Europe, where fans aren’t singing it out of blind patriotism, but rather because it was an international hit, it’s a good song, and it’s a chance to shout and fist-pump and sing.
2. “Thunder Road,” Born to Run. Born to Run was conceived as a song cycle of one day, beginning in the morning and ending in the nighttime. The piano chords that open “Thunder Road” are the sound of dawn, of new beginnings. The harmonica becomes the ignition key. Springsteen got absolutely everything right on this album: the production, the performance, the lyrics, the power, the space — all of which are exemplified on this opening track. The piano on “Thunder Road” is deceptively simple, bright and driving. The guitar line almost hides between the piano notes, peeking through at the right moments. Springsteen’s voice has never again delivered the same the mix of pathos and optimism and youthful lust for life. The sax solo remains one of Clemons’s greatest moments, a strong and encouraging answer to whether or not Mary climbed in.
1. “Born to Run,” Born to Run. The song that earns every great cliché about rock and roll. It is escape, it is freedom, it is four-chord liberation. If you don’t like “Born to Run,” you don’t like Bruce Springsteen. The song distills every single element of Springsteen’s sound into four-and-a-half minutes, which contains the essential question his entire catalogue tries to answer: “I want to know if love is real.”* The performance is stellar. Tallent’s bass is more complex than you’d think, sometimes vibrating like a car engine, other times fluid and melodic, and he leads the charge for the last minute and 15 seconds. Federici swoops in and out with such power and grace, especially the way his organ comes in at “Just wrap your legs ‘round these velvet rims.” After his initial opening attack, Ernest “Boom” Carter is sitting back there on drums, swinging away. (It would be Boom’s sole appearance on a Springsteen track.) Bruce’s voice is warm and sad and sexy and full of soul, and Clemons’s solo is a reveille, a call to arms. “Born to Run” was Sancious’s swan song before leaving the E Street Band, and his piano melodies are ethereal and majestic. What a way to go.
Thanks to Bruce Springsteen for his Songs anthology, Backstreets magazine for their fantastic unofficial liner notes for Tracks, the fine work done by springsteenlyrics.com, and the people who maintain the definitive Springsteen live history over at Brucebase. Other sources include Clinton Heylin’s E Street Shuffle, Peter Ames Carlin’s Bruce, Marc Dolan’s Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock ‘n’ Roll, and, of course, Dave Marsh’s Born to Run and Glory Days.
* This list originally contained an incorrect lyric. We regret the error.